By popular demand, Ten Questions for Expositors is back. This time we have the great pleasure of interviewing Conrad Mbewe, pastor-teacher Katwaba Baptist Church, Zambia. If you haven’t yet heard this brother preach, do take the opportunity. Then be amazed that he takes two to three hours to prepare his sermons!
1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
As far as I can see from the Word of God, preaching must be central to the life of the church. This can be seen from the way the church started in the New Testament. As soon as the first church was gathered together in Acts 2, the Bible records that “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). Clearly, then, the preaching of the apostles took the first place. We notice the same thing when Paul writes to Timothy, a young pastor leading the church in Ephesus. He says to him, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). And even as he comes to the end of his life, Paul gives this young pastor the following charge: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:1-2). Surely, when you compare this to the emphasis today on singing, as opposed to hearing the Word of God being preached, we have certainly left the biblical emphasis and we need to get back to it – for the sake of the health of our churches.
2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
Initially, soon after I became a Christian in 1979, I just had a burden to share Christ in personal witnessing contexts with individuals. I did not realise that this burden would one day find expression in preaching to entire crowds. At that time I was a student at a local university in Zambia. From time to time, I would be asked to prepare the Bible study lesson and teach our Growth Group in our hall of residence. These were small groups of Christian students who got together once a week to study the Bible. I found that I could handle the text and draw out appropriate lessons. In due season, around 1982, one of the elders at church asked me to join him in leading the Bible study group that comprised the young adults in the church, especially those who were in college and university. In this period, I sharpened my skills further. Before I graduated in 1984, however, I was chosen as chairman of the university Christian fellowship, and that meant preaching at least once a semester. This was for the last two years of my undergraduate days. I found great fulfilment not only in teaching the Word of God but also preaching it. It was clear from the feedback that I was getting, that God had gifted me in this way. This was quite apart from a sense of call that I experienced in a very definite way at a very subjective level sometime in 1980. So, by the time I graduated from the university, my gifts in preaching were confirmed, and I was just waiting for the Lord to open a door into full time pastoral studies or full time pastoral work. In 1987, the Lord opened the latter door and I became a church pastor.
3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
It takes anything between two to three hours, depending on how familiar I am with the subject or the text. Because I usually preach in a consecutive expository fashion in my own pulpit, most of the initial spade work would have been done much earlier. Hence, that is not included in this time. Also, I rarely ever write out my sermons in full. My final sermon outline is hardly ever more than one page long. So, again, you have to cut out the average writing time that most pastors go through. That is why I do not spend as much time in sermon preparation as most of my fellow preachers.
4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallise it?
It is very important. I go before God’s people with “a word from the Lord” and it is important to me that they go home after listening to my preaching with that word – or theme or idea. I ensure that my introduction waters their appetite for that one “word” and that my conclusion nails it in with some immediate application. They have not come to simply be informed about some points of doctrine. They have come to be told (or I have come to tell them) what God wants them to do in the light of his message to them. How do I arrive at that dominant thought, when mine is a textual sermon? The answer lies in a lot of meditation. I meditate and meditate and meditate. On a more technical level, I look at the text in its context. I also look at the key word(s) in the text. As I pray about all this, it soon becomes clear to me what the dominant thought in the text is. Also, depending on the composition of my congregation, I may opt to deal with the dominant thought differently. I do not change the theme; I just change its emphasis so that it suits my hearers. The rest of my work is to show how the rest of the passage brings out the dominant thought. It is in following the natural contours of the Scriptures that I seek to crystallise the theme in the minds of my hearers.
5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
I would say, of prime importance, that a preacher must be himself. This is what makes for a preacher’s style. You notice it from the writings of the apostles. You cannot miss when it is Paul writing – or Peter or James or John. They all have their own specific style. Avoid imitation like a plague. You end up being a David trying to fight in Saul’s armour. You will fail. That is not to say that you cannot learn from other preachers. We all must seek to improve our preaching by listening to those preachers who have the greatest impact on their hearers. We must ask the question, “How do they manage to attain and maintain the attention of their hearers to the very end of their sermons?” Take the principle that you see from that and then apply it to your style so that in the end you are still yourself.
