Listen to Jonathan Edwards

I just listened to Max McLean’s performance of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon – “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It is considered the most famous sermon ever preached in US history. The sermon is available as a free download here. Actually it has been edited down to about 20 minutes of actual sermon (rather than 43), with extra comments before and after – think radio show. Nonetheless, it’s free and worth hearing.

It is worth hearing both as a listener to be ministered to, and as a preacher to notice a few things. First and foremost, listen as a listener. Get a sense of why people trembled and cried out for mercy. Listen, not for rhetorical power (although I’ll come to that), but for the strong truth of the gospel itself – that’s where “power” is. Listen to stir your appreciation for God’s favor. Listen to stir a passion for the lost, to light afresh a flame for evangelism.

And you can listen as a preacher too. Even this shortened version allows us to hear a classic example of the power of a controlling idea. You will appreciate powerful and vivid sensory imagery conveyed in well-chosen words. Surely, this will stir prayer for your own preaching and those that will hear it.

Monday: Renewing Vision Day

Monday is a good day to take stock, take a deep breath and recommit ourselves to God’s work.  That doesn’t just mean being willing to ever preach again, although for some that might be a good step on a Monday morning!  It means recommitting to really do the work of biblical preaching, rather than just going through the motions.  A couple of quotes from Philip Ryken’s chapter “Preaching that Reforms” in Preach the Word:

If we are living in an age of relativism and narcissism, what are the implications for preaching?  Obviously, Bible teaching will be out of favor.  As sinners, we generally do not like to have our selfishness exposed; but this is one of the primary purposes of preaching the Bible.  In a post-Christian culture, the last thing people want to hear is the truth about their self-centeredness.  What preaching there is, therefore, tends to be therapeutic rather than prophetic.  It aims to make people feel better about who they are rather than to challenge them to become, by God’s grace, what they are not. (p192)

How tempting it is to preach messages that are therapeutic, rather than prophetic.  It’s hard to choose to preach the Word when its message is uncomfortable, unpopular, “unsophisticated” or somehow might offend somebody.  Later in the chapter, Ryken addresses the issue of evangelism:

This kind of proclamation requires boldness, a virtue that is sadly lacking in the contemporary church.  One of the reasons evangelicalism is in decline is because Christians have lost their nerve.  In these post-Christian times, we tend to be a subculture rather than a counterculture. (p198 )

I am not encouraging insensitive brash proclamation, or unnecessarily offensive preaching.  I am just taking stock of my own ministry again this morning and renewing my vision to preach the Word.  It’s the greatest privilege, but it demands an appropriate level of boldness too.  Let’s set our sights on our Lord afresh in order to renew our vision of Him, His Word, His building of His church, His mission to the world … and our privilege of participation in that.

Happy Birthday Billy Graham

Today is a great day in America.  I’m not referring to the election (every other blog on earth is writing about that, but I’ll keep my views in my prayers).  I’m referring to the 90th birthday of Billy Graham.  What a man of God he is!

I heard him live on two occasions in England when I was just eight.  Five years later they had the follow-up “crusade” with live satellite links around the country.  I remember sitting there as a whole family in our church party responded to the call and went forward.  In my short life I’ve seen leaders fall into disrepute, but not Billy Graham.  I have heard the criticisms coming from some quarters, but I have also enjoyed the benefit of being influenced by people saved under Billy Graham’s preaching.

His eyesight is failing, his hearing too, his body is growing weak, but he claims that although the body grows weaker, the spirit doesn’t have to as well.  He is writing another book.  He is still a man of prayer.  Perhaps in Billy Graham we see a great example of a man of God who has lived out an Acts 6:4 life – prioritizing prayer and the Word.  As his spokesman Larry Ross said, “The lion still has a roar!”

Let’s praise God for the privilege we have of seeing Billy Graham press on to the finish line.  Let’s pray that we will each be as faithful, as humble, and as prayerful as Billy Graham.  We may not preach the gospel live to 215million people, but let us give everything we can in the ministry God gives to us and try to finish as well as Billy Graham.

