Preaching is what happens when I faithfully explain the text of Scripture and the text of life, when the world of the Bible and the world of the listeners collide in Christ. So my task is to find those things that will help me see Christ in the world and see my world in the Bible.
– John Ortberg
This past Sunday, Nichole led our worship gathering, and it was something special. She is not a “rock star” – her heart beats for healing and encouragement, so her music is often mellow and reflective. But there is no doubt that she was in tune with what the Spirit wanted to say to us.
My favorite song was “Porcelain Heart”, a song Nic learned when we were going through some troubled time. She really pours herself into the song, and the richness of her voice blends with the tenderness of her heart and supernatural things happen. One of the amazing lines is:
You know; you pray
This can’t be the way
You cry; You say
Some thing’s gotta change
And mend this porcelain heart
Please mend this porcelain heart of mine
Creator, mend this heart
During the service, I shared my heart on the matter of relevance to our world. We, the church, often use words without thinking about their meaning. Relevant is one of those words. To most church leaders, relevant means “cool” or “trendy.” It is one of the catchwords of the contemporary movement. But what does it really mean?
The real definition of relevant is this – effectively and clearly speaking truth into a culture. Relevance is NOT being cool or using the latest techniques. It is being effective and clear. It is NOT measured by quantitative results but by clarity of speech and ministry.
The church is called to be salt and light to the world – but salt without flavor is just white dirt, and light has to be turned on something in order for it to accomplish anything. The church needs to speak truth into the lives of people around us. We have to be relevant to our culture.
So, now to the topic of preaching. We often confuse the idea of preaching with motivational speaking, theological lecture and/or some form of twisted religious entertainment. We talk about “good preaching” and the definition is often bizarre.
John Piper, who has spent a great deal of time studying the work of Jonathan Edwards had this to say about what “good preaching” is.
- Preaching Stirs Up Holy Affections – Good preaching aims at stirring up holy affections. These include a hatred towards sin and a delight in God, as well as a growing desire for holiness, tenderness and compassion.
- Preaching Enlightens The Mind – Sound preaching enlightens the mind and burns the heart. According to Edwards a preacher must shine and burn. There must be heat in the heart and light in the mind. Affections that do not arise from an enlightened mind are not holy affections but instead are simply emotional responses. (We would do well to head this insightful thought in light of the trends of emotional manipulation in our day).
- Preaching is Saturated With Scripture – Edwards held the firm conviction that good preaching is saturated with Scripture. Every sermon must steadily, constantly and frequently quote the Word of God. This truth will ensure that we stay on track as faithful ministers of the Word.
- Preaching Employs Analogies and Images – Abstract truth must be fleshed out. Edwards argued that vivid images touch the heart more than anything else. Piper informs us that Edwards strained at making heaven look irresistibly beautiful and the torments of hell look intolerably horrible.
- Preaching Uses Threats and Warnings – In our day of politically correct language and blind tolerance, Edwards argues for threat and warning since it restrains one from sin and excites one to spiritual exercise. (A true preacher today may not necessarily be a popular preacher.)
- Preaching Pleads for a Response – Sound preaching seeks a response. Edwards, like Spurgeon after him, pointed out: “Sinners… should be earnestly invited to come and accept the Savior, and yield their hearts unto him, with all the winning, encouraging arguments for them… that the Gospel affords.”
- Preaching Probes the Workings of the Heart – Piper points out that powerful preaching is like surgery. “Under the anointing of the Holy Spirit, it locates, lances, and removes the infection of sin.” He shows that Edwards probed his own heart and therefore knew the heart of others. Sorting out the wheat from the chaff in his own church gave Edwards great insightfulness into the heart of man.
- Preaching Yields to the Holy Spirit – Since all preaching is totally dependent on the work of the Holy Spirit, prayer is an essential for good preaching.
- Preaching is From a Tender and Broken Heart – Good preaching flows from a spirit of brokenness and tenderness. Edwards pointed out that the eye of blessing is upon the meek and trembling (Is. 66:2).
- Preaching is Intense- The reality of heaven and hell ignites renewal and infuses the pulpit with power. The preacher is conscious of his responsibility as he declares eternal truths.
(Summarized by Steve Cornell)
These guidelines are applicable, especially in light of being relevant in our ministry. Relevance is not necessarily the same as popularity. Sometimes the most relevant thing we can do is be counter-culture, to stand for something that is not popular, is not politically correct, is not “appropriate.”
Many preachers wonder why they are ineffective in their ministry. They follow all the right formulas and guidelines; they execute the task flawlessly; but people do not respond, lives are not changed. The reason is simple – they are no longer relevance. The entire function of the preacher is to be relevant – to be the bridge between God’s truth and man’s life.
In their book 7 Practices of Effective Ministry, Andy Stanley and the North Point leadership team make it clear that in any ministry you have to “clarify the win.” What is the win in preaching? It is changed lives. People should be learning how to love Jesus, hate sin and trust the Bible. The truth of God’s Word should be spoken in a clear, effective way and understood in the same fashion. All the technique and technology mean nothing if people’s lives are not being changed.
One last thing – preaching is NOT entertainment. It is not about PLEASING people’s expectations of what a sermon is or feeling satisfied that you “have it down.” Preaching is about changing lives; worship is about changing lives.
Recently, I had an epiphany. Everything about the Christian mission is about Jesus (profound, I know). In specific, it is about encountering Jesus. When a believer encounters Jesus, it is called worship. When an unbeliever encounters Jesus, it is called evangelism. So preaching, singing, teaching – all of these things are hinged on the idea of conveying the living JESUS of the Bible to people in their temporal culture and language.