Power is the preacher’s nemesis, the stuff of prophets that we mortals handle with fear. Frankly, most of us would just rather be preachers than prophets. Preachers preach, prophets thunder. Preachers may be accused of haranguing, but popular expectation is generally lower for preachers than prophets. Preachers only write sermons concerned about the ins and outs of developing their “art.” Prophets speak for God.
Prophets don’t buy books on preaching. They are not interested in homiletical “how to’s” nor do they care about style and preparation. Prophets don’t prepare messages. Prophets are messages.
Preachers are often interested only in oratorical power to enhance, ornament, and drive home their sermons. Prophets major in obedience, integrity, and the demand of God; having power is not their goal, only the supernatural corollary of their preachment. Prophets have power but seldom search for it, while preachers, it seems, search for it but seldom have it.
There are three actors in the drama of every sermon: the Holy Spirit, the preacher, and the person in the pew.1 As these actors comprise the drama of worship, they also are the triune agents of power. Preaching cannot be powerful if any of the three are nonparticipants in the work of God.
There are only two ways to have power. The first occurs when our preaching creates a stir so overwhelming that we become secondary to our words. We become observers, as though we were watching something being done through us but without our need or consent. Even when much good is done through such power, we are somehow left afraid of it all, for we control neither its direction nor outcome.
Such power is altruistic: it is totally in the interest of God. This “almighty” power bypasses our self-importance and leaves us at the mercy of the great ideas that bear us along. We fall into their keeping, freely admitting we are not free but rather are captive to the sermon’s ideas and their utter necessity in our lives.
The second kind of power that preachers pursue is only pro-me, career power: the kind of power that most Wall Street executives want. It is power to be used only for the sake of the wielder. This power has become frighteningly common in this day of big-business gospel. Yet it has only this-world clout. It gets things done, not because God has anything to do with it, but because such pastors have learned the furthest reaches of ego force and the advantage of having a good advertising agent.
God’s power comes only as the prize of spiritual submission. It comes in response to the need of the preacher to be the instrument of kingdom building. When the preacher prays just before entering the pulpit, “He is offering, and asking. He is offering to God the work that he has done on his sermon during the week, the fruit of his toil, the labour of mind and heart…. And he is asking that the Holy Spirit will do His creative work, will take, bless, and break the word, will confute, convict and convince, will illuminate mind, touch conscience, scatter darkness, bring light.”2 This prayer for the coming of the Spirit is a prayer of giving up the sermon, the bold step of moving from pastoral management to the Spirit’s direction.
I recently heard a church growth lecturer say that in order to stimulate church growth, a pastor had to be willing to surrender the one thing that pastors want most, namely, control. God’s utter involvement always demands a hands-off posture. This means that the greatest accomplishments of the church will not be our achievements. Neither will all our excellent sermons be fodder for career boasting. The sermons themselves will have a hands-off quality that enables the pastor to challenge and confront so that God may get on with His specific agenda for His world.
A hands-off view of power does not mean that we are unimportant to God. On the contrary, we are all the more important simply because there are very few pastors who are willing to be a channel of any power that does not originate in themselves. The buzz word for this is “surrender.” Surrender rightly implies a relinquishment of all that might be in God’s way that prevents the preacher from becoming a channel.
There is agony in being a channel. It means that God has permission to use our lives beyond our hopes for our own best future. Our sense of achievement becomes less important than His ends. The preacher who opts to be used of God will find that when his sermons hurt or rebuke, he himself may become the brunt of congregational retaliation, the object of stinging confrontation. Sermonic power, however, is not possible without such risks.
There are two words (at least) often translated “power” in the New Testament. One of these words is exousia, or authority. This refers to legal right and means that the preacher who desires to be a bearer of the power of God has a legal right to bear the word. Authority then is that right to bear that kept the prophets from asking, “May I speak?” Rather, they thundered, “Thus sayeth the Lord.” What gave them the right to interrupt their hearers (in some cases, kings and queens) demanding their ears? They were the bearers of exousia, “licensed to speak” by their very calling.
