Years ago a person impacted my life with a powerful thought. I can sincerely say it is one from which I have never recovered. The thought is this, “If God gives you an opportunity to preach the gospel, don’t stoop to the position of a king.”
I do not know of anything on earth that is a greater honor or greater thrill than for God to use your tongue and through the public proclamation of the gospel bring people to Jesus Christ. Hardly ever do I step down from the pulpit, after preaching an evangelistic message, without feeling both humbled and overwhelmed. Humbled that God would allow me the opportunity to preach the gospel to lost people, and tell them the most important thing they will ever hear, and overwhelmed that through the words coming from my mouth, as they are used of the Holy Spirit, God would actually change a person’s eternal destiny. There is a power in the gospel unlike anything I have ever seen. 1 Corinthians 1:18 says it so appropriately, “For the message of the cross is foolishness for those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
Therefore, every church leader ought to delight in opportunities to preach the gospel. Several Sundays a year you ought to speak to your audience as though they are all non-Christians. Announce what you are going to do ahead of time and encourage your people to bring their non-Christian friends.
However, putting together a message for non-Christians is not the same as putting together a message for Christians. An evangelistic message is one prepared for and given to non-Christians. It is not a message prepared for believers and then given to unbelievers. The whole time I am putting together an evangelistic message I am assuming there is not one believer in the audience. And even if there is, I am not speaking to that believer; I am speaking to the lost.
For over thirty-three years I have been presenting what is called an expository evangelistic message. That is, as I am preparing the message and giving it, I am doing so with a careful explanation of the biblical text. Using a particular paragraph of Scripture, I am speaking to lost people in such a way they not only know what I said, but they know where in the Bible God said it first. That is why, as I prepare the evangelistic message, I have to be careful to not only study the text but even the context in which it is located. I must be careful to read out of the text what it says, not read into the text what I would like it to say. I must be careful to preach His words and not mine.
The advantage of expository evangelistic preaching is that it gives the clear authority of the Bible to my message. Because of the way I unfolded the text to their understanding, lost people leave knowing if they have an argument, it is with God, not with me.
While I was in seminary preparing to be an evangelist, I visited a church in the Dallas area and heard an evangelistic speaker. The text he chose that night was 1 Samuel 20:3. The last phrase of the verse reads, “There is but a step between me and death.” Immediately, the speaker exhorted the audience with the words, “God is saying there is but one step between you and death. You have to come to Christ, and it has to be tonight.” The problem is, when you examine that text you discover that is in no way the meaning of that text. David is speaking to Jonathan about the fact that Jonathan’s father wishes to kill him. Therefore, the context is not the need of a sinner to come to Christ, but the need of a saint — David — to get away from Saul. The context makes the difference.
There is a great need for the preaching of expository evangelistic messages, ones in which you so develop your message from the text and context of Scripture and make it relevant to lost people. Non-Christians will leave knowing not only what you said, but where in the Bible God said it first.
So what is involved in putting together an evangelistic message? Allow me to stress eight items.
An evangelistic message always mentions three truths
Your sermon should include these things: you are a sinner, Christ died for you and arose, and you have to trust Christ. Why is that? Because, for a person to come to Christ, those are the three things they need to know — that they are sinners, that Christ died for them and rose the third day, and they need to trust Christ.
I am committed to preaching the text but very few, if any, texts have all three of those truths in them. For example, I might speak on John 3:16. It says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” That text mentions Christ died for me, and arose in that it says He gave His only begotten Son. It tells me that I have to trust Christ because it says, “whoever believes in Him.” At the same time, it doesn’t really tell me I am a sinner. So at the appropriate place in my message I need to bring that out and I do that wherever it would be the proper time and place to do so.
In my message on that verse I do it when I explain why He gave His Son. I explain that we are sinners, and sin must be punished. The punishment of sin is death. The only one who takes our punishment is someone who is perfect. One sinner cannot die for another any more than one criminal can take another criminal’s punishment. But Jesus Christ, being the perfect Son of God, took the sinner’s place and died as our substitute.
