Poverty in the pulpit

"If the worst thing that can be said about a teacher is that he can't teach, the worst thing that can be said about a preacher is that he can't preach."

John Osborn is a late pastor and evangelist noted for his interest in helping to build ministers.




The late John Osborn was noted for his interest in helping to build ministers. This was true of him as a pastor and evangelist, as an administrator, and in a special way during the years he served as Ministerial Association director for the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He conducted many seminars for pastors, but the most popular were those dealing with his favorite subject and first love—preaching.


MINISTRY has arranged and condensed a tape transcript of the final seminar on preaching that John Osborn held before his death. We share his conviction that preaching is God's ordained method of saving men and women and that the per son called of God to be a preacher should be constantly endeavoring to excel in this most vital aspect of his calling.


This article begins a series in which MINISTRY readers can benefit from the presentations that enriched so many pastors who were able to attend these seminars in person. Other articles will deal with such topics as the minister's personal preparation for preaching, expository versus topical preaching, and step-by-step instruction on sermon preparation. —The Editors.




Preaching has fallen upon hard times. There are not many Biblical preachers in the pulpit today." So observed Dr. James E. Stewart, the famous Scottish preacher, in a personal interview I had with him in Edinburgh. When I asked him whom he considered to be the outstanding Biblical preachers in America, he replied, "Right offhand none come to my mind."


Now Dr. Stewart is considered an authority in the field of preaching an out standing Biblical preacher. So what he says regarding contemporary preaching he can say with authority.


During the decades of this century, and even the last, an increasing chorus of voices has deplored the growing impoverishment of the pulpit. As far back as 1920, Harry Emerson Fosdick stated that much preaching was characterized by futility and dullness. The great Lon don preacher, Charles Spurgeon, must have listened to some of his colleagues before passionately declaiming, "It is infamous to ascend your pulpit and pour over your people rivers of language, cataracts of words, in which mere platitudes are held in solution like infinitesimal grains of homeopathic medicine in an Atlantic of utterance."


Current books on preaching deplore the poor state of the art as well. One attributes inferior preaching to laziness, poor craftsmanship, and a depreciated role of preaching. I believe that assess ment hits it right smack on the head. In fact, one young preacher in a seminar I was conducting declared, "Preaching's passe. It's gone out. All we need to do is get up and talk for about ten minutes, then let the congregation respond for about twenty minutes." And I replied, "What for? To pool their ignorance and personal opinions? That isn't the Biblical concept of preaching."


Not only do preachers decry the poverty of contemporary preaching, but also the laity, those who listen. They feel that most sermons are dull and uninteresting, that the preacher is talking down to them and using language unfamiliar to them, and that much preaching does not relate to their needs.


During the years that I served as president of the New Jersey Conference, laymen often came to me concerned about the preaching they were hearing. One lady said, "We have a wonderful pastor; we all love him. But he can't preach. Is there anything you can do to help him?" Well, at least they loved him because he was a good pastor. But he couldn't preach. And I heard that a good many times.


If the worst thing that can be said about a teacher is that he can't teach, the worst thing that can be said about a preacher is that he can't preach. What could be worse to hear about a doctor than the fact that he can't doctor? What can be worse to hear about a preacher than the fact that he can't preach? Preaching the everlasting gospel is our primary work. It is no wonder that many laymen are disappointed when we prove ineffective in this essential role.


It seems apparent that while the modern church is growing, the modern pulpit is not, which raises a few questions about the kind of growth the church is experiencing in these days of widespread religiosity. Many attend church who do so from no burning desire to hear the preacher. I've had members tell me, "The preaching we listen to each week is poor. We're hoping for a change of pas tors soon. Meanwhile, we plan to stay right here in our church. We were here before this pastor came; we plan to be here when he leaves." Their motive in church attendance is not the preaching. It's their loyalty to the church.


Good preaching is highly important to your members even if it isn't to you. An extensive survey made by the United Methodist Church South indicated that most of the laity in this sample demanded good preaching. They fight to keep preachers who can preach. The re port further revealed that the most asked question regarding a potential new preacher is "Can he preach?" One interesting sidelight was revealed by a superintendent who discovered that a church in his district had raised the preacher's salary $3,000 for the next year. When he made inquiry regarding this large raise, the leadership of the church replied, "We couldn't afford not to. He can preach, and people pack the church to hear him. He is the first good preacher we've had, and we hope to keep him. Our plan is to raise his salary so fast that you can't move him!"


This illustration reveals not only the premium the laity places on good preaching but also preaching's sad dearth. And what applies to the Methodist pulpit in this survey is equally applicable to the church in general, including our own. There is concern in the Seventh-day Adventist Church today over the mediocre and even poor quality of much of its preaching. An outstanding teacher of homiletics and a preacher in his own right has said, "There is a wide spread discontent with the quality of Adventist preaching. Laymen who love and respect their ministers confide that they wish their pastor could preach better sermons. Men who travel from church to church and listen to many preachers are concerned about the quality of what they hear."


As a part of my responsibilities, I travel over a large area stretching from Utah to the Hawaiian Islands and from Mexico to the Oregon boundary, visiting and assisting pastors in various aspects of ministry. Once a month I make it my business to listen to my colleagues preach. I hear some excellent pulpiteers, but for the most part the preaching is mediocre and even poor.


