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Keys to Growth: Preaching


Today we come to the conclusion of our year-long series on the book of Acts. A lot happens in Acts 28. Paul is shipwrecked on the island of Malta. He is attacked by a viper but emerges from the incident unharmed. Paul heals a number of people and then sets sail for Rome. Upon arriving at the capitol of the empire Paul is greeted by a number of Christian brothers. He is allowed to live, under guard, in his own rented house, which he uses as an outpost for preaching and teaching.

Acts 28:31 would have been a fitting epitaph for the Apostle Paul’s tombstone if he had one. “Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.” Those few words serve as the ending to the book of Acts. Many have wondered why the book ends so abruptly. The answers are varied. However, this much we can say, Luke set out to write about the good news of Jesus being taken to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Having set forth the fact that Paul preached the Gospel in Rome, the center of the empire, Luke probably felt he had achieved his purpose. It is significant that Luke ends his second volume on the note of preaching because preaching has been the dominant subject of his history and is thus presented as one of the primary keys to the growth of the Church. The abrupt ending to the book of Acts also suggests that we are to continue living out the Acts of the Holy Spirit in our day as well.

So what application does this last verse of this ancient history book have for us today, we who live in an apathetic, anti-authority, anti-preaching age? Is preaching still relevant after all these years, or are we free to discard it and adopt wholly new methods for communicating the good news about Jesus Christ? Furthermore, what is your role in preaching, those of you who sit in the pews Sunday after Sunday?

Let me offer at least one application of this Scripture to your life today, and that is a simple and humble request: pray for my preaching. Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus:
Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the Gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should. (Ephesians 6:19-20)
Paul may have written these words while he was in prison at Rome. And so we may presume that it was the prayers of God’s people in Ephesus that made the effective preaching in Rome possible by God’s grace.

What should you pray for when you pray for my preaching week by week? Let me suggest you follow Acts 28:31 as an outline for what to pray.

First, as you pray for me, PRAY FOR BOLD PREACHING. The word means outspokenness, frankness, plainness of speech, that conceals nothing and passes over nothing. The word is used several times in the book of Acts. The believers pray in Acts 4:29, “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.” And we read that “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” (Acts 4:31)
When you pray for bold preaching, I hope you will pray not only for me, but for yourself as well, that the Lord would enable you to speak boldly about him to others.

In Acts 9:28 we find the Apostle Paul, shortly after his conversion, moving freely about Jerusalem “speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.” Bold preaching is not just the activity of older believers but of new believers as well, for the boldness comes not from ourselves, but from God. The same word is used again in Acts 13:46, 14:3, 18:26, and in 19:8. Each time it refers to the communication of God’s message.

If I want to be certain that someone reads something which I have written in a letter or an article or a book, I put it in bold print. Bold preaching is the kind of preaching that makes God’s message absolutely clear to the hearer. It also captures the attention of the hearer.

Peter Cartwright, a nineteenth-century, circuit riding, Methodist preacher, was an uncompromising man. One Sunday morning when he was to preach, he was told that President Andrew Jackson was in the congregation, and was warned not to say anything out of line.

When Cartwright stood to preach, he said, “I understand that Andrew Jackson is here. I have been requested to be guarded in my remarks. Andrew Jackson will go to hell if he doesn’t repent.”

The congregation was shocked and wondered how the President would respond. After the service, President Jackson shook hands with Peter Cartwright and said, “Sir, if I had a regiment of men like you, I could whip the world.”

That’s bold preaching! But bold preaching doesn’t have to be unnecessarily offensive. It just has to be clear. In his book, The Power of Little Words, author John Beckley, former business editor of Newsweek magazine, observes:
The emphasis in education is rarely placed on communicating ideas simply and clearly. Instead, we’re encouraged to use more complicated words and sentence structures to show off our learning and literacy . . . instead of teaching us how to communicate as clearly as possible, our schooling in English teaches us how to fog things up. It even implants a fear that if we don’t make our writing complicated enough, we’ll be considered uneducated.
You know what they say about fog? “If there’s fog in the pulpit, there will be fog in the pew.” And you know what some people say about preachers? “Six days invisible, one day incomprehensible!” I hope you will pray for my preaching that it will be clear and comprehensible.

Secondly, this passage suggests we should PRAY FOR UNHINDERED PREACHING. What are the hindrances to effective preaching today? There are probably many. But the one that many un-churched people mention today is that the preachers they have heard are boring and irrelevant.

Calvin Miller wrote a book entitled The Empowered Communicator. In that book he has several imaginary letters written from audience to speaker. One of my favorites is this one:

