"I preach as a dying man to dying men!" No other saying has impacted and influenced my ministry of preaching so much as these words of Richard Baxter (1615-1691), a Puritan preacher from England. Invariably I am reminded of this mortifying confession every time I step on the pulpit. I must preach with robust sincerity and reverential seriousness. Preaching is an eternal business. Itís a matter of life and death (2 Cor 2:14-17).
Mummy (1924-1981) was an elementary school teacher, and Daddy (1914-1973) was an officer in the Indian Army. Both of them were kind socializers and good conversationalists. Mummy used to speak in womenís groups and Daddy was a preacher in open-air meetings and small conventions. I used to play major roles in English and Tamil dramas in the school. I also took active part in the weekly Literature & Debate Society (LDS) classes as a student. When God saved me and filled me with His Spirit in 1962, the background I had as a young boy came in handy to share my testimony and preach short messages without stage fear. Excelling in studies as a bright student both in school and college, I never thought that God would call me to invest the best part of my life in the ministry of preaching His Word. I fall prostrate at the feet of the Almighty, who knows the end from the beginning, for ordering events in my life most appropriately.
Of the hundreds of sermons I have preached during forty years (1963-2003), I donít consciously remember a single instance when my sermon was a flop. I have thousands of fans but Iím not carried away by what they say (Jn 5:44). I am however encouraged by the abiding fruits (Jn 15:16). With earnest and enthusiastic enquirers, I have shared now and then how I go about with this ministry of preaching. Testimonies from youngsters who have successfully tried my principles and procedures abound. In this article I have put together my manners and methods in preaching. Be edified, exhorted and encouraged!
We are commissioned to proclaim the Gospel everywhere and to everyone (Mt 28:19). We are commanded to preach the Word whether the time is favourable or not (2 Tim 4:2). This does not mean I must accept all invitations to preach. Paul and Peter are called to two different audiences (Gal 2:7,8). God has a specific "measure" and "sphere" for me (2 Cor 10:13-16). In order to stay within it, I donít give instant reply to invitations but take some time, atleast a few days, to find out whether God really wants me to go there. I am called to be a revivalist, and not very much an evangelist. As such my ministry is mostly to believers rather than unbelievers and non-christians. Only where God sends me I will prosper. I am under orders. I donít yield to human pressures and enticements but teach folks to accept no for an answer. Passion for preaching and lust for pulpits are two different things. A.W. Tozer (1897-1963) asserted, "I cannot recall, in any of my reading, a single instance of a prophet who applied for the job!"
"Break me, melt me!"
My preparation starts with the birth of the inner conviction that it is God who has given me that particular preaching assignment. The preparation of the preacher is more important than the preparation of the sermon. After accepting an invitation, I give myself to weeks and months of prayer. The ministry of the Word should be bathed in the prayer closet before bringing it to the pulpit (Acts 6:4). During this season of prayer, the "burden of the Lord" comes on me (Isa 13:1; 15:1; 17:1; 19:1; etc.) and the "word of the Lord" is implanted in my heart (Jer 2:1; 7:1; 11:1; etc). When I am possessed with the burden of the Lord, I think I feel like a woman in full pregnancy. When I am captivated by the Word of God, itís like fire burning in my bones (Jer 20:9).
What to speak
Sometimes the organizers themselves give me the topic or the theme. In other instances I am free to choose the subject. This makes no difference to me as far as waiting on God to hear Him is concerned. He will implant seed thoughts in my mind even during regular times of Bible meditation and prayer. At times He does it when I am half awake in bed. I have learnt from my mentors to note down the thoughts then and there in a pocket notebook or my diary. Whenever I felt too lazy to write down at once, I lost the seeds for ever because "the birds came and ate them!" (Mt 13:4).
The farmer has to now work with the seeds God has given him (2 Cor 9:10a). With the help of Concordances, Bible Dictionaries and Commentaries, I study the subject or the passage from the Scripture as thoroughly as possible. Oftentimes I do this on my knees. I gather as much informations as I can from whatever Bible study aids I have. I jot down all such collections and the inspirations I receive from God. Eventhough this is hard work, I enjoy it very much. I get excited like the one who has found hidden treasures (Psa 119:162). When I am overjoyed, I run out of my study to swing in the garden or treat me with a chocolate!
"I am a man of unclean lips!"
