The burden of the Word of the Lord... The fire in my bones... The inexorable, relentless, irrepressible calling to preach the Word of God in a manner worthy of the God who calls.
I recall times when I have been preaching when God simply moved in and took over. I fail to comprehend it myself, let alone explain it to anyone else. The closest analogy I can use is that it is like standing outside of myself, watching myself preach, knowing that God is speaking through me in an incredible way. I used to think that those moments came almost randomly, that God seemed almost capricious. But after years of preaching and observation of myself and others, I realize that those times occur when I am most saturated with the Scripture I am preaching, convinced of its meaning, emboldened by its power, secure in its application. I feel no strain, no duplicity, no regrets that I have not spent enough time with the Lord and the text he has given.
But I also remember the other times—the times when the burden of preaching crushed me because I was not sufficiently aware of or convicted by the sermon I preached. Feeling the weight of preaching to people who came to hear a word from God, I felt weak and afraid because I knew I had not paid sufficient attention to the text. Even if I did understand the text, I had not thought carefully how best to relate it to people. I relied on my past training rather than a current walk with God. Spending much time in the urgent matters of ministry, I knew I had failed the essential task of spending time with him and his Word. Though I built a sermon, I did not give consideration to the best way to connect with my congregation. I settled merely to explain the text, as though giving a history lesson, rather than to challenge my listeners to conform their lives more to the image of Christ as a result of its meaning. My delivery denied the very power of the God I was supposedly proclaiming.
Such moments feel like swimming upstream in a river of Jell-O. When my anemic sermon finally reached a merciful conclusion, I felt like apologizing to everyone who sat through such a pitiful presentation of God's powerful Word. My wife, usually a great encourager, would sit beside me in silence on the drive home, unable to deny what we both knew to be true.
Preaching well is a huge commitment. So why would anyone want to bear such a burden? Why put yourself through weekly agony with the potential for public humiliation? Any preacher knows the answer: because speaking as God's representative, an agent of change and salvation, is the greatest and highest privilege in the world. Whatever study it may demand, whatever sacrifice it may require, whatever effort it may entail is eclipsed and forgotten in the sight of lives touched by God and changed by the gospel.
If the ax is dull and its edge urisharpened more strengths needed but skill will bring success. Ecclesiastes 10:10
While preaching requires hard work, sweat and toil are not virtues in themselves. Our efforts have to be effective. The carpenter who drives every nail in with a hammer is not necessarily any more a craftsman than the one who uses a pneumatic hammer that can drive a nail with the pull of a trigger. And the one who does it the old-fashioned way is not necessarily a good carpenter just because he takes more time. In the same way, we are wise to be willing to do whatever is necessary to preach well, because the Lord demands it and our people deserve it. But what if we can discover and master tools that will help us be more effective with our study, our sermon, and our skill in delivery? A commitment to excellence means that we desire effectiveness and not only effort.
Since effectiveness in communicating God's Word is our goal, we can find no greater means of sharing the truth than through the medium of preaching. While many have challenged preaching's usefulness and branded it as outdated and ineffective, preaching still remains God's primary means of ministering the Scriptures to his people. Oral communication is the most personal and powerful way to connect with others.
The largest and most successful ministries in the world have one thing in common: they are led by communicators. The great revivals and movements throughout Christian history are almost always ignited by God's use of a communicator: a bold, impassioned man of conviction who has a heart to share God's Word with people. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Knox, Jonathan Edwards, D. L. Moody, and Billy Graham each exhibited a fire of passion and a heart of conviction. But that proves true not only of well-known preachers who touched masses, but also of the men who serve in small communities and country churches. One rarely finds a poor communicator who succeeds as a pastor, even in a small setting. While a pastor can overcome to some extent poor preaching skills by his work ethic and people skills, why would he settle to do so? The best way to get people involved in a church is to give them something worth hearing at every service. When church members start inviting people to come to church because they want their friends to hear their pastor, church growth is enhanced.
Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.
2 Timothy 4:2
Frankly, no one wants to come to a boring church service. People need to be engaged and challenged. They want to feel a connection with the preacher and with the Word he proclaims. They are accustomed to television, movies, and entertainers, and few will sit still for a dry thirty-minute homily. The solution is not, as some have suggested, to turn worship services into entertainment—or even infotainment; the answer lies in passionate preaching of propositional truth.
While some preachers shrink from preaching propositional truth, they fail to understand the needs and the motives of their parishioners. One reason people come to church is that they desperately need to hear a word from God. Their lives are often unhappy as they struggle with issues of work, family, divorce, remarriage, blended families, aging, health, ethics, sex, lifestyles, and finances. When they come to church, they want and need to hear ultimate truth. They want to know what God says about how to work out whatever issues they are facing. While many preachers may be committed to providing answers to their pressing questions, if those answers are presented in a tiresome, tedious, and uninspiring way, we can hardly be surprised when the listeners do not feel that the answers are valid.
If we want our hearers to feel compelled to apply the truth, they need to hear the truth presented in a compelling manner. We must not content ourselves with content alone, but we must also preach to the audience in a way that connects with their lives.
