What can stir the affections for Christ? What is it that brings the soul to the point of contrition? What brings the heart to an understanding of Salvation? What is it that draws people to Christ? What changes the condition of the soul, inspiring life change? What is the power of the pulpit?
Most pastors believe the power of the pulpit is their personal ability to persuade people to come forward at an altar call. Preachers tend to craft their sermons and even their services around an emotional appeal that leads into an invitation/altar call. In church history, this is a relatively new phenomenon.
For almost two thousand years of Christian history people turned to faith in Christ without an altar call. There is no example in Scripture of people being ushered or called to walk to the front of a crowd to make a declarative statement or decision. Sure, they were called to repent and believe, but that was done where they stood. They were called to turn from sin and trust in Jesus for their righteousness right where they stood. And they were called to make a meaningful choice to follow Jesus without the aid of music or an aisle to walk down.
Then a man named Charles Finney (1792-1875) established “the anxious bench.” Over time this has morphed into our modern altar calls. Finney believed that you could persuade the soul of man by creating a perfect setting. If you put the music in the right place, appeal to the emotions in the correct manner, ensure the lighting is properly set, and lay out the right words, then people will come forward. And, in a very practical since, Finney was correct. If you set the stage correctly, you’ll be able to manipulate many people into walking forward. (To be clear, I’m not questioning Finney’s motives… His heart was to see people become committed followers of Christ. He was simply extremely pragmatic and humanistic in his approach.)
It is true that one can set the atmosphere to convince people to walk forward. However, history and modern church demographics have called this methodology into question. In the last several years a slew of material has been written decrying the shallow, consumeristic Christianity that is so prevalent in American churches. Easy-believe-ism is often cited as a result of a kind of altar call faith.
So what are we to do? If we are not to focus our messages around an emotional appeal that calls people to walk to the front, then what is the power of the pulpit?
The answer is simple. It is so simple that it is simply assumed by most preachers… though rarely practiced.
The power of the pulpit comes from the Scripture. The Scripture is the power in our messages.
“Faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ.” Rom. 10:17
“All Scripture is breathed-out by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” 2 Tim. 3:16-17
“…devote yourselves to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, and to teaching.” 1 Tim. 4:13
“For what was written in former days (Scripture) was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of Scripture we might have hope!” Rom. 15:4
The Spirit of God through the Word of God is what changes the soul of man. It is not our clever methods or our well-crafted appeals that challenge the soul. It is the conviction that comes from hearing the Word read and proclaimed aloud. One of the most powerful things you can do as a teacher is read the Bible out loud!
So, I propose we change the way we approach our Sermonizing. It seems as though our message ought not to be crafted around an appeal to emotions, but rather, it should be the explanation of Scripture. Be clear, be plain, be honest. If you will focus on teaching the Bible, you will see life-change in people. If you will focus on clearly explaining the Word of God and showing people the character and nature of God, you will find people living changed lives. Teach the Bible so that people see Christ! Engage the hearer in heart and in mind. Teach so that people better know Christ. Don’t try to manipulate the emotions to garner a response. Instead, focus on teaching the Bible clearly.
Further, structure your services around meeting with God. Show people Jesus, and then worship will follow. Let the climax of your service be knowing and meeting with God Himself! Make everything you do point to Jesus. He has promised that His Word will never return void.