The Power of Preaching

Recently, one of my former elders called me and asked, “How’s the job search going?” I know he meant well, but we’ve gone round and round in the past about the difference between a “job” and a “calling.” A job pays the bill. In High School I cut fish for a living. It was my first job and, since I don’t have a sense of smell, I was ideally equipped for it. On the other hand, it was never my intension to spend the rest of my life hacking up halibut. I felt God had something else in mind for me.

My Grandfather, John D. McKeel
My Papa, John D. McKeel

My earliest memory is holding my Papa’s hand and climbing the stairs to Sunday School at the old 12th and Drexel church of Christ in Oklahoma City. Dad was in the Army in Korea and mom and my baby brother and I were living with my grandparents. I still have the card K.C. Moser gave my parents when I was born. From the earliest age, I wanted to be a preacher. Ministers were my heroes. Still I was mesmerized by those giants of old who so authoritatively preached the word. That’s what I wanted to be when I grew up! That was what God was calling me to do.

“I’m sending out resumes,” I answered, but what I am really doing is listening to stories – the stories of congregations around the country and I am worried. Not that I won’t be called to another church, but I am worried about the church itself.

“The average age here is 70,” he said as I listened. “We’re all getting up there so we need to do something quick!”

“And what do you feel like you need at X street?” I asked.

“Well, we’re going to hire a youth minister and we’re looking for a young man with a family to fill the pulpit,” he answered. I sighed and resisted the urge to ask, “And how many young people are there for that Youth Minister to minister to?”

Congregation after congregation believes the key is to hire someone young. “That’ll attract young families!” I hear over and over again. “If we add a contemporary service, the young people will come back!” They conclude. I had a vision of a bunch of 70-year old rockers with electric guitars and pounding drums – and shuddered.

Changing the music is probably a good idea in a lot of churches, but I don’t believe adding a band or a Youth Minister for that matter is the key to growing a church.

“Well, Brother McKeel, what do you think the key is?”

“Please, just call me John.” I said.

It’s no more about adding music and changing the role of women than it was about Pre-Millennialism, Cooperation, Speaking in Tongues or the Discipleship Movement in days gone by. There will always be a new program and there will always be a new controversy that threatens to divide us. A new program or a new method will not “save the church.”

“The Bible is the key,” I replied. “Jesus warned the Scribes, ‘Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge.’ (Luke 11:52) The Bible is the key!”

I got a puzzled look and he stammered, “But we preach the Bible!”

“Yes, but do you make it come alive?” I asked. “No one has the right to make the Bible boring! I know a lot of preachers who try, but the Word must be ‘living and active’ not ‘dead and dull.’”

“Our preacher works very hard to have a lesson that is strong on application,” he protested.

“I’m sure he does,” I answered. “But Preaching ‘Six Steps to a Happy Life’ isn’t going to change the world. Many of the sermon outlines I see look like a kidnapper’s ransom note,” I observed. “Six points with six Scriptures cut out of different contexts to prove a point. That’s not listening to God. That’s just cutting out passages and pasting them into your outline to prove your point. Your preacher may make a wonderful point, but he needs to let the text dictate the outline instead of using the text to illustrate his conclusions.”

[Think about that for a moment. On the one hand we begin with God (observation), study very hard to know what the text is saying (interpretation) and then apply it (application). On the other hand we begin with our application in mind and try to find supporting quotes for it from different, often unrelated, passages of Scripture. Those are two very different approaches to my mind.]

I got a sharp glance down a very long nose. “And what is preaching in your opinion?”

“Story-telling.”

I let that sink in. “A rabbi once said, ‘God loves a good story. That’s why He created people.’”

Think about it. The first rule of good preaching is “Never yawn during your own sermon.” I’ve learned the way to hold people’s attention is by telling a good story and no story is better than the ones that come from the Good Book. First are the Bible Biographies. Yes, everyone may have heard the story of David and Goliath, but who tires of it let alone the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the Beggar at the Golden Gate; the Philippian Jailer – the prophets, the apostles – the list is nearly endless and the lessons are just as applicable today as they were when the Holy Spirit chose to include them in the Bible.

But suppose we do tire of those stories. We can move on to the stories Jesus told: the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Story of the Soils. And what happens when you get bored with those? Then let’s open up a text and make it come alive! Preachers need to learn the art of exegesis again. People are spell-bound and lives are changed when the letters of Paul, Peter, James and John are opened. When was the last time you heard a book brought to life from beginning to end? That’s preaching!

And the beautiful part of this plan is: The Bible touches everyone – old and young alike! Preaching on current events is divisive. Preaching pop psychology or even common sense won’t touch everyone. Using multi-media is clever, often entertaining, but it doesn’t begin to change lives unless it is used to open up the Scriptures.

Let’s get back to the Word of God. Let’s stand in awe and listen! If we are going to survive, much less grow, we need preachers.