Dear Speaker:
The world has never gotten over its likin’ of the truth. I’ve been a member of a church now for more’n fifty years. We must have had twenty pastors or more. I don’t know for sure. None of ‘em stayed very long. Every one of them told the truth. There was only one out of the whole bunch that we ever really wanted to keep. He told the truth interestingly. One time he put on his bathrobe and played like he was King David. Sure was interesting. Another time he played like he was the inn keeper in Bethlehem. Then one time he smeared his face with soot — sure looked strange — and told us he was Job. We all knew better and he knew we did, but I never really understood the Book of Job till that sermon. One time he dressed up in a white robe and came in the back of the auditorium carrying a sign. He told us he was an Archangel. He seemed so convinced, we believed him. Darndest thing, he’d do per’t near’t anything to keep our attention. He always did. Big church down in Chattanooga hire him away from us. The good’uns always seem to get away.
They arrested a man over by Greenville the other day. They threw him in jail. He was walking around town in a white robe, carrying a sign that said “THE WORLD IS COMING TO AN END.” I don’t know why they arrested him. Most everybody believed he was right. As I saw it, he was telling the truth interestingly. Last week my preacher preached on that very thing. The way he told that same truth wasn’t all that interesting. They might have locked up the wrong man.
It sure seems important to me to tell the truth interestingly. Not too many people do it. A bunch of us who listen to your sermons are wishing you’d do it. You might try the white robe and sign routine. Just don’t go outside.
Your Audience
I’d appreciate it if you would pray for me to keep my preaching interesting!
I have heard people say they just don’t get anything out of preaching. Karen Mains suggests a wonderful solution to that problem in her book Making Sunday Special. It is called “The Sunday Search.” The idea is to participate in Sunday worship by searching for how God will speak to and through you. David and Karen Mains would remind their children before going to church to look for ways that God might speak to them and through them. Then when they came home from church they would share as a family how God spoke to them and through them. God might speak to you in ways other than through the sermon. But I think this is an especially great way to approach listening to a sermon. As one anonymous author has said,
At least one time in every sermon God breaks through the words of the preacher and speaks directly to the people. It may be in a single sentence or in just one phrase…. So many of us miss that one special word from God because we are comparing the preacher’s manner with that of some other preacher we have heard recently. From now on, just listen intently for that one portion God intends to be applied specifically to your heart!
You can also come to church looking for ways that God will speak through you to others. It may be through a word of encouragement or a pat on the back. In any case, getting involved in the Sunday Search can keep us from having the consumer mentality that all we do is come to church to get something. God also wants to give something through us. I hope you will try the “Sunday Search” on for size.

Thirdly, when you pray for my preaching please PRAY FOR EDUCATIONAL PREACHING. We read that the Apostle Paul preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.”

What is the difference between preaching and teaching? The word translated as “preached” in this sentence means “to announce”. Paul was a herald, an announcer of the kingdom of God. What did he announce about the kingdom of God? He announced that God’s kingdom had drawn near to us in the coming of the King—Jesus. His teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ was explanatory of his announcement of the kingdom. Thus, preaching and teaching are not completely separate activities; they go  together.

Educational preaching does not have to be dry; it can be entertaining. The dictionary defines “entertainment” as holding a person’s attention or interest. Certainly good preaching ought to do that. I don’t want to be like the young pastor who was given a tape recorder by his church to help him in a program he had devised for self-improvement. At the first opportunity, he used it during a Sunday morning service. When he got home, he settled down in his easy chair and began to listen carefully. He was quite pleased with what he heard. The prayers, Scripture reading and announcements all went very well. Then came the message. Sometime later he awoke from a sound sleep, startled to hear the congregation singing the closing hymn!

This incident reminds of what someone said about a certain Bible teacher: “He goes down deeper, stays under longer, and comes up dryer than anyone I’ve ever heard.”

Educational preaching does not have to be arid and dull. One of the most arid regions on earth is found along the Persian Gulf. Because little rain ever falls, fresh water is not readily available. The people survive because divers with great goatskin bags plunge to the bottom of the sea where copious springs exist. Returning to the surface with these huge containers filled with crystal-clear water, they supply refreshment for the thirsty inhabitants. Please pray for my preaching to be like that—supplying refreshment for spiritually thirsty people.

Finally, when you pray for my preaching I hope you will PRAY FOR FOCUSED PREACHING. Pray that my preaching would be like the Apostle Paul’s, focused on the Kingdom and the King—the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is so tempting for me as a preacher to want to please people. I think most pastors love their people and want to be loved by them. But there is no way any one pastor can ever fulfill all the expectations in any one congregation.
Perhaps you have heard of “The Model Preacher”. Someone once wrote this description. The Model Preacher…

… preaches exactly 20 minutes and then sits down. He condemns sin, but will never hurt anyone’s feelings. He works from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. in every type of work, from preaching in the pulpit to custodial services . . . he is 26 years old and has been preaching for 30 years. He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all of his time with older folks. He smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work. He makes 15 calls a day on church members, spends all his time reaching out to those outside of the church, and he is never out of his office.
Obviously, no pastor can meet everyone’s expectations all the time. But there is a solution to the problem of improper expectations on the part of the congregation, and the temptation to try to please everyone on the part of the pastor. We all need to get our eyes off ourselves and on to the Lord. Jesus said, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33) The most important thing in preaching is not whether it pleases us but whether it pleases the Lord.

I love what John Maxwell says about his first time preaching:
It was in the little Methodist Church in Walpole, Mass. I was a seminary student at the time, and I wanted that sermon to be a gem of scholarly eloquence. So I tried to put into writing all that I knew of theology and literature. But it just wouldn’t jell, and I became confused and discouraged. In despair I telegraphed my father, a Methodist district superintendent, asking help. He replied: ‘JUST TELL THE PEOPLE THAT JESUS CHRIST CAN CHANGE THEIR LIVES. Love Dad.’ That message has been engraved in my memory ever since.

Pray for me that I would maintain focus on the Kingdom and on the King, the Lord Jesus Christ. Pray that my preaching would be educational; pray that it would go unhindered; pray that it would be bold, clear and captivating to believer and seeker alike.

(If you would like to order a signed copy of my book that includes 41 sermons on this topic, click here:Keys to Growth.)

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