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January 1973 · Vol. 2 No. 1 · pp. 24–27 

The Preaching Lab

John Regehr

What sin is it in us that restricts our imagination and thought process? I find myself thinking in predictable narrow ruts even when I am faced with preaching assignments. That sin is not confined to me. When I tell students that they are to preach at Union Gospel Mission (that’s a downtown rescue mission), their minds, too, go clickety-click. Out comes the “evangelistic” approach, and a stereotyped version of it at that! Almost I see them rear up on their theological horse, ready to charge on people.

If we would listen to the people we want to speak to, we would be able to identify with them. Our approach to the task of preaching might change radically. Perhaps it is right to say that we cannot preach unless we have listened (not only to God in his Word—that certainly; not only to our own inner being as we become aware of our need for God—that certainly; but also) to those who will hear us.

To help us preach at Union Gospel Mission this year, the students and I spent an hour and a half on Main Street listening to the kind of men we’ll be speaking to. Our intention was to take their pulse, to discover where they’re at. As you can imagine, the task was as difficult as it was necessary. Really, we ought to go again—and again. Most men speak of their deep soul movements reluctantly. Also, it takes a good deal of sensitivity and love to elicit meaningful responses in a brief encounter.

Yet some things came out clearly. Here are men with a significant range of needs. Some are proud, almost defiant, in their pursuit of sinful and destructive ways. Some are stubbornly independent and arrogant about their self-sufficiency. Some are lonely, and slumped in spirit. Some are mastered by the destructive power of sin, and are helpless and despairing. But really, we can identify with all of these. They are not very different from those of us who are asked to preach to them.

Pride and stubbornness is no less destructive just because the things we preachers cling to and insist on are clothed in pious phrases (Recognize this: “I can’t help it, brethren; that’s the way I see it”?). Arrogance and self-sufficiency is no less sinful just because the sinner is a preacher and the personal kingdom he boasts of is a church. Loneliness is not uncommon for the pastor who stands out in front of a sluggish church. Nor is enslavement to some form of sin (perfectionism, defensiveness, jealousy, anxiety) a monopoly of “the laity.” With that understanding, we can humble ourselves gladly, and stand with these Main Street men in their need. The Word of God then becomes both authority and good news for all of us together.

This also means, of course, that we can preach “big” truths—doctrine at the mission. After all, it is the truth that sets men free—them, as well as us. It is not my hammering at them regarding their failings that will redeem them. We ourselves were born anew through the Word, not through some threatening prediction. It will not be different for them.

The question then comes: What great truth, Good News, speaks to the needs we’ve discovered in these men? If we can preach to that need, {25} we’ll find that we are preaching a sermon which is appropriate for any setting, any group of people.

I chose to deal with the problem of estrangement and the good news that speaks to it. Following is the sermon I am planning to use. In order to be able to evaluate its potential, I preached it at a chapel meeting at college. The men in the class were to make suggestions for improvement.