Every preacher then has the right to speak the word of God. Whether or not he is entitled to the respect of his hearers, his sermon is. He does not have the right to control others or exact from them any duty or allowance for personal favor, but he does have the right to speak. Sometimes the distance between the sermon’s right to preach and the congregation’s willingness to hear grows great, but an honest “Thus sayeth the Lord” never has to raise its hand to get permission.
The other New Testament word for power is dunamis. This power has to do with word force in the sermon itself. We are talking about sermonic clout. We are not talking about psych or hype. We are talking about the explosive (dynamite = dunamis) impact with which the sermon accosts and changes the hearer. Just as our authority comes from God, our force must be submitted to Him. All of us have seen preachers who once spoke with divine power grow slick with audience manipulation. Such preachers have made sermons mere personal abuse in which God can take no part. Still, genuine power is to be desired, for it speaks in God’s stead, to purposes that are beyond us.
There is among most evangelicals the false belief that earnestness fathers power. These believe that to desire power urgently is to have power, but integrity provides the matrix of power, not earnestness.
God never champions the lazy mind because the heart is fervent. God’s power does not attend a mind in willful microcosm. In my childhood church, we believed that you could lure Pentecost to come again by praying “through” on your knees at the altar. In these long altar sessions, we lifted our tear-stained faces, praying with emotional intensity. We were anxious to have God dump His power on us as a reward for our earnestness. The Spirit of God, however, does not visit us as a result of driven sincerity. Integrity is the invitation to which He responds.
Fifty years ago, books on preaching frequently began with this all-important subject of integrity. The Spirit is defined by one lofty adjective, “Holy.” There isn’t a more immense modifier than that. To speak of the holy is to speak of the loftiest quality of God. Holy is that remote, other, perfect, and untouchable attribute of God. Holy confesses to no injustice, it is moral oneness with no hint of division.
The word “holy” in every sense resembles the word “integrity.” “Integrity” refers to that which is utterly integrated, permitting nothing foreign or strange or “unlike” within its definition. Integrity keeps discarding the momentary in favor of the eternal. It continually eliminates the impure in favor of the pure. This Holy Spirit is in His essence God and cannot be lured by anything foreign to the divine nature.
Integrity, it must follow, is the chief quality for the spiritually integrated man or woman who wants to be filled with the power of a Holy God. Trustworthiness is the great gift of His holiness. A holy God cannot lie. We may not like what He says to us, but we may be sure it is true. Pulpit integrity means that the preacher, too, is utterly trustworthy. The preacher filled with God’s integrated Spirit also speaks an integrated word of knowledge and truth.
Most preachers, I believe, would never intentionally preach what is wrong. It’s just that it is hard to ferret out the categories. As Lincoln said in another context, we must do the right “as God gives us the ability to see the right.” Too often we are ill informed on what is right in proclamation. Our preaching remains tied to little issues of right and wrong because our arena of proclamation is small. We live on little planes of small affairs and rarely encounter evil of gigantic dimension.
In my early years as a pastor, most of my instruction regarding right and wrong focused on such things as tobacco, movies, and the like. It was years before I began to get a realistic picture of the immensity of human morality. Pulpits have the obligation to preach the whole word until good and evil achieve maximum dimensions. We dare not give our churches the impression that God is obsessed with our naive sense of right and wrong.
Charles Finney argued that “Revivals are hindered when ministers and churches take wrong ground in regard to any question involving human rights. … One of the reasons for the low state of religion, at the present time, is that many churches have taken the wrong side on the subject of slavery, … and have feared to call this abomination by its true name.”3 I shudder to think that there were likely more conservative pastors in Finney’s day who never mentioned the great curse of slavery and yet preached fervently against liquor or tobacco. These preachers failed to integrate the great social wrongs into their small catalogues of morality.
