Crisis in Preaching
Of the many ways a Christian can “do [the] work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4: 5), preaching is clearly prominent among them. Thus Paul, in referring to the labours of himself and his fellow apostles, says “whether, therefore, I or they, thus we preach, and thus ye have believed” (1 Cor. 15: 11). Indeed, it is such an integral part of Gospel testimony that Paul asks “how shall they hear without one who preaches?” (Rom. 10: 14). Anyone acquainted with the Word of God acknowledges this truth, and yet something is clearly wrong in our attempts to replicate that preaching today. I am not talking about the disgusting religious showmanship that often masquerades as ‘evangelism’, but about the plain and simple preaching out of the Bible. However much you dress it up, in many places this kind of preaching is failing. Week after week the audience remains the same, and year after year passes without a convert. Indeed, it is not unusual for the entire audience to be composed of believers who have been attending a Christian gathering since childhood. This is hardly the pattern described to us in the NT where they “so spake that a great multitude of both Jews and Greeks believed” (Acts 14: 1, my emphasis)! Some, on reading this, may resent the criticism, but what should we be more concerned about? The unwelcome critique of a traditional set–up—or the thousands of hell–bound sinners around us who scarcely know the preaching is taking place? Certainly, saints are badly in need of being established in the glad tidings (see Rom. 16: 25), but to use this, as it often is, as an excuse for so little interaction with the lost is perverse. What is the use of ‘faithful’ preaching if those who most need it never hear it? Today’s so–called Gospel meeting has too much of the character of being ‘among friends’. This may be an uncomfortable truth, but it is a truth nonetheless. One shrewd observer said that ‘in the old days, preaching was a conflict between the preacher and the crowd. He was in the presence of the crowd to compel them to submission. That day has gone. The preacher’s vocation has changed’. There is a lot in that assessment. So what is the preacher’s vocation? To answer this let us go back to first principles.
Why do we Preach?
If we do not know the answer to this question, then we ought not to be preaching. Many preach simply because they have been asked to, but this is tradition and not Scripture. “How shall they preach” asks the apostle “unless they have been sent?” (Rom. 10: 15, my emphasis). Sending is the key, for it brings purpose and definiteness to the message—indeed, how can there be a message to deliver at all if I have not been given it to deliver? These things are very simple. Ahimaaz was told “Thou shalt not be a bearer of news to–day, but thou shalt carry the news another day” (2 Sam. 18: 20). He could not run until he was told to by the man in authority. For the Christian preacher, Christ is that Man. Unless He sends us, then there can be no preaching. It is no good seeking to evade the force of this principle by saying that sending perhaps only applies in a general sense along the lines of Christ’s commandment to the apostles to “preach to the people” (Acts 10: 42) and Paul’s testimony with respect to preaching that “a necessity is laid upon me” and “I am entrusted with an administration” (1 Cor. 9: 16, 17). If you say that your calling is to preach, then we are perfectly justified in asking where and when this preaching will take place—and sending then becomes specific rather than general. Of course many simply follow their own inclinations, with the inevitable result that what they preach is vague and powerless. Where a man has been truly sent, the message is clear, and his hearers have no difficulty in understanding its origin. The preacher is merely the conduit for God Himself, and it follows that his words come in convicting power. If the preacher is not sent then he may as well read his text from the Bible and sit down. I do not say this to frighten anyone away from seeking to serve God in preaching but simply to bring home the imperative of being “Jehovah’s messenger, in Jehovah’s message unto the people” (Hag. 1: 13). The issue is fundamental.
