Title: Looking at Preaching Afresh
Looking at Preaching Afresh
Some Basic Check Notes for Preachers
I write this present page as part of the “Looking Afresh” series, which I feel provoked into writing by observing a variety of local churches as a visitor for the past year and a half (2011-12), and having wrestled with a variety of issues to do with ‘real church'. Originally this was going to be a single page but I have recently come across a chapter in a book I wrote which covers more fully some of the matters found here, so I recommend AFTER you have read this page you proceed to that page. As you will have come here via a contents page, you will also have noted that this has developed into a series covering a number of issues pertaining to preaching that I have noted in these recent years.
I write as one who has preached and taught for over thirty years, woefully aware of my own short-comings and limitations. However I am also aware of the many times when people have responded and made very positive comments after I have had the privilege of speaking. I come with this page, very much as a learner and I suspect that that will continue throughout my life on this earth. “How can I improve so as to be more fruitful for God and to be a blessing to people?” will, I hope, remain at the forefront of my thinking as long as God gives me strength and opportunity to be a voice for Him.
I would suggest that ‘preaching' stirs and challenges the heart to make a decision to act for Christ in some way, while ‘teaching' stirs and challenges the mind to make a decision for Christ in some way.
Put another way ‘preaching' comes with power to take God's word for the moment and apply it in such a way as to bring change of life, whereas ‘teaching' comes imparting, knowledge, understanding and wisdom (i.e. information) to impact the intellect to bring change of attitude, understanding and then life.
As I will comment later, communicating God's word without expecting it to bring life change, sells it short!
Over the past year and a half, having listened to a large number of ‘preachers', I have been challenged as to whether I am hearing preaching or teaching. I have been spoilt in my past of having experienced a large number of great men of God who are mightily gifted and who, of course, you don't find in the local church. But is that an excuse not to think about the quality of what we find in the latter part of most Sunday services, and to stir one another to greater things.
“Nowhere in church life is quality so significant as in the matter of preaching.” If that quotation is correct then we would do well to pay attention to what we, as preachers, do Sunday by Sunday. Two of last century's British “great preachers”, Martyn Lloyd Jones and John Stott have written books on preaching, as have several American preachers. Much, therefore, can be said on the subject and whatever appears on this page must be limited and will not touch on many other important issues. Nevertheless, the following are some key, valid points that I believe are worth thinking about when we consider the call to preach.
1. Why Preach
Why not to preach
Reasons that come to mind why someone might be misguided enough to want to preach are:
These are some of the reasons that I think are valid:
i. You feel God's call on your life to preach
ii. You have seen the truth and long to see it impact others
2. God's Servant
What does God want?
One of the dangers for the preacher is that he gets so carried away by the wonder of the word that he forgets two vital issues. First, he is God's servant and, second, that he is the servant of the people.
To be God's servant requires that we ask the crucial question, “What does God want to achieve through me standing up and delivering His word?” If we have not thought about this before, we risk ‘performing' for the people, whereas in reality we should be channels through whom God moves in order to bring about change in people. This is not the place to consider the teaching of the whole of the New Testament that the Christian life is all about change and growth, and God's word is one of His primary instruments that He uses to bring that about – but it is there and we need to be motivated by it. This will, by necessity, be repeated a number of times below in different forms.
Merely because we've been thrilled by a passage of Scripture it does not mean that our call is just to offload it on the people, for that can be a very self-aggrandising exercise. Showing the people how knowledgeable we are is a pride issue. No, we must ask the Lord, “What do you want to achieve by me delivering your word?” Servants understand that ability and anointing come from Him.
The Word to have Impact
It is likely, I would suggest, that there will be two probable goals:
If we do not move from the first to the second goal then the people remain untouched and unchanged and it was just an intellectual exercise with little profit. The word of God must always have impact as we have already noted above. 2 Tim 3:16 gives possibilities. One might also suggest that if preaching has a prophetic dimension (a ‘now word' from God) then 1 Cor 14:3 also gives purpose.
Spirit Motivated, Energised and Empowered
Here we move into possibly the most contentious element of preaching. Merely because a man stands up and delivers a message based on Scripture does not mean he is Spirit-led or Spirit-empowered. This is all about faith, obedience and openness to God and, most especially, God awareness. This takes us into the whole area of listening to God, waiting on God and receiving from God. Is my preaching a God exercise or simply another human endeavour? Tricky!
I sometimes think this is the most significant of these issues. Here we must ask ourselves again and again, “Am I aware of the wonder of God's word and of the potential of it to change people?”
M.L.Jones was characterised by almost invariably saying, suggesting or implying that the verses before them on which he was basing his message were THE most important verses they could find, and that he said week after week regardless of where they were in the Bible! That was simply an expression of his awareness of the wonder and significance of the passage.
