The old lady entered the church carrying her ear trumpet in a little black box. As the morning sermon began she opened the case and painstakingly screwed the hearing device together. Putting it to her ear, she turned it expectantly toward the preacher—and listened. Gradually a frown clouded her face; hope drained away. Finally, with a sigh, she disassembled the thing, laid it in its case, and snapped the lid shut!
That woman from a generation now past symbolizes people all over our world today who have stopped listening to preaching. People who claim to believe in Christianity are staying home from church because they're getting no help from Christian preaching. Those who do attend church too often infer that they come in spite of the preaching, and not because of it. Preaching has fallen on hard times.
The fact that, in the vernacular, to preach means "to bore unnecessarily," and a sermon is "an annoying harangue," proves the pulpit's poor reputation. Helmut Thielicke contends, "Actually preaching itself has decayed and disintegrated to the point where it is close to the stage of dying." 1
Yet, if church history teaches us anything, it is that as preaching goes, so goes the church. H. M. S. Richards challenges: "Read your church history. Read not only what the lines say, read between the lines, and you will see that in every age the fortunes of the church of God on earth have risen or fallen with the fortunes of preaching. Wherever preaching came up, the welfare of the church came up; wherever preaching has gone down, the church has gone down." 2
Preaching is neglected
The church isn't taking preaching as seriously as Christ intended it to. Leaders aren't taking it as seriously as listeners expect them to.
Preachers neglect preaching. Why do people usually call their ministers preachers? Preaching is not the thing we do most. Why don't they call us visitors, trainers, or administrators? Because, no matter how we ministers may view preaching, people at large look on it as the most significant and the most visible thing we do.
This is true of Catholics as well as Protestants: "The quality of Sunday preaching is four times more important in the identification of Catholics with their church than are birth control, divorce, abortion, papal authority and the ordination of women, all put together. Yet, in the mid-1970's, 20 percent of the American Catholics thought the Sunday preaching they heard was excellent as opposed to almost 50 percent the decade before. By the end of the 1970's, for Catholics under 30, the proportion went down to 10 percent. The most important thing that priests do, they do very badly indeed." 3
I used to be chairman of the department of religion in an undergraduate college that trained preseminary ministerial students. One weekend a teacher from our department preached in a nearby city. Responding to that service, a physician who had been in the congregation wrote me this plaintive letter:
"I don't know what. . . [the speaker's] role at Union is, but after listening to a sermon effectively delivered and one giving evidence of having been the object of much thought, I will rejuvenate my despairing hope. This hope has been that somehow, in that setting from which our ministers arise, there would be someone who senses the deep spiritual hunger we experience. Someone who has a kind of sensitive awareness of the devotedness of people who come to church week after week seeking food, yet too often whose efforts are rewarded with scarcely crumbs."
Adventist preachers neglect preaching. Theoretically, Seventh-day Adventists stress preaching. When planning a new sanctuary, their architects are encouraged to place the pulpit in the center of the platform, to symbolize the centrality of preaching in worship. In practice, however, Adventists tend to neglect preaching.
Why? The size of the congregation doesn't depend much on the quality of the preaching. If the Methodist minister doesn't preach well, his people may begin drifting toward the Presbyterian or some other church. If the Adventist preacher doesn't do well, though, his congregation has little else to choose from on Saturday morning. Neither does his salary depend on his preaching it is based on his years of service and not on the size of his congregation. His job security seldom depends on his preaching. Hired by his conference rather than his congregation, the worst he faces is that some members may complain to the conference president. Administration applies little pressure toward good preaching. If conferences pressed other goals no harder than that of outstanding preaching, I imagine few would ever be reached! It's probably good that little external pressure toward better preaching is applied. The problem is that too few seem able to do their best without it.
Preaching is important
Let's look at three reasons why preaching is important:
1. Preaching is central to Christ. It was central to His own ministry: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord" (Luke 4:18, 19).
