Excellence in Preaching (Part 1)

Series: Excellence in Preaching
Presenter: Chuck Gianotti

Excellence should describe the ministry of the local church. The American Heritage Dictionary defines this word as “to be preeminent or perform at a level higher than that of another or others.” Translators of Psalm 8:1 used this word to describe the One we serve and worship: “O Lord, our Lord how excellentis your name in all the earth” (Psalm 8:1 NKJV). The Hebrew word can be translated “majestic” (NIV) which means to have or show “lofty dignity or nobility.” The psalmist challenges us to consider the perfection of the Lord’s work in creating the universe in general and mankind in particular. The writer of Hebrews uses this passage to speak of the excellency of Christ (2:6-8). Yes, the Lord does all things well (Mark 7:37)—nothing shoddy about it.

If we worship and praise a God whose name is “excellent” and whose work is excellent, then this ought to be the standard to which we aspire in the local church. Appropriately, the Lord instructs us, “…whatever is excellent …think about such things” (Phil 4:8 NIV). While the primary meaning of this word has to do with individual moral virtue, we are well within Biblical parameters to apply this to the local church as a whole. In this series, we encourage you to move toward excellence in various areas of local church work.

Excellence in teaching and preaching

Titus 2:1 tells us that “You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine.” Without the solid, excellent foundation of truth, a church easily falters. The Lord, whose name is excellent, is honored when we hold tightly to truth. Excellence embraces no shred of error, but rather holds tenaciously to the pure, unadulterated word of God.

We must also show excellence in howwe teach God’s truth. While, the Holy Spirit brings conviction by empowering His word as it is taught through human instruments, the elders should watch over “how” the flock is fed. The truth should not be simply “thrown” at them, but rather taught in ways that are effective. What are some practical ways elders can move toward excellence in this? Here are a few suggestions:

First, elders must take responsibility in this area. While some may have a public speaking gift, such is not a requirement for their role as elders. However, elders do have the responsibility for watching over this ministry. When people stray toward to false doctrine, it maybe that they are not being taught well.

Recognizing that God may raise up a variety of men as preachers or teachers, look for those who study hard and don’t just “wing it” on 2-3 hours preparation. I know of men who spend many evenings over two weeks in preparation for a single message. The church should develop a good resource center (library) to assist elders and preachers in their study.

Be selective about visiting speakers, and don’t just “fill slots” in the preaching calendar. Ask, “Why are we asking thisindividual?”

Pride should be kept in check. Where else can a man have a captive audience for 30-45 minutes and the opportunity to speak authoritatively—and with little formal training? Heady experience for a carnal man! Pray for humility.

Recognize that not every man is called to preach—we do a disservice to the people of God by being careless in this essential ministry. Don’t distort the biblical doctrine of the “priesthood of the believer” and allow the fear of “one-man” ministry lead you to adopt an “any man ministry.” Avoid wrongly elevating the speaking gifts to a “pinnacle” to which all men should aspire. Is the eye of the body more important than the ear (1 Cor 12:14-26)? Each one should aspire to the “most excellent way” of love (1 Cor 12:30) and, then to the gift God distributes as He alone wills (1 Cor 12:11).

Many churches provide training in communication skills—preaching and teaching, at the core, is all about communicating God’s word. Video tapes and books on preaching can prove helpful. When I hear a good message, I try to analyze it and learn from what made it a good sermon. Why not have one of your own messages videotaped, then watch it a week later when you have some emotional “distance” from it? This could be one of the most eye-opening experience of your ministry!

What about topics? You as elders are in the best position to know the needs of the flock, assuming you are walking in step with the Spirit. Consider what one assembly does—with much prayer and deliberation, the elders select topics and the various preaching series ahead of time. The speakers, then, gather to discuss the series and exchange ideas. During this time, informal cross-training takes place along with coordination and a commitment to “speaking with one voice”. Differences of interpretation can be discussed at this time as well.

