Why don’t we preach like Jesus? Why do so many preaching books fail to refer to our Master Model as the master preaching model?
How could we forget Jesus the Preacher? Didn’t the people abandon cities and villages to listen to His sermons in the wilderness?
Twenty percent of the New Testament consists of the direct words of Jesus — some 34,450 out of a total 181,253 words. They would equal 10 thirty-minute sermons. Surely that’s enough to catch His spirit and technique.
What can we learn from a closer look at Jesus’ preaching? What was it about his preaching that made the common people hear him so gladly?
Jesus tells stories
Jesus was a master story-teller who lived in a story-telling culture. Traditions and hero stories were the oral entertainment of the day. Hebrew history passed from one generation to the next by the telling of these evening stories. Values, morals and customs rode on the narratives exchanged by the fireside.
Story-telling was in Jesus’ blood. He taught such heavy concepts as compassion, forgiveness and personal responsibility with simple stories of the Good Samaritan, Prodigal Son and a Sower. His stories not only capture attention, they convincingly drive home unforgettable messages.
For instance, the Prodigal Son clearly illustrates the folly of pleasure, the misery caused by sin, the reasonable nature of repentance and the compassionate love of Father God.
Jesus doesn’t use stories merely as teasers, light introductions to get His hearers’ listening for what He really wants to say. They are often the primary expression of His message. He trusts His stories to gently shepherd the flock toward the fold.
And the stories do indeed work. The people marvel at the truth they see, saying, “Where did he get all this wisdom?”
Never worrying about a three-point sermon, Jesus often pushes only one concept with each story. Like King Saul, who looked at the boy David with his puny slingshot and decided to dress him in grown-up armor, we look for ways to dress up Jesus’ preaching in different garb.
The straight-forward narratives of Jesus seem to embarrass us. We want to restructure. We want to re-arrange. We want to show our superior learning.
But if we examine Jesus’ communication style, one rule stands out. Jesus wouldn’t preach without a story. Why do we?
Jesus draws on experience
Time and again Jesus trips the memory banks of His hearers. He triggers interest and involvement with constant appeals to universal human desires, needs and experiences. His sermons are neither academic exercises in intellectual analysis nor mere ethical advice.
He digs into life. He ferrets out feelings. He probes into His hearers’ deepest relationships. Life and experience — normal, healthy, common life and experience — seem to dominate His talks with the people.
Along with His stories Jesus often uses analogy. He talks about light and salt, houses on rock and sand, shepherds and sheep, yokes and burdens, living water, chiefs and servants, bosses and employees, vineyards, vines, branches and doors.
Within those and many other analogies Jesus compares and contrasts familiar images: wise and foolish virgins, sheep and goats, light and darkness, broad and narrow, rich and poor, younger and elder.
Note the breadth and relevance in a partial list of his subjects: Adultery, anger, anxiety, avarice, death, debts, doubts, eternity, faith, fasting, fault-finding, giving, greed, honesty, hypocrisy, joy, kindness, knowledge, law, legalism, life, lust, marriage, money, oaths, parenthood, prayer, pretense, respect, responsibility, reward, rulers, sex, slander, speech, stewardship, taxes, trust, unkindness, virtue, wisdom, zeal.
Just reading this list of subjects from our pulpits would no doubt create a stir in our sanctuaries next Sunday. A series of sermons based on a sampling of topics from Jesus’ hit-list could probably do more than three cups of fellowship-hour coffee to keep our dozing deacons awake and listening. But it’s not just Jesus’ treatment of relevant topics that kept the crowds coming back for more.
Jesus secures and holds attention. He establishes a point of contact. Then he appeals to the familiar in the experience of hearers. He brings the concrete into focus before resorting to abstractions. He draws vivid pictures from nature, from customs, family, animals, agriculture, humans, shepherds, servants, masters.
Jesus starts at sidewalk level from his listeners’ point of view. He promotes active participation. He recognizes their slow pace. He says, “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” And then He starts with what they can hear. Do we?
Throughout His sermons, from beginning to end, Jesus repeatedly returns His listeners to common experiences by His references: forty-nine times to sheep, twenty-seven times to sowing, twenty-two times to reaping and harvest, ten times to water imagery. All these are everyday, crucial parts of the agrarian culture He lives in.
