Monday, April 4, 2016

E.M. Bounds’ Seven Elements of Preaching from a Place of ‘True Praying’

There are a handful of moments over the past three decades of ministry when I remember being nearly paralyzed by the immense responsibility that accompanies the divine calling to preach the word of God. It is rarely simple, never easy, though occasionally exciting…like a train-wreck. Those overwhelming times sometimes result from the challenging subject matter of the passage at hand. Sometimes, I have felt myself engulfed by emotion because of the circumstances into which God’s word must be spoken. And more frequently I am amazed in contemplating the great privilege granted me by a congregation committed to enabling sufficient study, composition, and polishing for the messages they gather to hear.

I hope that one element is conspicuous by its absence. Study, composition, and polishing come easily to those blessed with a great deal of education, bountiful budgets of both time and money to constantly consume book after book, and the additional benefit of being engaged in dialogue with a diverse breadth of individuals of great spiritual depth. With all that, however, comes also the temptation to believe that I have something to say. I do, of course. But not in preaching. In preaching, my responsibility is to overcome the temptation to say any something, except to deliver that which is God’s message, in that holy moment He has appointed, for the edification of those He has gathered, that they may be the agency of His will on earth, just as it is in heaven. As important as preaching is, and important as careful study, composition, and polishing may be, there is one essential that should inform, influence, and inspire every word of every sermon. But because, as E.M. Bounds writes, “Preachers are human folks, and are exposed to and often caught by the strong driftings of human currents,” I find that I need a constant reminder of the necessity of the fullest possible approach to preaching through prayer.

Toward reminding myself of the richness of prayer that provides the foundation and fulfillment of preaching’s promise, I find Bounds’ seven elements of “true praying” to be a worthy contemplation.

1.       Vital Oneness with Christ – As communicators of the gospel, we are not merely commentators on the events and content of Jesus’ life from twenty centuries ago. If we are not continuously participating by allowing His ministry to take place in and through our lives, then we are preaching across a divide of insurmountable distance to those who have little or no hope of emulating what we present as an intellectual exercise instead of a living, breathing, active and living (thus Bounds’ use of the term “vital”) life of faith.

2.       Fullness of the Holy Ghost – Jesus told us that out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. If we are merely to speak about God, then we may do so out of the abundance of our minds, the volumes of our libraries, or the class notes from our Bible college or seminary. If, however, we intend to speak God, to speak the way, the truth, and the life, to give voice to the living presence of the Almighty Creator of all that ever will have existed, then we must be filled to overflowing with God Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit.

3.       Deep, Overflowing Fountains of Tender Compassion – In the next point, Bounds addresses our focus on eternal life for those we serve. But here, lest we overlook the circumstances of their lives, becoming “so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good,” it is essential that we not only know how others are living, but that we materially live as they do. The ivory pedestals of our isolated studies may be momentarily necessary to the study, composition, and polishing of our messages, but the lives into which we speak are “out there” where the dialogue is occurring for many more hours than we will ever preach. The phrase that has helped me most in making the time available for actively engaging in the daily lives of our community comes from Andrew Blackwood’s Pastoral Leadership (Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1949). I remember it as, “Pastoral visitation is sermon preparation.”

4.       Deathless Solicitude for Man’s Eternal Good – No matter how gratifying it is to see God’s resources brought to bear through our lives into the needs of those we are called to serve, the message we deliver is not merely incomplete but entirely heretical if it does not emphasize God’s eternal love, Christ’s eternal purpose, and the Holy Spirit’s eternal efforts to bring new, abundant, and eternal life into its fullest possible expression in every life He allows us to touch.

5.       Consuming Zeal for the Glory of God – Even in the previous two categories, it is possible to diminish God to being the cache of resources, or even the means to salvation. That Jesus is Lord and Master, and Sovereign King does not negate His character as the Friend of sinners, the Intercessor affirming the effectiveness of His blood in reconciling us to God, or any other aspect we may occasionally neglect in favor of others. The richness of both the breadth and depth of God’s attributes, character, will, and action deserve careful review to ensure that our preaching does not drift onto a few favorite perspectives at the expense of presenting the wholeness of His holiness.

6.       A Thorough Conviction of the Preacher’s Difficult and Delicate Work – I have discussed this above, but here I would add the confession that I have, too frequently, looked upon a sermon text as offering me an “easier” preparation due to my familiarity with the particular passage. I have learned, however, to reject this seductive enticement to my laziness. In truth, the more familiar a passage is, the more difficult it usually proves to think through how it applies to the congregation who will gather to hear it. Worse, far greater effort is actually required. It can be a struggle to determine what the passage does say, when I am already certain that I know what it has said to me previously. And then, the cold, hard light of truth, once seen, needs to be focused and filtered into fractional portions, set in an accessible order, so that the truth that so resonates in my heart will do the same for others on Sunday morning.

7.       The Imperative Need of God’s Mightiest Help – All of the above matters combine to motivate an inevitable decision. There are more than two options, but many preachers find themselves at some point in their ministry with the strong sense of being caught between only the Rock and the hard place. The hard place may be the personalities and preferences of a particular parish. Some may face a crisis of personal health, relationships, or finances. But often the hard place is deep within the preacher who faces the growing perception that an ever-closer relationship with the Rock reveals the terrible distance between what the preacher is and does, and what any disciple of Jesus Christ comes to realize: there is so much we can never be, so much we can never do. The weight of that realization can threaten to crush us. The attractive alternative to that brokenness is to walk away from the role and its responsibilities. But there is a third option. I happen to believe it cannot be accessed without the brokenness. Some would disagree, and perhaps they have found some other means to the same end. But the strength to hold up under the pressures of preaching is to accept what Bounds calls “the imperative need of God’s mightiest help” that is available only when, I believe, our strength has crumbled to dust and been swept out of the way.

Of course, this seventh element brings us full circle in Bounds’ list. God’s mightiest help is only available when we have nothing else to bring to the task at hand than our vital oneness with Christ. Are there still simpler, easier, more exciting options available to today’s preachers? Yes. And it would appear that simpler, easier, and more exciting preaching is more attractive to greater numbers. So, why pursue this prayer-drenched preaching that Bounds describes as being “a conspicuous and an all-impregnating force?” There is no reason at all, unless we choose to believe as Bounds does: “To (those) who think think praying their main business and devote time to it according to this high estimate of its importance does God commit the keys of his kingdom, and by them does he work his spiritual wonders in this world.”


When I look at the crowds that are being drawn, and especially when I hear the criticisms from among the simpler, easier, and more exciting options, so far, I do still hear the words of Jesus: “What about you? Do you want to go there, too?” It is only by committing to consistently “conspicuous” prayer that my answer remains, “Where else am I supposed to go? Only You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:66-71) And as their preacher, I refuse to believe that those to whom I am called to serve on Christ’s behalf should deserve anything else, which would make the message something less than the whole counsel of God’s word.

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