"Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” - James 3:1 (ESV)
“A pulpit seems an awful place! An opportunity for addressing a company of mortals on their eternal interests. Oh how important! We preach for eternity.” - Andrew Fuller - February 5, 1781
"I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.” - Gandalf the Grey in The Hobbit
Pastors face so many temptations within their ministries. Few, however, are more unsuspecting and insidious as complacency. When it comes to the sermon, the preacher often staggers into the squishy middle of “good enough” under the oppression of the day-to-day and week-to-week routine. Somewhere along the way the preacher loses their awe of the “sacred desk” and it becomes just another part of the gig. Sermon preparation is no longer a delightful and serious labor for the Lord and His people, but rather a mad scramble to throw together a product to meet a deadline. Preaching, then, resembles more of the sloppy paper mache solar system thrown together the night before the science fair. The weight and gravity of the sermon are often left behind.
The writings of Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) provided much of the theological bedrock of the first wave of the modern missions movement launched by the Baptist Missionary Society’s commissioning of William Cary (1761-1834) to India. Fuller was a theologian, missions society administrator, and most particularly, a pastor. Throughout his preaching ministry, he implored the local church pastor of his era to consider the seriousness of the call to preach.
Fuller entreats the preacher: “A pulpit seems an awful place! An opportunity for addressing a company of mortals on their eternal interests. Oh how important! We preach for eternity." This is the sort of urgency Fuller called for from the pulpit. The sermon was no place for complacency, but rather a battleground where the Gospel of Jesus Christ waged war on the sinner's heart. So what should preaching look like according to Fuller? Here are a few categories to consider:
Preaching should be exegetical and applicable.
Fuller scholar Paul Brewster notes, “In his home pulpit, Fuller preached primarily exegetical sermons, working his way through the Bible book by book." Beginning in 1790 from his pulpit in Kettering, Fuller preached successively through Psalms, Isaiah, Joel, Amos, Hosea, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Daniel, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Genesis, Mathew, Luke, John, Revelation, Acts, Romans, and First Corinthians up to 4:5 before his death in 1815. As Fuller expounded these texts, he sought to compare the text to the “analogy of faith, pointing out its application, and deducing its consequences…carrying conviction to the heart." For Fuller the sermon began and ended in the text. God’s word was the substance and life of the pulpit.
Preaching should be “evangelical".
Looking around at the impact of the hyper-Calvinism of his era, Fuller lamented: “We have sunk into such a compromising way of dealing with the unconverted as to have well nigh lost the spirit of the primitive preachers; and hence it is that sinners of every description can sit so quietly as they do, year after year, in our places of worship.” For Fuller the sermon should be the central place where sinners were called to repent and believe in the Gospel. In his view, a high view of scripture and theology within the substance of the sermon was no reason for it to lack a passionate evangelistic call to repentance and faith. Fuller makes this clear, “Unless the subject-matter of your preaching be truly evangelical, you had better be anything than a minister."
Preaching should be more about passion and content than oratorical skill.
One contemporary notes that Fuller was “not the exact model of an orator.” Fuller was somewhat difficult to listen to, lacking “easy elocution” and “that graceful fluency, which melts upon the ear, and captivates the attention of an auditor.” His speech was often laborious and slow, he would make awkward hand motions and gestures, and had the habit of fidgeting with his coat buttons and hands. Cicero, he was not.
However, it was his biblical message and earnest passion that was the driving force of his preaching ministry. Fuller’s own son agreed that Fuller’s power in the pulpit was not due to “the observance of the rules of oratory.” Rather it sprang from “strong, nervous, utterances of a heart fraught with a deep and abiding sense of the truth and importance of the message he had to deliver.” The preacher should strive to ensure that he is communicating clearly and without unnecessary distraction, but at the end of the day, it is the power of the Gospel and the preacher’s love of Christ and His work that ignites a congregation.
The call to preach is the call to adventure for the sake of the Gospel. The sermon can seem a barren trek, or at times even a dangerous run through goblin-infested caves. If we are not careful the preacher may, at times, lament the storms and arrows of this great adventure and long for the comforts of warm hobbit holes and the security of a good handkerchief. However Christ calls us to the road, to battle and adventure, and preaching is the pastor’s sword. For Andrew Fuller, whose preaching and writings helped launched the modern missions movement, the sermon was ground zero in the battle against unbelief. The preacher is no helpless bystander in the local church, rather they are the tip of the spear of all Great Commission work. So, this week as you prepare your sermon and ascend to the pulpit this Lord’s Day, remember that this is no mere exercise, but rather a grand adventure. As you open the text and proclaim the Word, remember that there are dragons to slay. Meet them with passion and the Word, for by God’s grace and goodness you have been called to stand into this “awful place."