Principles for pulpits and pews
IN RECENT DAYS, criticisms have been directed by members of the public against some preachers who are said to be guilty of offensive preaching. As President of the National Council of Churches, I have received some of these letters of complaint (none of which, thankfully, had to do with Methodist preachers).
It is true that the faithful preaching of the Gospel of Christ may be inherently distasteful to some. The apostle Paul recognised that the preaching of Christ crucified was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). But a sermon that may be distasteful to some on philosophical grounds is not the same as a sermon that is insensitively or deliberately offensive.
To ensure that sermons are preached faithfully and with sensitivity, it would be good to be reminded of some basic principles that are most helpful.
Firstly, the preacher’s sermon must be Christ-centred. Paul’s reminder that “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23) resonates with what the New Testament keeps repeating: that we are to preach the Gospel – the Gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ. The main task of the preacher is to proclaim Christ.
Dr E. Stanley Jones was an American Methodist missionary to India in the earlier decades of the 20th century. He was highly respected, not only by Christians, but also by non-Christians. He was an evangelist, and therefore openly preached the Gospel, but in so doing, he never ridiculed other religions. He reminded Christians that evangelism is essentially sharing about Jesus, of telling what we know of Him and how He has made a difference in our lives. As a result of his approach to evangelism, he was able to develop a close friendship with many non-Christians, including Mahatma Gandhi, and was especially effective in his evangelistic ministry.
Paul was a missionary to the ancient Mediterranean world, a world that was filled with all kinds of religions. It is interesting that an examination of Paul’s recorded sermons does not show any disparaging or belittling of any of these religions. When he visited Athens, a city full of religions, Paul’s focus was to preach about the God of his faith; he preached Christ. He did not run down the other religions, and in fact used some aspects of the ideas and practices of these religions to find positive bridges to share his message (Acts 17:16-34).
It is good to remember this principle: that the primary task of preaching is to proclaim Christ. When Christ is exalted in the sermon, He will draw people to Himself. The preacher’s task is not to run down other people’s religions or to belittle them. Far from it, the preacher’s task is to proclaim Christ.
Secondly, preaching should be based on the Word of God. It should be biblical. Scripture instructs preachers that they should “Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2); and that the key tasks of spiritual leaders are “prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Problems arise when preachers neglect the Word or abandon it in favour of making speeches at the pulpit that do not resemble a sermon. Worse, when pulpits become stages, when exposition of the Word gives way to entertainment, and the essence of preaching is forgotten.
According to Bible teacher Ray Stedman, expository preaching “derives its content from the Scripture directly, seeking to discover its divinely intended meaning, to observe its effect upon those who first received it, and to apply it to those who seek its guidance in the present”. Such preaching springs from Scripture and stays faithful to it.
Thirdly, preaching should demonstrate the character of Christ. The Christian who is being transformed by the Holy Spirit into the likeness of Christ is characterised as one whose conversation is “always full of grace” (Col. 4:6), and one who is able to “give the reason for the hope” he has with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Jesus Himself was a winsome preacher, as a careful examination of His Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7) would show. At the end of the sermon, His listeners “were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Mt. 7:28-29). Jesus did not ridicule or denigrate the many religions that existed in His day. He was kind and gentle with those outside the faith and reserved His harshest words for the Pharisees of His own faith (Mt 23).
Philips Brooks, the great 19th century preacher who emphasised the importance of careful sermon preparation, observed that preaching is “the communication of truth through personality”. To paraphrase, the preacher must take care that he is preaching the truth, and that he is an appropriate medium for that truth.
THE PULPIT MUST REFLECT the character of Christ; with the holiness, love, integrity, gentleness, kindness and humility that belong to that character. The sermon that is preached with pride or neurotic human anger has already lost its power. The preacher who does not exhibit the character of Christ has already lost his credibility.
Are these principles only for the pulpit? No, they are also for the pew. Often the pulpit, rightly or wrongly, is shaped by the pew. If the pew expects sound and serious expository preaching based on God’s Word, that is what the pulpit is encouraged to do. On the other hand, if the pew applauds unbiblical preaching and insensitive and immature remarks, the pulpit will be tempted to go in that direction, giving the pew what it is looking for – and the pulpit, unfortunately will degenerate into a stage.
In Methodist history, John Wesley signed a deed with trustees of local Methodist societies (churches). The trustees promised to accept the preacher who was appointed to serve them, and to ensure that he preached Methodist doctrine faithfully. There was a mutual accountability between pew and pulpit. The Word of God was above both, and judged both. Both the pulpit and the pew have their own responsibilities for the sermons that are preached in church.
We do well to remember the above principles. Good preaching has three essential marks: it focuses on the Person of Christ, it is based on the Word of Christ (God), and it displays the Character of Christ.
If these principles are remembered by both pulpit and pew, churches will do well in continuing to preach Christ faithfully and winsomely so that others may be drawn to the One who is Lord and Saviour.