4 Characteristics of Evangelistic Preaching

We’ve looked at a definition of evangelistic preaching, some examples of it, and some reasons for its present rarity. Let’s move on now to the question, “What does evangelistic preaching sound/look/feel like?” We’ll look at four characteristics today, and four more tomorrow.

Present
Evangelistic preaching majors in the present tense. Yes, it deals with biblical data, which is usually in the past tense. But it moves rapidly from the past to the present. These are not sermons that are taken up with large amounts of history, geography and chronology. They may begin there, but move swiftly to the here and the now.

Hearers realize the sermon is about here, about now. It’s connected to the present, it’s relevant, it has impact on them, here and now, in this day and in this age. Martin Lloyd-Jones used to speak of such sermons being in the “urgent tense,” and that really is what should be communicated. We must show that the ancient Word connects with today’s world, and is relevant both to the present and the future.

Personal
These sermons should also be personal. Yes, again, we begin with explaining the Word as originally given to the Israelites, the disciples, etc. It starts with “they” and “them.” However, in evangelistic preaching, we move rapidly to “you.”

I’m sure we’ve all sat in congregations, heard sermons about the Philistines, the Israelites, the Corinthians and the Philippians, and wondered, “But what about me? Does this have anything to say to Americans, Scots, Africans, etc?” When teaching God’s people we can spend longer explaining the teaching as it applied to the original hearers. But when we are going after lost souls, we have to move more swiftly, we have to engage more rapidly, we have to show relevance much earlier on.

Also, when we are addressing the unconverted in front of us, we should work especially hard at moving away from reading our notes. When we are appealing, beseeching, arguing and reasoning in a very personal way with unbelievers – let it be eyeball to eyeball, “we beseech you.” Don’t let paper get in the way, distracting, and breaking the eye contact. Let’s really make it personal so that people really grasp “he is speaking to me.”

We can also make it personal by getting inside the minds of our hearers and saying things like this: “Well, you’re sitting there are you are thinking this…aren’t you? But this is what God’s word says.” Or, “You’re here today and you’re hearing this and you are feeling so and so….” And the person sitting there says, “He is thinking about me. He knows how I think, he knows how I tick; he is concerned to address what is going on in my mind.” Again, it just makes it a very personal intimate transaction.

Persuasive
In evangelistic preaching the great aim is persuasion. Much of such sermons will be taken up with Acts2v38-42 type beseeching, pleading, arguing, and reasoning. It’s not just, ”Here’s some facts; take them or leave them,” as if we are just dispassionate conveyors of information. We are here to persuade. People must see our anxiety that they respond to the Gospel in faith and repentance.

Passionate
To be really persuasive, we must also be passionate. Let people see that we feel this deeply, that we fear for their eternal state, that we are anxious over them, and that we love them deeply. Let that be communicated in our words, but also in our facial expressions, our body language, and our tone.

I’m not arguing for acting here; this should come naturally. Sometimes, before preaching an evangelistic sermon, I spend some time trying to think of lost unbelieving souls in my congregation, and even of particular individuals. I may try to see their faces (often lovely characters by nature – helpful, kind, loving people – but lost). I try to see them dying, going to judgment, and then their faces as they hear the verdict. Then I envision them sinking into the bottomless pit, being burned in eternal fire, going to the company of the devil and his angels. I try to see them there, try to hear them there. Sometimes I might even think of one of my own unsaved family members, just to try and bring home the reality and the enormity of the unsaved’s predicament. If we can really feel it ourselves, we will be passionate in our pleading, in our loving, and in our reasoning.


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Why is evangelistic preaching so rare today?

The great expository preacher, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, made sure that at least one sermon every Sunday was directed primarily to the unsaved in his congregation. That was also the practice in the Scottish Presbyterian churches I grew up in and pastored for 12 years. But most reformed churches have no such distinction today. Both morning and evening sermons tend to be primarily teaching sermons for God’s people.

Having defined evangelistic preaching and looked at various examples of it, I’d like to suggest some reasons for the rarity of evangelistic preaching today, especially in reformed churches.