I might speak on Romans 4:5 where we are told, “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.” The text explains we are sinners because it tells us He justifies the ungodly. It explains you have to trust Christ because it says, “his faith is accounted for righteousness.” It really doesn’t tell me Christ died for me and arose, so at the appropriate point I need to bring that out. I do it when I explain the meaning of justification. Justification means He wants to declare us righteous. He wants to declare us the opposite of what we are right now. The only reason He can declare us righteous is because somebody else has taken our punishment. Christ died for us and rose again.
Every evangelistic message has to contain those three things: that we are sinners, that Christ died for us and rose again, and we have to trust Christ alone to save us.
Keep the message to 30 minutes or less.
I am convinced if it cannot be said in 30 minutes to non-Christians, then it cannot be said. There are those who would like to say, “Now wait a minute Larry. You ought to let the Holy Spirit determine that.” My answer is, “I do.” I ask God by His awesome Holy Spirit to help me keep it to 30 minutes! It is amazing how He always helps me to do so.
I do that for two simple reasons. One, non-Christians are not accustomed to sitting and listening to a sermon. That means their attention span is relatively short. In addition to that, it enhances the effectiveness of your message. You strike them as someone who has something to say, you say it, and you sit down. If the message is appropriately put together and the right length, non-Christians ought to leave wishing you had spoken longer, not wishing you had stopped sooner.
You might ask, “But how in the world do you keep a message to 30 minutes?” My response is, “By developing your skills in preaching.” The art of preaching is knowing not only what to put into your message, but what to take out. As I often explain, speakers put it in, communicators take it out, because communicators know not only what has to be said but also what does not need to be said.
Use illustrations generously.
Frankly, I do not think that any preacher who wants to be a communicator should step into the pulpit with a message that does not contain helpful illustrations. God has called us to speak to a watching generation not a reading one, largely due to the prominence of the television set. People are more accustomed to seeing than reading. For that reason whenever you say something people say, “I hear,” but when you illustrate what you are saying people in essence say, “I understand.”
That is especially true when speaking to the non-Christian. They do not understand the Bible; they do understand the newspaper. So what an illustration does is show them how the newspaper today illustrates what the Bible said yesterday. As that noted preacher of the past, Charles Spurgeon, used to say, “The sermon is the house. The illustrations are the windows that let in the light.” But an evangelistic message, because it is directed to the lost, uses illustrations generously. Is it not interesting that Jesus Christ was known as a master communicator? And, how often do we read in the Scripture where it says, “And He spoke to them a parable?” Jesus Christ, being the master communicator He was, understood the importance of illustrations.
Please notice that I said direct, not say rude or crude, which is unbiblical, unChristlike, and despicable. Directness means one has what Jesus Christ was noted for in John 1:14, a combination of grace and truth. He was so truthful, He once said to a woman who had five husbands, “You have well said, ‘I have no husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband.” He was so graceful that He said to a woman caught in the act of adultery, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
Preaching to non-Christians means that we must have that same combination of grace and truth. How does that practically translate into evangelistic preaching? It means there comes a time in my message when I need to say we have lied, we have cheated, we have hated, we have stolen. In so doing I am being direct about what they have done and I have included myself as well. There are times when I say, “You need to come to Christ, and it ought to be tonight.” Directness needs to permeate the evangelistic message. That is why I do not say, “If you are here tonight, and you don’t know if you are going to heaven.” Instead I say, “You are here tonight. You don’t know you are going to heaven.”
I have a tremendous amount of respect for Billy Graham and consider him a most gifted evangelist. I have seen him step before an audience and say, “I want every head bowed and every eye closed. For many of you, tonight will be most important night of your life. You have never had an opportunity like tonight.”
