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August 06, 2012

This is an article about preaching that is meant to be read by non-preachers. I am an unlikely preacher, a guy who was paralyzingly shy through high school and college and into later life who rather suddenly found himself speaking at conferences and preaching at churches. As someone who is rather new to the pulpit, I thought it might be helpful to tell you what some of the surprises have been as I’ve somehow transitioned to a person who preaches on a regular basis. 

Here are some of the things I’ve learned about preaching:

Preaching Can Be Discouraging

Any preacher will tell you that the preaching ministry can be very, very discouraging. There are many reasons for this and they may vary week-by-week and person-by-person. Here are just a few of them.

Preaching Is a Spiritual Battle. Preaching is first and foremost a spiritual battle. The battle begins early in the week with the opening of the Bible and commentaries and it doesn’t end until well after the sermon has been preached. This battle is taxing on both a spiritual and an emotional level. The reality is that Satan wants a sermon to be full of error and devoid of power and he will fight hard to ensure that is the case. I’m sure every preacher can testify of his awareness that he has an adversary who battles against him all week long.

Preaching Is a Mental Battle. Preaching is also a battle of the mind. To take a few words or a few verses and to find structure and to make that structure make sense and to find the right meaning and to find relevant application and to create appropriate illustrations takes long and dedicated brain work. With all the other responsibilities of life and ministry, that brain space can be hard to find and to maintain. It can be discouraging when the pieces just do not fall into place. What seemed like it was going to be an absolutely brilliant sermon on Tuesday afternoon is just barely tolerable by Sunday morning.

The preacher’s whole week culminates in the sermon. This is something to think about when you consider preaching and preachers. The preacher’s whole week has been structured around the time and the labor required to craft a sermon. He has read and studied and prayed and wept, and all of it comes to a climax in the 45 minutes he stands in the pulpit. His ministry is largely private—he works alone in his study, mentors small groups, counsels privately. But on Sunday morning he stands before the church and is suddenly the public face of the church and suddenly doing a short burst of very public ministry. You are there as a witness to the most important, most public moments in your pastor’s week.

It Is Exhausting. Preaching is an absolutely exhausting task, and not just for a person who is introverted, who tends to expend energy in the presence of people and who recharges away from people. When you consider the exhaustion and discouragement of preaching, you can see why so many preachers are tempted toward sin on Sunday nights or Monday mornings. 

Preachers Are Fragile

Preachers are fragile. There is a sense in which every sermon is a performance; you stand before the church and bare your soul, telling them how you interpret a passage (knowing they may disagree with your interpretation or that you may be just plain wrong), how it has affected you (when it may affect them differently) and what difference it ought to make in their lives (when that application may miss them completely). There is something very exposing, very soul-baring about it. A famous quote about preaching is bang on: “To preach, to really preach, is to die naked a little at a time, and to know that each time you do it, that you must do it again.”

In face of this fragility small bits of encouragement can do wonders. While he is in the pulpit, the preacher sees when you are paying attention, he sees you nodding in agreement, he sees you jotting a note in your Bible and he hears your “Amen!” or murmurs of agreement. Each of these is meaningful and encouraging. You help and encourage your pastor when you listen attentively and interactively. One of the kindest things you can do for your pastor is to go to him after the service and encourage him by telling him one specific way that the sermon was helpful to you. This is a ten-second investment that can be a tremendous blessing! A note on Monday morning, a recounting of how your family discussed the sermon over lunch—none of these things go unnoticed.

January 18, 2012

It has come as kind of a shock to me, now that I am a pastor and preaching on a regular basis, that the vast majority of the sermons I preach will be rather ordinary. I will study hard and pray hard and work hard, I’ll get started early in the week and give it a couple of days to germinate and give it another look-through early on Sunday morning, and at the end of it all I will have a rather ordinary sermon. Not a bad one, but an ordinary one. It certainly won’t be the sermon I had envisioned when I first sat down with my Bible and a cup of hot coffee on Monday morning. In my mind I’ve got these visions of greatness; before me on the pulpit I’ve got this reality of ordinariness.

Last week a friend asked me how my sermon had gone and I said, “Somewhere between being receiving a standing ovation and being pelted with dead cats.” That seems to about capture it, because honestly, I don’t know. It’s not like the people were weeping and throwing themselves to the ground in sorrow and repentance, and it’s not like they all just got up and left. Their response was as ordinary as my sermon—some people expressed gratitude, a couple of people offered correctives or improvements, and the majority said nothing while showing nothing out-of-the-ordinary.