The 73rd Annual Pepperdine Bible Lectureship

John guiding in Bavaria 1975
John guiding in Bavaria 1975

This Friday, May 6th, I will be teaching a class, “Five Minutes on the Back of a Napkin: A Visual Approach to Sharing the Gospel,” at the 73rd Annual Pepperdine Bible Lectureship in Malibu, California. Sharing the Good News shouldn’t be a program. We don’t need to learn a “sales pitch” or use some kind of gimmick to share the Gospel. When my daughter was born, I had to tell someone the good news. It was 3:00 in the morning! So I went to Denny’s and burst through the doors shouting, “It’s a girl!” Everyone shared my joy and someone bought my breakfast!

Do you remember the story of the Triumphal Entry (Luke 19:28-43)? When the religious leaders tried to tell Jesus to quiet the Master’s joyous celebration,  “He answered, ‘ I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

Likewise, Jesus used this principle with the Gerasene Demoniac (Mark 5:1-20). When the man was cured, he asked to go with Jesus, but the Lord said, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.”

The apostles used this principle with the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1-22). When the politicians told the apostles not to talk about Jesus anymore, they replied they couldn’t help but speak.

You know your own story of how God saved you, but what many people struggle with is a framework. Where do I begin? What do I need to say? That’s what this class is all about. If you happen to be at the lectureship, I hope you’ll join me. Meanwhile, several people have asked me to share more about sharing the gospel on the back of a napkin. Stay tuned!

Holy Bug Zappers

My Grandmother use to say, “Where there’s light, there’s bugs.” By that she reminded me that if you start a good work, there would always be someone to criticize what you’re doing. So don’t get discouraged if people are complaining.

That’s great in theory but I’d also like to get a hold of the person who first said, “Sticks and stones may hurt my bones but names will never hurt me.” He was wrong. Words wound.

My Grandfather, John D. McKeel

Let me tell you a story about my grandfather, “Papa.” Papa and Meemaw lived in Oklahoma City. They had a giant backyard (long but skinny) with a couple of great cherry trees to play in and lots of horned toads for grandsons to catch. We loved playing in the backyard but one-day Papa’s neighbor brought home a dozen beehives. He thought it would be great to raise them in his backyard. The bees might have been great for the cherry trees but they weren’t great for barbeques or little boys.

Papa went and talked nicely with his neighbor who could have cared less. He was a greasy-haired young man who always had a cigarette dangling from his mouth who only owned torn t-shirts. He laughed and slammed his door.

Papa checked with the city and yes, you couldn’t raise cattle in the backyard but there was no ordinance pertaining to bee keeping. As strange as it sounds Papa’s neighbor was fully within his rights to keep the hives back there.

Time stretched on and things only got worse. The gruff neighbor didn’t even share his honey! And then Papa got an idea. He went to the hardware store and bought several electric bug zappers and lined them up on the fence that divided their yards. I can still remember the little grin that use to cross Papa’s face every time we heard a “crack!” “Pop!” or “Sizzle.”

The church isn’t full of perfect people. In fact we have a few that call for more grace than you might expect. There aren’t any “Holy Bug Zappers” so that tells me God expects us to act otherwise. Here are a few rules I’ve found helpful when I’m called on to show a little extra patience with people.

When dealing with problem people, don’t become a problem yourself. (See the Golden Rule for a further explanation.)

  1. When you are being drawn into a conflict, draw closer to God!
  2. Even though that person may express himself in an annoying way, listen to what he has to say. He might just be right!
  3. The object is not to “squash the bug,” or run them away. The goal is always “transformation.” (See Romans 12:1, 2.)
  4. God doesn’t call on us to only love the nice people. We are to love people – stingers and all!

Changing Times

I can’t keep up with it all: MP3s, JPEGs, Memory sticks, G3 is now G4. (Were there ever G1s or G2s?) Do you remember vinyl records? You know those big, round things that look like black CDs? Oh that’s right CDs are now DVDs or are they Blue Ray? The conversation goes on: Beta, VHS, cassettes, and Eight Track. It seems the one constant is change!

The other day I was driving up the hill to Canyon View and I noticed Epiphras riding up Balboa on his donkey. Frankly, I thought he looked pretty good for a two-thousand-year-old man. He waved at me and I rolled down the window. “I’m looking for the Church,” he said.

“Well, you’re in luck,” I told him. With a sweeping gesture I pointed to the building up on the hill and said, “That’s the church over there.”

“But that’s a building,” he said.

“Oh, of course,” I blushed, “that’s the church BUILDING. It’s where the Church meets. Would you like to come in?”

“Yes, thank you. It’s been a long ride from Colossae.”

We walked in and I showed Epiphras our facility. “What are those?” he asked.

“That’s the pulpit and that’s where we sit during services. You know, when the communion trays are passed.”

“The what?”

“You know the communion trays.”

He looked at me with a blank stare so I changed the subject. “We’re pretty modern here. I’m sure there have been a lot of changes in the last two millennia. Why we even use PowerPoint slides for our song service!”

Another blank look.

“Perhaps you would like to walk over to my office and have a soda. I’ll just put your donkey in the courtyard.”

Poor Epiphras looked so bewildered until we sat down in my study. I took out a directory and we began to talk about the members. Epiphras revived. His face lit up as we shared stories about the people and how the Gospel changed their lives. That’s when we discovered some things never change! It’s always been and always will be about the people and God’s unchanging love.