Such preachers were nonintegrated. In a real sense they had no integrity. What shall we say? They lied about the nature of evil? No. Did they tell all the truth? No. Their sin was not that they preached little truths, but they failed to lift up their eyes upon the wide fields of human bondage. Preaching only the little truths, they allowed evil to control their world. Pastors must study to know all their world. Those who only read their Bibles often shut themselves into microcosms, never touching the great God who only thrives in macrocosms.
I dare not rail too much on Finney’s day. Churches of my own childhood encouraged sinners to lay their liquor on the altar while six million Jews perished in “Christian” Germany. Perhaps Southern fundamentalists in the past also needed honest, holy men to preach integrated world truths. In those days, we often said we felt His Spirit, but now I wonder, “Why would God bring Pentecost to little moments and not spend Himself on the greater suffering that the church was ignoring altogether?”
If power does not come from mere desire, then from where does it come? Power has to do with four issues. The first of these is right thinking. There are any number of biblical references to righteousness as the requirement of God. Such frequent allusions should teach us that God will honor the man and woman who wants to do and say the right thing in the right way. Let us “hunger and thirst after righteousness” (Matthew 5:10). The hunger to be right is a picky eater. This hunger will focus on reading and entertainment that does not champion error or waste time with obscene preoccupations. Once the mind hungers after what is right, the sermon will also find its appetites in place.
A second wellspring of spiritual power comes from our personal worship, which we have already discussed.
The third aspect of pulpit power is the arrangement and coherence of the total worship experience of which preaching is but a part. How arrogant and useless is the sermon that swaggers in self-importance as though it is all the worship there is. If the various elements of worship are arranged thematically, their speech will be eloquent and, therefore, the Spirit will inhabit all the service and not just the sermon. Music, for instance, as an integer of worship, bears great power. Prayers, oral interpretation, dramatic monologues, all join with the sermon to effect worship.
The fourth and final aspect of His coming is sheer caprice. The Spirit empowers as He will. I have experienced many Sundays when I thought my devotional life, pastoral visiting, and study of Scripture would surely lure the Spirit into our worship. Yet He seemed remote. There were other Sundays when neither my spiritual disciplines nor study had been adequate. Those were the very Sundays that He descended in power.
I now make no demands on the Spirit because of my periodic disciplines and spasmodic devotional life. I do, however, believe that there is a kind of deferred compensation for discipline in ministry. God, sooner or later, honors the discipline of the faithful. Perhaps not on the Sunday we feel our ministry merits His attention, but ultimately His blessings will come.
The sermon rests on three piers. The first is the telling of the saving truth. The Gospel, for instance, commands us to evangelize. William Willimon said that he attended a funeral service for “Joe,” where a rustic Independent churchman was preaching. He spoke confrontational words that were utterly harsh in the face of grief and embarrassment:
“It’s too late for Joe,” he screamed…. “But it ain’t too late for you! People drop dead every day. So why wait? Now is the day for decision. Now is the time to make your life count for something. Give your life to Jesus!”
It was the worst thing I had ever heard…. “I’ve never heard anything so manipulative, cheap and inappropriate. I would never preach a sermon like that.”
She [my wife] agreed with me that it was tacky, manipulative, callous. “Of course,” she added, “the worst part of all is that it was true.”4
I cannot believe that God’s power is going to be attendant upon harsh and unkind sermons. Still, Willimon’s point is well made. The great requirement of God is that a sermon must be, above all, true.
One other thing must be said about integrity. Integrity assumes that if we know what is right, we will take care to include no wrong in the mixture. As the cliche has it: “Preaching is not a man speaking good, but a good man speaking.” Such a preacher pulls the world into a righteous whole and speaks from the middle of it.
What then is to be said about certain popular gospel stars and video evangelists? Do they not have crowds come forward at their invitations? They may, but if they attract people to the person of Christ on the basis of any deception, those who are coming forward in response to their word cannot be said to be coming totally in response to the Spirit. They may be coming only because of the power of emotional appeal or mass suggestion. God’s power knows only one enticement: integrity.
