I recently finished Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ classic book Preaching & Preachers. There is no lack of talking points for the good Doctor. He is dogmatic, opinionated, and assertive about what he believes preaching to be. I found myself convicted, confirmed, and even bemused to the point of laughing out loud. The book was rich for me in all kinds of ways. For example, one interesting thing was how MLJ regarded altar calls in church services.

I grew up in a church tradition where altar calls were standard practice. And while I’ve preached many a sermon that included an altar call, for years now my church (and my preaching in it) doesn’t have them. Some believe this absence to be, at best, pastorally unwise or, at worst, incredibly unbiblical. 1 I thought it might be good to hear at least from one respected, if not hallowed, preacher on the reasons he didn’t employ them in the preaching event.

#1: It is wrong to put direct pressure on the will.
#2: The response of the man who “comes forward” isn’t so much the Truth itself as, perhaps, the personality of the evangelist, or fear, or some other kinds of psychological influence.
#3: The preaching of the Word and the call for decision shouldn’t be separated.
#4: The implication that sinners have an inherent power of decision and self-conversion.
#5: The implication that the evangelist is in a position to manipulate the Holy Spirit and His work.
#6: It tends to produce a superficial conviction of sin.
#7: You are encouraging people to think that their act of going forward somehow saves them.
#8: The implication that the Holy Spirit needs to be helped, aided, and supplemented – that the work must be hastened instead of leaving it the hands of the Spirit
#9: It raises the whole question of the doctrine of Regeneration.
#10: No sinner ever really “decides for Christ”; he flies to Christ in utter helplessness and despair as his only refuge and hope.

What is MLJ’s counsel to do en lieu of altar calls? The Doctor concludes:

The appeal must be in the Truth itself, and in the message. As you preach your sermon you should be applying it all the time, and especially, of course, at the end, when you come to the final application and to the climax. But the appeal is part of the message; it should be so inevitably. The sermon should lead men to see that this is the only thing to do. … I believe that the minister should always make an announcement in some shape or form that he is available to talk to anybody who wants to talk to him about their soul and its eternal destiny. 2

What Lloyd-Jones wants to make clear is that one doesn’t confuse not having an altar call with not having a call to respond at all. For him, the call to respond is peppered throughout the sermon. The issue at hand for the Doctor is the technique or instrument which employs altar calls for conversions. If you’d like to know more, I highly encourage you to pick up a copy to see his argumentation behind these ten reasons. If anything, it will be good food for thought for your own practices in preaching.

Notes:

  1. However, one would be taxed to produce an explicit example in the New Testament of a church service altar call. Maybe because it’s a fairly modern invention (See Charles Finney’s 19th century “anxious bench” technique).
  2. Preaching & Preachers, Zondervan, 2011, 296.


The truth will mess you up.

– Radiohead, Ful Stop

This isn’t about excusing the recent rash of disqualified Christian leaders or making light of the transgressions which led to their demise in ministry. This isn’t about saying there shouldn’t be consequences for our sins or pitting compassion against justice. This also isn’t about hedging my bets or hiding some heinous sin for me personally. This is simply stating a truth – a truth every person who has the privilege of leading God’s people as a pastor needs to remember. It’s one that can keep you from self-righteous grandstanding when news that a celebrity (or non-celebrity) pastor bites the dust. It’s one which can remind your heart that God’s grace has been, is, and will be the only hope you have. It’s a truth that can keep you on your knees a moment longer in grateful prayer.

What’s the truth?

If God so desired to expose the secrets of your heart,
you too would be disqualified from ministry.

Ministry veterans won’t argue it. They know themselves too well. If you find yourself pushing back, well then, you don’t. Among the fine and beautiful things in your heart, there are also lusts, hatreds, envies, and other gross sins that would likely ruin people’s perception of you, your ministry, and your qualifications for leadership.

Know this my friend: had God in his justice wanted to expose you, you would be done. So would I. Fini. Kaput. Finished. Just another name added to the list of other fallen pastors. Really.

Let me give you some advice. Search your own heart. Think about the dark places of thought, word, and deed in which you’ve privately commerced. It’s not that you’re proud of them or haven’t sought to repent well of them, but they’re there. Just like they are in every man or woman who’s trying to follow Jesus. And God knows every ruinous one of them. As King David says in Psalm 139:2, the Sovereign Lord of the Universe has “discerned [our] thoughts from afar.”

But don’t despair. All of us need of the sanctifying work of the Spirit. Every one. Even more, our hope shouldn’t be anchored to our righteousness (or lack thereof), but anchored to the One who has been righteous for us. Indeed, I pray the goodness of that reality spurs me on to love Jesus more and my sin less, and that I grow in personal holiness while fleeing from the sins which so easily entangle me. But until Jesus returns, I will still struggle with sin. And so will you.

So the next time you hear of a pastor losing his ministry because his sin was exposed to the public, please understand that if the Lord so chose to make public what’s been private in your heart, you’d be next. And so would I.

Pastor, be thankful for the grace you’ve been given today. May it lead you to greater obedience, a deeper humility, and a ready compassion.

Recast : to melt something down and reshape it into another form;
to present something in a different way.

Let me give you one simple way to increase the effectiveness of your sermon. It has to do with recasting or presenting your sermon’s main point 1in a fashion that may not be intuitive for some. What do I mean? Often, because of training as preachers and expositors of the Scriptures, many a pastor constructs a main point that’s perfectly true to the text and immensely clear for the listener. For example, this week one of our campus pastors, after working through the parable of the Lost Son in Luke 15, constructed the main point of his message as follows:

Jesus came to seek and save the lost.

It’s good. It’s true. But I challenged him to recast it. Why? Because this is a main truth for the head, and it needs to be something more. I told him it needed “truth with some skin on it” – something you could relate to, feel, connect with. Listeners need truths presented in a way that speaks not only to their heads but their hearts as well. That’s why an effective preacher will ask himself if his message’s main point can be recast from a Main Truth for the Head into a Main Truth for the Heart? This isn’t an appeal for emotionalism or guilt-trip gimmicks, but an earnest rephrasing of a truth in order that congregants might better connect with both the intellectual and emotional reality of that truth.

But that can be hard to do. So, I asked my fellow pastor, “What is the emotional center of your message? What moves you about what your read in Luke 15? What stirs you in your gut about Jesus’ appeal to his listeners?” Without hesitation he responded, “Yancey, it’s that he’s there and he’s waiting.” That was it! He had just recast his main point and didn’t even realize it. Can you see feel the difference?

Jesus came to seek and save the lost.   vs   He’s there and he’s waiting!

The recast point has skin on it. It appeals to the heart. It’s something listeners can lean in to and feel for themselves. This is value and power behind recasting. It wraps our hearts into the main point by giving hooks to hang our emotions on instead of solely being in the head. In other words (and to channel my inner Jonathan Edwards), recasting hits after the affections and, as such, makes for a better message.

Try it. Ask yourself this week if your message’s main point needs recasting in order to hit both head and heart.

Notes:

  1. Yes, I generally favor one-point messages