Let’s read Scharf’s Let the Hear His Voice on preaching. On first look, Scharf contended, thinking biblically regarding ministry of the word is critical prior to investing on the practice of preaching. Scharf developed his thesis in agreement to Trevin Wax’s observation in Gospel-Centered Teaching that the church has ‘a message problem, and not a method problem.’ Only after progressing with the text it becomes apparent that the message and the method are not foes, but integral components of an effective sermon. So, emphatically, then, ‘success in preaching is defined by the extent to which the message gets through to the intended listeners in a form they can recognize as a word from God himself.’
This paradigm shift, recently proposed by several theologians including Timothy Keller in Preaching: Communicating Faith in Age of Skepticism, demand preachers wield divine authority, yield to God’s power, his word and the Holy Spirit, and above all, understand that God is interested in the success of his stewards and will never leave them languish in confusion and ignorance. Preachers are God’s spokespersons standing between God with a divine mandate ‘to minimize distraction and distortion when people listen to them and look at them and to maximize reflection of the very nature of God into which they are being transformed.’
“That ain’t right,” a youth pastor would disagree. “I need new innovative, socially engaging and cool tools to effectively lead my youth group. Today’s generation have a short attention span and can only be engaged through technology.” To such an excuse, Scharf asks, “What could be more painful to a preacher than to realize that when he could have been wielding the hammer of God and kindling the fire of God, he was only recklessly spreading lies, the deceits of his own heart that made people forget God?” As if that is not a sufficient scalpel, Scharf asks a follow up question, “What could be more devastating than realizing that when one could have been serving the ripest, most nourishing wheat, he has been dishing out only straw?” His previous thoughts on the apparent paradox between message and method is intriguing:
Practicalities that have no root in truth are ultimately worse than useless. They betray us because they offer flimsy solutions to durable problems. They lure us into thinking that a technique or even a conviction alone will make all the difference. Reforming our practices will make some difference, to be sure, but seldom will this alone make a lasting difference. Transforming our thinking is even more important, as Romans 12 and Ephesians 4 make plain. In the end, however, we need more than better practices and right convictions; God himself must undertake to speak through us. Only when this happens will preaching live up to his expectations.
The Preacher as a Spokesperson
If you are a minister of the word, a pastor-teacher, blogger or Christian author, from here onward referred to as a preacher, you should heed such deep and profound words of wisdom. Craft is important in delivering a sermon, but credibility and, above all, a character constructed by the fingers of God through immersion in Christ’s living words determine the degree of your sermon’s effectiveness and fruitfulness. Notwithstanding the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the preacher and making the listener receptive, there is no better way to preach the gospel than demonstrating its power through our lives.
The Christian life is a call for a faithful proclamation of the life transforming voice of God through our lives, and when necessary our words. In fact, a preacher is not only the voice of God, but the salt of the earth, a light on a hill and a letter written on both sides. Hence, a bad sermon is normally due to a corruption in the vessel, although convicting this is liberating when viewed in light of the role of the Holy Spirit in the preparation and delivery of the sermon.
Does this view unnecessarily burden the already burdened preacher through unattainable expectations and insurmountable responsibilities? Succinctly stated, is Scharf’s view on ministry of the word biblical? And if so, what does it tell us about preaching, blogging, writing a Christian book or updating our Facebook status?
Without doubt we have all experienced the horror of a bad sermon. When I was in high school, preachers came every Friday morning. Apparently, most of them had a preconceived notion that teenagers are inherently evil and think of nothing else besides sex. Their sermons read like a theatrically to-do list with irrelevant anecdotes marinated with Bible verses. Looking at a girl was evil, talking to her was equivalent to booking one-way ticket to hell, and befriending her made you Lucifer’s first cousin. There was no good news, rather a detailed preview of the consequences of ‘sin.’ Instead of showing us Jesus, they gave us their piece of mind. If anyone came to Christ or matured in their Christian walk after hearing the sermons it only testifies of the relentless love and the far-reaching grace of God, nothing more.
From this experience, they’re three important things to consider regarding preaching, that fortunately Scharf handled expertly (as a side note, Dr. Greg R. Scharf is a professor of homiletics and a chair of the pastoral theology department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois). A preacher’s view about God intrinsically determines the way they conduct their ministry. That is, the content of their blogs, books or sermon is a reflection of their doctrine of God. Hence, a reader or listener should be careful of the underlying theology of a sermon, book or blog. Thus, in addition to cultural prejudices preachers should be circumspect of their Biblical hermeneutics and theology.
