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Evangelistic Preaching: A Lost Art

Category Articles
Date June 22, 2005

I am concerned. I am very concerned about the absence of evangelistic preaching today. In many pulpits what is called evangelistic preaching is basically an appeal to non-Christians tacked on at the end of most sermons. But where are the sermons that from beginning to end are “reasoning and explaining and proving from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ”? Where are the sermons that are prepared specifically to chase sinners out of every godless nook and cranny until they fall on their knees before the cross of Christ? Where are the sermons that will wrestle with darkened consciences until they see their need for reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ? Where have the hell fire and brimstone sermons of a previous generation gone? Where are the likes of George Whitefield, the Wesley brothers, Howell Harris, Jonathan Edwards and Asahel Nettleton today?

Let me grant from the very outset that I am not in any way suggesting that we must all rise to such prominence in evangelistic fruitfulness as to find our names in the Evangelists’ “Hall of Fame”. That would be to expect too much. We have different gifts and different degrees of giftedness. Some are more gifted at evangelistic preaching while others do a far better job in ministering to believers. I do not doubt that. What I am, however, saying is that all of us who are called to the preaching ministry must do something to recover the lost art of evangelistic preaching before we lose it altogether. It is slowly becoming very difficult to find a preacher to handle a season of evangelistic preaching in our churches, whereas if you want someone to come and handle a series on successful Christian living it is preachers galore!

Yet when one looks at the apostle Paul’s parting words to Timothy, a young pastor in Ephesus, there is no doubt that one duty that Timothy was implored not to neglect was that of evangelistic preaching. He is told to do the work of an evangelist as part of discharging all the duties of his ministry. We must do the same. In the midst of the arduous labours of teaching believers what to believe and how to live we must also be busy in evangelistic labours. In the midst of leading the people of God in proper church life we must also be leading sinners to Christ. It should not be one or the other. It should be both.

Why we are losing evangelistic preaching

I have no doubt that one reason why evangelistic preaching has been lost especially in Reformed circles is due to its association with Arminianism and the more recent high-powered pressure tactics used to get people “to the front”. Anyone concerned to maintain a God-honouring ministry will want to keep as far away from that as possible. However, any basic study of church history will soon reveal that the altar call is a modern innovation that only goes back to the century at the most. So, we do well to reject it as a component of evangelistic preaching. Yet, I fear that in abandoning evangelistic preaching altogether because of this we have thrown away the baby with the bath water. Yes, we ought to abhor any form of manipulation. It only brings goats into the membership of Christ’s church and thus compromises the church’s witness in the world. But evangelistic preaching must be seen as the very warp and woof of our calling to the preaching ministry.

Sadly, the lost art of evangelistic preaching has resulted in the lost art of personal evangelism. Since church members are not seeing a passion for souls in the pulpit, they are losing it in the pews. As the pulpit goes, so goes the congregation. Also, the advantage of having regular evangelistic preaching in the pulpit is that Christians have a role model regularly before them on how to present the gospel effectively to non-believers. A church can never rise higher than its pulpit. If the pulpit is doing very badly in reaching sinners, the rest of the church will go the same way. This explains the dearth of soul winning today. We preachers are to blame!

Although we should be concerned with evangelistic preaching “out there” where the sinners are, we should not overlook the need to preach evangelistically to those who attend church regularly. Some people feel that this is unnecessary because, they say, it is essentially believers who attend church. But is that so? Perhaps that might be so in some Western countries where the church is dying. What I have observed in Africa and in most parts of the world where I have preached is that a sizeable number in church on a Sunday are unbelievers. These need to hear the gospel, not as an appendage to a sermon tailor-made for believers, but as a message specifically aimed at them. Evangelistic preaching in church also encourages church members to invite friends and work mates whom they are trying to reach to church. They are sure that, once the invitation is accepted, the invitee will certainly hear the gospel.

Finally, evangelistic preaching is edifying and refreshing to the saints. The cross presented afresh with the appeal of evangelistic preaching has often made Christians say afterwards, “You know, if I were not a Christian, I would have given my life to Christ today!” They see once again the folly and emptiness of the non-Christian life, and the fountains of love for Christ gush forth afresh at the sight of his bleeding form on the cross. The presentation of the milk of the gospel doctrines of redemption, the new birth, union with Christ, justification, etc, nourish the Christian’s soul as much as the strong meat of the Word. So, true evangelistic preaching is good for Christians too, as long as it is not the only diet they have to live on.

Challenges facing evangelistic preaching

One of the challenges of evangelistic preaching is that you must aim your canon for the common man on the street. Preaching to believers has the advantage of the fact that you can assume their interest from the very onset. After all, they pay you to do the job! But the unbeliever’s attention has to be won. You have to win the right to be heard, and you have about ten minutes to do so! Also, you can get away with a lot of religious clichés when preaching to believers because you read the same Bible and sometimes the same theological works. But when preaching to unbelievers what you have in common at the most is the daily newspaper and the TV. If you are going to communicate effectively you will have to use ordinary day-to-day language. This can be very difficult for someone who has been sheltered from the world by a religious environment.

