We need to revitalize preaching. Mass media is competing with us for the attention of our congregations. Our challenge is to make preaching effective once more. People are asking, Is the Bible true? How does it affect me? Does the minister really know what he’s talking about? Seminaries have tended to relegate homiletics courses to the “nonscholastic” part of the curriculum. Preachers, not professors, teach them.

Not that we haven’t preached “to the ends of the earth”—from the Washington Monument, the White House, football fields, as well as via satellite. Still, too many people find Eutychus a kindred spirit. They either snooze through the sermon or put their minds into neutral.

Why is preaching ineffective? Some people blame it on the lecture method of preaching. The congregation never gets to react immediately to the sermon. Others blame the dogmatic style of preachers. Or, they blame the language ministers use—theological jargon, terms, and references that, they claim, only interest and make sense to seminarians or other pastors. John Killinger in The Centrality of Preaching in the Total Task of the Ministry wrote, “People are not tired of preaching but of non-preaching, of badly garbled, irrelevant drivel that has in so many places passed for preaching because there was no real preaching to measure it against” (Word, 1969, p. 21).

We have imported the idioms of the world into our music, programming, finances, fellowship, and preaching. Preachers quote poets or novelists rather than Scripture. We play down the great scriptural truths about man and his sins. We don’t declare the dichotomy that exists between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God. Other people think that we should do away with preaching entirely. Sell the churches, they say, and go to homes for discussion groups. Yet, there is a church building boom and a proliferation of church growth seminars and programs.

God still uses biblical preaching to reach us and bring us to himself. As Lloyd George, British Prime Minister during the First World War, declared, “When the chariot of humanity gets stuck … nothing will lift it out except great preaching that goes straight to the mind and heart. There is nothing in this case that will save the world but what was once called, ‘the foolishness of preaching.’ ”

The Bible makes preaching a priority. The Old Testament prophets heralded God’s judgment and promises. The New Testament contains six Greek words that describe the biblical and more popular terms for preaching. John the Baptist in Matthew 3:1 heralds and proclaims Christ’s coming. In First Corinthians 15:1, the term means telling good news or sharing glad tidings. Other Greek words for preaching include bearing witness, discoursing, conversing, and teaching. The Great Commission admonishes us to preach the Good News.

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Why then, is preaching on the decline? We have failed to put preaching on firm philosophical and theological foundations. Preaching is the art, homiletics the science, the sermon the result. Good preaching can only be based on sound homiletical theory. We must determine the purposes, the definitions, and the qualifications of preaching before we select what to say and how.

Preach With Purpose

We must preach the mighty works of God, not opinions or ideals. Preaching is a sacred trust, a blessed opportunity, and a divine call. The goal is not to catch the spirit of the age, but to correct it with God’s truth. The preacher is a thermostat, not a thermometer. He proclaims as a herald the mighty deeds of redemption that have been consummated in history and the word that has been committed to our stewardship.

Charles Simeon (1759–1836) ranks as one of the greatest preachers of all time. He had a threefold object behind his communication of the Gospel. He sought with the help of the Holy Spirit to humble the sinner, to exalt the Saviour, and to promote holiness.

The preacher is a steward. He must feed the household. The preacher is a herald who proclaims the mighty acts of God. He is a witness for Jesus. And the Holy Spirit is the counsel for the defense. Charles Koller, one of the great teachers of homiletics in this country, said the preacher should so present Jesus Christ that people will come to know him, love him, serve him, and yield their lives to him.

The construction of the sermon should not follow Rousseau’s advice for writing a love letter. He said you should begin without knowing what you are going to say and end without knowing what you have said. In contrast to this, the preacher must design his sermon to make the Good News live in the language and culture of the people. He needs to know and understand the problems that face his congregation. He should give them the answers.

To preach effectively, a minister must get the attention of his congregation and keep it. He is not a showman, but a communicator. The ultimate end is response from the congregation. The church will succeed only when this purpose is achieved.

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Preach As An Ambassador

We cannot divorce the preacher from his preaching. In a very real way, the man is his message. Sermons that have become incarnated in a preacher can withstand any challenge. The minister must be a competent, resourceful person with a mature emotional life that creates effective rapport with others. The Bible contains no finer characterization of the exalted, spiritual nature of the minister’s vocation than that of being an ambassador of Jesus Christ. As an ambassador, he becomes an official envoy, a diplomat of the highest rank, and a resident representative of his sovereign Lord. But the Lord does not ask for volunteers; he appoints his ambassadors. God provides the appointed ambassador with the inerrant Word of God, with which the ambassador can bring people to Christ. Most people to whom we preach don’t know the Bible well. They need help, and the preacher provides it.

The Preacher should measure his ministry in terms of eternity rather than time. Like the prophets, he may sigh anxiously, but he will not despair, for he knows that in God’s good time the challenge will be worth it all. The stamp of success may never appear in time, but it will in eternity. Success does not come automatically with a seminary degree, ordination, or even a call to a church. It comes when the Holy Spirit enables a preacher to communicate the Good News and bring life to a dying humanity.

