The Most Difficult Sermon To Preach

HOW many times have you preached to a one-man audience? Most preachers and lay workers would readily agree that the most difficult sermon to preach is one delivered to a one-man audience. It may also be said that decisions made where one man is the challenger and one man the recipient are often more genuine and lasting. . .

-Member of Tanzania Union Evangelistic Team, at the time this article was written

HOW many times have you preached to a one-man audience? Most preachers and lay workers would readily agree that the most difficult sermon to preach is one delivered to a one-man audience. It may also be said that decisions made where one man is the challenger and one man the recipient are often more genuine and lasting.

It is easy to say a word for Christ from the pulpit, but the task is quite different when you are alone with a member of your family, a parishioner, or a stranger in a bus, train, plane, or busy business office. Dr. H. Clay Trumbull, in his inspiring book, Individual Work for Individuals, quotes Bossuet, the great French preacher, as having said: "It requires more faith and courage to say two words face to face with one sinner, than from the pulpit to rebuke two or three thousand persons, ready to listen to everything, on condition of forgetting all."

Sermons are aimed at getting results. And the best results issue from the best methods, even as the best methods are used by the best preachers.

The Master Preacher

Nineteen centuries ago a young Preacher did a work in three years that has influenced the history of the world. His methods were simple and effective. He stands upon the highest pinnacle of achievement as the Master-preacher a Man worth imitating. He valued the individual soul and spoke as earnestly to the one-man audience as to the multitude of five thousand. When He saw a leper writhing at His feet in the hopelessness of his incurable disease, He was "moved with pity" (Mark 1:41), just as He had "compassion" on the great throngs that seemed to Him as "sheep not having a shepherd" (Mark 6:34). He had time for the one as He had time for the many. He spoke sublime truth to a great crowd on a mountain, producing what has become the moral code of the Christian church the Beatitudes and the laws of the kingdom. But He did not refrain from giving audience to a cowardly Nicodemus, and there issued the declaration of John 3:16, unfathomable in its depth.

Christ's identity was constantly a pivot of argument among the multitudes, and thus He often withheld it from the crowds. Yet on a number of occasions He did acknowledge His true identity to individuals most often to those very humble individuals like the Samaritan woman. She claimed: " 'I know that Messiah' (that is Christ) 'is coming. When he comes he will tell us everything.' Jesus said, 'I am he, I who am speaking to you now' " (John 4:25, 26, N.E.B.*).

To the man born blind, He asked, "Dost thou believe on the Son of God? He answered and said, Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him? And Jesus said unto him, Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee" (John 9:35-37).

Jesus Trained Workmen

Jesus had a mission. He knew it. And His purpose was to be about His Father's business. He also knew that His days were numbered (John 9:4), and that others would complete the work He had begun. Reliable men would be needed rightly trained workmen. So He called together a few rough men and some devoted women. After Jesus had been with these men for three years, their lives were changed. He had taken a personal, individual interest in each of them. And those few actually too few to be a commendable harvest of a great leader turned the world upside-down. Jesus had left them an example to fol low, a ministry full of personal interest for the flock. They were real shepherds those apostles! Look at Paul's record. He filled his letters with personal greetings to individual saints. He knew his flock. His letters to individuals reveal he had won their hearts individually.

Crowds or Persons?

How unlike the methods of Jesus are our methods.

If only twelve are won as a result of long months of preaching, we blush with shame and brand the campaign a failure. We love the crowd but flinch before an individual soul. Perhaps it is because we can fool the crowds with some general affectionate words, when a single person can see through our insincerity. Often we talk with more concern (as it appears to the onlooker) to a gathering of a hundred than to the single soul.

Some years ago while attending school the student Christian fellowship convened a meeting featuring a lecture by a prominent minister from a nearby town. I had previously heard the man speak and was impressed. So I said to myself, "If that man is coming I must convince Charles [my friend] to attend with me." Charles agreed, believing his time would be well spent.

When the day arrived, we were right in the front row. But after the introduction the man stood up with what seemed to me a disappointed look. We were all attentive, but his first words sent a cold chill through my nerves.

"Young people," he began, "I am sorry there are only a handful of you. Since a large number have gone to a farewell party at the girls' school nearby, I think it wise to postpone my talk until some later occasion when more can benefit. Meanwhile, let us have a good time with a Bible quiz."

If he was truly disappointed with our number, we were equally disappointed with his decision. Charles walked out a few minutes later.

The Better Way

This experience speaks to many of us. We are only inspired by numbers. Too often we feel we can reach the individual better in a large audience. However, the experience of many evangelists confirms the contrary. "The best way to get one's ear is to have it alone," someone has said. In an attempt to reach the individual we do well not to rely on a public address, hoping that the individual will understand that he, and not everybody else, is being spoken to.

