Preaching is not sermonizing or lecturing, though sermonizing and lecturing are often substituted for, or understood to be, preaching. These substitutes mean that congregations are often subjected to anything from twenty-five minutes to one hour of human speech, empty of saving grace. This content can range from a display of intellectual brilliance to banal haranguing devoid of any meaningful content. Congregations suffer, endure, and sometimes find sleep the only method of escape from this form of religious persecution!
To be called of God to proclaim His saving truth in Christ Jesus is an incomparable privilege, a privilege often unrecognized and frequently squandered. The tragedy is not only that the worshipers are not fed but that the opportunity for God's grace and power to touch lives is wasted. The hour of worship becomes at best a social experience with light entertainment and, more often, an exercise in endurance.
What Christian preaching is and isn't
Preaching has never been without its detractors and critics. It never will be. But in its truest and best expression, gospel preaching lifts the human soul into the presence of God. The preacher becomes the agent through whom human need is connected to divine power. God and humanity meet in a divine encounter that saves, energizes, and renews the soul. The church desperately needs this kind of preaching. For want of it congregations are developing into social comfort groups of many hues, insulated against reality and the power and presence of Christ.
Preaching in the contemporary pulpit can be subverted by PowerPoint presentations, ready-made sermons culled from the Internet, or plagiarizing from books or magazines. Congregations are starved for that encounter with God that preaching is designed to serve.
No preacher hits the target every time. Sometimes things go wrong, horribly wrong, despite our best efforts. Yet it is a fact that biblical preaching creates solid Christian experience. Anyone who has been under living gospel preaching knows the blessing they experienced as a result. It moves men, women, and children toward God in a definite way.
In a ministry of over 40 years, I have had the privilege and joy of listening to and been blessed and saved by sermons from preachers great and small. The late Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones, Billy Graham, James Stewart, and John Stott are not alone in connecting the soul of man with the heart of God. Relatively unknown ministers and pastors in churches of all Christian traditions have, through their Spirit-charged preaching, lifted countless thousands into the presence of God. This is the ultimate reason for, and the goal of, true Christian preaching.
The elements of great preaching
Seventh-day Adventist congregations who have been blessed by preachers like Roy Alien Anderson, H. M. S. Richards, Norval Pease, and Charles Bradford know in their own lives the power and influence of this kind of preaching. The common element in all of these preachers was the proclamation of the saving grace and power of Jesus. Like Paul, they were gripped by grace and compelled to proclaim it. They communicated to congregations what they believed and experienced of God's involvement in their own hearts and minds. They moved others because they themselves were moved. It is hardly likely that a preacher will always meet the needs of all his hearers. It is also true that preaching that derives from the preacher's personal experience with God and his fellow men and women has the greatest possibility of helping the greatest number who listen.
All effective preaching has common elements without which its value is significantly decreased. Preaching must come out of an ideology that informs and influences how and what the preacher believes and delivers.
This concept can be illustrated by posing the opportunity a minister has who is invited to preach in a church other than the one in which he ministers. What does he preach about?
Let's say you have been invited to preach to a congregation about whom you have no personal knowledge. What will you say that will bless those to whom you are called to minister? How can you reasonably expect to connect them to God?
Here is where an informing ideology or lack of it shows itself most dramatically. A preacher must know God, and he must understand men and women and their needs. These elements come from his own grappling with God's Word and his encounters with all classes through visitation in their homes.
What follows is a philosophy of preaching that has helped me avoid the more serious excesses of poor preaching. Though when I reflect on the many sermons I have preached, I cringe with shame and embarrassment for my stupidity and lack of awareness of what I was doing.
Today when preparing any sermon, I write ERIC at the top of the page. This acronym expresses an ideological approach to sermon preparation. It has helped save me from lecturing, and much of the time from sermonizing. What it does is focus my mind on what I should be doing. It stands for essential elements for a sermon: encouragement, relevancy, instruction/illustration, and Christ.
Everyone benefits from encouragement. No one is likely to reject encouragement. When you actually reflect on the realities of your hearers, that they come from all walks of life, you can easily grasp the idea that encourage ment—something specifically encouraging—will help most of them.
The sick will be encouraged. Parents attempting to bring up children in the Christian way will be encouraged. Young people trying to work out what to do with their lives will be encouraged. The elderly who may feel useless, the unemployed, the chronically ill, the discouraged, each and every one of them will benefit from encourage ment, especially if it is born of the divine, finding its meaning and authenticity in your own soul.
Encouragement that comes to them from the heart of God will lift them up and stiffen their resolve to press on to better things. Encouragement creates hope and blesses the soul of the hearer and the preacher. Nobody rejects encouragement or is hurt or depressed by receiving it.
Sermons must have an element of encouragement to be effective.
It is fatally easy to preach irrelevant sermons. By irrelevant I mean sermons that do not scratch where people itch. Regrettably, who has not been a victim—preacher or worshiper—of this misfortune?
This fact came home to me some years ago when I was invited to teach a Sabbath School class. The topic was "Preparation for Marriage." The class was a group of elderly ladies, some of whom were spinsters. Not one was under 70 years old. Mercifully, all of us saw the humor and the irrelevance of the topic in that particular setting!
