Preaching is not something that requires skill so much as it requires faith. As soon as I knew that God had called me to be a preacher of His precious word, I became a connoisseur of sermons. I couldn’t get enough of listening to other preachers. Proof of the new creation Paul spoke of in 1 Corinthians 5:17 can definitely be seen in my conversion. Where as before God called me I was reading and listening to sports related books and shows, my life as a new creation in Christ consisted of books on preaching and listening to sermon podcasts.
I was desperate and hunger for the knowledge of God. But I was also a student of the art of preaching and communication. I wanted to be polished. I wanted to develop a preaching style that would captivate my future congregation with engaging stories that could be applied to the Word of God.
I wanted people to know this great God of the Bible and I wanted them to marvel at the wonderous grace of God. And as a new preacher, I felt the full weight of this high calling. More than that, I trembled at the thought of it, because I felt that it was up to me to make God successful. If I wasnt polished enough, or entertaining enough to captivate the attention of my hearers, then I would have failed God.
Did I not believe in the sovereignty of God? I absolutely did! But there was a disconnect between what my head knew and my heart believed. Even early in my conversion, I could recite to you the Five Sola’s of the reformation and easily defend the providence of God over all creation as easily as breathing. But when it came to the ministry that God had given me, I doubted the Biblical truths that I vowed to defend with my life.
And so, early in my ministry I began to mold my preaching style. At times, I sought to be relevant and captivating at the expense of being scripturally orthodox with my exegesis. Life application would often times overshadow the spoken word of God. And being culturally relevant in order to pander to my audience became a crutch for my lack of faith in the sovereignty of God in and through salvation.
Although God had instilled within my heart a love for the in-depth yet applicable unveiling of scripture, the nominal Christian world seemed to be shouting for entertainment rather than exposition. I had seen many successful pastors lean more on comedy to get the attention of their congregations. Or perhaps they would read one verse at the beginning of their sermon and spend the next forty minutes telling personal stories as to how the verse tied in. As a new pastor, I naturally assumed that in order for people to be saved, God needed my help. So therefore, I better use my own skills to get the attention of the church was my thought.
But if God was truly sovereign, wouldn’t it stand to reason that He alone would save through the preaching of His word? If God is truly sovereign, would this reality not eradicate the need for human eloquence? For if the salvation of men were dependent in part on the flesh, then salvation would not be of the Lord as Jonah 2:9 says, but of God and man together in partnership.
This was the tension I lived in during the first few years of my time in ministry. And due to this man centered burden I carried, my preaching style began to focus more on what would entertain rather that simply relying on God to work through focusing mainly on the text at hand. When I preached a sermon that was less than up to par, I took it very personally. And as any entertainer would do, I simply worked on ways to change my act before the next Sunday.
That was my folly. My error was not in my lack of love for the scriptures or belief in the sovereignty of God. Because I loved the word with all my heart and staked my claim upon the hill of total divine sovereignty. My error was in trusting more in myself than in Gods power to accomplish His will. My error was a lack of faith. I was fully trusting in me, and partially trusting in God. Then I stumbled upon this verse;
“For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” Let such a person understand that what we say by letter when absent, we do when present. Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding.” 2 Corinthians 10:10-12.
Paul was speaking these words in verse 10 about himself. The writings of Paul were a force to be reckoned with. However, Paul was no great preacher in and of himself. He didn’t even have a commanding presence. The same words Paul wrote by letter, he spoke in person. But it was not his commanding presence that captivated his hearers. It was not his ability to entertain the masses or be culturally relevant that aided men in coming to faith. It was strictly the spoken and written word of the Lord! Paul literally had nothing to boast in! Paul could not pat himself on the back after a sermon, because by the worlds standards, he was nothing to look at or listen too! There was no pandering for an audience or reliance upon self! Paul put his sole trust fully and completely in the word of God!
What a comfort this was to my soul! What a relief! It became utterly apparent that through attempting to entertain, I may captivate a room of hundreds of people. But if they themselves were not drawn by the word of God alone, then my words were falling on dead ears. If my listeners preferred a captivating sermon over the exposition of Gods word, then my efforts were done in vain! And the biggest breath of fresh air came from the realization that the salvation of men doesn’t depend on the preacher delivering the perfect sermon. But rather, only the faithful attention to the text of scripture. It is the word of God that supernaturally saves, not the eloquence of man!
“Doctrinal preaching certainly bores the hypocrites, but it is only doctrinal preaching that will save Christ’s sheep. The preachers job is to proclaim the faith, not to provide entertainment for unbelievers. In other words, to feed the sheep rather than amuse the goats.” -J.I. Packer.
To echo Paul’s words from the above verse, I was full of head knowledge, but without understanding when I based my ministry upon the reaction of man rather than faith. The best explanation of how God saves is found in a passage that I’ve referred to many times in this blog. Ezekiel 37 in the Valley of Dry bones experience of Ezekiel. Ezekiel did not play a part in bringing the dead bones to life. He couldn’t rely on human eloquence or cunning to give them breath. Ezekiel simply read the word of the Lord, and God through His spoken word, supernaturally brought them to life.
In Nehemiah chapter 8, it was Ezra who stood on the platform above the people getting ready to preach. He didnt open with an amusing story or personal antidote. Ezra opened the scriptures as the people stood in reverance and recited the word of the Lord.
“And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” Nehemiah 8:5-6.
As preachers, we are merely the messengers. We are due no glory of our own. Our job as JI Packer so richly put it, is not to entertain, but rather to it is to feed the sheep His food that He has required, which is His word. Is it wrong for a preacher to be relevant? To resort to a comedic comparison every now and then? Absolutely not! Paul and even Jesus used comedic sarcasm in order to make their points at times. The prince of preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon was known for his relevance to the common man and witty preaching style.
Spurgeon, arguably the greatest preacher since the apostle Paul, would actually tremble as he stepped into his pulpit each Sunday. He knew how weak and fallible he was. And as he would climb the steps into the pulpit, he would recite to himself, “I believe in the Holy Spirit”, to remind himself that he was totally dependent on the Spirit of God speaking through him.
There is nothing wrong with relating to our audiences. However, the thrust and purpose of our message is not so that we may reap the accolades of men. Rather, we use relevance only as a means to drive home their point. God uses the personality traits of men to communicate His word. And it is the raw, unaltered word of God alone that saves the souls of men.
“So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Romans 10:17.
It is important for a preacher to relate to his audience. But that relevance in and of itself has no power to save. God does not need our help in accomplishing His saving purposes.
“He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Luke 19:40.
I have much to learn as a preacher of God’s word. And I know that this learning process will not come to an end under I have drawn my last breath. Any preacher that would deny this about himself is self decieved. But I am thankful that still as a young man, God has relieved me of the burden of self reliance. What a joy and relief it is to know that my job as a pastor is simply to be obedient to delievering Gods word. And in this, the joy of seeking Him more fervently daily is mine to be had. It is the hearing of scripture that God uses to save. So when it comes to preaching, I am in agreeance with the words of John the Baptist. My sermons should always be filled with more of Him, and less of me.
“He must increase, but I must decrease.” John 3:30.