How to choose a training course
Here's a short video I did for the FIEC. I tried to be objective as possible – there are LOTS of good training opportunities in the UK. Praise God for that. I am biased in particularly recommending PT Cornhill, which started this week. But the course deserves my bias. Good to see so many eager students of God's word.
The theology of preaching
At a theological conference last week I asked a very knowledgeable theologian and church minister what book he would recommend on the theology of preaching. He wasn’t exactly brimming over with suggestions. The topic is on my mind because it’s an area in which we are attempting to beef up what we teach at Cornhill. Of course we will continue to teach preaching to a large extent through thorough study of books of Scripture and intensive practice, but we who teach at Cornhill also reckon that we need to strengthen our theology of preaching. By that I don’t mean the principles and practices of biblical exposition themselves, but a rich biblical and theological understanding of why we are right to do what we do when we preach, and of what preaching is in relation to other aspects of Word ministry.
So this week I have turned back to one reliable book that purports to address this topic head-on: Peter Adam’s Speaking God’s Word: A Practical Theology of Preaching. I’ve partly found what I’m looking for there, but (if I’m honest) not entirely. Yet there are many good things in the book. In one lovely section he sets out some of the reasons that Calvin gave for why God established the ministry of preaching. Here’s a taste:
- God is invisible, so he uses the mouths of preachers as his delegates.
- He shows his regard for humanity, by deigning to use some of them as his ambassadors.
- It teaches Christians humility: ‘when a puny man risen from the dust speaks in God’s name, at this point we best evidence our piety and obedience toward God if we show ourselves teachable towards his minister although he excels us in nothing’ (a great line to remember the next time someone in church intimates that they think you’re ‘puny’ – or if I’m tempted to look down on other faithful preachers as not ‘up to my level’).
- It fosters mutual love. We all have to sit there on the same level listening to the same message.
- It is not enough to preach ‘as though a man should teach in a school’. ‘We must moreover be quickened up with good and vehement exhortations; we must be rebuked as if a man should search a wound’. Peter Adam himself gives some excellent tips on how to put the latter into practice; not least: spend at least as much prep-time thinking and praying through how to apply your exposition profoundly the body of people you’ll be speaking to, as you do working on the text. Not, of course, an excuse to reduce my text-work time! Very tough to do, as we all know – and as all really valuable things are.
PT Cornhill Teaching Days – coming your way very soon
We're on tour…! Our autumn series of training days around the country kicks off this Saturday (21st September) at Otley in Yorkshire (still time to book here), Dublin on 12th October and Colchester (East Anglia Gospel Partnership) on 9th November. Perhaps see you there? They're excellent opportunties to train your preaching and teaching teams. Thinking ahead there's also Bath on 15 Feb 2014 and Sussex Gospel Partnership on 15 March 2014.
A labor of love
Our friends at Reformation Heritage Books have sent us a truly wonderful book – A labor of love by J Stephen Yuille. It basically takes sixteen prayers of the puritan minister George Swinnock and turns them into short chapters on the nature of Christian ministry and its high calling. I've been reading one a day and finding it really very helpful. The Puritans can – at times – be a little introspective. And there's always a danger that this kind of book could be just that. However, Yuille steers us down the straight and narrow and provides a useful biblical commentary on each chapter. Here you will find the full breadth of Christian ministry and a useful challenge and tonic for the soul.
The book ends with a farewell sermon Swinnock preached in 1662. It's hard not to be moved by this (and if you'd sat through a sermon this length, you can be sure you would have wanted to move just a little – it's long!). It strikes me that it's Puritan preaching at its worst and best. Worst – because the preacher sits sometimes very loosely to the text; it's quite incredible what he gets out of it. Best – because it's biblical truth rooted in pastoral warmth and genuine love for the people.
Overall, highly recommended. Even though it's only available on kindle in the UK at the moment, it's definitely worth getting.
The preacher’s besetting sins (part 4)
Self pity is one of the most ugly of sins, yet least called out. It is closely related to pride and vanity of course, but has at its root a lack of contentment in Christ. It also has many shades. But it is rarely private. In many ways, self-pity is badly named. For although it starts with feeling sorry for oneself (in lots of areas), it rarely remains private for long. In some preachers this manifests itself in their preaching illustrations. Just get in another illustration about tax credits and you can remind the congregation how little you are paid! For others, it is in personal conversations with members of the congregation. Car is playing up again. Can't really afford to fix it.
