Chapter 4

3 Ways to Understand the Spirit's Role in Preaching

The Spirit of God is at work in our preparation, in our delivery, and in our congregations.

There are five minutes to go before the service starts and the room is packed. You look through your notes, but they suddenly don't seem to make any sense. You find a pen and a blank page, but your mind seems to be following suit. It's a long preaching slot, and a theologically dense passage. And now its time to walk to the front.

The Bible is clear about the Spirit of God being essential to our preaching, such that each time a sermon is preached, it is a live Spirit-dependent event.

Someone is praying for you. You willingly and gladly receive their prayers, but each petition reminds you of the ever-growing weight of responsibility on your shoulders. Yes, there are people here giving church one last chance before they walk away from faith for good. There are those here because their spouses or partners have dragged them along to hear a clear gospel message. As this earnest intercessor carries on, you blink to survey the gathering congregation. Some are older, maybe coming faithfully for decades. Some are younger, with a whole lifetime ahead of them to serve God. Some are in wheelchairs. Some are dependent on the simultaneous sign language translation. There are probably people there who are illiterate, as well as those with doctorates. Some may be going through marriage breakdown, or facing significant medical challenges. This sermon may be the last opportunity to give them what they need to carry on. If you were nervous before then this prayer has made things ten times worse.

I was in this situation a few weeks ago. In my case, I had the additional bombshell dropped by my personal prayer warrior, that following my talk—which would be live streamed around the country—there would be a discussion on a compassionate and orthodox approach to same-sex attraction. Never before had I felt so dependant on the power of the Holy Spirit in my preaching.

The stakes of our preaching

Preaching opportunities, whatever the circumstances, length, or audience numbers, can carry more significance in the lives of people listening than we realize. We never know whether next Sunday morning will be the one where a friend or neighbour will finally take up the offer of turning up to explore Christianity. We never know whether this Sunday will be the tipping point for a young person who is wrestling with their parents about whether they need to keep coming to church with them. We can never be sure if this is the week that someone in your church will be receiving life changing news about their work, health, or family. We never know whether this will wind up being the last sermon a person hears in this life. I'm reminded of the Apostle Paul's question "And who is equal to such a task?" 2 Corinthians 2:16

I once caught a public bus very late at night and the bus driver and I were the only ones on the vehicle that usually was filled with 50 people or more. As we struck up a conversation, I asked him how he felt about the weight of responsibility of the safety of so many people's lives. He looked at me for a second and said, "I never, ever, think about it." I don't think it was because he didn't care; I had seen him drive that bus carefully many times before. I think it was because it was too scary to confront the fact that he was responsible for the life and death of thousands of passengers on a daily basis.

I think most of the time we preachers have the same approach. We don't reflect much on the significance of the preaching event in the life and health of individual Christians, families, and churches. Not because we don't care, but because it is potentially an overwhelmingly frightening thought to know we can impact the eternal destiny of our listeners.

Now I know there are some preachers that over-estimate their impact in the world. You can probably think of some who consider their preaching to be the only transformative influence in the world, or the only truly meaningful part of their church services. There are those who say preaching is the highest calling that God can give a person which flatly contradicts Paul's teaching that in the body of Christ no part can claim more significance than any other.

On the other hand, many of us underestimate the significance of our preaching to God's purposes for our congregations. We expect our words to go in one ear and out the other as we see those blank and bored faces in the congregation. If we can elicit a smile or an Amen or two, we are surprised and pleased. And if someone comes to the front for ministry or debate afterwards, then we are elated that at least one person was engaged. Perhaps we need more of those prayer-stalkers to remind us before each sermon that our preaching is dependant on the Spirit of God to take our words and change lives and hearts.

The Bible is clear about the Spirit of God being essential to our preaching, such that each time a sermon is preached, it is a live Spirit-dependent event. Imagine a concert. Perhaps you are into jazz or classical, so feel free to substitute your musical proclivities in place of mine. I am imagining one of the U2 concerts I have attended. In fact, I have had the privilege of seeing the Irish stadium-filling rock band live on two occasions. There is simply no comparison between watching the band play live, and listening to the recordings on DVD or (ahem) bootleg cassette tape back in my dubious youth. There are three factors that make the live gigs so compelling which I think can help us understand the Spirit's role in preaching.

The Spirit of preparation and the preparation of the Spirit

When U2 plays they make it look effortless. It seems they have just rolled out of the nearest coffee shop and do what comes naturally to them, filling a stadium full of melody and beauty. But the only reason it looks so effortless is the amount of preparation they put into it. Not just the rigorous sound checks and rehearsals earlier in the day, but the years of playing together and practice so that their music becomes second nature to them. For some preachers the work of the Spirit is something that begins when the worship leader prays before the sermon begins and asks that the preacher might receive an anointing from God. But I would argue that the Spirit is with me in my study and preparation as much as in my delivery. In fact, diligence in preparation can be the mechanism that God uses to develop the fruit of the Spirit in our lives.

