Preaching with Power
Sermons without Punch
Sifting through the old books in a second-hand shop, it’s likely that you’ll soon come across the Dale Carnegie classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. A lot is promised in the title, which is probably why so many people bought a copy once upon a time.
I’ve never read it myself, but perhaps I should. Not that I’m so worried about winning friends, but as a preacher, influencing people is definitely of paramount concern. How can I get people to listen to the words floating down from my pulpit? How can I persuade the pew-sitters to take something to heart and put it into action?
I know that I’m not alone in this concern. On a daily basis we’re all involved in some form of communication, trying to get a point across to someone else. We might be giving instructions in the classroom, offering an encouragement at home, explaining a concept at work, or just sharing our well-informed opinion. And in any of these situations, communication can fail, when you talk “until you’re blue in the face,” or when it feels like all your words are falling to the ground, ignored and useless. Such a failure to communicate might simply be an irritation, it might result in a loss of productivity, or it might even be fatal.
When a sermon fails to convey its message, this is a serious thing — much more serious than “winning” fair-weather friends — because a sermon’s message concerns weighty matters of life and eternity. After preaching, that blue-faced preacher needs to examine carefully what was said, and in what manner. How is it that this sermon did not touch its hearers? Why did all these carefully chosen words leave people uninfluenced?
Looking for the Problem
That a sermon was ineffective might not be obvious right away. As they file out of the auditorium, the members might even graciously give the preacher their compliments and thanks. Yet the feeling can linger that his words have simply been discarded. For weeks pass, and months, and years, but no meaningful response or lasting change is witnessed. The preacher might agonize: “I tell them to help the needy, but every Sunday it’s only loose change in the offering bags. I exhort them to share the gospel with their neighbours, but so rarely do strangers visit our pews. It just seems like my people aren’t listening!”
Faced with this failure, a preacher might first blame the listeners. There are bleak indictments of the Sunday audience: “They’re just too dull to grasp the profundity of my insights. They’re not spiritual enough to see or do the truth.” Such denunciations might ease the troubled mind for a time, but they won’t bring a true resolution.
It would be far better to turn eyes inward. Tough questions could be asked in the solitude of the study: “Am I not prepared to labour long and hard over each sermon, striving to make sure that its content is clear and its message is convicting? Or am I proud of my advanced learning, and unwilling to listen to my peoples’ daily struggles and address them in my preaching?”
Having self-examined, the preacher should also reflect on the task of preaching itself: meditating on God’s will for faithful sermons, thinking on what truly inspires people to action, contemplating what makes a message not only well-received, but also well-applied.
In Search of a Solution
For insight the frustrated pulpiteer would do well to turn to the various resources on the subject. While views on homiletics are as diverse as the people offering them, a wide sampling will likely help to inform the preacher’s own perspective on the task.
Sometime since those long past days of seminary, the preacher might have forgotten what real sermons are meant to do. This is the startling conclusion after inhaling one simple sentence like a long-awaited breath of fresh air: “Preaching is driving home the Word of the living God to the lives of [the] people.”[i] The pulpit is not the place to put on a show of one’s academic ability, nor to regale the audience with personal anecdotes, nor to trot out one’s “pet issues” and favourite controversies — it’s the place to state boldly biblical truths in a way the listeners can grasp and take home.
And how to preach in such a way that nurtures doers of the Word, not only hearers? The answer that is offered by Dr Bryan Chapell rings clear for every sermonizer: motivation is key. It is not to be by guilt, not by comparison with others, and not by fear. Such methods may work for a time, but they will inspire no enduring, tangible response in the listeners. Rather, “nothing more powerfully compels holy living than consistent adulation of the mercy of God in Christ.”[ii] Those who are grateful to God, those who want to give something back to their Saviour — these are the pew-sitters who’ll stand up for service.
Before ascending the pulpit every Sunday again, a preacher must recognize that the sermon’s prime mover needs to be the gospel of God’s forgiving grace in Christ. Then the accompanying calls to show mercy, or reach out to the lost, or to flee from impurity, will not fall on untouched hearts.
Implications for the Pulpit and Beyond
It’s liberating to discover the true power of preaching. This knowledge frees the preacher from endless worry about how to influence the hearers. This knowledge also imparts a new confidence and joy, for the preacher isn’t called to crush the audience with the weight of their responsibilities, nor berate them for all their failures. After all, preaching means that it is time for the gospel, the good news that is at once both our great comfort and our powerful motivation.
To be sure, the preacher still needs to deliver a clear, cogent, and contemporary sermon; but he does so knowing that it is grace which truly empowers, that it is grace which gives the homiletic task its needed stability and direction.
It’s also understood that there still won’t be an automatic transformation. Preaching what Christ has done before preaching what Christians must do will not lead to instant and earth-shattering changes in the congregation. But with many prayers sent up to God by the preacher, and with the conviction that this is the better and God-honouring way, such preaching will certainly have power.
Those who listen to the preaching every Sunday may not realize that their minister’s approach has changed. The flavour of a particular preaching-style is tasted over a long time. Its effect will be gradual, but it will be certain. The congregation will be uplifted by the message of grace, rather than deflated. The hearers will take encouragement from God’s mighty deeds in Christ, not find solace in their own puny efforts. And when the service is done, they’ll have a message that is somehow more do-able in the coming week.
Such preaching, being a vital conduit between the Lord’s mouth and the Christian’s ear, will also strengthen the personal relationship of each listener with the Triune God. For through this preaching, God will be seen as no hard task-master, but a forgiving and gentle God who has done great things for those who couldn’t do it themselves. “Such a God,” the believer will conclude, “is to be loved, worshiped, and served with thanksgiving every day!”
A New Power
A preacher without sermons is like a carpenter without a hammer. For both, these are the indispensable tools of the trade. But just like a hammer needs power behind it to be effective in driving nails, so a sermon needs a concentrated strength in order to convey its message.
To be an effective preacher, it is necessary that the strength of the gospel be harnessed firmly and employed constantly. It’s vital, because when a sermon — or a career of sermon-making — fails, this is of no small consequence. Rightly we have learned to look to the weekly sermon for God’s living grace and his wise guidance. If these essential things are not forthcoming, people might despair in their faith, turn away from this church, or turn away from God altogether.
But when the preacher clings to the gospel, there is in hand the one tool that is needed for building up the household of God. There’s no need for the preacher to consult second-hand volumes of popular psychology. There’s no need to harangue the hearers into an insincere or fearful compliance. As he declares the good news of God’s forgiving love in Jesus Christ, the preacher’s face will never gain a bluish hue.
For as one of the greatest Christian preachers once said, “The gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16).
The gospel is power. And it must be preached.
[i] John F. Bettler, “Application,” The Preacher and Preaching: Reviving the Art in the Twentieth Century, ed. Samuel T. Logan Jr. (Phillipsburg: P & R, 1986), 332.
[ii] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 2d. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 321; emphasis original.