Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Scepticism

 
9781444702170: Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Scepticism

Pastor, preacher, and New York Times bestselling author of The Songs of Jesus Timothy Keller shares his wisdom on communicating the Christian faith from the pulpit as well as from the coffee shop.

Most Christians—including pastors—struggle to talk about their faith in a way that applies the power of the Christian gospel to change people’s lives. Timothy Keller is known for his insightful, down-to-earth sermons and talks that help people understand themselves, encounter Jesus, and apply the Bible to their lives. In this accessible guide for pastors and laypeople alike, Keller helps readers learn to present the Christian message of grace in a more engaging, passionate, and compassionate way.
From the Hardcover edition.

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About the Author:

TIMOTHY KELLER was born and raised in Pennsylvania and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. He was first a pastor in Hopewell, Virginia. In 1989 he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. Today, Redeemer has more than six thousand regular Sunday attendees and has helped to start more than two hundred and fifty new churches around the world. Also the author of Prayer, Encounters with Jesus, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Every Good Endeavor, The Meaning of Marriage, Generous Justice, Counterfeit Gods, The Prodigal God, Jesus the King, and The Reason for God, Timothy Keller lives in New York City with his family.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

 

Australian theologian Peter Adam argues that what we call preaching, the formal public address to the gathered congregation on a Sunday, is only one form of what the Bible describes as the “ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:2, 6:4).1

On the day of Pentecost Peter cited the words of the prophet Joel, who said that God would pour out his Spirit on all his people, and as a result “your sons and daughters will prophesy” (Acts 2:17). Gerhard Friedrich, in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, says that there are at least thirty-three Greek words in the New Testament usually translated as “preaching” or “proclaiming.” Adam observes that these words describe activities that could not all be public speaking.2 For example, Acts 8:4 says that all the Christians except the apostles went from place to place “proclaiming the Messiah.” This cannot mean that every believer was standing up and preaching sermons to audiences. Priscilla and Aquila, for example, explained the Word of Christ to Apollos in their home (Acts 18:26).

We can discern at least three levels of “Word ministry” in the Bible. Paul calls all believers to “let the message of Christ dwell among you richly” and to “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16). Every Christian should be able to give both teaching (didaskalia, the ordinary word for instruction) and admonition (noutheo—a common word for strong, life-changing counsel) that convey to others the teachings of the Bible. This must be done carefully, though informally, in conversations that are usually one on one. That is the most fundamental form of the ministry of the Word. Let’s call it level 1.

At the more formal end of the spectrum are sermons: the public preaching and exposition of the Bible to assembled gatherings, which we could call level 3. The book of Acts gives us many examples, mainly drawn from the ministry of Peter and Paul, though also including an address by Stephen that probably summarizes his path-breaking teaching. Acts gives us so many of these public addresses that we could almost say that, from the point of view of Luke (the author), the development of the early Christian church and the development of its preaching were one and the same.

There is, however, a “level 2” form of the ministry of the Word between informal, every-Christian conversation and formal sermons. In an overlooked passage the apostle Peter describes the spiritual gift of “speaking”:

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 4:10–11).

When Peter speaks of spiritual gifts he uses two very general terms.3 The first is the word for speaking: lalein. In the rest of the New Testament this word can denote simple daily speech between anyone (Matthew 12:36; Ephesians 4:25; James 1:19). It can also refer to a preaching ministry, as with Jesus (Matthew 12:46 and 13:10) or Paul (2 Corinthians 12:19). What is Peter talking about here?

When we map this passage over Paul’s gift lists in Romans 12, Ephesians 4, and 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, we see that there is a whole category of Word-ministry gifts that function in ways beside public preaching to the assembled Sunday congregation. It includes personal exhortation or counseling, evangelism, and teaching individuals and groups. Biblical scholar Peter Davids concludes that when Peter writes of the spiritual gift of “speaking” he is “not referring to casual talk among Christians, nor . . . referring only to the actions of [pastors] or other church officials” but rather to Christians with “one of these verbal gifts” of counseling, instructing, teaching, or evangelizing. In this category of ministry, Christian men and women aren’t preaching per se; they prepare and present lessons and talks; they lead discussions in which they are presenting the Word of Christ.4

