Preaching with prophetic passion

The necessity and value of passion in preaching

Gardner C. Taylor is pastor emeritus of the Concord Baptist Church of Christ, Brooklyn, New York.



Derek Morris, D.Min., is a professor in the school of religion, Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee.

Derek J. Morris: Dr. Taylor, in your Lyman Beecher lectures,1 you emphasize that "the preacher ought not dare to utter the things of Christ too hesitantly or casually or tentatively."2 Why is it so important to preach with an earnest, honest passion?

Gardner C. Taylor: I believe there are enough doubts in the congregation. And preachers have their own. We ought to hesitate to compound people's uncertainty. We are called to preach faith, not doubts.

DJM: In your lecture on "Preaching the Whole Counsel of God," you assert that "if the watchman cannot see, or lacks clear vision, then the responsibility to preach should not be accepted."3 These are strong words. Are you saying that if you can't preach with passion, you shouldn't preach at all?

GCT: Yes! If we do not have insight into the human situation, with the healing of the gospel playing upon that situation, then we have no business preaching. Clear vision is crucial to the proclamation of the gospel.

DJM: Some people would say it's rather audacious for us to preach with a prophetic passion, to call individuals, communities, or even nations to repentance, when we're just as sinful and faulty as the people we're addressing. How would you respond?

GCT: Not only just as sinful; sometimes more so! I have been shamed times without number by the faith of people in my congregation, particularly in sickness, who seem to have a radiance, a confidence, and a certitude that I wasn't sure I could have in that setting.

DJM: So how should preachers deal with their uncertainties?

GCT: I think we ought to be apologetic about those things of which we are uncertain. We ought to confess our own humanity and our own in ability to believe completely. I think preachers are overly presumptuous, when they claim to be certain about everything. I remember going to a dear friend's home, a minister whose wife had just died. A young preacher came in just loosely spouting assurances when hesitancy would have been bet ter—maybe even silence. But to come in presumptuously talking with utter assurance when someone is passing through very deep waters is, I think, an insult.

DJM: I hear you saying that while we may preach with prophetic boldness, we need to recognize that we don't have all the answers. We must maintain a spirit of humility. In fact, you suggest that "touching and re deeming proclamation" cannot be uttered without a spirit of humility.4

GCT: And we all have much to be humble about. Looking at ourselves, at our own doubts, fears, our uncertain ties, will give us a certain humility. When preaching the gospel, there is a temptation to pride. Of course a family will help you greatly to keep some humility. When my daughter was younger, we took her to England and Scotland. One day I was scheduled to preach in Peterborough in the morning. My daughter wanted to play that afternoon. But I said to her, "Oh Martha, I don't feel like playing." She responded, "You don't ever want to play anymore." I felt accused and said, "Oh no, it isn't that. But I have to preach in the morning." "And I have to listen to it!" she replied.

DJM: That can keep you humble!

GCT: Oh yes! I must say another thing. When one sees the magnitude of the gospel and recognizes how partial and fragmentary our proclamation of the gospel is, that in itself should induce humility.

DJM: One of the steps that you mentioned as part of sermon preparation, which seems to demand a spirit of humility, is sitting silent before God. I can understand prayer and study in sermon preparation, but what does it mean to sit silent before God?

GCT: I got that from reading Alexander McClaren, whose expository work I greatly admire. I think McClaren was the greatest expositor we've seen in the Christian community since the apostolic days. I really believe that. But he spoke of sitting silent be fore God. I conceive that to be not particularly reading, not formally praying, but opening ourselves to whatever God would say to us at the time. This is not easy, because the clamors around us are loud and the clamors within us are no less so.

DJM: Another step in sermon preparation that seems very important to you, in addition to sitting silent be fore God, is the use of imagination. You mentioned that you view your sermon more as a journey than just a list of principles. How do you use your imagination as you think about conveying the Word of God in a passionate way?