Most of us have a hard time integrating truth of differing natures. The sermon must say primarily one thing; to say two only wars against the integrity of the whole and divides the listener’s attention, hiding the sermon’s focus. James Daane observes, “There is at least one basic rule to which any type of sermon structure must yield tribute. Every sermon must say one thing, and one thing only; and this one thing must be capable of statement in a single sentence.”5
If God is one, if all truth is somehow one, then the sermon dare not become diverse in intent or direction of reason.
The God View and the Channel of Power
The Bible must be the source of pulpit power. The Bible must be allowed to rise again, and with it the notion that it is the voice of God given to propagate the view of God on all that the church would teach that has importance and relevance for our day and age.
Spurgeon once castigated preachers who neglected the great areas of faith to focus on trivia. They were Bible preachers who always preached from the Bible, but from the least important issues of Scripture. He complained, “I know a minister whose shoe lachet I am unworthy to unloose, whose preaching is often little better than sacred miniature painting — I might almost say holy trifling. He is great upon the ten toes of the beast, the four faces of the cherubim, the mystical meaning of badgers’ skins, and the typical bearings of the staves of the ark, and the windows of Solomon’s temple; but the sins of the businessmen, the temptations of the times, and the needs of the age, he scarcely ever touches upon. Such preaching reminds me of a lion engaged in mouse-hunting.”6
The issues from which the authority of the preacher comes are the important passages as well as the authoritative ones; it is “the God-breathed word” (2 Timothy 3:16). The notion is that God wrote this book, and then it comes into play with divine passion to instruct us with ultimate wisdom that is more than timely, it is timeless.
When so much of either Testament is filled with the phrase “repent,” we can only surmise that God cares how we behave. I used to feel that God was just interested in making us miserable. Starting out as He did with the Ten Commandments, it would seem as though God were the God of the legal: don’t do this, or don’t do that, and you will be perfectly righteous … also perfectly miserable. Since the ideas of the legal and the miserable come so bound together, it probably goes without saying that if that was my first impression of Scripture (and of God), the preacher should be careful that his preaching does all it can to minimize this attitude in his sermons.
This means that he must fill the sermon with the whole Bible, being sure that the breadth of its positive instruction is included when we preach. The joy, the wisdom, the glad precept, the instruction, the correlation of our destiny, and the continual presence of God: all of these must comprise the sermon.
Our liberated age sees all preaching on sin as binding the sermon to yesteryear. A few, more fundamentally oriented, see sermons on sin as necessary if the church is ever to recover its first-century character. This understanding is largely illusory, however. Any preacher who laments, “Why can’t we get the church back to the first century, that pristine time of Christianity’s infancy and noble purity?” misunderstands those good old biblical days.
When we examine the behavior of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), or the Corinthian congregation, we can begin to see how the good old days really weren’t as good as they are made out to be. It must also be said that longing for the good old days (whenever they were) gives the sermon a dyspeptic and unhappy heart. It also makes the preaching only work for the past (since that’s when the good old days occurred), and, above all, it gives hearers that troubled feeling that they are trapped in an immoral day through no fault of their own (having been born at the wrong time).
Increase Mather was a second generationer of the Plymouth Colony. A former president of Harvard, he lamented in 1721: “I am now in my eighty-third year, and having been for sixty-five years a preacher of the gospel…. The children of New England are, or once were, the children of godly men…. Oh, degenerate new England, what are thou come to at this day? How art those sins become common in thee that were once not so much as heard of in this land?”7
My suspicion is that such sermonizing carries at its heart a grievous dishonesty. First, New England early in Mather’s life cannot have been as wonderful as he imagined it to be. We know from history it was, indeed, a violent era in many respects. Second, his hearers could not turn back the clock and live in any other day but the day at hand. We have to live in the now! George Burns, the popular elderly comedian, said: “I hate to brag, but I’m very good at now.”8 Now is here … our time. Now is us.
Then on which sins should the church focus? The church needs to focus on the sins about which it can do something, sins close at hand! From this standpoint, preaching on the issues of social justice may appear to some to waste a great deal of time, not because the issues are unimportant, but because the average worshiper doesn’t see exactly what he or she can do to solve these issues.
