Preaching Articles

‘Where shall I begin, please your majesty?’ she asked.

‘Begin at the beginning,’ the king said very gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’

- Lewis Carroll,

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

For some in the church, our calling and gifting is to proclaim, preach and teach.

The Greek word for ‘proclaim’, keruss, which is used sixty times in the New Testament, literally means ‘to make a public announcement from a king’. This reminds us that our message is from God, who is the King of all, and therefore we should not be timid in our speaking.

The Greek word for ‘preach’, euaggelizo, from which we get the English word ‘evangelize’, is used fifty times in the New Testament. It is usually translated ‘preach the gospel’ or ‘preach good news’. This reminds us that our message, especially to the unchurched, has to be good news.

G.K. Chesterton said: ‘It’s a sin to present the Gospel – the greatest story ever told – in a dull, uninspired, joyless and humourless manner.’

The apostle Paul’s words to Timothy, ‘do the work of an evangelist’ (2 Tim. 4:5), have often been misinterpreted as meaning, ‘Timothy, you’re a pastor. Don’t be a pastor any more. Do the work of an evangelist.’ I think the apostle Paul meant: ‘Timothy, you’re a pastor; do it as if you were an evangelist.’ To others he might have said: You’re a teacher; do it as if you were an evangelist. You’re a secretary; do it as if you were an evangelist. You’re a cleaner; do it as if you were an evangelist. I want to say to preachers: preach as if you were an evangelist. It is a mind-set.

As part of a survey,1 1,000 churches were asked the question: ‘In the last ten years have you taught and equipped your church how to evangelize?’ Only 36 churches (3.6 per cent) answered ‘yes’. The church is about three things: Worship, Well-being and Witness. However, the reality is that the church spends at least 90 per cent of its time on Worship and Well-being and only 10 per cent on Witness. There is an imbalance. Why not allocate 33 per cent to each?

 Effective preaching comes from who you are

Before I offer some tips for how to sharpen your evangelistic edge when preaching, I want to stress that effective evangelistic preaching cannot be separated from the life of the preacher. Without a heart for evangelism, whatever I might try to teach preachers about evangelistic preaching, it would simply be clinical. Without a passion for lost people, our evangelistic preaching will not be effective. As my friend Dr Michael Green says, there is no shortcut to having ‘fire in our belly’.

Imagine my wife and I and our three sons decide to go to the forest, have a barbecue and play games. When it is time to go home, once we have packed everything up, we discover that only one son, Benjamin, is still with us. The other two, Simeon and Michael, are lost. We search for them in the forest and after a while we find Simeon. We can’t find Michael.

Would we say, ‘Oh, never mind. Let’s just go home. At least we’ve got two of our sons’? No, of course not. We would search for Michael until we found him alive or dead. This is the kind of analogy that is used in Scripture to inspire us in our search for those who are lost and do not know Jesus.

A missionary is not someone who crosses the seas. A missionary is someone who sees the cross. That is why the apostle Paul said, ‘the love of Christ compels me’ (2 Cor. 5:14 nkjv). This love must come from the heart. If, as an individual, a preacher does not have a passion to seek and save the lost, then there is very little anyone can teach them about evangelistic preaching. They can learn some techniques, but in reality it is not going to do very much. We have got to revisit the cross and be empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, because it is the love of Christ that compels us.

We need to allow God to use us as links in a chain. Sometimes people assume that every time I speak to an unbeliever about Christ they end up becoming a Christian. Often we get to share the love of God with someone but don’t see the end result.

Recently I had a meeting in central London. Not wanting to be late, I set off in good time. I arrived an hour early, so I decided to get a cup of coffee. As I was walking through the shopping centre I saw a man cleaning shoes, and I thought I would get mine cleaned. Looking down and realizing my shoes were already clean, I was having second thoughts when I felt God prompt me to go ahead. Discovering it would cost £4, I hesitated once again, but God was still urging me on.

Sitting down on the chair, I asked the man cleaning shoes, ‘Why do you look so sad?’

He said, ‘How do you know I am sad?’

I said, ‘I can see it in your eyes.’

He responded, ‘I have cleaned many people’s shoes. Hundreds. You are the first person who has ever said that to me.’

He started crying, so I asked him to tell me what it was about his story that made him sad. He spent the next twenty-five minutes telling me his story. When he had finished, I prayed with him and I gave him a book I had with me explaining the gospel, and then I dashed off to make my meeting. This man wasn’t ready to become a Christian, but I trust that this positive encounter with a Christian who cared and listened will make him open to the Good News in the future.

