Called to preach: an interview with E. E. Cleveland and Benjamin Reaves
Morris: It’s a privilege to speak with two outstanding preachers about the sacred work of preaching. How does a person know if he or she is called to preach?
Cleveland: One knows if they are called to a preaching ministry when the necessity of preaching the gospel eclipses and excludes all competing professions.
Morris: You began your preaching ministry as a boy preacher in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Did you ever consider any other professions besides being a preacher of the gospel?
Cleveland: No! I was a child with a one-track mind. I have never wanted to do anything else or be anything else. When I was a boy preacher, my father would take me to different churches—Baptist, Methodist, Congregational. Over the past sixty years, I have preached the gospel on every continent except Antarctica. It’s too cold there for my Alabama blood!
Morris: Why is preaching so important to you?
Cleveland: Preaching is the supreme unction function of the Holy Spirit. It is by the foolishness of preaching that people are persuaded to enter the kingdom of God. Preaching is God’s primary means for saving men and women. In order for preaching to be effective, it must be Holy Spirit actuated. The Word of God must be interpreted to the mind and through the mind of the preacher. A human being so ordered by the Divine calling is a power to be reckoned with.
Morris: You have mentored many young preachers through the years. One of those outstanding young preachers was Benjamin Reaves. Dr. Reaves, you actually began your preaching ministry working with E. E. Cleveland. How have you developed your potential as a preacher?
Reaves: Since my early years, I have been a voracious reader. That put me in touch with a feel for language rhythm and sound. As I’m writing my sermon manuscript, I’m listening. H. Grady Davis talks about writing for the ear. Words need to be spoken in a way that addresses the ear. I love a well-turned phrase. Those words will come back to people over the years. Having a feel for language rhythm and sound has been a tremendous asset.
Morris: What kind of books helped you to develop a feel for language rhythm and sound?
Reaves: I read everything! As a child, I read Zane Grey. Anything written by good writers.
Morris: Fred Craddock would affirm the value of reading good writing. Poetry. Historical fiction. Anything that is written well.
Reaves: Then, if you write something that’s awkward, that’s not falling right on the ear, it jumps out at you. It doesn’t sound right. You have developed a feel for language rhythm and sound.
Morris: How do you begin the process of developing a biblical sermon?
Reaves: It starts with an idea that drives me to a text or with a text that drives me to an idea. Either way, I end up with a text. As Henry Mitchell put it, “If you ain’t got a text, you ain’t preaching!” My authority as a preacher is not just linked to Scripture. It is chained to Scripture. I’m a disciple of H. Grady Davis, so my first question is, What is the text saying? That’s ground zero for me. I’m not in the sermon yet. I’m working with the passage. What is the passage talking about? What is it saying about it? I look at various versions. I look at exegetical commentaries. Once I get past that study of the text, I may have an outline that is going to shape the sermon. At least, I have a clear understanding of what the passage is saying.
I need to settle what the text is saying before I go to the next question—What do I want to say about it? Someone might say, “That’s already settled! You need to tell people what the text is saying.” But I may want to focus on a small subportion of the text. Now I’m asking myself the structural questions What do I want to say? and What do I want to say about it? I’m going to come out of the process with some kind of structure. I need that skeleton. Otherwise, a lot of time is wasted gathering material that may not be used.
After that initial period of study, I need to back off and let the subconscious deal with that material. That can happen while I’m visiting, while I’m driving, doing anything actually.
Then the task is to put meat on the bones. Generally, that’s when I begin to write. Writing helps me to eliminate what is not absolutely necessary for the preaching of this sermon. I need to begin some element of writing by Wednesday at the latest. I know that I will add to that. But getting started with the writing process helps me to clarify what I am saying and what I am saying about it. Because of my initial study, I know where I’m headed. My subconscious says, “Now I can help you.” Things begin to come to mind. Insights begin to open up.
As you walk through your sermon, you need to have a sense of time. It irritates me when someone says, “Well, I won’t have time to finish this!” What do you mean? What were you doing? I get bothered when I see filler, treading water. You need a sense of time.
The final step of preparation is to let the sermon speak to you. Sometimes, this final step reveals that something is missing. There is a link that is missing for the hearer. Or something needs to be eliminated. That awareness comes after the mechanical part of writing the sermon manuscript is over. It’s in that final step of letting the sermon speak to you that the passion is reignited. That’s where the fire comes.
