Chapter 23

Burning Clean Fuel

Pastor and preaching professor Scott Wenig discusses the healthy, and unhealthy, sources of passion in preaching.

We can also get into trouble when we use the congregation as a foil to preach to ourselves.

How can pastors stoke the fire of passionate preaching?

You have to find what God uses to stimulate passion within you. Recently I was listening to Bill Hybels talk about traveling to preach at other seeker-oriented churches that are struggling or just getting started. That feeds him spiritually because those churches resonate both with his philosophy and with his passion for reaching the lost.

As for me, I get pumped up listening to people that I admire or respect as preachers. A good Hybels or Tony Compolo sermon pumps me up and renews my passion for preaching.

Can passionate preaching burn the wrong fuel?

Well-meaning or not, pastors are in a daily battle, and sometimes we carry that battle into our preaching. Frustrations can bleed in to our sermons and affect our passion negatively.

I remember preaching after I had been really hurt by someone. I wasn't processing my own feelings properly, and my anger came out in the sermon without my realizing it. People even came up afterward and asked what was wrong — they could hear the anger in my voice.

We can also get into trouble when we use the congregation as a foil to preach to ourselves. I remember an episode of a pastor who preached passionately against pornography, but we later discovered he was entangled in it himself. His preaching resulted from his motivation to work out his own personal issues.

I think also of a time five years ago when I was fatigued and tried to do a motivational, rally-the-troops sermon. I thought I was trying to cheer the church, but I was really trying to cheer myself. It came out phony; I just didn't have anything to give.

Joe Stowell told a story of another pollutant. While at a parish in Michigan, he decided certain people in the congregation needed straightening out, and he was going to use the pulpit to get them. But God inevitably protected those people from his ranting — every time he was prepared to give it to them, they missed church that Sunday. He finally realized the Lord was showing him not to berate them, but to love them and to wash their feet. Every congregation has its irritating members, but using the pulpit to go after them is bad motivation.

There's an underlying attitude in Joe's story that is common among us. Preachers can be tempted to think people out there don't care about Christ, the church, the ministry, or advancing the kingdom — they just come to sit. That sort of thinking creates a temptation to beat them up. We come to the people of God assuming they're not what they should be, and unless we get after them with a homiletical stick they never will be.

A colleague of mine, now in his sixties, said this was his approach in his first pastorate right out of seminary. Every Sunday he would beat up the church from the pulpit. It wasn't a hateful thing; theologically he just felt they needed to be motivated by the stick. After six or seven years, he realized they didn't like him, he didn't like them, and he needed to leave. He now looks back on that and tells his students, " Whatever you do, don't go in with that attitude. "

What are the consequences of such preaching?

People don't feel we love them. In most urban areas of North America, if they don't like the tone of your church, if they don't feel cared for, they will go somewhere else. Obviously, that hurts.

Second, it creates a mentality of guilt. Guilt is a poor motivator for Christian living, and it doesn't inspire true transformational change. Usually you feel bad for 15 minutes, but then you stop at McDonald's, catch a football game, and it wears off quickly.

Perhaps the most dangerous result of burning bad fuel is it creates apathy. William Barclay said, There's nothing more dangerous than the repeated experiencing of emotion with no attempt to put it into action. Every time one feels a noble impulse without taking action one becomes less and less likely ever to do anything. Discharging passion at the congregation is hurtful if your purpose isn't to encourage them to do something constructive with that energy. Unless you give people something to do, you unintentionally create apathy.

Where do we get the right fuel for our preaching passion?

One clean fuel for passionate preaching is a desire to see God's kingdom advanced. Haddon Robinson calls this " preaching the ideal rather than the standard. " We raise the bar and challenge people to the highest ideal — until they want to be a part of that, until they want to make their lives count.

Several biblical illustrations show sources of passionate preaching. At the end of Luke 11, Jesus engages a group of Pharisees, and you can almost feel the heat come off the page. The Pharisees were hurting and misleading others, and Jesus attacks their false views on religion. Where God sees false religion or unauthentic spirituality, he gets passionate about it, and we should too.

In the first two chapters of Galatians, Paul gets just as impassioned about doctrine. What we think about God and how he interacts with us matters a lot. It mattered to Paul so much that he was willing to get onto his soap box and yell a little. It's like the parent who sees his or her child doing something that will hurt them.

British historian Paul Johnson wrote, " Ideas have consequences. " If we see people wandering as sheep into the deep end, either biblically, theologically, or morally, that should stir a godly passion.

How can we distinguish in our own hearts between righteous indignation and impure anger?

When I was preaching on that passage with Jesus and the Pharisees, I became impassioned as I preached about self-centered and self-deceived religion. But I used myself as an illustration, citing cases where I had been self-centered or self-deceived. Instead of pointing a finger and saying, " You are self-centered, " I shared from our common human condition.

I also ask myself, " Am I growing in my love for God and for others? " All churches have problems, tangles, and weaknesses. But if I'm growing in love for the church and want to see it become what God intends, and if I have a growing concern for the poor, oppressed, and neglected, my passion will be pure because it's a reflection of the passion in God's own heart.