How do you know if you are “hitting home”? Relying on your wife’s response may not be objective enough. Consider a feedback system, like comment cards in the bulletin. This could provide helpful information that the Spirit of God will help you evaluate. Caution, if you are insecure in your preaching, you may want to reconsider this!

There will be times when people have no clue what was being said! Their glazed eyes and yawns squeezed out “between the teeth” give them away! Admit it, this has happened to you on rareoccasion. It has to me! Resist the temptation to think too often, “I’m preaching to the level where they shouldbe.” Why not, instead, try to determine how you missed meeting them where they are.

Finally, have you considered following Jesus’ example by using visuals as, for instance, when He invited His audience to consider the flowers and birds. You might use projectors, signs, banners, flannel graphs, drama, chalk, etc. Consider giving out “listening aids” like a simple outline on half-size sheets that can be filled in as you speak. Creativity shows itself in all God has done in creation; it ought to show in the communication of His truth.

The public ministry of God’s word should be characterized by excellence—for this reflects a God whose name is “Excellent”!

In some ways a “message” or “sermon” is like a speech, it conveys the speaker’s ideas using the basic conventions of communication. A lack of clarity and reasonable flow to the message can hinder the listener from actually understanding the content of the message. However, the mind of God cannot be confined to patterns or structures that may be sufficient in other venues. In other words, finely crafted oratory is not sufficient for communicating the mind of God.

Consider the following necessary ingredients, and how they relate to the preacher himself and to true spiritual communication of God’s truth:

Humility and awe

Peter, the first great preacher of the Christian era (apart from the Lord Jesus Christ, of course), penned the following: “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God…” (1 Peter 4:10-11a, NIV). Notice that preaching is a “grace” from God. On the one hand, this is a gift tothe speaker, reflecting God’s grace. On the other hand, it is God’s gift to His people throughthe speaker. The Lord shows Himself to be abundantly gracious in providing a human mouth piece for His message to us.

From this we can draw two conclusions. First, the opportunity and ability to preach God’s word should humble us—it has nothing to do with being better or more worthy than another person. We did nothing to earn the rightto the platform. Second, preaching is a trustto be faithfully administered. It is the Lord’s gift, not ours. We are His spokesman and we dare not forget it. We should not shrink back from it with false humility, nor should we lordit over the platform with prideful self-confidence, making it our perch for controlling the Holy Spirit’s work among God’s people.

God’s reputation is at stake, and we need to obediently andhumbly fulfill this speaking ministry in the same way that the person with the gift of service humbly fulfills his serving ministry. Neither should be set above the other. In fact, Peter uses “service” as his next illustration of faithfulness in ministry: “If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides…” (4:11b).

Did you notice the standard for speaking that Peter gives. We should speak as though we are conveying the “very words” of God. Now, this doesn’t mean we pontificate with our own authority—we do not speak infallibly, as some may fancy their ministry. Nor should we speak assertively with our own insecure or insincere interpretations. It is disingenuous to assert a strange view point in the attempts to be unique or authoritative. Remember the story of the old preacher’s notes where he had written in the margin by of his sermons transcript: “Weak point: pound the pulpit harder!”

Clearly, we should hold this role of preaching with a sense of humility and awe when speaking to God’s people about His truth. We should be overwhelmed with both of these: incredulous humility, because the Lord really does want to use me, poor vessel that I am; and motivating, inspiring awe. The Master of the universe does not lightly entrust us with his precious truth. Carefully, we must tread!

At the same time, we must speak confidently with the real sense that God is communicating through us. We are simply the instrument, the message is His!

Focus

Peter continues his discussion with a clear goal for the exercise of our gifts: “… that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen” (4:11c). Preaching is not about you, the speaker. Nor is about me, when I speak. It’s all about God!