The preparation time affects my inner man deeply. Itís a time of both learning and unlearning for me. Scales fall off my eyes. Conviction grips me wherever I havenít measured up to Godís expectations. The Word of God is a knife with two sharp edges. The first one is to cut the heart of the preacher and the other one is to operate on the hearers (Heb 4:12,13). This is how "the Word becomes flesh" in the speaker. God desires to bless me before I become a blessing to others (Gen 12:2). "Hardworking farmers must be the first to enjoy the fruit of their labour" (2 Tim 2:6).
God of order
I go through whatever I have gathered in prayer and study several times to form an outline and frame a structure. I am amazed at the help of the Holy Spirit I receive at this stage (Isa 34:16). My sermons are usually of five points or seven. I have some faith in Scripture numerics! For each point I give a few Bible references to teach the truth, and then a few to illustrate it with examples. The Bible is made up of both "law" and "testimony" (Isa 8:20). Belief and behaviour. Doctrine and deeds. I make it a point that what I preach must be descriptive as well as prescriptive, theologically sound and practically applicable.
God of beauty
I write and rewrite my sermon outlines several times. I am not economical with stationery. I have a good collection of quotebooks. I select quotations from them to spice my sermon. Eventhough my mother tongue is Tamil, from my student days my meditations and study have been with the English Bible. However, because before entering College I did my schooling in Tamil medium, my vocabulary in English is rather poor. I therefore keep a Dictionary and a Thesaurus with me when I finalise my sermon notes. I spend time in choosing words and coining them so they may be rhyming. God is artistic! When words are coined, it becomes easy for the hearers to remember the points. Wisdom and knowledge are from the Spirit of God (Isa 11:2). I use fine ballpen and good quality paper to write the notes which I will carry to the pulpit. The size of the notes folder will be slightly less than the page size of my Bible so it may fit in conveniently. For safety sake I keep a xerox copy of my notes elsewhere. We are not ignorant of Satanís schemes!
Cleansing the vessel
With the sermon notes ready, as the day of preaching approaches, I intensify prayer. I go through my notes several times. I wait on the Lord with fasting to receive a new strength (Isa 40:31). The Spirit of God is already upon me, but I seek God for a fresh anointing. I subject myself to serious self-examination so I may be cleansed of all the filth in my soul and spirit. Anointing with oil is only after the application of blood (Lev 14:14-18). First it is the Lamb and then comes the Dove! God uses cleansed vessels (2 Tim 2:21). During this period I become more and more aware of my unworthiness and appreciative of Godís greatness (2 Cor 3:4-6). Tears roll down my eyes as I worship Him who has counted me faithful and put me in this ministry (1 Tim 1:12).
"Strike the shepherd!"
The eve of my preaching assignments, especially if it is a major programme, is usually days of storm. It may be physical sickness, ministerial conflicts or family problems. The blows will literally crush me. I would wonder whether I would ever make it to the programme. But in the last minute God would release a new supply of His grace in answer to the prayers of thousands of my friends who would cry unto God that I would not be intimidated by these attacks (Eph 6:19,20). No doubt the devil wanted to disturb me because I was getting ready to disturb him. However I believe that God allows such disturbances. This brokenness leads to such boldness in the pulpit that no one in the audience would ever know that I had walked through the valley of tears the previous day! (1 Cor 2:3,4). I weep in the night but walk to the pulpit with the joy of the Lord which is my strength (Neh 8:10c).
In 1997 I was invited to Chennai to preach in the 3-day missionary convention of the largest Church in South India. The first evening meeting was on a Friday. In the morning I got a catch in my hip as if it was knocked out of joint at the socket. (I felt like Jacob! Gen 32:25,31). Standing or walking was such a painful thing. Just before the meeting a senior orthopaedic surgeon tried his level best to manipulate my joints so I might be relieved. It was all in vain. Painkillers couldnít help me either. For the first time in my preaching career, I had to sit and speak in those three meetings. Folks testified that the messages were the most powerful missionary challenge I had ever made. Interestingly and inexplicably I became perfectly normal on Monday morning! How is it for a testimony that Godís strength is made perfect in my weakness, and when I am weak, then I am strong? (2 Cor 12:9,10).
The hour has come!
