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Challenging Hearers

An interview with author, pastor, and professor Lyle Dorsett

Sometimes the biggest challenge is not to " go do " or " stop doing " or " do, " but " be. "

PreachingToday.com:What is your theology for challenging hearers when you preach?

Lyle Dorsett:I believe that when we do preaching we're called to challenge people. We're called to exhort people and encourage them to do things to help them become more Christlike. 1 John 2:6 says that if we abide in Christ and he abides in us, then we will walk as he walked. And in that epistle as well as in Peter's epistles there's a call to holiness, a call to Christlikeness, a call to walk as Jesus walked, with Jesus as the head of the church.

So one of the things a pastor should do is encourage the flock to be taking steps to confess sin, to truly repent of that sin, and then to get on with committing the things we're called commit. I'm purposive about that. In portions of sermons and letters of exhortation in the New Testament, this is what's going on. People are being exhorted. They're being encouraged, and sometimes they're being admonished and reprimanded.

So our preaching should take the same form as the epistles of the New Testament in terms of getting down into the nitty-gritty and working with people.

Too often people see preaching as just teaching, but if it doesn't have a component of exhortation and challenge to change or to do things, to take purposive steps to build the kingdom, it's not really preaching; it's only teaching. You can exposit the epistle to the Ephesians for several weeks and help people understand what's in this text and what's being said there, but if there's not application with a challenge to apply it, you've had teaching but you haven't had preaching.

What influences have shaped your practice of challenging people?

My life has been changed by some of the challenges and exhortations I've received from good preaching. I'm a midlife convert. I was living in Boulder, Colorado, and commuting to Denver, and one of the things that brought me to Christ was listening to kpof radio station on the 64-mile round trip every day. I would listen to Dr. Robert Dowenbach and other preachers, and I was fed in those years in my car, listening to these challenges to do this, do something about this, take a step. And some of those things have had such a profound impact on me that I've never escaped them.

I remember Dr. Dowenbach saying, " Many of you believe you need to dummy down your youth programs and entertain your youth, because you're afraid you'll lose them if you don't try to imitate the world. We can't imitate the world. We don't have the resources. The world's got more money. They're better at the world than we are. And you need to hold the line firm. Yes, you want to be relevant, but you need to have a church that is a genuine alternative to the world, so that when some of your youth go out and rebel — and many of them will — and when they've had enough of the world they have a genuine alternative to return to. " I've never forgotten that. That's what I want in our church. We may offend people. They might leave. But when they're sick of the promises the devil made about how glorious this lifestyle is going to be, when they know it's bankrupt, they have an alterative to come to rather than a cheap imitation of what they already tried and found wanting.

How would you describe your own challenges in preaching?

I don't have a set pattern, but generally in a sermon I'll take my text and talk about the context it's in — who it was being written to, how they would have seen it and heard it and understood it. Then I'll point out the spiritual principles. After I look at that I'll say, " Now what do we do with that today? " So I'll have an application with a challenge to do something.

Last Sunday I preached on the magi visiting the holy family, and I focused on Joseph. We looked at his context and how he was trying to walk faithfully with God. But he needed to hear from God. He had all these confusing problems. And God spoke to him. I was trying to get the church to see that God is going to speak to you if you're trying to walk with him. He'll even give you a dream if you need one, to show you what to do. He will not let you go to the wrong place. But you need to begin with Scripture. You need to be a person steeped in Scripture and to know the Scripture and hear God through Scripture, and then if you need to know whether to go to this school or that school or to take this trip or that trip, he'll let you know. As long as you're not in rebellion, he won't let you go to the wrong place. He'll block you. You can count on that.

So then I challenged them. At the end of the service, I gave them Robert Murray McCheyne's Bible calendar, which I use. It takes you through the whole Bible every year, and the New Testament and the Psalms twice. I said, " I want to challenge everybody in this church to use Robert Murray McCheyne's Bible calendar this year, because you need to be in the Word. " Then I laid out three things we're supposed to do when we read the Scripture:

  1. Read it devotionally to be inspired and fed.

  2. Read it as a lamp unto our feet to guide us, to show us how to deal with things.

  3. Read it to get the mind of Christ.

Everybody was given one of these calendars in their order of service when they came in. I said, " Take this with you and prayerfully consider using this, because you need the mind of Christ. You need the guidance of Scripture. You need to feed on it devotionally. So let's get into this together. "

So you give exposition and then you give application.

Yes, I give a contextualization of it, an exposition, and I outline some principles. Then I give an application and a challenge. But I never challenge people to do things I'm not doing or won't do. How can I ask my congregation to tithe if I'm not tithing? We've got a building fund for our church. I can't challenge them to give to the building fund if I'm not giving sacrificially to the building fund. So we have to have integrity. The fabric has to be integrated between what I tell them to do and what I'm doing or willing to do.

