There are tremendous differences between "motivational speaking" and "biblical preaching." In America today, many churches offer one or the other. One approach leaves people "encouraged" in their emotions and in their "self-esteem." The other builds up Christians in the Gospel as the Holy Spirit applies the Scriptures to the hearts and minds of the hearers.
Motivational speakers tell a lot of stories and seek to sway through emotion and pop psychology. Biblical preachers tell some stories, but above all seek to have people influenced by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God. Motivational speakers may or may not throw in a few Bible verses to "salt" their main topic. Biblical preachers rely totally upon the Scriptures to "drive" the content and to feed God's sheep. The Bible is the basis of their message.
Motivational speakers seek to never speak of things which might offend anyone in attendance. Biblical preachers seek to proclaim God's Word with a loving heart as they rely upon the Holy Spirit to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." That is, to apply the message of forgiveness to those who are repentant....and to apply the weight of the Law toward anyone content to continue sinning. After all, if I am never offended by my own behavior, I am certainly not growing in Christ....and I am living in denial. Motivational speakers do not tend to think about the Law and the Gospel when presenting a message. Instead, they attempt to persuade people to change their behavior.
Motivational speakers are good at knowing how people think and behave....but not good at "rightly dividing the Word of truth." (2 Timothy 2:15) They reach the level of man's emotions with their appeals, but they are not equipped with the proper biblical knowledge to lead people into the realm where souls meet God and then grow in Christ.
Motivational speaking tends to be man-centered and people-pleasing. Biblical preaching is Christ-centered and God-honoring. Motivational speaking is often aimed largely at unbelievers. Biblical preaching typically aims where St. Paul aimed in his epistles....that is, it aims mainly at believers.
New Testament worship services are designed for believers....with a loving and open heart for unbelievers to also attend in hopes of them receiving Christ as Savior. Motivational seminars are aimed at anyone who will help to fill the auditorium.
Motivational speakers are reluctant to say, "The Bible says." They realize that many of their hearers don't believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. Biblical preachers have taught God's people to trust Scripture to be the inerrant "God-breathed" message of truth from the Lord. (2 Timothy 3:16)
Motivational speakers need to have personal charisma. Biblical preachers need to be humble in order to be anointed with the power of the Holy Spirit. Charisma influences emotions in the direction of self-actualization. The Holy Spirit influences the soul in the direction of godliness.
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Biblical preaching lifts up Jesus Christ. Motivational speaking tends to exalt man's ability to fix his own issues. Biblical preaching proclaims the Gospel message of Christ's death and resurrection for our salvation. Motivational speaking might tack on "the sinner's prayer" at the end of a "how-to" message.
Biblical preaching produces a holy awe of God and a deep respect for His Word. Motivational speaking tends to be light, fun, humorous, and entertaining. It's "showtime" when the motivational speaker steps to the podium. It's "flow time" when the biblical preacher steps forward. He has spent much time in prayer asking the Holy Spirit to fall upon his hearers and speak to them when the Word goes forth.
Motivational speakers usually have a certain number of steps they want you to follow to improve your life. Biblical preaching is not that simplistic. St. Paul explained biblical preaching with these words: "When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power." (1 Cor. 2:1-5)
Biblical preaching freely discusses heaven, hell, and the immortality of the soul. Motivational speaking never addresses hell....and if heaven gets discussed, it is done so in a way that suggests most people of many religions will eventually make it to heaven.
Motivational speakers tend to deliberately or unintentionally place the spotlight upon the messenger. Biblical preachers want the hearers to celebrate Jesus and Him alone. As Oswald Chambers wrote, "Anything that flatters me in my preaching of the Gospel will result in making me a traitor to Jesus, and I prevent the creative power of His redemption from doing its work."
Does this mean that every minister who attempts to engage in biblical preaching is doing so with a loving heart and a life filled with the fruit of the Holy Spirit? No. If a minister is living "in the flesh" by intentionally feeding his sinful nature, his message will not be saturated and dripping with the grace of God and a Spirit-wrought love for the hearers. This is why St. Paul told Timothy, "Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers." (1 Timothy 4:16) Notice that his "life" was highlighted even before his "doctrine." It is easier to present messages that are doctrinally correct than it is to live a holy life, but both are necessary in the life of a pastor and preacher.
There seem to be many more Americans today who hunger for motivational speaking than for biblical preaching. A taste for the Word can only be developed by regularly feeding on the Word....and by holy living....and most of all, by a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. A love of the world produces no such hunger. We are all sinners, and prone to love the world far more than we love the Word. D.L. Moody said this regarding the Bible: "This Book will keep me from sin, and sin will keep me from this Book."
The temptation for the minister in America today is not only to water down the message....but to change the message altogether. The test for all of us who have been called by God to preach the Word is to do so faithfully and with a heart full of love for God, for believers, and for the lost. If we do this the right way by God's grace, then unbelievers will be moved by the Holy Spirit to believe....and believers will be moved by the Holy Spirit to love the Lord and to serve others with their gifts.
When we get charged up by a motivational speaker, the results tend to be superficial and flimsy. When you and I are motivated by the Holy Spirit through the faithful proclamation of His Word, the results are spiritual and eternal.
God will help us to rely upon "the sword of the Spirit" (Eph. 6:17) rather than upon a slick and popular presentation of humanistic moralism. One approach equips the saints for works of service. The other approach strokes the ego of the speaker and the attendees.
God is not interested in our ego. He wants His children to "live a life worthy of the Lord" so that we "may please Him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened will all power according to His glorious might." (Colossians 1:10,11) There is no room for ego in biblical preaching. There is plenty of room for ego in motivational speaking.
Humanistic motivation cannot produce the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Only God can do that....and He does so largely through the teaching and preaching of His Word, as well as through one-on-one encouragement, assistance, and prayer.
St. Paul instructed Timothy: "Preach the Word." (2 Timothy 4:2) This is what is needed in America today....preachers of the Word whose hearts are filled with the love of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.
God will help those of us who are pastors and preachers as we proclaim the message of the apostles. Not one of us is sufficient for the task. Only His grace can accomplish the work in us and through us. Here is tip for all of us....read Paul's letters....and then go forth to motivate people with those words and with that approach to encouraging the saints. The world is filled with motivational speakers....God's church deserves to have biblical preaching. That's why He ordained it for His people.
Notice how Paul's letters tend to always begin with many examples of what God has done for us in Christ....rather than jumping right into a "quick-fix" of what we get to do for Him. That's the right order. That's the biblical order and emphasis. God's work is what matters....both in our salvation, as well as in our Christian life of discipleship. It's "Christ in you, the hope of glory." (Colossians 1:27) Motivational speaking jumps right into what you need to do to get right in your behavior. The Bible presents a far better approach than "self-help." The Scriptures deliver Jesus to us. The Bible is the "manger" in which Christ is laid before us so that we can gaze upon Him and be filled with the life of God.
Self-esteem is sought by those who have not yet "died to self" and risen to live for Christ. Healthy believers, on the other hand, hunger for God's Word like a baby hungers for food. "Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good." (1 Peter 2:2,3) Jesus never seeks to build up a person's self-esteem. That is a dead end street as far as God is concerned. St. Paul said it best: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." (Galatians 2:20) That experience is a far cry from a life of self-esteem that needs to be constantly propped up by a motivational speaker.
May the Lord open our eyes to see the huge difference between these two approaches....and may He then empower us by the Holy Spirit to do God's work in God's way. Anything less is just a cheap counterfeit, and is has no business being performed in the church of the living God.