The Primacy of Preaching

Preaching as a primary task of the Church deserves a prominent place in the lives of the believers, the respect of the congregation, and the awareness of the surrounding community. By this I put great emphasis: if preaching is not primary in the tasks of a local church, then that church is dead.
I observe with great brokenness that the Church today has resorted too much to misplaced contextualization that the once highly-esteemed position of preaching has been replaced by other activities and their various forms. These activities and forms are not necessarily worldly or unspiritual in themselves, but too much focus on these tend to dethrone the authority and place of preaching.

Before I tell my observations regarding this unsettling displacement of the preaching task, let me first tell the reasons why preaching is a major task of the Church, hence, its supremacy.

The first reason for the supremacy of preaching is because it is the Gospel of Jesus Christ that saves people. No other thing, no methodology, no persuasion, no philosophy, no good works, no acts of mercy will bring down a sinner in humble submission and faith to Christ except by the Gospel.

Romans 1:16 (KJV) For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.

And how is the Gospel presented and received? How is faith produced to believe in Christ? It is by hearing the Gospel, and the Gospel is heard by preaching.

Romans 10:13-14 (KJV) For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?

It is important to note that I am not against good works or acts of kindness – I even propose that the Church is weak in these areas, and should be developed. What I am trying to say is that nothing can replace the role of preaching for the salvation of man and the strengthening of the Church. The preaching task, partnered with fervent prayers, is still the primary task of the Church for the harvesting of souls and the furtherance of God’s Kingdom. Good works will touch the mind and heart of people, but only the Gospel brought by preaching through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit could revive the dead spirit of man.

The second reason for the supremacy of preaching is because it is a primary tool to strengthen the believers. I do not say that other activities do not do the work of strengthening the Church – they do, like worship, prayer, seminar, thanksgiving, etc. What I emphasize is that all of those activities serve their own purposes and the hearing of the Word of God completes them. The maturity of the believer is never complete apart from the hearing of the Word. If a Church event has plenty of activities but devoid of the Word, then that event is virtually fruitless.

Only the Word gives us the knowledge of God’s Truth that edifies us in many ways; leads us to sanctification together with the work of the Holy Spirit; corrects us; equips us in service; and brings us closer to Jesus Christ Himself.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 (KJV) All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.

Psalms 119:105 (KJV) Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.

Matthew 4:4 (KJV) But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.

Hebrews 4:12 (KJV) For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

Now that I have told why the preaching of the Word deserves a supreme place in the life activity of the Church, we are now ready to talk about some observations why the preaching of the Word seems not highly regarded like it was before.

The first obvious observation is that today the Church is willing to conduct big activities devoid of the Word, in an attempt to stoop down under the great name of contextualization.

Why preach the offensive Gospel to the hard-headed unbelievers when you can give them programs that will benefit their interests? Why preach the outdated Gospel to the postmodern youth when you can give them ‘holy worldly activities’? Why preach the commonly heard Gospel when you can share thousands of stories and philosophies that are humanistic?

Those are the cries of the Church today, as a product of many meetings and evaluations that arrogantly suggest that the Gospel is not enough or sufficient to confront the needs of modern man.

The second observation is that today, an honest analysis shows that preaching lacks Scripture. I could easily judge that today’s preaching lacks authority and power because it chose to deny its allegiance to its source of power – the Word of God. Many preachings have become nothing but rampant outrages of human voice and emotion, throwing thoughts randomly at the hearers without affecting any positive change or transformation.

This is evident in three ways. First, preaching has been norrowed to a single-verse shallow explanation. I say single verse because I see preachers quoting a single verse from Scripture then leaving it out entirely during the entire course of the sermon. I say shallow explanation because it has become a natural tendency for preachers nowadays to give room to highly subjective experiences and humanistic philosophy to interpret Scripture. The result then is a ‘Word-less preaching.’ If you want good preaching, you should devote yourself to several verses of Scripture that are explained in an expository manner.

Second, preaching has become ‘recycled.’ By this I mean that some preachers lazily just get canned sermons from books and internet and with little reading, deliver such sermons on Sundays. I am not against getting ideas from others, but the best sermon is the one that God has given you personally thru fervent prayers and faithful study of the Word. For sure it is the message that God Himself has fed you, the message that has penetrated your soul, this is the message that you are most capable of preaching with power.

Third, preaching has become a way to adulterise the Scriptures. I mean to say that we preach to promote our personal agendas and interpretations using the Scriptures as an outside cover. So many times preachers use the pulpit to defend their insecurities, to avenge their hurt feelings, to defend and cover up their sins, and some other acts or motives that are far from the pure Biblical motives of preaching.