What we read of the prophets is so interesting in this regard. Thus “the word of Jehovah that came unto Hosea … the word of Jehovah that came to Joel” (Hos. 1: 1; Joel 1: 1, my emphasis). They didn’t dream it up or put it together themselves. Both Hosea and Joel received a message from God to deliver to others and they simply delivered it. Amos might seem to be an exception to this rule as he styles his prophecy as “the words of Amos” (Amos 1: 1). However, eight times in the first two chapters we have the expression “Thus saith Jehovah” (Amos 1: 3, 6, 9, 11, 13, 2: 1, 4, 6) proving that this was no human directive for “The Lord Jehovah hath spoken,—who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3: 8). As is well–known, Jonah was so displeased with the word of Jehovah that came to him that he desired to evade his responsibility in delivering it. It is for this reason that we read that “the word of Jehovah came unto Jonah the second time” (Jonah 3: 1). Micah begins his prophecy with “the word of Jehovah that came to Micah … Hear, ye peoples, all of you; hearken, O earth, and all that is therein: and let the Lord Jehovah be witness against you, the Lord from his holy temple!” (Micah 1: 1, 2). He speaks as if he were God. Habbakuk speaks of “the burden which Habbakuk the prophet did see” (Hab. 1: 1). The Hebrew word translated burden (massa) is the same as used elsewhere for the load put upon a donkey (see Exod. 23: 5). Now no beast of burden places the burden upon itself. It is an act of the Master. Zeph. 1: 1 simply states “the word of Jehovah that came unto Zephaniah”—there is not even any indication that he sought the word of the Lord. It came to him, and so he spoke it. Again, Haggai is merely a mouthpiece: “on the first day of the month, came the word of Jehovah by the prophet Haggai” (Haggai 1: 1). Haggai is the means, but it is the “word of Jehovah” that is of all importance. Today, by contrast, it is the preacher rather than the Word of God that is made prominent. Even ‘Isn’t he a good preacher?’ is not an entirely harmless observation, for man and not God is before the mind. It is a sentiment totally inconsistent with the preacher being sent by God. The word of Jehovah also came to Zechariah (see Zech. 1: 1), which he describes both in authoritative terms (“Thus saith Jehovah of hosts”—v3), and as a heavy load to be discharged as a servant (“The burden of the word of Jehovah”—Zech. 9: 1; 12: 1). Malachi also speaks of “the burden of the word of Jehovah” (Mal. 1: 1) and goes on to speak in such a way that he as the preacher is totally lost sight of, and his words are an intimate and personal message from God Himself. All this is richly instructive and should not be made light of, for these things “have been written for our instruction” (Rom. 15: 4).
Identical principles are evident in the NT. The NT preacher was a herald (kerux) from the throne (see 1 Tim. 2: 7), and an ambassador for Christ (see 2 Cor. 5: 20; Eph. 6: 20). He had to go where he was told, and he could not go where he was forbidden to go (see Acts 8: 26, 29; 16: 6 etc.). Nor did he preach from himself but “in the name of the Lord” (Acts 9: 29). Of course, what we are faced with today is very different. A man cannot preach unless he is ordained (or approved as a ‘lay’ preacher). In other circles, a man cannot preach unless he is asked. In principle there is very little to choose between the two methods, because in both it is man deciding rather than God. If he is not careful, the preacher’s vocation will have changed from that of a messenger to a performer. What do I mean? He has been asked to preach, and therefore he will become concerned not to ‘let down’ those who asked him. He has an hour to fill and he must craft his discourse to the satisfaction of his audience. Preaching then becomes a practised art, and what the preacher says today will sound much the same as the last occasion he was in the pulpit. Different Scriptures may be read, but the speaker will soon resort to his habitual pattern, employing the same phraseology he has used a hundred times before. He may well be sincere but is he sent by God? He may well know how to preach (at least to the approval of his fellow Christians) but if he is not sent, then his message began with himself and not God. Indeed, the very idea of the preacher placing his pulpit among God’s people is an anomaly as far as Scripture is concerned. All the great Gospel preachings recorded for us in the NT were either outside, in the house of an enquirer, or in some hostile gathering (see chapters 2, 7, 10, 13, 17, 22 and 26 of Acts). Interestingly, not one of these preachers bar one was invited—the exception being Peter in Acts 10, who went to speak to Cornelius, rather than inviting Cornelius to hear him. Of course some would argue that the invitation to preach is the indication of being sent, but while we cannot limit God, it is certainly not the Scriptural pattern. Is it not strange that what would be exceptional in the NT is now regarded as normal? Indeed, is it not a curious fact that while some of these preachers accept invitations from far and wide, they rarely if ever find themselves sent outside, to the house of an enquirer, or to a hostile gathering of unbelievers?
Who are we Serving?
