Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News
February 16, 2020
What makes a sermon worth hearing?
The worship service had ended. I had preached once again. As was my custom, I stood at the exit to greet my parishioners as they departed for lunch. Some would shake my hand and just smile. Others might say, “I enjoyed your sermon, pastor.” One woman startled me. She just looked at me for a few seconds and then said, “You know, pastor, some of your sermons are better than others.” As she walked away, I replied, “Truer words were never spoken!”
Every pastor dreads preaching an irrelevant or boring sermon. The primary way to prevent such preaching is to always choose subjects about which you can preach with passion, subjects that deal with the real issues of life. Even if your listeners are not inspired by your message, they will appreciate your fervor. So, for me, if I am not passionate about my subject, I am not ready to preach.
I soon wearied of hearing people say they “enjoyed” my sermons. While I wanted people to “like” my preaching, my goal was not for them to “enjoy” the sermon. One Sunday I finally heard the response I longed for when a man, with tears in his eyes, gripped my hand and said, “Pastor, the Lord met my need today!” Those words thrilled my soul! That day I realized that truly good preaching helps people connect with Jesus at some point of need in their lives.
Excellence in preaching has been a consuming desire of mine for 70 years – and it remains my goal. This aspiration gripped me when I was a young pastor meeting with my new church leaders. I invited them to share what they expected of me as their new preacher. Their expectations did not surprise me. “Visit the sick.” “Visit us in our homes.” “Win new people to Christ so we can grow.” “Be available when you are needed.” Finally, one man dropped the hammer on me when he said, “I would like for you to have something to say that is worth hearing when you stand up to preach.” I received his words as a message from God to take preaching seriously and pay whatever price was necessary to be fully prepared when I stood behind the sacred desk.
So what is preaching that is “worth hearing”? It is more than great oratory though eloquence need not be eschewed. Good preaching is more than impressive talk about God; it is preaching that motivates people to connect with God, preaching that inspires people to believe that God wants to connect with them.
Quotations by Mother Teresa are plentiful. One that brings me to my knees is this: “People ought to be able to meet Jesus in us.” By “us” the saintly nun meant Christians in general and that includes preachers. So excellent preaching permits people to meet Jesus. You know your preaching is effective not when people say they enjoyed your sermon but when they say, “I want to know your Jesus; he spoke to me while you were preaching.”
I learned that the more vulnerable I became in sharing my own flaws, the more my preaching allowed people to meet Jesus. People want a real person in the pulpit, someone with whom they can identify, someone who hurts and bleeds like they do. I discovered that the more I told the truth about the hurts and heartaches of my life and my family, the more God energized my preaching and inspired people to connect with Jesus in ways that I had connected with Him. So, to paraphrase Mother Teresa, “People ought to be able to meet Jesus in their pastor’s preaching.”
The truly effective preacher cannot succeed without the help of a team of brothers and sisters who are “in his balcony” come hell or high water. Years ago a man named Don Bennett climbed Mount Rainier in Washington, 14,410 feet to the summit. He made the climb on one leg and two crutches, becoming the first amputee to climb that mountain. Asked to share the most important lesson he learned, he spoke of his team that helped him to realize his dream, and said, “You can’t do it alone.”
My preaching moved to a higher level after I invited a few men to meet with me at 6 a.m. on Sunday mornings. At the altar of the church, we shared our hearts with one another and prayed for each other. They prayed for me – to preach the Word that people needed to hear, and as one man prayed, “Lord, help our pastor preach what we need to hear whether we like it or not!” The prayers of a small group of faithful men and women, who love Jesus and love their pastor, can make the difference as to whether there will be Jell-0 or steel in the pastor’s backbone.
A pastor does not need to climb Mount Rainier to realize that without God’s help, and the help of others, he or she can never preach sermons that are worth hearing, sermons in which people can meet Jesus. Thankfully, that help is available for the asking!
So you’re not a preacher. You don’t preach sermons. Well, you are not off the hook if you consider yourself a Christian. That’s because people should be able to meet Jesus in you. Mother Teresa said it and I believe it! + + +