Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Having as one’s objective, better, biblical preaching, will necessitate a certain analytical, discerning spirit.  To some, any analysis smacks of “critical.”  They are concerned that young preachers might be disheartened by condemnation aimed at weak preaching.  It matters not how general you are when calling for the best possible effort in preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who feel queasy about the integrity of the preaching specie they espouse will resent the challenge regardless.  The mere suggestion that we improve is resented.  Preaching is too important for thin-skinned resentment and stubborn pride.  We all can and should strive to do better.  Any young preacher discouraged by such an assertion, may not be cut out for the rigors of ministry in the first place.

Since preaching is the central feature of Christian worship, these things should be said:

  1. Preaching is the primary means for exalting God in worship.

The simple form and function of the Baptist church, is intended to communicate the fact that God is still speaking to man through His word.  The central location of the pulpit and the active speaking component of the weekly preaching experience suggests this.  Preaching is the primary means for exalting God in worship.  Preaching that is biblical, communicates accurate theology about God and His word with proportionality, will to that degree honor God.  It will inform and edify the listener in their understanding of the Godhead and thereby, produce worship-inducing faith (Rom. 10:17).  The height of our worship is determined by the depth of our spiritual understanding and effecting this is the goal of preaching.

There is far too much that goes on in the pulpit that magnifies men and their agendas instead of God’s.  Preachers are quite adept at sanctifying their personal interests and featuring them in their sermons.  This is a potential pitfall all preachers face.  I wish I could re-preach a lot of sermons, but I cannot.  Those accidents of ignorance and hubris, happened.  Now, I labor to avoid repeating the same mistakes.  If the preacher seeks to worship God as a part of his study process, it will help to infuse his preaching with God-enthralled expressions of truth that will require no editing or apologies. 

  1. Preaching is important because of its necessary content.

There is no question as to the necessary content of preaching.  We are commanded to “Preach the word..” (2 Tim. 4:2).  What the Bible says is our message.  It is not what we use to undergird our message.  The Bible is in total, in context - every word, phrase and teaching - our message.  Biblical preaching is not accomplished with clever twisting and spiritualizing of texts in order to say what we think is important.  Biblical preaching involves conveying what the Bible actually says and means to a group of people.  The words of God…they are our message.  The context in which it was given and originally intended, is how a text is to be understood and that is what we preach.

A basic theology of preaching and its priority would be as follows: We are made Christians by faith (Ep. 2:8-9).  Faith is what enables the Christian walk (2 Cor. 5:7; He. 11:6).  Faith comes directly from God’s word (Rom. 10:17).  Consequently, it is God’s word that we preach in order to see people saved by faith and walking by faith.  Paul told Titus, that God “…hath in due times manifested his word through preaching.”  (Tit. 1:3).  If our preaching is manifesting things other than His word, it ceases to be preaching.  It is important to note that reading a passage or a verse before launching into an agenda-driven, anecdote-laden tirade or pep talk is not preaching.  The content of the scripture in context actually needs to make it into the sermon.  There is nothing wrong with lectures, speeches and talks that deal with things other than scripture.  Just do not call it preaching.

  1. The significance of the message and ministry of preaching must shape how we undertake the work.

Preaching is the means that God uses to save sinners (1 Cor. 1:17-18).  This is serious, eternal business.  When I hear people taking shots at those who “read a lot of books and use big theological words,” I know I am hearing from someone who has a diminished view of preaching.  While simplicity is useful, ignorance and banality is tragic.  Furthermore, genuine simplicity requires a greater comprehension in order to be achieved than a superficial handling of doctrine can produce.  The challenge to be “better” is not criticism, nor does it come from a critical spirit (at least not from this source).  Some appear to be offended by the slightest suggestion that better preaching is needed and possible.  Many who are the most exercised in fighting modern styles in ministry are off-put…”alarmed”… by the challenge to preach with greater degrees of commitment.  Styles of pulpits, clothing, lighting, music, grooming, seating and technology are all VITALLY important to some, but preaching “styles” are nothing to be worked up about. For the record, I am old-fashioned.  I am King James Only (I believe the word of God is perfectly preserved in the King James Bible.  I trust every single word).  I am a Baptist, believe in hymn singing and I oppose entertainment-driven, worship services.  I am not appealing for compromise.  I am saying, in bold declaration, that it most certainly matters how you preach and what you preach.  Preaching is MUCH MORE than a mere style issue.  Instead of resenting the suggestion that our preaching is lame, why not dig in and insure that we stop preaching doctrine-free sermons that are overloaded with sensationalism and humanistic philosophy?  