Inevitably, “Without a sufficiently lofty view of God,” Scharf argues, “Those who speak on his behalf will inevitably begin to treat the messages they have from God for his people as something less important than they actually are.” It is sad to say, the ministers who preached at my high school considered themselves more important than Christ himself. Of course, they were handful whose love for us and the word was evident in their sermons. Unfortunately, such preachers were not exciting enough or firm enough to provoke a follow up invitation from the school administration. Scharf graciously gave some advice for such preachers too in the later chapters of the book.
What is the panacea for such self-absorption? At the heart of ministering the word successfully is the understanding that God entrusted the preacher, writer or blogger to speak the gospel. The goal of ministry of the word is to exalt God and but please men, therefore stewards of God’s word should be faithful to their calling. What is faithfulness in preaching? Scharf answered, “Faithfulness to God in preaching means accurately relaying to our listeners the content, emphasis, tone, and aim of biblical texts understood in their contexts.” As a result, “Our task is not to embellish the treasure, supplant it, or neglect it. Our task is to convey it without tampering with it in any way.”
The third consideration is result of the two above. A bad sermon is one where the voice of the preacher is heard louder than God’s mainly due to poor theology and unfaithfulness. The preachers that came to my high school valued their opinions, experiences and prejudices more than the gospel. They reneged their call to be God’s spokesmen in an attempt to be relevant, funny and firm in the eyes of ‘mischievous’ teenagers.
The 8 Bottlenecks to Preaching
Scharf skillfully used an illustration of squeezing a bottle to show that bottlenecks restricts the flow of ketchup, but importantly ‘keep God’s voice from being heard.’ In Let the Earth Hear His Voice, Scharf identified and discussed about eight bottlenecks that strangle God’s voice in Christian blogs, magazines, books and, particularly, sermons.
- Unqualified or disqualified preacher
- Faulty text selection
- Inadequate understanding of the text
- Inadequate contextualization
- Faulty organization
- Inadequate balance of proposition and illustration
- Flawed delivery
A survey of these bottlenecks sobers even the most enthusiastic blogger, writer or preacher. The moment the reader is familiarized with the manifestations and dangers associated with each bottleneck drawn from the writer’s vast experience traveling across the globe teaching homiletics, they are prompted to review their own practices and beliefs. Or at least, they will embrace the truth that as good stewards of God’s word, faith and trust in God entails dwelling richly in the word and speaking as an oracle of God with confidence, but above all anointment from the Father. This thorough distinction could potentially settle the false dichotomy touted in preaching circles, the pastor or scholar controversy.
Three reflections. A faithful steward of the word has a nourishing relationship with God, marked with the grace of the Lord, the love of the Father and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. A healthy relationship with God empowers the preacher to walk by faith knowing it is God who works in them to do and to will. Unbelief and disqualification are dealt with through yielding to God and allowing His love and goodness enrich us in word and indeed. The first responsibility of a minister of the word is to walk in faith.
To this end, Scharf observed, “The privilege of ministry is a gift of God’s grace; it is cosmic in scope. Our aim is to make the gospel plain (Eph. 3: 9 niv) to everyone so that, having received it, the church might reflect the manifold wisdom of God.” And advised, “Since we did not qualify ourselves to preach, we are free to get on with the task, trusting that the God who appointed and equipped us will be with us and sustain us.” Therefore, bottleneck 1 and 2 can be overcome through trust in God, walking worthy of the calling and looking at ourselves soberly.
Secondly, a faithful steward honors God’s word and believes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). If a minister of the word trust in God and is qualified, then a healthy perception of the Bible ensures the minister grows in the knowledge of Jesus. Cherry picking Bible verses, neglecting careful study and failure to make the word relevant to the reader or listener undermines God’s voice by reducing the Bible to a glorified reference book, nothing more.
An immediate response to bottlenecks 3, 4 and 5 could be frequent and thorough Bible study or attending seminary. Wax warns, “It’s possible to amass great amounts of biblical knowledge, to impress people with your mastery of Bible trivia, to creatively apply the Bible in ways that seem so down-to-earth and practical, to dot your theological i’s and cross your exegetical t’s—and still miss Jesus.” However, that doesn’t mean Bible studies should be shunned, so, he offers additional thoughts, “All creation exists by Him, through Him, to Him, and for Him. Our Bible study should exist for Him too. That’s the only kind of Bible study that will change your life.” Notice, Wax says ‘your life’, the purpose of Bible study is not for you to amass knowledge, but your life transformation through the power of the gospel.
