7 practical things that makes my preaching ineffective
I spent a little time reflecting on 7 practical things that make me ineffective as a preacher. I realise that this kind of post rather lays my own heart bare. Nevertheless, it’s worth posting because we need to be honest about what holds us back. I don’t think you will find any surprises here, but perhaps some things will resonate and you – like me – will be driven to our knees. Of course, all of this is written in the context that (as I said yesterday) it is God who gives the growth. Nevertheless, we are called to be faithful proclaimers and therefore need to be realistic about what holds us back. Neither is this a spiritual assessment. I am only too keenly aware of my pride and vanity which holds me back. This, however, is more of a practical assessment.
1. Sloppy exegesis. We need to be realistic that understanding a text can be hard. Some parts are harder than others (2 Peter 3.16). I’m probably in the glad position to have more of a grasp than most (excepting half a dozen) of my congregation and so I’m always tempted not to do the hard work of exegesis.
2. Too much exegesis. That requires some explanation. I can always study a text more. There is always another commentary to read. Another reading. I like this stuff. I get excited by it. But my preparation time is limited, so it’s quite possible to do too much exegesis and be thoroughly prepared in terms of what the text means, but virtually nothing how it changes hearers.
3. Failure to think of Barbara (name changed). Lovely Barbara is in my home group. She’s a delightful Christian, a long time saint who likes things to be simple. I often think of her when I prepare, but my sermon is always worse when I neglect to do so.
4. Little thought given to construction. Surely content trumps everything? No. For if my speech is hard to receive (and there may be a number of reasons for this), then good content is meaningless.
5. Too many clever sentences. I love words and I am, at heart, something of a wordsmith (you may be surprised!). But the sermon is a spoken word not a written word and clever written sentences almost never work orally.
6. Too little thought given to vocabulary. Conversely, a sermon that wafts around and never really concisely and clearly nails ideas with clear words will be misheard. I need to be able to convey the heart of my sermon in clear, short, well thought through sentences. This is not to contradict point 5. I can craft oral sentences. And in fact, I need to.
7. Generalised application which bears no connection to the text. I love this stuff. It’s application 101 isn’t it? No, because as Bryan Chappell was reminding us last week, people are quickly turned off from generalised application that is forced into a text.
What about your sermon this week?
My name is Adrian and I’m an Arsenal fan. There, I’ve finally said it. Truth be told, now that it’s public knowledge I’m much happier and I feel I can deal with it as I need to do. And – for those who follow the world of Association Football – you will know that it’s not an association which is always happy. True, as my colleague Tim, a Birmingham Athletic fan, reminds me everything is relative. He would give half of St Andrews to be in my shoes (St Andrews is the golf course where Birmingham play).
Nevertheless, it’s another frustrating season and I’m tempted to join the “It was fun, Arsene, but now it’s time to go” campaign. And yet, here is the paradox. Clubs reject their managers if they fail to reach high success, despite the fact that it’s a mathematical impossibility for all but a very few clubs to attain these goals. I guess that is the delight and excitement of sport for many.
However, that desire to be top has crept into all other kinds of walks of life. Mathematically, not everyone can be top of the class, top rated employee, nor top church, top man at the gym, and so it goes. And yet we imbibe the spirit of the age and want to be in the Champions League spots in all these areas and more.
That’s really damaging to the church. Of course, there is a place for godly ambition. I want sinners to be saved and saints to be sanctified. If that is not reflected in my prayer life, then pity me and my people. But on the other hand we understand that God gives the growth and our call is not to excel in a kind of “top four” champions league place of the evangelical world. I’m not measured by conversions, size of church, number of programmes or anything of the kind. My call is to be pastorally and biblically faithful.
And that’s not a call to averageness. That’s not “mid table mediocrity”. It’s a high and glorious calling. It’s real pastoral integrity.
Not to be top. But to be faithful.
Beg, steal* or borrow
One of my favourite times of year is our two ministers’ conferences we hold in the Spring. This year we have 220 guys from all different churches and all different stages over two weeks. Our conferences are both unashamedly working conferences (helping us to grow in our preaching) but also planned to be times of refreshment. We need, as ministers of the gospel, both.
Our time with Andrew Cornes, Simon Medcroft and Bryan Chappell has been superb, but we’re already anticipating next year’s conference with Doug Moo. I’m personally a great Moo fan. A few years ago, a few of us thought that ought to make us “Bovinian” (think about it!).
