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portrait charles haddon spurgeon gospel preacher
Artist: Luis Fernandez ©
courtesy InTouch Magazine

Spurgeon – effective Gospel communicator

List the most significant Christian preachers and leaders in the English-speaking world of the 19th century, and Charles Haddon Spurgeon will probably be near the top. Before his death in 1892, he had published more than twenty-five hundred sermons and forty-nine volumes of commentaries, sayings, anecdotes, illustrations, and devotions. Spurgeon often worked 18 hours a day. Famous explorer and missionary David Livingstone once asked him, “How do you manage to do two men’s work in a single day?” Referring to the Holy Spirit working in him, Spurgeon replied: “You have forgotten that there are two of us.”

But why was he so successful at communicating? Let ’s take it as read that God chose and annointed men such as him, who would stick to biblical truth, and not take the glory for themselves. But God does not operate in a vacuum, He communicates through the gifts He has given to those He has chosen and called. And in the life and ministry of Spurgeon, we see three biblical aspects of communication not always noticed or given the prominence they deserve. The links at the end of each section looks at these subjects in more detail.

Spurgeon’s use of humor

Spurgeon ’s ability to make people laugh was so marked that a whole chapter in his autobiography is devoted to it. It was not merely the ability to tell put an amusing anecdote at the beginning of an otherwise serious sermon, by way of light-hearted introduction. Instead, humor permeates his sermons and writings, an intrinsic element inseparable from the content. It ’s one reason why his sermons and devotionals are still highly readable today – and probably more widely read than the writings of any other 19th century Christian.

His autobiography barely needs a chapter on ‘fun’ because his writing shines with wit - somewhat in contrast to the reverential prose of the book’s editors! A man whom his deacons called ‘the Governor ’ (and who were known to him and each other as ‘Brother William’, ‘Uncle Tom ’, ‘Dear Old Joe’, ‘Prince Charlie’ and ‘Son of Ali’) must have been unpretentious fun. “The vice of many religious works is their dulness. From this fault, we have striven to be free,” he wrote.

Spurgeon’s ministry to felt needs

Spurgeon had a sensitive heart for the real day-to-day needs of ordinary people – he was able to understand pain, suffering and depression because his own health, and that of his wife, had been so mixed. Therefore his sermons were not abstract truth about God and the Bible, they connected with the real hurts and worries that most people feel. So often, when we look at the lives of effective evangelists, we find a heart “acquainted with grief”.

I recall going some years ago attending an inter-denominational service with our ministry founder. We were treated to an erudite and polished sermon from a visiting speaker. Afterwards, he asked me what I thought of it, and delivered his own insightful verdict: “But what do I do?” In other words, there was nothing in it which actually connected with our lives.

Since in almost every case recorded in the gospels, the Lord Jesus first met people’s felt needs before moving on to their deeper spiritual needs, we can be assured that this is a biblical and reformed approach!

Spurgeon ’s use of illustration, simile and parable

A constant theme of Spurgeon’s sermons and writings is the use of everyday situations by way of spiritual parallel and illustration, all woven naturally into his material; what we would now call ‘contextualization’ and ‘redemptive analogy’. (He was, by the way, of the ‘Saturday-night for Sunday-morning’ school of sermon preparation.) “A sermon without ilustrations is like a room without windows,” he commented. He was constantly on the lookout for illustrations and filed them away for use. He read secular books widely, as well as drawing parallels from nature, medicine, agriculture and the wider world. He was very much in touch with the culture of his day. One of his students remarked how hard it was to find illustrations. “Yes,” said Spurgeon, ”if you do not wake up, but go through the world asleep, you cannot see illustrations; but if your minds were thoroughly aroused, and yet you could see nothing else in the world but a single tallow candle, you might find enough illustrations in that luminary to last you for six months.”

He also used what can be called the Bridge Strategy, starting with a secular topic and then leading into spiritual application. Sermons in Candles was written to demonstrate this approach in touching non-Christians as well as to vindicate his sweeping statement about illustrations to his students!

Spurgeon also believed it was vital to match the style of his writing to the needs of the reader. He decided to write John Ploughman’s Talk in a very plain and simple style and the starting point was a proverb rather than scripture. As no one knew who wrote them, amusing things occured. A friend said to their author, “Why do you put those papers of that ploughman into the magazine?” The answer was, “Well, they are lively, and they have a good moral, what is the matter with them?” “Yes,” replied the unsuspecting critic, “they are rather good for a poor uneducated person like the writer, but they are too coarse for your magazine.” “You think so?” said the Editor, and with a smile on his face, he went his way.

So often, we have attempted to communicate with a not-very-literate world using highly literate means. Readers Digest knows the secret.

Spurgeon understood the importance of expressing a message in simple terms. “It often seems to me wonderful that the power of communciating with the multitude is so rare. We have scores of ministers who are ambitious of writign for the world of the cultivated; but a book frankly and successfully addressing the average man, in language which he can understand, is one of the rarest products of the press. It really requires very exceptional power. It requires knowledge of human nature, and knowledge of life. It requires common sense; it requires wit and humor; and it requires command of simple and powerful Saxon. Whatever the requirements may be, Mr Spurgeon had them in an unexampled degree.” (Dr James Stalker in an address at the unveiling of the C H Spurgeon Memorial at the Stockwell Orphanage, 1894.)

More on these communication principles

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