  1. The substance and delivery of every sermon indicates what is important to the preacher and the church.

Years ago I took all of my sermons, many of them hand-written at the time, and laid them out on a table in stacks according to topic.  As you might imagine, the size of the piles was revealing.  As a young pastor, I preached three times the sermons exhorting the congregation to “do something for God” than sermons on encouragement or doctrinal edification.  Many vital subjects were not touched.  I simply “followed God’s leading in preaching what my people needed” (translation: I followed my selfish, often paranoid, internal impulses in my search for a “message” every week).  

I did not realize (at least not in a mature sense) that I held the message in my hands.  All I had to do was labor in a passage, organize the thoughts and preach the clear truth of scripture to the church. This is how God’s work gets done.  The people would hear divine truth, the subject matter would be doled out in godly proportions and the congregation would learn how to understand a passage in context.  Instead, I preached sermons that were shaped and motivated by my own presumption to diagnose the church’s spiritual condition.  It always amuses me to hear the advocates for certain “styles” of preaching, say, “I want to preach what my people need.”  The first thing that is objectionable here is the suggestion that any pastor knows what “his people” need.  We do not even know what we need.  The second is the implication that thorough, biblical preaching would fail somehow to meet that need.  There is a marked difference between using the Bible to undergird a dissertation or rant on a subject that is accepted as “biblical,” and actually preaching the content of a text at hand.

  1. The value of the congregants should be reflected in the quality and meaningfulness of every single sermon.

The older I get, the more precious the people are to me that come to hear me preach.  What I once saw as an “opportunity,” I now see as a grave responsibility.  God’s people are important and valuable.  They submit their children to my influence weekly.  They invite their friends to worship with us.  They support the church financially.  For me to go into the pulpit and “phone it in” is unthinkable.  To replace Bible preaching with comedy routines, story time, motivational speaking, leadership talks, political tirades and pop psychology is near blasphemous.  To whine incessantly about the 3% who are not supporting my fainting ego and ignore the faithful saints that are always plugged in is weak. As I am more aware of this charge, I labor with greater heart and less petty, self-interest.  God’s people, the sheep under my charge, deserve my very best.

  1. Every program, celebration, themed event and promotion has the potential to detract from the preaching and what it is about.

The eagerness with which some go about programing the church into an entertainment center, or as some would say, “turning the church into a circus,” has incurred a backlash of prohibition.  Many have gone beyond opposing abuses and extremes, labeling any attendance push or special day as humanistic and pragmatic.  Fair enough.  God’s people could assemble in a barn, sing hymns, pray and have preaching from the word of God and do just fine.  Many have.  We might say anything beyond that is a departure from “the old paths.”  Primitivism is a natural refuge for those deeply opposed to all things progressive.  I cannot sort all this out, because I swing wildly myself at times between a passion for souls that moves me to “do something big” and my conviction that New Testament principles are sufficient without worldly adornment and distraction.  Getting it right is not easy, but it deserves our best effort.  When we are careful, both an active burden for souls and a faithfulness to sound doctrine and practice may flourish concurrently.

In contrast to a radical primitivism, many things can and should be done in order to relate to the people we are trying to reach with the gospel.  Someone said kindness is treating people the way they want to be treated.  Feeding people, enjoying good music and fellowship with special themes and promotions do not have to detract from the biblical thrust of the church…but often, they do.  It is a curious thing to examine some church calendars and wonder where, between, a New Year’s stewardship push, the annual marriage series, Easter festivities, mother’s and father’s day, three patriotic Sundays, first responder’s day, baby dedication, Faith Promise month, back-to-school week, Trunk-or-treat and four weeks of Christmas sermons, the garden-variety, Bible preaching will get done.  This little article will chaff some and it is not intended to.  I am only suggesting that there might be a reason why John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, said, “My little children, keep yourselves from idols (1 Jn. 5:21).

  1. Preaching must follow the divine order of the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor.

Harry Emerson Fosdick, the 20th century’s leading liberal, was famous for promoting a modern approach to the Bible and a kind of preaching referred to as pulpit counseling.  Evidently, many of us independent Baptists have been so busy rooting out hobgoblins of Hybels and Warren, that we have missed the creeping influence of Fosdick.  It is common to hear preachers refer to their search for “a message” as part of their effort to “preach what their people need.”  

What people need is no mystery, nor is it determined by our ability as “leaders” to diagnose.  People need an enhanced, heightened view of God that only comes from a high view of scripture.  The value with which we esteem scripture will be manifested in our preaching.  We have a responsibility to preach the Bible, to hold the Godhead high before our congregations.  Massive amounts of humanistic “how to” sermons could be replaced with doctrine and believers would be stronger for it (*Doctrine - what is taught, God’s truth in God’s words).  Preaching is an act of worship.  It is a central feature of Christian faith and practice.  To reduce it to “rallying the troops” is a travesty.

