Powerful speakers or faithful preachers?

February 19, 2013 § 2 Comments

There seems to be no end of seminars, tape series or books that are guaranteed to make me a better preacher.  I regularly receive emails with enticing subject titles like “Preach sermons that will move your people!” “Preach with power” and “Is your preaching changing lives?”

No preacher wants to believe that his sermons are without power, and no congregation desires a preacher who does not trust that God will use his preaching in powerful ways.  People have a high expectation of their pastors when it comes to preaching, and rightly so.  They want to “show him off” when friends or family visit, they want him to make the Bible “come alive” when they bring unchurched friends; and, in between, they want him to hit “home runs” every week.  In short, they want him to be a dynamic, powerful speaker who makes sitting for half an hour worth it.

As I said, I believe it is right to have a high expectation of preachers.  After all, God himself calls preachers to proclaim his holy and inerrant Word.  It can be very easy, however, to measure “good preaching” against a standard that has more to do with presentation and results than with faithful exposition and application.

Evangelicalism is awash with great speakers.  Take your pick of conferences and/or cruises and, aside from every event being billed as a “life-changing experience,” the draw is the speakers.  They are “gifted,” “uniquely qualified,” and “powerful.”  Stir Christian radio, with all its dynamic teachers, into the mix and you’ve got a sure-fire recipe for potential congregational frustration: Why can’t Pastor Jones keep my attention like Chuck Swindoll?  Why doesn’t Pastor Smith move me like David Jeremiah?

I don’t at all wish to belittle the God-given gifts of these particular men, the former being one who has meant a great deal to my own spiritual growth.  But I have noticed two things.  The first is the tendency to say that a sermon was “great” or a speaker “good” based upon the perceived emotional impact it had on the listener.  The second is the ease with which a speaker who does not immediately grab and hold one’s attention is dismissed.  In short, I believe the proliferation of powerful speakers among us has spoiled many in our churches—and so caused us to exalt a standard for preaching that actually has very little to do with Scripture .

God has chosen to use the preaching of the Word as his primary means of bringing his the transforming grace into the lives of people. Preaching is also the centerpiece of worship.  When Paul told Timothy to “devote [himself] to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13), he was reminding the young pastor that his priority was the proclamation of God’s Word to God’s people in the setting of corporate worship.  Though the New Testament may be frustratingly silent regarding the elements of worship incorporated by the apostolic church, this one things is clear:  The preaching of the Word took center stage.

Later Paul gave Timothy an even stronger exhortation, charging him “[i]n the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom” to “[p]reach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.  For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:1-3).

There will always be men who are willing to give the people what they want; Paul tells Timothy he is under the charge to preach what they need.  He is never to judge the success of his preaching by the approval of his audience, but rather upon his keeping of “the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:13).  In short, he must be faithful to biblical truth.  How will he maintain this biblical fidelity?  Only by his humble reliance upon God’s grace:  “Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us” (2:14).

None of this is to say that a preacher should not seek to have a powerful impact upon his listener.  He must, however, always remind himself that the gift of preaching is for the delivery of God’s truth.  Preaching is a platform for the gospel, not the other way around.  Every man God calls to preach he gifts to preach, and that is God’s assuring promise, not only to the church but also to the preacher himself.  It is redundant to say that a man is a “gifted” preacher because God has never given his church a preacher who is not gifted to preach!

What we usually mean by “gifted” is that such a man is an engaging, powerful and effective speaker. But there is a difference between being a powerful speaker and a faithful preacher.  A powerful speaker is a talented rhetorician, able to capture and keep an audience any number of ways—perhaps by engaging them with personal anecdotes, stories, motivational exhortation and piercing questions. A faithful preacher is specially qualified by God to proclaim the Scriptures—and that special qualification is not primarily rhetorical skill; it is the ability to discern and communicate the truth of God’s Word.  Such a man believes that God by his Spirit will engage the attention of the listener.