I heard the worst sermons on money in church faced with a financial crisis. Out of a good heart, the preacher devoted a month to teach about finances. It was a bad idea because he ended up twisting scriptures and taking them out of context. Throughout the series, he cherry picked scriptures on giving and tithing in an attempt to coerce believers to give more. Sermons are not agency of manipulating believers to do things we want; they are an avenue for hearing an unadulterated voice of God.
We preach well when God’s people hear God’s voice, and he moves them to respond in ways that are in keeping with what he calls for. They leave the worship space not with ideas for a notebook, though notes are good. They receive not a critique of society in general or of the church at large, but a word from the living God that, when received in humble faith and acted upon, will make the listener more like Jesus and the church more like his body.
Finally, besides a relationship with God and the word, stewards of God’s word should cultivate a healthy relationship with the listeners. The Western church had this upside down, an emphasis on the listener is given more than the word or even God. It is not surprising that most evangelical churches are exciting, the pastor has the right illustrations, charismatic and well-organized, yet empty of the one thing needful- Christ. In most cases, it is sad to note that the preachers value their opinions more than the word of God. However, it is easy to blame only the pastors, but Christian bookstores and blogs reveal the problem is prevalent among all ministers of the word. How easy it is to find a well written blog or book with a garbage theology!
Preaching With Clarity
Two years ago, after church a friend said this about a pastor, “I know he is thorough in scriptures and probably lives what he preaches, but I can’t understand anything he says.” Honestly, I admired the pastor, at that church he seemed to be the only one who cared about the word. But, he did not invest enough time to make the word relatable to the listeners through illustrations and less academic quotes. Neglecting the method and focusing on the message entirely does not benefit the listener or glorify God, thus a preacher needs to prayerfully consider ways to make their sermons relatable and relevant.
Rich biblical content, skillfully contextualized, delivered by a godly person who is preaching in faith will not get through to the heart if listeners have to struggle to follow you. They should be free to use all their energy to receive and respond to the message, not to figure it out.
Certainly, as Let the Earth Hear His Voice draws to a close, the apparent paradoxes of speaking or writing the word of Christ, for Christ and through Christ, and ministering effectively to the reader or listener and allowing the Holy Spirit to do the same, vanishes. Preaching inadvertently becomes more freeing, rather than a burden, as believed by most. Knowing you are only a vessel that plants or waters the seed of faith will make it obvious it is God, only God, that gives the increase. This liberates the preacher, writer or blogger from unnecessary responsibility, but reminding them the importance of faith in God, his word and his plans for his people.
So, as a blogger and a Christian author, reading Let the Earth Hear His Voice offered me an opportunity to evaluate my stewardship of God’s word. Importantly, I have seen several areas that I have distorted or distracted the flow of God’s voice, for example I often wrote articles that flaunted my personal thoughts and used scriptures to Christianize the views. In response to this book, I am going to devote time for studying God’s word and vowed to write faithfully and prayerfully.
Recently, a quote from Keller’s Preaching prompted me to reconsider my approach to blogging and Christian writing. The quote summarized the thesis of Scharf’s Let the Earth Hear His Voice, highlighting the purpose, procedure and practices of effective and fruitful ministry of the word. Like Scharf, Keller reveals the three pillars of a good preaching, faith in God, reverence for scriptures and love for the listener or reader. Commenting on 1 Peter 4:11, Keller wrote:
Peter makes the powerful, eye-opening claim that Christians who are presenting biblical teaching are not to be simply expressing their own opinion but giving others “the very words of God.” Just as in public preaching, Christians are to convey the truth as they understand it to be revealed in the Scriptures. And if they explain the meaning of the Bible faithfully, listeners will be able to hear God speaking to them in the exposition. They are listening not merely to an artifact of human ingenuity but, as it were, to the very words of God.
So, then Let the Earth Hear His Voice is an excellent text for anyone who teaches the word of God informally at a Bible study or blog and/or formally through sermons. Let the Earth Hear His Voice can be described as a thorough seminary class on homiletics, yet palatable and attractive even to people who have no seminary ambitions like me. Although Scharf directed his text to ordained ministers only, I believe the advice he gave, the practices he advocated and the dangers he warned apply even to informal teachers struggling with a Bible study class, misguided or confused in their blogging or troubled with their poor defense of their faith in public places. I highly recommend this book if you are serious about becoming a faithful steward of God’s word.