Preaching with a one-track mind

Ultimately, Christianity is not just a philosophical or even a theological system. Being a Christian means something more than simply having a certain life style. To be a Christian, one must have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Pastors, who lead the church in thought and worship, need to mold their messages accordingly. But how can we preach Christ-centered sermons?

Morris L. Venden is pastor of the College View Seventh-day Adventist church, Lincoln, Nebraska.
A football player thinks of football all day long. In the main, an auto mechanic thinks only of automobiles. A doctor is constantly preoccupied with medicine. We don't call these people fanatics; we say it's their work to think of these things. And it's all right for a preacher to be one-sided too. He can have only one string on his violin, if it's the right one! In fact, it would be too bad to be in the ministry if your central focus were anything but the one the apostle Paul was known for: Jesus Christ and Him crucified. "And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:1, 2). Paul was a "fanatic" on Jesus Christ.

 

A fanatic, according to one definition that I like, is a person who has lost his purpose but who has doubled his efforts. Now, that doesn't describe the apostle Paul. His fanaticism was a different kind. The definition that describes Paul is this: A fanatic is a person who always ends up at the same place, no matter where he begins. And we preachers today can safely follow Paul in this kind of fanaticism.

Of course, in writing of this emphasis on Jesus, Paul was referring to his experience in Athens and how he had changed his sermonic method. The book The Acts of the Apostles describes this transition: "In preaching the gospel in Corinth, the apostle followed a course different from that which had marked his labors at Athens. While in the latter place, he had sought to adapt his style to the character of his audience; he had met logic with logic, science with science, philosophy with philosophy. As he thought of the time thus spent, and realized that his teaching in Athens had been productive of but little fruit, he decided to follow another plan of labor in Corinth in his efforts to arrest the attention of the careless and the indifferent. He determined to avoid elaborate arguments and discussions, and 'not to know any thing' among the Corinthians 'save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.' He would preach to them 'not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.' 1 Corinthians 2:2, 4."—Page 244.

Now, it's not true that Paul never talked about anything else but Jesus Christ and Him crucified, even in Corinth. After stating in 1 Corinthians his purpose to know only Christ, he proceeded to talk about meat offered to idols, fornication, incest, health, et cetera. As you go through the letters of Paul you find he speaks of many things. But wherever he begins, he always ends at the same place.

It would be possible for you today to say, "I'm going to preach only about Jesus and Him crucified," and then to specialize in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and forget about Ezekiel and Chronicles and the rest of the Scriptures. But you would be squandering the rest of the Bible. You might even decide to focus only on the closing chapters of the four Gospels and neglect the rest of even those books. But the kind of fanatic that I'd like to be, and the kind that Paul was, is the kind who always ends up with Jesus Christ no matter where he begins.

Thus Jesus becomes the central focus of whatever launching pad is used in all of Scripture. Would it be possible, even in evangelistic preaching, to prepare your sermons in such a way that people would go home, after listening to a presentation on Daniel 2, thinking more about the Rock, Jesus Christ, than about Nebuchadnezzar? Is it possible to present the symbols of Revelation so that people will go away thinking more about Jesus than about the beasts? Christ-centered preaching will not necessarily limit our sermons to studies on the life of Christ, but it will seek to uplift Jesus, the Man of the Bible, no matter what the topic, no matter what the subject, we are presenting.

In approaching the concept of uplifting Christ in our preaching, we could ask the typical questions of the newsmen. In the lead paragraph of a newspaper article, newsmen try to answer the questions of what, why, which, where, when, who, and how. When it comes to preaching, I suppose the person who preaches primarily about what would be the one who is tilted on the side of legalism—what to do, what not to do. The one who focuses on when might be the one whose primary interest is eschatology and world events. Some preachers have become known for that. A person could become preoccupied with which. This could be the student of world religions.

There are many intellectual types who delight in asking why. And it's possible to spend a lot of time trying to answer that question. Some of us have had a real burden to focus on the question of how. Many young people have been frustrated because the church has talked so much about what, but so little about how. And they have found it extremely difficult to discover how to live the Christian life.

But the question of who should be the primary theme and goal of every sermon. We may find ourselves preaching, and legitimately so, on the questions of what, and when, and which, and why, and even how. But if we neglect the Who, our ministry will be productive of but little fruit.

A man came into my office not long ago and requested that his name be removed from church membership. He was nice. It would have been easier for me if he had been mean! But he was nice and polite and interesting to talk to. He even offered to come to the next church business meeting and explain his reasons for wanting his membership dropped.

As we talked I tried to discover whether or not he had ever had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I wanted to find out whether he had ever experienced the Who. And I found that he had not. His beliefs in Christ and in the church had always been solely on an intellectual plane. He considered Christianity to be simply a thought system. And he was scrapping it in favor of an alternate philosophy.

What a tragedy for the gospel minister to present truth in such a way as to lead his hearers only to an intellectual belief, to accepting a thought system, and not to a discovery of the Person, the Who, the entire basis of Christianity. It is possible to be a Hindu or a Mohammedan or a Humanist and accept only an intellectual theory, or belief. But it is not possible to be a genuine Christian without personal acceptance of a Person, Jesus Christ Himself.

What is the gospel? Have you ever been involved in a discussion of that one? Is the gospel justification alone? Does it include sanctification? How about glorification? For a long time the subject of salvation has been divided into three parts: justification (being saved from our past sins), sanctification (being saved from our present sinning), and glorification (being saved from a world of sin). But Paul has an even better definition of the gospel. He says, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek" (Rom.1:16). The gospel, then, is Jesus Christ and all that He came to do. It includes at least the three divisions mentioned already: what He has done for us, what He does in us, and what He wants to do with us when He comes again. But the gospel is more even than this. It is primarily involved with Who—it is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The subject of Christ-centered preaching can never be studied simply in terms of content, however. In the first half of this article we have looked at Christ-centered preaching. But Christ-centered preaching will be of none effect without Christ-centered preachers. If we don't have Christ in the life He isn't going to be in our preaching regardless of the words we use. Paul determined to know nothing save Christ and Him crucified, because this was the focus of his own life.

