Preach with power
How can you unleash more impact, more punch, more potency in your preaching? I invite you to consider three questions: 1. What is persuasive preaching? 2. What is a sermon? 3. How can I make my preaching a persuasive force in my church?
Perhaps you already know the answers. But do not draw conclusions too quickly. The success of your next sermon could be at stake.
What is persuasive preaching?
Preaching, whether evangelistic or pastoral, by its essential nature is persuasive communication. Persuasive preaching is not propaganda; its inherent concern is with truth (see John 16:13; 8:32; 17:17). It is not a lecture burdened with factor overload, though it embraces and utilizes academic re search. It is not a personal reminiscence, through it embraces the speaker's history. It is not the dispensing of good advice, though it is aware of the great issues of our being. It is not entertainment, though it must be interesting and attractive. It is not simply information sharing, though a well-researched sermon always includes pertinent information.
Persuasive preaching aims to convince and move the hearer to act upon God's revelation in Scripture and history. It attempts to break down resistance to or indifference toward the kingdom of God and the lordship of Christ. It is biblical preaching that intends to win a decision from the listener. In the New Testament this preaching model is evident in the many uses of the verb peitho which means "to persuade" or "to convince." Ob serve how this verb reveals the intent of apostolic preaching and teaching:
Acts 13:43: Paul and Barnabas "urged them to continue in the grace of God." *
Acts 18:4: Paul reasoned, "trying to persuade Jews and Greeks."
Acts 19:8: Paul argued "persuasively about the kingdom of God."
Acts 26:28: Agrippa asked Paul, "Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me?"
Acts 28:23: Paul declared the gospel, trying "to convince them about Jesus."
Persuasive preaching includes subjective elements as well as objective facts. As wholistic communication, it acknowledges both rational and emotive processes within the listener; it combines both logical analysis and affective fervor.
Persuasive preaching does more than inform the listener---it arrests and convicts the hearer. Academicians (who make a great contribution to the ministry of preaching by their research and writing) rarely carry this burden as does the pastor who steps into the pulpit from week to week.
Consider the reflections of those who have devoted their lives to preaching: Charles W. Roller: "Preaching is that unique procedure by which God, through His chosen messenger, reaches down into the human family and brings persons face to face with Himself."1
H.M.S. Richards: "Preaching is not primarily arguing about something, commenting about something, philosophizing about something, or weaving speech into a beautiful tap estry of sound. Preaching is bearing witness, telling something that we know to people who want to know or who ought to know, or both."2
Carlyle B. Haynes: "Preaching is the divinely ordained power of personal testimony; it is Christ speaking through a called, chosen, cleansed, and commissioned messenger."3
Henry Ward Beecher: Preaching is "the art of moving men from a lower to a higher life."4
Phillips Brooks: "Preaching is the spoken communication of truth by man to men." "Preaching is the bringing of truth through personality."5
A. W. Blackwood: "Preaching is divine truth voiced by a chosen personality to meet human need."6
Richard Carl Hoefler: "Preaching is the proclamation of the gospel telling the good news of what God has done, is doing, and will do. It is not talking about God, but it is the means, in each generation, by which God speaks to the people. Preaching is not a person revealing God and truths about Him. It is God disclosing Him self and speaking of Himself through a chosen witness."7
David Buttrick: "Our preaching, commissioned by the Resurrection, is a continuation of the preaching of Jesus Christ." Preaching is "a spiritual discipline in which we offer our best words to Christ."8
In summary, persuasive preaching is the proclamation of what God has accomplished through Christ at Cal vary. It is God's message, not ours. It announces what God did in Jesus Christ, what God does through Jesus Christ, and what God will do in those who love Jesus Christ. It aims for a decision for discipleship!