After my meeting, feeling hungry, I decided to have a quick bite to eat before getting the train. I walked into a café and bought a sandwich, but I couldn’t find anywhere to sit because all the tables were taken. I saw a table with only one man sitting at it, so I asked him if he would mind if I joined him.

‘Oh no, that’s fine,’ he said and we exchanged a few pleasantries.

A thought came to my mind: Ask him if he is married. I thought that was an unusual thought, and wondered if the Holy Spirit had prompted it, so I asked him, ‘Are you married?’

He replied, ‘I can’t believe you have asked me that question! I’ve been engaged to the same woman for seven years and I just can’t get my act together to marry her.’

I explained a few things to him about relationships, commitment and marriage and said I would love to send him a book on marriage. I offered him my business card and asked him to email me if he wanted the book. By the time I got back to my office an hour later, he had already emailed me. He wrote: ‘This has been one of the most intriguing conversations I have had in a long time. Yes, please, send me the book.’ Both he and his fiancée read the book.

I tell these stories to make the point that, unless conversations like these are the normal practice of our daily lives, we are not going to be passionate or ultimately effective when we undertake to preach evangelistically.

That said, what tips would I offer the communicator who wishes to preach evangelistically?

Be yourself

‘To thine own self be true’ – advice from Shakespeare as relevant today as ever. I think this is so important. Be yourself – because no one else is qualified to do it! Don’t try to be like someone else. I think the Lord would say to many of us, ‘Why aren’t you more like you?’ There is a liberating freedom in being yourself. I have heard many preachers over the years and have learnt a lot about communication, but I have always endeavoured to be me. People need to know that ‘what they see is what they get’ and that we are the same on the stage as we are off the stage. We are not taking on a different persona when we preach. We can and should be relaxed and confident in who we are.

In Matthew 13, Jesus quoted Isaiah 6:9–10. He repeated the words ‘seeing’, ‘hearing’ and ‘understanding’ (or ‘eyes’, ‘ears’ and ‘minds’) four times. It is not accidental that on each occasion he says ‘see’ as well as ‘hear’. It has a natural as well as a spiritual significance. We imagine that what we say is all-important, but we are mistaken. People hear our words but they see our body language. They notice how close we stand to people or how far away. Sometimes one distance is appropriate, sometimes another. When he was preaching to a large crowd on the seashore, Jesus – knowing they needed to see him – got into a boat that was pushed a little distance offshore. He sat, as other teachers did, because in those days sitting communicated authority. When we go up into a high pulpit, six feet above contradiction, it says something. Sometimes this is good, sometimes it is not.

The Gospels often describe the body language of Jesus: he stretched out his hand and touched a leper; he showed surprise at the Roman officer; he touched the eyes of the blind; his heart was filled with compassion; he took the five loaves and two fishes, looked up to heaven and gave thanks. When they brought to him the woman taken in adultery, they made her stand before them, but he bent over and wrote on the ground with his finger; he straightened up and spoke to them about throwing the first stone; he bent over again and wrote on the ground, and with only the woman still standing, he straightened up and asked her, ‘Where are they?’

Jesus’ body language spoke volumes. He turned his back on Peter; he placed his hands on the children; he wept at the grave of Lazarus.

 Be prayerful

The Bible emphasizes hearing as well as speaking. We often have an urge and even a need to speak. Some of us speak because we are full and others of us speak because we are empty. When our need to speak is more important to us than other people’s need to hear, there is a problem. We don’t preach because we want to say something. We preach because we have something to say.

E. M. Bounds wrote: ‘The character of our praying will determine the character of our preaching. Light praying makes light preaching.’

I think many preachers have got so many irons in the fire that they have put the fire out! What we need to do is to take some irons out of the fire and stoke it up. Someone once said, ‘If our output exceeds our input, then our upkeep will be our downfall.’

That is why it is vital that we prepare ourselves as well as our sermons. It is essential that what we do for God, we do with God. Otherwise the work of the Lord becomes more important than the Lord of the work and we preach and teach in our own strength. It is good to be reminded that ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the labourers labour in vain.’

Søren Kierkegaard said: ‘A preacher prayed and at first he thought prayer was talking. But he became more and more quiet until in the end he realized that prayer was listening.’

