Carefully worded preachers
I read these wonderful words in my devotions this morning, describing how Solomon has put together the book of Ecclesiastes:
Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true (Ecc 12.9-10).
What encouragement for the preacher! Here is a model of preparation which many would do well to learn from. It is not just studying and crafting and ordering, it is also finding just the right words. I don't use a full manuscript myself, but I do think very carefully about the words I use as a preacher. I remain unconvinced that preachers who give no time to the actual words they may use are really following in the footsteps of the wise writer of Ecclesiastes.
Engaging with…. a book
I'm in a highly privileged position to get to see what people are actually buying when it comes to books, not just what is being sold. And my observation (not empirical) from both this and time spent with pastors is that our reading is getting lighter. That is certainly true for my generation and below. Perhaps it is only a UK thing, but I imagine not. Pastor-teachers are still avid readers, but we tend not to stretch ourselves when it comes to reading. Why?
- It may be a function of busy-ness. Our already busy lives cannot take on extra reading, particularly if it requires our full engagement
- It may be a function of training. Perhaps those of us who are in our early forties (!!) and under have never been encouraged to read books that stretch
- It may be a function of volume. There are so many good books to be read and that are recommended, that ticking off the easier ones is the best approach to work management.
- It may be a function of narrowness. We know what we believe and we don't particularly want to entertain that (i) we may be wrong or (ii) we need to always be challenging our hard won views
Whatever the reason, I wonder if I can ask a question. When was the last time you read a book that really stretched you? Really stretched. When was the last time you read a book that challenged what you think rather than confirming your own views? When was the last time you read a book when you had to switch off the football because that was the only way to take it in? When was the last time you read a book pen or pencil in hand?
Our Cornhill+ students are reading What St Paul really said by NT Wright at the moment. It's full of good insights and is stretching in many ways. Sure, it's his popular version of what he believes, but it's still stretching as the reader has to think through what is good, what doesn't seem right – and why. It requires engagement and that engagement itself requires thoughtful application and careful processing.
I commend the practice.
For what it’s worth
Do you ever have those conversations when another pastor says something and you suddenly think – wow, there's a lot of wisdom in that. Here are two nuggets I picked up this week. Nothing particularly biblical or theological – just some practical insights that two guys had learnt from the business of leading a church:
- first, one urban pastor told me that naming their rooms in the building with neutral but meaningful names had been instrumental in helping to break down barriers and make the building more accessible to outsiders. "Prayer room" "Fellowship room" and "Back hall" were all off the agenda.
- second, one suburban pastor, serving in a church where they have switched from home groups to central small groups meeting together over a meal (an FIEC church if you must know), told me that having round tables has made a surprising difference. They are more conducive to conversations and relationship development than the standard oblongs.
I just mention. For what it's worth….
PRAYER and the ministry of the word
Last Monday I wrote a blog about godliness. We are headlining this at the start of the Cornhill year. I said then that we are headlining one other emphasis. So here it is: prayer, intercessory prayer for the people to whom we teach and preach the Bible. We had a profitable morning on this (at least, I thought it was profitable). We want our students to keep saying to themselves as they work at bible exposition, ‘godliness and prayer,’ that these two are vital, essential, indispensable, to the work of a bible expositor.
Part of what we studied was what we might call ‘the double ministry’ of the prophet, of the Lord Jesus, and of the apostles. That is to say, all of these both speak to people for God and speak to God for people; they preach and they pray. This double pattern appears with remarkable consistency throughout the Old Testament; the apostles reaffirm it in Acts 6:4 when they slip in ‘prayer’ alongside ‘the ministry of the word’ (Acts 6:2) as the priorities of apostolic ministry. The intercessory prayer of the prophets and of the apostles was not an optional extra to their ministries; it was an integral and essential part of their work. If the prophet merely speaks God’s words, but doesn’t intercede for his hearers, he will not truly be exercising his ministry.
Spurgeon spoke of a minister who limped along ‘for his praying was shorter than his preaching’. Let us not be like that.
Word Alive for preachers. Or something similar.
How do you make sure your own soul is fed, Mr Preacher? How many ministries and churches suffer because the pastor-teacher does not take care of his own soul? It's an easy trap to fall into. There's so much to do, so many meetings, so many tasks – and if you don't do them, who will? So, take a moment this morning to ask yourself this question:
How do you make sure your own soul is fed?
A key way is by sitting under other people's ministry. I think the best place to do this is in your own church. It's good to go to a Bible study you're not leading. It's healthy to be in the congregation when someone else is preaching. Always assuming, of course, you can do so uncritically, listening not as a fellow preacher or leader, but as someone who needs the Spirit to apply the word of Christ to you so that you might love the Father more.
To be honest, I sometimes struggle with this. That's partly because, even if I train myself to be uncritical in this way, people always view you as the pastor, so can't leave you alone. And here is the benefit of making the most of outside conferences. I'm particularly keen on Word Alive, not because they share a building with us, but because it's something that you, Mr Preacher, can benefit from with your family or church family. Here's a chance, pacing yourself well, to sit under ministry, learn and grow. It's not the only thing you could do, go to or listen to. You may have something else. But it's a start. Have a think about it.
How do you make sure your own soul is fed?