Didache, kerygma, God's story
The New Testament presents two types of preaching: didactic (pastoral preaching) and kerygmatic (mission ary preaching). C. H. Dodd advanced a stiff division between the two by arguing that the former was directed to the saved, while the latter was directed to the unbelieving.9 How ever, Robert Worley has shown that such a distinction is both artificial and unnecessary. 10 Didactic and kerygmatic preaching actually complement each other. Kerygma is the fundamental proclamation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and as such, it forms the foundation upon which didache rests. Didache is the explanation in detail of applied truth that is the outgrowth of kerygma. As preachers, we need not emphasize one at the expense of the other. Donald Demaray shares a helpful insight about these two aspects of preaching ministry:
"Preaching that attends to both didactic-kerygmatic preaching brings healing and wholeness. Preach ing overweighed on the kerygmatic side, emphasizing conversion and minimizing nurture, retards mental and spiritual maturity in Christian discipleship. Preaching overweighed on the didactic side may focus on the theological or on the social implica tions of the gospel. In either extreme, the result is deformed Christians lacking Christ-centered faith and joy. The New Testament preacher keeps the two in balance."11
Consider the function of preaching in the New Testament. The primary motive of New Testament preaching was to win men and women to Christ and to inspire a closer relationship with Him. Paul connected the persuasive power of the preacher to the fear of God (2 Cor. 5:11). Obviously Paul saw the purpose of preaching not simply as presenting or illuminating doctrine, but as convict ing the hearer. He preached for a decision! John Broadus says that "it is not enough to convince men of truth, nor enough to make them see how it applies to themselves, and how it might be practicable for them to act it out but we must 'persuade men.'"12 Richard R. Caemmerer adds that persuasive preaching must make "a difference in people."13
Today some homileticians are pro posing a shift in homiletic paradigms. They suggest that we redefine preaching as the sharing of "my story." In this homiletic expression, the core of the message lies in the sharing of the preacher's personal history, experience, religious search, etc., in the belief that from this personal sharing, the hearer will discover the message of the gospel and come to faith. Though I respect the intent of this effort, such a direction is problematic. The problem is that this subjectivist approach robs preaching of its authority base. Preaching be comes a personal discourse that ultimately holds no more authority than the preacher's personal experience. Such is not New Testament preaching. New Testament preaching is telling God's story not my story! And in the Bible, God's story has not only meaning and form but historicity as well. When we preach, therefore, we rise to relive God's story as acted out in history. Isn't this what the apostle Paul did when he pro claimed that God "appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory" (1 Tim. 3:16)?
In this reliving of God's story, a significant point needs to be kept in mind. The seminary graduate must not import an academic style into the local church pulpit and expect to be effective. The primary work of the academician and that of the homiletician are driven by different purposes. The academician refines, traces, and distills truth from Scripture. After the message of the text is clarified (notwithstanding however laborious that process may have been), the work of the academician is completed. Read any scholarly theological journal and this fact is self-evident. However, the pastor-preacher-homiletician's work has just begun when the message of the text is dis covered. The pastor moves to the necessary second step of adorning, expanding, and contemporizing truth for the nurture of modern disciples.This critical second step is necessary be cause your listeners bear not an ancient but a modern consciousness. They live in today's world, not a world of 2,000 years ago! Preaching is not public exegesis. The message of the text must be trans ported through a valley centuries wide and applied for today. Approaching the pulpit with any other mind-set does a disservice to preaching. Failure to under stand this essential nature of preaching affects the function of the sermon. This leads me to the second question.
What is a sermon?
What is a sermon? Is it "an act of worship"?14 Is it "an often long-winded lecture on duty or behavior"? 15 Is it an annoying harangue? Is it something a pastor "delivers" at the "11:00 hour"? Is it client-centered counsel?
Many definitions have been offered. William Thompson gave a simple definition of sermon as "a word from the Lord for you."16 A more complex definition says that the sermon "is the Word of God [Jesus Christ], who has been revealed in the pages of the Written Word [the Bible], coming to the hearing of people by the proclamation of the Word [preaching]."17
I would put it this way: Just as the scalpel is the tool of the surgeon, just as the hammer is the tool of the carpenter, just as the brush is the tool of the artist, so is the sermon the tool of the Holy Spirit in the hands of the preacher. The sermon is not the object of preaching, but its servant. When we preach, we are attempting, not to produce volumes worthy of adulation, but to share a message that touches listeners' hearts and minds.
