It is always intriguing for me to read the various notices in Christianity Today, First Things, and similar publications announcing conferences, lectures, retreats, and the like—all centering on religious themes and subjects. The ones dealing with preaching interest me the most, because that’s what I do and have been doing for a bunch of years.
In the past I attended quite a few preaching confabs, some at sizable expense. I profited from some. But not all. Indeed, I’ve heard experts on communication who had nothing to communicate.
I remember the speaker who defined preaching as a man standing in the pulpit struggling to keep his mouth shut in order to let the Lord speak through him. Another of my notes, now yellow with age, quotes a speaker who said the art of preaching was the art of salesmanship—unsuccessful unless the preacher, like a good salesman, had a thorough knowledge of his subject and an enthusiasm to match.
I profited from these sessions. Sometimes a little. Sometimes much. Yet never more than from the experience of going, not to a preaching seminar, but to a hospital for a lengthy stay. There I faced the possibility of never preaching again. When the Lord answered my plea and put me back in harness, I had a new appreciation for what a privilege it is, as Paul wrote to Timothy (2 Tim. 4:2) to “preach the Word.”
Harry Emerson Fosdick, the famous liberal theologian and master pulpiteer, whom I went to hear a few times, never did. But the unlettered nobody, on a scratchy radio station from a Kentucky holler at 3 o’clock in the morning on the radio beside my hospital bed, did! I have never forgotten him.
Nor have I forgotten Thomas Chalmers, who lived long ago. I had to write a paper on him for a seminary professor. Chalmers, a Scottish preacher and theologian (1780-1847), was one of the most brilliant scholars ever to grace a pulpit. His knowledge of philosophy, astronomy, geology, chemistry, and more created a sensation as he lectured from his pulpit from Sunday to Sunday. His voice emptied the countryside. People came from everywhere in a day when travel was difficult. They came to sit at his feet. But he had no gospel.
One day, entering his pulpit, his head teeming with inexhaustible knowledge, he opened the pulpit Bible to discover a note, providentially and anonymously placed. It said simply, “Sir, we would see Jesus” (John 12:21). It went to the heart of Thomas Chalmers, resulting in Chalmers’s famous sermon, which still lives in sermonic literature: “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” No one uses titles like that today. But his new affection led Chalmers to become a riveting gospel preacher and one of the founders of the Free Church of Scotland. Driving through the streets of Edinburgh one day years ago, I turned a corner and came upon a huge statue of Thomas Chalmers. I pulled over, got out of the car, and saluted.
Years later, there were two contemporary pulpiteers in the city of London. Both were very popular. One was the brilliant Joseph Parker. I have a collection of his writings. The other was Charles Haddon Spurgeon. I stood one day in the little Baptist church in Cambridge, England, where, as a lad of 16, Spurgeon made a profession of his faith. On hearing Parker preach, people leaving his church were heard to say, “What a mind!” Those leaving Spurgeon’s services were heard to exclaim, “What a Savior!”
On the subject of preachers, I like what Paul wrote to the Corinthians. They were quarreling over who was the better preacher. Some followed the preacher Apollos. Some preferred the preacher Cephas. Still others leaned toward the preacher Paul (1 Cor. 1:12). Paul said in 1 Corinthians 4:2 that God weighed them all on the scale of faithfulness.
Church members and church shoppers do well to do the same.