Billy Graham: Some Lessons for Preachers

Billy Graham has changed address. He is now more alive than ever. Upon hearing news of his death I thought it appropriate to reflect on what preachers might want to learn from his life and ministry.

I remember hearing Billy Graham preaching during Mission England in 1984/85. As a boy I sat on the terraces of the stadium and heard his voice ring out with clarity, urgency and sincerity. A few years later technology allowed LiveLink – I remember sitting in a large tent and watching him preach on the screen, and then several friends going forward to trust in Christ for salvation. His book on Angels was the first Christian book to ignite a love for reading in me. A few years later as a student I listened to a cassette of him preaching as I drove into university each day. I lived at the tail end of Billy Graham’s ministry, but I am a grateful recipient of it nevertheless

As preachers in a new century, what can we learn from Billy Graham as we reflect on his life and ministry? Here are a few lessons, please do add more:

1. Preach Christ. Billy Graham gradually developed a very significant platform in society. He had access to Presidents, and yet that never swayed him into preaching politics. He was known across the globe, and yet that never stirred him into promoting himself. He preached Christ.

2. Personal Integrity. Billy Graham would have been a colossal scalp for the enemy to take. It would have been a huge media frenzy. It never happened. He is a lesson to us all on the power of personal integrity in ministry. He made choices regarding money, and especially personal purity, that many would scoff at today. But we should thank God for men who make it to the finish line.

3. Profound Conviction. Billy Graham believed what he preached, and so listeners felt the force of his message. The direct manner of his communication left listeners without any doubt that he wanted them to hear him and act on what he said. This conviction was not a performance, it was forged in the crucible of prayer and a personal walk with Christ.

4. Pioneering Innovation. Billy Graham was willing to embrace transport and technological developments to preach Christ. When others felt constrained by tradition, he was willing to travel further and press into the use of newspaper columns, network radio, television, satellite broadcast and so on. What he did may look antiquated now, but he was radical then.

5. Proclamation Ministry. Billy Graham proclaimed a message. He was a herald. There is certainly a need for those who can debate or engage in high level apologetics. There is a place for various approaches to evangelism and ministry. Billy Graham heralded the gospel. “The Bible says…” may sound quaint to some, but it rang crystal clear in many hearts. He knew that God would use the proclaimed Word.

6. Preach Simply. Billy Graham preached so that ordinary people could understand what he was saying and relate to it. He avoided complicated terminology. He didn’t show off his learning. He kept the vocabulary and the sermonic structure simple. He would build rapport, show that something is not right (sin), and then announce the hope to be found in Jesus, inviting response.

7. Pathos Targeted. Billy Graham knew that the Gospel had to be proclaimed to the heart. He knew people feel empty, they feel lonely, they feel guilty and they feel afraid of death. He did not harangue his listeners with duty, but proclaimed the message with deep compassion.

8. Prayer Integral. Billy Graham knew that for lives to be transformed it would need to be the work of the Holy Spirit. Thus, he was a man of prayer. His ministry was bathed in prayer. We might say his impact can only be explained by prayer. Copying Billy Graham’s intonation or gestures, using his illustrations, replicating his urgency, and even plagiarizing his sermons will not bring significant fruit. Copying his prayer life might.

He preached in person to over 210 million people through his ministry. I suspect none of us will come close to that. But we would do well to seek to emulate a life lived with utmost integrity, gracious humility, profound simplicity – and may we also proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to an ever-needy world.