During the hours before preaching I avoid house-visiting or doing anything that would physically or mentally tire me. A nap before going to the meeting refreshes me. I donít eat a heavy meal before preaching. Lighter the stomach better the sermon! I brush my teeth and clean my tongue so my saliva may not be sticky and my words may be clear. After this I avoid eating anything solid. I ease myself by emptying the bladder. How I suffered whenever I forgot to do it! I dress smartly but donít wear anything I am not accustomed to or which is not suitable to the climate. David doesnít fare well in Saulís suit! (1 Sam 17:38,39). I want to be normal and natural on the pulpit.
On your mark! Get set!
I try to be in the meeting from the very start. Only then I can catch the wavelength of the audience and join the people in worship before preaching to them. I am not a cine actor to enter the scene in the middle. I strictly tell the organizers not to kill the people with long preliminaries and lengthy introductions. The worship or song leaders must not give me a tired congregation! People must be left with some mental energy to receive a meaty message! I wet my throat before getting up to preach. I request the volunteers to keep a cup of warm water on the podium. Many times they forget to do it and that makes me carry with me my own flask of water!
I ensure that the pulpit height gives me a comfortable reading distance so I can stand erect. I wait till the audio man sets the mike properly lest there are interruptions after I begin to speak. I request the photographers and the videographers not to stand right in front of me but move to the sides. I hate the glare of powerful flashlights which heat up my body.
Level of expectation
Before I utter the first word in the pulpit, I whisper a prayer within myself: "O God, help me to glorify You today!" I remember what George Verwer the Founder Director of Operation Mobilisation once said: "If a preacher has two aims, he has one too many!" I usually begin with a word of greeting. If it is a missionary convention I greet the audience in the Name of the Lord of the "Harvest." If it is a holiness conference, the greeting will be in the Name of the Lord who is "Holy, Holy and Holy!" If it is a meeting on spiritual warfare, the greeting is in the Name of the Lord of "Hosts!" I thus relate to the theme of the programme in the first sentence itself. In the introduction of the sermon I briefly explain to the audience what I was going to speak on. A proper orientation raises the level of expectation.
A word of appreciation to the organizers will be in place. I tell the people to keep their Bibles open to turn to the references I would make. They must show the verses to those who sit by if the latter have not brought their Bibles. I insist that every literate man and woman should bring the Bible from the next day. I ask how a student could go to school without textbooks. Do Christians come to spiritual meetings just to watch a performance?
Authority & Power
I keep the dial of my wristwatch on the palm side so I can note the time without the knowledge of the audience! I try to equidistribute the time to all my points of the sermon, but I often fail. I spend too much time for point number one and too little for the last one. I preach with a triple conviction and consciousness: I am a servant of God; I stand on the authority of the Word of God; I speak with the power of the Spirit of God. I have learnt this from Jesus. When He spoke with such a conviction, "the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him!" (Lk 4:17-20).
What a Word!
The Word of God is FIRE! I preach it with a burning sense of urgency that crackles with a spirit of seriousness (Jer 5:14; 20:9). The Word of God is a HAMMER! I preach it bangingly and overwhelmingly (Jer 23:29). The Word of God is a SWORD! I preach it boldly and forthrightly (Eph 6:17; Heb 4:12). The Word of God is a MIRROR! I preach it prophetically and clearly (Js 1:22,23). The Word of God is a SEED! I preach it with tears and expectation (Lk 8:11; Psa 126:6). The Word of God is DEW! I preach it tenderly with compassion (Dt 32:2; Eph 5:26). The Word of God is MILK! I preach it without adulteration and serve it liberally (1 Pet 2:2). The Word of God is SPIRIT! I preach it enthusiastically pouring myself into the sermon (Jn 6:63). The Word of God is HONEY! I preach it pleasantly, avoiding unedifying words (Psa 119:103). The Word of God is a LAMP! I preach it revealingly and relevantly (Psa 119:105).
I stick to my sermon notes as closely as I can. At the same time I remain flexible to respond to spot inspirations from the Spirit of God. It is the same Holy Spirit who anointed me in the prayer closet and assisted me in the study room during sermon preparation. The spot inspirations will be about 25% and itís a thrilling experience to receive them. I use humour but very cautiously lest the seriousness is lost. I illustrate the truths through stories, personal experiences and other examples. Illustrations are simply windows to a sermon. They are used only to explain hard truths. Too many illustrations will leave too little time for the exposition of the written Word of God. In my sermons I donít spend more than 10% of the time for telling stories and sharing experiences. I am not an entertainer or an exhibitor but a spiritual edifier and a Scriptural exponent. I am not on the pulpit to impress people but to implant in their hearts eternal truths and impart to them divine graces. Repetition is Biblical and beneficial (Phil 3:1).
