Effective Preaching for
Reaching the Unchurched Masses
If preaching is to reach the unchurched, it must begin by reaching the unsaved already within hearing. The most effective preaching for reaching the outsider is the preaching that converts every insider into a missionary, and sends every hearer to tell others the things he has heard. The same kind of preaching will not be equally effective everywhere. Localities have distinctive qualities, moods, and fashions. The mental and spiritual soil is as variable as the earth's surface. A preacher may fail in one place and succeed in another. I have known one man fail in the South and succeed in the North, and another who has failed in the North and succeeded in the South. Provincial stars often blink dimly in a metropolitan atmosphere, and I have known a popular preacher who had a crowded audience in one street and preached to empty benches when appointed to a church only ten minutes' walk away. The difference was not in the preacher, but in the people. In one place the intellectual succeeds, in another the picturesque, and the emotional in a third. No man is equally suited to every sphere. Soils vary. The preacher, therefore, under God must find a responsive people if he is to succeed in finding an entrance to their souls.
The Preacher's Equipment
If a man is going to be an effective preacher, he must live to preach. It must be the one serious business of his life, having the first place in his thoughts and the first claim on his time. Everything must bend to his pulpit. A preacher who makes anything else his work and preaching his pastime has mistaken his calling. The demands of the church organization are seriously crippling the work of the pulpit. No man can direct multitudinous organizations, potter about after magic lanterns, social clubs, labor-bureaus, attend the committees of every public institution in the town, and be an effective preacher of the Word. The man who is called to preach must give himself to preaching.
There are some accessories of the preacher's work that should not be overlooked. Many a man's work is hindered by trifling defects that might easily be remedied. Nothing in or about a preacher is unimportant. His dress, style, and manner all count for or against the effectiveness of his ministry. Slovenliness and slouching habits close many a door against both the man and his message, and, on the other hand, aloofness and affectation are equally prejudicial to success. Sometimes mere accessories make all the difference between success and failure. In one city a preacher mighty in learning and earnest in service fails to get a congregation, while another with not half his learning and not one whit more devoted preaches to a crowd. Why? Because one despises the accessories of his calling, and the other neglects nothing that will contribute to the effectiveness of his work. Professional pleasantness, studied dramatism, and rehearsed elocution are unpardonable in the pulpit, but there is no reason why any man should prejudice his mission by want of discipline, training, and care. There are no trifles in the service of God. There is no instructor of the voice like an impassioned heart, in gesture no art like the artless impulse of the soul, and in manner no tutor like a sincere and gentle spirit.
There is no surer way of becoming an effective preacher than for the preacher himself to be a true sermon. The preaching reveals the preacher. Its level is determined by his own height. Truth borrowed may be either above or below the borrower, but masquerading in other men's possessions is not worthy to be called preaching. Such preachers are timeservers, not prophets. Truth must come from the depths of a man's own soul if it is to be the word of God upon his lips. The outsider has little respect for parsons and less reverence for priests, but he knows a man when he sees him, and the man of God he will hear. The pulpit must get rid of its unreality, effeminacy, and cant if the outsider is to be reached.
The Preacher's Message
Nothing makes for a preacher's effectiveness more than a true conception of his calling. He is a messenger. That which he speaks is not his own. He is not at liberty to criticize, modify, or tamper with that which is entrusted to him; neither has he any right to withhold it from any person to whom it is sent. But he is neither a postman nor a phonograph. He delivers an open message which he has received from God for men. His first business is to wait for his message, and his next is to see that it is faithfully delivered. Every hearer has a personal interest in the message. Once that is realized there will be no difficulty in securing a hearing. I have heard a judge sum up a case without any attempt to secure attention, but there was breathless stillness, so eager was the anxiety to hear. I have heard a lawyer read a will in a most slovenly fashion, but there was nobody asleep. Alas! we have to speak to people who have no desire to hear. The preacher has to make men understand that they are personally concerned in the Word of the Lord. One of the loudest complaints against preaching is that it lies outside the interests of the people. They care for none of the things of which the preacher speaks. To remedy this, many are addressing themselves to current topics and the week-day interests of the people. Everything from sociology and economics to disasters and plum-puddings is made the text for the popular preacher's homily. In more pretentious circles, poets and novelists are substituted for apostles and prophets. The justification is that they get the people and manage to get the Gospel in somehow. But it is a poor business, and such sermons are difficult to preface with, "Thus saith the Lord." Fancy one of the apostles preaching on politics and plum-puddings or devoting the hours of worship to poets and novelists! It is a mistake in policy as well as in principle. The unseen realities are men's deepest interest, and the eternal must always be the most modern. Every man has a personal interest in the questions of sin and grace, God and the devil, heaven and hell. If Christ be faithfully preached, every man must take heed. In Him are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, with Him is the solution of every problem in every age. It is the preacher's fault if the hearer does not understand that he comes to him with a message of vital interest, pregnant with eternal issues.