I think self-pity centres on one or two key areas of life:
- money. We are not paid wild amounts and convince ourselves that if we had stayed in the secular world we would be much better off.
- time. Ministers make huge sacrifices in terms of time. We'd love people to appreciate that more.
- ministry success. Our ministries are just not as fruitful as we'd love them to be.
I think (and have discovered myself) this sin to be insidious. It creeps in slowly and, like Russian bindweed, takes hold and is a devil to shift. Literally. Try reading Screwtape! Self-pity is a great satanic weapon.
So. here are a few home truths:
- money. You may be one of those pastors who is paid too little. I pray your church remedies that. But let's say you are paid £20,000 plus house. That's not much is it? Er, yes. It depends where you live, but let's assume your house would cost £1,000 to rent a month (round us it's £2,000 a month). You don't pay tax or NI on that benefit. Some of your bills are probably paid. You can make deductions as a minister that no one else can. And yet, the tax system still assesses you on the basic salary because you are a minister. So you may get tax credits. Even allowing that you don't – my fag packet exercise reckons on £20k plus house being equivalent to a salary of almost £40,000. Not so shabby now. So (for most of you!) enough of the whingeing about money.
- time. Yes, you do spend evenings out. But what do you think your secular church leaders do? They work during the day and come out at night. You can, if you plan your day well, have an evening meal with your family. You can be flexible. I worked in the city and I have never yet met a minister – even one of the workaholics – who works harder than we worked then. That's not to say we shouldn't be wise about time and time management. We must certainly not overwork. But the case is overstated.
- ministry success. Go away. Read Ezekiel 1-3. Ministry success is not your measure. Ministry faithfulness is. So if your self-pity is caused by a lack of ministry success, you have greater demons to fight. God have mercy on us all.
Sorry to be so blunt. But self-pity is ugly. And it has no place in the life of any Christian, least of all a minister of the gospel of grace.
The preacher’s besetting sins (part 3)
The preacher's unteachable spirit
The preacher spends more time in the word than anyone else in the congregation. Possibly. Hopefully. How remarkable it is, therefore, that he can develop an unteachable spirit. And yet it is all too common. An unteachable spirit means that the preacher is almost incapable of sitting under someone else's ministry and benefitting from it.
- This may be a sin of habit. He may sit under other people's ministry so rarely that he scarcely knows how to do so anymore. He is always preaching, or if not preaching, then away on holiday or filling someone else's pulpit on a Sunday away.
- This may be a sin of pride. If he is the senior pastor, then he views the younger preachers in his church as his protegés, coached from an early age and he looks on when they are preaching with a kind of headmasterly benevolence.
- This may be a sin of coldness towards Christ. In all the preparing and studying to give to others, the preacher has quenched the Spirit to the extent that the word no longer grips him in the way it used to do.
- This may be a sin of being overtly critical. The preacher is so used to critiquing sermons or listening/reading critically that he is actually unable to do anything other than suggest points for improvement or spot signs of potential heresy.
Or (e). All of the above. Running conferences, as I do, I see a lot of this. It is very, very easy for us to listen critically and end up not hearing anything. I have lost count of the times that otherwise great expositions have been critically received because….well., the list is endless, you would not believe it. And, of course, I see it in my own heart too. I spend a good deal of my time helping other preachers and I still have to discipline myself to take time to remember – for example during a sermon practise class – that I am hearing the word of God preached. There's still time needed to pause and reflect.
I think this is a deadly sin for a preacher. It's deadly for his own heart. And it's deadly for his people. You'll know quickly a congregation member who sits under an unteachable pastor. Because they will quickly become unteachable too.
So how can it be fought? Here's some wisdom, for what it's worth…
- don't hog the preaching. Make sure, from early on, you sit under other's ministry in your church
- discipline yourself in prayerful assessment of a sermon in terms of what your heart needs to hear
- use conferences wisely to sharpen your own preaching and also sit under good ministry. Expect these times to build you as a Christian
- listen to online audio to receive good teaching regularly yourself. Find time to do this in your busy week.
And ask God to take away your unteachable spirit. It helps no one.
The preacher’s besetting sins (part 2)
This is part 2 in a short series this week on the preacher's besetting sins – written out of some painful self-examination this summer! I hope it's useful.
The preacher's cold heart
The great black-lined irony of preaching is this: the very man who stands in the pulpit week in and week out parading and proclaiming a public form of warmth and love for Christ can be the most cold hearted in the congregation.
