“The faith of Christ does not parallel the world, it intersects it. In coming to Christ, we do not bring our old life up onto a higher plane; we leave it at the Cross.”

So preached A. W. Tozer 30 years ago. Now better known for his devotional writings, Tozer, along with men like Charles E. Fuller, Walter Maier, Jack MacArthur, and Billy Graham epitomized the preachers of the 1950s, offering a no-nonsense gospel in their straightforward style.

Thirty years later, the tone of preaching has become less prophetic. Pastors seem less willing to risk being offensive, emphasizing instead the therapeutic value of their messages. “A generation ago, preaching aimed at rending the conscience,” said one long-time preacher. “Today it seems every sermon must address some personal or family need. The pulpit has become a counseling tool.”

Not that the preaching art was without its problems in the fifties. A 1956 editorial in CHRISTIANITY TODAY lamented, “Even some of the soundest evangelical congregations have little appetite for the meat of the gospel. Nor may the preacher presuppose any diligent study on the part of the pew in preparation for the message. He must make the message light and airy to sustain interest.” In 1986, no longer a lament, it has become an accepted fact: preachers cannot assume listeners are interested; they must earn a hearing. But today’s preacher has also learned that messages need not be “light and airy” to sustain interest. Substance can be communicated in ways congregations will accept.

Preachers today, largely inspired by the example of Charles Swindoll, find one key is to identify with the audience. While pulpits in the fifties tended to preach God’s Word to “you,” preachers in the eighties tend to explain God’s word to “us.” An example is one pastor’s recent sermon on adultery. Instead of directly condemning it, he identified with the problem: “It’s not hard to see why people commit adultery. A chill sets in at home. Fatigue or stress or minor irritations add to the growing distance between you and your spouse.…” This pastor made it clear that he understood the problem, then went on to discuss the self-consuming side of this potential addiction and God’s promise of freedom. Such sermons are not light and airy, but they sustain interest by realistically describing life’s situations.

A second recent emphasis in preaching has been the importance of using well-told stories and illustrations. “The Bible says” carries little weight with today’s secular audience. The person responsible for communicating God’s Word to modern man must make it come alive. While the power of Scripture is unchanged, today’s preacher has shifted the emphasis more toward a judicious use of contemporary examples to illustrate scriptural principles.

Finally, the effect of television has profoundly affected preaching style. Television has conditioned viewers to get information quickly in short blasts or “capsules.” Real-life dramas are developed and solved in 30 minutes. In newscasts, world issues are given 90 seconds, and experts are asked to sum up “in the 15 seconds we have left.” Most preachers meet this challenge by composing shorter sermons.

Television, an intimate medium, also zooms in close, and viewers have learned to watch for subtle expressions rather than grand gestures. Sweat-drenched preachers with arms flailing might have communicated well in cavernous convention halls or outdoor ampitheaters 50 years ago, but with the advent of TV, the new model of credibility and clarity is the network newsman who speaks with a matter-of-fact intensity. This calm authority is the trademark of speakers like James Dobson, and is, perhaps, one factor in their popularity.

Are these changes progress or regress? It is difficult to say. But the goal of preaching remains the same: to apply God’s timeless Word in timely ways.

By Marshall Shelley, managing editor of LEADERSHIP journal.

W. A. Criswell

When W. A. Criswell stands behind the pulpit in his First Baptist Church of Dallas, the congregation knows they will hear sermon saturated with unflinching biblical literalism—long, yet unforgettably compelling. From his conversion as a ten-year-old in 1919, Criswell knew he was going to be a preacher. And an earned doctorate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary did not temper his bombastic style, leading some to label him the “Holy Roller preacher with a Ph.D.” In 1944 he accepted the call to First Baptist, the world’s largest Baptist church; and in 1968 the Southern Baptist Convention elected him as their president.

His most memorable sermon was a five-hour New Year’s Eve treatise covering every chapter in the Bible without using a single note.

John R. W. Stott

Even prior to 1946, when as a 29-year-old he became rector of All Souls Church in London, John Stott had developed a reputation of excellence in expository preaching. He became something of a phenomenon in Anglican circles by introducing a “scholarly evangelism”—the conviction that a person could be a committed Christian and an intellectual. Though he has been preaching to congregations around the world for more than 40 years, he reads the entire Bible each year in order to present the gospel more effectively.

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Stott is now rector emeritus of All Souls and director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, a forum he founded to stimulate students to think biblically about the world in which they live.

Oswald C. J. Hoffmann

Few Lutheran (Missouri Synod) congregations were willing to take a chance on a fresh-out-of-seminary candidate, so Oswald C. J. Hoffmann opted for a teaching assignment at Bethany College in Minneapolis. There the young professor taught linguistics, directed the chorus, and even coached the basketball team.

In 1948 Hoffmann became the director of public relations for his denomination, and also began serving as assistant pastor at Saint Matthew’s Lutheran Church in New York City. Then in 1955 he accepted an invitation to become the speaker of “The Lutheran Hour.” From that pulpit his preaching has become familiar to approximately 40 million people who tune in to the weekly radio broadcasts. Besides his preaching ministry, Hoffmann serves as president of the United Bible Societies.

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