The way to effective preaching follows the path to human need. It is not our knowledge of theology and homiletical skills that really matters. It is our understanding of the human heart, the deep yearnings, the real needs. This is what opens the door. People-orientation is the practical open sesame the magic bullet if there is such a thing.
What makes an effective preacher?
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It is true that the Godward orientation--the vertical--is first, primary, but the horizontal, the turning toward people, is the ultimate outcome. It makes the vertical a reality, functional in human experience. Effective preaching therefore grows out of dynamic inter action with God and with people, both within the household of faith and in the larger community. It was Jacob's night of wrestling with the Angel that brought him "power with God and men." In order to communicate with people--that is, to preach effectively--the preacher must identify with them, interact with them, get to know them. This doesn't mean that the preacher has to be a glad-hander or a hail-fellow-well- met. But he or she cannot be a plastic person. The good preachers all "connect." Some would like to call it chemistry. We must come to know people and come close enough to them to connect. As it is said: "Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes." To be fully human is where it's at!
Interacting with the people
As we get into the Word and interact with the people, the Word of the Lord will come, and with it the urge--the imperative--to deliver that Word, to "give them warning" from God. "But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay" (Jer. 20:9). Ezekiel's week-long exposure to the real world where people lived was an eye-opener for him. It brought wonder, awe, and amazement, and made the prophet a compelling communicator. "Whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear, ... yet shall [they] know that there hath been a prophet among them" (Eze. 2:5). The effective preachers are driven, con strained, as Paul says. They have genuine passion.
One cannot come by this in a class room or seminar setting. W. E. Sangster tells about the day John Wesley took one of his young preachers on a walk through the London fish market. When the wanna-be preacher recoiled at the colorful earthy language of the women fishmongers and was preparing to flee in holy horror, Wesley said, "Stay, Sammy, and learn to preach!" Even fishmongers have to be reached. Preachers cannot be too sanctimonious to hear people even when every expression is not sanitized. The women were not taking God's name in vain, but I can imagine them getting close to it.
So I must be thinking more about people these days--old, young, male, female, little ones; good, bad, and indifferent. Not as I want them to be, but as they are, with all their needs. As I prepare to speak to these people I must ask myself, "What kind of journey has it been for them this week?" When these people before me become a part of me and I of them, this great imperative urge to share comes over me. As I wrestle with the Word, the text, and try to get into it (as D. T. Niles used to say, "Join the conversation" with Christ and His apostles and prophets), I will want to report it to my "significant others."
I find this comment on target: "When feasting upon God's Word, because of the precious light you gather there from, present it to others that " they may feast with you. But let your communications be free and heartfelt. You can best meet the people where they are, rather than in seeking for lofty words which reach to the third heavens. The people are not there, but right here in this sorrowing, sinful, corrupt world, battling with the stern realities of life." 1
One of the rules (let me call it the imperative) ought to be to determine to preach nothing that has not met a need in our own lives, nothing that has not benefited and enriched our own souls. First we must taste it. The people should know, not necessarily because I keep telling them, but because it is deep reality; I have tested this on my own palate.
Communicating the joy of discovery
There are not too many people in this world who are excited about the Word of God. People still want to see and hear this rarity: a human being, not a ">
There is a lot of talk about the joy of discovery. I would like to take it a step further: what about the joy of sharing our discoveries and communicating these riches? Even better, to encourage people to find these riches for them selves so that they can say, "Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart: for I am called by thy name, O Lord God of hosts" (Jer. 15:16). "I rejoice at thy word, as one that findeth great spoil" (Ps. 119:162). Encourage people to secure these great riches for themselves.
Determining the eschatological imperative
Then there is the eschatological imperative, the reality of those things unseen and an awareness of the finiteness of life and of all things. People need to get their priorities in order to separate wheat from tares and trivia. There is urgency because life is short, time is passing, the plans and purposes of God hasten on apace. These riches that we share are eternal; they matter.
How, then, do we know what people need? What are their spiritual and personal deficiencies? What are the things that people must know about God, His Word, and themselves in order to grow in grace? I've always thought about some kind of survey.
