In his classic work An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times, John Angell James has much to offer the preacher in taking a sense of urgency or “intense devotion” into the pulpit. As to the importance of this subject, James says:
The public will hear an earnest minister, and will not hear any other…if the people demand an earnest exhibition of gospel truth, and their minister, instead of this, will give them nothing but dull, dry, abstract sermons, it is they who are right, and he is wrong. They, better than he does, know not only what they want—but what he was appointed by God to furnish them!
Here are ten of his valuable pieces of counsel regarding preaching earnestly.
1) Keep this golden rule of preaching before you.
No ministry will be really effective, whatever may be its education, which is not a ministry of strong faith, true spirituality, and deep earnestness. I wish this golden sentence could be inscribed in characters of light over every professor’s chair, over every student’s desk, and over every preacher’s pulpit.
2) Go to the prayer closet before you go to the pulpit.
We are weak in the pulpit, because we are weak in the closet. An earnest man will not only train his mind to understand his object, and draw around him the resources requisite for its accomplishment—but will discipline his heart—for there, within, is the spring of energy, the seat of impulse, and the source of power.
3) If you want revival, bring it into the pulpit.
How did the spirit of slumber come over the church? Was it not from the pulpit? And if a revival is to take place in the former, must it not begin in the latter?…Lukewarmness can excite no ardor, originate no activity, produce no effect—it benumbs whatever it touches.
4) Be singularly focused on one theme in your preaching.
The earnest man is a man of one idea, and that one idea occupies, possesses, and fills his soul.
5) Distinguish between using and reading your notes.
If you must have your notes before you in your preaching, and it be needful for you, let there be with you a distinction between the neat using of notes, and the dull reading of them. Keep up the air and life of speaking, and put not off your hearers with a heavy reading to them. How can you demand of them to remember much of what you bring to them, when you remember nothing of it yourself?
6) Aim to move not only their minds but their hearts.
We must not only direct—but impel our hearers. They all know far more than they practice of the Bible—the head is generally far in advance of the heart; and our great business is to persuade, to entreat, to beseech. We have to deal with a dead, heavy, lethargic mind! Yes more, we have to overcome a stout resistance, and to move a reluctant heart!
7) Address the congregation directly and closely.
Especially should there be the direct personal address which characterizes all the extracts which I have introduced. Our hearers must be made to feel that they are not merely listening to the discussion of a subject—but to an appeal to themselves—their attention must be kept up, and a close connection between them and the preacher maintained, by the frequent introduction of the pronoun “you,” so that each may realize the thought that the discourse is actually addressed to him. Many preachers do not come near enough to their congregations.
8) Give due attention to preaching to the unbelievers in your midst.
Surely then the unconverted demand by far the largest share of the Christian minister’s attention; and yet from many ministers, they receive but a very small share of attention; their case, when noticed at all, is noticed only, as it were, accidentally. This, no doubt, is a principal cause that among us there are so few conversions by the preaching of the word, and especially in the congregations of particular ministers.
(I think this next line should be the golden sentence placed on every pulpit.)
God knows, I do not want their applause, I want their salvation.
9) Feel in your own heart the power and truth of your message.
The secret of animation, and the source of earnestness, lie, as I have said, in an intense feeling of the subject of discourse; in a mind deeply impressed, and a heart warmed, with the theme discussed. All men are in earnest when they feel…”How is it,” said a minister to an actor, “that your performances, which are but pictures of the imagination, produce so much more effect than our sermons, which are all realities?” “Because,” said the actor, “we represent fictions as though they were realities, and you preach realities as though they were fictions.”
10) Yearn and look for responsiveness to your preaching.
His sermons are composed and delivered for this object, and he is afterwards inquisitive for the effect they have produced, and watches and prays for the result. His anxious eye is searching the congregation, even while preaching, to see, not who is delighted—but who is seriously impressed. He will not, cannot, be content to go on, without ascertaining whether or not his sermons are successful. Like a good physician, who is watchful for the effect of his medicines upon his patients individually, according to their specific varieties of disease, he will endeavor to ascertain the impression which his sermons have produced on particular people.
Every humble preacher struggles with the temptation, “I could never preach that way.” To that thought, I leave you with this final quote.
Every minister can be an earnest minister if he so wills—he is earnest when anything in which he has a deep interest is at stake. Let his house be on fire, or his health or life be in danger, or his wife or child be in peril, or some means of greatly augmenting his property be thrown in his way, and what intensity of emotion and vehemence of action will be excited in him!…Real earnestness is the result of deep emotion; and the emotion excited by the sight of a fellow-creature perishing in his sins, is that of the tenderest commiseration—which will express itself not in stormy declamation and thundering denunciations—but in solemnly chastened admonition and appeal.