The ego with which we men struggle so vainly is both strong and fragile. It is strong to assert itself for praise and attention, but fragile to become hurt by people’s comments or lack thereof. If you are struggling with either of those, the message for you is simple: Get over it! The sooner this is dealt with, the sooner you become a tool in the hands of a holy, communicating God. The church needs men who can get this right, who have learned to be humble before God and speak confidently before others. It needs men who speak the very words of God, men whose goal is truly to focus the listener’s attention on Christ.

Sincerity

The Lord, speaking through Paul, put it another way: “Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God” (2 Cor 2:17). As Paul preached and taught, it was like the Lord Jesus Christ was sitting in the front pew. Talk about an incentive for integrity of speech! It is so easy to embellish a story or misquote a statistic to prove a point or to tell anecdotes that make the preacher himself look like a super saint. Paul was ever mindful of the Divine ear as he spoke to people.

Notice, also, that he wasn’t in the preaching “business” for his own benefit. Of course, the motivation for preaching should never be financial gain. But, Paul speaks to a broader perspective, namely that the man of God does not preach the word for his own benefit! It is not a showcase for someone to “make a name for himself.” The goal is, as John the Baptist puts it, “He must increase and I must decrease.” (John 3:3)

Messing up on this point is easy to do. An insincere attitude can not be easily hidden. Peter writes similar thoughts to elders in 1 Peter 5:2. Our motive should first, last and foremost be entirely: all for His glory!

Power

True power in preaching comes with the reality of changed lives, where people become increasingly dependent upon God: “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor 2:4-5).

Clearly, Paul could communicate quite eloquently as demonstrated in his writings. See, for example, 1 Corinthians 13 for a most eloquent statement on love, or the book of Romans for a masterful, tightly reasoned case for “justification”. However articulate and polished he may have been, Paul makes it clear that his message did not dependon rhetoric or finely crafted oratory. There was a spiritual power that gave force and effectiveness to the message, far beyond the conventions of humanly crafted speech.

He explains why this was so—namely, that his listeners would not become dependent upon human ability in communication, but upon the Spirit working through that communication. The sum and substance of his message was centered on the “wisdom” that came from God, that which can only be revealed by the Spirit (1 Cor 2:6-10).

How can a preacher bring the power of power of the Holy Spirit to his message? It is already there, provided the message is from God. In a very real sense, the preacher must simply move his fleshly attitude out of the way, so the Spirit can “have at the people.” God’s word is powerful, not because of great oratory, but because of the work of His Spirit using a clean He has chosen. He brings conviction and encouragement to people lives. That is power!

Excellence in preaching must include : humility, awe, focus, sincerity and power of the Holy Spirit.

Preaching God’s word is not easy! Anyone can read God’s word and make comments on it publicly. That is not the same as preaching it. Paul had something more in mind when he commanded Timothy and every preacher after him: “Preach the word.” (2 Timothy 4:2 NIV). And, we might add, it should be preached well, for we are communicating “the word” which is the truth about our God, whose name is “excellent” (Ps. 8:1 NKJV).

Preaching of the word should be relevant.

The word of God is relevant. But, we need to show it’s relevancy to our listeners where they are in their spiritual walk. For example, preaching a message about commitment and sacrifice for the Lord may completely miss people who are struggling with discouragement. We need to know our audience well, like Paul did on the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-23) or like Peter did with the persecuted believers scattered around the eastern Mediterranean (1 Peter 1:1).

Preaching of the word should be balanced.

In the life of the local church, there needs to be a constant flow of the “bread and butter” ministry of the word. Over time, the major truths of scripture should be covered, not just an endless succession of exposition on the finer points of doctrine. In every congregation there is a mixture of newer and more mature believers. If you target the mature believer all the time, you will lose the newer believer. Also, it is easy to assume the people know more than they really do. The preacher needs to take them from what they know, to what they do not yet know, so that there is a well rounded understanding of God and His truth. Again, you need to know your audience.

Preaching of the word should be interesting.

