What does evangelistic preaching sound/look/feel like? Here are eight characteristics.
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.
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.
In evangelistic preaching the great aim is persuasion. Much of such sermons will be taken up with Acts 2:38 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.
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.
Evangelistic preaching will be plain. If we love sinners and we are anxious for them to be saved, we will be clear and plain in our structure, content, and choice of words. If we can use a smaller word, we use it. If we can shorten our sentences, we do so. If we can find an illustration, we tell it. Everything is aimed at simplicity and clarity, so that, as it was said of Martin Luther, it may be said of us, “It’s impossible to misunderstand him.”
And this is exhausting work. People may think at times that doctrinal sermons are harder to prepare and preach than evangelistic sermons. Not if you are really going to edit and trim and modify until your message communicates the profoundest truth in the simplest way possible. That involves real labor, sweat, toil and tears. In Preaching and Preachers Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote:
If I am asked which sermons I wrote, I have already said that I used to divide my ministry, as I still do, into edification of the saints in the morning and a more evangelistic sermon in the evening. Well, my practice was to write my evangelistic sermon. I did so because I felt that in speaking to the saints, to the believers, one could feel more relaxed. There, one was speaking in the realm of the family. In other words, I believe that one should be unusually careful in evangelistic sermons. That is why the idea that a fellow who is merely gifted with a certain amount of glibness of speech and self-confidence, not to say cheek, can make an evangelist is all wrong. The greatest men should always be the evangelists, and generally have been; and the idea that Tom, Dick and Harry can be put up to speak on a street corner, but you must have a great preacher in a pulpit in a church is, to me, the reversing of the right order. It is when addressing the unbelieving world that we need to be most careful; and therefore I used to write my evangelistic sermon and not the other (pp. 215-16).
When we go into the pulpit with an evangelistic sermon, let’s not go in defensively, and apologetically. Yes, it may be an “apologetic” sermon, but we are not apologizing for the truth. When we go in front of sinners with the gospel, let’s not come across as if we have something to hide or be afraid of. Let’s not hedge and qualify. Let’s not “discuss” or ”share.” Let’s preach with powerful, bold, divine authority. People need to hear, “Thus says the Lord.” This isn’t an option, this isn’t just another idea; this is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
And let our evangelistic sermons also be characterized by perseverance. We preach. No one’s converted. We do it again. We preach. No one’s converted. We do it again, and again, and again.
How often should you preach an evangelistic sermon? That will largely depend on context. In Scotland, I was expected to preach one evangelistic sermon and one teaching sermon every Sunday. Once a week is probably too much if you and your church are not used to this. But how about once a month? And you can tell your congregation that on such a morning/evening this is going to be a sermon for the unconverted, so that Christians will think, “I can take my friends to this. This is something I know my boss could listen to with some understanding.” Make it regular, and make it known that this is what you are going to be doing.
Above all, of course, evangelistic preaching is to be prayerful – before, during, and after. Pray to be delivered from the fear of man. Pray that God would give you a passion for souls. Pray that you would be able to communicate naturally and easily and freely. Pray that you’d get a hearing for the gospel and that you’d be able to present Christ so that you ”disappear.” And pray afterward that the seed sown would bring forth a harvest of saved souls, and that the church will be revived and built up.
“And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever (Daniel 12:3).