Preacher’s Profile: Chris Green
This is a new series we are running on the Proclaimer Blog. We are asking different preachers questions about their life and ministry:
Chris Green is the vicar of St. James, Muswell Hill in North London, he is married to Sharon, and they have two teenage boys. Outside of pastoral ministry Chris enjoys reading, painting, learning to sail, and pretty much anything that London throws at him culture-wise! Cricket, yes, rugby, yes, football, yawn…
Chris blogs at ministrynutsandbolts.com
We asked Chris some questions about his preaching ministry.
When did you preach your first sermon and how long have you been preaching?
My first sermon would have been in 1981, and I’m tempted to say I was two at the time, but I was a recent graduate in Edinburgh, and spending time being what we would now call an intern at the church I’d gone to as a student, St Thomas’, Corstorphine.
I don’t remember the passage, but I do remember the feedback: “Well, you’re no Spurgeon…”
What was your journey to preaching ministry?
I was keen on expository preaching even then. As an undergrad I made a habit of buying the ‘Bible Speaks Today’ commentary series as they came out, and working through them in my Quiet Times, they shaped my expectations and habits early on.
I was also involved in summer youth camps with Andrew Cornes, who was then at All Souls in London, and he drilled us in faithful exegesis and careful application. Constructing 12-minute talks under his supervision, and with his laser-like feedback, was formative.
Training for ordination in Durham, a bunch of us formed an informal preaching group to present and critique each other, which was a novel idea in those days. One of the members of that group introduced me to The Proclamation Trust, in its very, very early days. The preaching conferences at Fairmile Court with Dick Lucas were glorious, though I remember seeing quite senior people hiding in a corner so that Dick wouldn’t pounce on them to give their sermon for critique! A few years later I joined Dick as his study assistant, to write a book and help found the Cornhill Training Course – and since then I’ve been preaching, training and writing almost continually.
Describe the congregation/setting you regularly preach to.
St James is a largeish church, and we have four congregations. The 8.00 is a traditional Prayer Book service, and we follow Cranmer’s lectionary. We tend to give two the main morning congregations one series, and the evening a separate one, although a couple of times a year we line up all three, together with the small groups and some private reading, and focus on one thing.
Most recently we did a focus on the Lord’s Prayer like that, and published our own prayer journal to go with it. Our mornings tend to attract the families, the evening is younger and livelier, but with hardly any students. The arts are a big deal round here, so we put a high value on music and the way we present things. North London is vibrant and multicultural, and we are all that, but our part of town is affluent liberal, and that’s our ambient setting and constant temptation. So as preachers, we aim to be preaching about an attractive counter-culture.
What are you currently preaching on/through?
In the morning we have just finished a series in Ephesians, and we are back in our default gospel, which is Matthew, where we are in chapter 11.
In the evening we are doing the life of David, and our young adults ministry is looking at some of the Psalms, in parallel.
What is your regular rhythm of sermon preparation, your usual process and how you schedule it in during the week?
This keeps changing, but I have to try to keep the first part of it under control because there is no end to commentaries. If I’m not careful I spend too much time with them, and not enough time thinking, praying and processing for myself.
So two hours on Monday is given to starting with the Greek or Hebrew, sentence flow diagrams, and working through the most fruitful commentaries, with another two hours on Tuesday. Wednesday, another two hours, but by this point I’m playing with ideas, structure (actually, I prefer to think of ‘plot’), and application. The sheets of A4 look very messy at this stage, because I’m trying out ideas.
The ‘two hours’ rule is arbitrary but useful for me: I rarely find that a third hour on the trot is anywhere near as useful as the first two, so I just stop. The pressure means I focus, and it creates more time for the imaginative, creative task. Thursday is when it all comes together, and my aim is that by Thursday lunchtime the sermon should all have come together. Key ideas, phrases, the main stress, are all clear and – ideally – if the roof caved in and I couldn’t do another thing, I could still preach it.
Friday is a day off, so Saturday is when I can spend a couple of hours getting it into a ‘preachable’ format. I encourage the team to practice their sermons in situ, to get an idea of how they will ‘sound’ rather than read, and I’m very happy to receive feedback straight after the first service, in case I need to tweak it for the second. ‘Anything I need to change?’ is a routine question for us. I can’t afford to be precious with the material.
What script/notes do you take into the pulpit?
I’ve tried all sorts of notes, and none, over the years, and I’ve come back to a moderately full set of notes, in a Moleskine. (Actually, to be really geeky, my preferred notebook is a Leuchtturm1917, which is a tad bigger than a Moleskine).