I am not suggesting that the tradition of a Sunday evening Gospel meeting should cease—there is value, at least, in the public reading of the Bible being made accessible to all—but as a point of fact, preaching is not the business of the Church. Preaching is the business of the individual servant, be he a gifted evangelist or one doing what he can on the basis of 2 Tim. 4: 5 to “do [the] work of an evangelist”. As someone observed long ago, the Church does not preach, and you will search in vain for any reference in the NT to it being even involved in that line of things. Of course, the preacher of the Gospel and the Church are interdependent, for the one cannot exist without the other, but the preacher labours primarily in the world not among saints. A gathering of God’s people choosing a preacher (and it matters little whether it is only for next week or every week for the next ten years) raises serious questions. Who is the preacher seeking to satisfy? Those who asked him, or the One who sent him? It is a divine principle that “no servant can serve two masters” (Luke 16: 13). The preacher ought to be free to make arrangements to discharge his duty as he sees fit, for “to his own master he stands or falls” (Rom. 14: 4), but in practice he often has to find an accommodation with whatever foibles and traditions pertain in the local company. The sooner the idea that the Church has any role to play in ‘Gospel meetings’ is given up and the occasion delivered to the preacher the better. If the Church cannot stomach lending a room on this basis, then the preacher must find another, or preach on the street—but the Church should not pretend that it can govern how the servant must serve. “Woe to me” writes Paul “if I should not announce the glad tidings” (1 Cor. 9: 16). Did he allow others to control him, or did he seek to control others in their service? Not at all. From those at Jerusalem who seemed to be something he received nothing but the right hand of fellowship (see Gal. 2: 6–10). They did not even mark out his sphere or define its limits. From God he received his call, and it was God who assigned him his field of labour. With this in mind, our model should be apostolic precept and example rather than the traditional practices with which we grew up.
Failure by the preacher to understand who he is serving also impacts on the preaching in other ways. What are Gospel services, but occasions where the needs of the unconverted for are catered in such a way so as not to frighten them away? The adversarial nature of the preaching seems totally lost sight of these days. Show me any preacher in the Bible who was careful with his words lest he upset anyone! The Lord Himself is our great example here: “then his disciples, coming up, said to him, Dost thou know that the Pharisees, having heard this word, have been offended? But he answering said, Every plant which my heavenly Father has not planted shall be rooted up” (Matt. 15: 12, 13). Examples could be multiplied. Again, how many of those in the pulpit talk only about the love of God? It is affecting to some (thank God) but many are unmoved simply because they see no need of it. What does the apostle who speaks more about love than any other say? “This is the message” John declares “which we have heard from him, and declare to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1: 5). Preach that, and men will begin to appreciate their need of the love of God! Why? Because “every one that does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light that his works may not be shewn as they are” (John 3: 20). There are many in Gospel meetings today who think they are saved, but who have never really been brought face to face with the reality of sin and judgment. Better for someone to be “sad at the word” and to go away “grieved” (Mark 10: 22) but convicted, than to sit unaffected week after week on their way to a Christ–less eternity! The Gospel is there for the benefit of man, but we are not seeking to please man. The preacher must never forget that he is serving God not his audience. As Paul says “If I were yet pleasing men, I were not Christ’s bondman” (Gal. 1: 10). I am not saying we should insult our audiences for the sake of it, but the Gospel is offensive to the natural mind (see 1 Cor. 1: 23; Gal. 5: 11). Once again, the Lord Jesus is our great example. He never watered down his message to accommodate his listener’s sensitivities. For example: “unless ye shall believe that I am [he], ye shall die in your sins … ye are of the devil, as [your] father, and ye desire to do the lusts of your father” (John 8: 24; 44). This is the same One whose ear was opened morning by morning “to hear as the instructed” (Is. 50: 4) and who said “what I have heard from him, these things I say to the world” (John 8: 26). Even his disciples said on one occasion “this word is hard; who can hear it?” (John 6: 60). A very great evangelist of a past day used to say that he spent the first part of his preaching getting his guns into position, while in the last part he opened fire. This kind of language will be too much for some, but their delicate feelings must be set aside when we consider how pressing the matter is. People are relentlessly passing from this scene—and a many are sitting under anodyne preachings that fulfil little more than a calendar requirement.
How should we Preach?