One of my favorite definitions of sermon is given by David Brown: the sermon is "a call to action on some point of the biblical message."18 Brown asserts further: "There are two considerations in this definition. The first is that a sermon finds its foundation in the biblical story---either a very select passage or verse, or some broad thematic type of study. The framework for any sermon is to bring its hearer some further understanding of God through Jesus Christ, of human nature, or of any other theme which is firmly rooted in the biblical message.
"Second, a sermon is a call to action. A sermon goes beyond the mere teaching ministry of the pulpit (though any sermon should include teaching). The goal of preaching is not the mere impartation of factual data (however valuable that material may be). A sermon is not solely concerned with broadening one's knowledge. It is aimed at bringing people to a point of decision. It is to move them to do something about the teaching material they have received. Preach ing must in some way compel people to take action on what they have heard." 19
There we have it. The sermon is a call to action. Clearly this is the way the sermon functioned in the New Testament. Consider Peter's sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2), Paul's sermon at Mars Hill (Acts 17), or Jesus' ser mon on the mount (Matt. 5-7). These inspired preachers in Scripture did not seek to entertain, but sought to call people to committed action be fore God.
Further, not only is the sermon a call to action, but it is also the tool of preaching. It is the servant of preaching. No Spirit-filled sermon is an end in itself. The sermon is an expression of God's truth through humans as authoritative witnesses. Prior to His ascension, Jesus left the word of proclamation to the church (Matt. 28:19, 20). This proclamation was to be the saving announcement of the good news of God's favor toward the world. It was to be carried out through the minis tries of word (kerygma), service (diakonia), and fellowship (koinonia). The sermon, there fore, is but one aspect of the ministry of the church. It is not the only ministry of the church, but it functions within the ministry of the total church. As does every other gift, the Spirit-filled sermon never center stages the preacher, but calls attention to the Lord of the preacher!
Increasing the persuasive impact
Finally, we come to the last question of this article: How can we make preaching a persuasive force in the local church? I suggest three ways.
First, persuasive power in preaching increases when you can communicate commitment. Persuasive power is directly tied to the depth of one's commitment to Christ. From this center all persuasive power emanates. The connection with Christ is the secret of power. Some lack power in their preaching because they lack this commitment! Paul Sangster wrote of his father, W. E. Sangster, that he struggled with the temptation to let other things steal God's place. The senior Sangster wrote in his journal, "I wanted degrees more than knowledge, and praise rather than equipment for service." 20
The key to persuasive power is commitment, and the path to commitment is surrender. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that "when Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die." 21 Anointing in the Spirit is the key to power.
Second, persuasive power in preaching increases when you can communicate character. Your persuasive power is closely tied to what the Greeks called ethos. Your effectiveness in the pulpit is directly tied to it. The idea of ethos comes from classical Greek rhetorical theory and refers to the perceived credibility the speaker enjoys with his listeners.22 Donald Sunukjian points out that "a preacher's ethos is the opinion that his listeners have of him as a person. If their opinion of him is high, he will have high ethos, or great credibility, with them. This means they will be inclined to believe whatever he says. On the other hand, if their opinion of him is low, his ethos, or credibility, will be poor, and they will 'turn him off even before he speaks."23
What builds a preacher's credibility? We have already mentioned commitment. To this we can add three more elements. 1. Faithfulness to one's word. Keeping one's word is an important building block of credibility. To promise only what is in one's power to deliver and then to deliver it is critical to enhancing personal credibility.
2. Family life as a demonstration of one's capacity to love others. So much of the New Testament is devoted to family life issues because the management of the family is the train ing ground for credible leadership in the work of the church. Preachers who treat their spouse in any way contrary to the gospel jeopardize their credibility.