GCT: A preacher I know cautioned me that one ought not to just plunge into a text, but one ought to walk up and down the street on which a text lives, see what the neighbors are like, and what the sky is like. What is the atmosphere around the text? One needs to become, in a way of speaking, a part of what one is preaching about. And one of our great gifts is the gift of imagination; that we are able to place ourselves in situations by imagination. I think we have to do that. For instance, that night when Saul consulted the witch, what was the turmoil in this man's heart as he prepared for battle? We ought not to have too great a difficulty putting ourselves in that place.

DJM: And that somehow moves the sermon from being flat and color less and makes it something more alive.

GCT: And personal. And here again we are talking about passion. I think there is a certain manufactured passion that is cheap. True passion comes naturally when one enters into what is occurring, becomes a part of it. When you preach the parable of the prodigal son, think of leaving home. Think of how your parents must feel when you walk out suddenly on them. Being a parent, how do you feel? Being a child, walking out, how would you feel? Talk about that.

DJM: These are practical insights. How do we go about finding mentors who can help us to preach with prophetic passion?

GCT: I strongly recommend The Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching, by William Willimon and Richard Lischer.D Next to what E. C. Dargan did in the early part of the century at Southern Baptist Seminary,6 it is the best compendium of preaching through the ages that I have ever seen.

DJM: It's worth reading?

GCT: Yes, definitely! It not only has the needed biographical back ground information, but it has certain excerpts from sermons that the preacher did, along with brief treatises on the kind of theological setting the person worked in. It's a tremendous volume.

DJM: It may help others to catch the vision as they interact with the lives and sermons of great preachers.

GCT: Indeed. Not to copy but to see how others went about it and to catch something of others' imaginativeness or approach to Scripture. I spent many hours reading the lives and sermons of great preachers. That helped me immeasurably.

DJM: Let me turn to preaching with prophetic passion that which addresses not only individual needs but also the needs of the culture, the needs of a whole nation. What is the preacher's responsibility in confronting the maladies of the culture?

GCT: The first thing one ought to do is not to preach at people. I think one ought to be careful about censoring people and accusing people. This is a futile undertaking. It may also be a way of vindicating our own prejudices! We ought to recognize that we are all sinners and come at preaching about social issues from the point of view of the gospel and not merely from our own limited viewpoint.

DJM: So we look at the needs of the culture and we speak to them but not in a chastising or censorious way.

GCT: Certainly not in a way of talking down, as if we sit in a lofty seat of judgment from which we lecture people.

DJM: History records the stories of many great men and women of God who suffered because they were willing to preach with that kind of prophetic passion. What have you seen in your own experience?

GCT: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is an example of one who paid a high price for what he preached. And a high price is still to be paid, but we're not here to negotiate bargains out of life. We are here to be made into something God wants us to be. I don't think any body with a healthy turn of mind courts criticism, trouble, persecution or personal rejection, and disaster. Sometimes we have to say as Luther said, "Here stand 1. I can do no other."

DJM: When you speak of a willingness to suffer, it reminds me of the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you, because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matt.5: 11-12)

GCT: That aspect of the gospel we have neglected. The gospel and our preaching of it has been so affected by our surrounding culture and by the standards of that culture — the popular standards of "success" — that we have often been unfaithful to our Lord.

DJM: When we preach with a prophetic passion, we should be willing to suffer but not go looking for trouble.

GCT: We ought to be very reluctant to court suffering, but I don't think it ought to be the first consideration in our ministry. Our loyalty to Jesus Christ ought to be first. And then let everything else come in behind that.

1 Dr. Taylor presented the 1975-1976
Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale. These lectures
are published in How Shall They Preach (Elgin,
111.: Progressive Baptist Publishing House, 1977).
This book also contains a collection of Taylor's
Lenten sermons.

2 Ibid., 50.

3 Ibid., 79.

4 Ibid., 31.

5 William H. Willimon and Richard
Lischer, eds. The Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching
(Louisville, Ky.: John Knox/Westminster
Press, 1995).

6 E. C. Dargan, The Art of Preaching in the
Light of Its History
(New York: Doran, 1922).

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Gardner C. Taylor is pastor emeritus of the Concord Baptist Church of Christ, Brooklyn, New York.



Derek Morris, D.Min., is a professor in the school of religion, Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee.

September 1999

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