What A Presidential Biography Taught Me About Preaching

I’ll admit it: I’m somewhat obsessed with reading biographies of some of our best-known Presidents. In fact, I have labeled one of our bookcases my very own “Presidential Library” as it’s full of tomes on Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.

And Ronald Reagan.

Near the end of his weighty Reagan: The Life, historian and author H.W Brands makes this observation regarding the rhetorical skills of “The Great Communicator”:

Reagan’s critics often dismissed the role of conviction in his persuasiveness; they attributed his speaking skill to his training as an actor. But this is exactly wrong. Reagan wasn’t acting when he spoke; his rhetorical power rested in his wholehearted belief in all the wonderful things he said about the United States and the American people, about their brave past and their brilliant future (p. 734).

I’ll admit it: I got a lump in my throat when I read that passage because all of a sudden it all made sense. The reason I still get weepy when I watch clips of Reagan telling the Soviet Premier at the Brandenburg Gate: “Mr. Gorbachev, TEAR DOWN THIS WALL!” is because the President really, truly believed what he was saying. And that personal conviction and moral certitude turned his rhetoric into proclamation.

He wasn’t reciting his lines; he was revealing his heart, and anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear knew it.

Reagan moved people with what he said because he believed what he was saying.

Is that not the call of any and every preacher?

So I have to ask you: do you believe in what you preach? Are you convinced of the Gospel, not only as something that is useful but as someone who is beautiful?

Do you love the wild world contained in the Scriptures and can’t wait to share it with the congregation you serve?

Are you utterly convinced that Jesus is not godly but God? That hell is not warm, it’s hot? That heaven is not pleasant, it’s glorious? That the best kind of life is not one where you get away with sin but you get rid of it?

When you say the Apostle’s Creed, do you do so with your fingers crossed? Or with your hands raised?

Really: do you take time to savor the depth of our faith to the point that when you stand to preach on it people can’t help but realize they, too, can “taste and see that the Lord is good”?

These are not insignificant questions. They move to the core of the preacher’s heart and the level of his calling. They’re questions I’ve wrestled with.

Because I have a third admission today: there was a time when I tried to preach “cool.” I was up for some “editing” of the Gospel, for giving people more of what they wanted to hear than what they needed to hear. I was convinced that cool was king and the throngs would come.

But a funny thing happened on the way to that particular forum: I suck at cool. The throngs went elsewhere. And I realized that I may not be an expert at cool but as a young pastor I could do pretty well at bold.

So that’s what I did. Got in touch with my younger self, recovered my voice, and savored the Gospel. My words changed some; the conviction behind them changed a lot.

And I suppose you could say that every once in a while I moved people with what I said because I believed what I was saying.

Like President, like preacher.