Advertisements

Preaching Myths – Part 8

I could extend this series for much longer, but I think I will finish with this familiar myth:

8. Since preaching is not a performance, as long as the content is good, delivery doesn’t matter.

This myth is birthed from a good motivation.  Many preachers want to honour the biblical text (content), and don’t want to draw attention to themselves (delivery).  So, in an attempt to avoid performance or entertainment, the preacher therefore ignores delivery.  This is worth wrestling with though:

A. Poor delivery skills will draw attention to the preacher.  If you have ever heard someone preaching with an unchecked verbal pause (i.e. the repeated use of a word without intending to use its meaning), or with an awkward gesture, or without any hint of a smile, or with unusual or absent eye contact, then you will know that it can become very distracting.  A preacher you cannot hear, or who bores you to tears, or who doesn’t seem to care about you, is a preacher who will draw attention to himself as people try not to roast the preacher over their Sunday lunch (instead of celebrating the great content that may or may not have been there).

B. Working on delivery is not about performing.  Obviously, for some it is, and there are plenty of examples on YouTube or in the press that bring shame on the name of Christ for their quirky insistence on being strange.  However, for most of us, working on our delivery is a matter of love for our listeners and good stewardship of the ministry God has entrusted to us.  Working on delivery is not about performing, it is about communicating effectively.

C. The goal of giving attention to our delivery is to help us become more natural.  We are not living in the old days where delivery was largely about platform presence and effective acoustics (i.e. vocal projection).  In this day and age, the goal should be to be natural, normal, authentic.  And in the unnatural environment of public speaking, it takes work to be natural.  It takes some work to make our gestures “fit” the size of the audience, or to progress logically or chronologically from left to right (from the listeners’ viewpoint).  It takes work to bring the energy and dynamism we have in conversation into the strange setting of addressing a crowd.  Our goal is not to perform, but to be able to communicate effectively … and to be ourselves.

D. We cannot abdicate any aspect of preaching and “leave it to the Spirit.”  I have seen this logic in several variations.  There is the “I will do the explaining, but leave the application to the Spirit” idea – this is not good thinking.  The Spirit is involved in your study, your explanation and your application.  (What you can’t do is force change inside your listeners, that is His exclusive domain.)  Equally, there is the “I will do the content, but I will leave the engaging of listeners’ attention and interest to the Spirit” excuse for being a dull communicator.  Again, poor thinking.  We need to be leaning on the Spirit’s help in every aspect of sermon preparation and delivery.  We cannot hand over one part of that, any more than we can push out the Spirit and claim to handle any part on our own.

There are many other myths I could ponder, but I will leave it there for this series.  Thanks for your comments, conversation, sharing, etc. – it is all appreciated.

Preaching Myths – Part 7

Following on from the last myth, here’s another:

7. A sermon is the output of a mechanical process

Almost every preaching textbook offers a sequence of steps that lead from the text to the pulpit. Some books use seven, eight or ten, others perhaps fourteen or more.  The number is not the point.  The sequence of steps can give the impression that you put the Bible text in at one end of the machine, crank on the handle and out pops a good biblical sermon.

A. There is a logical preparation process for a sermon.  While there may be different labels used in the various processes, there is also a logic to the process.  You have to select a passage before you can study it and determine its idea.  You have to understand the passage before you can think about formulating a sermon.  And so, at one level, the process is necessary.  Just as it is necessary to learn the basic skills and sequences for driving a car, so the textbooks give us a helpful breakdown of the sermon preparation process.  However, after driving a car for a quarter of a century, I am no longer repeating to myself “mirror-signal-maneuver” like I did at the start.  I’ve learned that driving is about much more than basic skills and sequencing.

B. Sermon preparation requires multi-directional sensitivity.  To push the driving analogy further, I could say that driving requires multi-directional sensitivity – I have to be aware of dozens of things at once.  To fully describe what is going on in a mature and skilled driver would overwhelm every beginner.  The same is true in preaching.  The preacher needs to develop multiple levels of sensitivity to the text, to the listeners, to the Spirit of God, to the occasion, to the church where the sermon is delivered, to the culture in which the listeners live, to the acoustics of the venue, to the influence of proxemics on the delivery, to the body language of the listeners, to his/her own strengths and weaknesses as a preacher, to baggage in his/her own life that may be influencing the preaching, to the clock, and more.