Some of my young preacher friends are doing this these days. They find surveys a good way to determine doctrinal needs and identify needs and weaknesses in our theological frame work, both congregational and personal.
But there are some things we know without a survey: Edgar Jackson, the pastoral psychologist, estimates that "among any 100 people we might gather, 20 will be struggling with bereavement and grief, 33 with problems of marital adjustment, 50 with serious emotional turmoil, 20 with at least mild neuroses, and three to eight with loneliness based on homosexual impulses."2
Rising above performance
We need to raise this matter of preaching above the performance level. Jesus' charge to His disciples and to us is highly provocative: "Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them meat in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing" (Matt. 24:45, 46). We ministers are handling the essential nutrients that sustain all spiritual life.
If the needs of our people are met, if we connect, I can tell you it will strike fire. The most meaningful comment that could be made in response to your sermon is not the standard "Enjoyed your talk" or "Good sermon, Pastor," but "You were talking to me." Occasionally someone will say, "Who has been talking to you about me?" Then you know that the message has come home.
The role of technique
All of this does not obviate the need for technique for attention to the rules. But if we want to reach them for all the right reasons, getting into the business of sharpening communication skills will be a breeze. My own dad, who was in ministry for more than 50 years, used to say to me, "Son, don't scatter your shot." The African preachers have a saying: "The sermon is a sharp stick." Preaching should be done well, skill fully, without too much rhetorical embellishment, and it must definitely be beyond mere performance.
I still use OTTO!
Observe. Look at the passage of Scripture in every possible way.
Truth. List every truth you see there. This will take some concentration.
Theme. There is a thread in this passage. Find it, trace it, name it.
Outline. If we have done thorough work in the above, an outline should begin to form.
If not, try another of those passages that has blessed your heart. By and by it will come. However, don't throw away your jottings and scribblings. All of this is still on the back burner of your mind. Nothing is really lost.
The need for clarity
We are living in the age of double speak, technical jargon, and information overload. There are so many confusing voices. Nobody seems to understand what the other is saying. Preachers must not fall into this pattern. Clarity is imperative. We cannot afford the luxury of being obscure. We must ruthlessly discard every ounce of excess verbiage, every word that may obscure the point.
The old Scottish preachers liked to tell about the promising young Dr. Black's visit to the great Dr. Whyte of Edinburgh. Black asked, "I've been called to Queen street church; should I go?"
Whyte replied wryly, "Can ye clarify ye thought?"
"I think so," the young Dr. Black answered.
"Well," said the patriarch, "if ye can clarify ye thought, ye can go anywhere!"
The sermon—an integrated, growing organism
Think about the sermon as an organism, dynamic and growing, rather than a construction project. A growing plant must be tended. An old farmer once told me about growing strawberries. "You've got to cultivate them 13 months a year," he said. It takes time and persistent effort. The message must hang together and have cohesion and consistency, and there must be linkage.
If we have brought the people along with us point by point, they will respond. If we are where the people are, if we have sat where they sit, we will understand something about their longings and deeper needs. That is why preachers must not only get the people hooked up to them their message they must be hooked up to the people. They should not send them away without articulating their needs.
Jesus described the people as sheep without a shepherd. When we discover something that will benefit them, we should be eager to share it with them, to invite them to enjoy it with us and be benefited by it with us. This is part of being a shepherd to them. Preachers should say to themselves before every speaking opportunity, Let me rush and get to the pulpit so I can share with the people the thrilling things that God has shown me.
What are the imperatives?
What, then, are the imperatives that seize me as I seek to meet heaven's expectations and the people's needs?
There is an imperative to empathize, to share, but only that which has blessed me.
Then I am committed to dig deeply, to sharpen my message.
I must encourage the people to buy into the Word.
I must also make them colleagues in ministry, associates as business organizations are calling employees to be these days.
Then there is the imperative to be clear. If the message cannot be heard and understood, it is indeed sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.
1 Ellen G. White, Counsels to Writers and
Editors (Nashville, Term.: Southern Pub. Assn.,
1946), p. 87.
2 Merrill R. Abbey, Communication in Pulpit
and Parish (Philadelphia: Westminster Press,
1980), p. 174.