The Credibility of the Preacher -- By: Donald R. Sunukjian

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 139:555 (Jul 1982)
Article: The Credibility of the Preacher
Author: Donald R. Sunukjian

The Credibility of the Preacher

Donald R. Sunukjian

[Donald R. Sunukjian, Associate Professor of Pastoral Ministries, Dallas Theological Seminary]

In 1947 three groups of college students listened to the same recorded speech—a 15-minute address advocating compulsory health insurance for all Americans. The first group was told that the speech was by Eugene Dennis, Secretary-General of the Communist Party of America. The second audience was told that the voice belonged to Dr. Thomas Parran, Surgeon General of the United States. Those in the third group were told that the speech was given by an anonymous Northwestern University sophomore.

Before hearing the speech, each student marked a ballot indicating whether he thought health insurance should be compulsory in the United States (Yes, No, or Undecided). After listening to the recording, each student then marked his after-speech opinion as compared with his original opinion (i.e., More Sure, Less Sure, Change to Yes, Change to No, Change to Undecided, No Change).

The results showed that the speech by “Dr. Parran” caused more people to change, and to change to a greater degree, than did either of the other two speeches.1 Since all groups had heard the same recording, the differing results had to be due to the varying credibilities of the speakers. The difference in effectiveness was not due to what was said, but to who said it.

This early study was one of the first statistical demonstrations of the power of ethos in communication.2

The Definition of Ethos

The term ethos comes from classical rhetoric and refers to the perceived credibility of the speaker. A preacher’s ethos is the opinion his listeners have of him as a person. If their opinion of him is high, he will have high ethos, or great credibility, with them. This means they will be inclined to believe whatever he says. On the other hand if their opinion of him is low, his ethos or credibility will be poor, and they will “turn him off “ even before he speaks.

It should be noted that ethos is a perceived quality, not an actual one. It is not what the speaker is, but what the listener thinks him to be. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so ethos is in the mind of the listener.

Since credibility, therefore, depends on the hearer’s perception and affects whether he will respond to the message, it would be helpful to know the factors which contribute to the listener’s opinion of the speaker. If preachers know what determines their listeners...

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