Let’s face it: Some guys are less talented than others. David Livingstone, the famed missionary, was one of them.
Livingstone wasn’t the flashiest kid on campus at the University of Glasgow. In fact, had we been campus contemporaries in the 1830s, we probably wouldn’t have known him. He was bright, to be sure; but he had little interest in anything except studies, prayer and dreaming dreams that few college students dared to dream in those days—or today.
In the privacy of his prayer life, the young Livingstone revealed his single passion: “Send me anywhere, only go with me. Lay any burden on me, only sustain me. Sever any ties except the ties that bind me to Your kingdom and Your service.”
That’s what God did—though Livingstone lacked talent.
Livingstone’s laser-like ambition was to be a medical missionary. So, when a prominent missionary spoke on campus about the Dark Continent, as Africa was called, Livingstone made a point to attend. He arrived an hour early to get a good seat.
Robert Moffat spoke for two hours that night about life below the equator and the masses of people who never had seen a white man. “I have sometimes seen, in the morning sun, the smoke of a thousand villages where no missionary has ever been.”
Livingstone was quick to volunteer, but the London Missionary Society had other ideas. As impressive as Livingstone’s medical and theological degrees were, the mission board wanted to know, “Can this kid preach?”
A date was set, a text was assigned, and the missionary candidate gave his best shot. Unfortunately, Livingstone “failed to conform to the acceptable standards of preaching, homiletics or otherwise,” according to the governing board. As a result, the mission committee quickly announced: “Dr. Livingstone, you have no future in missions.”
What a colossal, boneheaded mistake! One of history’s greatest missionaries was given the thumbs-down because he failed to conform to the acceptable standards of preaching—standards that may or may not have been useful in Africa.
What are the acceptable standards of preaching anyway? Is it cleaver oratory? Is it crowd-pleasing analogies? Is it fiery passion? Is it conjugating irregular regular verbs? Is it determined by audience response as it is in “Dancing with the Stars” or “American Idol”?
It’s doubtful that Jonah conformed to the acceptable standards when he preached in Nineveh. His prejudice against that wicked city was so obvious that his sermon contained only eight words. “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Still, that sermon, from a preacher who despised his audience, led to a massive revival.
Obviously Jeremiah didn’t conform to the acceptable standards. Because of his preaching, his temple privileges were revoked, arrest warrants were issued, and his work was sabotaged. He was abducted and publicly humiliated, tossed down a pit and imprisoned—all because of his preaching. Yet his was the one voice of reason in a world of rebellion.
Certainly Peter didn’t conform to acceptable standards on the Day of Pentecost. He opened his sermon with questionable logic by defending the apostles whom the crowd criticized as drunks. “They’re not drunk; it’s too early in the day!” Yet with that unlikely introduction, 3,000 souls were saved.
There’s no question that preaching is the centerpiece of pastoring; it’s the non-negotiable in our job description. Because it serves as the main entree at every worship service, it should be done correctly.
However, rightly dividing God’s Word is neither the same as being predictable or vanilla, nor should it highlight the preacher or the preacher’s talent. Great preaching should showcase our God and Him only. John had it right: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Simply put, preaching is using the spoken word to open the written word to proclaim the Incarnate Word. Those of us with significantly less talent can do that!
In a single prayer, Jesus gave His own standard on acceptable preaching: “I have given them Thy words.” He was biblical, quoting from 22 of the 39 Old Testament books; He was theological, speaking on 40 different biblical themes; and He was ever so practical. His preaching was simple but rich, of God but for man.
Also, the multitudes loved listening to Him.