It seems to me that one of the challenges that the Christian church is facing today, perhaps more than at any other time in its history, is the reality of other religions in a society that accepts all religions as though they were equally acceptable philosophies. The popular question today is, “In the light of the presence of other religions, isn’t Christianity just one of the many ways in which human beings can go to heaven?” The popular answer today is, “Yes!” Because of this, evangelising those who are sincerely following their religion is now not only a lost art but also seen as an insult. Thus any straight forward evangelistic preaching outside the four walls of the church that assumes that Christ is the only way to God is at a discount. It seems safer to only state that (briefly!) in a sermon inside your church building.

The Biblical answer, however, is that anyone without Jesus Christ is doomed. This is being stated despite taking cognisance of the religious pluralism of today. We need to realise that religious pluralism is nothing new. In every stage at which pioneer missions have broken into new realms, this matter has had to be faced squarely. When Peter said of Jesus that, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4: 12), he was saying those words to the elders of a pre-existent religion!

Another challenge of regular evangelistic preaching is where to find texts of Scripture to sustain such a ministry every year. In this, the roving evangelist has the advantage of the fact that he can repeat his ten “most powerful” evangelistic sermons wherever he goes. As a resident pastor you have no such luxury. How do we get around this? The error that most of us make is that we look only for those texts that have some clear redemption themes in them. e.g. the Passover, Rahab’s red ribbon, Moses’ bronze snake, etc. Once we have preached through these, and perhaps other clear gospel texts (e.g. Isaiah 55), we become stuck and so abandon evangelistic preaching. That is most unfortunate. The truth is that the Bible has enough evangelistic material for a pastor to fill up two lifetimes of preaching! If space could have allowed I would have demonstrated this, but allow me to point you to a master in this field. Read Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Evangelistic Sermons at Aberavon and especially his Old Testament Evangelistic Sermons (both published by the Banner of Truth Trust). They are fine examples of how you can go to almost any text in both the Old and New Testament and use it evangelistically

.Attaining a passion for evangelistic preaching

The secret of persevering in an evangelistic preaching ministry is having a burden for the lost around you. This is what will keep you preaching the gospel specifically for their salvation and this is what will also keep you groaning for their salvation until one by one God begins to own your labours to their conversion. The apostle Paul said, “Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11). Or as Spurgeon once said, “If you want to win souls for Christ, feel a solemn alarm about them. You cannot make them feel if you do not feel yourself. Believe their danger, believe their helplessness, believe that only Christ can save them, and talk to them as if you meant it. The Holy Spirit will move them by first moving you. If you can rest without their being saved they will rest too; but if you are filled with an agony for them, if you cannot bear that they should be lost, you will soon find that they are uneasy too. I hope you will get into such a state that you will dream about your child, or about your hearer perishing for lack of Christ, and start up at once and begin to cry, ‘O God, give me converts or I die.’ Then you will have converts.”

Brethren, we need to be convinced of what the world needs to be saved from if we are going to fully appreciate how vital evangelistic preaching is. The world around us needs to be saved from the blinding and enslaving power of sin, and the resultant guilt of sin. Remember, we are all born with a corrupt nature that blinds us so that we cannot see the things of God. This also gives us a propensity towards evil; hence, wickedness is its fruit. We are powerless to change that! We are born guilty before God because of Adam’s sin and our own sins; hence, by nature we are objects of God’s wrath. The power and guilt of sin make ours a hopeless case. These facts are not only biblical facts but are also discovered in experience.

It is in view of this dark picture that the apostles asserted only one source of salvation – Christ! Instead of quarrelling with this uniqueness of the gospel, we ought to be surprised that salvation can be found at all! All we need to do is look at our past lives and see how we were fettered to sin. We probably tried one religion after another but our conscience was never satisfied. The reason why all else must fail is that they begin with us as human beings trying (and obviously failing). They are telling a slave or a prisoner to release himself. It is impossible! Salvation must begin with appeasing God so that he can help you. This is what the Christian preacher alone offers in his evangelistic preaching.

This is where we see the absolute necessity of the gospel. It begins with the appeasing of God on the cross of Christ. He was “given to men” by his sacrificial death. He suffered God’s wrath as our substitute. His death on the cross both removed our sin and removed God’s wrath from us. To show that God was fully satisfied with the payment, he raised Jesus Christ to life. He ascended to heaven where he received the Holy Spirit who regenerates us, convicts us, points us to Jesus, saves us and sanctifies us. Every preacher should proclaim this message at least once a week from his pulpit. We have a great Saviour. He must be proclaimed!

This is why it is so sad that evangelistic preaching is fast becoming a lost art. You who have felt the pangs of your guilty conscience and found peace with God; you who have felt the unyielding chains of sin, and found freedom at last in Christ! Offer it to the lost and perishing! Stop wasting your time trying to compare religions. Why seek the living from among the dead? Proclaim the unique gospel to your dying day. Let the world know that they can cry to Christ to save them and they can experience his saving power. Amen!

Conrad Mbewe(Of Lusaka, Zambia)

Taken with permission from Preaching and Preachers: A Journal Dedicated to Expository Preaching in Today’s World. June 2005.

Edited by Martin Holdt, Johann Odendaal and Dereck Stone, available from the Augustine Bookroom, PO BOX 33335, Glenstantia, 0010, South Africa. 50 rand for four issues.

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