by Kel Willis
Interact Magazine 1998
Volume 9 Number 1
I regularly receive calls from churches looking for new pastors. They represent a variety of denominational groups and when asked what they are looking for in a minister, they almost always say they want someone who can preach and teach well. Clearly, these churches do not want a pastor who is inept in the pulpit.
In the not-too-distant past many of our theological colleges de-emphasised the importance of preaching. (Unfortunately, some still do!) Those being trained were equipped instead to be counsellors, administrators, mediators and pastoral carers, with the result that many pastors are confused about their roles and responsibilities.
One reason for falling church attendance and the increasing number of shallow and immature Christians who have little real understanding of their faith is the decline of able and strategic pulpit ministry. Most people come to church with a desire to hear a relevant, practical and authentic word from God. They don’t want to be bored and frustrated by bland, purposeless and irrelevant preaching.
Thankfully there is a growing awareness in theological and Bible colleges which train people for pastoral ministry and other areas of Christian work that effective, dynamic and believable preaching is not only required by churches, but is necessary if they are to become New Testament churches. Pastors themselves are seeking ways of becoming more effective in their presentation of God’s Word by attending seminars and conferences, reading books on preaching and by working together in small groups to become more vital and effective preachers.
It’s Important to Preach
In some circles it’s fashionable to ridicule and belittle preaching as old-fashioned and no longer relevant to our contemporary age. But in many respects the record of church history is that of God at work through biblical preaching. Many of the great Reformation names were known as great preachers: Luther, Calvin and so on. Most of the significant revival movements have been linked to men who were great preachers: Wesley, Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, D L Moody and Ira D Sankey, to name a few. These were men with a single-minded devotion to God and a passion and conviction about the Bible. This was evident in their personal lives and in their preaching.
Preaching held a prominent place in the early church. Indeed Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 sets the pace. It was relevant and applicable to the hearers in that it addressed their questions about the unusual events taking place before them. Peter dealt with these issues by expounding the Bible and explaining the relevance of the gospel. In his presentation he spoke with conviction, authority and passion, and these are all elements of good preaching.
During the two years the apostle Paul spent with the church at Ephesus, preaching and teaching were an important part of his ministry. This is affirmed both by what he said to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 and in the content of his epistle to the church. I want to highlight four aspects of his preaching that we should seek to emulate:
1. He preached without hesitation or compromise.
‘I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you’ (Acts 20:20).
The word translated here as ‘preach’ contains the idea of proclamation, of faithfully and authoritatively declaring a message. The apostle was single-minded in his commitment to preaching. In 1 Corinthians 9:16 he described his inner compulsion to do so and in 2 Corinthians 2:17 he spoke of preaching with the confidence that God had given him the task. He therefore spoke with deep conviction and with an awareness of accountability, ‘like men sent from God’.
The task of preaching is not to be taken lightly. Indeed, if we believe we preach the message of God out of a sense of divine call, we must be so well prepared that we never preach second-rate sermons. The Apostle’s encouragement to Timothy was to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching (1 Tim.4:13). In verse 15 Timothy was urged: ‘Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them.’ It seems to me that such devotion is fundamental for those who aspire to be preachers.
Don’t believe the school of thought that claims that the age of preaching is past and that instead we should dialogue, discuss and ‘communicate’. Whilst these methods are helpful, they will never replace good preaching. The pulpit-thumping, fire and brimstone preaching of the past may not be acceptable in today’s world. However, there will always be a place for preachers who are relevant and contemporary, who are aware of the issues people are facing today, who have a good grasp of the Bible, and are able to present its changeless truths with such clarity that the credibility and relevance of the gospel will be understood.
In his book The Contemporary Christian John Stott makes the point that ‘contemporary Christianity is not a new version of Christianity which we are busy inventing, but original, historic, orthodox, biblical Christianity sensitively related to the modern world’.
2. Paul preached with clear objectives.
One of the things that consistently stands out in what we know of Paul is his focus. He was single-minded and wholehearted about both what God had called him to be as a person (Phil.3:10-14) and what God had called him to do (Acts 26:17-19). This clear sense of purpose was evident in his preaching: ‘However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace (Acts 20:24). Paul didn’t preach just to fill a time-slot in a meeting. He had clearly defined objectives:
a) He wanted the Ephesians to experience the saving grace of God (Acts 20:24).
Acts 19 is a great story of God at work bringing people to Himself and establishing them in the church. When we couple this story with Paul’s summation of the gospel’s transforming impact upon those in the church at Ephesus, we can only respond as Paul did with thankfulness to God (Eph.1:1-23; 2:1-10).
b) He wanted them to experience an ongoing, relational walk with God.
What was his objective in teaching them publicly from house to house (Acts 20:20)? Why did he encourage the elders to do the same (Acts 20:28)? He knew the Ephesians would need a good biblical foundation and framework in order to grow into spiritual maturity. That was his stated goal in preaching and teaching at Colosse (1:28,29) and it was undoubtedly so at Ephesus.
Every preacher or teacher ought to make it their objective to provide such a foundation in their ministry, striving to give the necessary input and encouragement to see this achieved. In our ministry we ought to pray the kind of prayer the apostle prayed in Ephesians 1:15-18: ‘For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you.’
Paul believed that the gospel impacted the whole of life and he wanted those he taught to so understand and respond to its message that a deep inner experiential knowledge of God would be theirs.
c) His desire also was that every Christian should be a functioning member of the body of Christ.
Although this should be a natural overflow of God being at work in our lives, Paul knew that Christians need constant reminders of their place in the body. They need to be fed, led and protected in order to be equipped to be a part of what God is doing both in the world and in His church (Eph.4:11-16).
