I will never forget the night of my ordination to the ministry. The church was my "home church," where I had accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior, where I had been baptized, and where I had been nurtured in the faith. I was among people who had loved me and who had encouraged me in my spiritual journey.
At the end of the service, I stood at the front of the church as the people came by to say their parting words. I will never forget one elderly woman who had been such an encouragement to me. She assured me of her love and prayers, but her last words are the ones that I will never forget. "Just preach Jesus," she said, and that was her benediction to me.
What a benediction that was! After many years, I still carry powerful memories of her well-founded admonition. Preaching that makes a difference leaves people in the presence of Another. Our task as proclaimers is to bring people into the presence of the God who has fully revealed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. Otherwise, our proclamation may be good advice or nice words, but it does not produce transformation of lives. "Just preach Jesus," that dear woman said to me. She had no degree in homiletics, but her advice was as profound as I have ever gotten or given in a seminary preaching class.
I thought about her words as I began to put this book together. The title, Preaching from the Inside Out, may suggest to some a lack of emphasis on the transcendent dimension in preaching. It may sound as if I am simply emphasizing the person of the preacher and am only calling for preachers to share more of themselves. There seems to be little "Jesus" here. On the surface it appears that I have not taken seriously those words of good advice, "Just preach Jesus."
If the title leaves that impression, I hope the contents will quickly change the reader's mind. One of the things I want to call for is a new emphasis on the spiritual vitality of the preacher. Preaching is more than a craft or an art or a profession. It is more than the shaping of some words designed to dazzle the ears of hearers. Preaching grows out of the minister's own experience with the living God. As preachers, we stand inside the faith. We are not objective. We bear witness to what has changed our lives.
A key word is relationship. Preaching cannot be separated from all that a minister is. The concept that we just "get up" a sermon fails to take seriously all of the factors that converge in the person who is preaching. Preaching cannot be separated from the person of the preacher.
Out of all the relationships that we have as ministers, none is more vital than our relationship with God. Yet, many books on preaching include nothing about the spiritual formation of the minister. Much is written about how to construct a sermon but little about how to construct the person who delivers the sermon. We are taught how to deliver a message but little about how that message is divinely delivered to us. We are instructed in how to shape sounds, but not much is said about the inner silence of the preacher in the divine Presence that should give birth to the sounds.
When we speak out of our depths, we begin with the assumption that those depths are the places where the living God meets us. Tragically, too many of us in the ministry spend too little time in the silence with God so that the sounds of our speaking are shaped out of that creative, renewing silence.
Too often we ministers plead busyness as the reason for little time spent in prayer and in our own spiritual formation. We find ourselves reacting to the demands of our church, and our ministry becomes a stream of ceaseless activity. What happens is that our inner life and the depth of our preaching suffer. We may continue to talk about God but very little with God, and soon the words that we speak take on a hollow, shallow ring.
Saying no to a request for our help as ministers is difficult for most of us. After all, one of the reasons that we became ministers was to help people. However, we have to learn that our physical, emotional, and spiritual resources are not inexhaustible. Thus, we need to set some limits, and we need to establish the priority of our relationship to God so that when we speak and minister, we have something to give.
Several years ago, I heard a well-known teacher of preaching make the statement, "Good preaching is a response." We know that preaching is a response to a human need or to a word from God that captures the preacher in some biblical text. More than that, good preaching is a response to the gracious, loving God who is the source and strength of all of our ministry. We recognize our dependence upon God. Our whole life becomes a response to this God who shares life in Jesus Christ. Our preaching of the Good News is a response to the Good News which we have heard and are hearing through His Spirit.
However, the busyness of our vocation sometimes causes us to say that we have no time to listen to God. Our constant closeness to the things of God can keep us from spending time with Him. If we are pastors, we spend much of our time at the church building. Almost everyday we are dealing with some aspect of the church, and sometimes we see the church at its worst. We must not assume that time spent with the things of God constitutes time spent with God.
When the risen Christ wrote to the church at Ephesus in the Book of Revelation, He commended the Ephesian Christians on their good deeds, hard work, perseverance, and endurance. Amazingly, Jesus says to them that they have not yet grown weary. Nevertheless, spiritual weariness does not seem very far off, as Jesus admonished them in the next paragraph. "Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things which you did at first" (Rev. 2:4-5, NIV).
Putting first things first is a challenge for those of us who are ministers. While the words of the risen Christ in the Book of Revelation are addressed to a church, they could very well be spoken to a Monday morning pastor's conference. Which of us as a minister has not known the kind of spiritual fatigue that comes from working for God without taking time to let God work in us? Which of us has not also known those times of trying to fashion sermons when there have been no times of sacred silence in our lives?