Earlier, however, I said the sermon should give attention to those issues that really matter, that the preacher should preach on the huge, inhuman sins of race oppression and greed. Apartheid in South Africa might serve as example here. Such a focus (whether the congregation can immediately see a way to deal with apartheid) will wake Christians to care about great evil and live with a civil conscience for all of God’s children worldwide.
Preaching on those near sins that the church can do something about is most important. Compared to the inhumanity of apartheid, these sins will seem small. Still, they give the sermon a practical hearing.
In another book I have dealt with two categories of sin: the first I call kosher sins. These sins, simply put, are “the sins you can get caught at.” These are only outward sins on which preaching gains a legal, instant hearing: movies, pornography, drug abuse. These are important issues whose unchecked aggression has bound our culture in misery. Still, they are not generally the sins that comprise the lifestyles of most evangelicals.
Category-two sins I call mental-attitude sins. Mental-attitude sins are those sins of the heart: greed, envy, pride, gossip, impure conscience, etc. While it is harder to get caught at these sins, they do comprise the defeat of Christian growth and spiritual awareness. More than the others, these inner sins excuse themselves and, seldom dealt with, have kept the kingdom of God in tatters.
There is perhaps a third category of sins that are the hardest for sermons to address: the sins of the church. The excesses of state religion led to the Reformation and have continued to be a problem with the church in most ages. When the church refuses to speak to its own corruption, there can be no outside chance that God’s Spirit will ever be involved in its sermons.
The evangelical church in our day needs to speak to a lifestyle of accommodation in which eternal truths may shortly be swallowed up in boutiques and softball leagues. There are so many excesses in the busyness of the suburban church that the church should never run out of relevant sins to address. Not that these sins measure up to genocide, but they do say that the church is pretending a purity of conscience and devoting its sermons to lesser subjects.
Vernon Grounds spoke to this kind of sin when he said, “We are sinfully concerned with bigness — with budgets, buses, buildings and baptisms.”9 Let us be sure that our contemporary urge to push a Fortune magazine kind of church growth at the expense of every other virtue or value gets addressed as what it is in proportion: sin.
Why preach sin at all? Isn’t it oddly negative in the face of New Age positivism? No doubt it is. Still, without an understanding that there are immutable categories of right and wrong in the world, we have strayed too far from the wisdom of God. When moral relativism eliminates the word “sin” and then “repentance,” we have no chance of allying ourselves with the Holy Spirit (remembering that he is Triune God). We cannot hope that He who is the inspirer of every great revival of the church will come to us with a newer, swankier theology, comfortably void of every idea of sin. He who is unchangeable will not lead the church to repent in one generation and then tell the next that sin is no longer a big concern.
Giving sin its due, I still maintain that preaching inherently must be positive in tone. This is especially true for the pastor’s sermons. The evangelist or special speaker may enthrall for short seasons of rebuke and remonstrance, but on a weekly basis, preaching that becomes obsessed with repentance and getting right with God will at last fail. It was Poor Richard who suggested the art of catching flies had more to do with honey than vinegar. We are not out to catch flies, but the sermons must catch and keep people’s attention. Sermons that focus on continual negativity and rebuke will fall at last on joyless, empty pews.
Power and the Sermon’s Vitality
The sermon and the church need always to remember that neither can live without vitality. So often when the Spirit comes, He brings revival. I don’t want to deal with the sermon as the center of revival; still, let’s admit that in every awakening, the sermon and the preacher stood central.
The word “revival” has to do with vitality. The biblical word chayah gets close. It is a primary Hebrew root that means “to make alive.” Life is the center point of all religion. Many of the major denominations are lamenting now that they are not showing much life and may in fact be losing members at a disturbing rate. The answer has to do with vitality: neither the church nor the sermon can live without it.
The key words that spawn vitality in the fellowship are inspiration, information, variety, and application. These words, properly understood, impact sermonic power and never malign the Spirit by asking Him to be the partner of boredom.