  1. The qualified pastor will be apt to teach.

One of the qualifications of the pastor is that he be “apt to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2).  Jesus “…went about all Galilea, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom…” (Mt. 4:23).  Again, doctrine involves, things taught, which is the central emphasis of New Testament church life.  Teaching involves the transfer of knowledge with attention to detail; preaching is communicating God’s word with explanation and application. While preaching is distinct, it will include teaching.  The teaching role of the pastor is fundamental to his work.  “Building the church” is not.  When we organize and lead in multitudes of functions and administrative duties and fail to teach people the word of God, we are failing as pastors.  Feeding sheep the word of God is what being a pastor is about (Acts 6:1-4; 17:1-3; 20:20, 28; 28:31; 1 Tim. 5:17; 2 Tim. 2:15; et al.).  If we attend every party, ball game and surgical procedure and fail to teach people the word of God, we are not doing the work of the pastorate.

  1. If our agenda is biblical, Bible preaching will encourage it; if not, the agenda should be discarded.

Preaching the Bible, by passage and book, influenced in theme by what scripture emphasizes, repeating what scripture repeats, will produce holiness and proper theological perspective.  Tantrums, tirades, demonstrations of rage, mockery, ridicule and sensationalism will not (Jm. 1:19-21).  Authoritative, direct rebuke that excoriates all that is sinful and dishonoring to God is needful and will be called for as the scripture requires it.  Sound exposition that explains the Bible and seeks to sermonize from that explanation will grow the listener in the faith.  Agenda-driven, control tactics will not.  The difference between a preacher searching around for a “thought” from a verse or passage that fits what he thinks his people need and laboring in a text to give the people what is there is night and day.  No one needs to worry about Bible preaching.  It will always meet the spiritual needs of people of faith.  It never, ever misses.

  1.  Nothing will improve our preaching quicker than improving the preacher.

I always thought a mid-life crisis was superficial; the efforts of an aging man to maintain some element of “cool” for as long as possible.  I remember the eighties when forty-five to fifty-year-old men would get perms and sports cars.  I did not understand the depth of the struggle.  Now I get it.  I know what it is like to go through the day, numbering short-comings, failures and unrealized dreams like marbles in a bag.  After awhile, you can no longer manage the marbles, nor can you start over.

Unfortunately, there are no do-overs.  Most of our regrets; however, are overblown.  The good we do is always in spite of ourselves and because of the grace of God. The best chance we have for preaching well with whatever time God has given us is to improve ourselves.  Better food, exercise, rest, recreation, good books, systematic sermon preparation, reasonable self-analysis, strong relationships with the key people in our lives and honest effort to help people through evangelism and discipleship are all things that will help us.  By helping ourselves, we help our preaching.
Preaching is the primary business of the church.  It remains front-and-center in Christian worship because it demonstrates that God still speaks through His word. The act of preaching the Bible points the congregation to the only authoritative source for knowing God.  Unfortunately, the grand nature of communicating truth is not always reflected in the content of the sermons and the behavior of the preachers.  Often, humanistic philosophy, personal anecdotes, and fraternal qualifiers replace scripture for content, and shocking examples of sensationalism and gimmickry masquerade as the power of God. 
Our belief in the inspiration and preservation of the scripture should keep us committed to the practice of expounding the word of God faithfully.  The conviction that we have God’s words written down (scripture) should demand that we always seek to preach them (2 Tim. 3:14-17).  In doing so, we succeed in our efforts to preach faithfully and to fail to do so, we fail to preach at all.

Better preaching requires faithfulness.  Great preaching can be accomplished without intellectualism, entertaining personalities, and highly developed delivery techniques.  However, great preaching will remain an endangered species without faithfulness.  One of the salient verses in scripture concerning ministerial faithfulness is found in Paul’s dissertation to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:24:

But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.

This kind of faithfulness was described by John Gill, as, “to testify the gospel of the grace of God, to profess and preach it, to bear a constant and public testimony to it at death, as in life, and faithfully to declare it, and assert it to the last.”  Concerning Paul’s commitment to preaching with faithfulness, John Phillips said, “Paul…looked at life from a higher perspective than most of us.  Self-preservation was not high on his list of priorities (Exploring Acts, p. 403).”  If one is willing to be faithful unto death, certainly nothing will deter him from preaching faithfully.  In contrast, who would die for humanistic anecdotes and syllogisms?

