Powerful Preaching: A Guest Post By Abram Kidd*

 

A few years ago, I discovered that when some Tanzanians say someone “really preached” (Swahili – alihubiri sana), they refer more to the preacher’s profuse sweating, theatrics, and authoritative roar than the sermon content.  This illustrated to me the important point that cultural understandings affect the delivery of Christian messages as well as the content.  This needs more discussion in the African Church today.  In the African context, it appears to me that there are important cultural or even psychological links between power, and a person’s energetic movement, loud voice, and social position.  If what people like Yusuf Turaki[1] say about the prominence of power and its acquisition in African Traditional Religion (ATR) is true, it is significant for Christian ministers in areas where ATR informs local cultural understandings.  Against this background, I would like to throw a rock into the bush about potential understandings of preachers’ movement, voice, and social position and then briefly contrast with Biblical teaching.

First, a preacher’s physical vigor may be perceived as demonstrating a kind of power in two related ways.  One, the physical constitution and virility of the preacher may show he/she is the recipient of divine favor.  Good health is a blessing.  Two, a more animated preacher may be regarded as one more filled or possessed by the Spirit.  In either case, liveliness is an attractive power.[2]  A preacher’s sweaty brow may be interpreted as a sign of godly work.

Second, with respect to vocal communication, many seem to believe that powerful preaching is demonstrated solely by thunderous volume and unwavering, authoritative tone.  In ATR, a spiritual leader may communicate spiritual power by accentuating and repeating magical ‘power’ words.  It is conceivable that a listener from this background may judge a preacher’s sermon delivery more efficacious than the understanding the sermon content itself.  They may also gain a sense of security that they are under the leadership and protection of a powerful person when they hear his commanding, confident voice.

Third, a preacher is often perceived as being in a position of superior spiritual power.  I have observed this mainly in two areas.  One, a preacher’s prayer is felt to be more powerful than a ‘regular’ Christian, especially in matters of healing and confronting demons.  Two, some believe that preachers are so filled with the Holy Spirit when preaching that no false word can pass their lips.  From an ATR perspective, a preacher in some ways occupies the role of a traditional healer, medium, or expert in spiritual affairs.[3]

Let us now examine these three main areas briefly in light of the Bible’s teaching.

With respect to a preacher’s movement, I see no clear examples or direct teachings from scripture on the subject, so would assume that a variety of movements is acceptable.  However, physical health and vigor are not reliable indicators of spiritual maturity or power.  The righteous Job, and the apostle Paul experienced physical suffering and matured spiritually through it.  They gained a sort of spiritual power over others in terms of gaining respect and credibility amongst Christians, but this does not necessarily qualify them for greater access to God’s power.  In fact, God often chooses the weak to demonstrate His power (1Co 1:26-2:5).

I cannot find anywhere in the Bible that a loud voice is a requirement for good preaching.  God may speak in a thunderous voice (Dt 5:22) or in a “gentle whisper” (1Ki 19:11-13).  Jesus, the apostles and prophets must have raised their voices to address crowds, but this was to be heard rather than to add power to their messages.  Furthermore, I see no indication that Jesus had to shout to drive out demons or to be heard by his Father.[4]  Christians must realize that a preacher’s real power comes from truthfulness not volume.  Liars can be loud too.  Furthermore, emphasizing a point is a different thing than believing that people will only understand if they are shouted at.  Biblical instruction should be marked by gentleness and love (Heb 5:2, 1Pe 3:15).

Finally, in terms of a preacher’s position, Christians differ on whether or not some have more access to God’s power or not.  My own position is that access to spiritual power has more to do with personal relationship to God than socially recognized position.  Remembering Balaam (Num 22-24) and Moses, both recognized spiritual experts, one may see that God cannot be manipulated but may be persuaded based on relationship.  This means that a preacher’s prayer is not necessarily more powerful than another Christian’s, nor should a sermon assumed to be faultless (cf. Ac 17:11).  Furthermore, whereas some religious leaders in ATR are secretive with their knowledge and use it for personal profit, Christian leaders are called to be servants and shepherds unhindered by selfish gain and who empower their people with the truth (1Pe 5:1-3).  It should be obvious they love people more than money.

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*Abram Kidd is a Canadian who has served with Africa Inland Mission as a Bible teacher at Nassa Theological College, Tanzania for seven years. He has a heart for the growth of the Church in Africa. Currently, Abram is in his second year of doctoral studies at Africa International University in the Intercultural Studies program, Missions track. 


References:

[1] Yusuf Turaki, Foundations of African Traditional Religion and Worldview (Nairobi: WorldAlive Publishers Limited, 2006)

[2] For purposes of comparison and specific example, consider the similar attractiveness of Africa Inland Church (AIC) choirs in Tanzania to many Sukuma people.  According to some Sukuma friends, special village dancing groups used to be an important part of Sukuma culture.  They were mainly comprised of young men and women, and would periodically hold dance competitions.  These functioned, among other things, as forums for those eligible for marriage to show off their physical fitness.  Although these Sukuma friends did not mention it, association with ancestral spirits in the traditional dances seems fairly likely as well.  Church choirs are ready substitutes for these groups, and likely have retained some of the traditional Sukuma roles and meanings.

[3] On a related note, it is my understanding that those in spiritually powerful positions in ATR do not command much moral authority.  If this is the case, it may also contribute to the increasing popular criticism of the moral failings of Christian preachers as portrayed in some African movies.

[4] In 1Ki 18:26-29 it is the prophets of Baal, rather than Elijah, the prophet of God, who shout in prayer.