His eyes flash with lightning and blaze with the intensity of reflected glory. His words come first at a breathtaking pace then in an impressive deliberate cadence. His vocal tone is musical and stirring. His manner exudes confidence. His gestures are dramatic. His convictions seem too authoritative to be merely human. This being seems bathed in the mysterious aura of the Spirit.
Is the above description an accurate picture of an evangelist? In some cases, yes. Picture John the Baptist in his wilderness retreat turned auditorium. Hear his impassioned words. See the faces in the throng that would have welcomed him as their king. 1 Then place yourself in the charged atmosphere where Peter's preaching caused 3,000 to decide to be baptized. After that, listen to the voice of the aged disciple John as he speaks to the persecuted church of his beloved Saviour. Feel the power of his testimony as he urges the beleaguered believers to hold fast.2
Preaching indeed has power if con trolled by the Holy Spirit. Arguably, it is the sheer force of the preached Word that has invested these images with such potency and longevity. Unfortunately, the tendency to compare one's own abilities with these romanticized recollections has a very debilitating influence. One can never measure up!
When you think of evangelistic preaching, someone with a flamboyant personality probably springs to mind. God has endowed certain ones with gifts that seem supernatural. It almost appears that they were born with silver tongues, ordained to be public speakers. But some successful evangelists defy this stereotype. They have no obviously superlative oratorical skills, no charismatic endowments. Yet these "mere mortals" communicate the gospel convincingly enough to lead people to Christ. Conversely, some gifted individuals have mastered many facets of ministry with out ever doing well at soul winning. The secret of evangelistic success apparently does not lie in the possession of extraordinary talents.
Other images about preaching, equally powerful as the above but less flattering, are etched in the memories of many ministers and laypeople. Recently televangelists have provided the stuff of which these legendary images are made. Their painful public confessions make it somewhat disadvantageous to be associated with evangelism. In some circles, a politician would better be branded as a liberal than for a minister to wear the title "evangelist."
Some negative images arise from bygone days when nattily dressed expositors of fire and brimstone erected tents and urged sinners to repent, while garnering their freewill offerings. The fame of these evangelists showcased their frailties, which were captured in the headlines and portrayed on the silver screen. The result? An ambivalence to ward evangelism, that has been nearly as damaging as the tendency to deify evangelists.
The biblical image
We must separate the truth from the lore about evangelistic preaching. Stripped of myths, evangelistic preaching remains a relevant and potent soul-winning tool. Evangelism must not be conceded to those who appear specially endowed, nor should it be spurned be cause of any negative images. Accompanied with a call for commitment, most well-planned Christ-centered sermons can bring people to decision. The elements that spark success have little to do with charisma, oratorical expertise, or complicated theory. The Holy Spirit holds the key to the human heart, prompting a decision. The Ethiopian treasurer's response to the relatively brief words of Phillip (see Acts 8:26-39) demonstrates that an invisible and supernatural Agency energizes the soul-winning process.
Jesus is our model for evangelistic preaching and teaching. His miracles of healing the sick and raising the dead are matched by miracles of communicating the truth. Church history is replete with examples of astonishing responses to inspired evangelistic preaching. Alan Walker prefaces his book Evangelistic Preaching with a succinct and commanding rehearsal of the efficacy of this specific species of communication.3 Few ministers would dare question the effectiveness or relevance of evangelistic preaching. Many, however, see it as a specialty that should be left to the professionals, whom they invite to the church from time to time. Requests are placed on a long list to await patiently the evangelists' arrival.
Undeniably, some are indeed more gifted than others in the field of public evangelism. The skills required to organize and direct a major evangelistic crusade are fairly unique. But how are we to determine who possesses these talents if we regard only a select few as qualified to share the gospel through preaching?
The fear of failure
A real desire to share the gospel cannot be divorced from the call to the gospel ministry. Recognizing this will keep our preaching evangelistic. Austin Phelps defines a sermon as "an oral address to the popular mind upon religious truth contained in the Scriptures, and elaborately treated with a view to persuasion." 4 Few ministers would challenge that statement, yet general perceptions of evangelistic preaching carry enough extraneous baggage to become a potential deterrence.
