“If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11 NKJV).
When I am in South Asia I often preach at Sunday assemblies of the churches. However, I do not always preach and this is especially true at Khulna, Bangladesh, where a congregation meets on the campus of Khulna Bible College. I take my turn there in rotation with other teachers and students. That means that on several Sundays each trip, I am able to participate in worship from the pew rather than the pulpit.
Since I do not speak the languages of Nepal or Bangladesh fluently, I am not able to listen effectively to the words of sermons preached by local evangelists. I try to pick out identifiable words, Scriptures cited, or other indications of the subjects being addressed. I also watch the speaker’s facial expressions, gestures, and other body language to try to understand something of the nature of his message. Sometimes I will select a passage of Scripture to read and consider, so that the time spent will be spiritually productive to me.
One does not have to be in a situation where foreign languages are being spoken to have difficulty understanding a sermon. It may be the listener who is distracted, thinking of other matters, unprepared for, or uninterested in the lesson.
Or there may be distractions in the assembly. It might be noisy children, thoughtless adults, or some physical hindrance such as problems with lighting or sound systems. Occasionally, such intrusions will occur and they cannot always be overcome easily.
But it can also be the speaker’s inability to communicate a relevant and biblical message in a manner which his audience can best receive that prevents understanding and application of his lesson. We all have our limitations in training, knowledge, and skill. But sometimes the speaker may be less well prepared than he should be. Sometimes he may be less considerate of the different perspectives and abilities of his audience than should be the case.
Peter reminds us that speakers in the Lord’s church have great responsibility. No one is compelled to preach. We all choose to speak. If we so choose, the apostle places conditions on what we must do. That is we must speak the message of God, and that alone.
When I was in college I was impressed by a statement made by a teacher, Dr. Batsell Barrett Baxter. Dr. Baxter emphasized the value of the time of the audience which we were addressing. He asked, “If one put a dollar value on the time spent, representing what an average worker could earn during that period, then multiplied it by the number present, is your sermon worth that amount of money?” Suppose that an average worker earns $10 per hour. There may be 300 persons in your audience, so if you preach for thirty minutes you have used 150 man-hours. That would mean you have occupied $1500 worth of time. How well did you use it? Did the audience receive good value?
That is merely an illustration, of course, but it served to impress upon me at an early stage just how much responsibility a speaker assumes. Another inspired writer makes the same point. “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment” (James 3:1).
This is not to discourage Christian men from aspiring to preach or teach God’s word. It is certainly not intended to prevent anyone from public participation in worship assemblies. It is rather to recognize that every speaker in the church is accountable to God for his message, and is limited in what he should say. It is always God’s message that his people need to hear. Our duty is to deliver it and to help others to understand and apply it.