Reformed Quarterly Volume 7, Issue 4
The Reverend Charley Chase is senior pastor if New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas. A graduate of Belhaven College, he also holds an M.Div. degree from RTS and has served churches in Mississippi and Texas. This article is an excerpt from lectures given by Chase in the RTS Doctor if Ministry program.
There was a time when preaching was prominent in most people’s minds. It was king of the ministerial hill and stood head and shoulders over every other task that a minister was called of God to perform. Ministers used to love to stand in the pulpit and proclaim the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ.
However, today the pulpit is the equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield, the comedian with the million-dollar line, “I can’t get no respect.” How easily the pulpit is bumped. A drama or a concert comes along, and the pulpit is given a standby ticket and moved aside. In addition, the minister can get so involved in other activities, while good and useful in themselves, that he no longer gives the pulpit the place of supremacy that God wants it to have.
God wishes a minister above everything else to be a man who has a passion for the preaching of His word. Acts 6 is blowtorch — hot when it comes to the matter of emphasizing preaching. This chapter points out there was a problem in the early church with the distribution of food to widows. There must have been some who wanted the apostles to spend less time on the ministry of the Word of God and more on administration. However, in verse two the apostles nixed this idea:
So the twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the Word of God in order to wait on tables.”
The apostles understood that preaching was to be supreme and never the runt of the litter. Thus, we see that God has a very high view of the preaching of His Word.
Ministers, God calls you to set your hearts on imitating the apostles. Many, many responsibilities will tug at your coat trying to pull you away from prayer and the ministry of the Word. But God will come to you and say that nothing is more important than having a passion to preach His truths.
DEVELOP A PASSION FOR EXPOSITORY PREACHING
Two days before dying, prince of preachers Clarence E. McCartney told his brother, Robertson, “Put all the Bible you can in your preaching.” There is no better way of doing that than by expository preaching — taking a book of the Bible and systematically preaching through it.
Take care, however, not to serve Nabisco Spoon-sized Shredded Wheat portions each homiletical meal. Instead of verses, take paragraphs of Scripture. Exegeting, explaining, and applying an entire paragraph rather than a single verse insures that you give people a piece of God’s mind, not a piece of your own.
There are other good reasons why consecutive, systematic, expository preaching is so advantageous to a minister of the gospel of Christ. First, it is a minister’s primary way to fulfill his responsibility before God. In biblical terminology (1 Cor. 4), you are a steward of the mysteries of God. A steward is someone who is entrusted with the valuables of another. God’s mysteries are His mighty exploits of salvation revealed in and by and through the Lord Jesus Christ.
A steward has one responsibility — to be faithful. The only way you can be a faithful steward is to labor to communicate to your congregation nothing but the truth as it is in Jesus Christ. There is no better way to do that than to take a paragraph from the Word of God and bend over backward trying to communicate exactly what it has to say.
Second, expository preaching insures faithfulness to your ministerial call. You are to preach God’s Word. But often you step into the pulpit with iron-poor homiletical blood. Your sermon for the day isn’t the greatest piece of oratory ever prepared. And frequently you leave the pulpit feeling like a field goal kicker who has just missed a twenty-three yard chip shot that would have gotten his team into the Super Bowl for the first time. In these times of discouragement, the fact that you have sought faithfully to preach God’s Word can pull you out of the slough of despair.
Another advantage of systematic expository preaching is its ability to relieve anxiety. Such preaching is Caladryl for the irritating itch of “What do I preach next?” Instead of spending countless hours searching for a text, you can concentrate on the next paragraph in the book through which you are preaching.
This method of preaching also allows you to work ahead. This can be of tremendous value to the preacher by giving sermons a chance to mature. Very rarely does a sermon spring forth, full born like Adam. Usually it must stay on the potter’s wheel of reflection for quite some time before it is shaped exactly as you want it.
Working ahead will also help you immensely when those emergencies pop up with jack-in-the-box suddenness. I had been in Dallas less than three months when one afternoon three emergencies involving elderly ladies in my church occurred in one afternoon. One who had been ill with cancer for some time had died, one had fallen and been taken to the emergency room, and one (a PCA minister’s wife) had been brutally murdered. Now what would I have done had I not already prepared for the following Sunday?
Nothing adds variety to the pulpit like expository preaching. Too many pulpits are like dining room tables the weekend after Thanksgiving — turkey sandwiches, turkey potpies, turkey casseroles. We preach certain subjects over and over. However, preaching through books of the Bible leads to subject after subject of refreshing variety.