A number of years ago I was working on a biography of A. W. Tozer, and I talked to a man who was Tozer's associate pastor and youth pastor for three or four years when he was in Chicago. I said, " What did you learn from A. W. Tozer? Tell me some of the things that changed you. " He said, " One of the most important things I learned from Tozer was to never preach a text you haven't lived or that hasn't lived in you. "

That takes you beyond, " I know the Koinai Greek, and I'm going to teach you this text. " It's, Has this text exegeted my soul? Or am I merely exegeting it? There's a world of difference. So I try to pray for a couple of weeks in advance, Lord, let this text live in me somehow. Sometimes that ends up being painful, and I'll have to do something because God answers that prayer. But then I can honestly say to the congregation, " Join me in this. "

As Paul wrote in the epistle to the Ephesians: I pray you'll have all wisdom and knowledge, but I pray also that your heart will be illumined. " The heart has to be circumcised. The Scripture is a two-edged sword. It should come in and circumcise our hearts.

Talk about how you would define anointed preaching and how that relates to being a preacher who challenges people properly.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones has a book called Preaching and Preachers. Chapter sixteen of that book is on the sacred anointing. It's a mystery. Billy Graham's anointed. Billy Graham has an evangelism gift that is phenomenal. You can't describe it. It's not that he's so technically good or this or that. This man has an anointing. The Holy Spirit has called him out, set him apart, and anointed him. Corrie Ten Boom was that way as an evangelist.

This is a mystery, but it says in Ephesians 4:11: Some are called to be evangelists, some are called to be prophets, some are called to be apostles, some are called to be pastors and teachers. The Spirit sets people apart; he anoints them. And if he anoints them, there will be power.

And sometimes it's withdrawn from people, like in the book of Revelation. He says to the church at Ephesus: You're good at pointing out sin, you do all these things, but you've lost your first love; I may withdraw the candlestick.

That's the withdrawal of the anointing. The anointing is the presence of the Spirit, where the Spirit is working.

I pray, Lord, feed me so I can feed my flock. Teach me so I can teach my flock. He knows my people better than I do. He knows what they need. I don't. I have a responsibility to try to know these people — to know who's got cancer, who's just learned their daughter has run away, who's learned his wife is terminally ill, who's lost a job — but the Holy Spirit of God knows what they need; I don't. So I say, Give me what they need, please. That's the anointing.

And when the anointing is present you can't help but be challenged.

Exactly. And sometimes you think you're anointed and you may not be. You may just be high on caffeine. And sometimes you think maybe you're not anointed, but God honors those who honor him. If we're faithful, if we ask him to give us what they need, he'll do it. That's what the anointing is all about. It is his work, not ours. We must cooperate and study our text. We have to do our homework and we have to preach, but it's got to have the additional emphasis. The illustrations must come from him, the nuances must come from him. The way you end up approaching the text, even the challenges, has to come from the Spirit. That may sound mysterious and ethereal, but it's got to be that way. Otherwise it's me: I know this stuff. I can exegete this text. Therefore, I will teach these things. Yes, you want to be able to do that, but most of my congregation doesn't give the skin off a grape what the Koinai Greek says about this text. They're crying, I'm dying. Is there any balm in Gilead?

What are the soul issues of the preacher that can lead to effectiveness or ineffectiveness in challenging hearers?

We have to study and show ourselves approved unto God as workers that need not be ashamed. And we have to tend to our own souls. When we step into a pulpit on Sunday, we are what we've been all week long. If we've been in secret sin during the week, we carry that into that pulpit. We are what we feed our minds and our souls on. If we're not in the secret place with the Lord, if we're not with him and hearing him, letting him feed us, we have nothing to give except our own stuff. Romans 8:8 says, " Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. " That applies to preachers.

FB Meyer a century ago used to say, " There are three kinds of Christians out there. Christ's Spirit is present in everybody who's born again. Christ's Spirit is prominent in some people. And Christ's Spirit is preeminent in, alas, only a few. " Where does that preeminence come from? It's from feasting on the Word, reading devotional literature, being in prayer, being filled with the Lord rather than watching garbage tv or dissipating your time shopping or whatever else it might be.

Not that we have no life on the side. We have to have a life that's outside of being in the secret place, so to speak. Evelyn Underhill put it this way 50 years ago. She was giving talks to Anglican priests and nuns, and she said most people come to you and they want to enter the far country, the country of the supernatural. They don't live there most of the time, and they show up on Sunday or they come to your office and they need help. You are like an Englishman who goes to Germany. You don't know the language. You don't know the country. You need somebody who knows the language and the country to be your guide and show you around. Most of your flock at any given time are like those Englishmen who arrive in Germany. You know their language, you know their country. But you need to show them around and guide them to the places that will be beneficial to them.

We have an enormous responsibility and a great privilege. But it's part of who we are; it's not just part of what we study.

When I think of the people who have most challenged me, certainly the specific steps or challenges they give have a place, but what challenges me the most is their intensity and commitment to Christ, their love for Christ. That challenges you no matter what they talk about.