3. Paul expounded the Bible with conviction.
Someone said to me recently, ‘Don’t you think it’s a bit simplistic to think that people will be converted through the teaching of the Bible?’ It would be, if one did not believe that the Bible is God’s inspired Word and that in a mysterious and sometimes awesome way God illuminates people’s minds, giving them an understanding of the wonder of His provision. That’s why Paul preached what he knew to be ‘the whole will of God’ (Acts 20:27).
In the book of Romans the apostle reinforces his conviction that the Bible should be clearly preached: ‘How can they hear without someone preaching…..consequently faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ’ (Rom.10:14,17).
We must never forget the role of the Holy Spirit in preaching and teaching the Bible. In Ephesians 1:15-18 the Holy Spirit is said to enlighten the eyes of our hearts. To the unconverted the whole idea of the gospel is foolishness (1 Cor.1:18). They cannot imagine a God who would love so much, make such a great provision, forgive so completely and make the ongoing commitment that He does to His children. Indeed, at a human level it’s beyond our comprehension. Yet God in His loving, gracious way illuminates darkened minds and transforms those who are spiritually dead, bringing them into a relationship with Himself.
The important thing for preachers to embrace is that this process of illumination is ongoing (2 Cor.2:6-15). That’s why Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1:15-18 includes this very strategic phrase: ‘that…..the glorious Father, may give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know Him better’, that is, God’s Holy Spirit giving the capacity to comprehend and apply spiritual truth in an ongoing way.
Spiritual growth and maturity are inseparable from comprehending and responding to God’s revelation through His Word (Acts 20:32). Paul passionately believed in the necessity of expounding the Bible. In our desire to have good programs that are contemporary and relevant, it’s so easy to neglect this important principle—that all spiritual growth flows out of understanding, response to and application of God’s Word.
With the ongoing emphasis on growth strategies in our churches, it’s very easy to confuse the process with the principles of church growth. In so doing we can be conned into thinking that the key to growth is our programs. Whilst they are very important, programs in themselves do not ensure growth into spiritual maturity. I once heard Os Guinness say that it’s possible to build a large congregation without God having anything to do with it! With the right programs one could build a large religious club, but it would not be a church in the New Testament sense of the word. Real growth is about God at work in people’s lives, and for this to happen they must be constantly exposed to Bible truth.
We need to be unqualified in our commitment to teach and preach the Bible well. Whilst we need to learn all we possibly can about communication and presentation in our preaching, the critical factor is the content of our message. A good presentation without much substance is like eating fairy floss—you remember the colour and taste, but it does you very little good. Therefore in our commitment to preach well and to do it with conviction we ought to be thoroughly prepared and clearly focused (2 Tim.2:15).
If it’s true that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ, and if the truth of Scripture is understood as God’s Holy Spirit illuminates our minds, then central to any work of God in people’s lives is the Bible being expounded with clarity and conviction. That’s why the apostle Paul told Timothy to preach the Word with great patience and careful instruction, regardless of the circumstances or issues he encountered.
4. Paul expounded the Bible with passion.
Last year I attended a Christian Leaders’ Conference where one of the speakers gave an excellent well-constructed address with great content, well-documented material and good illustrations. But it was presented without passion! The speaker could have been talking about boiled eggs or growing potatoes. He was bland, unemotional and seemingly entirely unmoved by the timeless truths he was presenting. The awesome wonder of his message didn’t seem to grip his own heart. Indeed his evident lack of passion for what he was expounding reduced the credibility of his message. Because he did not engage his audience, we felt somewhat detached and unmoved by what he said.
The apostle Paul is a great model for preachers. He was passionate about the gospel and its potential in the lives of those to whom he sought to minister: ‘I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews…..I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task’ (Acts 20:19,24). There was no doubting the focus and passion of his own life and this was evident in his preaching.
The first letter to the Thessalonian church provides further insight into Paul’s passion for God and His Word, and His deep and compelling commitment to those he ministered to. Indeed it was the fact that God was so evidently at work in the lives of Paul and his team at Thessalonica that added a further vital dimension to their ministry (1 Thess.1:4-8). They not only declared the message of the gospel but also modelled its impact in their lives. I believe that this is a fundamental but often missing component in effective preaching. For unless the message we declare grips our own hearts and touches our own lives, there will be no passion in our preaching and little conviction and response in those to whom we speak.
It’s easy for some of us to fall in love with the idea of preaching—the audience, the adrenalin rush, the affirmation when people commend us, etc. But Rick Warren said, ‘Some preachers love the audience but they don’t really love the people.’ People quickly see through our expressions of love and concern if they are not genuine.
Out of his conviction of the awesome wonder of the grace of God revealed in the gospel, Paul was moved with both a passion for God’s Word and a compassion for those he ministered to. 1 Thessalonians 2:7-12 gives some insight into his heart: ‘But we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.’
This is the kind of attitude from which effective lasting impact is made. It’s a good thing for every believer to periodically stop and take stock of their walk with God. This is especially important for those of us charged with the responsibility of preaching and teaching the Bible. It’s so easy to lose sight of the important elements of preaching—preaching the ‘whole counsel of God without compromise, both discerning and declaring the purpose of God for His people, affirming with conviction and passion the whole gospel and doing it with a dependence on God that affirms our confidence in His ability to illuminate the minds and hearts of those to whom we speak.
I know of no growing church that exhibits something of the characteristics of the New Testament church, that does not have an emphasis on the importance of preaching and teaching well the Word of God. The key issue in church growth is having a healthy church. Healthy churches are a consequence of having healthy members—people coming to grips with Bible principles as a result of Bible-centred preaching and teaching.
Rev Kel Willis is the Director of Christian Growth Ministries Inc.
© Rev Kel Willis (1 March 1998)