Are We Preaching with Power?

"...the Holy Spirit hasn’t gone on vacation. I’m afraid the problem lies with us. Perhaps we are afraid to preach on sin, righteousness, and judgement. We run the risk of people turning away (or turning on us). Felix turned away. The rich young ruler turned away." - Don Johnson

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Aaron Blumer's picture

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Fear of losing people is a real struggle for pastors. Point well taken.

But where does this idea of "with power" come from? There seem to be a couple of assumptions in Don's essay: a) the measure of this power is visible response, b) the power comes from--I'll have to make up a word: confrontationalness.

These might both be true, but I'd like to see the case for them.

I'm skeptical because of personal experience: I grew up hearing two kinds of pulpit workers. One faithfully expounded the Scriptures, the other yelled stuff and used verses. The first kind often failed to make enough real-world applications (some regularly offered no application at all). Their thing was instruction, not confrontation. The latter were all about confrontation, often complained about the lack of power and "fire" in today's preachers, and sometimes openly equated power with quantities of people raising a hand or walking an aisle after a message. They were dramatists.

I'm sure that's not what Don is advocating, but I can't help but connect that experience.

Though I think omitting application is a serious fail, I'd rather err with the teachers, for a few reasons: the power is in the truth not the delivery; Christians are alive and hungry and will grow if fed--they are actively seeking growth in sanctification and looking for help; and the Spirit often does lots of application the preacher doesn't. On Sunday, we're mostly not preaching to Felix or the rich young ruler, or Nineveh, etc.

In my experience, confrontational preachers are a dime a dozen. Preachers who feed me with exposition and insight are much more rare. Admittedly my data set is decades old. I'm pretty sure these guys are still doing their thing, though. I just no longer hang out where they're likely to be doing it.

There's a balance to be struck with 'confrontationalness,' for sure. The pastoral epistles encouraged elders not to shy away from that. They also encourage elders to do a lot of sound teaching and exhorting. And I've heard some preachers who achieve the balance well: plenty of meat, plenty of well-supported principles, lots of "where we really live" application, also a good bit of making me uncomfortable.

There are two ditches to avoid here.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

T Howard's picture

The power in preaching does not come from the preacher. It comes from the Word of God as it is mediated by the Holy Spirit.

If you want to preach with power, be an expositor of the Word and bathe yourself, your study, your delivery, and your people in prayer. Preach to yourself first and repent of your failure to obey the very passage you're preaching to your people. Repent of your spiritual pride and self-righteousness. Repent of your self-reliance on yourself to convict and save people.

Quote:
Are souls falling under conviction under our preaching? Are sinners feeling the convicting pressure of the Holy Spirit that drives them to accept Jesus alone for salvation? Are Christians feeling the conviction that they need change to grow closer to our Lord Jesus and to walk in fellowship with him?

This is the work of the Holy Spirit, not the preacher. We are the messenger, not the agent of conviction or salvation.

 

Don Johnson's picture

With both Aaron and Tom

However, what I am driving at is the tendency to water down applications, make no application at all, or explain away the application/implications of the text. In that sense, I would suggest we get in the way of the Holy Spirit. 

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

T Howard's picture

Don,

There is definitely a tension I feel when I'm preaching a passage that can be applied in numerous ways, some of which are very direct to known sins within the congregation. Instead of feeling lovingly rebuked, people feel personally targeted. In fact, as an elder at my former church, I would hear from congregants who said our pastor would personally target them in his preaching. They knew he was targeting them because his applications would specifically address the issues that they had discussed with him.

Thoughts or suggestions about this? How do you rebuke and exhort without being a jerk who uses the pulpit to belittle, shame, or spiritually abuse people whom you know are dealing with the very issue? Obviously, preaching systematically through a book helps. You're not cherry picking topics / passages. However, even when working through certain passages, you can still be a jerk in how you address / apply the passage.

bobbycook's picture

I think the listener needs to sense that you know from experience how difficult it is to be trapped in sin and what it means to trust Christ as the solution for that in a salvation or sanctification context. Preachers need to be known for compassion as well as boldness. It sounds trite but "people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

 

JohnS's picture

Disclosure: I'm a lay person - never had a preaching class in my life, so maybe the below is common.

