Better Preaching = Work!

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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