What is bold proclamation, and what is it not?
Bold proclamation is not speaking loudly, with more emotion, or even with more passion. It means working through Scripture, rightly dividing it, and then bringing it with unction from the Holy Spirit.
Some preachers try to study for insight, while others pray for passion. Bold proclamation is finding the balance between the two. A bold proclaimer gives the listener a lot to think about, but he delivers it with an energy that keeps listeners engaged.
Bold proclamation shows the relevance of the Word of God to what the culture is grappling with, and it does not cower. It is uncompromising in stating the truth. The classic example of a bold proclaimer is Paul on Mars Hill in Acts 17, where he assessed the local culture, understood the philosophy of the day, and then tactfully but powerfully brought the message of the gospel.
So bold proclamation needs to be tempered by knowing the audience?
Very much so. In Acts 2 Peter addressed a people conversant with the Scriptures, and in Acts 17 Paul proclaimed to a largely pagan culture. Their gospel was the same, but their ways of presenting it were different.
How is proclaiming boldly to believers different from proclaiming boldly to an unbelieving audience?
When we proclaim God’s Word to the church, we need to trust the authority and inspiration of Scripture, and not in any way feel we are “trying” to make the Bible relevant. Rather, we understand it is relevant. Everything we need to know about God is in its pages. We can step into the pulpit with boldness and confidence because of the sufficiency of Scripture. We are just letting the lion out of the cage.
I once asked Billy Graham, “If you knew as a young preacher what you know now, how would your preaching have been different? Would you have emphasized something more?”
Billy looked at me with those steely blue eyes and said, “The cross of Christ and the blood. That’s where the power is.”
Paul said when he preached the gospel to the Corinthians he wanted to know nothing else except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And then he warns us not to shroud the message of the gospel with flowery words or human wisdom. We can deprive the gospel of its power when we try to add to or take away from it. The cross resonates with energy when it is proclaimed in its simplicity.
What else weakens proclamation?
The first thing that comes to mind is a fear of offending people. We cannot let the cultural mythology of moral relativism and the mandate of tolerance water down the gospel. We have to believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to God, and we have to say that sooner or later.
We also have to beware of preaching through too much personality. People are looking for a preacher who is confident, who can hold their interest—those are assets—but also for an authentic person, not a pulpit personality. Many non-believers are turned off by preachers with exaggerated inflections, dramatic speech, and an on-stage persona. I want to show instead that I’m a real person with the same struggles as everyone else, but God is changing my life through his Word.
Would you agree that many people associate bold proclamation with flamboyance?
Yes, but I don’t advocate flamboyance. Nor do I advocate dullness. I advocate biblical accuracy coupled with an attempt to engage the audience’s interest and hold it. That can be done in the same tone of voice I normally speak with. Instead of focusing on my performance, I focus on my listeners.
For example, I watch for signs that I’m losing people: watch-checking, fidgeting. When that happens, I shift gears with an illustration or a touch of humor.
How else can the preacher keep non-believers engaged with the bold proclamation of Scripture?
When Paul was on Mars Hill, he began by saying, “Men of Athens, I perceive that you are spiritual.” He was building a bridge to his audience. I likewise put a lot of preparation into my introductory remarks to build bridges.
We also have a great responsibility to preach in a way that people can hear. We, like Paul, have to speak in the language of the people. Today when I speak outside my congregation, I no longer assume my listeners know biblical terminology. So instead of saying, “You need to repent and give your life to Christ,” I say, “You need to repent, which means doing a U-turn in the road of life, to turn away from how you’ve been living and toward Jesus Christ.”
Do preachers have to frame their sermons within the philosophy of the current generation, postmodernism for example?
Yes and no. We do want to use terminology that people understand and show how it applies, but we cannot change the message to cater to an incorrect worldview. Instead we need to reeducate people to a biblical worldview.
People develop an appetite for what you feed them. If you cater to their non-Christian viewpoints, you strengthen those views. Rather, I try to bring them to a new place.
On Mars Hill, Paul acknowledged their worldview, their worship of an “unknown god.” But then he told them their view was missing the good news of a knowable God. This, he said, “I am going to proclaim to you.”
Greg Laurie is pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California, evangelist for Harvest Crusades, radio speaker on A New Beginning, and author of Why Believe (Tyndale, 2002).