Yet in our day, in many places the wisdom of the divine strategy is questioned. While few would deny that the Bible stamps its seal of approval on preaching, some wonder on pragmatic grounds whether preaching has passed its sell-by date. Today we value things that work - and that criterion has put preaching under the microscope.
Quite rightly we want it to work. To that end, there are three persons involved in pulpit ministry, and each must play his part. First and foremost is the Holy Spirit. As gifted a preacher as he was, Charles Spurgeon knew nothing works apart from this divine reality. Every time he mounted the many stairs to his high pulpit in the Metropolitan Tabernacle he would repeat the phrase "I believe in the Holy Spirit" as he placed his feet on every step.
The second person in the trinity of successful preaching is the preacher.The preacher's task is not to entertain; but neither is it to bore. There was an Anglican cleric who famously said, "You know that wherever the Apostle Paul went there was either a revival or a riot. Everywhere I go they serve tea." Perhaps the difference in outcome was due to the relative absence of the presence of the Holy Spirit, but it is also likely that the presentation of the preacher was rather different. Paul's passion could not be carried in the vehicle of a mild-mannered homily delivered by the kind of person chosen to play the part of the clergyman in most movies today.
But there is a third person who needs to do his work if preaching is to be truly effective: the listener. Listening to preaching is not a passive thing, sitting back and letting the preacher do all the thinking and expending all the energy. Listening to preaching is hard work. As J.I.Packer put it (in A quest for Godliness. p.285),
The Puritans taught their congregations to memorize the sermons they heard, looking up references and making notes if need be so that they could 'repeat' the messages afterwards and meditate on them during the week. The ministry of the word was thus a co-operative activity, in which the laity were to labour to learn just as hard just as hard as the minister laboured to teach.
These days we tend to think that we hire a pastor to do all the hard work of understanding and explaining and applying scripture for us. The Bible has a different perspective. It tells us: "Incline your ear and hear the words of the wise" (Prov 22:17) and "Be attentive to the words of my mouth" (Prov 7:24). Sunday morning, as much as Monday morning, is time to go to work. If preaching is not working, we need to think about who is not working. We know the Holy Spirit is, so that narrows the options a bit.
If preaching isn't working, don't shoot the messenger. At least, not without looking in the mirror first.