By Matt Proctor
It’s 11:00 Sunday morning, and as the last chords of the offertory fade, the minister grips his Bible and moves toward the pulpit. Sitting before him, in the second-to-last pew, is a college student forced there by his parents against his will. Seven rows forward sits a banker who twice contemplated suicide this week. Waiting there in the silence, a pregnant high school sophomore feels the life within her stir. A teacher hiding his homosexual temptations, a tired mother of preschoolers, and a widow still grieving her sudden loss—all wait for the preacher’s first words.
In his book Telling the Truth, Frederick Buechner describes this expectant moment:
The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this moment he has them in the palm of his hand. The silence in the shabby church is deafening because everybody is listening to it. Everybody is listening including himself. Everybody knows the kind of things he has told them before and not told them, but who knows what this time, out of the silence, he will tell them?1
Here’s the message of this article in one short sentence: Preaching matters.
What’s Your View of Preaching?
I know that, to some, preaching seems ineffective. I’ve heard the jokes: “If you took all the people who’ve fallen asleep in sermons and laid them end to end . . . they’d be a lot more comfortable!” At best, preaching is seen as a punch line—a harmless source of humor. At worst, preaching is seen as a problem—a relic of modernism in a postmodern world, an unnecessary barrier keeping people from the kingdom.
But the Bible paints another picture. In 1 Corinthians 1:21, Paul wrote, “God in his wisdom . . . has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe” (New Living Translation). While Paul was a theologian, missionary, writer, and apostle, he saw himself first as a kerux—a preacher (2 Timothy 1:11). There could be no higher calling. Even at the end of his life, in one final prison cell, Paul’s last words still echo this conviction. A man does not spend his last breath carelessly, so Paul’s final charge to his dear son Timothy is compelling: “Preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2). Paul believed that preaching matters.
The Power of the Proclaimed Word
Why? Simply put, it’s because the Word of God is powerful. South African minister John DeGruchy tells about going through a security gate at Heathrow Airport:
My carry-on emitted the ominous sound that alerts police to the presence of a hidden weapon. I was taken aside by a police officer, my luggage was searched, and the officer confronted me with the offending article. It was a Bible with a metal zipper. My immediate reaction was to protest: “Well, that’s only a Bible.” To which the officer with some theological insight replied: “Maybe, but the Bible can be a very dangerous book!”2
Watching The Andy Griffith Show as a kid, I used to laugh when Barney Fife said his hands were registered with the FBI as lethal weapons, but maybe we preachers should register our Bibles. Anyone who’s ever preached knows God’s Word has the power to turn a life upside down—dangerous indeed.
I’m reminded of that the most when I’m preaching a bad sermon. Sometimes I’ll preach a sermon I know is communicating, but other times I can tell I’m not connecting. (As he stood at the door after worship receiving each perfunctory “Nice sermon,” a preacher friend of mine laughed when one elderly lady shook his hand and said, “Nice try.”) On those days, I just want to get done quickly, go home, and try again next week.
But I have noticed that God, with his great celestial sense of humor, often gives me the best response to my worst sermons, just to remind me it’s not about me. As the invitation hymn is sung, people are coming down the aisle! Decisions are being made. A lady is shaking my hand, saying, “You have no idea how that touched me.” I’m thinking, You’re right. I have no idea how that touched you.
The fact is, however, I do know. Ineffective as my words may have been, if I’ve been faithful to Scripture, God’s Word is still divinely effective. In Isaiah 55:11, God says, “My word that goes out from my mouth . . . will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
Leonard Sweet describes it this way:
My Bible has TNT engraved on the leather, because this scroll is a stick of dynamite. This book can explode old habits. It can blast sinful fixations and detonate new devotions. It can release enough energy to move any mountain and mend any life. If I hear one more time a Christian sigh, “The church just can’t compete with Hollywood,” I’m going to twist someone’s tongue. Hollywood is the one that can’t compete with the Holy. Nothing on earth can compete with the power of God’s Word to transform lives.3
Whether you listen to sermons or preach them, let me ask: Do you still believe that?
For Those Who Listen
In Nehemiah 8, Ezra and the Levites stood on a high platform from daybreak till noon, with all Israel assembled before them, as “they read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning.” During this six-hour (!) sermon, “all the people listened attentively.” If God still speaks through the preaching of his Word, then the church needs a stronger “theology of sermon listening.” What prevents you from being an attentive “hearer of the word” (James 1:23, King James Version)?
• Internal Distraction. During the average sermon, thoughts about a conversation at work, Sunday dinner, the game you watched yesterday, or the toupee sitting in front of you all compete for your attention. You may have mastered what I call “the respectful gaze”—that devoted look focused on the preacher, even while you’re mentally flipping the channels.