Recently I attended a church with a membership of about 600. The pastor's sermon that morning was on a key Bible word. It became evident that he had looked the word up in a concordance, chosen six unrelated texts in which the word appeared, and strung them together with comments. He expressed some good thoughts, but the sermon was random, fragmented, and without point. It was obvious that he had put little thought or preparation into his message. It had little relevance to the needs of the congregation, and the sheep went away unfed. Perhaps the poverty of his sermonic content was an unusual aberration of that day only. If it is a sample of the spiritual diet his congregation is receiving, it is to be lamented.


In the face of such a chorus of dissatisfaction in the Christian church with current preaching, some have predicted its imminent demise. They feel that the day of preaching is fast passing, and that it is rapidly going out of style as a means of gospel presentation. The mass media are rendering the pulpit obsolete. Group dynamics, dialogue, and discussion are replacing it.


I don't share these pessimistic views, except to say that the symptoms do exist. I don't think preaching will ever die, because the gospel is to be preached unto all the world till the very end. What is passe is not the preaching of the Word of God but the common variety of con temporary preaching. It isn't preaching itself that is going out of style so much as it is our modern brand of preaching, and the sooner it does so, the better.


We are witnessing the dying of preaching that is not Biblical. Humanistic preaching is losing its appeal. Psychological gimmickry is becoming increasingly ineffective. Sociological emphasis is having little impact on the decaying social structure of our society. These types of preaching have already emptied the churches of Europe, and now the people of America are also rap idly moving away from the modern type of so-called preaching in quest of some thing better. The decline of such preaching is no call for pessimism or fatalism. On the contrary, it is a call to the revival of Biblical preaching!


Biblical evidence supports the opinion that preaching will survive its decline. God's promise regarding the effectiveness of His Word is still true. "For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it" (Isa. 55:10, 11).


Those who are interested in listening to a preacher want to hear what God has to say rather than the opinion of the preacher, no matter how great his intellectual brilliance. There's a tremendous cutting power in the Word of God, "for the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Heb. 4:12).


Just how effective the proclamation of the Word can be is illustrated in an experience of the famous Charles Spurgeon, who was to speak in London's Crystal Palace. There being no public address system in his day, Spurgeon went to the auditorium to practice the projection of his voice. Standing on the podium, he proclaimed with a loud voice, "Behold the lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). A custodian, working in the high est balcony, heard that fragment of the Word of God. It pierced his soul like a two-edged sword. He was not a Christian, but now, under deep conviction, he gave his heart to Christ. The proclamation of a Bible text for the purpose of speech practice changed his life! That was a miracle of God's Word not to be credited to Charles Spurgeon.


In practice, preaching may be either faltering or eloquent. Faltering preaching, if Biblical, can accomplish more for the salvation of its hearers than eloquent preaching that is not Biblical. It is not the instrument, but the Word of the living God, that brings blessed results to preaching. Wherever the Bible is faith fully expounded, the fulfillment of God's promise "My Word shall not return to Me empty" can be expected.


The Lord can more successfully use the humblest lay preacher who proclaims the Word than He can the greatest preacher who proclaims his own word.


Preaching will survive its decline be cause it is God's ordained method of winning men to Christ. Since "in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe" (1 Cor. 1:21). God has ordained that men and women should be won to Him by the foolishness of preaching. Men may predict that preaching will become obsolete. The Lord plans otherwise.


The "foolishness of preaching" appears to be a strange expression. Actually, it is the content of preaching that is foolishness to the world. The gospel is a foolish act, in the eyes of man, contrary to all human logic. It consists of the humiliation of Christ in the historic reality of His life and death. And Christians, too, are always fools in the judgment of the world. They share in the folly of their Saviour's humiliation. They preach such apparently foolish concepts of the gospel as turning the other cheek, going the second mile, loving your enemies, doing good to those that despitefully use you. Preaching of the crucified Christ is folly to the unbelieving heart.


Yet, although it is by the foolishness of preaching that some men are to be saved, we need to be reminded that our preaching should be as little foolish as possible. In other words, every preacher should be improving his ability constantly, as a preacher of the Word. It is true that the Lord can bless any proclamation of His Word, no matter how humble. But it is also true that He can use more effectively a highly skilled preacher than an ill-trained one, assuming that both are consecrated to God. The Lord used mightily the humble Galilean fishermen who became his apostles. Their power and influence on souls saved through their ministry is bound less. However, it was the educated Paul, with his superior skills and knowledge, that made the greatest impact on the early church and its ministry.


God can use any kind of an instrument wholly dedicated to Him, but he can use a sharp tool more effectively than a dull one. A dull scythe will cut some grain. A sharp one will cut much more. Consequently, as a student of the Holy Scriptures and a proclaimer of its truths in the pulpit, the preacher must constantly strive to be better in both. There must be a continuous holy dissatisfaction with his attainments as a Bible student and a Bible preacher, goading him on to greater ability in both.


Preaching has fallen upon hard times. We are witnessing a sad decline. Some are predicting its ultimate end as a force in Christianity. Admittedly, preaching has experienced its ups and downs through the centuries, but it has always come back in power and vigor. When ever there has been a revival in the study of God's Word, there has been a revival in preaching. Preaching has been a power in the church from its very beginning. Jesus came, preaching. His disciples came, preaching. Paul came, preaching. All down through the Christian centuries preaching has been God's means of saving men.


Biblical preaching will again revive and persist to the end. "This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come" (Matt. 24:14).



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John Osborn is a late pastor and evangelist noted for his interest in helping to build ministers.

May 2006

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