In his lectures to students on preaching, Charles Spurgeon emphasized the centrality of prayer. Spurgeon said:
The minister who does not earnestly pray over his work must surely be a vain and conceited man. He acts as if he thought himself sufficient of himself, and therefore needed not to appeal to God. Yet what a baseless pride to conceive that our preaching can ever be in itself so powerful that it can turn men from their sins, and bring them to God without the working of the Holy Ghost.
Another factor which has blurred the divine dimension of preaching is the tendency to view proclamation strictly as a craft. Attention is given only to the "horizontal" aspect of preaching. How do we put together a sermon? What makes for effective delivery? What are the needs of people, and how do we address them? These are all vital questions, and much is being written today on issues such as the forms and delivery of a sermon. Research into how people listen holds great promise for the preacher who wants to communicate more effectively. To speak of preaching as a craft is to recognize the value of studying about preaching and the fact that all of us can learn to preach better.
However, preaching is more than a craft. It is a calling from God; thus, the preacher places ultimate reliance upon the Spirit of God. While we may impress people with our own gifts, we realize that as ministers our goal is more than impression. We are not called to dazzle people with our rhetoric or to have them leave the sanctuary each Sunday impressed only with the style of the sermon.
Rather, the sermon is designed to bring people into the presence of God, and as such, it functions as an offering. The preacher must keep in mind through all the preparation, studying, and delivering of a sermon that if the message is going to change anybody's life, it will be because God blesses and uses it. Therefore, the minister views the sermon as an offering. The intent is to put our study, our preparation, and most of all, ourselves in God's hands.
Foul wrote about this act of surrendering ourselves in his first letter to the Corinthians. Pride was a major problem at Corinth. Admitting one's weaknesses or inadequacies was not done. Paul spoke about his own insufficiency, and in the process stressed the sufficiency of God in preaching:
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. 2:3-5, NIV).
This kind of honesty is liberating for those of us who preach. Paul was certainly not saying that he made no preparation and left it all to God. After we have done all that we can to get the sermon ready, we trust God to use it and to bless it. If people's lives are truly changed, it will not be because of the impressiveness of some preacher, but because the Spirit of God moves through the sermon to effect real change in the lives of the listeners.
Much of this book was written while I was on sabbatical leave at Candler Theological Seminary, which is a part of Emory University in Atlanta. When I arrived on the campus of this United Methodist seminary, I was assigned a desk in the rare book area of the theological library. While looking around one night, I saw in the corner an odd looking piece of furniture. I knew that it was old, but when I got closer and saw the inscription, I was in for a wonderful surprise: "Prayer Desk or Pulpit Made for John Wesley about 1740, Used by Him in Preaching to the Miners of Wales."
I found myself drawn to this sacred desk, and sometimes I stood behind it trying to envision the powerful sermons that were preached there. What also appealed to me was the part of the inscription that said, "Prayer Desk or Pulpit." Which was it? The desk had a place for Wesley to stand, but it also provided a railing where he could have knelt in prayer. Could this have been both a prayer desk and a pulpit? In Wesley's ministry, prayer and preaching were inextricably bound. Why not have a place where a preacher could both pray and proclaim?
Preaching from inside our depths demands those times of silence before God when we commit ourselves anew to Him and trust His presence and power in a new way. Only if the sounds of our sermons arise out of that sacred silence will there be word that will make lasting difference.
As ministers, our primary relationship is with God, but we also live and minister in the world where we are. Therefore, good preachers are not just good talkers; they are good observers of life. Opening our mouths before we open our eyes and ears leads to sermons that have little relationship to life.
Blessed is the congregation whose preacher has eyes that see and ears that hear. What is going on in the lives of the people to whom we preach? What are their joys, frustrations, hopes, dreams, fears, and nightmares? What makes them happy, sad, angry, or afraid? Where do they spend their time? What do they read, look at on television, or listen to on the radio?
When our children were very young, my wife and I vowed that we would be "with it" parents. We had seen friends who were parents of teenagers being dismissed by their children as totally "out of it." Diane and I were determined to keep up with the music, styles, and fads of our children when they became teenagers. You probably have guessed what happened. Our best intentions failed, and it really was a relief that first time that my daughter looked at me and said, "Dad, you are really out of it."
Obviously, we cannot be everywhere, read everything, and understand everybody; but there is little excuse for the minister who seems to have no sense of the questions people are asking. One of the amazing things about the preaching of Jesus was the way that He connected God to the lives of His listeners. Jesus spoke about things that mattered, and He preached and taught in ways that even the simplest folks could understand. We do not know exactly how Jesus spent the years between the age of 12 and 30, but surely He listened to the deep needs of the people as He worked in Joseph's carpenter shop in Nazareth.