Christ commands His followers to preach: "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15). Ordination to the Christian ministry is an ordination to preach: "And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach" (chap. 3:14).
Christ, in fact, is apparently unwilling to accept any excuse for neglecting the preaching of the kingdom: "And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:59, 60).
That sounds pretty harsh. I think I never really understood what He meant until my own father died. Word came to me that he was almost certainly on his deathbed and that he wanted to see his children. I was very busy and nearly two thousand miles away. A trip would cost money I couldn't afford. What do you suppose I did? I went, of course. After being with him for a few days I returned to my work just in time to hear that he had died. I went again. Why? Because the death of my father took priority over everything else.
Those to whom Jesus spoke belonged to a society that placed an even higher evaluation on the duty of children to their parents than ours does. In other words, He picked the thing that would have the very highest priority and said that even that did not provide sufficient excuse for neglecting the preaching of the kingdom. Now, I don't know what excuse people are using today to neglect preaching, but it is not good enough to convince Christ. We just don't take preaching as seriously as Christ intended us to.
2. Good preaching helps people. John Ruskin, in speaking of the weekly worship hour, describes it as " 'that hour when men and women come in, breath less and weary with the week's labor, and a man "sent with a message," which is a matter of life and death, has but thirty minutes to get at the separate hearts, . . . to convince them of all their weaknesses, to shame them for all their sins, to warn them of all their dangers, to try by this way and that to stir the hard fastening of those doors. . . . Thirty minutes to raise the dead in!'" 4
No congregation ever lives through the 168 hours of a week without some serious hurt coming to someone. The minister never steps into the pulpit without facing someone who looks up at him longing for healing. What a responsibility rests on the shoulders of the preacher during that one golden hour of the week! What a challenge!
3. Good preaching even helps the preacher himself. It is exciting to know that the Holy Spirit has used you in the pulpit to help others. If this article is reaching you at a time when you are not feeling good about your ministry, improve your preaching and see how much more exciting the ministry becomes.
Preaching is difficult
Preaching is difficult because it takes time. A young minister soon learns that his work is never caught up. There is always more work than time. His whole ministry tests his good judgment in determining what should come first and what must wait. The ministry comprises three areas: preaching-teaching, pastoring, and administrating. All are necessary. To rebel, as we are all tempted to do at times, and say that one of the three ought to be eliminated is neither right nor possible. But we should take great care that the three are always kept in their right order—preaching-teaching first, pastoring second, and administrating last.
Why are the three always getting turned around backward in the budgeting of our time? Because it seems that the administrating has to be done. We "need to (1) appraise the priority of each properly, (2) plan carefully to take the greatest possible advantage of our time, and (3) preach the kind of sermons that lay a burden for service on those members in the congregation capable of sharing pastoral and administrative duties.
Actually, good preaching can save time otherwise spent in administration, i Hungry animals fight. It's more effective to feed our congregations than to spend our time trying to keep peace while they're still hurting and hungry.
Preaching is difficult because it takes work. We may hate to admit it, but perhaps the greatest reason for our neglect of creative, Christ-centered preaching is simply that it is hard work. But there is no shortcut. I. T. Jones wrote: "Back of all great music, writing, and speaking are hours of grinding toil. Wilfred Funk, editor and publisher, recently said he had gathered definitions of genius by those who are called geniuses. Not a single genius spoke of talent, or inspiration. All spoke of work—hard, brutal work, drudgery—the capacity for taking infinite pains." 5
Of course you're busy. Most preachers I know are about as busy as a one-eyed cat watching two rat holes. But you are not so busy you cannot find time for those things most important to you. When we say, "I don't have time," we are not so much stating a fact as making an excuse—the one excuse that will appease the conscience for our not doing the hard work that creativity requires.
Preaching is difficult because it requires a love for Christ—and people. Peter said to the lame man at the Temple gate, "Such as I have give I thee" (Acts 3:6). What could be harder than trying to give others something we don't have? Christian preaching preaches Christ. But how can we preach Christ if we don't have Christ—if He doesn't have us?