I guess when I had considered preaching I figured I’d be able to knock it out of the park every Sunday—that if I began early enough in the week and gave myself enough time to study I would always be able to put together an amazing sermon, or an above-average one at least. If I just put in the time, I would be able to do something extraordinary and put together something sublime. But even in those weeks that I can dedicate a full 30 or 40 hours to sermon preparation, Sunday rolls around and I find myself wishing for just another week or just another two weeks, to iron out the kinks and get the sermon where I hoped it could be.

This month I am preaching through the second half of Ephesians, a text that really deals with the ordinary Christian life. What does it look like to live a life that has been transformed by this gospel of grace through faith? Paul lays it out in all its ordinariness. It is not a life of doing things that makes all the world take notice and declare your virtues, but a life of quiet, humble service and a long, slow growth in godliness. And yet I still find myself hoping to write extraordinary sermons on being ordinary. Until now I had missed the irony.

October 13, 2011

David and I are back this week with another episode of The Connected Kingdom podcast—episode 20 in this second season. This week’s guest is Timmy Brister. A short time ago he wrote a blog post about preaching from a manuscript; since David and I have often discussed not preaching from a manuscript, we thought this would open up an opportunity to discuss that topic. We hope you enjoy it!

If you want to give us feedback or join in the discussion, go ahead and look up our Facebook Group or leave a comment right here. You will always be able to find the most recent episode here on the blog. If you would like to subscribe via iTunes, you can do that here or if you want to subscribe with another audio player, you can try this RSS link.

September 17, 2011

In reading In Light of Eternity, a biography of Leonard Ravenhill, I came across the name Samuel Chadwick. Chadwick was a Wesleyan minister who did the bulk of his ministry in the early 20th century. He was a mentor to Ravenhill and had a deep impact on his life. I found a couple of his quotes on preaching particularly helpful and challenging:

I would rather preach than do anything else I know in this world. I have never missed a chance to preach. I would rather preach than eat my dinner, or have a holiday or anything else the world can offer. I would rather pay to preach than be paid not to preach. It has its price in agony of sweat and tears and no calling has such joys and heartbreaks, but it is a calling an archangel might covet; and I thank God that of His grace He called me into this ministry. Is there any joy like that of saving a soul from death? Any thrill like that of opening blind eyes? Any reward like the love of little children to the second and third generation? Any treasures like the grateful love of hearts healed and comforted? I tell you it is a glorious privilege to share the travail and the wine of God. I wish I had been a better minister, but there is nothing in God’s world I would rather be.

And a second quote:

Nothing makes for a preacher’s effectiveness more than a true conception of his calling. He is a messenger. That which he speaks is not his own. He is not at liberty to criticize, modify, or tamper with that which is entrusted to him; neither has he any right to withhold it from any person to whom it is sent. But he is neither a postman nor a phonograph. He delivers an open message which he has received from God for men. His first business is to wait for his message, and his next is to see that it is faithfully delivered.

October 06, 2010

David and I recorded an episode of the podcast last week but lost it to technical issues. Nevertheless, we’re back this week with a new episode. This time around we discuss just one aspect of an interesting discussion between Mark Dever, Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald. The three men got together to discuss multi-site churches (as you can see in the video below). I was struck by what MacDonald and Driscoll seemed to be saying—that there is really no significant or fundamental difference between hearing your pastor in a live setting and hearing your pastor preaching through electronic media. So I approached the issue from a media and technology perspective while David approached it through a pastoring and preaching perspective. And overall I think we ended up having an interesting discussion.

It will be worth listening to, I think, if you are a pastor seeking to know how you can best preach to your congregation or if you are a Christian who is eager to become a better listener.

If you want to give us feedback on the podcast or join in the discussion, go ahead and look up our Facebook Group or leave a comment right here. You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or another program. As always, feedback and suggestions for future topics are much appreciated.

August 11, 2010

Not too long ago I reviewed the book The Trellis and the Vine and said that it is a book to which I give my highest recommendation. Since I wrote that review I’ve turned to the book often and have continued to find it very, very useful. I was glad to learn just recently that there will soon be a sequel to it titled The Archer and the Arrow (which I believe is due out a little bit later in the year).

As I was reading the endorsements for the book, I noticed that Mark Dever says this: “Phillip Jensen has been both faithfully and provocatively preaching God’s word for decades. Here he tells us how. His observations are keen, his suggestions convicting, his speaking plain. (And he also finally explains for us why most commentaries are so useless to the preacher!).” I was naturally a little bit intruiged by this, so went searching for Jensen’s explanation of why commentaries can be so useless. I quite liked what I read and got permission from Matthias Media to share it with you. Here it is, drawn from a chapter titled “Preaching the gospel by expounding the Bible” and a heading titled “Use your external sources wisely.”

