Author Jamie Stilson’s book, The Power of Ugly, is all about the grace of God. That is: out of the ugliness of our lives, God’s grace produces something beautiful. In his chapter entitled “Ugly Preaching,” he invites preachers to keep things real and focus on Jesus:
Can someone preach without proper training? In the seventeenth century, the “Pharisees” of the day would put preachers who didn’t have the proper credentials in jail just to keep them quiet. One of the guys that they did this to, John Bunyan, wrote a book called The Pilgrim’s Progress while he was imprisoned!
Jesus’ disciples blew the minds of the trained religious experts of the time when they spoke with wisdom and authority about the Scriptures. They were just common and uneducated fishermen, ugly in the eyes of the religious professionals. In an attempt to condemn these "ugly preachers" for preaching the message of Jesus, the religious leaders called them “... unschooled, ordinary men,” the only explanation that they could find for their boldness was that they “...had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
By saying this about the disciples, the religious leaders had unknowingly paid them a great compliment. These ugly preachers had been accused of hanging out with Jesus! The religious leaders could find no other explanation for how these common fishermen, who had never been to rabbinical school, could know and teach the Scriptures in such a personal and powerful way. Their only conclusion was that this Jesus—who the religious leaders could not seem to keep in the grave—had infected the disciples.
The Apostle Paul is considered one of the smartest men who ever lived, yet he described his preaching this way: “When I came to you brothers [and sisters], I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God … I came to you in weakness and fear and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom but on God’s power” (1 Cor 2:1-5, emphasis added). That is ugly preaching!
This isn’t an excuse for shallow, sloppy, half-hearted and unprepared preaching that lacks any content. If it’s empty of meaning, it is just noise—no matter how loud you turn it up; volume, sweat and even technology are not substitutes for the heart of God. The ugly preaching that Paul spoke of is preaching that aims at the heart more than the head. It’s not preaching that fills in the blanks on a sermon sheet just to make points—it is preaching that awakens the dead! “...Prophesy to these bones and say to them … come to life” (Ezek 37:4-5). It is life transforming—world-changing words from God’s heart spoken in the power of the Spirit through humble messengers. Bishop Tom Wright wrote of this type of preaching:
I believe, in other words, that Paul’s gospel, and the doctrine of justification that follows closely and inescapably from it, have the power to do for the world and the church of today what they did in Paul’s own day. Of course, that will demand persons willing to take the risk of copying Paul: of being wise fools, strong weaklings, failures in human terms. If Christians are to preach the gospel, they cannot expect to be exempt from living the gospel.
Let me leave you with a few ingredients for the recipe for ugly preaching.
Ugly preaching is only an overflow of our relationship with God. We must know God and his heart before we can speak for him. This requires that we spend time alone with him, laying our heads on his chest and listening to his heart.
Ugly preaching is always preaching the word, not just about it—not just points and principles but saying, “This is what the Lord says.” Our authority is never in us but in the message of Jesus we preach.
Ugly preaching is a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, not a display of our wisdom. It is not about volume or style; it is about dependency on his Spirit. We prepare as though God is not going to help us, and we preach as though we did not prepare!
Ugly preaching is a dance before the Father. He is the audience—not the people who are listening. We preach to please only him and refuse to fall into the trap of the fear of man or the bondage of trying to be a people-pleaser.
Ugly preaching must be authentic, real, raw humanity. Pull your pants down and expose your scars, weaknesses and failures. Ministry in the kingdom flows out of the grace we have discovered through our weaknesses—we are what Henri Nouwen calls “wounded healers.”
Ugly preaching laughs at ourselves. Humor is humility with a smile. We take God seriously, but we are no big deal, and we are always our best material for sermon illustrations. We tell stupid stories that highlight our weaknesses and the need for his grace. Laughter is medicine, and this broken world needs a huge dose! As John Ortberg says, “People are hungry for joy-bringers.”
Ugly preaching makes the call to Christ. We preach with the weight of eternity in the balance; people must be called on to decide whom they will serve. As I have often heard Bill Hybels say, “Lost people matter most to God.” We get the great honor to call lost people home, into the welcoming arms of the Father.
Ugly preaching is what the man healed of blindness did to the religious experts who drilled him for theological answers about Jesus. His defense to them was not based on knowledge or information, but on personal experience. “...Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (John 9:25) A person with an experience of God’s grace is never at the mercy of someone with an intellectual argument. Anyone who has experienced the life-changing love of Jesus can be an ugly preacher—just tell your story.
Ugly preaching is being willing to be his donkey. Let King Jesus ride you wherever he chooses, to speak to whomever he wishes. Remember that it is never about the donkey, but the One who rides it.