There is no machine that will generate the right sermon for you and your listeners for this Sunday. What there is is a preacher prayerfully relying on God and seeking to bring together every skill learned and sensitivity developed to make this sermon the best it can be.  You may rightly say that another preacher could be more skilled and more sensitized than you are, and that therefore you are a weak option for your church this Sunday.  Good.  God loves to work through the weak.  Let’s give it the best we can and know that God has got to come through again!

Preaching Myths – Part 6

Here’s another idea that we too easily believe:

6. A sermon is just the sum of its parts.

That is to say, a sermon consists of explanation combined with application and some illustrations.  There is an element of truth here, but it would be naïve to think that it is that simple.

A. There are basic components of a biblical sermon.  Essentially there are sermon components like the introduction and the conclusion.  And there are ingredients that go into the body of a sermon, such as explanation, application and so-called illustration.  At a certain level every sermon could be analysed and found to include these components and ingredients.

B. There are nuances that influence the effectiveness of each of those components and ingredients.  For example, there is no such thing as a good illustration, there is such a thing as a good illustration of something.  A good explanation for one group of people will fly completely over the heads of another crowd.

C. There are less tangible influences on the effectiveness of a sermon.  We could go in many directions here, but lets think about the preacher.  What influences how the preacher preaches the components and ingredients of a sermon?  The preacher’s love for God and love for the listener is hard to quantify, but it surely influences the choice of sermon ingredients and their delivery.  The preacher’s personal baggage is a filter through which every sermon is processed and preached.  If a preacher is struggling with pride, then in some way it will show in the sermon.  If a preacher is angry, then in some way it will show in the sermon.

A sermon is not just the ingredients of explanation, application and illustrations blended together with sermon components like an introduction and a conclusion.  The effectiveness of a sermon goes much deeper than the quality of the elements that are blended together.  There is also the moving dynamic of those listening, the occasion, as well as the preacher’s ability, style of communication and so much more.  There are complex nuances influencing every aspect of a sermon.  Let’s prayerfully keep learning so that we can be the best stewards of the preaching privilege that we can.

Preaching Myths – Part 5

The first four posts have looked at issues of evaluation.  Let’s change direction.  What other preaching myths are out there?  How about this idea:

5. Only well-prepared sermons get blessed.

This is what we might call a “yes and no” type of myth.  There is truth to it, and there is myth too.

A. Ministry never depends on our ability, preparation, skill or learning.  For a life to be changed, be it through salvation or spiritual growth, the Spirit of God has to be at work in the lives of those listening.  It will never be based on what we bring to the situation, and yet we have no freedom to abdicate from our role, because…

B. Good stewardship expects proper preparation.  While we rely fully on Christ as we serve, we are stewards of the opportunity, stewards of the gifting, stewards of our learning, etc.  Therefore it makes sense that we will give full and proper preparation for the ministry opportunities that we are given.  However, this does not mean that our preparation has to be perfect, because…

C. God’s grace overcomes interrupted preparation. We all know that life has a habit of hitting us at inopportune moments.  Family problems, pastoral crises, distressing emails.  In a post-Genesis 3 world we will rarely have the perfect preparation for a sermon, just as any “gardening” in this world is now a sweaty business.  But instead of despairing, we can celebrate God’s grace.  He understands when life hits, and even when we struggle and fail.  There will be times when we preach at our weakest and God’s ministry seems to advance at its strongest.  Yet we do not abuse this grace, but instead, remember…

D. A good sermon is built on macro as well as micro preparation.  There is this coming Sunday’s message, and there are decades of messages.  How long does it take to prepare a message?  It takes a good number of hours this week, but it also takes years of cumulative study and preaching.  This means that when your preparation for Sunday is decimated by life’s circumstances, your sermon will rest on the strength of years in the Scriptures.

So the bottom line is that as a preacher you are being a good steward if you invest in preparation both for this next message, and for all your future ministry.  At the same time, your dependence is not on your preparation, but on God’s grace, because apart from Him we can do nothing.

