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“Many labels were attached to him during his lifetime. He was called a civil rights activist; he was called a social activist, a social change agent, a world figure. But I think he thought of himself first and foremost as a preacher, as a Christian pastor.”
This is how Lewis Baldwin of Vanderbilt University described Martin Luther King Jr. in a 2006 PBS interview. Interviewer Kim Lawton noted that Dr. King as a pastor “may be one of the most overlooked sides of Martin Luther King Jr., but it was one of the most important aspects of who he was.”
Though known for his role as a leader of one of the greatest movements in American Christian history, Dr. King thought of himself primarily as a Christian pastor. And essential to his pastoral role was preaching. As Dr. King wrote in his autobiography: “I feel that preaching is one of the most vital needs of our society, if it is used correctly.”
One of the most vital needs indeed. But what does he mean by “if it is used correctly”?
In his autobiography, Dr. King answers this question by articulating a threefold plea concerning preachers today: one about the preacher, one about the people, and one about the process.
1. Preachers must possess sincerity, intelligence, and conviction.
Dr. King’s first plea concerns the preacher. “It is my opinion that sincerity is not enough for the preaching ministry,” he writes. “The minister must be both sincere and intelligent [and] should possess profundity of conviction.”
Sincerity. Intelligence. Conviction. For King, these attributes should characterize not only what the preacher is doing, but also who the preacher is becoming. As King surveyed the preaching of his day, he concluded: “We have too many ministers in the pulpit who are great spellbinders, and too few who possess spiritual power.”
We have too many ministers in the pulpit who are great spellbinders, and too few who possess spiritual power.
What is this “spiritual power” King found so rare? It is the conviction that “the God whom we worship is not a weak and incompetent God” and that “the ringing testimony of the Christian faith is that God is able.” It isn’t enough that preaching is sincere or intelligent, then; it must be undergirded by a profound conviction that God is at work accomplishing his mission, through his people, to his world. It is preaching that believes.
2. Preaching should connect with the concerns of the people. Preachers should know the problems of the people.
“Preaching should grow out of the experiences of the people,” Dr. King wrote. “Therefore, I, as a minister, must know the problems of the people that I am pastoring.”
Preachers must have sincerity, intelligence, and conviction. But they must also recognize that preaching is connected with the concerns of actual people, which means the preacher must be proximate with them.
We don’t have a shortage of preachers today who can preach with the best of them. We have a shortage of preachers who are in tune with the least of them. Our preaching must not only address the issues of those in our churches; it must also address the concerns of those in our communities, in our schools, in the streets, in the barbershops, in the universities, in our country, in our world. Our theology must get low.
We don’t have a shortage of preachers who can preach with the best of them; we have a shortage of preachers who are in tune with the least of them. . . . Our theology must get low.
King put it like this: “Too often do educated ministers leave people lost in the fog of theological abstraction, rather than presenting that theology in light of the people’s experiences.” To be clear, this doesn’t mean changing the theology to fit people’s experiences. It simply means listening and connecting biblical truth to their specific contexts.
It isn’t enough to educate people on the historical Jesus if they don’t see how this Jesus addresses the concerns of everyday life. Preachers must herald truth that deals with the whole man—not only his soul but also his body; not only his spiritual state but also his social reality.
3. Preaching ministry is a dual process: arresting souls and affecting societies.
Dr. King described preaching as a “dual process.” On the one hand, “I must attempt to change the soul of individuals so their societies may be changed,” he said. “On the other hand I must attempt to change the societies so that the individual soul will have a change.”
This view has implications for the preacher, King concluded: “I must be concerned about unemployment, slums, and economic insecurity.” And the same is true for us. Our preaching must aim at the individual concerns and the spiritual plights of our people, but it must also press into the practical implications of the gospel we preach.
King showed that no matter how small or how big an issue may seem, the gospel compels us to address it with concern, intentionality, and love. Whether it was voting rights, racism, segregation, or education, King’s conviction moved him to prophetic engagement:
A religion that professes a concern for the souls of men, and is not equally concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them, is a spiritually moribund religion.
Preachers: as you plan your sermon schedules, let Dr. King’s pleas be a reminder to you. You don’t have to agree with all of his theology to learn from his insights on the preaching ministry. May you hear King’s plea for preachers to possess sincerity, intelligence, and conviction. May your preaching be in tune with the problems of your people. And may your preaching result not only in changed souls, but changed societies too.
In conclusion, remember Dr. King’s words, post them in your study, and discuss and pray through them with your preaching team. And then do what is most vital in our day: “Preach, preacher! Tell it like it is!”