An old woman was listening to the reasons her neighbors gave for their minister's success in the pulpit. They spoke of his gifts, of his style, of his manners. "No," said the old lady, "I will tell you what it is. Your man is very thick with the Almighty." You may not have had all the training you wish you had. You may not have all the preaching gift you would like to have. But nothing on earth can keep you from having all of Christ you need.
Not only must the preacher love Christ, he must also love people—lethargic, stubborn, self-centered people. When he begins losing his love for people he begins losing the ability to help them through his preaching. Henry Sloane Coffin said, "Preaching is putting the hands of the people into the hand of God." What a privilege, preaching! What excitement to take hold of God with one hand and of a sinner with the other and help that man place his hand in the hand of God! But you cannot do it without having hold of both hands.
To preach well you must love much. If you love Christ you'll have something to say. If you love people you'll work hard to say it well.
Your preaching can Improve
Take heart, your preaching may not have to improve a whole lot to make a whole lot of difference.
The question isn't really whether or not you can grow, but whether or not you can accept help. Many can't. Perhaps they feel threatened—or are just too stuck in their old ways. Those are the only ones who can't grow.
As John 21 records, Peter fished all night and caught nothing. The next morning Jesus said, "Cast the net on the right side of the ship." If I had been Peter I might have said, "Master, you are a preacher, and I don't tell you how to preach. I'm a fisherman, and you needn't tell me how to fish." But Peter willingly accepted help—and instantly succeeded.
All Christ's biddings are enablings. If He has called you to preach He stands ready to help you preach successfully. Don't give up on yourself. And whatever you do, don't give up on your Lord. Make 1984 the year you place yourself so completely at His disposal that He can make of you the preacher He means for you to be.
MINISTRY magazine can help you grow
MINISTRY has designated 1984 as the year in which it especially wants to help preachers with their preaching. And to do so it has developed a new, innovative, exciting plan. This article begins a series of twelve articles on preaching to be published in the twelve issues of 1984. A study guide has been prepared containing exercises and assignments through which you can apply each month's article directly to your preaching during that month. The Andrews University Center of Continuing Education for Ministry will offer continuing education units (CEUs) for those requesting them. (As far as we know, this is a first for a professional journal!) Whether or not you want the CEUs, I encourage you to send for the study guide, read the articles in MINISTRY, and apply the reading to your preaching month by month as you follow the study guide assignments.
If I were you I think I might be saying at this juncture, "Well, I would like to grow in my preaching. I'll just read the articles on preaching as they come throughout the year." You can do this, of course—but it won't do much for your preaching. Here's why.
In preparing my doctoral dissertation on the teaching of preaching, I inter viewed the sixteen teachers of homiletics voted by their peers as being the most outstanding in the United States. It was exciting to have the privilege of in-depth interviews with such men as Grady Davis, Reuel Howe, Edmund Steimle, Merrill Abbey, Ronald Sleeth, Donald MacLeod, James Cleveland, and Donald Miller. These well-known homileticians strongly emphasized three points:
1. You learn preaching best by doing it. Theory isn't enough. Learning to preach a sermon is a lot like learning to hit a golf ball. No amount of reading, no amount of theory, helpful as they may be in their place, will ever make you good at it. Preaching is at least partially a skill, and you learn a skill only by doing. Your preaching will change very little if you only read the upcoming series of articles. You must put the ideas suggested into practice in some planned, organized manner. You need to apply the theory to your preaching through the exercises in the study guide.
2. You learn preaching best by doing it in real-life situations. Seminaries are continuously criticized for doing a mediocre job of teaching in the practicum areas. I find their failures both understandable and excusable. After attempting to teach preaching for sixteen years I became convinced it really can hardly be done in the academic setting. Homileticians usually attempt to teach the skill of preaching by having their students preach to other students or by setting up some other contrived situation. The student sees too little correlation between what happens in class and what will happen when he "really" preaches. He knows that the teacher might not like his sermon, but don't worry—his congregation will love it.