As the Psalmist wrote: ‘Be still and I know that I am God.’ Let us not be afraid to retreat to advance. We need to keep the reservoir full.

John Wesley (1703–91) wrote: ‘Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergy or laity; such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on Earth. God does nothing, but in answer to prayer.’

We need God’s anointing, which mediates his power and his presence, in order to be effective communicators of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

 Be clear

What have I learnt from preaching evangelistically for thirty years? The art of effective communication involves three things:

1. Tell them what you are going to tell them.

2. Tell them.

3.  Tell them what you told them.

One factor that needs to be in place to ensure maximum clarity is effective preparation. Many people who hear me preach totally unscripted assume that when I do that, I simply walk on the stage and make it up! On the contrary, speaking in a way that seems extempore requires even more preparation than speaking from a script. A former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, used to call such speaking ‘calculated spontaneity’. Whenever I give a new talk, I always write out the text completely and ask my wife and various friends to read it through and critique it. It is a fascinating exercise. Sometimes I think we could all do a lot more of that, so that when we get up and preach, we can preach with more confidence, with more credibility and with clarity.

Another of the major problems in communicating clearly is in making ourselves understood. There is a placard frequently seen on office walls, which reads:

I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.

Often our attempts at communicating are distorted by misunderstanding. We speak out of our set of assumptions and our hearers listen through their own grid of past experience, misinformation and prejudice.

Communication experts have concluded that when we speak there are actually six messages that can come through:

1.     What you mean to say.

2.     What you actually say.

3.     What a person hears.

4.     What a person thinks they hear.

5.     What a person says about what they think we said.

6.     What we think the person said about what we said!

So it is essential that when we preach and speak, we endeavour to communicate in such a way that people understand what we are saying.

I heard the story of one man who pleaded with his pastor for opportunities to preach. But he was a bad communicator and his minister was understandably cautious.

He said to his pastor, ‘Woe to me, if I do not preach the gospel!’

The pastor wisely replied, ‘And woe to the poor congregation if you do!’

The people to whom we are communicating are of primary importance. I believe the best way to be clear is to be simple. Jesus taught profound truths in very simple ways, and many of us today do the opposite. We teach simple truths in profound ways and confuse people!

The great preacher C.H. Spurgeon said:

A sermon is like a well. If there is anything in it, it appears bright and reflecting and luminous, but if there is nothing to it, it’s deep and dark and mysterious. A lot of preachers are just empty wells, with a dead cat and some leaves in it.

We need to preach simply without being simplistic. Don’t be afraid to preach simply. I am always asking myself, ‘Is there a simpler way to say it?’

I can testify from years of experience that the simpler I am, the more I connect with people, and consequently the response and fruit is greater.

Simple does not mean shallow; simple does not mean superficial. The Christian message is very simple. But Satan loves to complicate it. And sometimes Satan doesn’t have to complicate it – we do it for him!

It is a misconception that you need to use theological jargon to teach theology. I love to teach theology at a very simple level, without using theological terms and without people knowing that I am teaching them theology.

Today people talk in pictorial terms to express inner psychological issues: ‘I am ready to throw in the towel’; ‘I’m at the end of my tether’; ‘I am just a bundle of nerves’; ‘I’m falling apart’; ‘I’m at my wits’ end’; ‘I feel like resigning from the human race’. They do not say, ‘I’m experiencing profound epistemological angst.’ I know ministers who speak in an unknown tongue every week, and they aren’t even charismatics! Our preaching of the message must be simple. We must work out ways of expressing profound theology pictorially in the language of the street.

One Easter Sunday I preached at Hillsong Church in London. My message was: ‘Christianity is about forgiveness from the past, new life today and a hope for the future. If you want to have this offer, then you have to go via King’s Cross.’ That was my whole message. My teaching backed up that statement,  and 269 people made a first-time commitment to Jesus Christ.

The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:1–5 (nlt):

When I first came to you . . . I didn’t use lofty words and brilliant ideas to tell you God’s message . . . my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches,  I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God..

If the truths being preached cannot be understood with the worldview of our hearers, then we will make no sense at all. I read of a story about a Japanese convert from Shintoism who, having heard an explanation of the Trinity, said, ‘Most High Person of Honourable Father, him I understand. Honourable Son, him also I understand. But please tell me who is that Honourable Bird?’ The idea of the dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit was incomprehensible to him. If we don’t preach with clarity, it can lead to a distorted and confused version of the gospel.