For example, as we pour over Scripture, we think about and pray for those who are going to be most affected by the issues raised, and this develops love in us. Like the Apostle John, when we labour over the careful exegesis of Scripture, we can discover that the best part is when we see it bearing fruit in people's lives: "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth" (3 John 1:4). As we dig into the text and keep going at it until it yields the Word of God fresh for the needs of the congregation, it develops patience in us. Faithfulness is developed as we work hard at understanding and communicating the text in order to become that faithful "workman who does not need to ashamed of his work" (2 Tim 2:15). In an increasingly distracted society, undertaking the deep work of crafting and preparing a sermon can develop in us self-control. Just like my children sometimes make the effort into making a gift or drawing a card for me, so taking time to prepare our sermons thoughtfully so that Scripture comes alive for the congregation can develop kindness in us. As we spend time seeking to understand, apply and live in light of the Scripture we find the goodness of God's Word transforming our life. The longer we meditate and feed on the text, the more our character is changed. The discipline of preparation gives the Spirit of God ample opportunity to form the character of Christ and the fruit of his Spirit in our lives and our words.

The Spirit of the Word and the Word of the Spirit

A U2 concert for me is not just about the music or the musicianship of the artists. I am moved also by the content. Bono is not just the frontman of the band; he is a wordsmith and many of his best moments as a songwriter come from his rich understanding of Scripture. Think of the beauty of "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" or the pathos of "Yahweh." For Bono's work, mind and soul, head and heart, emotion and intelligence marry together. Some Christians assume the work of the Spirit bypasses the brain. It is understood to be the direct impartation of an experience of God into the hearts of believers. It's the strange warming, the revitalisation of the heart, the lightening bolt to our core, the overwhelming sense of peace, or joy, or despair. These are definitely ways that the Spirit of God operates—we have the witness of Scripture not to mention countless testimonials from the Christians over the centuries to confirm that.

But these direct impartations of the numinous presence of God are not the only ways that God's Holy Spirit works. Because the Word of God is theopneustos, Spirit-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16) we believe that when we read the Bible we are being addressed by the Spirit of God. But we also believe that without the Spirit of God working in us we are not able to comprehend or apprehend what Scripture is truly saying. Jesus himself pointed out that although the religious leaders of his day read the Bible they missed the point of it. Jesus was standing right in front of them and yet they didn't recognise him despite their wealth of biblical knowledge (John 5:39). The understanding of Scripture is not a given or a right. It's not blatantly obvious. The "plain meaning" of the text can evade us, Jesus, the center of the Scripture, can be hidden in plain sight without the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit. We need the same Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture to open our eyes to the Word, and to open in our listeners those spiritually deaf ears, blind eyes, and dead hearts to respond to the Word of God.

So the Spirit of God is intimately involved in the work that we preachers put in in the study, the grunt work, the diligent work. But the Spirit is also involved to enlighten our minds to what Scripture has to say, to enable us to deliver the message appropriately, and in how the message is received by our congregation. That brings us on to our third aspect.

The Spirit of the people and the people of the Spirit

I remember watching U2 in the Hippodrome Vincennes in Paris on the 26th of June 1993. My friend and I had managed to hitchhike there from our University in the middle of England. It was a balmy summer evening and the seventies iconic rock bank the Velvet Underground played as the support act. As the two bands played on the fringes of one of Europe's greatest cities, there was a connection. The musicians fed off the audience's enjoyment and the audience fed off of the band's energy. If that connection is possible between a disparate audience of strangers and four rock musicians, how much more should we expect to feel a connection between a preacher filled with the Spirit, the preached Word of God inspired by the Spirit, and a congregation in which the same Spirit is active.

There's something electric when God's Word comes fresh for a particular group of people at a specific moment in time. I feel it most keenly when I decide not to use notes when I preach; when I can "eye-ball" the audience and see hints of when the Spirit of God may be prompting the listeners. A preacher in tune with the Spirit may be able to sense what parts of the sermon are connecting with people. That's why often preachers who speak at multiple services on the same passage will change their talk each time. That's why interactivity in the sermon can be so beneficial. Whether preaching to a small group of people or many thousands I have seen God's Spirit redirect the focus of the sermon through interaction with the gathered congregation.

Within the black Pentecostal churches I have visited the call and response offers a window on this. The way that the congregation engages with the sermon draws out of the preacher a better sermon. Preaching in this way becomes a whole body ministry, not just preachers utilising their gift, but the congregation empowered by the Spirit creating both a place and a space for the Word to be heard.

Maybe you have experienced it in the godly hush as you know the words you are speaking are more than just your own. Maybe you have felt special liberty as you delivered a message and people begin to weep, or nod. The first time I realised that preaching was more than a one-man show was in my early days as a pastor, when an elderly woman in my congregation always keen to hear God's Word, would regularly beam a smile across her face. This mother-in-Christ's openness to the Spirit and spiritual gift of encouragement made me a better preacher through her response.

The triangulation point between the Spirit of God in our preparation, in our delivery, and in our congregations is where I want to be. There are many times when my notes seem insufficient, when I feel insufficient, when the congregation or the occasion seems beyond my capabilities and yet that be precisely the time when we can experience preaching in the power of the Spirit.