3. Fairness in dealing with people. The preacher cannot afford to belong to any faction in the local church. To show preferential treatment to special interest groups in the local church while showing severity toward others is the quickest way to lose leadership credibility.
Third, persuasive power inpreaching increases when you can communicate competence. Sunukjian shows that speakers may communicate competency "by means of an attractive appearance, a fluent delivery, an organized message, and an evident awareness of human events." 24
Personal appearance is an indicator of professional seriousness. How ever, preachers often allow other things to project a negative image. How does your church bulletin look? How does your newsletter look? Your people won't be excited about evangelism if your advertisement is an embarrassment.
Delivery and organization also express your competency. Is your delivery confident? Passionate? Ear nest? Are you clear and organized in your presentation? Being easy to fol low is critical in influencing one's parishioners for God. Are your sermons clearly and carefully designed? Or are they amoebic, free-form, gelatinous? Good, sturdy structure is a tremendous aid to creating a listener-friendly message.
Relevance is also critical to the effectiveness of preachers. Preachers bridge two worlds every time they effectively present the Word of God. One's persuasiveness is greatly in creased when the listener firmly believes that the preacher is connected to today's world, but also is in touch with the world beyond. Relevance can be enhanced by utilizing the local vocabulary of the people you preach to from week to week. Frankly, there is nothing inherently sacred about thee or thou. Wise is the preacher who utilizes the words, images, and par lance of his/her listeners. What words or phrases are familiar to the people that you minister to? The technical jargon of theology may be appropriate to the classroom but should not be the standard fare of the pulpit.
By communicating commitment, character, and competency in your pulpit ministry, you will increase the persuasive impact of your preaching.
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* All Scripture passages in this article are from the New International Version.
1. Charles W. Roller, Expository Preaching Without Notes (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), p. 13.
2. H.M.S. Richards, Feed My Sheep (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), p. 19.
3. Carlyle B. Haynes, The Divine Art of Preaching (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1939), p. 19.
4. Henry Ward Beecher, Lectures on Preaching (New York: Fords, Howard, and Hulbert, 1900), p. 29.
5. Phillips Brooks, Lectures on Preaching (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1907), p. 5.
6. A.W. Blackwood, The Fine Art of Preaching (New York: Macmillan Co., 1937), p. 3.
7. Richard Carl Hoefler, Creative Preaching and Oral Writing (Lima, Ohio: CSS Pub. Co., Inc., 1984), p. 5.
8. David Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), pp. 449, 452.
9. C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development: With an Appendix on Eschatology and History (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949), p. 7. He writes that "the New Testament writers draw a clear distinction between preaching and teaching."
10. In a thorough refutation of Dodd's theory, Robert Worley's Preaching and Teaching in the Earliest Church (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968), pp. 30-56, is quite helpful.
11. Donald E. Demaray, Introduction to Homiletics, 2nded. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), p. 39.
12. John Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 4th ed., rev. by Vernon L. Stanfield (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 170.
13. Richard R. Caemmerer, Preaching for the Church (St. Louis: Concordia, 1959), p. 35.
14. Andrew Blackwood, The Preparation of Sermons (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1948), p. 255.
15. Webster's II New Riverside Dictionary (New York: Berkley Books, 1984), p. 623.
16. William D. Thompson, A Listener's Guide to Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1966), p. 14.
17. Ibid., p. 25.
18. David Brown, Dramatic Narrative in Preaching (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1981), p. 8.
19. Ibid. (Italics supplied.)
20. Quoted in Paul Sangster, Doctor Sangster (London: Epworth, 1962), p. 90.
21. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, rev. ed. (London: S.C.M., 1959), p. 79.
22. Donald R. Sunukjian, "The Credibility of the Preacher," Bibliotheca Sacra 139 (July-September 1982): 256.
24. Ibid., p. 257.