Continuing education, a purposeful, lifelong learning experience, is so important to the minister because only after life has taught him his lack of ability in such areas as preaching is he really ready to learn. Congregations have an awesome way of informing him of this deficiency. When heads start nodding in slumber rather than assent he knows he's in trouble. When he pours out the burden of his heart upon his people week after week and nothing happens he knows he has a problem.
Merrill Abbey commented: "I'm really beginning to feel, to be honest about it, that much of what we do with communications is with pastors who are already in the field. These guys are very highly motivated. They know the situation. They know what they're up against; students just do not." 6
This sudden dawning of awareness will likely take the preacher in one of three directions: he decides either that preaching doesn't work or that it doesn't work for him or that under God he must learn to do it better. If you are in the last group, this MINISTRY series and the accompanying study guides have been designed for you.
3. You learn preaching best by doing it in a real life situation—and following it up with evaluation. Practice does not make perfect. It only makes permanent. Hit a golf ball in such a way as to slice the thing often enough and you eventually develop the feeling that that's the right way to hit it. To hit a ball straight, you take a swing, evaluate what you did wrong, make an adjustment, and then hit it again.
We learn preaching in the same way. But how do we know whether we've hit the ball straight? People tend to say about the same thing at the door after we've preached no matter how well or poorly we have done. We want the Holy Spirit to inform us, and I believe He longs to, but too many times we mistake mere feeling for the Spirit's voice. If we make a foolish blunder in delivering a sermon we tend to think We've ruined it. We're listening too much to our feelings. We think if our wives liked our sermon, it must have been good; if they didn't, it wasn't. Our faith in our wives moves us toward becoming the kind of preacher that one person likes rather than the kind all of the people need.
How does the preacher accurately evaluate his preaching? How can he really tell when, under God, he has preached well? The study guide accompanying this series of articles answers those questions.
In Matthew 25 Jesus tells of the lord who gave five, two, and one talent, respectively, to three servants. If we were to modernize the story a bit and apply it to preaching we would learn two tremendous lessons:
First, when the preacher with a small gift refuses to improve what he does have, this displeases God. The five-dollar preacher preached a five-dollar sermon. The two-dollar preacher preached a two-dollar sermon. But the one-dollar preacher didn't feel he was given enough of a gift to make it worth his while to work at his preaching at all. He was so discouraged over having so little talent that he lost what talent he had.
Second, God is pleased with any preacher doing his best with what he has. The parable suggests that the two-dollar preacher who preaches a two-dollar sermon pleases God as much as the five-dollar preacher who preaches a five-dollar sermon. In fact, the five-dollar preacher faces an almost overwhelming temptation to think, Even if I get lazy and become satisfied with a four-dollar sermon, I'm still preaching twice as acceptably as the two-dollar preacher. Not so! God asks only whether you're willing to work hard enough to do your best with whatever preaching gift is yours.
May God pity the one-dollar preachers who are so discouraged over the smallness of their gifts that they have virtually given up on their preaching! May He have mercy on the five-dollar preachers who, because they have become satisfied with comparing themselves to two-dollar preachers, are preaching two-dollar sermons!
What about you? Whether you are a five-dollar, two-dollar, or one-dollar preacher is not the important question. Are you willing to work hard enough to do your best with what your Lord has given you? Please accept our invitation and make 1984 the best year of growth in your entire preaching ministry.
1 Helmut Thielicke, The Trouble With the
Church (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), p. 2.
2 H. M. S. Richards, Feed My Sheep (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958),
3 San Bemardino Sun, July 25, 1981.
4 Ilion T. Jones, Principles and Practice of
Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956), p.
5 Ibid, pp. 49, 50.
6 Merrill Abbey, personal interview, June 18,
1970, Edmund Steimle, in a personal interview
conducted oh May 16, 1970, said, "I see more arid
more of the practical areas, which were in the
seminary curriculum in the past, being turned over
to programs of continuing education when the man
becomes highly motivated."