At one level, this shouldn't surprise us. All Christians have ups and downs. But most Christians can subsume these into ordinary life. But when ordinary life is church ministry, as it is for the preacher, the combination can be deadly. There will be times – there will – when you are a reluctant preacher. You know, if you are honest with yourself, that you're a sinner preaching to sinners. And sometimes this becomes even worse – a cold hearted believer parading warmth towards Christ which you scarcely feel.
It's not just the ups and downs of Christian life that can bring this situation about. The very nature of ministry – lots of time alone, study, preparation, thinking and so on, can – if not checked – lead to a cold, loveless kind of faith. All the energy is expended on producing a creditable, faithful sermon. So much so that there is nothing left in the tank for our own walk with Christ. What experienced preacher has not felt this from time to time, perhaps more often than we should?
How easy it is for a preacher to say to his people "you know, I've preached this sermon to myself" but the reality is that he only did so to see how long it took. How easy to sound convincing about your quiet times from the pulpit. How easy to big up your own personal evangelism ("as I was saying just the other day…"). And because we know the Scriptures we know what is at the root of this. We know it is easy to convince others because we know it is easy to convince ourselves that we are doing well.
Just recently, I've set up a little group of people to hold be accountable and advise me. It all sounds a little cheesy and American. An accountability group! Whatever next! But it's been really useful in addressing my personal walk with Christ. The thing is I can convince my people, my wife, myself – that I am doing better than I am.
And the remedy? Well, you should know it Mr Preacher because it is what you give your people week in week out. You really do need to preach that to yourself. And if you don't know the answer… well, God help you. But it must begin with honest assessment. Perhaps you can do that yourself? Perhaps you need others to help you do it? Perhaps you need to read a book?
But, please, I beg you, if your walk is cold, don't pretend it will mend itself or (perhaps worse) that it simply doesn't matter.
Birthday in the PT office
He won't thank me for making it known, but today's is Dick Lucas' eighty-eighth birthday. In God's goodness, he's still sharp and on top of things. The Scriptures tell us to honour our elders, and though this can be misinterpreted, it surely means – at the very least – we should give thanks to God for the ministry of Dick over the years, still serving us as we serve the local church.
The preacher’s besetting sins (part 1)
I preached my first sermon in 1988 at Woodhouse Eaves Evangelical Baptist Church, in a small village just outside Loughborough. Habakkuk, if you're interested. Since then, amazingly almost 25 years ago, I've been preaching pretty regularly, first as a lay preacher, then as a pastor-teacher. This summer, I set aside some time to reflect back on that preaching and try to see what my besetting sins were as a preacher.
I've preached some good sermons (probably the minority), some stinkers, and (this is probably the majority) some average expositions. But they all have one thing in common: they were all preached in sin by a sinner. My motives have never been entirely pure; I hope I am more sanctified now than I was in 1988, but I am sure not perfect. And I want to put sin to death, both in my personal life, but also in my preaching ministry. That requires me to identify the sins that beset my preaching life, and work, prayerfully and in dependence upon God, to root them out.
As I've done that I've realised that these preaching sins are pretty common to all of us who preach. For sure, there may be differences around the margins, but I want over this week, to share four struggles that I've felt in my own preaching in the sure knowledge that these are four struggles you have felt too. Maybe some more than others. And maybe I've not nailed the particular one you are struggling with at the moment. But these posts come prayerfully and humbly, hoping that our preaching might be used by God as we seek to serve him with good hearts.
The four sins are:
- vanity and pride
- an unteachable spirit
The Preacher's Vanity
It took me a long while to realise that there is the world of difference between wondering:
- what will people make of this (i.e. the sermon)
- what will people make of me
The first, correctly focused, is a commendable trait. As we are preparing our sermons, we should be thinking whether people will understand what we are saying; whether the application we have seen flowing out from the passage will capture people's attention; prayerfully whether this sermon will make a difference in people's lives as we seek to faithfully expound the word of God. All of the above and more. We don't preach for ourselves. We preach, ultimately, for the glory of our triune God, which means we preach for people. We want the living and active word of God to grip them and take hold of them and, by the Spirit's power, change them.
All well and good. But that is a world away from the second question, even if – at first glance – it appears very close. What will people make of me is the classic vanity question. It is the question that reveals the preacher's inner insecurities or desires. I want to be liked. I want to be seen to be good. I enjoy being at the front. I really quite like it when people say I am a good preacher. And so on. It begins with vanity, and quickly turns into pride.