A fellow minister told me of an experience he had with one of his faithful tithe-payers. The man had a weakness, and the good pastor wanted to help him. Fearing the personal approach, he prepared a relevant sermon. But after the message the man was still the same. Such is too often the case.

No Substitute for the Individual Appeal

A well-planned, balanced, prayerful, personal confrontation with individual sinners yields much good to both the preacher and the preached to.

Consider Nathan, who approached David with the heart-searching declaration, "Thou art the man." David could not mistake the "thou" for another, and he responded in true contrition. So will many of those individuals we seek to help.

Experience has demonstrated that a personal confrontation with a single sinner offers the best opportunity to help him. The person feels free to reveal his problems. He asks questions and seeks clarification on portions of the conversation. This affords a chance to make the rough places (in the sermon as it were) plain; an opportunity a public address does not afford.

Oftentimes the personal encounters with individuals present the best sermon themes. These reveal the need of the flock. It is a true saying that a word spoken inappropriately may administer a fatal blow to one's sermon. These danger signals and unsafe grounds can be learned as we visit with the individual members of the congregation.

Too Busy

The enemy has his eyes on our work and tries to keep us too busy for it. We have time for the evangelistic meetings and the weekend services, but no time for the personal work. We are eager to "Go ye into all the world," forgetting that "reaching one person at a time is the best way of reaching the world in time."

A conscientious clergy with a cooperative laity dedicated to an individual work for individual souls will, under God, usher in a Heaven-sent Holy Ghost revival. But how many are upon this work?

There is an appalling number of professed followers of Christ who have never uttered a word for Him to a second person. They talk freely of Vietnam, and the British entry to the Common Market; they are commentators on ecumenism, and they seem to know everything about the "Credibility Gap," but they are not talking about Jesus' love to the sinner.

It may offend, some argue. I'll wait till a more opportune time. Their problem is basically a lack of an experimental knowledge of Jesus. They have not had a living, personal experience with the Man of Nazareth.

Saved to Save

Dr. H. Clay Trumbull tells of a drifting boat found in mid-ocean. It had come from a sinking vessel. Sighted by a passing ship, a boat and crew were sent in pursuit. A man well-nigh exhausted was found in the boat. As he was lifted up toward the rescue vessel, he revived sufficiently to speak the feeble words, "There's another man in the boat." Saved himself, his first thought was to save another.

D. L. Moody once said that he would go to any length to press the urgency of a sinner's acceptance of Christ. If he could not reach the sinner's heart through the door he would try the window. If the window was latched he would find an entrance through the roof.

One night on his way home, Pastor Moody saw a man leaning against a lamp post. Stepping up to him and placing his hand on the man's shoulder, he said, "Are you a Christian?" The man flew into a rage, doubled up his fist as if to pitch Pas tor Moody into the gutter. Moody responded, "I am very sorry if I have of fended you, but I thought I was asking a proper question." "Mind your own business," roared the other. "That is my business," answered Mr. Moody.

We need to improve every opportunity of talking to another about the theme of themes the glad news of a crucified, risen, and soon-coming Saviour.

My Experience

Since taking this type of personal witnessing seriously, I have had many thrilling experiences. There is the case of the young girl with whom I traveled across the great Lakes' Plateau of East Africa on my way to Mombasa, a port in the Kenyan portion of the Indian Ocean.

Chance had placed my seat in an East African Airways plane next to this girl of nineteen years. We had flown some twenty minutes when I felt I must speak to this girl of the love of Jesus. As I spoke, I noticed that she put away the trash she was reading. She seemed to have had some former acquaintance with the Man of Nazareth. Although her face showed some inner struggle, she managed to keep a cool head. When our destination was announced and we fastened our belts, she offered a warm, "Thank you, sir." I handed her my card with the invitation, "Write me when you decide for Him."

A month later I received the following letter:


You will never know how timely your talk was to me that afternoon. I must confess I told you a lot of lies. Actually, I am a schoolgirl at the ............ Girls' School and I was traveling to meet my boy friend (the man is married, though, and you may have seen him at the Mombasa Airport he was in a dark suit and had glasses). Your talk reminded me of Jesus. Mother always reminded me when I left home for school. I have played the hypocrite in my church and at my home. Since that day I decided fully for Christ. I told the man. He could not understand. He was annoyed, took back his return air ticket, and sent me back by bus. I am glad Jesus can forgive me all that I have done.

A postscript read, "I thank God. I don't know where I would have ended with what I had started to do."

I appeal to you, waste no opportunity to talk about Jesus and His salvation. The rewards are exceeding great.

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-Member of Tanzania Union Evangelistic Team, at the time this article was written

June 1972

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