I used to produce a full manuscript, which certainly helped me to think clearly, but it made me distant and not look at people. If I only have to preach once, I’m happy with going from my memory of the plot (I’m not that precious about my exact wording). But preaching the same sermon two of three times has made me come back to a written format, although I have sections where I’ll know I don’t need notes and can move away from them to communicate more directly, and those are marked up too.
This is my most recent; dark blue or black ink for max visibility. A few months ago I made the rookie error of doing it pencil, and when I stood up in church I couldn’t read it! I ended up standing by the photocopier, running it through on the darkest setting to produce something legible.
My notes look pretty full, but I would be very familiar with them by the time I preach, and I feel quite free. I need the fuller format to take the guesswork out of my mind the third time around, though. It answers the question, ‘Have I told that story already?’ The highlighter is for when I want to read from the bible, so I can find my place again. If you can see pencil, it’s what was edited between the services.
What is your routine before preaching on a Sunday?
Ideally, I’m up with enough time for a decent Quiet Time, and to review the sermon. Team prayers at 8.25-40, then sorting out logistics, a quick clergy ‘pre-flight check’ at 9, after which I’m at the coffee point welcoming people till round about 9.29, for a 9.30 start. So until the service starts, it’s people, people, people.
Once the service has started, I’m focussing much more on the sermon. We’ll have around half an hour between the services, and I try to get away for about ten minutes to reset myself to do it again. A banana, some quiet, and I’m ready to do it again. I’m back home at around 1.30. The evening service has a similar pattern, and I’m on deck an hour before the service is due to begin.
What feedback structures do you utilise in improving on your preaching?
Clergy team meets on Monday, and we have a simple ‘What went well’ and ‘Even better if’ format. We sometimes read books together, to focus on particular areas, and currently we are looking at ‘Resonate’ by Nancy Duarte, to think about the shape of our sermons. This Christmas, I’m going to try giving the clergy team a sneak preview of the Carol service sermon, so I can get some hard feedback while there’s still time to change.
What areas are you currently seeking to develop in your preaching?
I’m always working at getting the text right, that is the one thing we must always be working at! Other than that, this year I have been through one of the CCEF Biblical Counselling modules, because I do find David Powlison, Ed Welch and Paul David Tripp enormously insightful on how the Bible changes us.
I have a little list of my preaching ‘heroes’, and continually select books that will make me more like one or other of them. And our team is thinking about the plot, or shape, of our sermons. Sermons are not just short lectures with a hymn at the end.
What do you do on the days your preaching did not go very well?
I never think it goes well!
I’m always aware of the choices I’ve had to make, the corners cut, and so forth. But after a while as a preacher you realise that the real task, which is raising the dead and making them Christlike, isn’t one you could do anyway. It’s not just difficult – it’s impossible for us. That’s God’s department, and we aren’t responsible for it. So we do our job, prayerfully and carefully, but know our place. John Chapman, the Australian evangelist, always used to ask himself, ‘Chappo, did you tell them about Jesus? Did you explain that from the Bible? Did you invite them to respond? Then go to bed.’ Wise advice. We do our work, and trust God to do the real work.
What one piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out as a preacher?
Don’t get stuck in a groove! There are the obvious good, basic habits like careful text work, commentary work, and so on, and we should never move away from that. Stick at those for ever! But it’s so easy to become a deadly dull, one-note player, when there’s such a wide variety of models to learn from. Spend a year devouring everything from Lloyd Jones, until you’re inside his way of handling the task, and then switch to a John Ortberg or a Matt Chandler. Listen, don’t just read, and listen to how they do it, as well as what they’re saying. Analyse their game-plan and how they keep you attentive. Think about your work. Remain an apprentice, and take a different master each year.
What are some of the best resources you have found on preaching?
I have about a hundred books on preaching on my shelves, and I think I’ve learned something from almost all of them. Any of the books by the great ones (Stott, Spurgeon, Lloyd Jones, Keller) will be worth reading, by default. I was hugely impacted by Rick Warren about fifteen years ago, because of his commitment to simplicity and clarity. But the best resources will simply be the books by the best preachers, written at the peak of their ministries, reflecting on the task. Any book like that is worth paying careful attention to.
Chris Green is one of the speakers at our Autumn Ministers Conference 6th-9th of November. Chris will be helping us in preaching the book of Jeremiah.