Colin Adam of the Unashamed Workman blog recently asked me to contribute to his fascinating series 10 Questions for Expositors in which he asks different preachers ten questions. Here’s a link to the post and here are my answers …
1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
I believe it’s vital for every church to be word-centred. From creation onwards throughout the Bible story we see God giving life through his word and ruling through his word. And from Eden onwards, when God’s word is doubted or ignored, death and chaos follow.
The difficulty with the question is that we have various definitions of preaching doing the rounds. Your ten questions, for example, use ‘preaching’ and ‘sermons’ interchangeably. I believe preaching in the New Testament is to proclaim the gospel, urging people to faith and repentance, with the aim of capturing their hearts for Christ. The New Testament describes a variety of forms in which this can take place including sermons, debates and conversations.
I say this not to devalue sermons (which I love), but to ‘revalue’ other forms of word ministry. The measure of whether a church is word-centred is not simply whether there’s a good sermon each Sunday morning. The measure of being word-centred is that the word is being learnt, lived and loved throughout the life of the church. Our aim should not be to have good Bible teaching churches, but to have good Bible doing churches (James 1:22)!
Please don’t mistake what I’m saying. I realise there are plenty of postmoderns and postevangelicals who want to replace the sermon with some relativistic engagement with the Bible. I don’t want that! My concern in fact is to be more word-centred. I don’t want less than the sermon. I want more than the sermon.
In our situation the Sunday sermon sets the agenda for the church each week and we then follow this up in our gospel communities where we work out together how to apply that word to our lives, our life together and the world around us. We also put a big emphasis on creating a culture in which people ‘gospel’ one another (that is, preach the gospel to one another) in the context of everyday life.
2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
It started with leading Bible studies when I was a student. I actually preached my first sermon in a Pentecostal church. It was 55 minutes on the theme of redemption. I’m sure it was very boring! I really learnt to preach when I was church planting in Staines with a man called John Miller. He taught me to preach to make an impact rather than simply lecture people.
3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
It probably takes me about a day to get the bulk of sermon preparation done.
But that’s not the whole picture. I always prepare a series as whole up front. I want to ensure I have the big picture of the book we’ll be working through (or a good understanding of the subject if the series is topical). That big picture evolves as the series progresses because the details of each passage finesse your understanding of the book as a whole. But you need some sense of the overall picture before you can begin to make sense of the detail. It’s this iterative cycle that makes preaching through a book so exciting.
Four or five weeks before I’m preaching I’ll look at the passage for about an hour. The aim is to get the questions, issues and application bubbling around in my mind over the coming weeks.
I do the bulk of the preparation usually about a week in advance. That’s partly because I need to get a draft off to the people who are preparing the Sunday gathering and the people preparing for our children’s groups.
I was once told by a builder that plasterers spend a lot of time apparently doing nothing, just sizing up a wall. And then they leap into a whirl of activity and plaster the wall quite quickly. Increasingly, I think, this describes how I prepare my sermons. I can spend a lot of time apparently doing nothing (or just throwing a ball around the study). What I’m actually doing is meditating on the text. And then an idea will grab me and I’ll rush over to my computer and the heart of the sermon can be done quite quickly. A lot of editing follows, but the main ideas are done. It didn’t used to be like this. As a younger preacher (and I think this is a good model for new preachers) I followed a template much more. So sermons were built up piece by piece.
I always leave the final edit to the Sunday morning. I change wording during this edit, but its primary purpose is to take out any material that’s not absolutely necessary. I leave it until Sunday morning so the material is fresh in my mind when I deliver it a couple of hours later.
4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallize it?
I wouldn’t want to be dogmatic about having one major theme. There’s a danger that we try to squeeze everyone into one mould. Different preachers have different styles. That said, I think one of the most common mistakes of new preachers is trying to squeeze too much into their sermons. I suspect this metaphor is now out of date, but I still think about the ‘cutting room floor’. In the old days movie editors used to literally cut out sections of tape and glue the other pieces back together to create the final movie. It meant most of the footage ended up on the cutting room floor. Preachers need a similar process in which they cut out anything that doesn’t need to be there. That means a lot of good stuff on the cutting room floor! The key issue is this. The aim of a sermon is not to impart as much information as you can to the hearers. The aim of the sermon is to capture their affections for Christ and that aim should shape everything in the sermon.