Now, many faithful preachers are indeed powerful speakers. Throughout her history the church has had many princes of the pulpit, from John Chrysostom (literally, “golden mouth”) to George Whitfield to Charles Spurgeon, men who possessed a keen insight into God’s truth and a passion to communicate it clearly.  Every man who stands to preach hears in his mind the echoing voices of his own homiletic heroes—which may or may not serve to his advantage.  There’s no question that a preacher’s parlance is words, yet a preacher who consistently finds his words getting in the way of his message may not merely need to hone his skills—he may need to get out of the pulpit!

This is not to say that those whom God gifts to preach are automatically “natural” preachers who have no need to develop their gift; on the contrary, such is the stewardship required of all called to preach.  I should also quickly say that the faithful preacher should always seek to hone his gift in order to make a precise delivery of his message.  But it is nonetheless true that we must not confuse dynamic speaking with faithful preaching—especially those of us who preach.  The difference is ultimately this: those who are merely powerful speakers may tend to place style over substance., while the faithful preacher is places biblical fidelity to the substance and explanation of his text at the center of his concern.

This is hardly an arbitrary contrast.  Paul himself said to the Corinthians, “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence….My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,” (1 Corinthians 2:1a, 4, 5).  Now we know that the apostle is not advocating a preaching style that did not seek to win or persuade, for we see him doing the opposite on all of his missionary journeys.  What he is saying is that the substance of preaching takes precedence over the style of preaching. “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” Paul proclaims (2:2), emphasizing that he stayed on message by keeping focus on his subject—the Gospel—“so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (2:5).  It was the power of God, not the eloquence of Paul’s preaching, that yielded fruit.

Certainly every preacher has seen this truth powerfully displayed before his very eyes.  I know that I have.  I am afraid, however, that the situation is usually the opposite of Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 2.   I have walked the lonely gauntlet from pulpit, past the pews and down long steps to the sidewalk outside of our church where I greet folks, praying that I would simply be able to look in the eyes of those who, with a kindly pity, surely thought, Bless his heart, he tried—only to stand in shock as instead they thanked me for my “powerful message.”  My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.  Indeed!

Of course, my fear of facing my congregation had more to do with the status of my ego than with my charge to faithfully preach the Word.  This is the natural struggle of all preachers.  We want to be seen as powerful preachers. We want people to tell us that our preaching is “life-changing.”  We like it when someone tells us that so-and-so said that “the only reason they are coming to our church is because of your preaching.”  Why else do we ask our wives when we get into the car, “What did you think about the sermon?”  We want to be stroked.

This is nothing but pure pride, and it is the enemy of truly powerful preaching.  It shouldn’t seem an irony to us that this is so, because Scripture tells us that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).  If we desire to be powerful preachers, then the very thing we are to be preaching must humble us: the Gospel.  John Piper, commenting on 1 Corinthians 118 in his book, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, writes:

Paul’s aims are the aims of Christian preaching—the glory of God in the glad-hearted, Godward boast of Christians.  But pride stands in way.  To remove it Paul talks about the effect of the cross on his own preaching.  His main point is that the “word of the cross” (1:18) is the power of God to break the pride of man—both preacher and listener—and bring us to a glad reliance on the mercy of God and not on ourselves” (page 34).

Paul argues that the cross would be “emptied of its power” if he had simply presented the gospel in words of human eloquence.  Why?  Piper:  “It would have been emptied because he would have been cultivating the very boasting in man that the cross was meant to crucify (p. 34).

It has been my experience that God is faithful to humble me, either through experiences like the one described above or by graciously reminding me of the amazing privilege that he has allowed me in preaching.  I can say without exaggeration that every time I have been aware of God’s power in or as a result of my preaching it has been simultaneously driven home to me that only God, by the power of the Holy Spirit could have been responsible.  The faithful preacher humbly recognizes this, and as a result is aware that the line between “ear-tickling” and preaching the Word is thinner than most would like to think.

So how are pastors to encourage their people to recognize the biblical standards of preaching?  The answer, of course, is right before us:  “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.”  As a preacher I must shoulder my charge and preach, humbly relying upon the power of the Spirit to keep me biblically faithful and gospel centered; and you, my dear brethren, as a congregation of the Lord must shoulder your charge to submit to the Word, examining every word I speak against the Word God has spoken, meditating upon it and applying it as the Spirit leads, so that, together, our faith “might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”


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