A few suggestions: Avoid the last minute “slide-in.” Get to church a few minutes early. Catch your breath, slow down, and prepare to focus. Bring your Bible, open it, and follow along. Take notes during the sermon, even if you don’t file them for future reference, because you’ll listen better.
Remember what’s at stake: if your boss, doctor, or golf pro were speaking, you’d pay attention. This time, it’s God talking.
• Physical Fatigue. Sometimes you are simply too tired to listen well. In Acts 20, Eutychus fell asleep during Paul’s sermon. I know in our heritage we want to “restore the New Testament church,” but . . . maybe some things in Acts are better left there!
Simple suggestion: get a good’s night sleep Saturday night.
• Personal Preference. Maybe the preacher’s style isn’t your personal preference. I’ve heard the complaints: too many stories, too dry, too loud, too serious, too much humor. We all have certain kinds of sermons we like to hear, but 1 Corinthians 1:12 warns against becoming preacher groupies. (“I like Paul’s strong theology.” “Well, I like the passion of Apollos.”)
In Mark 4, Jesus doesn’t tell the parable of one patch of soil and four kinds of sowers who range from least effective to most effective preachers of the Word. Rather there is only one sower, and the effectiveness of the harvest lies entirely with the soil. While we who “cast” God’s Word must certainly do our best, the greater responsibility in the preaching moment lies with you the listener.
A suggestion: Pray for your minister as he preaches and yourself as you listen. (See Psalm 119:18.)
• Spiritual Rebellion. James 1:21 says, “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and . . . humbly accept the word planted in you.” The Greek word for “moral filth” was sometimes used outside the New Testament to mean “earwax”—a sly inference if you think about it. James is saying: sin blocks your spiritual hearing. Sometimes we’re not listening because somewhere in our lives we are rebelling against God.
Just this week, a student told me of a girl in his youth group who said, “I don’t like listening to sermons because I don’t want to change.” At least she’s honest.
Suggestion: Before the sermon, ask God to search your heart. Pray Psalm 139:23, 24. Confess the sins he may reveal and ask him to help you be a “doer of the Word” you hear (James 1:22, KJV).
For Those Who Preach Sermons
If the proclaimed Word of God really does transform lives, then don’t ever take your weekly task lightly. In that moment as you move to the pulpit, physical eyes may see only a middle-aged, slightly balding man preparing to monologue for 30 minutes from a dusty, 2,000-year-old book on a sleepy Sunday morning. But as that stubborn college student, tempted teacher, and grieving widow sit in front of you, spiritual eyes see something else.
For at that moment, 10,000 angels lean over the balconies of Heaven, holding their breath, wondering what might happen this time if these souls really hear. Ten thousand demons glare up through the gates of Hell, licking their lips, hoping no one pays attention. The air is charged with supernatural possibilities, because as all Heaven and Hell know, eternity hangs in the balance.
If the Word is humbly received, these people will never be the same. Proud spirits will be broken, wounded hearts will be bound up, spiritual adrenaline will surge through weary souls. Whole biographies could be rewritten, life trajectories permanently altered, final destinies radically changed. The stakes could not be higher.
So this week, preacher, study yourself full, think yourself clear, pray yourself hot, then let yourself go. Give yourself fully to this “burdensome joy” called preaching. You hold the powerful Word of God in your hands, you are a combatant in the battle of the ages (2 Timothy 2:25, 26), and stepping into that pulpit is the most dangerous—and most rewarding—thing you’ll do all week.
Do it well, because it really is true: preaching matters.
1 Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale (San Francisco: Harper, 1977), 23.
2 Leonard Sweet, AquaChurch (Loveland: Group, 1999), 63.
3 Ibid., 63.
Matt Proctor grew up in Keokuk, Iowa, planning to be a preacher. In high school, after being named a National Merit Scholar, Matt says, “I got sidetracked and began chasing dreams of academic glory at the University of Iowa. But God’s call persisted, and eventually I listened. I transferred to Ozark Christian College to prepare for ministry, and I’ve never looked back.”
Matt is a graduate of OCC and Lincoln Christian Seminary. After serving as a youth minister in Joplin, Missouri, and a preaching minister in Carbondale, Illinois, he returned to Ozark in the fall of 1996 to teach in the areas of preaching and New Testament. On July 1, 2006, Matt became the fifth president of Ozark Christian College.
Matt enjoys sports and is a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan. More than that, he enjoys spending time with his wife, Katie, and their five children: Luke (12), Lydia (10), Clara (7), Carl (4), and Conrad (2).