Don’t forget the autumn ministers
We're looking forward to welcoming some of you to the autumn ministers conference. It runs from 11-14 November (Mon through Thurs) at Hothorpe Hall in Leicestershire and we're looking forward to having David Gibb (Leyland) preaching and teaching on Book 1 of the psalms and Wallace Benn on maintaining momentum in ministry – both personally and as church leaders. These are critical issues. We're excited about Book 1 of the psalms too because these rich songs and poems are not always straightforward to preach as Christian literature. As with all our conferences, we've also planned in time to relax and meet with friends, so we hope and trust and pray the time away will be refreshing both physically and spiritually.
I've enjoyed reading Lee Gatiss' St Antholin's lecture on Edmund Grindal recently. He was strong on preaching and defended preaching groups/conferences robustly to Queen Elizabeth. I don't think our present Elizabeth as quite the objections that her namesake did, but it amused me to see why he thought preaching conferences were such a good idea:
- Preaching conferences make ministers more skilful preachers.
- They remove preachers from 'idleness, wandering, gaming etc'
- They persuade the doctrinally dodgy to confess the truth.
- They drive ignorant ministers to study harder.
- They show lay people that the clergy are not lazy.
- The train up good preachers to 'beat down Popery.'
Paraphrased by Lee of course. I'm not sure we can say, hand on heart, that these are our six drivers behind preaching conferences, but they made us smile and have a ring of truth about what we do. We long to better handle the word of God. We long to see godliness develop in preachers whom we serve. We long that as iron sharpens iron, we would help one another to grasp, understand and believe the truth. We long to encourage good and faithful study of God's word. We long that churches would see their pastor's progress. And we long to enable preachers to refute falsehood, even though we might not express it as "beating down Popery."
So, yes, these made us smile. But they also still ring true, 450 years on. Book here for the full Grindal experience, otherwise known as the autumn ministers conference. Lee's booklet on Grindal is out shortly from the Latimer Trust.
Praying the sermon in and preaching on the first day of the week
We all know that prayer is a key component of the preachers' life – reflecting his personal walk with Christ and also the ministry that God has given him. So praying over a passage or sermon as part of the preparation is a key component of sermon work. We neglect it at our peril. Now, we all know that – even if we are not the practitioners of it that we would always like to be.
But what about praying after the sermon? I wonder if too soon the sermon becomes old news to us. Monday comes around and we're already thinking about the next passage, the next text, the next message. So, here's something I've been trying to do recently with varied success, it must be said. I've been trying to do what I encourage congregations to do – that's to pray the sermon in.
- Post preaching, I've tried to be more disciplined in bringing the sermon and its effect in my people, to my Almighty Father. I don't want to get so caught up with the next week's business that this is neglected. Strangely, one thing that has really helped me with this is thinking about Sunday as the first day of a new week rather than the last day of the old week. I think that many of us preachers are hard wired to think of Sunday as the culmination of the week's effort – everything works up to this point. It's easy to get sucked into thinking that Sunday ends the week and Monday starts the new one. But if we train ourselves to think differently about the weekly pattern we see Sunday as the beginning of the week and then it feels more natural to be praying through that week for what has gone before.
- I've also tried to continue preaching the sermon to myself in the coming week. Many of us (somewhat tritely?) observe during the sermon "of course, I've preached this to myself this week" (last week, that should be?!!) but now I'm trying to train myself to pray in the Sunday sermon into my own heart. I've written down the key application and used it in my prayer times, running through it again and again and applying it to the situations I face throughout the week.
Why not give it a go? And why not see how thinking differently about the week can help your preaching?
Setting boundaries on your time
I'm just off the back of a stupidly busy eight days. All, pretty much, self inflicted. It wasn't helped by a broken down train on Saturday night meaning it took me 6 hours to get home from just outside Leeds, before then climbing in the car again for a two hour drive to preach in Hampshire. Fool! It's the last one of these silly stretches because I've got a small group of friends whom I have to run such outside speaking engagements past. It seems to be working – it's helping me set boundaries. But I have learnt the hard way that it is important to have some mechanism in place to help with this. Exactly what depends on your nature. It also depends on your setting. Ordinarily it should be your fellow church leaders or your spouse if you are married. But however it works, I wonder how you make sure you able to set – and keep – appropriate time boundaries. You are no use to anyone if you cannot.
The context of words
Words always have contexts. It's absurd to strip out words from their contexts and try to make them stand on their own. I was reminded of this as I read some BBC articles about the crackdown on racist chanting (a good thing, by the way). Much of the online debate centres on the word "Yid" used by both opponents and supporters of Spurs alike. The FA have announced that using the word is inappropriate and probably illegal. Some Spurs supporters have reacted strongly, saying that "Yid army" is one of their terrace chants. Yet there is no doubt that it is also used as a term of abuse by opponents.
Should there be such blanket bans? I think the answer probably lies in the fact that the word, once stripped of its context, is very difficult to interpret. Words can be offensive in one context but not in another. That is true historically (try reading Isaiah 36.12 in the King James version!!), as well as culturally and even locationally – most couples for example have a private bedroom language that would not be appropriate for, say, the pulpit.
The bottom line is that it's naive to think that words have meanings without contexts. Of course, this is supremely true in the Scriptures. I'm acutely aware of this preaching in Ecclesiastes at the moment where context shapes much of how a word should be understood. And here's the lesson for preachers – when studying a text, look first at the context to work out the meaning of words. Don't fly to the lexicon or commentary. There's many a mistake there for the taking by pursuing that path too quickly. Rather, look around. Read the surrounding words. Re-read them. And remember every word has a context and it's that which brings meaning.