The call to preach is both a glorious and fearful one: glorious because God uses His proclaimed Word to give life and transform hearts, and fearful because we are imperfect vessels with the potential to hinder God’s transformative work in the world.
The following ten hindrances to transformative expository preaching* will undermine faithful ministry over the long haul.
The author of Hebrews reminds us that “without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Hebrews 11:6)—a truth for preaching and all of life. To faithfully preach the truth, you must believe the truth and be compelled by it. While God backs His proclaimed Word no matter what, the effectiveness of preaching can be greatly hindered if people sense insincerity or artificiality in the preacher. Preachers need to exercise faith in and out of the pulpit in order to please God, set a faithful example (1 Timothy 4:12) and persevere under trial (2 Timothy 3:12). As sinful people prone to faithlessness, we must make the prayer of the man with the sick child in Mark 9:24 our own, “I believe! Help my unbelief.”
2. Lack of personal holiness
“It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus.” —Robert Murray McCheynePaul warned Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16 to, “Keep a close watch on yourself and the teaching.” Preachers must exemplify the message they proclaim in Word and deed, and if they don’t, they not only disregard qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3:1–7, but also will hinder the work of God through them over the long haul. A preacher that fakes holiness and love for others will undermine and hinder the fruit God desires to bear while storing up judgment for themselves (James 3:1).
A preacher who is prayer-less misunderstands the task of preaching. God calls preachers to proclaim His life-giving word to the spiritually dead—and only God’s Spirit can bring the dead to life. With the enemy of our souls on the prowl, we must pray, and call our people to pray, for the powerful proclamation of God’s life-giving Word.
Charles Spurgeon comments on the need for prayer:
The bell in the steeple may be well hung, fairly fashioned, and of soundest metal, but it is dumb until the ringer makes it speak. And … the preacher has no voice of quickening for the dead in sin, or of comfort for living saints unless the divine spirit [Spirit] gives him a gracious pull, and begs him speak with power. Hence the need of prayer for both preacher and hearers.
4. Lack of clarity
“Remember that to attain simplicity in preaching is of the utmost importance to every minister who wishes to be useful to souls,” writes J.C. Ryle in Simplicity in Preaching. “Unless you are simple in your sermons you will never be understood, and unless you are understood you cannot do good to those who hear you.” The Apostle Paul agrees, and that’s why he asks for the Colossian church to pray “that I may make it [the gospel] clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Colossians 4:4).
This is one reason Leadership Resources uses the hermeneutical principle called “Finding the Big Idea.” One Indonesian pastor confessed that before learning this principle, “I would preach thirty minutes to an hour and still have no right direction to the sermon.” But now, sticking to his Big Idea gives him clarity—and his people are understanding God’s Word more deeply.
5. Not laboring for author’s intent
Preachers must resist the urge to use the Bible as a launching pad for their thoughts or ideas. We need to diligently and deeply study Scripture to uncover the main message that God, through the biblical author, wants to communicate through a text. Once we find that message, it is our task as preachers to shepherd hearts with it.
Many preachers stop just short of the Scripture’s authorial intent. In their preaching, they will answer the question, “What does the text say?”, but will avoid taking the needed step to ask, “Why does the text say what it does?” Asking why a text says what it does leads to the transformational intent God of the passage (or book).
6. Lack of application
“The exposition of Scripture remains incomplete until a preacher explains the duty God requires of us.” —Bryan ChapellGod’s Word is meant to be heard and obeyed. In sharing specific points of application, we can help connect the transformative intent of the Scriptures with the daily thoughts and actions of our hearers. When studying a passage to preach, we need to ask, “What transformation was God seeking to accomplish through this passage in the life of the listener?” This is the Intended Response of a passage, fleshing out the passage’s transformational intent for the lives of your hearers.
7. Preaching a Christ-less sermon
Jesus Christ is at the center of not only the Scriptures (Luke 24:44), He’s at the center of the entire universe (Colossians 1:16–20). If we preach a message that fails to present how a particular passage testifies to Christ, we fail to communicate the full meaning of the Bible, we fail to point people to the only Way to the Father (John 14:6), and we fail to testify about the living Savior who alone has the power to save and transform.
Our preaching must help people encounter the risen Savior, and not merely preach morals or steps for a better life. The law (i.e. God’s commands) was never meant to transform hearts apart from the context of God’s grace to us in Christ (Romans 7:7–12, 8:2–4).
8. Not communicating the tone of the passage
Preachers need to dial into the underlying mood and emotion of a text. For example, when preaching Ephesians 1:3–14, preachers need to rejoice as they unpack the glorious riches of God’s love for us in Christ, while preaching a passage of judgment will mean a serious tone and emotive plea for repentance. Helping people feel what the author of the text felt in a certain situation will help shape biblically-informed emotional lives.
9. A lack of knowledge of the audience
For preaching to be transforming, it must rightly apply God’s Word to the lives and circumstances of the audience. It also must be accompanied in love. The more a preacher knows the lives and struggles of his congregation, the more he can apply the truth and grace found in Christ to their situations.
Consider how Jesus’ personal knowledge of the woman at the well in John 4 informed His words that led to her transformation. He knew she tried to quench her spiritual thirst with men, and offered her Living Water from which to drink. Tim Keller says it another way, “It is also impossible to understand a culture without discerning its idols.”
The apostle Paul is another example. He knew and loved the churches he planted and applied God’s Word to their situations, even being stern with them if the situation required—just ask the Galatians (Galatians 3:1–3)!
10. Impatience for God to work
A lack of patience will lead preachers to frustration and discouragement. It also may demotivate them from the hard work of faithful ministry. Scripture calls preachers to “preach the word…with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2, emphasis added). Patience is needed because transformation doesn’t always (or usually) take place immediately. We need a steady diet of God’s Word week after week to continually work toward full maturity.
In which of these ten areas do you most need to grow? Since the preaching of the Word has eternal ramifications, dedicate yourself to prayerfully pursue growth in each of these areas. As you grow, God will work His transformation in both you and your listeners.
*This list presupposes getting the content of the text right.
On April 3–5, Leadership Resources will have a booth at The Gospel Coalition National Conference in Indianapolis, IN.
Tuesday, April 4th, LRI will be presenting at 7:45am on the topic of Unlocking the Potential of Your Missions Strategy.
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Stay tuned for more information, or save $20 on your registration with the discount code “LRI”. TGC.org/2017.