Truly Successful Preaching (Newton)

Sometimes we think that a successful preacher is one who is well-known, is the pastor of a large church, whose sermons are downloaded by the thousands, whose conferences are always sold out and books are bestsellers.  The truth is, these things don’t necessarily mean a preacher is successful in the biblical sense of the term.  Heretics and unorthodox preachers can have all these things!

What makes for a successful preacher, biblically speaking?  What is truly successful preaching?  Well, it doesn’t depend upon popularity, sermon download numbers, church size, or best-selling books and conferences.  John Newton described it well while discussing the sovereign grace of God in regenerating dead hearts:

“…We may observe the proper use and value of the preaching of the Gospel, which is the great instrument by which the Holy Spirit opens the blind eyes. Like the rod of Moses, it owes all its efficacy to the appointment and promise of God. Ministers cannot be too earnest in the discharge of their office; it behooves them to use all diligence to find out acceptable words, and to proclaim the whole counsel of God. Yet when they have done all, they have done nothing, unless their word is accompanied to the heart by the power and demonstration of the Spirit.”

Without this blessing, an apostle might labor in vain: but it shall be in a measure afforded to all who preach the truth in love, in simplicity, and in all humble dependence upon Him who alone can give success. This in a great measure puts all faithful ministers on a level, notwithstanding any seeming disparity in gifts and abilities. Those who have a lively talent that affects emotions, may engage the ear, and raise the natural passions of their hearers; but they cannot reach the heart. The blessing may be rather expected to attend the humble, than the talented speaker.”

These words – especially the ones I’ve emphasized –  are comforting for us preachers and applicable to everyone who hears the word proclaimed.   Don’t give pastors credit or fame; give it all to God!

John Newton, Works, volume 1 page 286-7.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015


Popularity: A Pastor’s Fiery Trial

  Near the beginning of his 1830 publication on the pastoral ministry (The Christian Ministry), Charles Bridges discussed the trials and difficulties of the ministry.  In this section he wrote that for pastors, “the greatest difficulties derive their origin and power from ourselves.”  This whole section is outstanding, and very much worth reading.  One part of it that stuck out for me was what Bridges said about opposition to the ministry on the one hand, and popularity on the other.

Opposition to our ministry and message may stir up a selfish, unhumbled spirit.”

Popularity is yet more dangerous.  The few who escape its influence unhurt have been exercised in painful conflict, such as have shown their deliverances from this fiery trial to have been nearly miraculous.  Symptoms of success, unless tempered with personal abasement and habitual watchfulness, excite to self-confidence.”

Bridges’ words really caught my attention!  The very thing that many of us pastors desire – popularity – is more dangerous than opposition in the ministry and is a “fiery trial” that breeds self-confidence.   Why again do I want popularity?  Perhaps I should pray against it!

The lack of success and popularity, on the other hand, is too often accompanied with impatience or despondency.  So we are assaulted at the extreme points of opposite direction (popularity vs. opposition), and we surely need the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left. (2 Cor. 6:7).

Bridges does talk about other difficulties pastors have within themselves, such as spiritual coldness, loss of zeal, natural love of ease, dislike of self-denial, and the ongoing struggle with worldliness.  But Bridges also does a nice job encouraging the pastor to press on by God’s grace.  He even says that difficulties in the ministry can be used by God to become sources of encouragement:

“The discipline of the cross is most needful to repress the overweening confidence in self, to establish an habitual confidence in God’s promises, to prove the power of faith, the privileges of prayer, and the heavenly support of God’s Word, so that we know how from our own difficult experiences how to speak a word in season to him that is weary (cf. Is. 50:4).”

“Faith links our weakness in immediate connection with the promises of God’s help (Zech. 4:6).  Thus discouragements in the ministry, properly sustained and carefully improved, become our most fruitful sources of eventual encouragement.”

Forget popularity.  Don’t buckle or throw in the towel when faced with difficulties.  Because when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:10; cf. 2 Cor. 13:4).

Recommended pastoral reading: Charles Bridges’ The Christian Ministry (in light of the above quotes, especially note chapters 4-5.

shane lems
hammond, wi

Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People Two years ago, Matthew Redmond wrote an excellent book called The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People (note: the Kindle version is only $2.99). I’ve blogged on this book before (here), but I wanted to mention and recommend it again by sharing a helpful excerpt that I recently re-read.  I appreciate how Redmond clearly understands that our celebrity (Christian sub-) culture goes hand in hand with the “radical” movement in evangelicalism.

“[The reality is that] we will not be famous. We will not be stars in our culture’s glittering nights. And though many of us have drunk deeply of a celebrity-saturated world, we live a life apart . Oh, we want to be famous, known and revered. But that is not the reality. The reality is no one will write books about us. And outside of our families, we will be forgotten.

