Sermon-makers are Person-makers

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 2.46.28 PMSermon-makers as Person-makers, by John Frye

I have a 1961 paperback edition of A Treasury of Prayer by E. M. Bounds that I now keep together with rubber bands. Like A. W. Tozer’s writings, there is a depth to this little compendium on prayer that I had no category to appreciate as a young believer in Christ. It’s a book you have to grow into. If read wrongly, it may feel hyper-legalistic and burdensome. If read with a humble and teachable spirit, the reader is passionately informed, invigorated, and compelled to pray. Even as I skimmed through it again for this post, I felt the great necessity and weighty privilege of prayer as the core asset for life and ministry. Now to the subject at hand.

Bounds wrote in a time prior to gender sensitivities and, without intending to slight our female pastors, I will quote him as he wrote. Just substitute “person” for “man.” Bounds observes, “It takes twenty years to make a sermon, because it takes 20 years to make a man. The true sermon is a thing of life. The sermon grows because the man grows. The sermon is forceful because the man is forceful. The sermon is holy because the man is holy. … The sermon cannot rise in its life-giving force above the man. Dead men give dead sermons, and dead sermons kill. Everything depends on the character of the preacher” (90 emphasis added). By “forceful” Bounds means effective, i.e., the sermon achieves its purpose.

As long as we view sermon-making as biblically informed word-smithing, we will venture into lifeless preaching. Sermon-makers, Bounds suggests, are men-makers. The ultimate grade on our sermons will be given at last by the Spirit when we see the lives transformed by our messages. Affirmation of our clever “big ideas,” our fancy alliterations, our humorous illustrations, and our action-oriented applications will be rendered void. None of those aspects are wrong; they are simply insufficient in themselves to form Christ in others.

You’ve heard the story of the preacher and his wife on the way home in the car. The guy was taken with himself and his tremendous preaching that day. “You know, honey, there just aren’t many great preachers left in this world,” he said with a sigh of satisfaction. She calmly replied, “Yeah, and in this world there is one less than you think.” I have a note framed and posted in my office. It was written by my youngest daughter when she was about seven years old. In child-like scribbling she wrote, “Dad, your sermon was somewhat interesting; but you are very interesting. I love you. Shamar.” I’ll take that any day over an A in homiletics class.

How can you maintain a life that promotes transformative preaching? I suggest three life disciplines. First, alway, always be admitting and bringing to God those areas of your life that need the transforming touch of the Spirit. You have not arrived at total Christ-like character. We sin; we gossip; we whine; we envy; we misuse money, time; we disbelieve God. Dangerously, we know far more about Christian living than we actually live. Unless we live in the spirit of the very first beatitude, we short-change our preaching. While not denying the economic aspect of “poor in spirit,” we know that there is to be an on-going spiritual dependence on God for our redemption. We are saved and being saved. Preachers have to feel this reality or they will come off sounding like those who have arrived rather than as companions on the way.

Second, mine the text at hand for how it speaks to your life. Certainly you’re preaching to the congregation, yet your own life must be addressed by the Word as well. This helps reinforce the first discipline of remaining poverty-stricken in spirit. Some of the most effective communicators I’ve heard were not ashamed to say that the Spirit was working specifically in their lives. This vulnerability does not detract from leadership; it enhances it.

Third, as I hear E. M. Bounds echoing in my ears, pray, pray, pray. Place all your study, your word-smithing, your outline, your expectations before the Lord. “Take all this, Lord, and use it how you will. Spirit, set my own heart on fire. Help me to once again remember that it is only required of your servants to be found faithful.” Then, my sisters and brothers, preach like your very life is at stake. It is.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.