Inspiration. Looking at these words one at a time, inspiration refers to the buoyancy of the spirit that the sermon creates in the listener. Generally, sermons should lift the spirit, not depress it.
Information. Information is the quality of teaching that a sermon bears. The sermon is to instruct, to teach new truth. If the inspiration is dragging, or the illustrations aren’t selling, or the logic is too heavy, the preacher must be able to change the sermon’s direction on his feet. Herein lies a great shortcoming of manuscript preaching. A heavy-footed manuscript can rarely trade its pedantic brogans for ballet slippers mid-course. Thus it plods, plods, ever plods, refusing to dance alive the sleepy minds before it.
Variety. Variety is incredibly important. In a day and age when the public attention span is television-commercial long, the sermon must change images at least every two or three minutes or it will begin to lose the attention of the listener. Variety is a great incentive, calling to the sluggish of mind, “Don’t doze, you have no idea what’s coming next.” When the congregation can guess what’s coming next, the predictable preacher has failed; the Holy Spirit on such Sundays will be at work in somebody else’s church.
Application. Application is the final quality without which no sermon can succeed. Application answers the all-important question: “Why should I listen to you? What good will this sermon do me?” Every good parent can remember at some time in the past their child saying to them: “Why should I learn algebra?” It is a fair question. “Why, indeed, should anyone attend our sermons?” is also a fair question.
Sermons, for instance, that ignore these questions tend to stay embedded in the text. A sermon on sacrifice can get over-concerned about how many goats and bullocks were involved in Aaron’s sacrifice on Yom Kippur. The General Motors executive will find such trivia otherworldly. He will demand that the preacher tell him why all these goats are important to him. The preacher who applies says, “Now, see here, if you don’t think you have anything in common with Tiglath-Pileser, you’d better tune in!” Good application may start with a passage in Leviticus, yet leave communicants straining at every step, “Boy, does he have my number this morning!”
A little lady once said to me on leaving church, “Who do you preach to when I’m not here?” Hers was the ultimate confirmation that I had spoken and applied what I had said, at least to her.
The sermon’s application determines its vitality. Further, our application makes us the partners of God in this matter. Every new sermon bears the footprints of application, and vitality is observed as the listeners cry, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37).
Of course, the Spirit is there. When we work toward vitality in our preparation and He comes again in wind and fire, a rare synergy occurs. There is power from a God who requires the sermon’s application to call for a change. In this rare convergence of application and decision, the Spirit pays us the highest possible compliment. Earth and heaven are teamed, the liminal and sub-liminal ordain the pastor as a priest whose sermon suddenly stands between two worlds. Our priestly intermediacy pleases heaven and blesses earth.
Power is the Waiting Factor
“Waiting” is the grand allurement of the Spirit in preaching. Why waiting? The very word puts us at God’s disposal. Waiting suggests that, without God, we do not have the ability to proceed in a meaningful way. Waiting is the evidence that we are not presumptuous. Waiting says our sermon is content to let God be the chief actor, the prime mover, the illumination for the darkness we have not yet fathomed. In waiting, we admit we will not attempt to bear His word before we find out what it is.
The closing words of the Gospel of Luke contain this admonition to the infant church: “Wait in the city for power!” (Luke 24:49). The opening words in the Book of Acts come from two men dressed in white who precede the Holy Spirit with the words, “Do not leave Jerusalem … wait for the gift of the Father” (Acts 1:4), and “You will receive power after you have waited” (Acts 1:8). It was the intention of Christ that the church not run out and preach until it knew what to say. This incubation hatched power after ten brief days. The wait was not excessive but long enough to say that impatience makes a wreck of proclaiming the gospel.
George Bernarnos, in Diary of a Country Priest, warns us that when our sermons precede God, we are like a choir that begins singing whenever it pleases without respect to the downbeat of the master.