The Preacher
We start by pointing a finger at ourselves. Many of us have to admit that we much prefer to be teachers than pleaders. It is easier to engage in explanation than application. It is more socially acceptable, it is more dignified and respectable to be engaged in calm reasoning and deduction, rather than in anxious weeping and beseeching. I think we’d all have to admit that it is easier emotionally and socially to be teachers than evangelists. And that prejudice, that bias, influences our choice of text and the way we preach our texts.

In addition to our prejudice, there is also our pragmatism. Let’s get people in first. Get them used to our church. Then we will become more “evangelistic.” After all we don’t want to put them off by telling them they are sinners who need a Savior; or that they must abandon their own works and trust in Christ’s grace alone; or that without faith in Christ they will be punished forever in hell, etc. Surely it’s much wiser to begin more slowly, more carefully, more diplomatically; and then once they are in a while, we can begin to be a bit more confrontational and demanding. But then more new faces appear, and so the pragmatic cycle begins again.

Presumption also lurks in the background of many preachers’ minds. Some pastors dangerously presume that their hearers are already saved. Assuming that all is well with their souls, they teach, instruct, and give guidance on how to live the Christian life; but they rarely preach for conversion.

The Congregation
When we preach evangelistic sermons, some mature Christians in our congregations, those we often lean on for our encouragement and strength, might feel (or even say), “Well there wasn’t much for me in that sermon…that’s more like milk for babies than meat for the mature.” Of course, many mature Christians love to hear evangelistic sermons. They enjoy being evangelized all over again, and they especially love to hear sermons addressed to their unconverted family and friends. However, others may not respond so appreciatively as they do to our epic sermons on Romans. That lack of response can impact what we preach and how we preach.

Also, we might not have many unconverted people in front of us. My first congregation had only 20-30 people. Sometimes there were maybe only 3-5 unconverted hearers in an evening service. It’s a lot harder to preach an evangelistic sermon in these circumstances, because everyone knows to whom you are directing your warning, wooing, and pleading words. Teaching messages are so much more comfortable than convicting messages – both to preach and to hear. That’s especially true if our few unconverted hearers are very “moral” or “churchy” people.

There may also be in our congregation those who might view evangelistic preaching with a suspicious eye and ear, especially if they come from a hyper-Calvinistic stream of Christian upbringing. Maybe others have come out of Arminian easybelievism, hyper-emotionalism, and decisionism, and react against any kind of emotional appeal to the unsaved. We don’t want to offend these people, we want to keep them on our side, and so again perhaps we hold back from regular, full-throated evangelistic preaching.

The World
We are not pluralistic. We believe, surely, in the exclusive claims of Christ. That’s what we swear to, sign up to, and state at our ordinations. But, we live in such a pluralistic, many-ways-to-God world, that it’s extremely difficult not to be influenced by that, even subconsciously.

Maybe, in the back of many pastors’ minds, the sharp edge of Gospel exclusivity has been blunted by worldly influence. They may not deny that Christ is the only way to heaven, and they may not preach many-ways-to-God. But they do not keep the believer/unbeliever distinction or the heaven/hell contrast constantly and vividly before their minds. And of course that’s going to affect their preaching – both its content and tone.

The real test of incipient pluralism is, “How do we really view the unconverted?” Is our first thought when we see them, “These precious souls are hell-bound, without Christ, lost, under the wrath of God, however religious they may be?” I’m deeply afraid that a kind of incipient, subtle, often unnoticed pluralism has blunted the sharp edge of evangelistic preaching.

The Devil

Then, of course, there is our great enemy, the devil. If there’s any kind of preaching that has been more successful in stealing captives from him and claiming them for the Lord, it is passionate evangelistic preaching. No weapon in the Gospel armory has been so effective in rescuing souls. Of course, he’s going to fight it, and he’s going to supply every excuse not to preach in an evangelistic way.

See also the insightful comments at the end of this post with further suggestions as to why evangelistic preaching is so infrequent today.


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