Recently, I was musing about the fact that one hardly ever hears a real sermon anymore. Too many are copying the popular figures who primarily tell people how to be successful. They deal more with pop psychology and its issues than they do with the spiritual realities at the core of our human problems. It is an effort to fix things from the outside rather than getting them fixed on the inside. My recent comment to an individual was: "I wish I could hear someone simply preach a good, well-grounded sermon that deals with the Bible and spiritual issues." "Whatever happened to old fashioned preaching?" I have come to believe that many of our "preachers" today aren't really "called" by the Lord to do what they are emulating. The Call is essential to one's ability to preach with the power which is given by the Holy Spirit. It is a well proven case that a person can stand in a pulpit and spew forth platitudes which will be declared as "a wonderful sermon" by people who have, themselves, forgotten what real Bible centered preaching is all about. A subsistence diet of "sermonettes" filled with cute stories and platitudes has left our churches decimated as pertaining to doctrine and truly inspired preaching. Many of today are downloading their sermons from a vast internet library of notable authors and works. I believe that what God intends and what Paul refers to in Romans 10 is that the people of God need a message from the man of God which is inspired by God Himself. It must come from the preacher's heart and soul. As he studies the Word, the Lord will point out what He wants preached. He will also inspire that preacher and give him a message for God's people in a particular time and place. The preacher should study the passage and develop, under God's guidance, a message that will come from his heart and soul. It will be inspired by God, developed under His guidance and delivered to God's people from the inner being of that preacher. If we have that then we have the proper thing. Don't worry about the "show" or about how eloquent one is. Be a humble deliverer of the message and let God determine all the rest. He made you as you are to use you as you are and in a particular way.
The problem we are facing in great part is due to the fact that what was considered absolutely essential in the past...the Call...is not as important to many as the urge to be notable and important in some way. The search for a good, clean occupation which doesn't require too much hard physical work but yet yields respect and notoriety is one of the driving impulses behind many entering the ministry today. A few years ago, I was talking with a man who was the pastor of a church which is weaker today than it was when the conversation took place. He told me that he didn't understand what men were talking about when they spoke of "the Call." He said that he had never had such an experience that those men talked about. His statement to me was: "I don't know what you are talking about when you say "God's Call" upon your life. The way I got into the ministry was that one day I was working for a company that was digging ditches to lay cable. It was hot and dirty and I decided then that I wasn't going to spend my life doing such a thing. I determined that I was going to become a preacher and pastor a church. It was honorable. It was clean. It was respected. It was educational and intellectual. So, I decided that day that I was going to quit digging ditches and become a preacher." "That was the "call" to me. It was just plain common sense and a personal decision." This man is a good person. He has always treated me very nicely. I have nothing against him but he is trying to do something for which he has not been equipped and it is evident in his ministry. Going to the seminary and getting an education for ministry is not what is necessary to be equipped. It will help one immensely but it does not impart the "spark" that the Holy Spirit gives when one is genuinely called to preach by the Lord. An uneducated mountain preacher, truly called by God and invested with the Holy Spirit, who has never been far from his hollow has more power in the pulpit than a person with a Doctor of Philosophy degree but who has no sense of a divine call to God's Work. The mountain preacher referenced has the necessary ingredient for delivering a Word from the Lord to the people. What we need today is more heaven inspired sermons and fewer lectures. The Presbyterian influence on our Southern Baptist Zion is producing young men who value the intellectual to the point that they hinder the spiritual. Their sermons and delivery are stilted. Carefully worded and compacted thoughts that seek to sound both spiritual and intellectual are their fare. Too many are copying the Calvinistic preachers of a by gone era who worded their sermons in such a way that one has to read a paragraph several times to capture the central thought. It all gets lost in the beautiful and convoluted rhetoric. Instead of just stating something in a simple fashion they word it such that the power is gone and the effectiveness is stunted. People leave the service unable to state a single thing they learned. They remember a "good sermon" well read and delivered but they carry very little with them into life. This is exactly why our churches are so bereft of Biblical understanding and so doctrinally ignorant.