Lastly, the third observation is that preachers today are much less equipped in the art and discipline of preaching. This observation goes on two extremes: being lowly equipped and being highly transcendent.

Being lowly equipped means that preachers are becoming less and less aware of the basic knowledge of the technicalities of preaching. They have become ignorant and hostile to the proper ways of constructing a sermon, or even worse, make preaching a contradiction of terms by believing that a devoted study and writing of a sermon is irrelevant and unnecessary because ‘the Holy Spirit will complete it anyway.’

Let me make this clear: I am never against completely relying upon the work of the Holy Spirit to bless a sermon and its preaching. I have witnessed that in many occassions, God has blessed my preaching (and the preaching of others) even though my notes were not with me (impromptu preaching), or I did not have enough time for serious study – but those cases are of course miracles of His Grace, and surely not to justify a preacher’s laziness. What I emphasize is that if God has called you to preach, you must give God and your calling the respect they deserve by a diligent study of the Word and its sermon preparation. Do we desire God to bless our sermon and preaching if we have not prepared for it, but lazily just picked up a random text and trusted God for its eternal benefits, especially when an ample amount of time is given for preparation? We must be ashamed.

2 Timothy 4:2 (KJV) Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.

2 Timothy 2:15 (KJV) Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

Ezra 7:10 (KJV) For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments.

By being highly transcendent, I mean the opposite of the former. Sometimes preachers, being too much idealistic, forget to grasp the reality of his surroundings. To preach effectively, we should adjust our methodology and style to suit the intellectual, emotional, and cultural level of our listeners, without compromising the Word. The effective preacher is not the one with the transcendent message or the greatest method of delivery, but the one who is able to make his message comprehensible to his listeners.

If we want revivals in our local churches, the basics need to be present: humility and repentance, prayer and Bible reading, holiness and devotion, and worship and the preaching of God’s Word.

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Preaching as Public Speaking

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True, preaching is a divine task, yet basically it is also a form of public speaking. A true preacher will eventually realise that as much as preaching involves spiritual dynamics, it also certainly includes oratory skills. These oratory skills constitute the technical aspect of preaching.

Before I tell about this technical aspect of preaching, or the oratory skills, which make us realise that preaching is a form of public speaking, let me tell first some important points to consider.

The first point is that though the technical side of preaching is important, still the spiritual side is more important. Preaching is firstly divine, then secondly it is public speaking. Preaching achieves eternal spiritual fruits, something that ordinary public speaking can never produce.

The second point to consider is that no methodology is holy, no matter how helpful it is in preaching. The techniques of delivering a sermon are never holy in themselves, though they are blessed by God as secondary tools to deliver His Word. Only the written words of God in the Bible are holy; the Word of God is holy, not our methods and techniques. The Word that we try to deliver everytime we preach is the one that revives the spirit and strengthens the soul, it is certainly not the preaching in itself.

Psalms 12:6 (KJV)  The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.
Romans 1:16 (KJV)  For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.
1 Thessalonians 1:5 (KJV)  For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake.

Now that we have already discussed that the spiritual side of preaching outweighs the technical, we can now discuss the latter, and that describes preaching as a form of public speaking.

Preaching involves skills and techniques that enhance the delivery of our sermons (not the power but only the delivery). These skills basically revolve around the use of voice, eye contact, facial expressions, and gestures and movements.

The proper utilization and creative use of voice is of utmost importance in preaching, for the fact that spoken words serve as the medium for the transmission of God’s message to the hearers. A dull and monotonous voice will certainly invite boredom in the hearers. There are four P’s that could be used for the efficient use of voice during the discourse of God’s Word.

The first P is Pitch, or the raising and lowering of voice tone. The first and probably the easiest step that we could do to avoid a monotonous and boring sermon delivery is by putting stress on some words or phrases by varying the voice tone. We could also achieve this by varying the voice volume. Generally, heightening the pitch and increasing the volume on some words and phrases would put emphasis on the ideas that those words or phrases present.

The second P is Punch, and it is very similar to Pitch in its purpose of putting a stress on an important idea. However, what differentiates punch from an ordinary stress is that punch is usually used for some climactic expressions and thoughts, and is usually achieved by either a sudden or a much more powerful change of voice tone or volume.

The third P is Pause, and it is of equal importance to punch. We utilise pause also in trying to put emphasis on some ideas. We give around a three-second pause after saying something to indicate that what we have just told is important. Furthermore, by utilising the pause technique we give the hearers an ample amount of time to digest and reflect on the important idea given.

