How to Preach the Word in a World of Words
- 2006 31 Mar
While planting a new church, I wrestled with the concept of preaching. At the time, “seeker services” were all the rage. Everybody knew about the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span, where the remote control is always within reach, the effects are always special, and the image always shifting. In such a climate, preaching—one guy standing in one place talking about one thing—seems anachronistic.
So I began the new congregation, injecting movie clips and funny skits into our services. It wasn’t that I abandoned preaching; preaching was in my blood. But I fretted at first that, if we didn’t offer some novelty, people wouldn’t come back. The interesting thing was that those who did come back—and kept coming back—did so for two reasons: The love of God they found. The Word of God they heard.
I remember Joan, for example. She was raised in a denomination not famous for preaching. Joan “shacked up” with a fellow named Don, but preaching convinced her that God didn’t want her to live that way. Though it took a while, Don also became persuaded. Not only did they keep coming to church, but they stopped living together. Eventually, Don, an ex-drug user, moved to another state and became a preacher himself.
Another fellow, Roger, sat on the third row with his two boys. His wife had run off two years before. If ever there was a “seeker,” it was Roger. He sat there Sunday after Sunday, eyes riveted to mine, ears locked on every word. Yet I wasn’t telling him how to get along without a wife and a mother for his children. I was talking about worship, the Lord’s Supper, redemption through the shed blood of Christ—not the practical and relevant themes my church-growth literature touted. But Roger kept coming.
Why? It wasn’t that we used no music; we played and sang with all our heart. We had a ball with the skits and the movie clips. We stayed flexible. But there was always preaching—one guy standing in one place talking about one thing. And that guy was delighted to see confirmed what he’d believed all along: Methods will melt and fads fade, but the Word of God will remain.
Two thousand years ago, the apostle Paul sat in a dank Roman cell with a pen in his hand and a chain around his waist. In the dimness, it was probably hard to see. Yet Paul saw more clearly than most; he knew he was going to die, and he wrote of what would live on:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort with complete patience and teaching. (2 Timothy 4:1-2, ESV)
First, he tells what to preach—the word. What word? It’s a word so simple a child can splash around in it, yet so deep an adult can sink into its depths. Though Paul was bound, the message of Christ remained the unchained melody of his life. He found his scrolls—what we know as the Old Testament—glowing with the presence of Christ. He’d expounded those ancient scriptures, revealing the Jesus concealed there. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul helped complete the New Testament scriptures. Now others, like his trainee Timothy, would continue the work of preaching and teaching.
Paul was a prisoner of Rome, but his heart roamed free. The Word had set him free! It reminded him that he had a king, a city, and a glory awaiting him. What is the message some of us get to preach? What is the word all of us get to hear? It is the Word in a world of words, outweighing all other messages combined. It’s what brings us in, builds us up, and sends us out strong for the King’s service.
Paul tells what to preach, and also when to preach—always. Does sermonizing ever get a little old? A cartoon shows an annoyed preacher telling his congregation, “This is my fourth sermon on the transforming power of the gospel. Why do you look like the same old bunch?”
Americans expect results—yesterday. We’re interested in what works and if it doesn’t immediately work, throw it out! If preaching doesn’t appear to be accomplishing anything in the lives of its audience, we question its power. Maybe, we think, it’s time to trade the preacher in on a newer, shinier model! (While we’re at it, why don’t we trade his worn Bible for a brand new self-help book from Dr. Phil?)
For some tired preachers who labor Sunday after Sunday, month after month, year after year, the results may seem too long in coming. But preachers and teachers must wait as well as work. Samuel Shoemaker said, “It is easy to grow skeptical about sermons when you realize how many people there are who have been listening to them for ten, twenty, forty years yet seem little changed by what they have heard. But do not belittle the indirect and unconscious influence of preaching, nor the possible effect upon someone seeking or in need who happened to come to church that day.”
Our patient God takes the time to do all things well—including changing us. “In season and out of season” wasn’t a pious platitude written in an ivory tower. Paul was profoundly conscious of the wickedness of the heart and the stubbornness of the will. To keep on preaching the Word, to keep on listening to it, requires patience.
The preacher patiently wields the word as a surgeon stands and plies his scalpel, the better to preach incisively. Like a surgeon, the preacher must sometimes wound in order to heal. The Word probes mind and heart (Hebrews 4:12), which can be an unpleasant experience. The Word challenges, the Word warns. But, if “faithful are the wounds of a friend,” the Word is the best friend we have.
But carefully, preacher! We wield scalpels, not clubs. Though the preacher must cut to the heart, he dare not crush it. He may believe he is contending for the truth when he is being merely contentious; he may confuse butchery with bravery.
The sword of the Spirit is double-edged: It cuts preachers as well as pew-sitters. Paul leaves those who might preach carelessly, heedless of their own sin, with a warning: Having preached to others, watch out! Don’t miss the boat yourself! (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:27). Preachers are sinners too, and the grace they help themselves to they must share with their churches as well.
It’s hard to preach, it’s hard to listen, but that’s nothing new. Every generation has produced its sloth in this regard. I’m amused by Chrysostom’s sermon title, A Criticism of Those Who Have Abandoned the Religious Service and Who Have Gone Off to the Chariot Races and the Theatres (amused, that is, until my own flock races off to the lake or the ballgame!). There’s always something brighter and shinier out there—some amusement, some new philosophy, some magnetic ism. Ears have always itched; eyes have always wandered. Shoemaker is right. In such an environment, it is indeed easy to grow skeptical about preaching.
So why do we continue to plant a person behind a pulpit to speak and pour people into seats to hear? To paraphrase the aging apostle, the voice of experience, There’s always a better deal on a used god out there, Timothy. But don’t let it throw you. They may have the sizzle, but we’ve got the steak (cf. 2 Timothy 4:3-5).
The preacher is only human. He’s a sinner and his notes are stained with last night’s cherry pie. The congregation is restless and weary and easily distracted. But a treasure chest lays open between them. We may not realize it. We often forget it. But one word of truth spoken in monotone is worth more than all the bright, flashing lies put together. The weakest, weariest preacher is privileged to speak a word that can make all other words hollow. He gets to talk about a life worth living, a death we don’t have to be afraid of. His people get to hear about the love above all loves and the grace that always runs downhill to where we need it.
Sure, it’s a bore sometimes! So’s a peanut butter sandwich. So’s a long marriage on a rainy Wednesday morning. So, I suppose a rainbow would be if it hung around long enough. But there’s nourishment in the sandwich, security in the relationship, and wonder in God’s bow. Why preach? Why listen?
Why, for the wonder of it all!
Gary D. Robinson is preaching minister of the Church of Christ in Conneautville, Pa. His congregation patiently endures the infusing of his sermons with comic book lore.
Copyright BreakPoint with Chuck Colson. Used with Permission. Please make a donation to help continue the Christian worldview ministry of “BreakPoint” and the Wilberforce Forum. Donate online or call 1-877-322-5527