  1. Humility
Humility is the opposite of pride (Pr. 6:3; 16:19; 29:23) and consists of lowliness of mind - a proper self-assessment.  Pride is haughty, high-minded self-interest, which is a sure killer of faithfulness in preaching.  J. I. Packer, called pride the number-one occupational hazard for the preacher.  When we begin to preach and promote self, the biblical perspective will be lost and the power gone, or, as Spurgeon said, “You will never glory in God till first of all God has killed your glorying in yourself.”  Acts 20 is clear - Paul lived for God and others, not himself.  He served “the Lord with all humility of mind” (v. 19), he did not count his life dear unto himself (v. 24), and he frequently warned “with tears” (v. 31).  It is difficult to imagine Paul discouraged because the church forgot his birthday.  Paul was satisfied by the truth that God alone stood with him (2 Tim. 4:17).
Historically, humility has been considered an obvious prerequisite to ministerial success.  Lowliness of mind is expected in a man of God.  While we all have encountered those top-heavy, self-ascribed dignitaries who are proud of their virtue, we must not allow their oft’ intimidating  pretense to dissuade us from pursuing humility.  In spite of clear scriptural rebukes for pride such as, “the Lord will destroy the proud,” and “every one that is of a proud heart is an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 16:5; 16:25), preachers are often more peacock that plow mule.  Many would rather strut than serve.  Hubris, even bullying, and belligerence is preferred by some over sound exposition and charitable application.  It is so bad in certain circles that preachers even boast of their willingness to fight other preachers.  It would be funny if it were not so humiliating. The obvious pitfall is to assume that fruitfulness in preaching is predicated upon the exaltation of the preacher.  This colossal error has caused many to take refuge in the misinterpretation of verses such as…

  • “The Lord forbid that I should stretch forth mine hand against the Lord’s anointed…” (1 Sam. 26:11).

  • “…I magnify mine office.”  (Rom. 11:13).

  • “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1)

…To the exclusion of verses like…

  • “…that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another.  For who maketh thee to differ from another?”  (1 Cor. 4:6, 7).

  • “For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves…” (2 Cor. 10:12).

  • “…lest I should be exalted above measure.” (2 Cor. 12:7).

  • “And I will gladly spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved.” (2 Cor. 12:15).

  • “…for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me.”  (Gal. 2:6).

Being humble, for the preacher, necessitates submission to a text of scripture.  This trajectory precludes arrogance.  This kind of genuine humility in the heart of a preacher is essential to faithfulness.  Without it, authentic ministry suffers insurmountable blows to reputation and usefulness.  Subtle forms of pride will show up in the preaching experience in two ways: the notion that the preacher must be considered “great” in order to do big things and in the aggrandizement of personal agenda.  The antidote to each respectively is self-awareness and self-denial, the combination of both is de facto, humility.

  1. Commitment to People

To the elders of Ephesus, Paul rehearsed his commitment to the people God called him to serve.  He said, “Ye know…after what manner I have been with you at all seasons” (v. 18) and “I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you” (v. 20), “I am pure from the blood of all men” (v. 26), “I ceased not to warn every one” (v. 31), and “I coveted no man’s silver, or gold or apparel” (v. 33).  A lack of humility will lend itself to an ego-centric, preaching ministry.  Contrariwise, the humble man of God will prioritize people - their needs, burdens, and concerns - above his own.  Paul’s profound love for those to whom he ministered is a matter of record (Rom. 1:7-12; 9:1-3; 10:1; 2 Cor. 1:24; 1 Thess. 2; et al.).  As this kind of love is produced in our hearts for the people to whom we preach, we will experience fruitfulness in kind.  The glorious gospel is worthy of this consistency.
Paul’s care for of the saints at Thessalonica provides an insightful guide for how to treat the people to whom we preach.  Here’s a simple, observational rundown of the characteristics of faithful preaching from 1 Thessalonians 2.  Look for…

  1. Boldness (v. 1), not belligerence.  Paul’s boldness was not displayed in his willingness to challenge other preachers to a brawl (re: nutty social media accounts), but his determination to speak unto them the gospel of God with much contention.  Paul was defensive of the gospel, not his silly, personal opinions about every matter on earth from Lebron James to Donald Trump.

  1. Honest exhortation (vv. 3-4), not manipulative, intimidating diatribes (a bitter and abusive speech or piece of writing).  Paul had no personal agenda to perpetuate, nor fraternal loyalties to highlight, thus, deceit was not a temptation.  His aim was to please God by preaching the gospel.  He was not trying to raise money or get ahead (v. 5); he was living and dying for the gospel.

  1. Gentle affection (vv. 6-8), not glory-seeking, self-promotion.  A nurse does not enter the nursery, hoping the children will see how great she is.  A nurse comes to cherish the children, to feed and protect them.  The nurse provides an example of what the pastor is supposed to do through his preaching ministry - love his people by preaching the gospel and expounding its exigencies.  This, and this alone is faithful preaching.

The backdrop against which this amazing example of service is set is Paul’s steadfast belief in the effectuality of God’s word (2 Thess. 2:13).  He believed in the sufficiency of scripture and that conviction drove him.  Faith  in God’s word and its efficacy will lead us to preach it.  Weak faith leads to weak preaching.