Make the gospel and the issue of saving faith clear
The gospel as God gave it and Paul the Apostle declared is, Christ died for our sins, and rose from the dead. When speaking to Christians you are explaining how to live the Christian life, but when speaking to non-Christians you are explaining to them how to enter it. Therefore, they have to understand — God has done His part, they have to do theirs.
God has done His part because the gospel says Christ died for our sins, and rose again. He did not die to show us how to die; He died in our place. He was our substitute. I spoke with a man one time in Illinois, who told me he was helping harvest corn years ago. They had the equipment stopped underneath a high voltage line. Suddenly the line touched the equipment and since he was touching the equipment, the current started going through him. A man in his early thirties saw it happen, touched the man’s body, and absorbed the force of the current greater than that used in an electric chair. He died in that man’s place. The doctors said the current went around the other man’s heart and into the second man who took the blow.
Jesus Christ died in our place. He took the punishment we deserved and died on a cross as our substitute. The third day he arose. The evangelistic message makes it clear that the one and only hope for salvation is Jesus Christ died for us and rose again. We are not accepted on the basis of what we have done for God, but on the basis of what He has done for us. As the song appropriately puts it, “I owed a debt I could not pay, He paid a debt He did not owe.” An evangelistic message does not tack the gospel on at the end of the message. It has at its heart the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I am amazed and distressed how many evangelistic messages I hear that never tell me Christ died for me. Billy Graham once told of preaching in Dallas, Texas early in his ministry. It was in 1953. About 40,000 people attended each night. But one evening only a few responded to the appeal to come to Christ. Discouraged, he left the platform. A German businessman was there — a devout man of God. He put his arm around Billy Graham and said, “Billy, you know what was wrong tonight? You did not preach the cross.” We must preach the cross clearly. Christ died for us and rose again.
And we must call for a response. I am told that as you travel along Interstate 10 in Louisiana, there is a large billboard which catches your eye. It stands high above the city just as you start over the Mississippi River bridge. On it is a picture of Jesus Christ hanging on the cross of Calvary. The caption underneath says in bold letters, “It’s your move.” That’s right. Since Jesus Christ died for us and rose again, it is now our move. We have to receive eternal life as a free gift by trusting Jesus Christ as our only way to heaven. Let’s go back to the words we referred to earlier — the best known sentence in the Bible. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
The word “believe” means to trust in Christ alone to save us. I’m told that over in the Swiss mountains, there is a cable car that swings on a thin wire overhead. It carries 32 people at a time as it moves over an abyss between the mountains at a height of 5,000 ft. I doubt if one person in that car knows how it works. They are simply trusting that car to hold them. In a similar way God is asking us to trust in Jesus Christ alone as our only way to heaven.
In making the issue of saving faith clear, we should stay away from phrases like “invite Christ into your heart,” “accept God,” “give your life to God.” Not only are they not the terms the Bible uses, but they do not convey what is meant by believe — to trust in Christ alone for salvation. An effective evangelistic message makes it clear, that one is not saved by going to church, living good, being baptized and keeping the commandments. Instead, coming to God as sinners, we must recognize Jesus Christ died for us and rose again and we must put our trust in Christ alone to save us. It makes the issue of the gospel and saving faith clear.
We must make it plain how people can be saved.
I am not talking about enthusiasm for enthusiasm’s sake or enthusiasm that is man-produced. There is an enthusiasm empowered by the Holy Spirit that comes through the speaker to the audience. That enthusiasm is contagious and part of what God uses to persuade people. After all, you will not sell anyone on someone you are not sold on yourself. It is one thing to say to someone, “You need to come to Christ,” it’s another thing to say, “You need to come to Christ, and why not tonight?”
It’s that enthusiasm that characterizes evangelistic preaching that often makes it so motivating to believers. Although the message is to nonbelievers, believers are often so captivated by the speaker’s enthusiasm that God speaks to them about their own zeal and dedication. A man once said to me, “I need to be as enthusiastic about Christ as you are.”
