In Communicating for Change, Andy Stanley gives us three possible goals for preaching:
- Teach the Bible to people.
- Teach people the Bible.
- Teach people how to live a life that reflects the values, principles, and truths of the Bible.
The third is Andy’s preferred goal, and he leaves room for you to differ with him. So I’m going to differ. He writes:
“We have enough hearers…We need doers, appliers. That means we need sermons that are loaded with application and preaching that is communicated with inspiration.” (99) “
Loaded with application? I agree that we all need to apply God’s Word and that preachers should aid the church in applying the ancient truths of the Bible to contemporary challenges, but I’m not sure that loading our sermons with application is the key. Often, our hearers know “what” to do, but aren’t convinced that they should do it. For instance, they know they shouldn’t envy their neighbor’s stuff, but their heart’s aren’t convinced that God offers anything better than their neighbor’s stuff. Their mind has bought the lie that envy is more satisfying that contentment. The trick is that they would never say it like that. So we ge to say it to them with broken-hearted love and Spirit-enabled power. The goal of preaching, I believe, is to convince the heart to cherish God and his Word so much that Spirit-enabled obedience is the result. I do not believe that the main goal of preaching is to load people up with “what” to do, with application. I do agree that “our goal should be life change,” provided a couple other things are in place.
First, we should preach, not for lives to change just when they leave the sermon and apply them afterwards, but for lives to change while you are preaching. The ancient concept of Spirit-empowered preaching that affects a person’s soul while listening has been lost in modern pulpits. Williams Perkins referred to this kind of preaching as “the art of prophesying.” Jonathan Edwards says it like this:
“The main benefit obtained by preaching is by an impression made upon the mind at the time, and not by an effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered.“
Tim Keller refers to it as “preaching that changes on the spot.” And here’s the first point, preach in the Spirit. Don’t preach the technique or simply for post-sermon application. Plead for the Spirit to change you in preparation, to preach to you in rehearsal, and to transform your people’s hearts, affections, loyalties during the sermon. Preaching is about Spirit-motivated change, not application-driven change. Note that Stanley’s goal is to “teach people how.” I suggest that we preach for change in the Spirit now. This puts the onus on God, not on your material, humor, delivery, or change goals. The Scriptures are filled with commands to preach, teach, live, speak, counsel, pray in the Spirit, but that prepositional phrase is a hidden endnote for most of us. We don’t look it up, consider it, or aim for it. We pay attention to the verbs, not the prepositions. As a result, we preach application, not Spirit-anointed messages.
Second, we should preach for change by preaching in the Spirit and to the heart. As many have noted, the heart is the control center of our every action. Edwards illustrates helpfully here. He asks if a man who surrenders his wallet while held at gunpoint is actually doing what he wants to do. Does he really want to part with cash? Ultimately, Edwards answers, yes. Even though the man was at gunpoint, he did what he desired to to most–live! C.S. Lewis remarked that we are all creatures of pleasure; we do what we desire most, we act from the heart. Therefore, if the heart is the control center of every decision, then preachers do well—best—to preach, not to the the will (application) or the mind (doctrine), but to the heart. To remind the heart of the one Person that can meet, correct, and surpass every legitimate and illegitimate desire. To remind the heart that it finds its true joy and rest in no one other than God.
And guess what? If your goal in preaching is convince the heart to cherish God and his Word so much that Spirit-enabled obedience is the result, then you don’t have to craft perfect sermons, impeccable rhetoric, mind-blowing illustrations, application for every demographic. Your greatest goal, then, becomes pleading for the Spirit to fall on you as you prepare and on your people as you preach. For God to change your heart now, not how to apply for change.
How does Andy’s goal compare to your goal in preaching? I don’t think I am on board with Andy, but I’m still reading and reflecting. He does make the good point that, whatever your goal in preaching, your approach to communicating must reflect it. And I need to work on that. He also mentions the importance of the “preacher’s burden,” “the one thing you must communicate.” Unfortunatley, this is not developed as Spirit-enpowered, heart-focused preaching.