Although the preacher does not want to draw attention to himself, but to the word, if he himself fails to convey his own excitement at the wonder of what he is delivering then:
If the Bible does not stir and thrill you, find something else to do. And if it does thrill and stir you, convey that. If you spend time in the word and meditate on it prayerfully, it WILL thrill you, always! It will!
So far we have assumed or implied this, but it must be emphasised that the primary role of the preacher is to convey the will of God through the word of God. To do this he must present the people with the content of the Bible and explain it and apply it to everyday life. (I will deal with application at the end of the next part). Exposition is all about explaining what the original writers meant when they wrote what we find in the Bible, and then showing its relevance to life today. We should not aim it at specific people who we think have problems but leave it to the Holy Spirit to apply it when He sees fit.
3. Servant of the People
You've heard the expression, “So heavenly minded as to be no earthly use”? If the preacher is to be first of all God-conscious, then surely to be effective with people he must also be people-conscious. The Bible is full of this and we are foolish if we ignore it. This is simply a recognition of our humanity, and leads us into thinking about delivery and presentation, i.e. wisdom.
Spiritual AND Human
To suggest that this is purely a spiritual exercise fails to recognise our humanity, how God has made us to work best. Modern teaching theory talks about learners having different preferences – visual, auditory, kinaesthetic etc. Preaching is traditionally an auditory exercise which may not suit some people and therefore we must consider what can I do to make what I am doing as acceptable (from a delivery standpoint) as possible to the congregation, so I remove as many barriers as possible to them receiving this word. The use of PowerPoint presentations takes us into visual learning. The kinaesthetic element comes, I suggest, by preaching and receiving being a Holy Spirit exercise (which we've already touched upon.)
Biblical Content & Purpose
Here again we may move into contentious waters. Looking back over the years I am aware that I have been particularly guilty in this area, but it may be that this is a failure of the young preacher. I refer to the tendency to pack out a sermon with masses of verses – we are conveying the Bible, aren't we? The young preacher does this with all good intent (I did!) of showing the whole counsel of God and verifying the points we are making. Unfortunately this approach has several distinct failures:
i) If you use too many verses the people lose the sense of the whole thing and the people just get overwhelmed by words. John Wimber criticised shepherds whose currency is words, and more words.
ii) While doing this you probably lose the sense of structure of the message. Putting lots of verses on the screen may be helpful but if you fail to provide a full PowerPoint presentation highlighting headings and points being made, your presentation simply becomes a sea of words which soon just go over most people's heads (Don't excuse yourself if one or two people cope, if the majority are suffering!!!)
iii) The biggest failure is that if you are pushing through a tidal wave of verses it means you are not stopping to fully explain them and apply them. Many Christians in their ‘quiet times' simply read verses but if challenged a half an hour later could not tell you what they read. The same applies to this style of preaching. It is better to take people into the significance and meaning of one passage, rather than skim over dozens of passages.
For the preacher-teacher who wishes to convey the ‘full counsel of God' it is better to refer in preaching to Biblical references which can be supported by a handout at the end for those who wish to follow up on such things.
Because this is such an important issue it is worth asking WHY use this approach of piling up dozens of verses? Having observed it and thought about it over many years, I conclude that it stems from insecurity and impatience!
Some of us feel we have to justify all we say by reference to as many verses as possible. We lack authority and therefore seek to make up for it in this way. That is the insecurity bit.
We are also impatient, feeling I must convey the whole counsel as quickly as possible to feed these young Christians. What we fail to realise is that it takes a while to digest the word of God – hear it, understand it, and apply it – and in fact we will spend the whole of our lives learning and it won't be all at once.
I'm not sure if there is such a word, but the people must be able to hear the speaker. I say this because I have come across those who deliver their exciting words at the same level as they normally hold a conversation. If the people cannot hear you - and the elderly will not if you do not throw your voice to the back row - then so many of these other points are a waste of time. Preaching and teaching are about communicating and if we don't reach the people, we're speaking to the floor - what a waste of time! If you know you're bad at this, go into the church when there is no one around - and take an elderly friend and seat them on the back row and then practise speaking from the abdomen and throwing your voice to the back, until they can hear you clearly. I know this assumes you don't have a microphone but even microphones don't convey low tones!
While the ultimate object of preaching is to convey the will of God through the exposition of Scripture, the wise preacher is aware that studies on people's attention spans gives frighteningly short times for most people where there is just a continuous (and monotonous?) drone of the preacher's voice which, on occasion, may lack vibrancy and interest.
What becomes obvious to any student of the Church, is that inside the Church we tolerate things that outside would be rejected by people voting by their feet. It is only good manners, or perhaps fear, that keeps some people in their seats during the sermon.