Even though Peter is not only talking to public speakers he warns those who present the Word to others in any form to take their task seriously. He adds that when Christians teach the Bible their speech should be “as . . . the very words of God” (1 Peter 4:11). Davids notes that the little word “‘as’ allows a slight distancing between their speaking and God’s words.” No Christian should ever claim that his or her teaching is to be treated with the same authority as biblical revelation; nevertheless, Peter makes the powerful, eye-opening claim that Christians who are presenting biblical teaching are not to be simply expressing their own opinion but giving others “the very words of God.” Just as in public preaching, Christians are to convey the truth as they understand it to be revealed in the Scriptures.5 And if they explain the meaning of the Bible faithfully, listeners will be able to hear God speaking to them in the exposition. They are listening not merely to an artifact of human ingenuity but, as it were, to the very words of God.

Every Christian needs to understand the message of the Bible well enough to explain and apply it to other Christians and to his neighbors in informal and personal settings (level 1). But there are many ways to do the ministry of the Word at level 2 that take more preparation and presentation skills yet do not consist of delivering sermons (level 3). Level 2 today may include writing, blogging, teaching classes and small groups, mentoring, moderating open discussion forums on issues of faith, and so on.

This book aims to be a resource for all those who communicate their Christian faith in any way, particularly at levels 2 and 3.

The Irreplaceability of Preaching

It is dangerous, then, to fall into the unbiblical belief that the ministry of the Word is simply preaching sermons. As Adam says, that will “make preaching carry a load which it cannot bear; that is, the burden of doing all the Bible expects of every form of ministry of the Word.”6 No church should expect that all the life transformation that comes from the Word of God (John 17:17; cf. Colossians 3:16–17 and Ephesians 5:18–20) comes strictly through preaching. I shouldn’t expect to be shaped into Christlikeness even by listening to the best sermons. I also need other Christians around me who are “handl[ing] the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) by encouraging me, instructing me, and counseling me. I also need the books of Christian authors whose writings build me up. Nor is it right to expect that those outside the church who need to hear and understand the gospel will be reached only through preaching. I myself found faith not through listening to preaching and speaking but through books. (Is anyone surprised by that?) We must beware of thinking the Sunday sermon can carry all the freight of any church’s ministry of the Word.

Yet despite Adam’s rightful warning against overemphasizing preaching in a church’s ministry, this may not be the church’s greatest danger today. We live in a time when many are resistant to any hint of authority in pronouncements; so the culture’s allergy to truth and the great skill that is required mean the church loses its grasp on the crucial nature of preaching for the ministry of the gospel.

Edmund Clowney, in his commentary on 1 Peter 4:10, writes:

It is true that every Christian must handle the word of God with reverence, and seek the help of the Spirit to make it known to others. Yet there are also those with special gifts of the Spirit for the preaching . . . of the word of God . . . [with] a special charge to tend and feed the flock of God ([1 Peter] 5:2). There is some danger that, in reacting against clericalism, the church may forget the importance of the ministry of the word of God by those called to be under-shepherds of the flock.7

Clowney warns us against seeing no qualitative difference between proclaiming the Word in the gathered assembly and leading a small-group Bible study. The difference between the two goes beyond ceremonial and logistical matters—it is not just a matter of the number of people present, or the space to fill, or voice projection and pace. Those who have preached to a congregation know that there is a qualitative difference as well between the sermon and a study, or even a sermon and a lecture. A quick survey of the addresses by Peter, Stephen, and Paul in the book of Acts shows the extraordinary power of preaching when undertaken “as . . . the very words of God” and through the unique authority that the Spirit of God can bring in a public worshipping assembly.

While we will always require a host of varied forms of Word ministry, the specific public ministry of preaching is irreplaceable. Adam strikes the balance nicely when he says a church’s gospel ministry should be “pulpit-centered, but not pulpit-restricted.”8

So there are three levels of Word ministry, and they are all crucial and support one another. The public preaching of Christ in the Christian assembly (level 3) is a unique way that God speaks to and builds up people, and it sets up the more organic forms of Word ministry at levels 1 and 2. Likewise, the skilled and faithful communication at levels 1 and 2 prepares people to be receptive to preaching. This volume will speak to all those who are wrestling with how to communicate life-changing biblical truth to people at any level in an increasingly skeptical age. It will also serve as an introduction and foundation for working preachers and teachers in particular.9

 

 

 

One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.