A minister is motivated by his desire to please Jesus Christ. He is also motivated by the fact that God holds him accountable for his life. He knows that one day he must appear before the judgment seat of Christ.

The message is reconciliation. The preacher becomes a liaison between God and the parishioners. He has a commission to bring the two parties together. The preacher’s ability to apply Scripture—to show its pertinence to the congregation—determines the impact it will have. Spurgeon said that the sermon begins with the application. Without that, a sermon is like a doctor who gives a sick man a lecture on health, but sends him out of the office without a prescription.

Boldness and sincerity must characterize the preacher in his presentation of the Gospel, as well as a gentleness. When James Stewart of Edinburgh preached at Morningdale, people packed the church. The people knew this prophet loved them. The effectiveness of preaching declines when a gulf develops between the preacher and his people. Holiness must characterize his life so that those who see him may have a good example. Phillips Brooks said, “And first among the elements of power which make success, I must put the supreme importance of character, of personal uprightness, and purity impressing themselves upon the men who witness them.” Quintilian said that the good speaker must be a good man. Saint Francis made the same point when he said, “No use to go anywhere to preach unless we preach while we go.”

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Preach To People

The effective sermon proves itself by what happens to the person who hears it. Some aspect of every sermon should touch every listener. No one should walk away from the church without some spiritual insight. The sermon provides the meeting place for the soul and God; preaching nurtures souls. The pastoral precedes the prophetic. The preacher earns his right to be a prophet by the faithful fulfillment of the pastoral office.

The sermon should emerge from the experience and thought of the preacher. He cannot change lives by eloquent hearsay. He cannot share what he does not possess or reveal what he has not seen. That which comes out of his heart will go into the heart of the listener.

The sermon must speak to the listener’s situation. Phillips Brooks in his two hundred published sermons directed about 50 per cent of them to the seekers and the same number toward the saints. Charles Spurgeon in his sixty-three volumes of sermons had about the same ratio. The preacher must make certain that he preaches to all of the people and not just to a select few.

The effective biblical preacher should analyze his audience, which normally has four segments of people in terms of attitudes toward him and his message. As well as believers, it includes apathetic people, people with doubts, and usually some people who are hostile to the Gospel. He must elicit and hold the attention of the apathetic. He will present doubters with convincing facts. The hostile he must win in the first words he speaks.

The pastoral precedes the prophetic. The preacher earns his right to be a prophet by the faithful fulfillment of the pastoral office.

The believers in the audience present one of his greatest challenges, for they are most likely to become dissatisfied with a vague, general, abstract presentation. The preacher’s message ought not to contain principles, generalizations, and conclusions without an explanation of how the preacher arrived at them. Exposition is just a lesson; exposition plus application is a sermon. The effective use of visual aids, audience participation, facts, details, and examples will enhance his effectiveness with believers. The effective preacher will keep the language simple and understandable.

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Love will persuade people to do what the preacher wishes them to do, much more than superior knowledge or first-rate delivery of a sermon. A young man went to Horatio Bonar one day and said, “Dr. Bonar, I love to preach, but nothing happens when I preach.” Dr. Bonar is reported to have turned to the young man and to have said, “But young man, do you love people?”

Preach With Power

A. J. Gordon was asked for his explanation of the decline in the effectiveness of preaching in his day. He replied: “This decline is due, we believe, more than anything else to an ignoring of the Holy Spirit as the supreme inspirer in preaching … the true preacher does not simply use the Spirit, he is used by the Spirit.” We can see the work of the Holy Spirit in four stages: the conviction of sin to enable the unbeliever to see his need; illumination to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour; regeneration to create new life; and finally sanctification to transform the new life into Christ-like purity.

The Holy Spirit in John 3:8 is compared to a wind that stirs the heart. In Acts 2 he is a fire that purifies. In Isaiah 61 he is oil that invigorates, and in Revelation 22 water that refreshes. Modern preaching needs the stirring, purifying, invigorating, and refreshing that comes through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. And modern preaching needs the flashing eye, the pulsating song, and the tremendous enthusiasm that characterized preaching in the spirit-filled church at Pentecost. He also needs to pray. The way of prayer is the way of power. The powerful preacher must learn to pray alone and with others. He must be known for his consistent and persistent prayer.

I remember standing in the darkness at the foot of Glazier Point in Yosemite National Park. I waited for the avalanche of burning coals to fall from the high cliff into the valley. A voice broke the stillness of the night and cried out in the darkness, “Let the fire fall.” Another voice came back through the darkness, “The fire falls.” I watched as a cascade of burning embers fell over the edge of the point like a great wall of fire. I will never forget the amazing sight of seeing the fire fall. I say today as I did that night, “O God, in the darkness of our night, Let the fire fall.” For that to happen, we need preachers on whom the fire of God has fallen. Preaching is God’s method of witnessing to the world. We have no alternative. Preaching must be revitalized if we are to do God’s task. It must be preaching with purpose—to reconcile a world to Jesus Christ. It must be preaching to people—where they are, in their need. Above all, it must be preaching by the power of the Holy Spirit of God.

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Lloyd Perry is professor of practical theology and director of the doctor of ministry program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.

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