Variety means we can work through one verse at a time, and then jump to the bigger picture; it also means we can use personal or everyday illustrations to bring greater understanding to the text; it also means we may from time to time use humour. The master of illustrations is probably Max Lucardo, while the master of the use of humour to convey challenging points deep into the heart is probably Jeff Lucas. Read or listen to them both if you can.
Having said this, the danger is that we over use illustrations, personal anecdotes and humour and if any of them become the main focus we have missed the point. They are merely tools to help perform the main job which is to expound the truth of God in Scripture revealing the will of God. Let that always remain our main focus, but use these other things to help that focus, not overwhelm it.
Length of Message
The wise preacher learns something about human capability as well as discernment of the Spirit. It is clear that the Holy Spirit uses a wide range of factors and He is the master-psychologist. John Stott writing on this says in response to the question of how long a sermon should be, “It is an impossible question to answer because there are so many imponderables. It depends on the occasion and the topic, on the preacher's gift and the congregation's maturity.” I would also add, “and the level of the Spirit's anointing”. So, preacher's gift (and that may include a whole raft of issues), the congregation's maturity (which is difficult to assess) and the level of the Spirit's anointing (which appears to rely upon another whole range of things) appear key issues.
I am aware that, looking back, I have preached in the Middle East and Far East where time has not been an issue for either me or the congregation – which means I preached for a long time and had a wonderful response to the call out at the end. I sense a greater anointing upon me (and I've watched it on others as well) when I am abroad. When I am back in this country I am not aware of it in the same way, but whether that is me, the congregation or God is debatable.
After a fairly lengthy consideration of preaching in the past, John Stott concludes, “ten minutes are too short and forty minutes too long.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to say similar things I believe. Ten minutes doesn't give the preacher time to convey sufficient for the people, while after forty minutes most people in English congregations (if they dare be honest with you) will say you lost your edge at least five minutes ago, so please stop!
Personally I veer towards the approach that tends to ramble a bit in explaining and expounding – but I have been brought up in Bible Weeks where preachers did this and took up an hour. As good as it may be to do that and produce a lighter approach that is often more interesting to listen to, in an average Sunday congregation, if you do that you will rightly be charged with lack of discipline.
To conclude, I suggest that we abuse people if we either fail to think about these things, or assume an anointing greater than we have, and plough on ignoring the weariness that is coming over the people as we press on. It is better to impact the people of God with a limited number of points and leave them wanting more, than to have them breathing a sigh of relief as we draw to a close.
I commented earlier on the need to apply Scripture. I once sat in a training session for preachers under that past-patriarch Arthur Wallis, who advocated preparing the message with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. That was simply his way of saying, make it relevant to life. We may help people understand this by the use of examples and illustrations and anecdotes from life but mostly we would do well to make the will of God so clear that He alone will apply it to the individuals before us.
Perhaps it needs saying that we need to convey to the congregation from time to time, that the word of God is not for tickling our intellect but bringing change in us to conform us to Jesus, and to God's will generally.
A penultimate point would be to suggest that a wise preacher summarises the message at the end, bringing out particular points that have stood out that may be issues to be applied.
The final point must be to give people opportunity to respond in some manner to what they have heard. On occasion that may be the dramatic, that invites people to raise a hand, stand up, or come out to the front in response. Billy Graham understood the importance of response when he called thousands from all round the globe to “get up out of your seats and come forward”.
However the dramatic ceases to be meaningful if that is all we do, and we do it every week. Making some form of response, though, IS very helpful for the people of God. The pastoral preacher will never push the people or force them into something they are not ready for (or which God is not leading them into). A far better approach is simply to lay out the issues you believe have been raised and put it in general terms – “For some of you this morning, you heard the Lord speak to you about…… and you may wish to respond silently in prayer as you feel you are able,” or if you wish to be a little more proactive, you lead a prayer for that issue, helping those to whom it applies to go with you.
If we are talking about a response we are seeking to bring about, it is a response TO GOD and therefore it will involve prayer.
For some people at some times, they will need a greater encouragement and therefore an offer to pray over people at the end will have a more powerful effect in their lives than simply them praying on their own.
4. And so…
So here are just a few things that may help us become more able servants of the word. As I said at the beginning there are probably many other things we could consider.
If we were truly secure we would be able to be open to either peer or congregational comment (good and bad) about what we have brought. In the States I have preached in one church where after the service they held a “Bible Study” which comprised of dissecting and commenting upon the sermon – in my presence! A challenge and an encouragement – but perhaps we are not ready for that in this country yet!
One final warning. Preaching and teaching are spiritual exercises and we need to remember that some people infront of us may not be in a good place with God and they may not yet be in a place to receive, so if they reject your word and go away grumbling, take heart, their day will come. You just do the best you can with the Lord, to be right with Him, to prepare to the best of your ability and so on. Then rest in it.
Ponder on the things covered in this paper and let's enjoy being servants of God and the people together.