We can sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that we are Christians. It's possible to be religious, to go through the routine of church activities, and yet not know a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. How can we know whether we are really Christians or whether we are simply being motivated by selfish or secular reasons to play a role?

Two tests: Of whom do we love to talk, and of whom do we love to think? Look at your thoughts and conversation in your free time when you aren't being motivated or stimulated by the church or the Sabbath school or the job. In your off moments when you relax, what are you thinking about and talking about? It's easy for a minister to think and talk of Jesus during the sermon. But what about after dinner on Sabbath when just the family is around? It's easy at a religious convocation to think and talk of Jesus during the meetings. But what is the topic of conversation when the ministers gather together between meetings or in the dining hall? It may be easy to think and talk of Jesus when you are with people who expect you to do so because you are the minister. But what do you think of when you are alone and can really be yourself?

The apostle Paul passed this acid test. "Yea, doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, . . . that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death" (Phil. 3:8-10).

If I try to preach Christ-centered sermons without knowing Him and knowing fellowship with Him, I will be like a dead man trying to lecture on life. It's impossible. The sum and substance of Christian faith and experience is contained in knowing Jesus.

Now I make no apologies for dwelling on the importance of knowing Jesus personally. In surveys taken of church members, results show that only one out of four is spending time with Jesus day by day. Only one out of four is spending that thoughtful hour in contemplation of the life of Christ. Only one out of four is taking time to study His Word and communicate with Him through prayer. In fact, one recent survey has shown that only one out of five is spending time in personal Bible study on a regular basis.

It would be comforting to think that ministers, of all people, would be among those who are involved in the Christ-centered life, in getting to know Jesus for themselves. But my brother took surveys for a number of years at the seminary where he taught. In one particular class of ministerial students and ministers returning to the classroom for extra study, he would ask each one to answer the question of how to experience a meaningful relationship with Jesus. The students, he said, presented master pieces on the necessity of personal prayer and study of God's Word. They included good clues on how to make the time of communion and fellowship with God the high point of the day, and how to become involved in sharing and witness as a result.

After they had written and written, he said, "Now please turn your papers over and tell me what you've been doing yourself lately in these things."

He didn't ask them to sign their names. But he went over the answers carefully and through the years kept a record of the results. Only one out of four was involved in the daily seeking to know Jesus. Only one out of four! Is it going too far to say that this is one of our biggest problems in the Christian ministry? How can dead people lecture on life? The Christian ministry has to be something other than IBM or General Motors. It isn't simply another business. It must spring from a relationship with Jesus Christ.

As a beginning minister I would take sermons from my father, my uncle, and from such great preachers of our denomination as Haynes and Richards and Bunch and Fagal and Vandeman. And people would say, "You know, I liked that sermon. Seems like I've heard it somewhere before, but I liked it."

I was chalking up my personal study of these sermons as my devotional life. Have you discovered yet that your study and research for sermons is not necessarily going to double for your devotional life? That was a tough one for me to learn. It took me three years in the ministry before I learned it.

In my first church a godly woman would come by the door at the close of the service and say with a sweet smile, "Pastor, I really appreciated your sermon today. It will be wonderful when you get to know Jesus."

A few weeks later she would come by again. "Thank you for that sermon, pastor. It will be wonderful when you get to know Jesus."

I began to develop really mixed feelings for this lady! But I knew she was right. She was always nice about it, and sweet and kind. But she knew where it was at, and I didn't. Best of all, she prayed for me! In his book By Faith Alone, Carlyle B. Haynes confesses to having been in the ministry for fifteen years before some thing similar happened to him. He discovered that, even though he had preached salvation to hundreds of peo ple, he himself was lost, and he had to start all over again in seeking to become personally acquainted with Jesus and accepting salvation for himself, day by day.

All of which reminds me of Aunt Anna. Aunt Anna made the best bread that anyone ever made. Whenever we boys would visit Aunt Anna, my brother and I could always expect her to be taking a loaf of bread out of the oven. And the first thing she'd fix for us when we arrived was a piece of homemade bread.

Think what she might have done. She might have just let us have a whiff. And, oh, even a whiff was overpowering! But to stop there would have been extremely frustrating. She could have eaten a piece of that bread in our presence, and that would have been even worse! Or, as she actually did, she could have given us a piece of bread, and that was good. She could have given us several pieces, and that was even better. Better yet, she could have given us several loaves to take along when we left.

But the best thing Aunt Anna could have done would have been to teach us how to make homemade bread like that ourselves. Once in a while we hear people talk about the preacher needing to feed the people. That's good. But we preachers need to do something even more important. We need to teach the people how to feed themselves. For too long people have been following other people, and that's precisely why we are in trouble today. It isn't enough to judge truth by who has the nicest set of teeth. Our only safety is in going to the Source of the bread of life for ourselves, and then in teaching the people to go there too.

When we know Jesus for ourselves, and He is the center of our lives and our days, we are then enabled to lift Him up before our congregations. We must lift Jesus up so that the people become hungry for the Bread of Life, and then we must teach them the recipe so they can know how to seek Him and lift Him up for themselves. In knowing Him, both pastor and people will find the only method for a Christ-centered life. And it is in knowing Him that we receive life eternal.

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Morris L. Venden is pastor of the College View Seventh-day Adventist church, Lincoln, Nebraska.

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