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Soul Deep (pt. 1)

O for the sermons that change lives

This is part one of a two-part series.

"Wherever Paul traveled, revolutions broke out. Wherever I go, they serve tea." So said an Anglican bishop lamenting his perceived lack of impact upon people.

We all know what he's saying. Particularly in the area of preaching. You spend hours in preparation: both spiritual and scholastic. You seek stories and illustrations that ooze meaning and significance. You search your own life to make sure that you are as transparent as possible. Then, when the moment arrives, you preach your heart out. Words flow, thoughts build, stories produce laughter or reflective silence, decision time comes, and you expect … Pentecost!

Soul-deep preaching is several steps beyond brain-deep preaching or feelings-deep preaching or guilt-deep preaching.

Moments later the people file out with opaque comments such as "Nice sermon, Pastor" or "You gave me something to think about," or "You were really 'on' today."

On the drive home, your nerves are raw. Indeed, it was a nice morning … but didn't anything happen? Like a revolution, for example? Or did we just serve our usual tea?

I've made that trip home countless times. I've entered the pulpit feeling that I possessed the spirit of a John Wesley and come out of the pulpit feeling like Cedric the Entertainer. It's a blue moment.

Preaching in the Bible seems, at first glance, always to have provoked powerful reactions. Ezra and the Levites, for instance, taught the Law to the people, and the crowd could not stop weeping. Imagine being John the Baptist when the crowds cried out, "What shall we do?" Then there's Peter preaching on Pentecost, and the hearers are "cut to the heart." What happened when Paul preached at Philippi and "the Lord (opened) Lydia's heart"? Impressive moments, which set a high expectation for any preacher.

Some speak of "anointed" or "Spirit-filled" preaching as they reflect on the origin of preaching power. On the other end of the transaction, where words are received by the listener, I would describe it as soul-deep preaching.

Soul-deep preaching is several steps beyond brain-deep preaching or feelings-deep preaching or guilt-deep preaching. The former provokes conviction, conversion, brave new actions. The latter: a momentary experience of good feelings or an intellectual appreciation of a solid point well made. But not much more.

An old cartoon features a preacher saying to another, "When you come right down to it, I'm just a collection of clichés, but I think I've managed to combine them in a rather exciting way." That's probably not said by a soul-deep preacher.

Soul-deep sermons reflect the description of the "word of God" in Hebrews 4: "it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." You don't get any deeper than that.

It's important to observe that not all biblical preaching got to the soul, apparently. Take the words God spoke to Ezekiel: "Your countrymen are talking together about you … saying, 'Come and hear the message that has come from the Lord.' My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to listen to your words, but they won't put them into practice. With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice … for they hear your words but do not put them into practice" (Ezekiel 34:30ff).

Sounds like a pretty resistant crowd to me, people beyond "convictability" (a word I think I've coined).

Those of us with the call of a preacher long to preach soul-deep sermons. We know of preaching moments where scads of people responded to Jesus Christ or opened their lives to God's love. And we want God to use us similarly.

Of course that kind of preaching—the soul-deep kind—does not necessarily invite the kind of praise that satisfies the ego. But it might instigate various kinds of revolutions. Change of heart, change of mind, change of attitude, change in relationships, change of behavior. It elicits worship, repentance, gratitude, submission. It might galvanize people to march together in new directions with a fresh sense of Kingdom purpose.

Our role in the soul

When I reflect on soul-deep preaching as I've read about it, seen it happening, and—dare I say—experienced it (a few times), a few thoughts come to mind.

Let me start with the obvious: soul-deep preaching is an act of God. It shouldn't (and probably couldn't anyway) be reduced to mechanics or techniques. "Stand up and say to them whatever I command you," God says to a young Jeremiah.

A soul-deep sermon can come from the lips of a simple, stammering, uneducated person, or from the heart and mind of a Rhodes scholar. God is not limited when vetting his messengers. Intellectually, Paul was at the top of his class; Peter was a working man. But both were tops in the soul-deep preaching department. Go figure.

But the person does matter. We do not live in a day when a person can separate from the crowd and assume something like an actor's persona at pulpit time. We're talking about a believable person whose personal holiness and practical faith are clear to see in the nooks and crannies of real life.

Gerald Kennedy quotes Luther: "When I preach in the stadt-kirche, I stoop down. I do not look up to the Doctors and the Masters of Arts, of whom there are about forty in my audience, but I look upon the crowd of young people, children, the servants, of whom there are several hundred. To them I preach. To them I adapt myself. They need it. If the Doctors don't care to hear that style of preaching, the door is open for them to leave."

I was 27 years of age, a senior in seminary, when I was asked to preach in a Baptist church in St. Paul, Minnesota. A few moments before I was to go to the pulpit, the host pastor suddenly leaned over and whispered, "See those guys in the second and third row? That's most of Bethel Seminary faculty."

I felt the inner regions of my abdominal area rearrange, for the folks in the second and third row were a formidable, austere looking bunch. What in the world, I asked myself, could I conceivably say to such a group that would compel their attention? Luther's words would have helped me then.

Then I heard what seemed a direct message from heaven: "Don't preach; just talk out of your heart to them about what you've been hearing me say. You're prepared; you're ready; just talk to them."

A moment later I stood up and talked, quietly, personally, and as sincerely as I knew how. I didn't pretend that I was anything more than a 27-year-old who had been gripped by what the Scripture had to say.

"Talk to them." I've been trying to do that ever since. No stain-glassed voice, no laundered vocabulary, no attempt to be much different than if we met in the Dunkin' Donuts line.

A. W. Tozer wrote 50 years ago: "There are preachers looked upon by their people as divine oracles, who wag their tongues all day in light, frivolous conversation. Then before entering the pulpit … [they] seek a last minute reprieve in a brief prayer. Thereby they hope to put themselves into the position where the spirit of the prophet will descend upon them. It may be that by working themselves up to an emotional heat they may get by, may even congratulate themselves that they had liberty in preaching the Word. But they deceive themselves. What they have been all day and all week is what they are when they open up the book to expound it to the congregation."

Next week, in part two, Gordon writes: "Soul-deep sermons take the powerful gospel and place it in the context of the streets of this world where life is tough and people need courage and wisdom."

Gordon MacDonald is chancellor of Denver Seminary and editor-at-large for Leadership Journal. He is author of numerous books, including Going Deep: Becoming A Person of Influence.

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