Preaching Myths – Part 4

So far in this series we have been looking at myths surrounding evaluating sermons.  Is it wrong to evaluate at allDoes good fruit act as guarantee of the sermonWhat about the “no-offense” rule?  Let’s take one more angle on the issue of evaluation:

4. If the sermon is true, all is well.

This is a slippery one.  The moment a question is raised about a message, some will jump to the defense of the preacher by asserting that what was said was true, even if it was not exactly the truth of the passage being preached.  Let’s knock around a few comments on this:

A. Most of us have mis-preached and should be grateful for God’s graciousness.  I would not want every old sermon scrutinized and held over me, and I suspect you would not either.  This is not about nitpicking through every word preached and being judge and jury of orthodoxy.  However, in balance with this first thought are those that follow.

B. What the Bible says matters.  While we do want to be gracious to one another, we also need to remember that we are handling the Word of God.  Every single word is given by inspiration and we will in no way be honouring God if we take matters of accurate text handling and interpretation lightly.

C. What the listener reads matters.  Here is the sticking point.  Just because what a preacher says is true does not mean that saying it from the wrong passage is acceptable.  Listeners may be looking at the biblical text as the sermon is proclaimed.  It does not matter that they are hearing truth, if that truth is falsely tied to another biblical text that does not mean what is being said.  The integrity of the messenger and message matter.  Even if the message spoken were biblically true, it matters if listeners are looking at their Bibles and scratching their heads.  We do not want to give the impression that the authority for the message is birthed out of the ingenuity of the preacher.  Are we comfortable with someone preaching biblical truth from an appliance instruction manual, or from a kid’s book of fairy tales?  Then we should not settle too easily for misappropriated biblical texts either.

Preaching Myths – Part 3

The whole idea of a “good sermon” is a tricky one.  While some feel it is inappropriate to evaluate, others base that evaluation purely on positive fruit.  Here is another evaluation myth:

3. If a sermon is really good then listeners will not be offended

This is not so much the presence of positive fruit, but the absence of apparently negative fruit.  There are many conflict avoiders amongst us.  Probably most of us would rather not see people upset or offended in the church – it certainly makes ministry easier when everyone is smiling.  But we need to probe the premise here: is a sermon really failing if some get offended by it?

By that measure, Jesus’ ministry was incredibly ineffective.  Jesus knew what was going on inside people and therefore seemed very willing to offend by what he said and what he did.  We certainly do not have perfect insight into human hearts, but it would be utterly naïve to assume that everyone is in some sort of happy neutral state.  Good preaching should disturb the comfortable and not just comfort the disturbed.  There are people in our churches who should be profoundly bothered by the gospel.

But there are some important caveats to make explicit here:

A. Make sure that people are offended by the right things.  If people find the grace of God scandalous, or the glory of the gospel, or character of God, or the depth of their need, then it is probably a good offense.  But if people are being wound up by your personal ministry soapbox issues or legalistic preferences, if people are being upset by the promotion of a certain Christian sub-culture, then I would argue that the offense is not life-giving.

B. Make sure that people are offended by the right person.  If people find your tone objectionable, or your manner distasteful, or your character un-Christ-like, then they are being offended by the wrong person.  Good preaching will offend some, and they may well pin the blame on the preacher, but at the heart of the offense is the Holy Spirit’s work of conviction and shining a light into their hearts.  They may lash out at you, but the bothering is being done by God.  It is so hard to evaluate this as we have a seemingly infinite capacity to self-protect and justify what we do.  Ask God, and ask trusted others, and make sure that your ministry has a graciousness and gentleness befitting a spokesman for Christ (as well as the courage and boldness to speak the truth that His spokesperson should demonstrate too).

C. Make sure that offense is a text-response. If people are angry at your illustrations, your anecdotes, your explanations and your applications, then there may be an issue.  Ideally, the offense should be caused by the biblical text itself rather than your departure from it.

