Archive: Rediscovering Passionate Preaching
By John R. Brokhoff (1913-2003)
Good News, July/August 1987
As a director of evangelism wrote recently in a church periodical, “mainline churches are dying.” One denomination is losing members at the rate of 1,000 per week. Another reports a decrease of 25 percent over the past 10 years. Except for Southern Baptists, every mainline Protestant church in America is aboard a sinking ship.
Equally disturbing, in America we have a great potential for numerical growth. There are 96 million non-churched people and 75 million inactive members in this country, totaling 171 million potential members! The church can grow. It is disturbing that most of our churches are declining when the harvest of soul is plenteous.
What can be done about this membership decline when there is great potential for growth? Does preaching have anything to do with it? Recently a pastor wrote an article concerning this problem and offered a fourfold solution for each congregation:
- Have an evangelism training program.
- Learn the needs of the unchurched in the community.
- Develop a church-growth consciousness through seminars, books and conferences.
Preaching was not listed. When we consider the down-playing of preaching during the past 25 years, we need not be surprised. During this time we emphasized worship with new service books and hymnals. We learned to chant, wear robes, and celebrate Communion weekly. But that hasn’t stopped our decline. We emphasized counseling, but that has not produced growth. Seminaries emphasized, “Get in touch with yourself” when they should have taught, “Get in touch with God.”
Now it’s time to try the best method for church growth – preaching! But you may say that unchurched people are not in church today to hear preaching or that modern people do not want to be preached to. How then can preaching bring in members?
To answer the question, we must first look at the primary task of a minister. In 1745 the Wesleys and their nine preachers adopted the following rule: “You have nothing to do but to save souls; therefore, spend and be spent in this work.”
If the primary task of a minister is to save souls. What is the chief means of doing that? P.T. Forsyth wrote, “Preaching is the most distinctive institution in Christianity. With its preaching Christianity rises or falls.”
But how does good preaching produce growth? People join the church after attending worship services. Good preaching attracts visitors and brings out members.
Preaching also motivates the members to witness. They are inspired, helped, and fed. They become excited and enthusiastic. A recent study revealed that a church member knows an average of eight non-churched people. Good preaching will motivate members to bring their non-churched friends to worship.
Evangelical Preaching. There is nothing wrong with preaching as a method of evangelism. The problem is the quality of preaching. The first characteristic of good preaching is that it is evangelical. This means it must be biblical, for the “evangel” is the Gospel of the Word incarnate, and the Word is recorded in the Scriptures.
Biblical preaching attracts people to church because the power of preaching is in the Word and not in the person delivering the Word. Through Isaiah, God promises, “So shall my Word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty.”
People come to church to hear the Word of God. They could care less about hearing the preacher’s personal “story” or opinions. They want to know what God’s will is in today’s predicament and to hear about God’s grace for sinners. God’s truth must be preached with authority and certainty.
A second characteristic of evangelical preaching is that it is Christ-centered. Like the ancient Greeks, people are still looking to the pulpit and saying, “Sir. we wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21).
Talking about Jesus is what made Paul’s preaching effective and productive. Under his preaching congregations were born. He said, “For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5).
A third characteristic of preaching which causes church growth is the preaching of the Cross. One can preach Jesus as a human being, teacher, leader, or wonderworker. The significance of Jesus is that he is the Savior of the world by means of the Cross. Since humanity’s greatest need is reconciliation with God because of sin, the Cross is desperately needed.
When Karl Barth visited Union Seminary in New York, a group of professors met with him for discussion. One asked, “If you were to meet Adolph Hitler, what would you say to him?” Quietly and simply Barth replied, “I would say to him. ‘Jesus Christ died for your sins.’” In every sermon, therefore, the Cross should be preached so that every person would know the answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?”
How does preaching the Cross attract new members? Today people are burdened with guilt. They will come to hear the Good News of forgiveness and deliverance. Moreover, the Cross has a magnetism; for Jesus said, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). There is something about suffering, the tears, the agony and the sacrifice of one dying on our behalf that draws us to believe in him.
Passionate Preaching. So often a preacher speaks without unction, zeal, life, or enthusiasm. Often there is not fire in the pulpit. Elton Trueblood once wrote of the church as The Incendiary Fellowship. Maybe it would be more correct to call it a cinder fellowship. If the pulpit is not on fire, the pews will never catch fire with the Gospel.
People will not come to church and will not join if the sermon bores them to tears. A sermon needs to be alive and fervent. The preacher needs to be zealous, excited, and enthusiastic about his/her message. Abraham Lincoln once said, “When I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees.”
How does a preacher come alive? Where does this enthusiasm come from? Fervor comes from above. The source of excitement is in a personal relationship with God through private, daily devotions. The secret is found in Psalm 39:3, “While I was musing, the fire burned; Then I spoke with my tongue.” Fire in the pulpit results from the preacher spending time with God in daily devotions involving prayer, Bible reading, solitude, and meditation. When Moses came out of his tent of meeting with the Lord, he had to put a veil over his face because of the intensity of the radiance. When Jesus was in God’s presence he was transfigured. The tongues of fire came upon the Apostles after 10 days of prayer in the Upper Room.
To be shut up with God for an hour a day is not a prison. Monks had their cells. They were not in the hell of confinement but in the heaven of God’s presence.
Persuasive Preaching. If the church is to grow, people need to be persuaded to believe in Jesus, to confess their sins, to accept forgiveness, to commit themselves to Christ, and to join the church. To be persuasive one must first be persuaded. You cannot sell a product if you do not believe in it yourself.
Persuasion implies that the congregation can and needs to respond to the preaching. Persuasion requires a response in faith to God’s grace. “Repent and be baptized” and “follow me” demand responses. The Philippian jailer responded, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).
Incarnational Preaching. A fourth characteristic of good preaching is that it is incarnational. To be winsome preaching must be practiced by those who preach. It does not matter if the preaching is evangelical, passionate, or persuasive. The old saying is still true, “What you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you are saying.”
As Lee Iacocca puts it in his autobiography, “Leadership means setting an example. When the leader talks, people listen. And when the leader acts, people watch. So you have to be careful about everything you say and everything you do.”
Peter would agree, “Not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock” (I Peter 5:3. RSV). Repeatedly Paul says, “Be imitators of me just as I also am of Christ” ( I Cor. 11:1).
The pastor should be known as a person of integrity. Whether we like it or not, we live in glass houses. What people see either adds to or detracts from their respect for Christianity and the church.
A preacher sets the pace for the congregation. If the preacher is concerned about lost souls, the people will join in witnessing. Good preaching has nothing to do with church growth? It has everything to do with it!
John R. Brokhoff was professor Emeritus of Homiletics, Emory University, Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. He died in 2003. A prolific author, Dr. Brokhoff, a Lutheran was married to United Methodist evangelist Rev. Barbara Brokhoff. She died in 2023. Photo: Pexels — Kairos Panamá