“Originally from Wales, Dr. Derek Thomas is the John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi. After pastoring for 17 years in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Dr Thomas returned to the USA in 1996 where, in addition to his work at the seminary, he serves as the Minister of Teaching at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson.” (from First Presbyterian Church, Jackson Website)
Today Dr Thomas kindly and thoughtfully responds to our ten questions for expositors. For some of Derek’s ministry, try here.
1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
I can do no better than to cite those famous words of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones at the beginning of his book, Preaching and Preachers: “The most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching; and as it is the greatest and most urgent need in the Church it is obviously the greatest need of the world also.” I thoroughly concur with that assessment, both of the importance of preaching and its importance to the life and vitality of the church.
2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
As a student at Aberystwyth University, I was encouraged on several occasions to speak on behalf of the Christian Union at a retirement home. Then, I recall Geoff Thomas asking me to speak on a Sunday afternoon in a church a few miles outside Aberystwyth. There were three people present, one of whom was the organist who sat behind me! These were the dawning of my sense of exhilaration (and fear!) about being called spend the rest of my life as a preacher. That was thirty-five years ago and I’ve been preaching ever since.
3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
Do I really have to answer this question? I suppose it depends on the passage. I’ve never been one to spend all week preparing sermons. Frankly, I have never understood that. Many sermons are over-cooked and lack the feeling of spontaneity. Since I’ve engaged in consecutive expository preaching pretty much the entire time and therefore the upcoming text is known on Monday morning, it is “on my mind” all week. In one sense then, sermons are “cooked” for many days but I’ve always been better when under pressure and the energy of “Saturday night fever” has more than once been a terrifying, yet rewarding experience. I suppose if I were honest, I spend two to three hours of serious, intensive study, mainly in crafting, but the application might come to me as I’m walking the dog, mulling over what this or that might mean to the dear people to whom I preach. I’ve only once changed my sermon walking up the steps to the pulpit, having conclude that what I had hatched was a “stinker”; but I have often wished that I had had the courage to do it more than once given the resulting sermon! Having said that, I tell my students (I teach a course on preaching—if that’s possible, which I often doubt) to start first thing on Monday morning!
4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallise it?
Ah yes—what Haddon Robinson calls “the BIG Idea”. Yes, this is very important to me. I want folk to apply the Sunday lunch question to the children: what was the sermon about this morning? Is it possible to answer that question in any coherent form? Few congregations can handle a complex set of ideas that have little or no “connective tissue.” Some can! And that’s why we can never be dogmatic about sermonic form. It is so much about culture and congregational maturity. But all the great homileticians agree that a sermon may have many ideas but they should all emerge out of a principal or “big” idea. That’s not new, of course. You can find that in Aristotle or Cicero. I think it helps people focus after the sermon is over.
5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
Hmm. Boy, these are hard questions! Style—that’s such a subjective thing, isn’t it. It depends on whether we mean the form of the sermon or the individual mannerism of the preacher. I find preachers who read their sermon, using lots of notes, very tedious. I want eye-contact. I equally find dispassionate sermons boring. I often think of something I once read in Robert Murray McCheyne: that a congregation will forgive you almost anything so long as they are sure that you love them. I want that to come across in a sermon, no matter how “simple” it may be. I want genuineness or in today’s jargon, “authenticity”.
6. What notes, if any, do you use?
A lot less than I used to use! I have tried using my laptop for sermon preparation but taking anything printed is deadly for me. I usually have a sheet of paper about six inches by four inches on which I scribble an outline and some basic notes with my favorite fountain pen. Sometimes I write on both sides, but not always. I try not to have long quotes—if I can’t remember it or ad lib it, it will probably flop in delivery. I frequently preach with no notes at all when I’m preaching a sermon I’ve preached before in a different location. I wish I could do this on every occasion and strive to be as note free as possible.
7. What are the greatest perils that a preacher must avoid?
My closest friends will be whispering “Derek, remember what happened at Alistair Begg’s!” in my ear, but that’s far too embarrassing to record here! To answer your question—there are so many things that come to mind. I’ve heard preachers become angry in the pulpit about everything, reflecting I think their own state of mind more than anything else. But, to be brief, the greatest peril that I face is professionalism. I have been preaching for over thirty-five years and know the mechanics of preaching. It can all become “just another sermon” to be forgotten as quickly as it was delivered. I hate that. I want to experience the thrill that God would use a worm like me to declare the unsearchable riches of Christ. Every time!
8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (eg. leadership responsibilities, blogging!)
With gloves on! My time is very precious and I have to tell my students, “Do as I say and not as I do!” It requires a schedule that is kept to rigorously. Certain afternoons or mornings means “Sermon time—cannot be disturbed except for death or opera! Just kidding about the death part! And an understanding and supportive wife is absolutely essential. I am blessed beyond words to have one.
9. What books on preaching, or exemplars of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
I blogged about this recently with a friend of ours in which I mentioned the continuing effect of Geoff Thomas who was the first (consecutive) preacher I ever heard. Though I rarely hear him these days – we’re in different continents after all—I still find myself saying something, or using a particular gesture in which my wife will comment (on the way home in the car), “I see Geoff was there tonight!” It has not been books about preaching that have influenced me the most but listening to preachers. Some sermons stand out that I “hear” again and again in my mind though they were delivered decades ago. Al Martin on John 3; Sinclair Ferguson on Matthew 16; Donald MacLeod on Philippians 2. And these days, my dear friend Logon Duncan on some pretty odd Old Testament texts! We are very different in style, I think, but he constantly amazes me, being able to bring out the gospel from a text that looked as dry as dust. He has one of the best minds I know, but his preaching is straight-forward and plain—in the good puritan sense of the term.
10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
Apart from teaching at seminary where I encounter tomorrow generation of preachers every day, I have tried to develop the habit of being an encourager of other preachers by constantly telling them what I found of benefit in their sermons. Yes, I’ve heard some bad ones, but even the worst—if there was an attempt to point to Jesus Christ—have something in them that I want to encourage. I am encouraged here in the States about tomorrow’s preachers. There is a growing army of Calvinistic preachers whose evangelistic zeal puts me to shame. They are encouraging me more than I am encouraging them.