Two Types of Preaching – Cognitive and Affective

I read and write a lot while on planes, so when I knew I would be spending 30 or so hours going to Liberia and back I knew I was supposed to take some books I had planned on taking time to read and think deeply about but hadn’t had the time to do so yet. One of those books was James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation.Desiring the Kingdom This book (along with Imagining the Kingdom) has become a sort of modern day classic. In it he argues for a reappropriation of Augustinian theological anthropology where the ultimate thing about human beings and their actions lies in “love.” As Smith says,

Human persons are defined by love – as desiring agents and liturgical animals whose primary mode of intending the world is love which in turn shapes the imagination.

The things we grow to love and desire are shaped and directed by material embodied practices. These practices – or what he calls liturgies – are fundamentally religious, but not necessarily spiritual. For instance he explains the liturgical practices of shopping at a mall, going to a university, or singing the national anthem at a football game. He rightly points out that “Friday Night Lights” (especially in Texas) are a sort of quasi-religious liturgical event.

Reading Smith’s while on the plane I was finally able to put my finger on why I don’t like certain sorts of preaching. I am not necessarily talking about exegetical depth or even winsomeness of the preacher. There are many preachers who believe the same things I do – yet I can’t stand their preaching – sorry….

There are at least two sorts of preaching: Cognitive and Affective.

Cognitive Preaching
Those who lean towards cognitive preaching tend to believe that being a disciple of Jesus is a matter of getting the right ideas into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior.

Here is what Smith has to say about merely Cognitive Christianity

The result is a talking-head version of Christianity that is fixated on doctrine and ideas, even if its also paradoxically allied with a certain kind of anti-intellectualism. (DTK 42)

This is the sort of preaching that devolves into lists of “practical steps” or “how to’s” of living and behaving “rightly.”

Affective Preaching
This sort of preaching doesn’t aim at the cognitive faculties, it aims at what Smith (following Biblical language) calls “the heart” or what Jonathan Edwards calls “the affections.” It is based of the conviction that we as human beings are:

A creature whose orientations and form of life is primordially shaped by what one loves as ultimate, which constitutes an affective, gut-like orientation to the world that is prior to reflection and even escapes articulation. (DTK 51)

This sort of preaching recognizes that our vision for the good life (the eudaimonistic life) is shaped and directed by aesthetic principles found in stories, legends, myths, novels and films rather than principles. Yet most importantly – our notion ultimate ends is affected by the truth and beauty (both aesthetic principles) of the gospel. Thus this sort of preaching centers itself around the gospel.

All this to say that “cognitive” preaching while not necessarily intellectual, could be emotionalistic, believes that change happens through the intellect. But the affective model while not necessarily emotional as the name might imply, could be highly intellectual (see Piper or Tim Keller) or it might be simplistic, believes that change happens when the affections are stirred.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

One thought on “Two Types of Preaching – Cognitive and Affective

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