The Message Must Be Intelligible
It must be spoken to the people for whom it is sent. Many preachers never speak to their congregations. Some preach to nobody but themselves. The sermon is a soliloquy spoken in the hearing of the people for the satisfaction of the speaker. Dr. Dale confessed that for years his interest was in the truth rather than in the people. What a confession for a messenger! There are preachers so busy studying the terms of the message that they forget to deliver it. The King's messenger should make haste to deliver the King's message. Others preach to an imaginary host; an ideal congregation that is not there. One man complained of his minister that he preached to them all as if they were M. A.'s; very good preaching, no doubt, if the M.A.'s had been there! There is a preacher's pride that sacrifices everything to what is deemed the dignity of the pulpit and what a preacher owes to himself. It is as wicked as it is absurd. A man who was appointed to a small fishing-town remembered what was due to himself, and resolved to keep up the dignity of the pulpit. His people were of the humblest, but he preached them most scholarly sermons, so technical and academic that not one of them could understand. A dear, good soul asked him if he could not on a weeknight at least give them a simple, helpful talk. For reply he turned to his wife and said, "Would you like to see me come down to that, my dear?" and she answered, "No, my darling!" What a couple of fools they were! Is that the way a messenger should treat his message? Has he any right to despise the people to whom he is sent? Is that the way shepherds feed the flock of Christ? No wonder such churches are empty! The outsider naturally declines to come where he will be starved as well as fleeced. It is waste of time to argue with adversaries that are dead or distant. Talk to the people who are there. Talk to them, don't read them a paper few can understand and for which nobody cares. Read sermons will never reach the unchurched masses. Their own leaders look them in the face and talk, and reading from a manuscript gives them a sense of unreality. Academic preaching interests nobody, not even theological students. The preacher must speak in the vernacular of the people. It is criminal to deliver a message involving life and death in an unknown tongue. Every available help must be used to interpret its meaning and enforce its authority. Never be afraid of Illustrations. They were not beneath the Master's dignity, so no man need count them a degradation. Obscurity is no proof of depth. Simplicity is the mark of perfection. No man who ever heard Gladstone expound the principles of sound finance and righteous government to an audience of working men will ever deny the possibility of making the greatest subjects intelligible to the average mind. The epistles were written to new converts, and they may be preached to new converts still if they have first glowed in the soul of the preacher. It is in the heart truth is clarified, vivified, and fired. Intensity is the prevailing note of effective preaching. Speech throbbing with life and aflame with passion never fails to arrest and arouse. If the word is a fire in the preacher's bones it will soon find its way to the hearer's heart. It takes more to move a man than to instruct him. A farthing candle will lighten the face of a rock, but it takes dynamite to shift it. Conviction gives speech its ring of sincerity, its irresistible logic, and its persuasive passion. The speech of doubt is cold and limp, the speech of certainty is a living flame. The pulpit is passionless because it has lost its certainty. Passion is the great need, not excitement, but passion born of conviction, passion born of pity, passion inbreathed of God! The preaching that converts men is the only preaching I know that is effective in reaching the unchurched masses who are without. Everything else fails. Sensations grow stale, polemics become wearisome, fireworks fizzle out, and even anecdotes lose their charm; but the ministry that opens men's eyes and turns them to God abides forever.
It is more than twenty years since I first faced the problem of filling empty churches. I have had a succession of them since then, and the convictions born of that first experience have never failed. They have been tested in various conditions: among the poor, in the slums, among the artisans of an industrial population, among the cultured of a university city, in a down-town church of a great city, and they have never failed. My preaching is neither funny nor short. The subjects are biblical, theological, and practical. We have scores of reclaimed drunkards in church-fellowship, and hundreds of godly men who were formerly among the unchurched.