  1. The Content of the Message

There was no doubt about Paul’s message.  He preached “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 21).  He testified “the gospel of the grace of God” (v. 24), preached “the gospel of the kingdom of God…all the counsel of God,” (v. 25, 27), and “the word of his grace” (v. 32).  He laid down the most lucid and comprehensive order for the work of preaching found in scripture - “Preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:1-8).  While this should be obvious, it is not; for much time is spent in the pulpit on things that are not in the Bible, do not relate to anything in the Bible and indeed do not illustrate biblical truth.  The energy expended in many sermons on subject matter not supported by the text or any other passage of scripture is stunning.
THE fundamental truth of Christianity is that God has spoken and continues to speak through His word.  God…wrote…a book.  We must preach that book.  The Bible is our agenda.  We do not “get our message” from the text; the text is the message.  We labor to understand it in study, work to communicate what we understand in the preparation of the sermon and we deliver it faithfully by communicating just that - the content of scripture as God has revealed it.
  Imagine the tragedy of an ordinary man getting up on Sunday morning, often his only day off, and going to church.  He is a lost man, but he can sense his need for something more in life.  He awakens his family; they get dressed and rush out the door with little more than a donut for breakfast.  They pull onto the property of a local church to which they have been invited and navigate the off-putting currents of awkwardly, happy people. They are greeted and herded into place.  They take in the music, sing some hymns (hopefully), stare at the decor, people and preacher.  The moment of “truth” arrives and the pastor ascends the steps to the platform and preaches a sermon that is part Rush Limbaugh and part Jerry Seinfeld with a little religious jargon sprinkled in.  The text of scripture is like the national anthem at a ball game.  Once read, it is hardly referenced again.  The pastor preaches patriotism, old-fashioned values, morals, work ethic and an assortment of things that may be amenable to whatever degree, but there is very little gospel, no Bible expounded in context and applied faithfully.  What is said might be the truth, but it is not God’s truth.  This scenario is dreadful.  Every preacher of the word of God should fear their potential for this tragedy above all else.

Better preaching requires faithfulness and faithfulness involves humility, a commitment to people, and the right message.  When we strive for these things, the difference will be self-evident.  The difference will be faithfulness and in the these three areas, we can all do better.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Doing things well and continuing to do so requires the kind of self-maintenance conducive to excellence.  Given the ordinary course of degenerative tendencies in unchecked human behavior, we do ourselves a favor by caring for, not only our need for improvement but our propensity for demise as well.  We should expect our preaching habits, especially in the area of preparation, to drift into disrepair when unscrutinized.  The practicality of systematic discipline becomes a servant to better preaching in this regard.
In a useful little book, entitled, The Disciplined Life, Richard Taylor said, “Disciplined character belongs to the person who achieves balance in bringing all his faculties and powers under control.”  He said, “The difference is habit and habit is character.”  These thoughts lead us to consider, how could our preaching improve if we applied systematic discipline to our approach to preparation?
  Suggesting to preachers that our preaching could be better is similar to offering child-rearing advice to parents or telling your wife how to improve her looks.  It is precarious; however, that does not mean that many parents do not need the advice, and wives…well, you get the point.  I remind my readers, for whom I am grateful that I share these thoughts out of the overflow of research on the subject of Biblical preaching.  I do not consider myself an expert, nor am I beyond the point of improvement -  quite the contrary.  It is difficult to image a preacher so haughty or hyper-sensitive that challenges to improve would be met with resentment.  
By discipline, I mean to recommend the routine application of three practices that would help polish the finished product for any preacher from novice to veteran.  By improving our preparation, we are sure to elevate the entire experience of preaching.