Doug is speaking on Hebrews (which he is writing a commentary on and which will be very fresh). Hebrews is an essential book. If Romans is our go to book for systematic theology, then surely Hebrews should be our go to book for biblical theology. That makes it even stranger that it is so unfamiliar to evangelicals. Not only is it a great book in its own right, but it opens up the whole of the Old Testament. A great topic, therefore, for preachers.
We’ve been full this year, in fact, someone even brought their own motorhome! Most of us can’t resort to such accommodation, so booking early is essential. That’s why we’ve opened the booking now. Week 1 is for those in ministry 7+ years and runs April 24-27. Week 2 is for those starting out and is May 2-5 2017. Find a way to be with us. Beg, steal* or borrow.
*The Proclamation Trust does not condone stealing 😉
How important is application?
A few quotes are helpful.
John Broadus (1827-1895) was the President of Southern Baptist Theological Centre and was the father of expository preaching in the US (and probably wider as well). He was fighting against the kind of preaching which took a text and ran with it (often in all kinds of directions). Application is “the main thing to be done.” Not the only thing, nor the first thing. But he understood that unless the text was brought home, it was not a sermon.
John Calvin “If we leave it to men’s choice to follow what is taught them, they will never move one foot. Therefore the doctrine itself can profit nothing at all” (2 Tim. 4.1-2).
How though do we answer the criticism that says it is the work of the Spirit to do the application? There is a logical fallacy of saying “on the basis of application, I’m telling you not to do application”! That is in itself an application. Just as we EXPLAIN what the Spirit must ultimately interpret we must APPLY what the Spirit will ultimately apply. This is preaching in all its fullness.
Look inside first
I’m greatly enjoying Andrew Cornes speaking on 1 Corinthians 1 at our preachers’ conference. Andrew is an experienced preacher/pastor and is recently retired. What I love about him is his honesty talking about his long experiences of ministry, both in terms of what was going on in his church, but – just as importantly – what was going on in his own heart.
This is useful stuff. For sure, looking back he could see lots of external causes of division and difficulty. And it’s always easy to point the finger at others. But, said Andrew honestly, we have to look inward too. And very often it is our own pride which is the chief issue. Moreover, it is not disconnected to the difficulties in the church. For if our pride is making us awkward or negative or critical, is it any wonder that such attitudes are prevalent in our churches?
In other words, what preachers need to hear time and time again is that we need to look internally before we start blaming externally. I think I read something similar in the Bible somewhere. 1 Timothy 4:16 anyone?
I’m enjoying Bryan Chappell at our ministers’ conference teaching on application. This is a contentious issue for some Christians. Too much, too little, and all kinds of practical and spiritual objections. He told the story of how he was himself taught preaching by Dr Robert Rayburn, an ex-army Colonel chaplain who had parachuted into Korea behind enemy lines with the men to whom he ministered. This man stood for no nonsense.
He told his students, ‘Men, I don’t care how famous you get, or how big your churches are, or how good a preacher you are, but I want you to imagine that after every sermon I’m sitting in the back row and you have to walk past me every time you preach. I have my arms folded and I have a frown on my face and one question that needs answering, “So what?”’
‘Stephen saw heaven opened?’ ‘So what?’
‘The Israelites were in the wilderness for forty years.’ ‘So what?’
‘Justification is by faith alone?’ ‘So what?’
For, Chappell argues, we cannot really say we understand a text unless we have understood its significance. Take justification by faith. We might think we understand it, but if we believe that the way to get right with God is by, say, reading our Bibles more, we have not really understood the text. It’s only when we have grasped its significance that we can truly say we’ve understood a text.
In other words, application counts.
A quick survey…
Dan Steel, a pastor from Oxford, is leading a seminar at this year’s EMA for those starting out in ministry. It is essential, of course, that younger guys start well. Such people have a particular set of pressures and temptations and in order to build ‘Leaders who last’ we wanted a stream for guys in this situation. It would be a great help to us and to Dan if you could complete the survey (here) and a great help to you if you could book into the EMA (here).
Do not give up the habit
Hebrews is written to Christians. In fact, to be more precise, it’s written to a particular group of Christians, Jewish ones in danger of returning to their Old Testament roots and leaving the gospel behind. The great message they need to hear is that Jesus is better in every way than their incomplete testament. Amen to that.