This is what happened with the seed that fell on shallow ground. The hearers accepted a gospel that they thought promised them a prosperous and easy life. When trouble and persecution arose, they gave up following Christ.

When the apostle Paul preached in Antioch, he used many references to the Old Testament because his hearers were Jews and they knew the Scriptures (see Acts 13). But when he preached in Athens, he did not quote the Bible (see Acts 17). Instead, he quoted the Greek poets to illustrate what he was saying and he let their cultural context give a framework to his message.

We need to make sure that the meaning of our message is understood. As preachers let us do all we can to enter our listeners’ world and speak their language so that they may understand the Good News and believe, and believing might have life in his name.

Be practical

Jesus asked blind Bartimaeus, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Many times Jesus discerned what people needed, as he did with the woman of Samaria or with Zacchaeus. Sometimes they asked him a question, like the rich ruler who was seeking eternal life. The man did not want eternal life enough to let his wealth go, so he went away disappointed and unchanged. Zacchaeus and the woman of Samaria saw that Jesus could meet their needs, and they believed in Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.

Unless the new pearl is seen to be worth more than all the old ones, there will be a negative response. As we preach Jesus, we need to speak to what people are hungry for. We need to realize that people’s most pressing need may not be for forgiveness first. They may need acceptance first, like Zacchaeus. They may need to be healed first, like the man at the pool of Bethesda. They may need physical safety first, like the Philippian jailer. Then they all came to need and want forgiveness, but that was not the need they first felt. We have to recognize the needs that people themselves feel and not act as though we know their needs better than they do.

In an ancient fable, the sun and the wind had a contest to see which of them could get a man to take off his coat. As the wind blew harder and harder, the man only drew his coat closer around him. Then the sun sent out its warmth and, in a short time, the man willingly took off his coat. Some preaching is like a cold wind to the hearers: it makes them more defensive. Preaching that is warm, that meets people’s needs, adds motive to understanding and makes communication effective. We don’t have to make the Bible relevant – it already is. But we do have to demonstrate its relevance by applying it to people’s needs.

When all has been said and done, a lot more has been said than done. The purpose of preaching the gospel is that people might turn to Christ and be healed (Matt. 13:15). A key verse for every preacher is James 1:22: ‘Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.’

Several times Jesus concluded his preaching with the words, ‘Now go and do likewise.’ We need to make sure our preaching is not long on diagnosis and short on remedy. When I go to the doctor, I don’t just want diagnosis, I want remedy. Christianity is more than a belief; it is behaviour. It is more than a creed; it is character and conduct. The active response that should follow preaching can be temporary or permanent: the seed that fell in good soil bore lasting fruit; the seed sown in the rocks and among thorns did not last. Jesus calls us to bear fruit that remains (John 15:16). Whether we get a life-transforming response from preaching, of course, depends on the work of the Holy Spirit. The Parable of the Sower, however, shows that the hearers’ response is affected by how well they understand the message, and that hangs on us communicating effectively. It is not what people like about our talks and sermons that matters, but what they do after they have heard. If we as preachers desire for God’s seed to fall on good soil and produce a harvest of transformed lives, we need to be aware of the needs and perceptions of our hearers. Telling the gospel story is not enough. We must communicate it in a way that reaches our listeners at their point of need and brings the Good News into focus for their lives.

Rather than being inspired to give the occasional evangelistic sermon, I would much prefer preachers always to preach and teach as if they were evangelists. Then thousands of churches would be fruitful.

Preaching evangelistically is not about clever ideas and clever techniques. I believe that if a preacher will take these four principles (be yourself, be prayerful, be clear and be practical), and apply them as they minister, and preach ‘as if they were an evangelist’, then the Lord will honour them, and they will see people turn to Christ.

In the words of the apostle Paul, who is an example to all of us as we seek to preach evangelistically, may God give you grace to preach the gospel not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction (1 Thess. 1:5)! 

J. John has been described as refreshing, humorous, passionate, earthy, accessible and dynamic. He is a creative Christian speaker with an appeal that transcends gender, age, race, culture and occupation. His much-loved art of storytelling helps people to discover spiritual meaning in a way that makes sense of everyday life.

To date, he has completed thousands of speaking engagements at conferences, towns, cities and universities in 54 countries on 6 continents. J. John has authored over 50 titles, and there are over a million copies of his books in print in thirteen languages.

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