Sometimes when one thinks through a sermon he has heard from the lips of an Adventist preacher, he comes to the disconcerting conclusion that that sermon might well have been preached in another church. It may have been good, even challenging, but yet not truly Adventist. No amount of erudition, no knowledge of effective sermon construction, can make up for the absence of that distinctive emphasis in the truly Adventist sermon. It is not a question of method but of attitude. The question is a personal one for the preacher to settle, alone, in the quietness of his study. For if he himself is not through and through, heart and soul, an Adventist, how can his sermons be truly representative? It is hard to define this inner conviction or compulsion that colors the whole life. It is not even the sum total of the various phases of our message blending into a united whole; rather, it is that blend passing through the preacher's personality and coming to life in him, showing its influence in his life. From such an experience come conviction and power in the pulpit.
Yet a preacher can be the best Adventist in his church, and every minister should be, and yet not make his ministry and preaching distinctively Adventist. It requires more than sincerity or even ability to do that. It requires careful planning. To put the emphasis where it belongs, not just in one sermon but throughout the year's preaching, means much more than preaching one doctrine after another until the whole faith is, more or less, covered. It means interpreting for the congregation the meaning of the doctrines, applying them to practical details of life. It means setting before them issues that loom large in the religious world, but with the Adventist attitude clearly defined. It means that the whole tenor of the preaching be carefully and prayerfully planned.
I have preached my Sabbath morning sermon, let us say. The church has emptied and the customary compliments have died away. Now is the time to think. It is surprising how the weakness of a sermon often escapes one's notice in preparation. But now! Did I set all my thoughts in an Adventist framework? Could what I said this morning be just as well said in a church that is not Adventist? Were the grounds of my appeal clearly based on Adventist truth, so that the need for special effort stood out clearly? Or maybe it is toward the close of the year, or at the end of my ministry in this district. What have the people heard from week to week? Did they get a balanced diet over the whole period? Or were my interests put first? Did I speak to them what I considered the most important and neglect other equally vital truths?
One cannot be sure of giving the church to which he ministers a balanced program of truthful presentation over a period of time unless he keeps an accurate record of the sermons he preaches from week to week. As he examines this record periodically, he will find that some subject calls for attention. He will notice, perhaps, that he has not spoken of the practical implications of the atonement since he came into the district. So next week, with a prayer in his heart, he gets down to some hard study on the subject and applies his message simply, perhaps a sentence here or a paragraph there showing how the whole of the structure of the Adventist faith rests upon this key truth. Or perhaps the whole of the sermon is cast in an attempt to show that without belief in the sacrifice and priesthood of Christ, our doctrines have no meaning. In whatever way the topic is approached, he will ask himself, "Is it truly an Adventist sermon? Do the advanced principles of our truth in this sermon of mine point a demand for consecrated living?" If the answer is Yes, he may preach with great confidence.
This plea for distinctively Adventist preaching does not imply an overuse of quotations from the Spirit of prophecy. The most effective words we can use in preaching are our own. If I do not have a conviction that God can use my individual style, my particular mode of expression, then I must be without the divine call to the ministry. It is possible to preach a whole sermon based on principles outlined in the Spirit of prophecy without quoting once. For instance, you are going to preach on "How to Keep the Sabbath." You can steep your mind in the counsel given by Ellen G. White, and having passed it through your own self, present a forceful sermon, every principle of which comes from the Spirit of prophecy, yet made Much more effective to your hearers because it has become a part of yourself. If we quote, and quote we must, let us make the quotation part of ourselves and an intrinsic part of the sermon. However, we must often present Adventist principles to those not of our faith. In this case we quote the thought that has inspired us, clothed with all the authority that our preaching can give it. We can certainly and strongly place emphasis upon the divine counsel we have received without making our sermons half reading matter, and as a result half as effective. The bones are there, but they must not protrude.
Planning the Sabbath Sermons
Various unexpected needs will arise in the course of the year from time to time, but it is a good general rule to have a basic outline of the year's program, flexible enough even to be changed completely, but nevertheless something as a guide. The program for the coming quarter should be outlined in some detail: five Sabbath morning appointments, two of these booked for special programs, six Sabbath afternoon Bible studies, a series on the Lord's Prayer, or on "Great Prayers of the Bible," for the Wednesday evening prayer meeting. How can I best use those remaining Sabbath services? And the plan takes shape. Your plan may be different, but there must be a plan. If we would give the energy and time to planning our pastoral preaching that we give to planning campaigns for this or that, our ministry of the Word would be much more balanced and far more effective.
We have spoken thus far in general terms concerning the emphasis in preaching. There are specific truths which it is our vocation to represent. First and fundamental is the person and work of Jesus as Sacrifice, Priest, Judge, and King. To understand His ministry one must see it as a whole. One must gain a comprehensive understanding of His complete work. Then the various aspects of that work -will be clothed with richer significance. The whole is fundamental Adventist doctrine. While the part may in itself be the common property of many churches, yet when seen in the larger context, it is distinctively Adventist. The Adventist preacher should so present the meaning of the sacrifice of Jesus that, in the light of the whole message, it becomes more significant. We have seen and are yet to see the results of such appeals made to evangelistic audiences. It should be our constant task to make our appeals more convincing.
All the other distinctive truths can be and must be preached in the setting of the person and work of Jesus. Only so will they be as effective as they might. Only so will they have the power to subdue and conquer the human will. Let us not be afraid to read widely from non-Adventist authors, but let us be sure to make this exercise a means of contributing to our understanding of the distinctiveness of our own faith, seeing truths which they present from their point of view from the vantage ground of that faith. We may thus find new and unexpected thoughts to explore and appeals to use.
The Purpose of Our Preaching
The Adventist preacher is called to prepare men and women for the Lord's return. All the truths he preaches, every sermon he delivers, should be purposefully directed toward that end. Those truths he holds in common with other churches are to be presented in the light of the Advent message. The distinctive doctrine of the church which he, as an Adventist preacher, holds, should convince him that the divine call is imperative if he would be a true minister. His preaching will not be distinctive unless his call is certain, for with the call will come the conviction of the purpose of his work.
Naturally, in the light of this task of preparing men and women to meet the Lord, some things in the system of truth he presents will be much more important than others. The most important things he will speak about more often. Although the whole of the message must be covered, the emphasis is to be put on the more important parts. Thus repetition is unavoidable. But whenever a preacher repeats a truth to the same congregation he must make it his aim to present it in a new and appealing way, so that it comes with the impact of freshness. He should be constantly studying how to make appeals in new yet sober and effective ways.
The Adventist preacher is essentially a man of the Bible. This is his one authority. He is honest in exegesis; if in doubt, he defers using a useful interpretation. He explains the Bible to his hearers. He makes his appeals Bible centered. He goes beneath the surface, beyond the obvious, to discover the underlying significance of the truths he preaches. He uses the Bible in the pulpit. Without it there, and without using it there, he would feel lost.
If the message is different, the man is also different. He preaches purposefully and with conviction, not alone to inform, but to change lives and to build character. He makes constant efforts to develop a pleasing voice and an attractive personality, serious yet appealing. When he stands up to preach, he carries the spirit of worship with him, and the congregation looks up with expectancy. God looks down to bless him. His ministry is powerful.
God give us such men.