Along the way, the author gives some moving and practical applications as to how this better new covenant life is to be lived. This set of practical instructions perhaps reaches a climax towards the end of the book. I am particularly fond, however, of Hebrews 10 and I’ve been reflecting this week on the exhortation to not give up meeting together. This is what some have been doing. Presumably, as it becomes more and more difficult to be a Christian, it is more and more tempting to neglect the gathering of God’s people.
The paradox is that the more difficulty increases (I take it that, in part at least, is what it means to see the Day approaching), the more God’s people should meet together. Not less. More. I think some of our people need to hear this don’t they?
And those called into ministry need to hear it too. Now collections of ministers are not churches. Not even close. And we receive our primary encouragement from our churches, not from ministers’ gatherings. Nevertheless, they have a part to play. For ministry is draining, discouraging and potentially damaging. We need the encouragement of stirring one another up.
This is not an idea unknown in the Scriptures. Read some of Paul’s personal comments to see how he needs and craves the fellowship of others to encourage and be encouraged. Many of those in ministry have less of this kind of fellowship as things get tougher. They find it harder and harder to face peers and be honest about life and its struggles.
Maybe not with us, but with someone Mr Preacher. Do not give up the habit of meeting together.
Disappearing church: an extended review
Mark Sayers’ new book is important. It’s not an easy read. For those used to books padded out with stories about things that happened to the authors, this is remarkably dense. It’s just 175 pages, but that’s 400 pages equivalent for many modern writers. However, the premise of the book – an assessment of where the church is (and why) and where we go now – is essential.
In one sense, as conservatives, I don’t think his conclusions will surprise. At least, they ought not to. Nevertheless, the book is important because he assesses our western culture well and shows how our conservative principles are just what are needed. Along the way he destroys a few shibboleths, notably the insatiable desire for churches to be culturally relevant.
He shows clearly how the church’s desire to evangelise the western (or third culture) in the same way that we evangelise the pagan culture (the first culture) is flawed and ultimately leads to assimilation. This methodology was imbibed by the church in the 1980s and 1990s through those who had worked on the mission field. However, the third culture is not pagan. Rather it is, he argues, an anti-culture – representing everything that our Judea-Christian heritage is not.
What, then, is his answer? It is what he calls “withdraw-return.” Sayers calls for more depth in our Christianity, like a tree that springs up in a gap in the rain forest. Initially, it is the vines and broad leaf plants that occupy such a gap, but eventually the tree breaks through because it has first sent down deep roots. Shallow church, says Sayers, will look good, but do little. It may try to impact in the public sphere but it is doing little in the private sphere, where things really count.
Amen to that. And amen to his argument for institutions! Such an argument is nuanced of course (he is against institutionalisation), but he is pleased to stand up for the church as it ought to be, with deep disciple-making at its heart.
I really appreciated this book. It is thoughtful. It is written by an Australian which means it resonates more with European culture/setting than many US-authored books. It is also deep. Although he makes some of his points scripturally, his argument is more philosophical, but no less compelling for that. Of course, as with any book, it requires a discerning mind. But there is much here to challenge, convict and encourage.
The ploughboy and the brickie
Every now and again, when I’m not preaching, I listen to the Sunday morning service on Radio 4. I often regret it. This last Sunday I listened carefully to the sermon because I thought the text was pretty ambitious for a Sunday service – the LORD revealing his name to Moses.
So here is the thing: I did not understand a word of what was said. Now, I’m not perhaps the brightest spark, but neither am I a complete idiot. And I couldn’t understand what was being said. It was like someone was reading out a page of John Owen. At least in print form, you have the chance to read the sentence two or three times to make sure you know what it means. Not in a sermon. It is, I’m sure you’ve noticed, an oral communication.
In the previous church where I served, there was a delightful old saint, a Welsh brickie, who once told me that a particularly perplexing visitor was a ‘brilliant preacher, just brilliant.’ I obviously raised an eyebrow, for he followed up with his justification for the preacher’s brilliance: ‘I couldn’t understand a word of it.’ I made it my work after that to make sure I was understood by the brickie – he was my measure, my 21st Century ploughboy.
Our trouble, of course, is that we confuse simplicity with profundity. We think that to be simple is to be simplistic. The best preachers are those who communicate the timeless truths of the Scripture in all their depth and wonder but with a clear simplicity that means even the least educated listener can grasp what is being said.
It’s worth reading JC Ryle’s instructions again. And again. And again.