No preacher can lift the listener above his own experience. This is the great difference between the press and the pulpit. Read a book and you may perhaps have the truth, but in preaching you have the truth plus the man. A true preacher speaks from experience (or at least he ought to, for truth and life must travel together). Some think that they can be trained to be preachers, but while they may well learn how to speak to an audience, they can never have power beyond their own spiritual experience. Peter and John were “unlettered and uninstructed men” but they were so full of the resurrection that they could not “refrain from speaking of the things which” they had “seen and heard” (Acts 4: 13, 20). We do not want book–trained preachers but Spirit–trained preachers. This fact seems so obvious that it is almost painful to say it—and yet people persist in thinking that formal training (even where it draws on worldly advice on public speaking) is something to be desired. The great lack of today is not in those who are orators, or ‘well–read’ or ‘well–taught’ but in those who have had a deep and personal encounters with the One who has sent them. Shallow conversions lead to shallow preachers. Both the Gadarene demoniac and the Samaritan woman would be written off as unlettered and uninstructed, but like Peter and John, they had been “with Jesus” (Acts 4: 13). That made all the difference. That was why the demoniac was able to go “through the whole city, publishing how great things Jesus had done for him” (Luke 8: 39), and why the men of Sychar responded so positively to the message of a despised and immoral woman to “Come, see a man who told me all things I had ever done: is not he the Christ?” (John 4: 29). Both evangelists could speak with the power of God. Indeed, given the wonder and glory of the Gospel message, it is difficult to understand why any preacher is not “in spirit fervent; serving the Lord” (Rom. 12: 11). I am not arguing for mere excitement, and an imitated enthusiasm is just about the most empty thing that can possibly exist in a preacher. No, what I am talking about is a passion that only comes from being in the presence of God. An illustration may help: during the Welsh Revival a certain preacher had just one sermon to preach from, but, nonetheless, it was used for the salvation of hundreds. News of this success reached another preacher far away, and this man became anxious to find out the secret. At length, reaching the humble cottage where the first preacher lived, he was taken into a poorly furnished room and pointed to a spot where the carpet was worn bare, near a window that looked out toward the mountains. Then he was told, ‘Brother, that is where I got that sermon. My heart was heavy for men. One evening I knelt there and cried for power to preach as I had never preached before. The hours passed until midnight struck, and the stars looked down, but the answer did not come. So I prayed until at length I saw a faint grey light shoot up in the east. Presently it became silver, and I watched and prayed until the silver became gold with the new day, and then the sermon came, and the power came. I lay down and slept, then arose and preached, and scores fell down before God. That is where I got that sermon’. The story needs no further comment. The Lord’s testimony concerning John the Baptist was that “He was the burning and shining lamp” (John 5:35). It is one thing to shine, it is quite another to burn. So many preachings today are ineffective because they have the character of a dry discourse. Sometimes the preacher is said to ‘handle his text.’ This is all wrong. If he handles his text he cannot preach at all. But when his text handles him, when it grips and masters and possesses him, then he can preach. Too much of our Christianity is theoretical, and the unbelieving are rightly unpersuaded when our talk does not match our walk. There is a sobering story told of a conversation between a great actor and a preacher, in which the actor was asked: ‘Why is it that you are appearing before crowds night after night with fiction, and the crowds come wherever you go, while I am preaching the essential and unchangeable truth, and not getting any crowd at all?’. Many would respond to such a question by saying that things have changed, and that men are now more hostile to the things of God. There may be some truth in this, but there is certainly a lot of truth in the actor’s answer: “I can tell you the difference between us. I present the fiction as though it were fact; you present the fact as though it were fiction”. It is no good preaching spiritual realities if such things are not practically evident in the way we live. The message that Lot preached (see Gen. 19: 14) was earnest and urgent—but achieved nothing. Solemn lesson!
To sum up: the preacher’s vocation has not changed. First, he must be sent by God, not generally but every time he preaches. Second he must preach as pleasing God and not man. Third, he must preach as being impassioned by God. If the preaching is failing, then it is because preachers have let go of these vital truths. We have let go our vocation, and if the preaching is to succeed under our watch then we must get back to it. Real preaching is, after all, a great occupation. As the Scripture says: “How beautiful the feet of them that announce glad tidings of peace, of them that announce glad tidings of good things!” (Rom. 10: 15). May we therefore be stirred up to serve the Lord!