That's right. The person in whom Christ's Spirit is preeminent — that should be our goal. People have said you have to spend an hour studying for every minute you preach. That's impossible for me; I don't have that kind of time. I do think you need to study a lot before you preach. But you also need to be on your knees and hearing the Lord and walking intimately with him, because he knows what those people need more than you do, and he'll let you know.

When have you challenged people from the pulpit or heard an instructive challenge from another preacher?

About two years after I'd become a Christian, a preacher challenged me to get through the whole counsel of Scripture every year. He said that you can never be a soul physician and care for souls if you don't know the Scripture. And you need to know the whole counsel of Scripture. A man who doesn't know his Leviticus and Numbers is malnourished. So I got on a pilgrimage then. I made a commitment to read through the whole Bible every year devotionally, and it changed my life.

In early October I gave a sermon at our church. I felt the Spirit was leading me to preach on spiritual depression, because increasingly I find people who are suffering from what used to be called melancholia. They're depressed. At Wheaton College, where I teach, we had one counselor when I came in the early eighties. Now we have a whole team of counselors. The line to the counseling center is enormous. Part of it is we have a culture of more hurting people. And I believe the Holy Spirit can do something about that. I know every bodydoes not get healed on this side, but I do believe Christ wants to heal every soulnow.

So I said, " I know many of you are suffering from depression. I too have battled that over the years. But Jesus Christ wants to heal you, and I have some spiritual prescriptions for the healing of the soul. I want to offer you a challenge to try some of these this week. " Then I said, " Follow up with me and let me know what's working. If what you try doesn't work, let me know and we'll try something else. It's as if you have an infection and you try amoxicillin but it doesn't work, so you then try a big gun like Cipro. We'll do that with the spiritual things. We'll give you a prescription. "

So I offered a challenge of one or two prescriptions. And I said, " Please let me know whether this is working. " I've never had a sermon where so many people responded. It was phenomenal. People are e-mailing or they're calling to say, " I've been doing this and it's working. " One woman said, " I've had bad dreams for three years since my mother died. I'm trying thus and so now, and it's working. " I say praise the Lord.

What problems have you run into with challenging hearers? What have you learned you have to watch out for?

One size doesn't fit all, and the things that have worked for me don't necessarily work for others. I used to preach all the time, " You need to be up early in the morning, like Jesus in Mark 1:35, and go into the quiet place to read the Scriptures and pray. How can you take on the world without doing this? " Then some nice women who were more mature than I said, " Lyle, if you had four kids at home and your husband left to catch the train at 6 a.m. , you wouldn't be going off in the quiet place like Jesus early in the morning. Surely there's got to be another way. " I thought, I can't believe I've laid that on these people this long. God forgive me for this arrogance of assuming that everybody will come to Christ like I did, or that everybody will be touched by the Holy Spirit like I have.

George McDonald said at one time, " Let the Holy Spirit be as creative in how he works with the next guy as how he worked with you. " More and more I see that people don't come to Jesus the same way. There's not a neat little pattern for how people come to Jesus or for how people get freed of this or challenged to do that. So I'm trying to speak and preach and teach with authority but at the same time not be so certain that I know the only route of how this works. I'm not saying all roads lead to God. But I want to work more with hearing the Spirit, letting him tell me how to work with this soul.

Do you think a church can be over-challenged?

Yes. Sometimes my wife says to me, " Lyle, you give them too many challenges. They can't handle them all. " So I try to back off. It's a matter of balance. That's why I say there may be a number of applications in the text, but it doesn't mean they're for everybody. I will usually have a challenge at the end of the service, at least to pray about something. But I can't say to them every Sunday, " Start doing thus and so, " because they don't have the same calling I have and they don't have the time or energy for all of this. Even though we're all called to grow into Christ's likeness, we're not all going to grow at the same pace or with the same disciplines.

Do you feel there are times when the primary purpose of a sermon should be to convey theology truths about God, truths about the Christian life, but not necessarily be calling people to climb the mountain?

The purpose of every service is for people to enter the presence of the King of Kings. They need to meet Jesus. This coming Sunday I'm preaching on the baptism of Jesus, and I'm doing eight baptisms. The text talks about the heavens opening up and the Spirit of God pouring down. I want them to experience that and see that as these babies are baptized — the heavens opening and the Spirit pouring down. That's not a challenge to go do anything, but it's a challenge to receive that and celebrate it.

So not every challenge is a " go do. "

No. Sometimes it's " be. "

That's the biggest challenge right there — to be.

It's not always " go do " or " stop doing " or " do, " but sometimes it's " be. " Sometimes it's " be open, allow. " We have Holy Communion every Sunday and sometimes I just challenge them. I say, " On the Emmaus Road, in Luke 24, this is the first Holy Communion we know of after the resurrection. Jesus breaks the bread and gives it to them. They eat the bread, and their eyes are opened. Taste and see. Come to the Lord's Table today and ask him to help you see. "

This article is a transcript of the Preaching Today audio workshop #237. To order thisPreaching Today audiotape, e-mail your request to store@ChristianityToday.com.

Lyle Dorsett is Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, and author of Seeking the Secret Place (Brazos).

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