Evangelistic preaching is unique only because it calls for an immediate commitment that can be qualified. Walker suggests that other types of preaching can inform, build faith, motivate, or inspire without seeking or gaining a commitment.5 But evangelistic preaching seeks a response. The absence of the call for response in other types of preaching represents perhaps a level of comfort for the public speaker. Nobody can accurately gauge a sermon's impact unless it has included a gospel invitation. The response or lack thereof to a call for commitment could be either validating or embarrassing.
No rational human being enjoys the risk of public embarrassment. But the evangelist's call is on God's behalf. Those who decline to respond are not usually rejecting the person or the personality of the communicator. In fact, the individual who communicates for God must learn to deflect apparent failure—and also resist accepting credit for unmistakable success. One should not be crushed by what seems to be personal rejection, nor exalted by what appears to be personal success. Either error can be fatal.
Walker also suggests that the miracle of Acts 2:6, when "each one heard them [the apostles] speaking in his own language,"* could have been a miracle of hearing instead of one that involved communicating in other tongues.6 If the Holy Spirit did interpret "in midair" the messages that were responsible for so dramatic an influx of new believers, the same Spirit must be responsible for the content and the dynamics of the evangelistic communication. The burden of success in terms of delivery or response should never be construed as resting solely on the communicator.
A God who spoke through Balaam's beast, and whose Only Begotten might have received praise from rocks at the triumphal entry to Jerusalem, cannot be doubted in His ability to communicate. Nor should His servants feel that they are without resources when they speak for Him.
The emotion dilemma
Another element that restrains some from evangelistic preaching is the fear of emotion. Some ministers and members are uncomfortable when feelings are tapped in a call for commitment, regarding it as emotionalism. True, evangelistic preaching can wittingly or unwittingly misuse emotion. Ellen White, while declaring that the gospel must be delivered with intensity and solemnity, warns evangelists about the effects of emotional appeals on unbalanced or in experienced minds.7
Nevertheless, emotion remains important to evangelism. In view of the immense value of the gifts that the gospel offers, Walker concludes that "genuine emotion is inevitable in evangelistic preaching." In his judgment, "people cannot be moved without having their emotions touched." 8 An overemphasis on the intellectual versus the emotional effects of preaching, says Phelps, can result in "the most lifeless and dead levels as respects original thinking." 9
The matter probably finds its best solution in an ethical balance that considers the whole being. Ronald Sleeth identifies two extreme positions. One is strictly emotional to the exclusion of the intellectual, and the other solely intellectual. Sleeth recommends a combination. He asserts that emotions are at the center of volition and that they must be reached to stimulate response. His analysis includes the informing of the intellect and an ethical appeal to the emotions, carefully noting the difference between emotion and emotionalism, sentiment and sentimentality. 10 While the communicator of the gospel definitely seeks to persuade, the listener should make an informed decision. Contrived emotionalism usurps the listener's control of that decision, resulting in resentment that undermines genuine commitment.
The power of a message energized by the Holy Spirit is so formidable that unethical methods are unnecessary. Success comes neither by human might nor by human power.
How about you?
We have sifted through some of the potential pitfalls of evangelistic preaching, and now the time has come to call you who are reading this to a commitment. Please consider the following suggestions as an appeal.
1. Communicate the gospel for your own survival. Phelps suggests that "the inmost destructive disease of the minis try is satisfaction with other successes than those of saving souls and building up a sanctified church." 11 Ironically, few aspects of the ministry can be as enjoyable as preaching the gospel. The excitement attending evangelistic preaching has no parallel. Nobody can rob you of the joy, the matchless exhilaration, that comes when the Holy Spirit gives the exact words that turn on the lights in the eyes of a soul. One who communicates the gospel is in a position similar to Christ's when He multiplied the loaves and the fishes to feed the 5,000. The speaker's relatively insignificant talents are multiplied by a supernatural Power to meet the needs of the audience. There is a feeling of partnership with Divinity, of being con trolled by the Spirit, that cannot be com pared with anything else in the universe. The joy of being God's instrument in explaining the beauty of salvation, whether in a crowded auditorium or in an office with a single human being, makes the mundane elements of our job worth putting up with.