5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
I think empathy, passion and authority (or conviction) are all important.
It’s important to empathise with the congregation. Life is hard. Following Christ can be hard. The word of God can sound weird. If you never acknowledge this then your hearers will wonder what planet you’re on. We need to show how the text connects with real life. I learnt this from David Powlison who often spends a long time describing a problem. As a result, when he brings the word to bear on that issue, it comes with real power.
I also think you need to show passion. I don’t mean some kind of affected emotionalism. But you need to show people that the word has impacted your heart. I often tell new preachers that you should meditate on the passage until it moves your heart (whether that is joy, fear, sorrow, conviction or excitement). Your aim then is to preach it so the passage evokes a similar response in your hearers.
We want our preaching to come with authority. Clearly that comes primarily from the word itself and from the Spirit. But I think we should preach with conviction. I’m not sharing my opinions or my reflections with you. I’m declaring a word from God.
I realised a few years ago that often when I stood up to preach I thought my sermon was about to be one of the best sermons in the history of the church! Yet when I read through old sermons a few months later it was agony to think that I’d inflicted this rubbish on my poor congregation. I decided this combination of attitudes is actually quite healthy as long as you hold both together. I realised my enthusiasm for my sermon was actually enthusiasm for the passage. The word of God had gripped me and I was excited about sharing its message with the congregation. That allowed me to preach with conviction. But remembering my retrospective assessment of my sermons would prevent me ever growing too proud!
6. What notes, if any, do you use?
I use full text with key words highlighted in bold. I print my text on A5 so it sits in my Bible as I preach. Over the last couple of years I’ve weaned myself of a lectern. I now prefer to stand with my Bible in one hand with my notes inside. I think this helps me have a more conversational feel with the congregation.
7. What are the greatest perils that a preacher must avoid?
There are some technical issues (like trying to cover too much, not including application or making the process of understanding the Bible seem so esoteric that people think its beyond them). Obviously it’s also vital to always preach the gospel and always preach Christ. We must never leave people feeling condemned because there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
But the greatest dangers are with our own hearts. One danger is finding identity in preaching. We can preach justification by faith even as we practice justification by preaching! A good sign that something is wrong is when your mood is affected by how your preaching went the day before or when criticism makes you despondent.
Another big danger is neglecting the important of the Holy Spirit. It’s the Spirit who speaks God’s word into people’s hearts and uses it to bring conviction, life, love, change and so on. So we need to preach in conscious dependence on the Spirit. I’ve started using the language of the Spirit speaking through the word and through the sermon to highlight this for myself and for my congregation.
8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (e.g. pastoral care, leadership responsibilities)
I share the preaching with a small team so I preach about once every two weeks. At the moment that feels about right. Part of me would love to preach more, but I think that once every two weeks gives me time to prepare properly for each sermon. If I’m doing the bulk of a series then I try to get ahead in my preparation. I’ll often have a basic draft of each sermon done before the series starts especially if it’s a topical series.
9. What books on preaching, or exemplars of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
In my younger days I basically followed the template in John Chapman’s Setting Hearts on Fire until I gradually found my own style. Tim Keller’s lectures on Preaching to the Heart (Ockenga Institute) were a great help. And David Powlison’s book Seeing with New Eyes really helped make links between truth and life. I can remember thinking, ‘This book isn’t on preaching, but it’s going to transform how I preach.’
10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
We’ve done a variety of things over the years. We used to have a ‘teachers group’ in which teachers and potential teachers would study a passage together a couple of weeks in advance. This helped to model good hermeneutics as well proving a fruitful way of engaging with the text. I’ll go through a sermon with a new preacher before they preach it. We also give feedback afterwards though I’m wary of doing this in a systematic way because I need to submit myself to the word as it’s preached rather than critiquing the methodology of the preacher. We’re planning to provide regular training and to this end one of my tasks for next year is to write a workbook on Gospel-Centred Preaching for the Gospel-Centred series we’re doing with the Good Book Company. We also put our leaders through Porterbrook Learning and Porterbrook Seminary.