A positive-response-only expectation is not realistic for true biblical preaching.  We should be seeing some apparently negative-responses, but we need God’s help to make sure that what provokes these responses is life-giving biblical preaching rather than our personal rudeness, pastoral insensitivity, or whatever else we can manage as a misfire from the pulpit.

Preaching Myths – Part 2

Last time we thought about the idea that godly preparation precludes the possibility of evaluation.  This time let’s take an idea that is related to that:

2. If it bears good fruit then it is a good sermon.

This is a good follow up to the previous myth.  Maybe you’ve had the experience of struggling through a sermon only to discover that someone else loved it.  Fair enough, there is certainly subjectivity involved in hearing a message.  But what about when the sermon you hear is not just not to your taste, but actually contains error, and then … someone trusts in Christ at the end.  That can be perplexing!

So many things need to be taken into account here.  You could have misheard the preacher.  You could have been biased in your critical view of the message.  Your evaluation criteria may be completely off.  At the same time, the fruit that seems so surprising could be the fruit of other ministry rather than this particular message.  Or the fruit could not be genuine.  Or the fruit could be the glorious grace of God working despite a weak or flawed sermon (praise God for that if you are a preacher, you’ve probably preached some shockers too!)  There are so many unknowns in this.

However, accepting all the multiple layers of complexity, there seems to be a double-edged bottom line here.  On the one hand ministry will be judged by its fruits and this is right.  Good, faithful, Christ-centred, biblically-driven, Spirit-dependent ministry will bring genuine and eternity-changing fruit over the course of time.  On the other hand, there is not a one-for-one correspondence here: apparently positive fruit (conversions, feedback, etc.) does not mean this particular sermon was solid, neither does apparently negative fruit (no response, negative feedback, etc.) mean this particular sermon fell short.  God does a lot of unseen work through messages while preachers press on in faith without knowing if it is making the slightest bit of difference.

How have you experienced this tension?

Preaching Myths – Part 1

There are plenty of myths floating around.  You may have heard of some.  You may have thought of others.  Here are a few that bear a little bit of scrutiny.  Let’s start with this one:

1. Since the preacher was led by God in the preparation, it would be wrong to evaluate the sermon.

Here is one I heard a few years ago.  Astonishingly, it was spoken by a church leader in reference to a visiting speaker.  The speaker had preached a message that was technically wrong in some details, but more overwhelmingly unhelpful as a whole.  I gently mentioned this to a more senior leader in the church who made it clear that it was not his place to evaluate what this godly man had been led to by God in his preparations.  Huh?

Here’s one reason why this dear brother was wrong.  The pastoral leadership of a church has the biblically defined role of shepherding the flock, which includes at least four elements.  The shepherds, that is, the pastors or elders, are responsible for the feeding and leading of the flock, as well as making sure it is protected and cared for.  All four elements of the leadership role come into play when a sermon is preached.  Whether the elder/pastor is preaching or not, he is responsible.  Therefore, if a visiting preacher is unhelpful in any of these areas, it is the spiritual responsibility of the leadership to evaluate that message and determine whether something needs to be done retrospectively or just in anticipation of any future visit.  Non-evaluation is not a spiritual option, it is pastoral abdication.

That is specifically in respect to the pastoral leadership, but what about the average listener?  Acts 17:11 is informative for us: The Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians – they listened intently to the apostles and they checked the Scriptures to see if what they heard was so.  There is no footnote or marginal comment that adds, “but if the preacher has prayerfully prepared then the above referenced eagerness and Scriptural evaluation does not apply.”

Next time we will look at another sermon evaluation myth.

What Kind of Leader?

The first days of the year are typically days of anticipation and planning.  All around us people will be making their resolutions.  Even in the world of Christian ministry it is easy to get caught up the annual cycle of planning and scheming, often with unchecked values driving fine-sounding aspirations.  This year I want to be fitter, better informed, more productive.  This year I want to start a book, finish a book, see the church grow, etc.  All good things, but potentially all reflections of a set of values that may be dressed up in Christian language, but deep down are very much in line with the competitive culture of this world.