3 Disciplines For Improving Our Preparation

  1.   Reading

In his second letter to Timothy, pleading for assistance in his last days of service on earth, the apostle Paul told him to bring, “the books, but especially the parchments”  (2 Tim. 4:13).  Concerning this verse, “Spurgeon said, Paul was an inspired apostle; yet, he wanted his books,  He had been preaching for at least thirty years; yet, he wanted his books.  He had seen the Lord; yet, he wanted his books.  He had heard things untranslatable; yet, he wanted his books.  He had written a major part of the New Testament; yet, he wanted his books.  ‘Bring the books,’ he said” (Exploring 2 Timothy, John Phillips).  When preaching in Athens, Paul included, “…as certain also of your own poets have said,” (Acts 17:28), demonstrating the usefulness of an intentionally-developed, cultural sophistication.  
  William Cathcart, in his fantastic publication, The Baptist Encyclopedia, gave six-and-a-half pages of information under the entry, Baptist Literature.  The amount of material that faithful Baptists of the past have written is staggering.  While Alexander Whyte famously said, “Sell your shirt and buy a book,” we know that many of the great works of the past are available online, free of charge.  There is no excuse for the small amount of reading accomplished by the average preacher.  A cursory glance at social media would indicate that we have time for parties, dining out, ball games, concerts, travel, hunting, fishing, golf, and endless activities intended to please and entertain, but mention the need to read and it is amazing how busy everyone becomes.
  It has been noted that if one reads slowly (250 words per minute), he could read 5,000 words in twenty minutes.  The average book has about four hundred words per page, meaning you could read twelve-and-a-half pages in twenty minutes.  At this pace, for just twenty minutes per day, you could read fifteen books a year on one subject, or you could plow through larger, classic works, in brief, nightly readings.  The busiest of preachers can read, and if they do not, their listeners will know.  A good goal for the extra reading required for front-loading for future preaching tasks or self-education in particular areas of theology or history is to set aside one hour daily, a morning, afternoon or evening weekly, a full day each month and a week annually.  
Merely taking in words from the pages of a book does not constitute wisdom.  Mortimer Adler said, “To be informed is to know simply that something is the case.  To be enlightened is to know, in addition, what it is all about.”  Montaigne spoke of “an abecedarian ignorance that precedes knowledge and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it” (How To Read A Book, Mortimer Adler, pp. 11, 12).  I am not saying that knowledge, eloquence, and polish make a preacher, but neither does ignorance, incoherence, and crudity.  How the fact of God’s powerful, effectual working through His word somehow negates the sense in our striving to be the best we can be is unclear.  Improving our preparation through careful research and aggressive reading is no danger to faithfulness, though it may present certain hindrances for those who wish to confine us with convoluted philosophies and humanistic traditions.

  1.   Thinking

 Through the study of scripture and laborious efforts to read one’s self full of good books, we find ourselves in consequent need of careful thought.  The old advice is to “query the text” - to “beat importunately upon it.”  As we question every word, phrase and statement in relation to context and sound theology, we are essentially thinking through the truth.  We are referring to meditation (Jos. 1:8), which slows us down and takes us deeper into our subject.  Thinking enables better understanding, and therefore, clearer elocution.
Jesse Burton Weatherspoon, said, “‘The only way to learn to preach is to preach’ - yet mere practice will never bring the highest skill; it must be heedful, thoughtful practice, with close observation of others and sharp watching of ourselves, and controlled by good sense and good taste” (On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, John Broadus, New and Revised Edition, 1944, p. 8).  What we think shapes who we are and our authenticity determines the nature of our preaching.  Thoughtfulness produces a rich thoroughness of soul - the kind that comes out in great preaching.  Paul said to Timothy, in 1 Timothy 4:13-16:

Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.  Neglect, not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.  Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear to all.  Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.
A good rule for measuring doctrinal comprehension is, if you cannot teach it simply to someone else, you do not know it yourself.  Thomas Armitage said, “A great gulf is fixed between a preacher who has something which he must say and one who puts words together that he may say something” (Preaching: Its Ideal and Inner Life, Thomas Armitage, 1880, p. 166).  The preacher who “has something he must say,” is one who has read thoroughly and thought carefully about what he has read.  Armitage, warning about “shallow performances,” likened it unto “the farmer who scratches a thousand acres an inch deep, and then calls it plowing.  I prefer his neighbor, who tills a hundred acres by subsoiling it.  He puts the plowshare in to the beam and turns up the rich soil, for a harvest rank in its golden wealth.  You cannot cultivate gospel truth by the square rod.  Thorough work calls for an exhaustive process in that which you do till” (Armitage, pp. 246-247).  Along these lines, Broadus said, in reference to exposition, “He who begins it as an easy thing will find expository preaching surpassingly difficult, but he who manfully takes hold of it as difficult, will find it grows easier and more pleasant with every year of his experience” (Broadus, p. 153).  
Thinking, in sermon preparation, should include when possible, some element of rehearsal or “thinking out loud.”  I recommend this not for the pursuit of theatrical sensationalism (for this is unimportant, and should be avoided) but to discover the best possible way to communicate the passage.  Saying it to yourself before you say it to others can be invaluable in helping to develop big-picture concepts and smooth transitions.

3.  Writing

Few things would improve our ability to communicate like learning to write well.  I am not suggesting that preachers employ florid articulation or become sanctified Ernest Hemingways.  I mean to recommend better writing as a means for developing the ability to speak with appealing clarity. The purpose here is to be understood.  Broadus said, “The chief means of improvement in style is careful practice in writing and speaking - not mere practice without care, for this will develop and confirm what is faulty as well as what is good” (Broadus, p. 236).  A great sculptor loves to chip the marble.  A good preacher must learn to enjoy the language employed in the work of preaching.
One of the best helps available on this subject is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E. B. White.  In this indispensable little book, White quotes his beloved professor, Strunk:

Vigorous writing is concise.  A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.  This requires not that a writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but in every word tell (p. xiv).

