PreachingToday.com: Would you agree that preaching must go beyond being true, to also being inspiring?
John Ortberg: Someone had asked the president of the country's largest speakers' bureau what was the most important characteristic a person needs to be an effective communicator. I expected her to answer, "Articulation." Or maybe, "Intelligence." To my surprise, she answered, "They have to have passion."
She explained that people with passion can overcome any other obstacle, such as a limited vocabulary or even a speech impediment. If they have an authentic passion, they tap into something contagious, something that feeds and inspires the human spirit. Conversely, if communicators don't have authentic passion, they may have great technique or phrasing, but their listeners will only tread water.
Preaching, of course, is much more than communication. It is a God-inspired act. But what is true for human communication in general is certainly true for preaching in particular: it has to inspire. If it doesn't do that, it's not really preaching.
How would you define a sermon that inspires?
An inspiring sermon doesn't have to be complex; in fact, usually it's not. But when you listen to it, you get a deep sense in your spirit, saying, Of course, it must be so. Life must be this way. Thus it becomes a part of the way we view life, altering the way we believe and live. Inspiring preaching aims at changing people's interior maps rather than just changing their temporary behavior.
What is the Spirit's role in inspiring preaching?
While true passion and conviction are at the heart of inspiring preaching, the event of preaching relies upon the work of the Spirit, first and foremost. I think all of us have had the experience of feeling as though we are being touched or gripped or moved by something, some power or force outside ourselves. To be inspired means to be filled with or touched by the Spirit.
The thrill of the experience, however, is not under our control and can become misguided. When I experience a deep internal response, it's wrong to try to go back to the same story, the same message, the same song and demand that I have the same response. Sometimes, I think of an idea that makes my heart beat and brings a tear to my eye, and I can't wait to get up and teach it—only to find out it was just too much coffee.
Internal resonance is important. It's a gift when it comes. But it is never infallible, and it isn't something I ought to insist on. This is one of the reasons it's so important that preaching be done by people who have the spiritual gifts of teaching and preaching. The preacher needs to be receptive and discerning to the work of the Spirit in this area.
It's a hard word, but it would be worthwhile for those of us who preach and teach to think of ourselves with honest judgment. If we consistently find that people aren't returning, aren't being moved, aren't being inspired by God to change—repenting, making Christ the leader of their lives, reconciling marriages—we need to ask the hard question, "Is this really the area where God has gifted and called me?"
Does it take a certain kind of preacher to truly be inspiring?
No. It strikes me how wide the range of people are that I have found inspiring. You have some preachers, like Tony Campolo, who just have enormous energy. And then you've got preachers like Dallas Willard or John Stott, who are measured and yet can say things that make your heart skip a beat.
Among inspiring preachers, there is an enormous range of diversity in temperament, style, background, and tradition. People with the gift of preaching and teaching, no matter their personality, don't have to worry, Can this inspire people? They don't have to be like Tony Campolo. God uses all kinds of temperaments and styles to move the heart. The common denominator of inspiring preaching is when the preacher is actually experiencing the dynamic he's preaching about. It emerges so deeply from who they are and from their experience with God that it becomes deeply moving to the people who hear them.
Is there a danger in trying to manufacture an inspiring sermon?
It's always dangerous, especially for the person doing it. If you're not good at it, everyone will see through the attempt, making it even more ineffective. It's even more dangerous, however, if you are good at it, because then you can ride that ability to manufacture artificial passion. There becomes an incongruence between who I am and what I'm saying; and there arises a danger of falseness and hiddenness.
Passion should not be forced. There are times when I feel dry or dull, and when I try to make something artificially seem more dramatic than it actually is, that's when I'm prone to exaggerate, become deceptive, or simply communicate inauthenticity to anyone who is discerning.
Are there some preaching topics that tend to be more inspiring than others?
There are certain themes in Scripture, certain aspects of redemption, that will always evoke a greater response than others. For instance, if I'm preaching on God's love or forgiveness, there's going to be a bigger heart response than if I'm preaching on, say, the inspiration of Scripture or stewardship. It's tempting to just go back to those connecting themes over and over. We all have our certain themes we have a particular passion for. But our goal must be to build congregations that are balanced, thoughtful, and understand the whole counsel of God. Sometimes that means messages are going to be more instructive or cognitive than they are emotive.
How can preachers, then, open the door for authentic inspiration in their messages?
When I put a message together, I often ask three questions: 1. What do I want people to understand? 2. What do I want people to do? 3. What do I want people to feel? Transformational, inspiring preaching should aim at the mind, the will, and the heart.
Preaching that fails to inspire often forgets to ask the third question: without manipulating or forcing it, how do I want people to feel? Perhaps I want them to feel the love that God has for them. Or maybe I want them to feel the suffering of folks who have been poor or marginalized. Maybe I want them to feel the pain of two people who ought to be in a loving relationship but have remained unreconciled, their hearts growing hard and cold and still. Uninspiring preaching often only addresses what people need to think, without asking them to do or feel.
I've also found it helpful to ask myself, "Why is it important to talk about what we're talking about today?" If I cannot answer that question, I'm probably talking about the wrong thing.
Preaching needs to be something a whole lot more than an abstract lecture about some theoretical ideas. We need to think about the people we talk to in a week: the single mom, an elderly man whose wife of 48 years just passed away, a kid who's leaving home for college. How will they hear this? What will it mean? How does it matter to their lives? It always helps to think about real people. If it matters to real people living real lives, and if it's a significant theme of Scripture, it has the potential to be inspiring.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.