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By Craig Brian Larson
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THE BASIS OF PROPHETIC PREACHING
Few pastors preach with as much prophetic urgency as Francis Chan. That's why he's the "leadoff batter" for this book. But notice how clearly Chan bases prophetic preaching on God's Word—not the preacher's personality, brilliance, or effort. Having a high view of Scripture (Chan calls it a "trembling at his Word") isn't always comfortable. Submitting to God's Word will give us, like Chan, an emotionally intense "holy discontentment" for the "things that God cares about deeply." A sense of prophetic urgency will replace our casualness toward sin, brokenness, and injustice.
But Chan also humbly (and prophetically) warns us that our sense of urgency may cause us to miss the ultimate goal of prophetic preaching—love (see 1 Cor. 13:1–2). The reminder to love people will get repeated often throughout this book. It's a good litmus test of whether we're preaching as true prophets or just angry cranks. Chan has enough honesty to know when he's so driven by his own self-centered "urgency" that he offends and wounds his listeners. But as Chan also states, when we're grounded in God's Word, led by the Holy Spirit, and motivated by love, we can preach hard truths and walk in joy and confidence, even if we offend people.
The beginning of prophetic preaching
Prophetic preaching begins with something we've largely lost in the American church culture—a high view of God's Word. Very few of us tremble when we hear or read God's Word. But in my opinion that's the basis for my experience with prophetic preaching and for others who have the same gift. It's as though God screams out to us from the words of the Bible. When I want to know how the Lord wants me to share with his people, he'll make it clear to me and biblical passages will come to mind. But there are also life callings—things he's given me that I've been passionate about because of my involvement in the church.
Seven or eight years ago, the Lord opened my eyes to care for the needy all around the world. He did this through my experiences but also through Scripture. All those Bible passages about caring for the poor suddenly leaped out at me. At the same time, other Christian leaders around the United States were getting the same message from God's Word.
Then a few years ago, God started leading me to understand and emphasize the Holy Spirit. Suddenly passages about the Holy Spirit started screaming out to me from the Scriptures. I don't think it was a coincidence that at the same time many of my friends who are also church leaders started getting the same message from God and from his Word.
In the past two years, the focus of my life has shifted to what the church should look like. What type of relationships are we supposed to have with one another? I saw the stark contrast between the connection of the family of believers in the Bible and what we see today in the American church. Every time I'd read those passages, I couldn't just leave it alone. And sure enough, as I looked around, other leaders were wrestling with the same things.
In contrast, it's also clear who acts more like a false prophet. When you look at the biblical warnings about false prophets, much of it has to do with their character: their greed, lack of love, self-centeredness, and pride. That reveals their hypocrisy and their true status as false prophets. Based on these biblical warnings about false prophets, it's not surprising that Paul tells Timothy, you need to guard your life and doctrine closely.
Sadly, I've seen many people get away from the Scriptures, and I've never seen it end up with good fruit. At times I can sound like a broken record, but everything has to be centered on the Word of God. If we start getting the applause of man, we can start relying on our intellect or instinct rather than spending time in the Word. I've seen other preachers get lazy with the Word, and I can do that as well. Of course sometimes we slip into another bad habit with God's Word: We rely too much on things that God has taught us in the past, instead of studying the Word every week so we can get a fresh word from the Lord.
The Word of God and daily experience
So when it feels like God is using his Word to bring things to my attention, that's usually the first impulse for what becomes prophetic preaching. It seems like the Lord mixes his Word with my daily experience. It's so God ordained that at times I can't deny it. But I always want the Word to remain at the center of my preaching, because we can be fooled by experience. Satan is the master of deception, so we must not base our preaching on our intellect or opinion. God inclines the heart of certain men to give certain messages, but it will always be in line with the Scriptures.
Personally, Scripture-based and Scripture-centered preaching is the only kind of preaching that makes sense to me. I don't know any other way to teach. I believe the Lord gives me a message every week. It's hard for me to teach unless I believe that God has given me that message for the people. I think it is part of the gift set that God has given me. I don't know how to explain it, but I have a sense of urgency every time I teach. I really do believe my message is from God, and it is something that he's revealed to me. Not everyone takes the same approach to preaching, but it seems to be the way that God works with me.