The tone of the message — whether encouragement, rebuke, conviction, or comfort — will differ also. This is something we desperately need. Many preachers say nothing negative from the pulpit, nothing that convicts or makes people feel the need of the cross of Christ. Conversely there are those who give the impression they went to the Darth Vader School of Preaching; every sermon has a dark scowl on its face. This is particularly the sin of those of us who embrace the Reformed faith. People enter the sanctuary week after week with broken and bleeding hearts, yet, they receive little that comforts. Expository preaching will do much to rescue your sermons from monotony in tone.
As you work through books of the Bible you will also be able to preach without being charged with running your own FBI sting operation. It happens frequently, doesn’t it? Some member feels that the sermon was directed specifically at him, that you were out to get him. What can douse this angry fire? Simply the fact that you preached this sermon because it was the next passage to which you came in your ordinary course of exposition.
Systematic expository preaching will also perform invaluable services for your listeners. There is power in the Word of God; its strong hands can pull weeds of error and sin from the lives of people to whom you are speaking. And the Bible’s green thumb can cause the fruit of the Spirit to flourish. Scripture is also a plastic surgeon; it can shape people into the image and likeness of the Lord Jesus.
Your congregation will also benefit because this type of preaching will force you to deal with Samaritan scriptures. Just as the Jews would not have anything to do with the Samaritans, many preachers shun certain uncomfortable scriptures. Because of this, something God has authored for your hearers is neglected. When you work through a book of the Bible, you will be forced to deal with those subjects you would otherwise avoid.
When you preach expositorially, you fill a great need of God’s people today — you give them a course in hermeneutics. People don’t know how to interpret the Bible. They don’t know how to read it or understand it or apply it to themselves. A minister who handles the Word of God carefully disciplines his people in the holy art of interpretation. No one goes to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, pulls out a verse, and makes it say anything he wants. Yet people do just that with the Bible. Showing people by example how to handle a biblical paragraph can correct such abusive treatment of God’s Word.
Finally, expository preaching is the best way to equip your people for the work of ministry. As you stand Sunday after Sunday, expounding the Scriptures to your people, you are putting medicine in a little black bag — medicine they will use when they minister to sin-sick individuals. You will be teaching them how to understand the Bible, how it relates to them, and how they may use it in ministering to others.
DEVELOP A PASSION FOR EXCELLENT PREACHING
We live in a day when people don’t come to church, and very frequently the problem is with the preaching. But I don’t think the problem is the preaching per se; I think it is a problem with the wrong kind of preaching. God’s sheep come to graze, and they find no pastureland. Consequently, they go elsewhere. It ultimately comes back to the fact that the minister is a sluggard.
What is a ministerial sluggard? He is one who is not willing to labor, to do all that is necessary to attain excellence as a preacher of the Word of God. How many homiletical sluggards stand before their congregations week after week with threadbare sermons? The congregation expects to hear the word of God, but the minister has not devoted his attention to prayer, study, and preparation of the Word, so he gives the people nothing. His hearers, therefore, develop spiritual malnutrition.
A minister must be willing to pour himself into the preaching of God’s Word. Make a commitment to work hard each week on every sermon you prepare. Close the study door, take the phone off the hook, and devote time to exegesis, reading the commentaries, taking notes.
Commit yourself also to improving as a preacher of the gospel. How do you improve? Study the masters of the craft (see Suggested Reading inset). Get a “constructive” critic in the congregation (not your wife!). Listen to your own tapes; they will both keep you humble and show you areas which need change. Finally, if you know someone in your locale who really can preach, beg him to allow you to become an apprentice. Talk with him about preaching and let him critique your tapes.
May the words of Phillips Brooks, the great Episcopalian preacher, be yours as you seek to hone your craft: “Let us thank God that in a world where there are so many good and happy things to do, God has given us the best and the happiest and made us preachers of His truth.”
MAKE YOUR PREACHING INTERESTING
Too many sanctuaries during the sermon resemble the Old Testament land of Nod. Uninteresting sermons turn our hearers into Cains, banishing them to the land of wandering. How may we secure and hold the congregation’s attention? How may we put a blindfold over the eyes of dull preaching, hold up the rifle, and execute it? How may we make our preaching interesting?
1. Preach the Bible. It is the most interesting book on the face of the earth. The Word draws men’s attention the way a picnic draws ants. Have confidence that the Bible will secure the interest and attention of God’s people.
