According to the late Stephen Olford, “Only one thing will ever take the place of great preaching – and that’s greater preaching!” The concept of what constitutes “greatness” is a reflection of priorities. In this regard, the earliest preachers saw the greatness of preaching as an outgrowth of their commitment to prayer (Acts 6:4). Eventually, in the process of preaching, the two apostolic ministries uniquely conjoin when we preach on prayer.
In a previous article we looked at important aspects of preaching on prayer, including the pastor’s personal preparation and good habits of biblical interpretation. Now, let’s examine additional essential elements of faithful preaching on prayer.
Ignite Your Illustrations
The preacher will need a lot of good illustrations on prayer. Here are some principles for illustrating sermons on prayer:
Our Rich History
History is replete with prayer illustrations. The First and Second Great Awakenings were both ignited by prayer. Jonathan Edwards wrote extensively about prayer during the First Great Awakening, and his writings heavily influenced the second. The British evangelists George Whitefield and John Wesley also helped advance prayer in the colonies during the First Great Awakening, as did the example and diary of American missionary David Brainerd.
So, broadly speaking, American evangelicalism has always been immersed in prayer; but the English-speaking world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries virtually exploded with a passion for prayer.
A few names associated with this phenomenon tell the story. Dwight L. Moody and R. A. Torrey both preached and wrote widely about prayer. E. M. Bounds’ books on prayer are still in print and considered the gold standard of the genre. Andrew Murray took us to the school of prayer. George Müller taught us about faith and prayer. Samuel Chadwick and S. D. Gordon both left a legacy of prayer in their writings and their followers. Evan Roberts in Wales exemplified a praying life and its relationship to spiritual awakening. These men filled the evangelical imagination with stories about prayer. The illustrations abound.
The mid-20th century brought us Oswald Chambers, Leonard Ravenhill, Duncan Campbell, and A. W. Tozer. Every preacher should glean from their ministries.
Today’s preacher is not challenged by a shortage of information. Instead, the voluminous amount of content is so ubiquitous that our sermons can unintentionally begin sounding like history lessons. Fortunately, prayer is more than a relic of the past. We need to use the abundant material from the past but avoid the pitfalls of relying too heavily upon it.
Ironically, the familiarity of the material is one of the problems. Most preachers eventually use the same well-known stories in their preaching on prayer. The quality of the material is too rich to ignore, but over reliance can leave our sermons sounding too similar to many others on prayer. In other words, we run the risk of becoming an echo rather than a voice.
The other pitfall in relying too heavily upon the past is that most of our prayer heroes lived before Wi-Fi, smartphones, or electric cars. How could George Müeller or SD Gordon imagine the International Space Station, entertainment streaming, or Bluetooth? They couldn’t. Even their phraseology starts to sound archaic no matter how right they were. We can’t, therefore, allow our sermon illustrations to sound out of touch. All our hearers live in the 21st century, and they are not nostalgic for Victorian-age health care, coal oil lamps, or telegraph wires. Prayer is not an antique.
Fortunately, from the mid-20th century until the present, the list of significant authors, preachers, and teachers who write on the subject of prayer is impressive. It’s important, therefore, to draw on examples from the past as well as the present in order to use prayer illustrations that are both contemporary and timeless.
Congregations need to hear the preacher’s personal prayer stories too. Every illustration shouldn’t be personal, of course, but neither should they be exclusively stories from long ago.
What has God done in your life? What insights on prayer have you learned from Scripture? What books are you reading? What is your devotional routine? Tell the people.
When using personal examples, avoid making yourself the hero of every story. Craig Groeschel has said, “We might impress people with our strengths, but we connect with people through our weaknesses.” The goal is not to look foolish but to be transparent about our own experiences with prayer.
In recent years, the phrase “fake news” entered our national conversation. Preachers cannot ignore the fact that 60% of Americans do not have high confidence in clergy’s honesty. Today, congregants can “fact-check” preachers in real time. How does this relate to sermon illustrations?
Illustrations about prayer where the moral of the story seems contrived will weaken your message. Likewise, using statistical information improperly or quoting sources out of context is wrong. Our sermon illustrations must be a bridge rather than a roadblock between Scripture and life experiences. Carefully research, therefore, the veracity of your illustrations.
As preachers, we often press the need for prayer and urge people to pray more. This preaching is good, but research shows that our congregations need to know how to pray.
For instance, follow a series on prayer with classes on how to pray. Recommend books on prayer. Call for church-wide prayer gatherings or hold a prayer conference. Give your people the tools for prayer.
Light the Fire
Finally, motivate and mobilize people to take action! John Wesley once advised preachers to “light yourself on fire in the pulpit, and people will come to watch you burn.” After hearing Jesus speak, His disciples said, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us…?” (Luke 24:32). If ever there was ever a place in preaching to speak to the heart as well as to the mind, it is on the subject of prayer. Remember, only one thing will ever take the place of great preaching. You know the rest.