6. What notes, if any, do you use?
I have already touched on this. I normally carry with me one side of an A4 sized paper when I enter the pulpit to preach. On this matter, I think that everyone must use what they are most comfortable with. It is difficult to draw from the Scriptures any rule as to the amount of notes you should carry into the pulpit. I think that whatever the quantity of notes, a preacher must maintain a maximum level of eye-contact with his hearers. My notes are simply “sign posts” along the way. Sometimes I read them. Sometimes I do not even look at them because the road is very familiar. Sometimes I just peep there to make sure that I have taken the right turns thus far. I find that when I am very dependent on my notes, then the message is not flowing thematically, logically or chronologically. So, I work on it further until I can sense that once I have opened up a point, the sub-points naturally flow one after the other. Hence my dependence on my notes is minimal.
7. What are the greatest perils that preacher must avoid?
Familiarity and prayerlessness. I have preached for (only) twenty years and I sense the temptation to handle the work of preaching as “just one of those things”. Yet I am aware that these two vices will cost me the presence of God in preaching and I will soon become a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. May I add the temptation to use the Bible to say what you already started out wanting to say? This is especially the case when you have a personal agenda to fulfil in the lives of a few troublesome church members. Once your hearers begin to think that you can make the Bible say whatever you want it to say, you are robbing them of the respect they ought to have for God’s Word. So, for the sake of posterity, be faithful to the text!
8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (eg. pastoral care, leadership responsibilities)
At one time the elders in my church noticed that the quality of my preaching was becoming unpredictable – one time it was good, and the next time it was bad. They asked me what the problem was and I told them that I needed an office assistant to take care of most of the administrative needs in the life of the church. I was given someone to handle this, and since then we have never looked back. Every week, we meet with my office assistant to look at what needs to be done that week and then we share the load. I only take on that which I know I really must handle. Another thing is that I make the early hours of the morning, before the family wakes up and the phone starts ringing, as the time for study and devotions. Thus by the time the house is bustling with humans and those disturbing phone calls start, I am simply musing over what I have learnt and prepared. I also function within an eldership that is involved in pastoral care. Hence, although our church has over 300 members, I do not feel the strain of that number. The elders share in the work of pastoral care.
9. What books on preaching, or exemplars of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
The sermons of Charles Haddon Spurgeon come immediately to mind. In the early years of my Christian life, I used to preach some of them out to an empty church building. Well, it was not completely empty because I had a few of my friends sitting in the pews, but it was not a worship service either. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Evangelistic Sermons and his Old Testament Evangelistic Sermons (both published by the Banner of Truth Trust) are great examples of evangelistic preaching. One can add to this his expositions in Romans and Ephesians. Those sermons are worth their weight in gold! You will notice, therefore, that I have learnt more from books that contain sermons rather than books that teach how to preach.
10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
The first is to be the best example I can be to them so that they can model their preaching after a worthy example. I do not want them to become little “Conrads” but I sincerely hope that they will take what they see in me and build on it according to their own styles and giftedness. The second is to give any men in the church who exhibit the rudiments of the preaching or teaching gifts opportunities to minister in the context of the church’s full life. This may mean they can prepare for and lead Bible studies, or they may preach in one of the many auxiliary meetings of the church, or they may preach in one of the church-planting situations that we have on our hands. I then listen to their sermons and give them the necessary feedback so that they deal with their areas of weakness. Those that are able are also encouraged to join our part-time preachers’ college. In that context, we give them a full-orbed introduction to what it takes to be a preacher of the gospel as a full-time vocation. Even those who are not able to join the college are encouraged to read books on preaching as soon as they share with me that they are sensing a call to the preaching ministry.