Vanity is an ugly sin. It has no redeeming qualities. It both corrupts our own hearts and corrupts the hearts of our listeners too. Let me explain.
It is perhaps no surprise that it corrupts our own hearts. Let me explain how I think that affects our sermon preparation and preaching:
- for some it will mean pulling punches. If I want to be seen to be the great pastor-preacher there will be times when I let people off the hook and don't preach a passage with its full force. I don't want to upset anybody after all.
- but there will be other times when I go to the other extreme. There is a kind of Christian who loves the firebrand preacher and vanity may make me into a condemnatory preacher. It's easy to be that kind of preacher. There's always something to get angry about. Goodness, my people might even call that kind of ministry prophetic!
- for others it will mean preparing so that I can dazzle my people. That chiasm; that obscure Hebrew construction; those bookends; and so it goes on.
- for some it will be length. Vanity can make us preach longer sermons than are necessary, simply because we can
- for others it be shortness. Look how much I can get into 15 minutes! Although I have to say, I've not met many evangelicals with this curious form of pride
- for some it will mean banging the drum about our particular hot potatoes. Yes, this too is a form of vanity. For people should be interested in the things that get me hot under the collar.
And many more. And of course, when all this works – vanity quickly becomes pride. Not all of these are sins in themselves or course. Just because I regularly preach for 45 minutes doesn't mean I am proud. But they may be indicators that vanity is an issue.
And this deep, inward sin corrupts the hearts of our hearers too. How so? Because when we don't preach the passage faithfully, we are not giving our people what God has ordained for them. That goes right to the heart of expository preaching. We preach the passage precisely because we have confidence that this is what God wants his people to hear. But when we are more interested in presenting ourselves we diminish the text and rob people of what they really need. They become, at best, impoverished; at worst, corrupted themselves. Pity the congregation with a vain preacher.
As with all the preacher's besetting sins, the glory of preaching is that God uses weak vessels. In one sense it is not as though our sin will hinder the effectiveness of the Spirit working through his word. Yet, on the other hand we must not be so naive as to dismiss any link whatsoever. Take a look at 1 Timothy 4.16. I am increasingly convinced that this is a lodestar text for preachers.
Vanity is one of the preacher's root sins. It is often behind other sins, particularly of behaviour. We act in certain ways, because we are vain. And because of its nature, I think it is a common besetting sin of preachers, to a greater or lesser extent. So root it out with me, I beg you. Be honest about its presence and, with the Spirit's aid, fight against it; put it to death.
For God opposes the proud. And it would be a terrible thing, Mr Preacher, to have the very God you claim to serve so faithfully, opposing you.
NIV Proclamation Bible
Lee Gatiss (Editor) and Hodder & Stoughton have put together a terrific new edition of the NIV called The Proclamation Bible. It's not by us, but it's inspired by the work we've been trying to do over the last 25 years or so. As well as some introductory articles, there is a two page essay on each book of the Bible giving some pointers to its message and structure. It's not a study Bible in the traditional sense (verse by verse explained), but it is actually something more: the helps are designed to give you a head start in preparing a message or talk from a particular book, whether you are a preacher, small group leader or kids worker. It's also effectively a wide-margin edition, with space to write around the edges and make this into your own unique resource.
The list of contributors reads like a who's who of good evangelical preaching! Get this: Adam, Alexander, Anderson, Ash, Austen, Bartholomew, Beale, Beynon, Block, Bolt, Bray, Byun, Casement, Clarke, Cooper, Cowan, Darlington, de Witt, Eloff, Fyall, Gathercole, Gatiss & Gatiss (!), Gibb, Gibson, Goligher, Hardyman, Harmon, Helm, Hely Hutchinson, Jackman, Jobes, Jongkind, Lucas, MacLeay, Mason, Meynell, Moo, Mote, O'Brien, O'Donoghue, Perkins, Peterson, Pratt, Reynolds [can't have everything] Roberts, Robson, Rose, Rosner, Schluter, Shead, Skrine, Sleeman, Stuart, Taylor, Theocharous, Thompson, Tinker, Tooher, Vibert, Ward, Weekes, Williamson, Woodhouse, Wright.
Amazing line up!
Not only this, but PT gets a small royalty from each Bible sold to help support the work. I've seen a lot of the contributions before as a consulting editor, but I've actually just spent an hour flicking through others and thinking how good a resource this would be for anyone who teaches the Bible. RRP is £29, but you can get one from our friends at tenofthose for £20 if you preorder.