Evangelistic Preaching – A Flexibility Test?

I don’t think there is a definitive model for evangelistic preaching.  There are guidelines, certainly, but also a real need for flexibility.  You have to flex according to the kind of church you are in, the occasion on which you preach, the kind of people to whom you are preaching and so on.

I grew up in a church context where there was, in theory, an evangelistic sermon every Sunday night.  In many ways it was a remnant from an earlier generation in which people would attend church simply because a service was taking place.  By the time I came along (due to being in a Christian family), our culture had changed.  Week after week the meeting would take place, always to the same crowd of believers, usually without clear explanation of how to respond to the gospel, often without clear explanation of the meaning of the cross.  The format of the service was traditional and probably distinctly alien and uncomfortable for any outsider that might attend.  It certainly did not motivate me to invite non-believers.

I think many churches are more purposeful about evangelistic meetings now (at least in my circles).  More creativity, more “natural” communication, more effort to remove the “cringe” factors.  But one thing is clear – there is not one way to preach evangelistically.  Taking into account the people present, how the meeting has been promoted, the expectations of those who have invited friends, etc. all influences how to preach.  Sometimes a gentle introduction to Christianity that leaves people wanting more is ideal.  Other times it is critical to give a more complete gospel presentation.  Sometimes it is time to “shake the tree” and catch the already ripened fruit by overt calls to decision.

It takes sensitivity, wisdom, faith and courage to know which way to go on a particular occasion.  Generally it is best to present the way you informed the church that you would (because they bring guests according to what they are expecting you to do!)  Ultimately, there will probably be criticism coming from somewhere, but that is evangelistic preaching – never easy, always critical.  There is no simple formula, for there are so many variables.  But at its core the gospel doesn’t change, and the world needs it as much as ever.

Solid Solitary Converts

We’ve probably all heard about evangelistic preaching that has somehow manipulated the crowd.  I remember sitting in the back row of a meeting with a very famous preacher.  When it came to the evangelistic part of the evening, he presented the gospel.  Then when it was time for the altar call, somehow the gospel message morphed into “if you have done this before but still struggle with sin, come forward…”  Naturally the numbers swelled significantly!  It may look great on reports, but it is manipulative and dishonest if these people are counted as converts.

I’m not in any way suggesting altar calls are inappropriate.  In some situations they are highly appropriate.  But manipulation and dishonesty in preaching is always inappropriate.  The end does not justify the means.  Let’s be sure to preach the gospel and pray for thousands to respond, but rather than get clever with the call, let’s praise God for solid solitary converts!

Steps To Faith

Coming to faith is a process.  I’ve been studying the early chapters of Daniel and the early chapters of John.  It’s not uncommon to find, in the Bible, that there is a process involved in understanding God for who He is and accepting His role and self-presentation.  Whether or not Nebuchadnezzar is truly “converted” in chapter 4, there are key incidents in the previous two chapters.  What might this all mean for us as preachers?

1. View each message as an opportunity to move people forward one step. It takes repeated exposure to the gospel for people to gradually be drawn closer to that point of heart-level understanding and response.  Even once people are saved, the process continues.  So let’s not have the mentality that says, “I’ve already told them this, they should get it now!”  Our listeners, just like us, are notoriously slow and gradual in responding to God.

2. Remember that the process happens apart from preaching too. While that visitor may be a first-time listener to your preaching, they may have already been through many steps on the journey (listening to preachers on the radio, reading books, interacting with believers, etc.)  So while we should view each message as an opportunity to prompt the next step, we should not underestimate the opportunity and fail to present an opportunity to fully respond.  Somehow we need a real sensitivity to God and to people in this aspect of ministry.

Beware the Power of Propagated Rumors

There are always troublesome trends around, even in the church. They may be ideas or vague concepts, but they creep in and stick around for a while. Perhaps books are written to support them, but something published is not something certain. Maybe it’s time to put your finger on the pulse of your church and see if there are any ideas drifting around. In some cases we don’t need to address them, but simply be careful not to propagate them in our preaching, either by attitude, inference or reference. In other cases we need to step in and overtly correct with direct Bible teaching.