Then, when you preach, be open to the fact that there might be a shift in the congregational dynamic. You might find yourself elaborating on a point that was not part of the original plan.
Morris: What about making an appeal at the end of the sermon?
Cleveland: I always make an appeal when I preach. Jesus told His disciples, “I will make you fishers of men.” The hook and the bait that you throw into the water are designed to catch the fish. Persuading people is the principal object of preaching. So it’s important to make an appeal, to give an invitation. Let me share with you an incident that confirmed in my own mind that the object of preaching is decision getting. One Sunday evening I was preaching in Chicago. I had preached a tough sermon, and I couldn’t see how anyone would respond. I even discouraged myself. So I ended the sermon and sat down without making an appeal. During the closing song, a man came charging down to the front. He responded to an appeal without me even making one! I resolved that day that I would never again preach a sermon without making an invitation.
Morris: How do you craft that invitation?
Cleveland: I tell people that God is willing, God is able, and God is available. That’s the structure of the invitation. God is willing—I preach the Cross. That expresses God’s willingness to save us. God is able—I talk about the thief on the cross, and how the Lord saved him! If the Lord can save a thief on a cross, He can save anybody! And then I tell people that God is available and He wants you to come to Him now!
Morris: It has been said that demons tremble when preachers boldly declare the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. The forces of darkness don’t like to see individuals take their stand for Jesus. What are some spiritual battles that you have experienced in your preaching ministry?
Cleveland: I remember one time I was preaching in St. Petersburg, Florida. One of our church members in that area had married a killer, a very mean man. She had dropped out of church but started attending the meetings that I was conducting. One Friday night she came to me with tears streaming down her face. She said, “My husband told me that if I get baptized, he is going to kill me and he is going to kill the person who baptizes me. What should I do?” I said to her, “He can’t kill me and he won’t kill you.” The next weekend she was sitting in church, ready to be baptized. As I was preaching, I could see out the front doors of the church. A red Chrysler pulled up in front of the church, and that lady’s husband was in the car. I found out later that there was a loaded gun on the seat beside him. I knew what he had come for, but I just kept on preaching. Suddenly, I heard sirens wailing, and an ambulance pulled up next to his car. They pulled that man out of the car. He was dead on arrival at the hospital. The man who planned to assassinate me ended up losing his own life.
On another occasion, I was preaching in North Carolina, and a man came to the meeting and sat down. He had a gun in his pocket and his finger on the trigger. Four times during the sermon, the gunman moved forward and then moved backwards. Finally, he turned to the man next to him and said, “Every time I try to get up to kill that man, a sheet of flames separates us.” Then the gunman got up and half-walked, half-ran out of that place!
Morris: How did you find out about that story?
Cleveland: I baptized the man who was sitting next to the gunman, and he shared his testimony of what he had seen that day! It was spiritual warfare, but the protection of the Almighty was over me! Morris: I’m impressed that preachers need spiritual protection when proclaiming the Word of God.
Reaves: A preacher also needs to remember that success can hurt you. Success can put a monkey on your back. If you lose a sense of what preaching is all about, if you start thinking that preaching is all about you, then you’re on the treadmill. You are into the performance trap. Early in your preaching ministry, you can be deluded by your church members into thinking that you’re the greatest thing since Swiss cheese! Later in your preaching ministry, you begin to delude yourself. You love the invitations that you get, and you begin to delude yourself. Either way, the delusion is still the same. It can be just as hurtful. You need to remember that it’s not about you. I remember one time that I spoke and someone handed me a note which said, “Your reputation for excellence is well deserved.” I enjoyed that note too much. I lost sight of what really mattered. I let that little note monkey with my thinking. I don’t want to live like that. That’s what will send you galloping off in panic. No matter how successful a preacher you are, there will be other days. Unless you remember that it’s not about you, you won’t be able to handle those other days.
You also need to remember that your life needs to back up your preaching and your preaching needs to grow out of your life. I know that there are people who can live any kind of way and still be very impressive communicators. But I’m of the opinion that the power of the anointing will not be there if your life does not back up your preaching.
And then, just be yourself! Don’t buy the lie that you have to go with “the flavor of the month.” Some preachers watch the living technicolored televangelists and then are tempted to think that they have to reproduce that in their churches. You need to be yourself. Be who you are and let God use you. At the same time, you need to work at preaching well. Being who you are is not like rolling off a log. You need to work at it! That’s a lifelong commitment. If you are going to be the best of who you are as a preacher, it’s a work of a lifetime.
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