The fourth and final P in utilizing the voice is Progress. It is maybe the hardest one to master, but if done correctly will prove not only to emphasize a good point but furthermore to elevate the hearers’ interest and to provoke a more positive response. Generally, progress is effectively achieved by the continuous increase of the voice tone and volume beginning at the start of an idea you would like to emphasize, and then concluded with a strong punch at the end. Thus, progress is indeed the combination of the techniques of pitch and punch in a prolonged manner. Finally, progress becomes even more effective if followed by a pause. Those are the four P’s for the efficient utilization of voice, the pitch, punch, pause, and progress.

Another important factor to consider in the good delivery of the sermon is the eye contact technique. The function of eye contact in preaching is twofold: the transmission of truth and feedback.

Without eye contact, no matter how well we could use our voice we will never be able to truly connect to our listeners. It is a very awkward moment for the hearers to listen to a preacher who does not look at them, most specifically at their eyes. At worst, the hearers could feel offended. With the good use of eye contact, even the preacher who has not yet mastered the use of voice will be able to connect with his listeners.

Using eye contact to connect with listeners involves looking straight at the eyes, for around 3-5 seconds. If intimidated by the listeners, you could look also at the forehead. Look at them individually, trying to connect with each one of the listeners, for the duration of the preaching, if their number is around fifty. If their number is around a hundred or more, then having a look for each one becomes virtually impossible. In this case, using creative imagination, group the entire audience into several smaller groups mostly consisting of around five people each. Then try to look at the middle person of each group, and it will give them the impression that you are genuinely interested in them.

Furthermore, eye contact is arguably the single most effective tool to gain feedback from the hearers. If you want immediate feedback during the course of your preaching, the best way is by looking at them. That way you will immediately see if they are really listening or interested, and you as the speaker will be able to adjust your delivery to suit the emerging need. Eye contact demands that we have mastery of our sermon content. It is hard to practice good eye contact with the hearers if we are  relying too much on our notes or if we are not confident enough in our own message and delivery.

Then comes the technique of facial expressions. A serious message of rebuke and correction demands a serious emotion, but could also be told with a subtle smile and a sincere look – it depends on the ability of the preacher. Generally, laughter is very much minimal in preaching, overall the general emotions permeating are those of seriousness, sincerity, love, holiness, and command – those traits characterise very much a true preacher. A careful examination on the preaching of Jesus, the Apostles, and even of the prophets reveal the same thing. This is only my personal conviction, but I am not a follower of those preachings that use jokes and laughter just to engage the listeners. In my varied experiences in preaching, I have seen how a serious delivery of a sermon could captivate the listeners from start to finish, of course, with the power of the Word and the Holy Spirit.

Other equally important factors are gestures and body movements. With gestures, we pertain to the movements of the upper body, mostly those of the shoulders, arms, and hands. With body movements, we talk about the movements of the legs and feet.

The content dictate the gestures, and not the other way around. This means that the shoulders, arms, and hands movements reflect the true emotions and thoughts of the preacher. When I was just beginning to preach, I used to practice my gestures, and my actions looked like ‘scripted movements’, there was no life in them. Later on, as I gradually developed as a preacher, it is the message that would consume my heart and mind. That way, gestures flowed out naturally, and they certainly looked natural. Powerful gestures reveal connected movements, that is, the movements of the hands are not separated from those of the arms, the shoulders, and the upper body.

Body movements involving the legs and feet contribute to the lively delivery of the sermon. Personally, I like to get in touch with the hearers in the most possible way and to communicate with them in the most personal way, and I do that mostly by leaving the pulpit and walking towards them. Occasional walking is helpful, too much is already distracting. Another helpful thing about walking is that it relieves the tension and let go of nervousness.

The general rule regarding gestures and body movements is that the larger the audience, the bigger the gestures and body movements. The larger the audience, the further the pulpit is from the audience, so the preacher will likely to be seen by all.

A climactic note that I would like to add for all of these skills is that the Spirit of God and His anointing enhance all of them. In fact, I could attest that whenever I am filled with the Word and the Holy Spirit all of these skills just flowed out naturally and powerfully. Furthermore, the Holy Word and the Spirit of God have taught me to do these skills naturally, far better than what my training and practice did for me.

So I have presented the technical side of preaching, the side that tells us that preaching is also public speaking. We do not try to learn and master this aspect for the purpose of increasing the power of our preaching – only God could do that with our humble cooperation of holiness, submission, prayer, and obedience. As Robert McCheyne once told us, ‘A holy minister is an awesome weapon in the hand of God.’