Granted, the Holy Spirit is the one who stirs up the hearts, but the preacher should keep in step with the Spirit. Howard Hendricks used to say, “Nothing is worse than to bore people with God’s word.” This is not a matter of being witty or eloquent. You must understand the real need of the people when you are preaching the word of God to them. Resist the temptation to just throw the word out without being concerned for how the people respond. It is your job as preacher to get the people to listen. How can you do that?

A well known principle for making communication interesting is to anticipate the questions people will have in their minds concerning your subject. They have three main questions, from which should flow the major thrust of your message. Here they are:

What does it mean?We usually assume our listeners are asking this question and therefore many sermons are shaped as explanations of a passage or topic. The best way to explain something is to begin with where the listeners are in their understanding of spiritual truths. It may involve interpreting words, phrases and ideas, using words, phrases and ideas they are already familiar with.

Take, for example, the phrase “to appropriate God’s grace.” If you are speaking to mature Christians who have had a good deal of teaching, this brief phrase packs a large concept. Newer believers may have no clue what that means. Remember, during most preaching services, the listener can’t stop and ask, “What do you mean by that?”

“If a trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle. So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying?” (1 Cor 14:8-9). To speak unintelligibly is kind of like non-charismatic speaking in “tongues.” We may be using English, but many don’t understand us!

Another example, on the conceptual level, is: what does it mean that God does not change (Malachi 3:6) and does no wrong, but the scripture says “God repented…” (Amos 7:6)? Especially, when Numbers 23:19 makes it clear that God does not repent. This needs some explaining! You can be sure that your listener’s are wondering the same thing.

In preparing to speak, when you initially read your scripture passage, imagine your audience hearing it for the first time. What questions of meaning surface? Will they know what a Pharisee is? Is Hades the same as hell? Why the different words?

Is it true?Often the meaning of the passage or the topic is quite clear to everyone. Your listeners may be dealing with a very different question: “Is it true?” You may say, of course believers know that Bible is true. They may even accept the biblicalness of your message but not believe it is true in their everyday life. They may be wondering if the message is credible and truly relevant to them.

For example, all things work to the good for those that love God and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). True, in fact. Factually, that is what the inspired word of God says, so it must be true. Most Christians know about this truth. But, is your audience struggling to really believe this in their situation? What about the man who just lost his job, he has heard this all his life. How, as the preacher, can you help him see the truth of this in his situation, other than just repeating the words of scripture which he can read for himself? True the word of God stands on it’s own, but the preacher’s role is to help the listener understand the truth of it.

A message that deals with this kind of question might draw on biblical examples, in this instance, from the captivity of Joseph in the OT (Genesis 37-50) or the imprisonment of Paul in the NT (Phil 1:12-20). You mightalso draw on anecdotal material of those who have struggled and found this truthto be true.

How does it work?This can be the most easily neglected aspect of communicating God’s word. Some call this the “So what?” question. “What difference does this truth make in my life and how do I implement it.” To end a message with “May these thoughts bless your heart” comes up short.

Jesus gave clear examples of this kind of communication: “Turn the other cheek” in the Sermon on the Mount is an example where Jesus uses “examples” to communicate the need for application. So also are the many parables that illustrate how God’s truth is to be applied—for instance, the good Samaritan. Jesus frequently finished a parable with a call to action: “Go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37).

If, for example, you are preaching on the passage, “If we ask anything according to his will, he will hears us” (1 John 5:14), a big question people will have is “How do we do that?” You might use Jesus’ interaction with His father in Gethsemane as an example of “how to.” Often we preachers exhort people to share their faith—they have been told that endless times. The real question of interest may be not whetherto do it, but howto do it. Study, for example, Jesus’ interchange with the woman at the well (John 4). What principles can we draw from this story which will help the listener know how to witness better?

These three question are like mental crow bars that help focus a message to meet the audience where they are at. Not all three questions will necessarily be pertinent in every message or with every passage. I have them written out and sitting in front of me when studying to preach the word of God.

Conclusion

Next time you go to prepare a message for God’s people, consider how you can make it relevant, balanced and interesting.