Christopher Ash is the new David Jackman. Seven years ago he took on the mantle from the latter as Director of PT Cornhill (a training course with the primary aim of training preachers).
As you would expect for a man in his role Christopher is an excellent preacher in his own right. His expositions are clear and his applications are cutting.* If you haven’t read his book, The Priority of Preaching, you really have missed a trick.
Today we interview Christopher Ash about his preaching. His thoughtful answers are some of the most detailed and helpful we’ve received.
1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
I feel so strongly about this that I’ve written a short book on it (The Priority of Preaching). If I give a short answer you won’t read the book…
2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
I’m not sure that I did, but I guess other people might have done. The first time I gave a talk at a summer camp, the man who started the camps asked me afterwards if I had toothache. I was very nervous! Gradually it seems my talks got less bad, and then I was asked to preach from time to time in church. It was very hard work, but people encouraged me to keep at it and in due course to get some training and go into pastoral ministry. So in the end I did.
3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
In one sense, each sermon takes me all my life, since all my understanding of the bible and such knowledge as I have of God and human nature feed into each sermon. But in a more immediate sense, it depends on how familiar I am with the bible book or passage. If it’s an unfamiliar text, I might spend three to six hours working at the text and then a further three to six hours thinking about structure and application, and then writing the sermon. I find I need to start early, as mulling over it slowly, while going to sleep, while on a bus or going for a walk, often leads to insights that I never got when sitting at my desk. So it’s more like ten or so hours spread over at least a week.
4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallise it?
Robin Weekes has answered this for me. It’s not that a passage necessarily has only one main or driving idea (although many do), but that a sermon that tries to pick up and convey too many of the motifs in a passage ends up conveying very little to normal hearers, who are bemused and uncertain what the preacher has been saying. Even if my ‘theme sentence’ is provisional (as it always is) I find that a provisional one (my best shot at the big idea) is better than no coherent theme at all.
5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
We want to speak with a genuine, unforced style, which expresses the bible’s truth through the medium of our personality. It is such a help when a preacher speaks naturally, not in a ‘churchy’ manner, not in a high-falutin’ intellectual style, but in a down-to-earth way that communicates with all sorts of people. When J.C.Ryle found himself ministering to simple country folk, he wrote that, ‘I crucified my style’, by which he meant that he simplified it and made it straightforward.
6. What notes, if any, do you use?
I usually have a full script but do not read it. I find preparing a full script, in sentences rather than just headlines or bullet points, disciplines me to think clearly. With notes or bullet points, I may think I have understood it; but it is only when I put it in English that I realize I haven’t yet got it clear and logical! I go through it with a highlighter and then speak more freely.
7. What are the greatest perils that preacher must avoid?
(a) The more competent we become at exegesis, sermon construction, illustration, etc, the easier it is to produce a ‘correct’ sermon where the text has not impacted my own heart. This is a particular danger when we are under time pressure. I find that it is when I have prayed the truth into my own heart, so that my mind, my affections and my will have been gripped by it, that I can preach with conviction.
(b) It is so easy to slip back from the grace of God in the gospel of Christ, to a moralism that simply exhorts. We think that proper ‘application’ must mean telling our hearers to do something, when in fact it is wonderful application to be gripped by the wonder of the gospel of grace.
(c) In particular, the Old Testament must be preached through the lens of Jesus Christ. It makes no sense without him.
8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (eg. pastoral care, leadership responsibilities)
With great difficulty. I try to make sure I do some bible preparation early in the day if I can. Even if the day is then swamped with other responsibilities, the fact that I have started helps me begin to get to grips with the text. Sometimes I manage to get away for sustained preparation in a different place; that is a wonderful blessing. But even then I have to fight the addictive power of e-mails, reading interesting blogs (like this one), dipping in and out of social networks etc etc.
9. What books on preaching, or exemplars of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
John Stott’s I believe in Preaching was a tremendous stimulus to me some years ago. The essays in When God’s Voice is Heard (eds C.Green and D.Jackman) did me good, especially Jim Packer’s superb essay on the value of systematic theology for preaching. I love dipping into the sermons of John Chrysostom – so courageous and with such wonderfully vigorous illustrations! Spurgeon’s Lectures to my Students – full of practical wisdom and great humour. I trained in ministry under Mark Ashton in Cambridge and learned much from him about application that challenges and gets under the radar defences of the hearers.
10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
I guess this is my job at PT Cornhill. I spend most of my life trying to do this and am glad to be doing so