This is the challenge of biblical preaching today. The needs of people have not changed since the Bible was completed. They are still born into a sinful world, separated from God, in need of salvation. They still struggle with "the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does" (1 John 2:16)—which are the same temptations that Eve faced in the Garden of Eden when she "saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom" (Gen. 3:6). Thousands of years later, our temptations and struggles may take on a different form, but at their core they are still the same struggles as those presented in Scripture. So people still need to hear God's "teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16), but they also need to hear it in the way that best communicates and demonstrates the Bible's relevance. Further, they need to be shown how to apply the truth that has been presented.
What we are suggesting is engaging exposition. While some preachers who call themselves expositors may accurately depict the meaning of the text when they preach, if they are monotonous and dull, they will have few hearers and fewer still who get excited about God's Word. Our job is more than just explaining the text. Our job is to make it vibrant, fresh, and accessible.
When I first came to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as a preaching professor, the seminary administration issued a press release and made much of the fact that I was committed to an expository model of preaching. Within weeks I received a letter from a man who criticized exposition by saying that it "does not lend itself to illustrations, and is usually an expounding of the Word without any relation to life; it becomes dry, even boring, without the windows of illustrations that complement and undergird the good news. Expository preaching does not challenge the mind or the emotions, is essentially simplistic, teaching very little of the larger, cosmic sweep of the gospel to all of life."
When I responded to his letter, I wrote, "Your objections are not to expository preaching at all. You object to bad preaching. If one of my students preached a sermon such as you describe, he simply would not pass my class." I went on to describe what exposition really is and how it can be done well. To his credit, he wrote back and apologized and admitted that he had only heard expository preaching criticized. Furthermore, he had the unfortunate experience of hearing a person preach poorly and then claim that he was an expositor.
Expository preaching does indeed explain the text, but it also must answer the great epistemological question: so what? When a man of God stands in the pulpit and proclaims the Word with passion, conviction, and emotion, his audience will truly hear the content of the message. Only when they actually hear it can they act on it. Making that emotional connection with the message forces a decision: will I accept and apply the truth of this text, or reject and refuse it?
In a word, the ingredient of preaching that we long for is power—not the power of education, as important as that may be. We cannot be content with the power of rhetorical skill, either, even though we certainly want to work hard to grow in those areas, too. The power we want is that which can only be attributed to the Holy Spirit as he grips our hearts with the Word and compels us to preach to others the truth that has so captivated us.
The power of the Holy Spirit cannot be manufactured. We do not offer a recipe for spiritual power that comes when we follow steps A, B, and C.
Spiritual power comes only when we saturate ourselves with the Word, surrender ourselves to God's will, and discipline ourselves in God's way.
Even then, the power of God manifests itself in different ways. Sometimes the power of God falls like rain in a place, and we see obvious and tangible results as the lost are converted and the saved find conviction and comfort in the Word. At other times, though, the power of God is much more quiet, more subtle, but no less potent. Men become better husbands. Employees manifest a Christian work ethic. Students realize the importance of dedicating their minds to a Christian worldview.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize
1 Corinthians 9:24
But these changes, whether explosive or subdued, are the work of the Spirit and the result of God's use of human preaching. We do not claim that if a preacher studies enough or delivers his sermon well enough that the Spirit of God will always attend his preaching with dramatic results. But we are confident in observing that the more a man of God gives himself to this sacred task—the more committed he is to an accurate exposition of the text and a passionate presentation of the sermon—the more frequently and dynamically the Holy Spirit seems to work through him. In the same way that the more we witness the more we see a sovereign God save people, we can say that the more consumed we are with preaching the Word effectively, the more our preaching has an effect. Although we cannot take credit for the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, we can usually take the blame for his absence.
So like Paul we do not rely on the wisdom of man for our power, but like the great apostle we also seek to persuade men. And with a reliance on the Spirit and a commitment to excellence in our preaching, we avoid no subject, fear no reaction, and seek no glory but Christ's.
Although God is sovereign and can work through anyone he chooses to use, he clearly uses those who are most committed to preparation, study, and hard work. If we want to have a real demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, ministries, and sermons, we cannot simply do nothing while hoping that God decides to use us. We strive and agonize in our study and commitment to our calling so that we are always at God's complete disposal.
I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
1 Corinthians 9:22-23
Our preparation, our diligence to study, our commitment to be better communicators does not discount the power of the Spirit, but instead expects it. Because we really believe that God can and will use us, we prepare the text, the sermon, and our own delivery skills so we are fit vessels for God to use.
Someone frequently objects that God does not need our abilities in order to use us. He can use the most unskilled and ignorant preacher. Although there is more than a nugget of truth in that statement, it is also not a reason to ignore important skills and leave them undeveloped. We have known preachers who were living in sin whom God used anyway, but that is not an excuse for us to live in sin. We have known preachers who preached sermons that were almost heretical—and still someone trusted Christ. But this does not mean that sound doctrine is unimportant. God once spoke through a donkey (see Num. 22:21-30), but that hardly serves as a model of ministry.
The history of preaching leaves an undeniable body of evidence that God uses men who are committed to the Word, to holiness, and to the power of preaching. God anoints such men and speaks through them to save the lost and to edify and rally the saints. To this end we should master every available means to improve our knowledge of the Word, our ability to craft biblical sermons, and our skill at connecting with an audience.
We can imagine no greater spiritual blessing than to be used by God to bring people to Christ and to encourage and instruct his church. Biblical preaching is an opportunity to meet a great need in the lives of people who most need to know God, so our commitment ought to reflect our belief in the power and potential of preaching.