He talks at the visceral level of lust, love, life and self-respect. He meets gut-level needs and issues head-on. Without equivocation, without “crawfishin’,” Jesus faces life as lived by common people.
No psychiatrist or family counselor, He nevertheless lays the groundwork, sets the stage for human therapy. He shows respect for women, kindness for kids, and faithfulness for all family relationships.
All relationships of life are nurtured by His words and unselfish example. When He says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the Golden Rule invades all strata of life. Do our sermons involve persons from every generation?
Jesus is concrete
Familiar, concrete terms are Jesus’ vehicles for conveying abstract concepts. He uses the common lily as an object lesson in trust. A beam and a splinter or speck of sawdust symbolize large and small faults. The concept of service is represented by a cup of water.
In each of the synoptic Gospel records Jesus teaches inductively about the kingdom in the parable of the soils. He focuses on the growth of the kingdom by giving the parables of the mustard seed, the leaven and the parable of the seed.
The parable of the tares teaches about the opposition to the kingdom. To teach about the delayed nature of the kingdom He tells the parable of the pounds. Jesus instructs His disciples by going repeatedly from the concrete to the abstract, from the facts to the principles, from the data to the dictum.
Jesus also teaches His enemies indirectly by using parables, asking questions without answering them, doing miracles and mighty works and then leaving them to form their own conclusions from their observations. When they complain of His eating with sinners He tells the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son.
He paints concrete pictures before giving abstract admonitions. The common people are carried by these portraits of experience and illustration to cry, “I see it.” The abstract truth becomes reality for His hearers. Do we help our hearers apply truth?
Both cognitive and emotional life draw strength from His concrete words:
“Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
This right-brained paragraph lacks logical content, analytical structure, and intellectual appeal. But both brain and heart feed on this precept of peace and tranquility as He shares feeling, emotion and intuitive appeal. Do our sermons engage both the cognitive and the feeling levels of life?
Jesus respects His listeners
Jesus respects their personalities. He treats them as if they’re created in the image of God. He uses suggestions without drawing inferences and conclusions from them in every instance. He shows a careful and gradual movement from one stage of belief to another, letting people hear, understand and move on at their own pace.
He is not a one-way communicator. He asks questions. He probes and listens. He reasons and dialogues. He lives among the people. He meets them on streets, in places of prayer, on hillsides, at work, in boats, at weddings, at meals in homes, in feasts and funerals.
Perhaps it is Jesus’ style of going to and speaking to the people that brings them thronging to hear Him. Jesus’ listeners don’t seem to sit silently on the back pew either. The Gospel accounts record some 125 incidents of Jesus communicating with others. And about fifty-four percent of those encounters are initiated by His hearers.
Instead of standing up and proclaiming the message He knows the people need to hear, He responds to His audience’s questions, objections and doubts. He allows and welcomes their involvement at the outset.
It’s interesting that the Son of God, who came to earth to convey the most important message of all time, who had the clearest channel to God and the deepest understanding of the message, lets the audience determine His communication agenda more than half the time. Do we ever allow the audience to set our agenda?
Jesus begins with felt needs
He responds to the needs of His listeners before He presumes to declare His message. He feeds the 5,000 before talking of the Bread of Life. The woman at the well talks of Messiah and then He reveals Himself as the Messiah. He asks this Samaritan woman for a drink, gains her attention, then moves on to living water. He starts where she is and leads her where He wants her to go.
He raises the widow’s son and Lazarus before He teaches, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
His 2,320-word Sermon on the Mount serves as ideal model for studying Jesus’ preaching style. In this sermon, which could be preached in about eighteen minutes and might be titled “The Happy, Satisfied Person,” Jesus probes a strong felt need of His hearers: “How can a person be happy or satisfied?'” He walks around that universal question, pulling out examples as beatitudes and analogies — some subtle, some sweeping, but all simple, common and powerful in their impact.
Jesus goes to the Mount with the masses. Yet He tries to personalize His sermon. In addition to the nineteen dialogue-creating questions in the Sermon on the Mount, the words “you” or “your” are stated or implied 221 times. Jesus speaks directly to His audience. Do we speak directly to our audience and their needs?
Jesus doesn’t declare His authority
Jesus does not clamor or claw for His place in the sun. He lets stories carry His message without fanfare or pompous declarations when He preaches to the populace.