That doesn't imply that I preach the same way every week. My preaching often follows a different pattern during particular seasons in the life of the church. For example, the other night I woke up with Ephesians 5:18–21 in my mind, especially what it means to be Spirit filled. Through circumstances and through his Word, God has been speaking to me about losing some of the joy in my ministry. Unfortunately I don't always follow the clear instructions from God about the Spirit-filled life according to Ephesians 5:18—speaking to others in psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, making a melody in my heart to the Lord, and giving thanks for everything. I need to get back to being a thankful person, giving thanks all day long, and having a melody in my heart. So that's what I'll be preaching on soon. That may not turn into a longer series. At times God will lead me to preach on a particular topic for a few weeks. At other times, he'll nudge me toward preaching an entire book in the Bible—and that's a project that could take weeks or even months to complete.
The emotions of prophetic preaching
But prophetic preaching isn't just about going through the motions of preaching about the Bible. It can also be intense and emotional. Sometimes I have a deep sadness for people who don't get it. God will give me a deep concern for people that almost feels like frustration at times. More often it feels like a holy discontentment, especially over our lack of holiness. I'm bothered when people seem apathetic about the things that God cares about deeply. Or I'm bothered that people are casual about sin. God often helps me see how serious sin is, and that gives me a real passion to live according to his Word. At other times, like leaders in the Bible, I feel a Christlike anger when people are indifferent to God's Word.
On the other hand, sometimes I feel intense joy as I'm preaching God's Word. During the act of preaching, I'm brimming with God's presence, and then when I'm done I feel like I just had an amazing devotional time with him. When we think about experiencing the Holy Spirit, we tend to think of getting away into the mountains or the beach by ourselves. But I've also known times when I'm filled with the Spirit right in the midst of teaching others. It really is a spiritual gift or a manifestation of the Spirit. Afterward I'm so grateful to God for letting me be used.
The main goal of prophetic preaching
Of course there's also a dark side or a danger in prophetic preaching: a lack of love for others. At times I'm focused on what God wants me to say, but I forget that God also wants me to love people in the process of preaching. Paul said it so clearly in 1 Corinthians 13: I can preach prophetically all day long, but if it's not done in love, it profits me nothing. I've been guilty of that kind of loveless preaching. Then there are other times when my flesh takes control, and I exude my human anger or frustration instead of the Spirit's thanksgiving and peace. So when I preach but I'm not displaying the fruit of the Spirit, I can fool myself into thinking that I nailed the passage because I proclaimed it boldly. On the other hand, I can also fail God because I let the fear of people temper what I should say about a serious topic. I try to think too much about how to say it perfectly so it doesn't offend anyone. At times I've even backed off from saying everything God wanted me to say because I was afraid of rejection. So it goes both ways.
Ultimately prophetic preaching begins and ends with love. Love is the biggest factor in what we say and in how we say it. Paul talks about how he cared for the people—that he came to them like a gentle mother with her children. I read that and ask myself, Do I have the gentleness, love, cherishing, and caring of a mother? My attitude should be that these people are like my children. I don't want to offend them unnecessarily. Yet at the same time, as a good parent I may have to confront them with difficult things.
That doesn't mean that prophetic preaching always leads to positive results. In the Old Testament, prophets like Jeremiah experienced deep rejection. That pattern of rejection doesn't seem to change much in the New Testament. For instance, in Luke 6:26 Jesus says, "Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets." The false prophets were loved by everyone, and everyone spoke well of them. In verses 22–23 Jesus says that when they reject you, your reward is great, for that's what they did to the real prophets. So he's saying that the way people respond to us today should be similar to the way they responded to the prophets of old. There's going to be rejection. In many ways it's good to get the same response: It helps you understand that you're in a good lineage. Jesus showed that things haven't changed that much. We serve the same God and give the same message of good news and hope, but many people will take it as bad news and reject it.
When all is said and done, as long as I'm confident my preaching was Spirit led and motivated by love for others, I can walk away and feel good about the message. I find joy and peace when I preach a hard message in love that I believe is of the Lord, even though I know it's going to be offensive to some people. In the flesh there are times when I get sad, because I know I'll lose some friends over it, but in the Spirit there's joy and confidence. If I don't face some rejection, I get more concerned.