But humor, not grace, enlivened the study hour. Relevance was absent.
Preaching must address human need with germane insight. It can and does have other aspects, but it must be relevant to those to whom it is directed. An aspirin will not help a man whose leg is going to be amputated. Discussing the tassels on the high priest's robe or defining the classic parameters of existentialism will not be relevant to the soul battling with despair or depression. In this respect a preacher needs to carefully watch that he or she does not ride hobby horses. I know of one preacher who preached on the topic of music for 11 weeks in a quarter, including the Communion service. His irrelevance contributed to creating a disturbed and critical congregation. Conversely, preaching that is relevant makes for mature Christians who are motivated to live Christianly.
Relevance and pastoral visitation favor each other. A visiting pastor learns the needs of his congregation by being with them in their homes.
Andrew Blackwood wrote in an old volume: "A visiting minister makes a churchgoing congregation." 1 Visitation also creates awareness in the pas tor of the actual realities of human need. It helps the pastor as preacher to be relevant in what he actually says in the pulpit.
Visitation has another important aspect: It is an antidote to ministerial depression and malaise. Visitation and contact with people in their homes give pastors perspectives on reality that save us from an unhealthy self-centeredness.
Instruction and illustration
No one is born with know-how. We learn by instruction, illustration, imitation, application, and implementation. Preaching must not only encourage and be relevant but also help people to know how. The scope of preaching is vast, and the average person in the pew will not know all the subject matter we will present to them. But our people need not only to know but also to know how.
How do I exercise faith? How do I repent and confess? What is the meaning of the Lord's Supper? How do I participate? How do I witness? How am I to prepare for the return of Jesus? How do I study God's Word to understand it? How do I relate to hostility? How do I live with confidence and faith? How do I deal with doubt?How do I exercise saving faith? People need guidance to know how, and instruction in our preaching helps them come to know.
Thus, what people need is sermons with a how-to element in them. To assume our hearers understand as we do is a mistake—in many cases they do not, and we must instruct them how to learn to live the Christian life with faith and trust in their Lord.
I think it was Spurgeon who said "illustrations are like windows that let in light."
The best illustrations come from our personal experience and that of our church members, many of whom have incredible stories to tell. These often come out in visitation. The illustration should do just that, illustrate.
We need to avoid the smart quip or the gratuitously funny story that purposely sends congregations into fits of laughter. While preaching is to be intensely interesting, it is not entertainment. Humor has a place, but it should never displace truth so that the congregation remembers the humor but not the truth.
Christ in all the sermon. Of all the indictments that may be leveled against preaching and preachers, the absence of Christ from their sermons is the most serious. Reflection on this omission makes one lament. Of all things, this omission is truly a failure.
One colleague observed, "You can not get Christ into every single sermon." I replied, "Then do not preach that sermon." Sermons without Christ are often nothing more than information transfers, dry-as-dust harangues, exercises in egoism, intellectual performances, or ill-constructed presentations to fill in 30 minutes.
We need to grasp the reality of Christ's words: "Without Me you can do nothing" 0ohn 15:5, NKJV). This specifically includes and applies to preaching. Christ in all our preaching is not an option, it is the nonnegotiable essential that we dare not neglect or omit.
In the distant past when I went to college, we had a teacher, the late George Keough, who required stu dents in his classes on any subject to read the book Gospel Workers. He invited us to memorize a variety of its passages. I bless him for his sagacity.
Some of these passages I have never forgotten. I quote one that has been invaluable to me:
"The sacrifice of Christ as an atonement for sin is the great truth around which all other truths cluster. In order to be rightly understood and appreciated, every truth in the word of God, from Genesis to Revelation, must be studied in the light that streams from the cross of Calvary. I present before you the great, grand monument of mercy and regeneration, salvation and redemption—the Son of God uplifted on the cross. This is to be the foundation of every dis course given by our ministers."2
Sermons must have Christ at the center. Our duty and responsibility, but more our privilege, is to lift up Jesus before the people, to make Him great in their hearts and minds. The reasons for this are obvious. Without Jesus there can be no salvation. There is no other way to get to God; He alone is the way to God. There are no alter natives. As Peter expressed it, "There is salvation in no other" (Acts 4:12).
When Jesus is presented in our preaching, what is proclaimed does not fall on the ears and hearts of our hearers as some kind of addendum, some sort of afterthought. Rather it comes as the body and substance of what we have to say and also of what is essential to life well lived. Then salvation becomes possible for men, women, boys, and girls. Without Him, nothing happens. With Him souls are transformed, encouraged, energized, and uplifted; and they find freedom and joy, hope and courage. They become, in a word, Christians.
Preaching with ERIC—encouragement, relevance, illustration, and Christ—always carries with it the possibility of salvation. This informing ideology has potential. It is not the only method, but it has guided one struggling preacher to understand that preaching has one purpose and end: to connect the soul of human beings with the heart of God in a saving experience. It is a wonderful privilege, and it invites our best efforts to make it happen,
1 Andrew Blackwood, Pastoral Work (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1945), 220, 213.
2 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1915), 315.