2. See that you apply to yourself what you preach. Don’t imitate a waiter, serving to others piping hot dishes he himself does not eat. Instead, imitate a mother who, after frying the chicken and mashing the potatoes, sits at the table and eats with the family.
This will not only promote your own sanctification, but it will also cause people to listen to you. Someone once said there is no eloquence like the eloquence of conviction. Let the living bread have your own teeth marks on it when you serve the people, and I assure you they will come and listen.
3. Make the Word relevant to the people to whom you speak. Don’t send your sermonic mail to “OCCUPANT” or “CURRENT RESIDENT.” Make your sermons personal. As you prepare, allow your mind to roam over the pews. There you see the eighteen-year-old high school quarterback who longs to be faithful to Jesus Christ, yet struggles with all the peer pressures a teenager faces. How does this truth speak to him? How does it speak to that fifty-four- year-old man who has just lost his job, a job he thought was going to take him all the way to retirement? When you speak to people where they are, they will gladly listen.
4. Be a pastor. It was said of our Lord that He knew what was in man. That ought to be said of every preacher. One way to get to know men is by spending time with them. Visit your people. And when you are with them, listen. Instead of dominating the conversation, allow your parishioner to talk about his hopes, dreams, and fears. With the knowledge you gain, you’ll be better able to preach the Word of God to their needs.
5. Communicate to the congregation a high view of preaching. Teach them the high esteem in which God holds preaching. Constantly reinforce the fact that when your people gather on Sunday, it is not a futile exercise, but an act of strategic importance to their lives.
6. Work to make your sermons understandable. Don’t use William F. Buckley words — words most hearers cannot understand. Be very careful to explain what you mean by terms, ideas, and concepts.
7. Liberally sprinkle your sermon with illustrations. An Arabian proverb says, “He is the best speaker who can turn the ear into an eye.” The Lord Jesus constantly performed that sermonic miracle. Give truth in pictures. Instead of simply saying Jesus was sinless, say, “You could put on a clean white glove, rub it over even the back shelf of Christ’s life, and it would still be spotless.”
8. Speak concretely. If you are talking about how hesitant we are to obey God, say we are as hesitant as a 17-year-old who is about to ask a Christie Brinkley look-alike for a date. Make people feel, smell, and touch and you will help them understand.
9. Retire old homiletical soldiers, those cliches that march through our sermons like World War I doughboys. Refuse to use hackneyed phrases like “It was such a blessing.” Force yourself to think freshly and creatively.
10.Preach without notes. Why? Because eye contact is so important in establishing rapport with the congregation. All too often we are tied to notes because we are too concerned about ourselves. Let go! Your congregation is not going to remember everything you say; you want them to remember at least one thing you say. Saturate your soul with your sermon and then see to it you don’t bury it under points.
11.Preach with brevity. Coughing and squirming in a sermon indicate the pressure in the cabin is being lowered because the exit door has opened. Your hearers are strapping on their parachutes, ready to bail out. The sermonic journey has been a bit too long. Make it shorter and they will stay the whole flight.
12.Use humor. Why can’t we laugh in the house of God? Why can’t we be happy about our relationship with Jesus Christ? But if you are not naturally humorous, don’t force it. There are enough bad comics on the face of this earth. If, however, God has given you that gift, use it cautiously and wisely, but don’t hesitate to use it.
13.Preach Jesus Christ. As you preach Christ, emphasize His cross more than anything else. You will preach to people who have been dealing with certain sins in their lives for years. Preach the mercy of Christ, then the forgiveness of Christ, and finally the love of Christ. Nothing makes a man so eager to live for Jesus as does the knowledge that Jesus loves him.
14.Saturate your sermon with prayer. The old authors talked about “unction” — the Spirit of God giving your message energy, power, and might. How do you get unction? You get it through prayer; you don’t get it any other way. You need to spend as much time on your knees as you do in sermon preparation. Your sermon may be wearing an exegetical tuxedo, but all your preparation means nothing if the Spirit of God has not come down upon you.
Lectures on Preaching by Phillips Brooks. (Seabury Press, 1964).
Preaching and Preachers by D. Martin-Lloyd Jones. (Zondervan, 1971).
Inductive Preaching by Ralph L. Lewis with Gregg Lewis. (Crossway Books, 1983).
The Preacher and Preaching edited by Samuel T. Logan, Jr. (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1986).
Biblical Preaching by Haddon Robinson. (Baker Book House, 1980).
Heralds of God by James Stewart. (Baker Book House, 1946).
Between Two Worlds by John R.W. Stott. (Eerdmans, 1982).