—Acts 16:14

The Secret of Great Preaching

Not long after I began my preaching ministry I noticed a puzzling inconsistency in the response of my listeners. Sometimes I would get gratifying feedback in the week after a particular sermon. “That sermon changed my life.” “I felt you were speaking directly to me. I wondered how you knew.” “I’ll never forget it—it felt like it was coming right from God!” When I heard such comments I assumed that I had preached a great sermon—something to which every young minister aspires.

It wasn’t long before I realized that others would be saying—about the same message—something like “meh.” My wife, Kathy, often would say, “It was okay, but not one of your best ones,” while someone else would be telling me in tears the next day that they would never be the same after hearing it. How was I to read this? At first I began to wonder if a sermon’s beauty was only in the eye of the beholder, but that was surely too subjective an explanation. I trusted Kathy’s judgment and my own that some of my sermons were simply better crafted and delivered than others. Yet some of those I considered mediocre changed lives—while others I felt pretty good about seemed to have little impact.

One day I was reading Acts 16, the account of Paul’s planting of the church in Philippi. On this occasion Paul presented the gospel to a group of women and one, Lydia, put her faith in Christ because “the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message” (Acts 16:14). While all the listeners heard the same address, only Lydia seems to have been permanently changed by it. We should not overread this to imply that God works only through a message at the moment of delivery or that he did not also help Paul as he formulated the message earlier. Nevertheless, it was clear to me from the text that the sermon’s differing impact on individuals was due to the work of God’s Spirit. Maybe Paul had Lydia in mind when he described the act of preaching as the gospel coming to listeners “not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).

I concluded that the difference between a bad sermon and a good sermon is largely located in the preachers—in their gifts and skills and in their preparation for any particular message. Understanding the biblical text, distilling a clear outline and theme, developing a persuasive argument, enriching it with poignant illustrations, metaphors, and practical examples, incisively analyzing heart motives and cultural assumptions, making specific application to real life—all of this takes extensive labor. To prepare a sermon like this requires hours of work, and to be able to craft and present it skillfully takes years of practice.

However, while the difference between a bad sermon and a good sermon is mainly the responsibility of the preacher, the difference between good preaching and great preaching lies mainly in the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the listener as well as the preacher. The message in Philippi came from Paul, but the effect of the sermon on hearts came from the Spirit.

This means God can use an indifferently crafted message as great preaching, which explains the answer one older Christian minister gave when he was asked to compare the great eighteenth-century preachers Daniel Rowland and George Whitefield. He responded that you always got great preaching from both men, but with Rowland you also always got a good sermon, which was not always the case with Whitefield.1 Regardless of how any particular sermon was crafted, the sense of God’s presence and power always seemed to accompany Whitefield’s preaching.

You may be eager to learn “the secret to great preaching” as a set of instructions for the formation of a discipline. That way you could nearly always accomplish great preaching if you followed the directions to the letter. However, I cannot give you such a formula—and no one can—because that secret lies in the depths of God’s wise plans and the power of God’s Spirit. I’m talking about what many have referred to as “unction” or “anointing.” I will discuss your role in this dynamic in the final chapter of this book, but there are no how-tos that guarantee it. Some will point rightly to the minister’s prayer life. “Isn’t that the secret to great preaching?” they will ask. The answer is yes and no—while a deep and rich prayer life is a requirement for great and even good preaching, it by no means secures greatness on its own. We should do the work it takes to make our communication of God’s truth good and leave it up to God how and how often he makes it great for the listener. “Should you then seek great things for thyself? Do not seek them” (Jeremiah 45:5).

The “Absolutely Perfect” Preacher

This distinction may lead you to assume that Christian communicators need to do nothing but explain the biblical text and that it is “up to God to do the rest.” That is a dangerous misunderstanding and reduction of the preaching task.

Theodore Beza was a younger colleague and successor of John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed branch of Protestantism during the Reformation. In his biography of Calvin, Beza recalled the three great preachers in Geneva during those years—Calvin himself, Guillaume Farel, and Pierre Viret. Farel, said Beza, was the most fiery,...

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