Nothing that is suggested in this article is on the level with knowing God and scripture and striving to confront sinners and saints alike with the charge of divine authority. Instead, I offer simple, practical disciplines that could make good, Bible preaching better.  If a preacher made a habit of reading with systematic toil, thinking carefully about what he has read and endeavoring to convey his convictions with boldness, clarity, and zeal, his preaching would most certainly improve.  
Preaching well does not necessitate the “wisdom of words” (1 Cor. 1:17), but it does require wisdom (Jm. 3:17).  It is not entertainment but can be engaging (Lk. 24:25-32).  It is diminished by sensationalism, but not by excitement (Acts 2:14; 15:13; 17:1-5, 22; et al.).  Gimmickry in preaching is off-putting while clever applications are memorable (Acts 20:28-30; 24:14-16; et al.).  Mysticism is misleading, but truth embraced by the heart will lead to profound, emotional sermons (Acts 2:37; 7:54; et al.).  Every preacher would be helped by the disciplines of reading systematically, thinking through the material and writing out his thoughts to develop clarity and force.  When these extras are added to routine sermon preparation, improvements will be noticeable.

Friday, March 15, 2019

In pursuit of better preaching, I began to research the subject over a year ago.  The observations are noteworthy, and I felt it might be encouraging to some if I shared them.  While challenging preachers to preach better sermons is as precarious as having lunch with Emily Post, the potential for good is staggering.  One encouraged preacher can be used of God to shape eternity.

Once the preacher is immersed in the effects of having remobilized the axioms of biblical authority, better preaching will demand…work.  It is life-work.  Preaching that pulls back the shades of ordinary misapprehension and enables people to see the riches of God’s grace, will only be developed with hard work - daily, relentless work.  One could not find a better example of pastoral labor than the oft’ quoted, ubiquitous, Charles Spurgeon.  The English Baptist pastor preached thousands of sermons, published in 63 volumes - the largest set of books by anyone in Christian history.  Spurgeon’s son said, “There was no one who could preach like my father.  In inexhaustible variety, witty wisdom, vigorous proclamation, loving entreaty and lucid teaching, with a multitude of other qualities, he must, at least in my opinion, be ever regarded as the prince of preachers” (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography, Vol. 2, p. 278). 

One biographer said that Spurgeon read six books a week, wrote over 140 of his own and often worked eighteen hours a day.  This from the man who said, “Brethren, do something; do something; DO SOMETHING.  While committees waste their time over resolutions, do something.  While societies and unions are making constitutions, let us win souls.  Too often we discuss and discuss and discuss, while Satan only laughs in his sleeve.  It is time we had done planning and sought something to plan.  I pray you, be men of action all of you.  Get to work and quit yourselves like men” (An All-Round Ministry, p. 55).  This work, this commitment to doing, must value preaching as the pastor’s ultimate priority.  Spurgeon certainly did, and Paul required it (1 Tim. 4:13-16; 5:17; 2 Tim. 2:15).  Spurgeon said, “Emotion, doubtless, is a very proper thing in the pulpit, and the feeling, the pathos, the power of heart, are good and great things in the right place; but do also use your brains a little, do tell us something when you stand up to preach the everlasting gospel.  The sermons that are the most likely to convert people seem to me to be those that are full of truth…Tell your hearers something, dear brethren, whenever you preach, tell them something, tell them something” (The Soul Winner, p. 99).

It is easy for the sundry demands of ministry to crowd out the vital work that goes into good preaching.  The inimitable, Brown University President and Baptist leader, Francis Wayland, lamented his struggles with the conflicting concerns of the pastorate:

When a man’s mind is thus occupied, his interest in his people will gradually diminish.  His outside work seems to be religious; it must be done today: his work for his people may be done tomorrow or next week, and in the end it is not done at all.  At last his real work, the work for which he is paid - labor for the souls committed to his care - receives only the chippings and leavings of his time; and even those chippings and leavings have in them no vitality (A Memoir of the Life and Labors of Francis Wayland, Vol. 2, p. 196).

The tangling effects of the pastor’s potential involvements may lead, not only to preaching that is less than good, but personal and moral crises as well.  Wayland continued:

Another effect of this multiplication of business is, to break up all habits of devotion, till a man’s religion becomes often a dry skeleton of orthodox doctrine, rather than a living fountain within him, quickening his own soul, and refreshing the souls of others.  But the minister has the same liability to sin as other people, and some temptations peculiar to himself.  If his religion has become inoperative, the power of temptation is redoubled, and nothing but the especial grace of God can preserve him from falling into sin (Wayland, pp. 196, 197).