One of the most obvious aspects of our times is the spiritual hunger of many people. Go to any secular bookstore and notice the number of books that profess to offer enlightenment or encouragement for the journey of life. Despite unprecedented material prosperity in our nation, many people are desperately hungry to find something to fill the emptiness of their lives. People who are making a good living now want to find a life worth living. They have everything in their hands; they have nothing in their hearts; and they are searching for something with size and substance.
What does this say to our preaching? It means that we need to deal with things that make a difference. We need to speak about a gospel that provides purpose and power for life. There needs to be a certainty in our sound. As preachers we are called to speak about a Christ who does not make a little difference or some difference, but who makes all the difference. Our deepest hungers will not be led by meringue and whip cream. People are hungry for something with substance. They want to follow someone like Jesus who said with certainty and assurance, "Follow me."
One of the most exciting developments in recent years has been a renewed emphasis on biblical preaching. It is "encouraging to see the Bible used as the source and authority for sermons. As Fred Craddock observed: "Sermons not informed and inspired by Scripture are objects dislodged, orphans in the world, without mother or father." In Chapter Five, I want to spend more time discussing how we as preachers move inside a text, but I wanted to mention it here because it is an important part of learning to preach from the depths.
To preach biblical sermons demands hard work, discipline, and time. It sometimes means struggling with a text until the blessing of insight comes, rather than racing off to the library to see how someone else has preached the sermon. The free church tradition has emphasized the doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers." In these churches preachers proclaim that each believer has access to the Scriptures and that each may interpret them as the Holy Spirit leads.
I want to recover the priesthood of the "priests." Many of us have come through school and have become intimidated by the experts. We do not trust our own encounter with the Bible; thus, our churches often miss the freshness that comes with the minister's own sense of wonder and discovery when led by the Holy Spirit.
We all get ideas from other people, but it is harmful when the preacher's first approach to a biblical text comes through someone else's interpretation. I will sometimes have students ask, "Is it wrong to preach someone else's sermon?" After all, we have all heard someone say, "When better sermons are written, I will preach them." My answer is, "Yes, it is absolutely wrong to preach someone else's sermon as yours." Not only is it plagiarism, but it also tends to establish a pattern where the minister misses any deep encounter with the Word of God. It is hard to speak from the depths when all we have is the sidelong glance at the opinions of others.
Preaching from our depths presupposes that we believe that God has something to offer through us. It has much to do with the doctrine of grace. God has given each of us the gift of ourselves, and the best gift that I have to give is to offer who I am to God and to others.
In preaching, well-known ministers often become models. When I was growing up in the church, I looked to Billy Graham. I imitated his gestures and voice inflection. I even held my Bible the way that Billy Graham did and punctuated my sermons with the phrase, "The Bible says." Several people in my home church even said to me, "You are going to be the next Billy Graham."
Then I started meeting other young preachers who also sounded and looked like Billy Graham in the pulpit. I was confused. Which of us was going to be the next great evangelist? What was the problem? There is only one Billy Graham, and God has used his talents and commitment in an extraordinary way. As far as I know, none of us who were trying to be like him are still being talked about as the next Billy Graham.
A theological issue at stake involves having the grace to accept who I am as a gift from God. The minister who totally changes style, voice, and personality when walking into the pulpit is unintentionally saying, "I'm not good enough to be used by God. I have to be someone else."
We all are affected by preachers who have modeled effective delivery. By nature I am an intense preacher. I have learned much about storytelling and the pace of a sermon from preachers like Fred Craddock. African-American preachers have reminded me of the need of joy and celebration when I have taken myself too seriously. Learning from others, however, does not mean becoming their imitators. Each of us has something to say. We have experienced
God in a multitude of different fashions. Christ has led in His unique way. Each of us must lead in our unique ways. When we preach from the inside out, we affirm that by God's grace we have something to say, and no one else can say it in just the same way. If our voice is not heard, the world will be diminished. Persons are listening... for God through us. I do not know anything more exciting than that.
I. In this chapter, I emphasized that our primary relationship as preachers is with God. I mentioned several things that keep us from developing this dimension of our lives. Think about your own life. What keeps you from spending time with God? List those things that take your time, and think about why they are important. Ask God to help you give yourself to what is most important.
II. Think about the needs that people have shared with you recently. Make a list of 3 or 4 of these needs, and then select a biblical passage that addresses each concern. In one sentence, what does the Bible say to that need?
—Preaching from the Inside Out