Christianity 201

April 14, 2012

Preaching: Eloquent or Effective?

From Jim Cymbala’s new book Spirit Rising (Zondervan):

Every believer is probably familiar with the important role that preaching and good teaching play in extending Christ’s kingdom and helping us mature.  But over the last few years, I’ve begun to wonder if our understanding of preaching is defined more by our life experience than by the Bible.  In most churches, a minister stands before the congregation and shares a passage of Scripture, usually in a sequential, logical manner that breaks down the meaning of the passage for everyone to understand.  Illustrations are often used, followed by an application of truth.  If the message is Scripture based and the speaker’s communication skills are of a high caliber, one would usually define that as a “fine sermon”. 

The same can be applied to us when we share the Word one-on-one with a friend or coworker.  The recommended advice is to use your head, be as persuasive as you can, and try to bring the person to a belief in Jesus.

While all of that is good, what are we going to make of the apostle Paul’s description of his method of preaching?  Reminding the Corinthian church of his eighteen-month ministry there, he said:

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.  My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.  (1 Cor. 2:1 – 5, emphasis added)

What?  A speaker not depending on wise and persuasive words?  Isn’t that what most seminaries and books on effective preaching almost exclusively emphasize?  Isn’t that what most of us aim for when we share with others?  But here the apostle states unequivocally that his message and preaching were not “with wise and persuasive words.”  That was never part of Paul’s strategy as a preacher of the gospel.  What he did claim was that his ministry involved “a demonstration of the Spirit’s power”!

What kind of Spirit-saturated messages did Paul give the people in Corinth?  He certainly didn’t mean that every five minutes or so he interrupted his talk to heal someone’s blind eyes or have the lame walk, because there is no record of that in Scripture.  Yet this brilliant Pharisee-trained convert to Jesus dismisses “wise and persuasive words” and instead boasts in the Spirit’s power resting on him.  Why?  In order that the Christians in Corinth might have their faith “in God’s power” and not “human wisdom.”  I wonder how many of us ministers have that as our goal every time we open God’s Holy Word.

~Jim Cymbala, pastor, Brooklyn Tabernacle