What these techniques do for us preachers are to enhance the delivery of our sermon, to make it lively, penetrating, and connecting, and to catch the interest and attention of our listeners. True, the technical side is important, but we must not substitute it to the power of the Word and the Holy Spirit to change the lives of the listeners. The true mark of a preacher is not his very good oratory skills (though it may include these), but the divine capacity to change the lives of the hearers.

*I am indebted to Mr. Haddon Robinson for some of my learnings in oratory skills in preaching. I recommend his book Biblical Preaching, second edition.

This Physical Body

This physical body often puts me down
Tired and exhausted for virtually everyday
How could I do things
That I naturally would want to
If this body pulls and puts me down

Read that, these, and read those
Eyes going teary
Mind shutting down
But I should go on
Yes go on as long as there’s
Something left to hold on

Continue little soldier,
There are still many enemies
Press on student,
Requirement still go your way
Go on preacher
Souls are hungering for truth
Don’t give up Christian,
Your race is not yet done

Where is Grace
I need it more now
Please strengthen me
I do not want to die
Lead me on
Empower me
Fill me up
To the brim
I pray, yes, I beg

The Applause of the Crowd

Any ministry, especially those that exposes one in front of a crowd, like preaching calls for a great test of character. One temptation that is always present is vanity for there will be always a crowd that will applaud you.

Of course while in front you try yourself to be bold – or else you will not be convincing and powerful. A timid preacher or a song leader will be a contradiction of terms.

But to be bold pulls the heart also to be proud – this should be overcome, or the motive and the purpose of the ministry will be overthrown.

Yet to be bold while doing the blessed task of preaching isn’t the hardest part – I find it too often that the most challenging area is the afterwards – returning to your seat and to be soon acknowledged and praised for the beauty of the content and the power of the delivery of the sermon. Wow, tough issues indeed.

For my part I try to be silent. I very rarely ask anyone after the preaching how good or powerful it was. I think this act of asking calls for pride more often rather than the genuine sincerity of humble asking. Sometimes I would only ask other mature Christians if my exegesis and interpretation of the Text is right.

The more important part is God’s act – God’s way of continuously changing my heart for the better – to be humbled down. He does this in many ways. Internally, He gives me a new heart, externally, He uses people and circumstances.

Praise be to God only, no matter how unworthy I am, He blesses His Word as I preach it to the crowd.

 

Preachers are Broken People (most of the time)

not strong but weak
A preacher is often weak on the inside.

Generally, preachers are not strong people, but weak individuals strongly used by God for His Kingdom purposes.

Dynamic preachers are usually seen as strong people, not knowing the aches and struggles they face behind the pulpit. Preaching for more than five years already, I could say from experience and observation of others some facets of the weaknesses preachers face from time to time.

1.) Lacking the zeal to study harder. Preachers should study not just to prepare sermons, but also to nourish the self. Hard study and meditation and memorization should ever equip the heart and mind of the preacher – and that is an absolute rule. Every man of God, and certainly the preacher, should have his blood with the Word on it.

2.) Lacking the desire and effort to live what he preaches. One frustration of the preacher is failing to measure up his own life for what he preaches. Yet, even worse, the lack of the desire to live his message. Sometimes, the heart could be so cold and dark that there is no real desire to walk his talk.

One of the biggest fulfilment of a preacher is seeing his life living out his sermon. It has always been an ideal for me to follow the great example of the great teacher and reformer Ezra: study the Word, then live it up, then teach it to others. And that is Ezra 7:10.

3.) Lacking the humility to pray more than enough. The persistence and intensity of the preacher to pray for the power of his sermons has no limitation. But often, he is easily caught by the temptation to pray just enough or less than enough – with no tears at all. Not willing enough to pray for more reflects a heart hardened by pride. It is an indication that he relies on himself a little bit (or too much) and not totally on God.

Often, I have found my preaching to be very dynamic and fruitful, not so much because of my own prayers – thanks to the prayers of others. Again, this is one great gem in the secret of Spurgeon’s power in preaching – his congregation continuously prays for his preaching.

Preachers are broken people. But maybe it is more truthful to say that the most powerful preachers are those who are truly broken – not necessarily broken by sin, but is broken before the Lord in utmost humility, dependence, and submission. It is truly a paradox in God’s design that He uses weak vessels to contain the insurmountable divinity of the Word, spilling out His grace, mercy, and love to the lost world. And it is still a greater paradox that even if God uses the weak to display His strength, there is still the great standard for every preacher to imitate dearly the holiness of Jesus, the Master Teacher.