How about something a bit different?  This year I want to think about Jesus so much that I become more like him.  That would be a leadership resolution worthy of our investment!

Just in case you like the idea, let’s kick start the year with a few verses from Isaiah 42.  This is the first of the so-called “Servant Songs” – four songs that are clearly speaking of the Messiah himself, and not the nation of Israel as a whole.  This first song speaks of Jesus as a leader.

42 Behold my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my Spirit upon him;

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,

or make it heard in the street;

a bruised reed he will not break,

and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;

he will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not grow faint or be discouraged

till he has established justice in the earth;

and the coastlands wait for his law.

Three times Isaiah refers to the Servant’s great task of bringing justice to the nations (Isa.42:1, 3, 4).  This is no mean task.  This calls for all the strength, all the power, all the political acumen, and all the gravitas to achieve such a task.  Surely the passage is going to speak of the Servant’s power, his presence, his charismatic personality, and so on?  Actually, no.  Surprisingly it speaks of the Messiah’s relational tenderness.

1. In the first verse, we see the Trinitarian rootedness of the Messiah.  Here the Father speaks of his delight in his chosen servant.  He speaks of putting His Spirit upon him.  It is easy to bypass this introductory image, but we would be theologically poorer if we did bypass it.  Actually we should be rejoicing that our God is the Trinity.  We should be delighted beyond words that we are not serving a self-serving despot, but instead we get to also serve a God who gives of himself, a God who exists in delightful communion.  Later in John 13:3-5(??) we see how Jesus’ rootedness in his relationship with his Father enable him to give sacrificially of himself as he took on the role of the slave at the feet of his disciples.  The Christ-like leader will always be one whose life and ministry is planted deep in the soil of fellowship with the Triune God.  If God being Trinity does not thrill you, stop whatever else you are doing and lay your heart before God, pursuing the delight that can only be found in fellowship with Him.

2.  In the second verse, we see the Messiah in respect to himself.  The striking thought here is that he does not boldly announce his arrival.  He chooses no fanfare, no elaborate introduction, no impressive biographical details.  We exist in a world of self-promoters, and sadly the church offers little respite from this scourge.  Maybe it will be through spending time looking at Jesus that we will lose our appetite for self-promotion and impressive introductions.  Maybe your leadership is marred by a spectacular obsession with self of which you alone are unaware.  Jesus is refreshingly different.

3. In the third verse, we see the Messiah relating to his subjects.  Just as there is a subtle tenderness and humility in the preceding verses, so that becomes explicit in how he deals with others.  So many in our churches and ministries are bruised reeds and faintly burning wicks.  So many are on the edge of collapse in one form or another.  So easily we can stamp all over the people around us, leaving a trail of crushed spirits and broken souls.  Look past the praise of your strong leadership and ask God for sensitivity toward the weak who you may have trodden on in recent months.  Time spent gazing on Christ will result in a radically different manner with people.  Perhaps if we spent more time with Jesus we would invest less praise in the shooting star heroes of the faith who leave a burning trail of destruction behind them.

4. In the fourth verse, the Messiah’s tenderness is not seen to be a lack of endurance.  His task was great, and yet that did not mean he created casualties.  Tenderness is no reason for giving up, nor is endurance an excuse for hurting others.  As it says in Hebrews 12, we should fix our gaze on Jesus so that we also will not grow weary and be tempted to give up.

Maybe a good 2018 for you is not to be measured in new projects, increased productivity or amplified praise.  Maybe a good 2018 will mean more time spent with Jesus, greater tenderness toward others, and simply pressing on with what God has already given to you.  I don’t know what my year looks like, nor even yours, but I know that if our leadership looks Christ-like, then it will be a year well worth living.