This sounds terrible but only because fame — which was never ours — has obscured our view of what really is. And what is that? That we are part of that not so exclusive group of men and women throughout history known as “everyone else.”

Christians are not immune to the problem of being mundane and seeing it as a problem. We have breathed in the same fumes as the rest. Our hearts burn for our deeds to be noticed and celebrated . We want to do something big and have it thrust into cyberspace for all to read. Those who follow the Man of no reputation pine for one, résumés ready.

There are dark and dusty corners of our heart that will fight tooth-and-nail against ever being known to exist. The reason is easy to see. We think the small, mundane, ordinary things we do each and every day are worth nothing before God because they are worth nothing before the gods of this world.

[However,] it is encouraging that there is a God of the mundane, because lives are just that — mundane. This is good news for those who have tired of trying to live fantastically. And this is spectacular news for those who have been tempted to think their lives escape the notice of God because they are decidedly not spectacular. It is encouraging because the mundane is reality. We may flirt with greatness, but the fact is — for the Christian and non-Christian — ordinary is the divine order of the day for the vast majority of us.

Redmond, Matt B. (2012-11-29). The God Of The Mundane: reflections on ordinary life for ordinary people (Kindle Locations 229-249). Kalos Press. Kindle Edition.

shane lems

Christian Star Quest Part II

 Here’s part two of this blog post on Christianity and the culture of fame, stardom, and celebrity, quoted from Guinness’ excellent book, The Last Christian on Earth.  Part one is here.

“If consumer religion transforms congregations into clientele, their idolizing of celebrities produces a series of fateful switches in focus: from private identity to public image (devaluing inner life and character), from saints to stars (devaluing models of spiritual growth), from followers to fans (devaluing patterns of discipleship), from being gifted to glamorous (devaluing leadership and spiritual authority), and from wisdom, understanding, and experience to endorsements, personal glimpses, and slogans (devaluing faith).”

“Modern men and women do not live by bread alone, but by every catchword and revelation that comes from the lips and private lives of their heroes.  But since such fame is largely based on famousness, these celebrities are living tautologies and the emptiest of heroes.  Thus for ordinary people, the consumption of celebrities is like psychological fast food.  For Christians, it is not only non-nourishing but also a slow and deadly poison.  Those who live by the image die by it too.  And those who worship them are like them.”

The enemy of the church goes on to summarize this effective subversion and potential damage to Christianity with two main points, two main ways to hurt the church: 1) the passive acceptance of the masses, and 2) the allegiance of a ruling counter-elite.  “Christian reduplication of the current celebrity system” makes #2 an obvious way to achieve #1 – on this the enemies agree.

These are some penetrating critiques that are worth taking to heart.  This American celebrity culture is prevalent in large portions of Christianity today – not just in mainline denominations/institutions, but also in Reformed, Presbyterian, and Calvinistic circles.  Think of how books are hyped by Christian publishers, how Christian singers have fans, and how popular Christian speakers are announced and advertised.  I’m sure you can add to this list.   The remedies/remedy of this disease is the subject of another important discussion.  For now let me say that it is high time we purposefully start going against this unfortunate trend by resisting the culture of fame and cult of personality as they creep into our churches and Christian circles.

shane lems

Christian Star Quest Part I

 As I mentioned before, I really like this book: Os Guinness, The Last Christian On Earth.  It is a fictional account of two enemies of the church who are plotting to destroy it.  In memorandum 7, the discussion has to do with how to damage the church’s institutions.  One way is privatization of faith and belief. Another way to damage Christian institutions is to continue to lead them to duplicate Western culture’s celebrity system.  Here is how the enemy describes stardom and fame – and how it infiltrates Christianity.

“Politicians, it is now said, no longer run for office – they pose.  But Christians too have become hooked, inhaling publicity like chain smokers, quite oblivious to the warning on the packet.”

 “As Oscar Wilde has said, ‘there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.’  Hence the celebrity, who is…’well known for his well-knowness….’ [Furthermore], publishing and the celebrity system overlap here.  A ‘best seller’ is becoming the celebrity among books, one that is bought more than read, yet one that sells well partly because it sells well, the essence of successful hype.”

“You might think Christians would be held back by that rather awkward saying of Jesus, ‘Woe to you when all men speak well of you.’  Conveniently they seem to have forgotten it, particularly in America where the access to the media is greatest.  Hence the celebrity system, Christian style (‘A Star is Born-Again’).  Titans from the world of politics, sports, music, television and religion stride the Christian stage and screen with an authority born, not of their faith and character or their missionary exploits, but of their mass appeal.  ‘Following the star’ has become the exact opposite of what it was for the three wise men.  Today it leads away from Jesus, not toward him.”

I’ll split this post up into two parts to keep it short and more readable.  Here is part two.  Note: the above quotes are found on pages 136-137 of Guinness’ book.

shane lems