What an unspeakable tragedy it is for the man of God to give only the “chippings and leavings” of his time to the work of preaching.  It is worth more and requires moreCould we not give more to this great work?  Granted, every pastor faces variations of scheduling imposition.  Each situation allows for fluctuating combinations of time, talent and toil.  Some men have the privilege (Lk. 12:48) of giving “full-time” to the work of edifying the body of Christ while necessity requires others to serve bi-vocationally (something many men of God have done with great usefulness throughout the years).  Some have vast resources for building libraries and collecting material without end, while others, as Alexander Whyte suggested, sell their shirts to buy books.  Some are vehicles of near peerless, God-given talent for moving people with persuasiveness and charm; others plod beneath the weight of their inherent limitations.  Regardless, let us take the time and talent that God has given us and work!  God can take the hands-full of meal that we can gather from the bottom of the barrels of our human resources and feed His people well.

A simple, two-fold admonition is in order:

Let us seize our opportunities by faith and work hard!

Could it be that the potential for better preaching among us dies, not for lack of ability, but the absence of vigorous faith?  If we believe that God will bless His word, then our efforts should be proportionately applied to the significance of the duty before us.  Because we believe, because we expect God to work - we work!  Every opportunity is big.  Every Lord’s day sermon is monumental.  Every open door is meaningful.  May we prepare accordingly.  May we seize our opportunities by faith and work hard!

Faith that expects God to work that believes what God said because He said it in His word has sustained centuries of preaching from the darkest of places and through the severest of trials.  One American example of rare, faith-based fortitude in preaching and ministerial labor is Isaac Backus.  Born in 1724 in Norwich, Connecticut, Backus grew, by slow degree, into a Baptist by conviction and an ardent defender of religious liberty.  Alvah Hovey described the labors of this “firm, consistent, earnest and charitable Baptist” in this way:

Without turning back to rail at those whom he had left, his energies were faithfully applied to the great work of preaching Christ at home and by the way.  From year to year the little church under his care grew in numbers and strength; neglected districts were made glad as heretofore by his occasional but zealous proclamation of the gospel; and feeble interests were kept alive by his wise counsels and stout-hearted faith (The Life and Times of Isaac Backus, Alvah Hovey, p. 129).

During a space of eleven years (1756-1767), Backus preached 2,412 sermons (avg. 4 per week) and traveled 14,691 miles on horseback, not counting the travel and labor within the immediate reach of his local church labor.  Cathcart recorded that Backus traveled, in a six-month stretch in 1789, through Virginia and North Carolina to strengthen the churches.  He traveled 3,000 miles and preached 126 sermons.  He accomplished, according to Cathcart, an immense amount of work during his ministerial life.

Alvah Hovey wrote of the journeys of Backus:

These were frequent and laborious until the end of life.  Over the hills, across the valleys, and beside the streams of New England, he pursued his rugged and toilsome way, and accomplished his useful mission…Once he was thrown from his horse and severely injured; at another time was near losing his life by the cold; and very often he rode from morning till night in the chill and drenching rain (Hovey, pp. 312, 313).

Backus set the example for seizing the God-given opportunities by faith and working hard!  His labor involved more than enduring the difficulties of eighteenth-century travel; he gave himself to study.  Hovey said, “He applied himself with deep earnestness to the study of God’s word, with the best helps accessible and examined with great care the chief works in his own language upon systematic theology, ecclesiastical history and church polity.”  Backus, a prolific author and powerful influence with the pen, “keenly watched the shifting forms of error and assiduously qualified himself to withstand their approaches,” a commitment that necessitated reading “the fugitive writings of the day.”

What would be the fruit of the Backus brand of ministerial commitment?  Would we not all desire to see souls converted by the grace of God?  Besides the passion for God’s glory, what longing could legitimately overshadow the burden for souls in the heart of the preacher?  Backus said this:

(March 28, 1756) Preached twice to this people, and the Lord did draw near of a truth and give my soul sweet enlargement.  Such bowels of compassion for sinners I haven’t felt for a long while.  Oh, that the Lord would appear for the deliverance of these precious souls!

(March 30, 1756) After meeting in the evening, I spoke with a young woman who gave me a clear account of her conversion.  I hear that some others have been recently converted in this place.  How blessed a thing it is to see a new-born soul!

(April 3, 1756) Upon returning home and finding his family in good health, Backus wrote: The divine favors have been distinguishing here; and while I have been gone, the assistance which I have enjoyed in preaching and the conversions which I have seen among sinners, together with the language of new-born souls, have made it the most comfortable journey to me that I have taken this winter.

Maybe, those of us who enjoy comfortable, heated and air-conditioned vehicles with advanced audio technology; warm, dry homes and hotel rooms; a near-endless restaurant selection in every single town; comfort-oriented wardrobes, offices, and libraries; affordable laptops, iPads, smartphones, internet and all the advancements resulting from scientific and medical progress, the industrial revolution and the subsequent information age…could work a little harder at preaching good sermons.  May God help us to seize each opportunity by faith and work hard at the work of preaching!

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