On Sunday afternoons, I often ask my wife what she thought of my sermon. I’ve learned that she’s probably one of the only people on earth who will give me honest feedback, so I always prepare myself mentally before I ask. A few weeks ago, she said, “I thought it was good; what do you think?” I wasn’t expecting her to turn it around on me. The only thing harder than hearing someone else’s honest evaluation is trying to honestly self-evaluate. After pondering a moment, I said, “It felt like a single—maybe a hard ground ball up the middle.”
It’s taken me a long time to appreciate the value of the preaching single. In case you’re not a baseball follower, let me explain. When a batter hits a baseball and gets a hit, the quality of his accomplishment is measured by the distance his hit allowed him to travel on the bases. Obviously, the ultimate prize is the homerun, which allows him to fully encircle the bases and arrive back at home, scoring a run for his team. Triples get the batter one base away from a run, and doubles are halfway there—one step closer than a single. But singles aren’t bad. In fact, in baseball, batters hit more singles than any other kind of hit. It doesn’t score a run on its own, but every run must start at first base. A few singles in a row will accomplish the same thing as a homerun.
Just as in baseball, the preaching single has enormous value. What is a preaching single? I define it as a sermon in which the preacher was faithful to the text and communicated the truth about Christ clearly and powerfully. All the components of a good sermon were present: exposition, concrete application, and helpful illustration. But, for whatever reason, it just wasn’t a homerun or a triple or even a double. The explosive fireworks never went off. Tangible decisions and audible response were not present. It was a single. It got the faithful listeners closer to the goal, but it probably didn’t get anyone all the way around the bases.
Obviously, only God truly knows the effectiveness of a sermon. In fact, I’ve often found the Holy Spirit using what I believed were my strikeout sermons to convict and to encourage people in profound ways. My single may actually be a homerun in God’s economy. My perceived homerun may be a strikeout. Only God knows.
Throughout church history, theologians have often celebrated the “ordinary means of grace.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 85, asks, “What doth God require of us that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin?” The answer: “To escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.”
By “outward means,” these theologians were referring to the God-ordained routines in our lives through which God invites us to encounter himself—habits like prayer, the preached word of God, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But God, in his wise mercy, brings us home through ordinary means wherein we encounter his extraordinary grace. The routine of daily Bible reading and prayer and weekly worship with the body of Christ may lack the excitement of a grand slam. No fireworks go off. No one stands to cheer. But through these ordinary means—these singles, if you will—God is sanctifying and advancing his people.
When I was in elementary school, my best friend’s family took me to see the Power Team two days in a row. I remember it for a few reasons, not least for the excitement of watching enormously shredded men rip apart phone books and break handcuffs with their bare hands. At the end of the performance, they would share the gospel and give an emotional call to respond. In the excitement of the moment, I went down and prayed to receive Christ both times. In fact, in the revivalistic tradition of my youth, I probably prayed that prayer dozens of times after similar events and services. Yet, despite the excitement and emotional tears, I can’t say I became a Christian at any of those events. Instead, I was trained to rely on emotional climaxes for spiritual advance. It’s taken a long time for me to be content with the ordinary means of grace. It’s taken me years to be content with singles.
Here’s my point: we have no control over when the Spirit decides to show up in a profound way. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Regardless of what we like to call things, we can’t stage a genuine revival. But we can attend to the ordinary means of grace and trust that God will sanctify us through the practices he has ordained for his people. We can learn to be content with hitting singles.