We have dealt already (and will again) with several notable revivals. Without doubt, the men or women who spawned them did not find prayer a tedious nuisance. The waiting devoured weeks and sometimes years, but it was never the revivalist who ended the waiting. Rather it was God who, in His time (Galatians 4:4), revealed Himself. In such cases, God not only preceded the sermon, but so filled it with Himself that His demand broke into the busy affairs of self-occupied mortals unable to resist His coming.
There is a further aspect to waiting and power. It is the willingness to wait while the word is being preached. I am no longer impressed with sermons made short to keep roasts from burning. It is time that preachers confess the sin of pampering restless congregations with speedy sermonettes. I have discovered (through some resistance) that Spirit-driven preaching cannot be monitored with Mickey Mouse watches.
I am not advocating that preachers launch into long and tedious orations in an attempt to call the Spirit’s power to inhabit the tedium, but preaching that hurries itself into quarter-hour blocks of time for the sake of congregational convenience is too mindful of the clock. No great world-changing preaching made the clock its lord. Sermons that renovate lives place no constraints on the Spirit as He circumcises hearts with new identity. Great revivalists are synchronized with God’s purposes, like the vibrations of a tuning fork.
In recent years, we have lengthened the amount of time we give to worship. Our services have been extended from an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes. I have lengthened my sermon format from twenty minutes to twenty-five, but we allow a great deal more time to music and praise in worship. Again, I believe the average person cannot be challenged to suddenly leave a secular lifestyle. The extra minutes, I believe, have provided a little more time for the worshiper to change mind-sets, leaving secular preoccupations long enough to consider spiritual needs.
It has taken me a long time to be comfortable with this idea. In the first place, I myself have never enjoyed being detained in drowsy sanctuaries by the drone of monotone logic, but I have experienced many justifiably long sermons, lit with application, to drive home my own needs. Spellbound, I shuddered to blink, afraid that I might miss a word. Time only becomes a key concern for us when we feel as though it is being wasted. A fifteen-minute sermon that wastes fifteen minutes is too long. An hour which quickens and gives life can scarcely be enough.
The press wrote of Evan Roberts and his crusade at Loughhor: “The vast congregation remained praying and singing until two-thirty in the morning! Shopkeepers are closing early in order to get a place in the chapel, and tin and steel workers throng the place in their working clothes.”10 Any contemporary preacher who tries to keep a congregation till two in the morning will likely find himself lonely in worship, but as long as God authenticates direct sermon application to needy lives, the services must continue while God is doing business.
The words “doing business” are key. The sermon must be flexible in this regard. It must be free enough from notes or manuscript to allow the Spirit to move freely to any application He pleases. The sermon that remains rigidly tied to its manuscript or outline will not serve the Spirit. Most people will not tolerate long sermons that are tied more to preparation than the working of God. Nor indeed should they tolerate it.
I am reluctant to exalt the visitation of the Spirit upon the sermon because I fear that in the interest of trying to trump up the Spirit, the pastor may move in a preaching search for the Spirit. This “preaching search” terribly bothers me.
I was recently in a two-hour service in which the preacher abandoned his manuscript and outline (and perhaps his mind). He began to preach in emotive phrases, harsh rebuke, and various haranguing. At the center of purpose lay the pseudo-hope that the Spirit was just behind the next paragraph of his already too-long sermon. On and on the treatise went, and we tarried till near midnight. We finally went home, forced to admit that we could no longer endure his search for the Spirit. Our hearts were dead, our minds were numb.
What was this preacher doing? he was trying to bring the Spirit down as a mood. He was longing after God with earnest intention. Make no mistake about this: our willingness to preach on in search of the Spirit is not the same thing as proceeding in His presence. Our mistaken earnestness should be justly rebuked by those who sit through our long spells of spiritual euphoria in search of a mood that never settles.
There is a final aspect to waiting that must be dealth with here. This is the aspect of waiting as tenure in church leadership. As pastor of the same congregation for more than two decades, I must confess that the waiting from year to year has reminded me of several truths.