He does not declare with unquestioned certainty as much as He shares, guides and walks in the way with the people. He aims to lead rather than drive. He accompanies more than He accosts. He counsels instead of confronting, compelling or contending.
Jesus doesn’t try to impress anyone by declaring His authority or deity. He lets His example speak. He doesn’t tell; He shows His power. Experience is the proof He lays out for the people around Him.
He tends to withhold His authority until it is proved in His life. Jesus the speaker refrains from leaning on His own authority when He preaches to the multitudes.
Jesus doesn’t even lean on traditional authority. The primary reason the religious, educated elite resist and resent the simple preaching of Jesus is because He doesn’t buy into their traditional system. He doesn’t shrug off common experience as irrelevant or unimportant for life and learning.
It seems Jesus recognizes in His preaching what God understood when He created the incarnation concept: experience carries the persuasive authority inductive human beings need to comprehend and believe the truth.
Incarnational preaching, whether in the first or the twenty-first century, demands the Word become flesh. And that happens best when the authority of the speaker and the truth are fleshed out for the audience with the proof of experience.
Some readers may be thinking, “Yes, but doesn’t the Scripture say ‘Jesus taught them with authority and not as the scribes’?” It does.
Yet I’m convinced what Matthew means with that observation is that Jesus exuded real authority, not the artificial brand supported by position, tradition or institutions of the religious leaders of His day. Even when Jesus cited Scripture with a posture of authority, He did so only to the proudly religious who claimed to adhere to it and when He was instructing those who already believed.
John quotes Jesus as saying, “I do not speak on my own authority.” He lets truth, the truth of experience, speak for itself. Do we let the voice of experience speak through our preaching?
Jesus preaches inductively
What all the evidence leads to is this: Jesus is an inductive preacher. When He gives particular facts without first drawing inferences. When He speaks without stating any general principles. When He begins with the concrete, then moves to the abstract. When He relates the new to the familiar.
Jesus establishes a point of contact. He secures and holds attention. He appeals to the familiar in the experience of hearers. And then He leads His hearers from truth to truth.
Not only Jesus, but every preacher in the Bible, every book in the Bible (with the exception of Proverbs) accents this inductive process. These all suppose we can learn from experience. All tell their stories. All begin with life, the concrete, the known. All ask questions. All are inductive, starting with life and experience, leading to conclusions, concepts, principles.
Sermons by the men Jesus taught, in the Book of Acts, demonstrate this inductive structure. For example, Paul tells the story of his conversion three times on differing occasions; Peter is inductive at Pentecost and Stephen postpones his own execution by telling the stories of nine patriarchs in his history of Israel.
Jesus’ preaching, like God’s Word itself, offers an invaluable course in communication strategy, a practical model of effective pulpit style. Jesus, like the Bible, is inductive.
His preaching has much to say today: Life’s stories can instruct and enlighten listeners. Examples lead hearers to their own conclusions (and God’s) without a lot of strong opposition. Comparisons, questions and narratives can gently lead to the same strong conclusions the exhorting deductive preacher traditionally accents from the start. Jesus and the Bible both prove this.
Jesus trusts the people and the inductive process of learning from experience, accenting common life, accepting the people with respect, assuming the role of guide, friend and confidant. He is no autocrat, no pompous boss, no proud proclaimer of His own conclusions, no declarer of personal decrees without the quiet proof of experience.
Jesus shares the process with them. He never pushes the people. He doesn’t push His propositions. He gently guides. He instructs, teaches, trains them.
Experiences from the Bible and contemporary life can mix for a powerful potion to heal the ailing preaching in our day. Jesus seems to lead us in this direction.
A pastor wrote me recently, “In seminary my professors told me, ‘You only have 25 minutes to raise the dead. Don’t waste your time telling stories.’ But my ten years of experience force me to tell stories or lose the congregation when I preach.
“Inductive preaching helps me not to feel guilty. It encourages me to do what my experience crowds me into doing: begin by sharing experience, telling stories.”
That’s what Jesus did. His critics said “Never man spake like Him.” Why don’t we preach like Jesus? Then, once again, the common people can listen gladly.
Why don’t we preach like Jesus? Why do so many preaching books fail to refer to our Master Model as the master preaching model?