I am simply amazed at the lack of doctrinal understanding of so many of our SBC churches and I place the blame directly on preachers who are trying to accomplish something without the proper power being imparted to them. Coupled with that is the fact that many are simply too lazy to spend the necessary time on sermon development and presentation. They compensate for that by downloading someone else's sermonic materials and attempt to make them their own. I simply isn't a word from the preacher but from someone else in another place and time. Using thoughts or statements attributed to another author is not what I am talking about. There is much value in the wisdom of others. But making a habit of using another's sermon almost verbatim is not good. I have heard too many sermons that left me wondering what in the world the preacher was trying to say. I don't think they knew themselves. They presented a hodgepodge of statements which made no sense in the way they were tied together and presented. The seminaries cannot teach a man to preach. That is imparted in the "Call." And, that is the only place that the power to perform this supernatural task is acquired.
A man who is truly "called" of God to preach has no choice about what he is going to do in life. God didn't ask his permission to place a divine call upon him. For a reason only God knows, He selected that person to preach the Gospel and He didn't consult with him. Suddenly, without expectation, God speaks to the selected person and tells him that his life's work is already cut out for him. He is to preach the Gospel. Someone asked me once if it were an audible command when God called me to which I said: "No, it's louder than any audible command." It is internal and eternal in nature. It is profound in its effect. Life is suddenly different. One's focus is changed. They may fight the call for a period of time but, if God really called them, they will never get away from it until they do as He said to do. The man who is truly called of God has no choice as to what he will do in life if he wants to live long and be happy. The lawyer, doctor and "Indian chief" all made a career choice. The Man of God did not have that kind of choice. God selected him for whatever reason He had, called him and that's that. "Professional" preachers might be good people. They might be very talented in speaking and leadership, but a genuine call is essential to effectiveness.
I also think that the event of being called is something that is undeniable. It is so profound; so soul shaping; so life changing that one will never forget it. In fact, they will more than likely remember exactly where they were and precisely what was said to them. I remember the moment God told me what I would do with my life. It was in a church service at Northside Baptist Church in Tifton, GA. I was sitting with two of my friends when suddenly our "church shenanigans" went away. It was like I was suddenly in a different zone. I was seated about three rows from the back on the right side of the sanctuary. Suddenly, God spoke to me in a way that I have never forgotten. He said: "Bill, you are going to be a preacher." That awareness hung heavily on me for the rest of the service and for many days. A few days later I told my mother that I felt that God was calling me to be a preacher. She encouraged me to pray and be open to what God was telling me. My problem was that I did not want to be a preacher. I was afraid of where He might want me to go or want me to do. What if He wanted me to go to Africa or to the Amazon area of South America? I didn't want to go to China or India. The thought of doing funerals scared me to death. How would I do weddings and such? At that point, I was not willing to trust God as to what He would do with me. This all happened when I was fourteen years old and I resisted the call upon my life until I was thirty-one. I will not go into how God dealt with me and pressured me over those years but needless to say, the pressure increased dramatically over the years until I finally said, "OK, I will go do as you asked, but I ask that you take this relentless, internal, spiritual pressure off of me."
