I have been thinking a lot about my preaching, mainly because of some things I observed in studying Andrew Bonar's methods of delivering sermons. I realise he lived in a different world from today, a world which we are told dislikes preaching. I suspect that he would reply that the inhabitants of the various places where the gospel was declared in the New Testament did not like its contents either, yet the apostles and others continued to preach to them. And, I assume he would say, that is to be expected in all periods and places.
Although Andrew Bonar was a successful preacher, he was not regarded, by himself or others, as an orator. Indeed his daughter observed that even after years of preaching ‘Strangers had to grow accustomed to the peculiarities of his voice, and his habit of letting it suddenly drop just when the hearer's attention was fixed.’ So how was he able to build up his congregation in Glasgow numerically and spiritually? What were the secrets that made over 1,000 people gather regularly over many years to listen to him? One response that we might give is to stress it was God's sovereign purpose, which is a true answer, although I suspect we often use it to avoid our responsibilities. Another answer is the state of God's servants as they focus on their preaching. How did Bonar personally prepare for and protect his preaching?
One reason was his focus on prayer in discovering which passage to preach from on each occasion. He records in his diary that he had ‘been much impressed with the sin of choosing my text without special direction from the Lord. This is like running without being sent, no message being given me. I ought to feel, “This I am sent to tell you, my people.”’ Bonar wanted to preach not only from God’s Word, but he only wanted to preach what God wanted him to say from the Word on each occasion. Therefore he went to God in prayer in order to discover what verse(s) he must preach about.
Prayer was essential for another reason as well. Bonar not only wanted to preach God’s message, but he wanted to preach it with God’s power. He wrote on one occasion, ‘God will not let me preach with power when I am not much with Him. More than ever do I feel that I should be as much an intercessor as a preacher of the word.’
Bonar also believed that preachers should be in a spiritual frame of soul whenever they preach, and the two marks of such a frame are joy and love. He noted ‘that joy in the Spirit is the frame in which God blesses us to others. Joy arises from fellowship with Him – I find that whatever sorrow or humiliation of spirit presses on us, that should give way in some measure to a fresh taste of God’s love when going forth to preach.’
Further he also wanted to preach aware of God’s presence, to preach ‘with the solemnity, and earnestness, and affection that Jesus would have had had He been there’. He did not mind the prospect of preaching with God at his elbow, indeed he desired it. I suppose that a preacher would not flaunt himself or engage in trivialities if he was conscious of God’s presence.
Bonar did not assume that his prayers had to be limited to preparation. Prayer should not only precede his preaching, it should also follow his sermons. Perhaps surprisingly, Bonar did not regard preaching as his main activity of the Lord’s Day (and he preached at least twice on them); instead he believed that intercessory prayer was his most important work of each Lord’s Day. So he spent a lot of time praying about his listeners each Sunday after they had heard him.
One feature of his preaching that worried him often was church growth without converts through preaching. He was not content to have individuals converted through other means, although he rejoiced over such. I suppose he took to heart that most New Testament church growth occurred through preaching. This problem is not limited to him, since today I would suggest that, in the main, less people are converted through preaching than by other means. His response was to pray until he saw blessing through his preaching.
So I suspect that Bonar was heard by God before preaching, heard by his people in preaching, and then heard by God after his preaching. He was a preacher who was heard because he prayed.