It must be about ten years since I first stood on a platform, red-faced and with shaking hands, to publicly preach the gospel. Here is some advice I would give to my former self, and to anyone else starting out in what can feel like a daunting part of Christian service. I have separated this advice into three parts: the content of the gospel message, how to connect with the audience, and how to present yourself.
Perhaps the most important thing to consider when preparing to preach is the content of the message. There is a necessity to convey the foundational truths of the gospel. After all, no-one can be saved without believing these truths and you cannot believe without hearing the word preached.
So, what are the essentials of the gospel? Paul boiled down the gospel message to its essence when he said, ‘We preach Christ crucified’,
1 Cor. 1. 23. He gives a succinct summary of the gospel in chapter 15 of the same book, ‘Christ died … he was buried, and … rose again the third day … he was seen’, 1 Cor. 15. 3-5. The person of Christ, His death and witnessed resurrection form the very basis of the gospel message.
But gospel preaching is not just a history lesson or merely an explanation of what happened but also why it happened. Paul said that Christ died for our sins. The cross must be preached as the answer to humanity’s sin.
The gospel also demands a response from those who hear it. As the crowd heard Peter’s convicting message on the day of Pentecost, they asked, ‘what shall we do?’ Acts 2. 37. The answer was to repent and believe. The response required today is no different, God commands repentance from sin and belief in the Lord Jesus Christ.
As you prepare a message, ask yourself if this is the essence of your preaching.
The next challenge is to preach this message in a way that connects with your audience. In the book of Acts, we read how the gospel spread out from the city of Jerusalem into all different parts of the world. Of course, this meant that the gospel preachers were addressing people of all different cultures, classes, and religious beliefs. It shouldn’t surprise us that the message preached, though unchanging in its core doctrine, varied in its presentation. Compare Acts chapter 2, where Peter preached to a Jewish audience on the day of Pentecost, with the latter part of Acts chapter 17, where Paul preached on Mars Hill to a Gentile audience steeped in Greek philosophy. Peter didn’t need to tell his audience there was one God. That was fundamental to their belief. But that’s where Paul had to start in an idolatrous city who raised an altar to the unknown god. Peter quoted Old Testament prophets whereas Paul, in addition to referencing scripture, cited Greek poets, but both led their audience to the same truths about Jesus Christ and the need for repentance. This is seen throughout the book of Acts. The preachers start where the audience are in their understanding and beliefs and then lead them to Christ. As much as we can gauge the thinking of our audience, we need to do the same.
Let’s now think about how we present ourselves when we preach. Depending on your temperament and personality, the idea of standing in front of a room of people to speak might seem like a daunting task. We might know people who ooze confidence and charisma and worry that we are not as cut out for public preaching as they are. It might surprise us, then, that Paul was not a confident public speaker. He describes himself as being amongst the Corinthians in weakness, and in fear and in much trembling, 1 Cor. 2. 3. Though his letters were weighty and powerful, his bodily presence was weak and his speech contemptible, 2 Cor. 10. 10. Yet this was the man God used as a chosen vessel to bear the name of Christ before the Gentiles, Acts 9. 15. What God values is different to what the world values. God chooses the weak and despised to fulfil His purposes. Even if we do possess some natural ability to speak publicly, any fruit that comes from our preaching will be a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 1 Cor 2. 4. Therefore, our approach ought to be marked by humility, not being overly concerned with ourselves and our abilities, nor trying to adopt the style of other preachers, but relying on God’s power to work through us as we are.