As a listener, you might wonder why you should know what it takes for preaching to be what it should be. You are, after all, the listener, not the speaker. Yet it is worth noting that when Paul warned about a falling away he placed some of the blame on those who listen: “people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:4).
Observe the drift from faithfulness to faithlessness: “People will not endure sound teaching” (that’s you, the listener). “But having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their passions … and will turn away from listening to the truth.” At some point, the truth will no longer matter, only that which feeds our desires. And, finally, their drift will be complete: “And wander off into myths.”
How did we get here? The answer is slowly, and with the connivance of the listeners. The following are some funny things I have heard about preaching:
- “Preachers Shouldn’t Tell Jokes”: In other words, they shouldn’t illustrate, tell funny stories and so on. Although the ultimate judgment of a sermon lies not in its entertainment value, an effective sermon might be entertaining while also being true. Jesus told parables. Stories (Matthew 13:34)! It seems the outstanding characteristic of Jesus’ preaching style was in illustrations! He was the master illustrator.
- “Your Sermons Are So Simple Anyone Can Understand Them”: Some teachings are hard because they are hard to understand (John 6:60). Other teachings are hard, not because we do not understand them, but because we understand them only too well!
The Bible is divided into two kinds of material: The milk of the word that is appropriate for helping the young to grow and the meat of the word, which mature church members would find rewarding to “chew” on (Hebrews 5:11,12).
- “I Like Him; He’s Eloquent”: This is the Apollos syndrome (Acts 18:24). Paul declined to use words of wisdom and eloquence (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). An unhealthy attitude existed toward Apollos in Corinth. Yet Paul never suggested Apollos should not use his talents, merely that they should have a balanced view of his preaching. There is great power in true preaching, but it lies in the word of God, not the one who delivers that message.
- “A Preacher Shouldn’t Try to Change Personal Lives”: So what is he supposed to be doing? John the Baptist called on his hearers to “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:7,8). Jesus declared that unless we repent, we will perish (Luke 13:3). Both John the Baptist and Jesus preached in order to change lifestyles.
- And Yet, A Preacher Should Be a Student of the Word of God: The apostles needed time to engage in “prayer” and “the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3,4). This suggests study and delivery of messages. I am always touched that Paul, in prison and awaiting his execution, wanted to surround himself with books. He was a scholar (2 Timothy 4:13). My father the late Loy Mitchell used to say “Some of the laziest people you will know will be preachers, and some of the hardest working people you will know will be preachers.”
- And Yet, A Preacher Should Preach the Whole Council of God (Acts 20:27): A preacher comforts the disturbed, and disturbs the comfortable. He will have to address both popular and unpopular topics, Old and New Testament, Christian family, the Church, grace and law providing a balanced diet for the congregation.
- And Yet, The Preacher Is the Conduit to Listeners’ View of Jesus: John the Baptist saw himself as the best man at a wedding rejoicing at the good fortune of his friend, the groom. Then he closed with the classic preacher motto “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:29,30).
That’s a pretty good measure of great preaching: The degree to which the Lord Jesus shone through in the content and delivery of the sermon. Are you a great preacher, or do you proclaim a great savior?