Truth is parallel.
In all my preaching I endeavour to be balanced. I speak about the love of God as well as His wrath, the Word of God as well as His power, the fruit of the Spirit as well as His gifts, Bible meditation as well as prayer, sanctification as well as service, the local church as well as frontier missions, and so on. I am analytical without turning critical. I oppose false doctrines tooth and nail (2 Tim 4:2,3). This I do objectively without becoming subjective. I come against traditions which are contrary to the Scriptures (Mk 7:13). I am committed to serve Godís people with His "whole" counsel (Acts 20:27). In order to do these things effectively with Godís approval, I go through Genesis to Revelation as frequently as I can in my study (Mt 13:52).
What I donít
There are certain things I do NOT do while preachingó
I do not preach what people "want" but what they "need" (Isa 30:10). I donít desire to become popular. I do not prepare ground for the next invitation.
I do not take the microphone in my hand like professional singers. I leave it on the stand so both my hands would be free to turn the pages of the open Bible. I resist the temptation to become theatrical.
I do not close my eyes but look at the audience. If I need to close my eyes for better concentration in speaking, the people may also need to close their eyes for better concentration in listening! It will then be a modern version of "blind leading the blind!"
I do not ask someone in the audience or the dais to read the Scripture references. I read the references myself so that everyone can hear clearly and understand where I lay the stress. When I myself see the passage in the Bible, it checks me from going out of context. The marginal notes I have made in my Bible during personal meditations also will supply me additional thoughts.
I do not speak in tongues from the pulpit. This is clearly forbidden in the Scriptures (1 Cor 14:18,19). I remember to have shouted in tongues on the pulpit twentyfive years ago. "When I became a man, I put away childish things" (1 Cor 13:11).
I do not imitate other preachers. I do not want to lose the originality God has blessed me with. Let me be me! I want to learn from the manner of life and ministry of the other servants of God, but I will not copy their style.
I do not preach for money even if it is for ministry. I do teach giving but my aim is to make Christians good stewards, rather than to promote a programme or an organisation. This gives me freedom to preach the truth without adulteration (2 Cor 2:17).
I do not come down to peopleís level but try to raise them to higher standards. I hate sermons of watery milk and milky water. Both Jesus and Paul were known for hard sayings (Jn 6:60; 2 Pet 3:15,16). But thatís meat! (Heb 5:12-14).
I do not keep shouting all the time. Thereís a time to raise the voice and a time to speak softly. If thereís no modulation, people will be strained.
I do not tolerate indiscipline of any sort on the dais or in the pew. Folks must be taught to be reverential in the presence of God which is manifest when His Word is preached (Isa 66:1,2).
It is finished!
I usually finish my sermon with a prayer of commitment. I then recommend to the people any literature they can read to supplement what all I said. I request the organizers not to make big announcements or play loud music after the sermon but close the meeting quickly with a benediction so people can disperse quietly thinking on what they have heard. Because I have already offered a collective prayer for the entire audience, I do not exhaust myself further by praying for individuals. I learnt this from T. L. Osborn (1923- ), a legendary healing evangelist of our time.
"Thank You, Lord!"
After preaching I drink plenty of water to cool down my system. Brother Nataraja Mudaliar (1930-1982) the famous piano-accordion evangelist from South Africa advised me to do this in 1969 when I was a student preacher. In spite of this I suffered from renal colic twice. This is a speakersí disease, perhaps! I have a shower and then supper if itís evening (Eccl 9:7). I go for a stroll in order to rejoice in the Lord for using me as His mouthpiece. Returning home, I add up to my notes whatever spot inspiration I received while preaching. I also note down the date and place so I may not repeat the same talk in the same town! Lying on bed I rewind to find out if I had spoken anything that was not right or touched Godís glory. Another cleansing in Emmanuelís stream and then off to sleep!
This article is not a teaching on "How to Preach" but a testimony about "How I Preach." Swallow the flesh and spit out the bone!