2. Communicate the gospel because it excites you. We religious professionals can become so enmeshed in inconsequential doctrinal disputes, ecclesiastical struggles, and the endless quest to attain goals that we lose our enthusiasm for the very things that once formed the source of our excitement. We must rediscover our calling and rekindle our own first love; then we can share our amazing discoveries with others. Glen Asquith suggests that we must wrestle with ourselves until we embrace basic beliefs to cherish forever before we can preach with strong conviction. 12 So let us get excited again about the story of salvation! Super salespersons who travel from market to market, hawking automobiles and earning megabucks, ought to tell us something. Enthusiasm sells! How much enthusiasm have you projected about your product lately? The same amount that you feel about your product. To Fred Craddock, the first and foremost conviction undergirding those who preach is the knowledge that what they say will make a difference. 13 And it does! Pro claiming the gospel, faithfully communicating the Word of God, will always accomplish what He sends it to do and prosper wherever He sends it (see Isa. 55:11).
3. Communicate the gospel in view of our emergency situation. Our bureaucratic burdens can become so great that we sometimes employ methods that better befit an enormous corporation than a church urgently needing divine direction. While every organization, the church included, must operate in a businesslike manner, everyday corporate concepts must never govern our approach to preaching God's Holy Word. Yes, contemporary ministers must skillfully negotiate compromises between opposing factions while conducting the business of the church. But the real problems that threaten the future of humanity on this planet and those that menace our peace day by day demand another approach in the pulpit. The times dictate that we declare a state of emergency. Consider the urgency ever present in the messages of ancient prophets and ask yourself: Is our world so loving and moral that we need no longer warn our hearers? 14 Our situation is no less urgent than in the aftermath of a tornado or a hurricane when human needs must be met.
Clear instructions and definite directions are needed and welcomed in an emergency. Even the most refined, tactful leader must speak decisively. Evangelistic preaching makes the hearers aware of their spiritual emergency so they can react appropriately.
4. Expand your concepts about communicating the gospel. Parameters for our methods of evangelistic preaching ought not to be frozen in the past. Christ "sought access to the people by the pathway of their most familiar associations." 15 Consider seminars, teaching ministries, or expanded use of the electronic media. Explore other creative modes, evaluate the various forums that are successful today. Quite possibly you will find an alternative method that will allow you to feel comfortable communicating the gospel. Goliath is there to be conquered, but Saul's is not the only armor. Prayerfully employ the methods that best suit your own style and temperament, then plan to implement them.
Evangelism is to occupy more, not less, of our time. 16 The weekly worship service can become an hour of power when evangelistic preaching is the centerpiece. The worship service is not a time for entertainment. We have the most important message in the universe, and we must present it with the clarity and fervency that indicates its worth.
The Holy Spirit, on His part, will demonstrate His ability to reach and draw souls. Membership growth will be accompanied by a new awareness and appreciation of God's saving grace. Members will want to get involved. The number of visitors will increase. The zeal that accompanies the evangelistic crusade will continually enrich the worship experience.
5. Pray for skill in communicating the gospel. Earnestly pray, not so much to be a great preacher, but for the ability to share the gospel in a manner that draws people to Christ. What request could be more consonant with the will of God? And "if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us" (1 John 5:14).
1 See Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1940), pp. 178, 179.
2 See ————, The Acts of the Apostles
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911),
pp. 568, 569.
3 Alan Walker, Evangelistic Preaching (Grand
Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1988), pp. 7, 8.
4 Austin Phelps, The Theory of Preaching
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947), p. 11.
5 Walker, pp. 72, 73.
6 Ibid., pp. 12, 13.
7 See Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washing
ton, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946),
8 Walker, p. 73.
9 Phelps, p. 104.
10 See Ronald E. Sleeth, Persuasive Preaching
(New York: Harper & Row, 1956), pp. 57-61.
12 Glenn H. Asquith, Renewed Power for
Preaching (Valley Forge, Pa.: JudsonPress, 1983),
13 Fred B. Craddock, Preaching (Nashville:
Abingdon Press, 1985), p. 216.
14 Asquith, pp. 79, 80.
15 White, Evangelism, p. 55.
16 Ibid., p. 17.