I was in the middle of a butterbean patch picking those delicious little treats when I finally gave up. We were "picking our own" at a farm which allowed one to do that. The price was cheaper. Well, I had worn out the knees of a pair of jeans that Summer in that butterbean patch. It gave me plenty of time to think and meditate as I walked along on my knees picking the beans. It became a time of worship for me. I hated picking butterbeans but I grew to love the patch. It was like an outdoor sanctuary where I met God every day. The only relief I found from the inward spiritual pressure I was under was when I was talking with God in that butterbean patch. The day I finally gave up and made the commitment to follow His direction for my life was a moment of absolute relief. I went home with the butterbeans and some corn I had picked that day and my wife, Carolyn and I were shucking the corn on our patio in the late afternoon. I finally got up the courage to tell her the news about what I must do with my life. I said: "Carolyn, God has told me that I should be a preacher. He has been on me for seventeen years and I feel that I have to do it." She caught me completely by surprise when she didn't ask any questions but simply said, "Bill, if God has told you to do that then I expect we had best be about doing it." We sold our new home in which we had lived for only seven months and sold one of our cars. We gave away some furniture and loaded everything on a sixteen foot U-Haul van and took off to seminary. Talking about shifting gears!! But, God prepared the way and He has honored my many years in serving Him.
The problem today is that many men going into the ministry have no such experience. They graduated from high school and went to a Bible college. Then, they went on to seminary. It has been an assumed career path for them and for so many the call is what is lacking. Some of them were called by their Grandmother when she said: "This is little Tommy, my grandson. He is my little preacher boy." And, that was imprinted upon them in such a way that it launched a career path without the divine having a thing to do with it. So, a life is lived without the power to do what the person thinks should happen. The by product is a life of frustration and failure or nominal success at the best. I just believe that if God calls a man to preach, He gives him the ability to do what He wants him to do. He imparts to that person an ability beyond themselves to do things which are beyond mere human accomplishment.
Of course, this is not a blanket statement. There are many who can attest to a divine call upon their lives and remember it vividly. But, we now have too many "professional" preachers who exhibit a limited ability to function in the spiritual realm with any degree of accomplishment. Our seminaries have been competing with each other for years in seeing which one can turn out the most graduates. They are driven by several factors which demand success determined by numbers. The Seminary Funding Formula for the SBC has a lot to do with it. The more Full-Time Equivalent students, the more money flows from the Cooperative Program. It is a matter of money and numbers. That and the desire to be the biggest and most noted, has resulted in our schools turning out a large number of people who are professional religious leaders but who lack the understanding of a divine call. The desire might be there but the power is not. One does not have to observe a person very long before they are able to discern a lack of power for the job they are striving to accomplish. This all has nothing to do with the size of the work into which they have been placed by the Lord. He has men who are mentally, emotionally and spiritually suited to serve the Lord in the small place. He has others who will be noted as great preachers. He has those he has equipped to excel in a large place. We tend to mark a man's success based on his notoriety or place of service. But God does not do that. Our quest is to be faithful each day. Do the best we can under any and all circumstances and let God be in charge of where we serve and how well known we are. Man can do a lot to promote himself, but that does not mean that God was in charge of it. Our quest is to be where God wants us to be, serving Him and being faithful day by day and allowing Him to place us where He knows we are now prepared to serve Him the best. Ladder climbers are exhibiting that they don't trust God with their lives or ministry and that they can handle it better than He can. Many young men have asked me how does one stay at a church thirty-one and one-half years. I tell them that the secret is to tend to every day as a unit. Faithfully follow God every day and don't worry about tomorrow. Also, one should not leave a church until they are just as certain that God told them to leave as they were certain that He told them to go to there. If God makes it that clear and it is as profound an experience as the call was to go to a church, then you have no choice but to consider the fact that He might be trying to use you in a different setting for a different purpose. Getting upset and disillusioned in some way and sending out one's resume's is getting ahead of God. Wait until you hear a definite word from Him about your place of service.
The Call will take one through all sorts of difficulties. Serving God is living on a battlefield where our personal abilities driven by human desires will lead to defeat. But, God's enabling and guidance will lead to victory. There will be many times when things are tough and if a man can look back and vividly recall the moment that God called him to the work at hand, he will be able to make it through to the end. The sense of that Divine Call will give him strength and assurance that no other thing can give him.
I want to urge everyone who feels the impulse to enter the ministry and especially to preach the Gospel to make sure that the undergirding factor in that decision is the reality of "The Call."
William F. Harrell