The second thing to point out is the place of external aids in the process of preparation. It is very easy, particularly after spending years in seminary or Bible college, to assume that the answers we need will be found in the finest writers of the day. And so in order to find out what the text says we spend more time in the biggest, fattest, most up-to-date commentaries than we do in the Bible itself. But even the writers of the very best commentaries don’t know more about God’s will than the apostles who penned God’s word. And God’s revelation is not in their commentary but in the original text.

Part of the problem arises from the process by which commentaries come to be written these days. It starts with university staff and postgraduate scholars producing mono- graphs, theses and journal articles, usually about a small point in the text or an obscure matter of current debate. The pressure on these scholars (in respect of their jobs and careers) is to say something new, and this tends to push them towards historical background research—an area in which it is easier to come up with new discoveries and to contribute to the ongoing academic conversation. The commentary writers then gather up these various articles and theses into a book that is really a compendium of recent research organized by the text of a Bible book. The commentators will usually try to add something to the research by giving an overall argument to the book, but frequently they do no more than arbitrate among the various articles and debates, very often losing sight of the message and emphasis of the biblical text as they do so.

The result is that the agenda for the conversation has been set by someone apart from God. And in modern theological writing, it has often been set by someone who has no idea at all about who God is, but who has been asked to write the commentary because of their status or experience within the academic community.

It’s not that we should ignore the commentaries. They can be very useful tools, especially in pointing out interesting things in the text that we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. And if they have theological biases and commitments different from our own, they can lead us to ask questions that we would never have asked. But never read commentaries until you have wrestled with the text for yourself, and come to some conclusions about what you think and why. Otherwise you will just lap up whatever they feed you.

Commentaries, Bible dictionaries and the like are great servants but lousy masters.

And to that I think we can anticipate hearing a loud chorus of “Amen!”

May 30, 2010

While skimming through some of those books that showed up last week (see yesterday’s post) I came across some great information about Robert Murray McCheyne. This is drawn from Mike Sarkissian’s book Before God and really challenged me as I prepared to preach today in Sarnia, Ontario. It shamed me with my own lack of preparation, my own (relative) prayerlessness in approaching the pulpit. I need to be more like McCheyne!

The time McCheyne spent before the Lord gave him a better perspective of the high calling God had placed upon him as a shepherd of God’s people. He was known for saying, “I have no desire but the salvation of my people, by whatever instrument.” Little did he know, McCheyne would be an instrument God would use for centuries to come. His time with God in prayer and meditation manifested itself in a passion for souls and effective preaching.

Dr. Estrada explained the depth of McCheyne’s personal holiness in relation to bringing forth the Word of God to his congregation:

His preaching and all other activities were preceded by long periods of prayer. He kept by this rule: ‘that he must first see the face of God before he could undertake any duty.’ ‘I ought to spend the best hours of the day in communion with God. It is my noblest and most fruitful employment, and is not to be thrust into any corner.’ Both in his preaching and teaching he was very much concerned with feeding the congregation with the ‘whole counsel of God.’

McCheyne preached the Word of God with a certain gravity and solemnity. He sought after the unction of the Holy Spirit and spoke intently to his congregation. His pulpit was said to have been wet with his tears as he urged people to commit their lives to Christ. This seriousness to the calling of God would bring forth much fruit for the Kingdom.

January 16, 2010

Here is some food for thought as we prepare to hear the Word preached this Lord’s Day. These quotes are drawn from a book I just read (that will be released some time in the spring) titled Expository Listening. Do you know not only what a privilege there is in hearing the Word, but also what a responsibility? Here is what three Puritan pastors had to say in that regard:

Richard Baxter:
Remember that all these…sermons must be reviewed, and you must answer for all that you have heard, whether you heard it…with diligent attention or with carelessness; and the word which you hear shall judge you at the last day. Hear therefore as those that are going to judgment to give account of their hearing and obeying.

Thomas Watson:
You must give an account for every sermon you hear….The judge to whom we must give an account is God…how should we observe every word preached, remembering the account! Let all this make us shake off distraction and drowsiness in hearing, and have our ears chained to the word.

David Clarkson:
At the day of judgment, an account of every sermon will be required, and of every truth in each sermon….The books will be opened, all the sermons mentioned which you have heard, and a particular account required, why you imprisoned such a truth revealed, why you committed such a sin threatened, why neglected such duties enjoined….Oh what a fearful account!