  1. Man was made for dialogue.
    “It is not good that man should be alone.”
  2. Man was equipped for dialogue.
    “God made them in his image, male and female he made them.”
  1. A Sense of Worth
    1. This is a part of the image of God in man.
      1. When we say “I am” we are echoing the great I Am (make special reference to adolescence)
      2. As a creature of God we have real worth. We are unique.
      3. Thus we can be bold to give of ourselves in dialogue. We have something worth giving.
    2. Sin has damaged our sense of worth.
      1. When we commit sin we experience a drop in self-esteem.
      2. When this happens time and time again we may develop a sense of worthlessness.
      3. We come to feel that we have nothing worth giving. We experience depression and despair.
    3. Jesus restores our sense of worth.
      1. He forgives our sins and removes our guilt. Sin no longer determines our sense of worth.
      2. In him we experience the love of God.
        Love has the power to restore our sense of worth.
      3. We have a new status and a new relationship. In Jesus, God himself is our father.
      4. Now God bestows his good gifts on us.
        We receive grace upon grace which we do not have to earn; God considers us worthy.
      5. Now we are again equipped for dialogue.
        We know we have something worth giving because Christ has made us new, and because he dwells in us.
  2. The Capacity for Self-Expression
    1. This is a part of the image of God in us.
      1. God who is spirit expresses himself in things material as well as in words.
      2. We were created with this capacity for self-expression.
        We put into gesture and word and deed what is in our souls. So much is this a part of our creatureliness that to deny the expression and to repress it constantly, or to try to show outwardly the opposite of what is inside, is to invite personality disorder and illness.{26}
    2. Sin has damaged this capacity for self-expression.
      1. We recognize that the sin in us is unacceptable. Consequently we wear masks so that people will like us.
      2. We hate the sin that is in us.
        We become ashamed to disclose ourselves and so we withdraw and become isolated.
      3. We are afraid of the sin in the depths of our being.
        To allow it to express itself may turn loose powers we cannot cope with.
      4. We seek to deny what we really are.
        We try to live up to some image which we would like to be, or which we feel others want us to be.
      5. Consequently dialogue ceases. Relationships become thin and frail.
    3. Jesus will restore this capacity for self-expression.
      1. He carries out a thorough cleaning job.
        Thus we can expose ourselves again without shame.
        We are set free from the compulsion to hide.
      2. He enables us to accept our imperfections.
        We now live within the sphere of God’s grace.
        The expression of the sin in us now comes in the form of confession, and thus leads to liberation.
      3. He restores our inner beauty.
        The Holy Spirit is at work in us, perfecting his own fruit.
        We rejoice to express this new inner life.
      4. Thus dialogue is restored, and we become instruments of God.
        More and more the Holy Spirit fills us, and more and more our self-expression becomes his self-expression.
    4. A Sense of Need
      1. This is a part of the image of God in us.
        1. God is a trinity.
          Father, Son, and Holy Spirit complement each other, that is, each finds completion in the other.
        2. We too need fulfillment in relationships. No man is an island.
          No man is sufficient unto himself.
        3. We were made with an openness toward others.
          We have the capacity to receive and to be loved.
          We have the need to be fulfilled.
      2. Sin has destroyed this quality in man.
        1. We suffer from pride that seeks rather independence than interdependence.
          This is the spirit of adolescence continuing into maturity.
          This is the erroneous belief that to be self-sufficient is to be strong.
        2. We suffer from the fear that resists becoming vulnerable.
          The one on whom I should depend is sinful, too, and therefore I cannot trust him.
          To allow dialogue is a dreadful risk; I can easily be hurt. {27}
      3. Jesus can help us recover a wholesome interdependence.
        1. He effects in us a deep humility.
          After all, we live by grace, and we have learned to accept from God through Christ.
          We have been placed into a community in which each has a gift which will complement me.
          We are bound together in love, and learn to accept from others that which meets our own need.
        2. He effects in us a love that can absorb hurt.
          He set the example himself when he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
          As we live with him we become like him in this; that is, we can accept the imperfections of others, as well as their misunderstanding, and even malice, and can absorb the pain and keep on being open, lovingly.
          After all, we need others even when they hurt us.


    1. Dialogue is demanding.
      1. It means giving of ourselves.
      2. It means exposing our inner being.
      3. It means remaining open to others.
      N.B. No wonder we fail!
    2. But Jesus Christ will help us recover dialogue.
      1. He restores our sense of worth so we can give ourselves with confidence.
      2. He cleans our inner being so that we can live transparently in honest self-expression and continuing confession.
      3. He fills us with himself so that we can absorb hurt and mistreatment, and can remain open and vulnerable.
    3. Read Colossians 3:12-15.

P.S. By now you know that this sermon as it now stands could not possibly be used in the setting which I indicated earlier. The load is far too big for one brief feeding. The men in the preaching class were quick to point this out. The vocabulary will have to be simplified, they said, and the load reduced to one-third. I plan now to use only the first point.

Never underestimate the help which brothers can render in keeping us from making foolish mistakes in our preaching. A preaching team in a church can be a powerful aid toward a better ministry of the Word.

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