Would it help to have a handful of congregant personas that a preacher rotates through during prep. as he thinks about application?  Helps him keep general categories of people in mind without thinking of a specific person.   

Teenager, single young adult, new mom or new dad, middle-aged single person, white-collar career person, stay-at-home mom, blue-collar career person, grandparent, widow/widower. 

For each persona, have buckets of issues they encounter in life - family relationships, disappointment with circumstances, finances, physical challenges (not all about getting old and stuff breaking), likely temptation points for pride, idolatry, lust, complaining, selfishness, etc.

Don Johnson's picture

You all are making good points, and I think it points out some things I left out in my article. As Aaron said, "assumptions." Consequently, I think I need to write a follow-up to add clarity.

But for now, I would like to broaden the definition of "preaching." Of course, we automatically think of a pulpit ministry, and I don't want to leave that out, but I think preaching can be personal as well. If there was only one person in the congregation for whom a very specific application was needed, it would be best preached in person.

Preachers need to think through what they say, and how to say it, but I've been thinking lately that some of our problems these days is a lack of courage, whether in the pulpit, or in person.

There is more, and you have all given me more ideas, so I will write up an "Addendum" and publish it soon with a link here.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

G. N. Barkman's picture

Several years ago, a solid member of our church suggested to me that if I used "we" more often than "you" when making applications, it might be more effective.  I thought it was a good suggestion, and I have generally followed it since then.

G. N. Barkman

T Howard's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:

Several years ago, a solid member of our church suggested to me that if I used "we" more often than "you" when making applications, it might be more effective.  I thought it was a good suggestion, and I have generally followed it since then.

That's why I said above, "Repent of your spiritual pride and self-righteousness." Some guys can communicate to their congregation in such a way as to sound like they're on a higher spiritual plane than their congregation. They've got all the answers. They've successfully mastered the Christian life. They don't struggle with sin any more.

When I preach, I want my congregation to know that I need the same medicine that I'm seeking to administer to them. This Sunday, I'm preaching from James 1:19-27. Given some of the discussions I've had here on SI ... OUCH! I think about some of my conversations with my wife and children. OUCH! I feel like I am the least qualified to preach on listening well, speaking less, and not being quick-tempered.

But, even in that, I can point my people to the grace of God that I myself need.

I've read a couple books by "big name" pastors, and they recommend not disclosing your struggles with sin or failure to your people. I get it, but I don't get it. I need my brothers and sisters in Christ to sanctify me and not to idolize me.

Dan Miller's picture

I've been thinking about this a ton lately. And I think that there's a paradoxical aspect to application in the pulpit.

Don Johnson wrote:

With both Aaron and Tom

However, what I am driving at is the tendency to water down applications, make no application at all, or explain away the application/implications of the text. In that sense, I would suggest we get in the way of the Holy Spirit. 

I agree with you, Don. At least qualitatively. The question of whether application should be part of pulpit work I think is more properly phrased as How much application should be in the pulpit? and How should application be done in the pulpit?

When I say what I'm thinking, you might say that I'm against application - or that I want to water it down.

https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/GTY117/

I suspect that Mac does do application, just not as much as some would like.

G. N. Barkman wrote:

Several years ago, a solid member of our church suggested to me that if I used "we" more often than "you" when making applications, it might be more effective.  I thought it was a good suggestion, and I have generally followed it since then.

I would go a step further and suggest "I" rather than "we." This is because I believe that our pulpits need to clarify the difference between Biblical truth and applications. I do not say that to minimize applications or to suggest they are not important. My point is that they are qualitatively different in their authority. 

If you want to preach with power, then you want to preach with authority. When you give the meaning of the text, you are preaching with authority. Massive authority! You're saying what God said to each and every one of us.

When you give an application, you are preaching with much less authority. Your hearers will consider your application and each will be convinced in his own mind about whether they agree with that application. If you give an application and it's one that I don't make for myself, I will see that part of your sermon as non-authoritative. I would appreciate that some would hear you and make the same application - but are they making it because the Spirit is leading them? Or because you're persuasive?

And if you read Don's blog and decide, Hmmm - I need to preach with power on this application and really persuade my congregation, then I will see you as attempting to bind men's consciences. And, paradoxically, your attempt to preach with power will result in an erosion of power in your pulpit. Because your hearers will tend to take your words with caution.

Don Johnson's picture

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3