By James A. Cress
So now we know that people everywhere function according to five basic motivators: money, recognition, self-preservation, romance, and achievement. Jesus connected with every one of these, and so must we. But how?
Basically, we acquaint ourselves with whatever tends to move a particular individual forward and what might leave them stuck in their usual rut. Consider, for example, what motivates the various attendees at your worship services. No doubt some show up from force of habit. Others are truly engaged in a relational worship experience with their Creator and Savior, Jesus Christ. Perhaps most are somewhere in between.
How we say what we say can motivate our listeners to find both an enhanced anticipation of worship and also an active behavioral follow-through. But again, we will accomplish little or nothing if we don’t get our message through their preoccupation barrier.
Motivational appeals, which use words that focus on the priority motivations of your hearers, pierce the preoccupation barrier. Your message gets through to them because you are “speaking their language.” This is much easier to do if you speak to a single individual and if you know what preoccupies their attention and which of these five basic issues motivates them. More logically, however, you should conclude that any audience to whom you preach will have people present from each of these groups.
Most speakers over-rely on words and phrases which emphasize their own personality and emotional priority. However, by utilizing words, phrases, parables; illustrations, and visual aids within the same sermon that appeal to various motivational backgrounds, your presentation becomes stronger than if you relied only on those words which appeal to your own motivational orientation.
For example, it would be of little value to describe heaven as a place for intergalactic space ventures if you were speaking only to a self-preservationist. While such descriptions would appeal to a romanticist, your self-preservationist listeners would be much more encouraged and moved by texts which assure them that there will be no sickness, pain, death, or sorrow in God’s coming kingdom. Likewise, money-motivated hearers might be intrigued by streets of gold and gates of pearl, but the achievement oriented would be much more interested in opportunities to expand their intellectual pursuits or to discuss unanswered questions with their Lord.
Wise speakers select a variety of approaches to appeal to various individuals in their audience and thus have greater potential for piercing the preoccupation barriers of more people. Some misunderstand the use of motivational appeals and conclude that if you say the right thing to the right person, you can guarantee their positive response. I disagree with this assumption because it strikes at the very foundation of free choice. I do believe, however, that if you say the right thing to the right person, you can guarantee that they will hear you. Why? Because you are “speaking their language.”
I recently experienced this reality in a large crowd of individuals who were all conversing in another language. Suddenly my ear tuned to one person, a stranger, who spoke English. That individual’s voice was no louder or more distinct than anyone else in the crowd, but I “heard” them because, literally, they were “speaking my language.”
Jesus told the parable of the sower, whose seed feel upon various types of ground which represented various spiritual attitudes. Our preaching will more effectively motivate both members and seekers if we pierce their preoccupation barrier by employing a variety of motivational appeals.
With these brief descriptions in mind, it is easier to see that how I communicate may determine whether my message is received or rejected. For example, it might be futile to speak to a money-motivated individual about the high cost of discipleship and the great financial sacrifice expected of believers. On the other hand, the simple story of an individual whose need for possessions was so great that he felt dissatisfied without additional and larger warehouses, but who lost his most valuable possession on the eve of inaugurating his new buildings, will galvanize the attention of someone who wishes to retain their most valuable possession even if they do not yet recognize Jesus as the Pearl of great price.
One key insight into motivating people is to recognize that life’s challenges and crises tend to shift values and priorities. This may draw them, at least temporarily, out of their usual motivational pattern. If we are alert to what’s happening in someone’s life, we might tap into whatever motivates them at that particular moment. When normalcy returns, people tend to revert to whatever motivator dominates business as usual for them. But meanwhile, God can help a person in crisis mode respond to the gospel invitation for reasons they normally would not.
Imagine yourself on the crowded deck of the sinking Titanic. In that emergency, the romance-motivated individual would not exclaim, “Whee! What an exciting new experience!” That person would immediately shift priorities from romance to self-preservation. But after the ship’s passengers are rescued and safely delivered to port, the romance-motivated person will revert to being primarily moved by the new and exciting, expanding the severity of the trauma at sea into a tale of grand adventure and imminent near-death. After rescue, money-motivated passengers will calculate the financial reward a lawsuit against the ship’s owners might bring. Self-preservationists will vow never to travel by ship again.
So every individual God brings into our life is surrounded by issues or activities that preoccupy their thoughts. Understanding what motivates them at any given moment may provide the key to their response to the gospel. And this determines whether they might be saved in God’s eternal kingdom! Knowing that should motivate us to educate ourselves about whatever motivates people.
James A. Cress is secretary of the General Conference Ministerial Association. Reprinted with permission from More Common Sense Ministry, p. 81. This resource is available through the General Conference Ministerial Resource Center. Better Sermons © 2005-2008. Click here for usage guidelines.