Francis Chan is an internationally known speaker and the author of Crazy Love and Forgotten God. He is also the founder of Eternity Bible College in Simi Valley, California.CHAPTER 2
PREACHING IN THE CITY OF MAN
Like Francis Chan, Mark Buchanan isn't afraid to tackle tough issues. In this interview Buchanan urges us to preach biblical truth without flinching. As an example of prophetic preaching, he points to the prophet Daniel, who unapologetically addressed the cultural leaders of his day—even at the risk of his own life. In the same way, we must address the hot issues of our day without diluting biblical truth.
Like Chan, Buchanan also urges us to engage our culture with love. If we don't "get the tone right," we won't lead anyone to Christ. Instead, we'll act like Jonah—the cranky prophet who merely spewed his fury on people. According to Buchanan, angry prophets "don't break hearts," but real prophets are always in "the heart-breaking business."
According to Buchanan, we'll never break and win hearts with narrow, prudish, moralistic messages. Biblical preaching always invites people into Jesus' grand "kingdom adventure." In other words, if we ask people to release their idols, we had better hand them something more adventurous and satisfying. Prophetic preachers dare to proclaim that ultimately there's nothing more heroic, attractive, and adventurous than trusting Christ.
You've written extensively about how Christians can respond to a corrupted culture. Could you summarize the two faulty responses you've identified?
Sure, Jonah and Esther serve as the two primary bad examples for engaging our culture. Jonah exhibits the approach of many conservative churches—a denunciatory and adversarial approach. You just reject the culture and then separate yourself from it. If you're somehow hauled into having an engagement [with the culture], you display Jonah's spirit of condemnation: Forty more days and God's going to get you.
Second, there's the Esther approach, and our theologically liberal brothers and sisters may have been tempted toward this. Prior to Esther's realizing that she's been raised up for such a time as this, she's really just a beauty queen. She wants to be like everyone else in the culture, only a little more so.
She hides her identity. She's embarrassed by the distinctive Jewishness of her uncle Mordecai: She sends him clothes when he's out there mourning and fasting so that he brings no reproach on her. And there has been a tendency in the church to conform, to fit in with the culture so we are never reproached by it. We stay with it; we keep up with the trends.
What are some of the warning signs of a Jonah mind-set?
Touching on an issue that's current and controversial—same-sex marriage—there's a temptation to want nothing to do with any of that. If they come near here, we'll denounce them.
If we're going to ask anybody to give up their idols, we'd better present a relationship with God and a relationship with the people of God that is worth the trade-off for them. When they feel the love they are seeking is selling them short, they may see there's a love available in Christ Jesus that is real and incarnated among the people of God.
If we take the Jonah approach, we can miss the spiritual hunger that is underneath things in our culture that are deplorable on the surface. In Acts 17 Paul goes to Athens and sees all the idols and is deeply distressed. The word for distressed is a very strong word in the Greek. It basically means he's having a seizure over it. And yet when he gets up to preach that night at Mars Hill, he doesn't come across as this condemnatory preacher saying, "I see how deluded and given over to corruption you are." He becomes very winsome: "I see that you're very religious, and that you even have shrines to the unknown god. I want to tell you about the God you're seeking."
There's all this questing that's very idolatrous within our culture. The Jonah approach looks only at the surface of it instead of probing to ask, how is this potentially a quest for God?
Take the Jonah story. The Ninevites are wicked people, but they are quick to repent, because underneath all of that wickedness was a false quest for the true God.
Do you feel that preachers have a responsibility to address sensitive issues—like same-sex marriage or homosexuality—from the pulpit?
Absolutely. The approach we take in our church is, if we're not taking on those issues and doing so in a way that's biblically substantive, grace-filled, Christ-centered, and giving hope without giving excuse to people, then we're participating in the ongoing irrelevance of the church to the broken world.
Jesus is clear that he's called us to be in the world not of it, and that he's sent us among highways and byways to proclaim good news to people for whom the church often doesn't come across as good news.
It is incarnational. It is seeking as Jesus himself sought: to seek and save that which is lost and to bring healing to the sick. There are ways we can engage culture that may make us feel good because we vent our spleen. But they will not advance the redemption and hope of Jesus Christ. There are ways we can do it that are highly engaging, that don't back down from the controversial aspects of the issue but don't merely inflame those things. We should bring more light than heat to the issues.
Excerpted from Prophetic Preaching by Craig Brian Larson. Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today International. Excerpted by permission of Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC.
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