Honest Assessments Lead to Church Growth

Effective preaching targets the heart AND the mind. Learn how to hone your skills as a communicator while growing the church. | by David D. Ireland

Reaching people remotely rightly became a priority for many churches worldwide because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This means people have access to preaching now more than ever, but that doesn't mean what they’re consuming is effective. All of this quantity in no way assures quality.

Why is there a lack of effective preaching?

For starters, we live in a liberal culture with a moving target of what truth is. That’s why the popularized statement “This is my truth” seems to have found a home in our society.

Relative truth in such a vast sea of hearts and minds hinders preaching impactfully because too many preachers lack content, confidence, and conviction when they stand behind the sacred desk.

They’ve overlooked the art of persuasive preaching and the power of the word of God. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, often called the Prince of Preachers, warned younger ministers, “We do not enter the pulpit to talk for talk’s sake; we have instructions to convey important to the last degree, and we cannot afford to utter pretty nothings.”

In Acts 17:17, we can find four realities that formed the foundation to Paul’s effectiveness as a preacher. Read on to see how they can help you preach better.

  1. Accept your call to preach.

Following the advice of believers to leave Berea, Paul went to the bustling city of Athens (Acts 17:14-15). As he waited for Silas and Timothy to join him, his anger towards the spiritual blindness of the Athenians got the best of him. Paul’s solution to their moral, ethical, and religious confusion? Preach.

Behold the first page of his playbook in this city full of idols, highlighted in Scripture here: “So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17, NIV).

Before Paul attempted to preach Christ, he first accepted his calling to be a preacher. If you are unsure about your calling, your preaching will lack conviction.

William Barclay, the Scottish preacher and theologian, puts it this way: “The listener will always know when a man believes intensely in what he says, and even if the listener does not agree, even if he thinks the speaker is misguided, he respects the accent of conviction.”

This accent of conviction seasons the message of men and women who have answered the question surrounding their calling with a resounding “Yes!” They know what they’ve been divinely called to do.

To be clear, this resolution is not a license to function without accountability or adequate preparation. Rather, this means you’ve fully surrendered to the exciting or potentially terrifying (it may depend on who you ask) weighty fact that you’ve been called to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Effectiveness starts here.

  1. Accept yourself.

Effective preachers have learned to be themselves. In this arena, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. Authenticity is. Imitation is akin to preaching from behind a mask. Only actors recite their lines that way. Effective preachers are maskless because sermons are more credible when spoken barefaced.

David Hume, the 18th century British philosopher, had rejected Christianity.  Yet, according to John R. W. Stott in Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century, “A friend once met him hurrying along a London street…to hear George Whitefield preach. ‘But surely,’ his friend asked in astonishment, ‘you don’t believe what Whitefield preaches, do you?’ ‘No, I don’t,’ answered Hume, ‘but he does.’”

What Hume was saying — even in his disbelief — was authenticity is attractive, impressive, and provocative. It’s worth a listen.

The preacher’s effectiveness hinges on the fact that he or she has personally embraced the gospel. Authenticity increases the believability of your message.

Phillips Brooks, a famous American pulpiteer, defines preaching as “The bringing of truth through personality.” Brooks has also gone on to say that “truth is in itself a fixed and stable element, [but] the personality is varying and ever growing.”

By being yourself in the pulpit, the hearers experience God through your personality. By being unmasked, you unmask God.

  1. Accept your primary assignment.

Paul’s solution to transform idolatrous Athens into a Jesus-loving, Jesus-serving metropolis was not to offer his own opinion. No, he was there to deliver a message from God. Scripture teaches: “Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18).

Paul’s assignment was not unique to him. It’s every preacher’s. We’re all tasked with the same identical assignment: Preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

One reason Pew Research cites as to why the nones (the religiously unaffiliated) are the fastest-growing and second-largest religious category — outnumbered only by Catholics — is the over-politicization of the American pulpit. As of 2021, the nones represent 29% of the American population, up from 19.3% in 2012.

Look, I’m not suggesting that the preacher should be silent towards social justice, morality, or current events. Not at all. We must fearlessly convey God’s heart on these matters in a winsome way. But let’s not get it twisted.

Our primary assignment is to fulfill the Great Commission. What good is it for our hearers to be on the right side of a cultural issue but be on the wrong side of heaven?

When I’m mentoring emerging preachers or retooling seasoned ones, I always counsel them to follow the Billy Graham approach to preaching. Having served on the executive committee of Dr. Graham’s final crusade of his life — the 2005 New York City crusade — I witnessed firsthand how he guided his team.

In marketing the crusade, we were tasked to partner with everyone who was friendly to the gospel, regardless of which side of the political aisle they stood. This posture afforded this legendary statesman to provide spiritual counsel for Republican and Democratic presidents alike for over seven decades. What’s more, this pivotal practice blazed the trail to the most broad and diverse audience to hear the gospel. Mission accomplished, Dr. Graham.

  1. Accept your congregation.

Paul preached to the Athenians from a place of acceptance. He was clear about the difference between acceptance and approval.

Acceptance says, “I love you. I understand you. I want God’s best for you. You matter to me.”

Approval on the other hand says, “Your behavior and beliefs are fine the way they are. No change is required.”

Certainly, the latter was not Paul’s posture or perspective. He knew how to accept without approving.

People are more inclined to give your sermon a listen if they know you care about them.

British physician turned preacher, D. Martin Lloyd Jones said preaching “is not the mere imparting of knowledge, there is something much bigger involved. The total person is engaged on both sides [preacher and listener]; and if we fail to realize this our preaching will be a failure.”

Your listeners play a crucial role in the success of your sermon. Now let’s be honest. Do you love the people you preach to? How you preach will surely answer that question.

Your sermon doesn’t begin when you stand to proclaim it on Sunday mornings or at the midweek taping for the virtual congregation. Preaching begins as you sit in your home office or the local café to prepare your message.

Your attitude towards your online congregation or the in-person audience is a critical factor in ethical persuasion. Your good feelings towards the people form a rapport that is persuasive. This is part of the ethos of your argument — the ethical side of your message that characterizes your preaching.

When your people feel loved and understood by you, it will lift your preaching to new heights of receptivity. Your audience will say of you, as the Athenians said of Paul, “We want to hear you again on this subject” (Acts 17:32).

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