Enhance the message with humor
Understand that an evangelistic message is not a hilarious message. Humor is to enhance your message, not be your message. I am not talking about a sermon where somebody tells a bunch of jokes and tacks the Gospel on at the end, but where the speaker — in a mature communicative way — uses humor effectively to drive home the point he is making. In so doing, he tells the audience he is a wholesome person who knows how to laugh — something they need to know because their opinion of Christians is often that they are a bunch of sour pickles.
It also relaxes the audience. For example, I might say to the audience, “It is difficult for us to admit that we are sinners, because we all have a struggle with conceit. More times than we care to admit, we are like the man who was walking down the sidewalk with his wife. All of a sudden a beautiful woman walked by and she smiled at them. He looked at his wife and said, “Did you see that? That beautiful woman smiled at me.” His wife said, “That’s nothing. First time I saw you I laughed out loud.”
In so doing, I tell them what they are, conceited sinners, but tell it in a way they accept and not reject it. Evangelistic preaching needs to be spiced with that kind of humor– humor that non-Christians can relate to, not for humor’s sake but for communication’s sake.
Use terminology they understand.
That certainly does not mean that I use any language that would be inappropriate in the pulpit. That is certainly not what the pulpit is for. It simply means I use language that they understand, not language that is far more relevant to Christians than non-Christians. That is why, when referring to a book in the Bible, I call it a letter not an epistle. If I refer to a verse in the Bible, I call it a sentence not a verse. If I refer to a paragraph, I call it a paragraph, not a passage. If I refer to a hymn, I call it a song. I call the place where I am speaking the church’s auditorium, not the church’s sanctuary, and I refer to the entrance of the church, not the vestibule. I am using terminology that they understand.
When I ask non-Christians, “Do you think you are going to heaven?” they often respond, “I think I stand a better chance than most people I know.” If I address the subject of the mistakes or failures of the past, if they feel any remorse at all, they say, “I feel so dirty and rotten on the inside.” So when speaking to non-Christians, I use those kinds of phrases and terms I’ve heard them use.
Using terminology they use causes them to relate to me as a speaker. It lets them know I understand the way they think, feel, and act. I might mention that it is impossible to use terminology they understand if you are not spending time with non-Christians. Otherwise, you will forget the way they express themselves. You cannot be an effective evangelistic speaker if you are not an evangelistic person. You must spend time with them to know how they think, talk and act. That enables you to know where they are in order to use terminology they understand.
I will close with one critical reminder. Evangelistic preaching involves skills that need to be developed. That is why the more one does it, the better one becomes at it. But remember that evangelistic preaching must be bathed in prayer because the most effective evangelistic message is not what brings people to Christ. God uses a speaker’s skills and abilities and spiritual gifts, but only when the Holy Spirit takes the truth of the gospel and drives it home to the lost person’s heart will he come to Christ. A verse I have used throughout my ministry is John 6:44, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.”
We need to do our part. God tells His servants in II Timothy 2:15, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” We need to go before the audience with a carefully prepared message but keenly aware that only as God works in the heart of the lost can He use you as a human instrument to do something eternal. The message and every part of the service involved to reach out to non-Christians must be bathed in prayer.
A young minister who was called to a church in a college town was concerned about the criticism he might encounter, so he sought the wisdom of his godly father. He said, “Dad, I’m afraid I will be hampered in my preaching. If I mention something about geology, there is a professor in the congregation who has forgotten more than I will ever know. If I use an illustration from Roman mythology, one with a doctorate in that field will catch me in some inaccuracy. If I mention something from English literature I will feel inferior in the presence of a learned woman who teaches that subject. What should I do?”
His devout father wisely replied, “Son, just do what the Lord commands, preach the gospel. Your critics will probably know very little about that.”
May God use you to preach the gospel. And when He gives you such an opportunity, don’t stoop to the position of a king.
Larry Moyer is President and CEO of EvanTell in Dallas, TX, and is Evangelist at Large for Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, TX.