The heretical understandings. For example, how many people in our churches have the idea that the Trinity can be explained by the illustration of water, ice and steam (a modalistic explanation) or three friends in one group (a tritheistic explanation). If there is heretical thinking, look for appropriate moments to clarify the truth.

The fashionable trends. Not everything we disagree with is outright heresy. Often they are theological fashions and trends. Perhaps an idea pushed in a book that is imbalanced or narrow. Perhaps an idea emanating from a certain “camp” in Christendom. Perhaps an idea pushed on us from pressure groups outside the church. Fashionable “trends” that I’ve heard lately would include the idea that eschatology is other-worldly, always “retreatist” in orientation and therefore irrelevant. The blanket statement that foreign missionaries are no longer needed in other countries. The notion that Paul hated women. Or that any social concern among Christians means they have given up on the gospel. Or the opposite idea that Christians concerned with evangelism have no concern for people. I want to be careful not to add weight to any of these ideas, no matter how popular they might be in some circles.

We don’t have to address every issue going on in broader Christianity. But we should be aware of any way in which a passing comment, or perceived attitude, might continue to propagate ideas we don’t support. And we should have our finger on the pulse enough to recognize when an idea is becoming imbalanced, or worse, when a heresy is becoming acceptable.

I Can’t Use The Word “Sensitivity” For This

Yesterday I wrote about careful and considered sensitivity toward diverse groups within the congregation. I deliberately left out a very significant group and would like to mention them today. Problem is, I can’t call it “strengthened by sensitivity – part 2.” I don’t really want to open the can of worms relating to seeker sensitive church models. There are strengths and weaknesses in all these approaches to church, but I don’t want to make us think of that right now.

I want us to think about the next congregation we will speak to, those individuals sitting in the chairs and listening to us preach. Among them there may well be non-Christians. We need to be careful in what we say. As Nathan suggested in his comment yesterday, “Sometimes we pepper our messages with phrases like, “You know the story about Japheth…”, or, “But we as Christians….” These phrases can unintentionally make the non-Christians feel like what we’re saying doesn’t apply to them, and that we’re oblivious to their presence among us. It can also give the impression that church is like a graduate course that requires a bunch of prerequisite courses in order to track along.

So take a moment to think through who may be there tomorrow. Pray for them. Prayerfully consider whether there are elements in the sermon that could require too much background, or anything that could be misunderstood, or might imply something you don’t intend (in reference to outsiders, or the gospel, etc.)

Let’s pray that tomorrow, whether we are being overtly evangelistic or not, many non-Christians will respond to the captivating work of the Spirit of God and spark celebrations in heaven!

Controversy, Defensiveness and Timing

Obed submitted a comment on The Full Meal Deal concerning the timing of presenting a controversial or challenging topic. I suppose we could complicate things, but it seems to me that there is a fairly simple principle here. Know your listeners well enough to know how they may react to a controversial idea. If they are likely to get defensive, then lay the groundwork first. I use the image of a boxer’s guard (forgive the martial imagery if you are a pacifist in the sporting arena). Is what I am going to say likely to bring up the hands to guard the face? If so, then what follows will only strike to the surface. As a preacher I need to preach so that the hands remain down and the idea gets through.

The classic example of this is Peter on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ!” That idea was very likely to stir up a negative reaction among a crowd of Jews in Jerusalem just weeks after Jesus’ death. So Peter did not present the idea in the introduction. This idea was not printed on the notice sheet or bulletin (they would have noticed and put the bullet in, so to speak!) This was not a deductive sermon. Peter knew the listeners’ likely reaction, and used the first part of the sermon to prepare the people for the big idea. Once it came, their reaction was not murderous, but they were convicted.

If your idea is controversial. If the listeners are likely to become defensive. Then time the presentation of the idea. Preach so their hands remain down and the idea gets through, not only to the head, but so that they are “cut to the heart.”