First of all, growing a church requires a lifetime. Most of my life has now been used in the office of preaching. In this setting, it is not likely that the power of God is going to overcome me in such a fashion that I will never get control of it again, but I have learned that the Spirit of God comes (some weeks in greater evidence than others) in a continual waxing and waning of power.
I know I must live and relate within this seasonal ebb and flow. There are times of evident encounter and times of long waiting when it seems as though God may have forgotten Hebrews 13:4 (His promise that He would never leave or forsake me). Still, I know that sooner or later His remoteness will be eclipsed by His presence as He comes again like “latter rains” to refresh His people.
In the ever-cycling season of His presence, I have rarely felt that the church was incendiary with the uncontrollable glory of the Holy Spirit. I must live in the context of my personal walk with the Spirit (marked regularly by my own sins of impatience and personal weakness) and the week-to-week possibilities of God.
Few of the great revivals of history were begun by pastors who had been in the church or area where the revival began. Most people could not say that a revival broke out under the leadership of a pastor they had listened to for twenty years. That being the case, I think it is altogether important that we see the best possibilities of our sermons in another way.
The local pastor with any time “in grade” must learn that his best use by God will be through thoughtful sermons, thoughtfully prepared, and a consistent spiritual life lived openly (and devotionally) before his people. In this way, he is able to bring a sense of the continuing presence of God to his sermons.
To be sure, they will always celebrate the “wow” of the three-day evangelist who can get away with longer sermons, for he has come down to earth “filled with fury knowing that his time is short” (Revelations 12:12). For the long haul, the pastor can live with a confirmation of the Spirit of God in his own sermons.
For all it seems to lack, the staying power of the pastor is the best base for a continuing (if less fiery) impact of the Spirit on his people. In the leadership of the church there will be many temptations to quit. Woody Allen reminds us, “80 percent of success is just showing up.”11 In seasons of conflict and discouragement in the church, the pastor’s real victory may be in just staying there while the fellowship is polarized by selfish or mean-spirited souls. Through the ordeal of those “hell-is-other-people” times, a walk with God develops. The Spirit who is our stability through the agony of tenure comes again to inhabit the altar of the faithful pastor.
The best way for the local pastor to think about “having” God’s power as an accompaniment to his sermons is to work at his staying power. Noel Coward wrote: “Thousands of people have talent. I might as well congratulate you for having eyes in your head. The one and only thing that counts is: Do you have staying power?”12 This is the greatest question of leadership in preaching. The sermons we preach will seldom have crusade impact, but they, like leaven, will permeate the congregational loaf, gradually changing the entire community.
The Holy Spirit is in us as we preach, but He is also ever coming to us. This great paradox lies at the soul of preaching. His being in us and coming to us are the twin supports upon which God is about to hang the cables of relationship between His world and ours. Without preaching, the bridge does not exist. Without the Spirit, no one could be lured across it. Without preaching and the Spirit working as one, salvation would not exist and God and man would be unacquainted.
1. Donald Coggan, Preaching: The Sacrament of the Word (New York: Crossroads, 1988), 79.
2. Ibid.
3. Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, cited in David R. Mains, The Sense of His Presence (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1988), 99.
4. William H. Willimon, “Advent Meditation,” Christian Century, 3, December 1986, 1086.
5. James Daane, Preaching with Confidence (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), 58 (emphasis added).
6. Cited in Edward F. Markquart, Quest for Better Preaching (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1985), 121.
7. Cited in Mains, The Sense of His Presence, 167.
8. George Burns, How to Live to Be 100 – Or More (New York: New American Library, 1983), 115.
9. Vernon Grounds, cited in Charles Colson, Who Speaks for God?
10. James A. Stewart, Invasion of Wales by the Spirit through Evan Roberts (Fort Washington, Pa.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1975), 36-37.
11. Cited in Marshall Shelley, “From the Editors,” Leadership (Summer 1987), 3.
12. Cited in “To Illustrate Tenacity,” Preaching, 3 (July-August 1987), 50.
Reprinted by permission from Spirit, Word and Story by Calvin Miller, (c) 1989 by Word Incorporated, Irving, TX.

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