It has been a real joy thus far to share “Ten Questions for Expositors” with you. Today we take time out with Thabiti Anyabwile.
Following his conversion (read “From Mecca to Calvary”), Thabiti served with Capitol Hill Baptist Church before moving to pastor First Baptist Church Grand Cayman. He has recently authored the book “The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Pastors” and regularly updates his excellent blog Pure Church.
1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
I would rank preaching Christ and Him crucified as the most important commitment of the ministry. Everything else builds upon the exposition of God’s Word. Giving attention to God’s Word in the public gathering of the church is the main activity. It’s where the people of God are most explicitly and perhaps intentionally shaped or formatively disciplined into the maturity of Christ.
2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
I was asked to speak at a “youth day” event at a church in my home town. I thought it was going to be an event after the morning service with 20-30 teenagers in the church basement. When I arrived, I found out that I was the guest preacher for the morning service! I tweaked my planned talk from John 4 and did the best I could. A little lady came up to me afterwards and asked, “Where are you in your walk?” I had no idea what she meant and mumbled something like “I’m trying to grow in the Lord.” She clarified: “No… I think you may be called to the ministry.” I put that behind me thinking she meant well but was probably a bit overly enthusiastic. Soon after, a number of people began commenting in much the same way this little lady had, expressing appreciation for what they regarded as speaking gifts whenever I would lead a Bible study, small group, or some other address. So, it was through the saints that those gifts became evident to me.
3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
Currently, I devote two full days to sermon preparation—Thursday and Friday. I’ll generally spend about twenty hours over those two days and a few hours through the week reading the text and making notes.
4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallise it?
I think the sermon should contain the major themes or points of the text being considered. I learned from Mark Dever (though he is not to be blamedJ) to preach texts of varying lengths… sometimes a few verses, sometimes a chapter, sometimes a couple of chapters. When you do that, different things emerge for the preacher and the audience. The unity and flow of an argument, connections between themes and ideas all come into focus in various ways. Sometimes that lends itself to a sermon with one major theme or idea; sometimes it suggests a couple of major ideas for a sermon. I’d rather the number of themes or ideas from the text to determine the structure of my sermon than my “sermon framework/approach” to drive the number of themes or ideas I focus on in a text.
5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
I think it’s probably most important that a preacher be himself… whatever that means stylistically. Piper is Piper; MacArthur is MacArthur; Stott is Stott; Lloyd-Jones was Lloyd-Jones. I suppose Thabiti is Thabiti, though as a young preacher I’m still trying to figure out what that means. A man should be comfortable in his own skin as he preaches. Was it Lloyd-Jones who referred to preaching as “personality on fire.” That strikes me as right. Be ablaze with God’s truth and trust that the Lord means to mediate that truth, in part, through the distinctive ways He has shaped you in personality. Next to that, I think probably plainness is important. Having said that, though, I think the thing to be avoided is making your personality (humor, etc.) the core of your preaching. One can be all style and no substance. And there is the terribly frightening prospect of building an audience on a man’s personality, even creating a cult of personality and celebrity. That must be one of the most grotesque things to be avoided: preaching yourself while you should be lifting up the Savior.
6. What notes, if any, do you use?
I take a full manuscript into the pulpit. I’ll probably deliver 85% of it. I think I’m a better preacher from an outline or extemporaneously, but as a young preacher I write a full manuscript. I do this because I’m concerned about two things: 1) I want to be theologically more precise in my preaching, perhaps more precise than I would be without a manuscript. There is probably some insecurity here that grows out of the fact that I’m not seminary trained and as a former muslim (having been in such gross theological error during that time) I am “hyper” about theological accuracy. 2) Some of the most influential and prominent men in the history of the African American church left almost no record of their preaching ministries. That’s a great tragedy. I don’t think my sermons will be remembered as anything spectacular, but I do want to leave something that helps fill this void.
7. What are the greatest perils that preacher must avoid?
McCheyne is right, I think, when he says, “My people have no greater need than my own holiness.” So, a failure to live a holy life is peril that must be avoided. Related to that: laziness; unfaithfulness; failure to watch his life and doctrine; and, a failure to watch over the sheep entrusted to his care. A man can mask a multitude of deficiencies and sins with a strong public preaching gift. If he takes that wide road it will lead to the destruction of his ministry, and to great harm among the sheep. So let us not leave off holiness and integrity.
8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (eg. pastoral care, leadership responsibilities)
I’m blessed with a wonderful administrative assistant who protects my time really well. We maintain a basic plan to the week that intends some measure of balance, but we’re always tweaking it. Mondays are days that are largely wide open for scheduling appointments of various sorts (counselling, visitation, etc.). This, for me, has been a good transition from the Lord’s Day activities into the routine for the week. Tuesdays are reserved for reading and writing, a lot of which is in response to questions/needs in the congregation. Some Tuesday nights feature elders’ meetings. Wednesday mornings I prepare for Wednesday night Bible study. Wednesday afternoon are usually filled with staff meeting, service planning meeting, and other counselling appointments and misc. meetings. Thursday and Friday are sermon preparation. I try to have the sermon finished by 5:00pm on Friday so I can have time Friday evening and Saturday with the family. Thus far, the schedule has worked well for me. It means I have to say “no” to some things (especially a lot of evening meetings) and keep first things first. It doesn’t always work this way, but that’s the general approach.
9. What books on preaching, or exemplars of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
The first book I ever read on preaching is still my favourite: Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers. I also appreciate Edmund Clowney’s work, Preaching and Biblical Theology and Preaching Christ in All of Scripture. As examples go, I love reading Lloyd-Jones. My soul is positively strengthened when I listen to Piper. I could listen to Sinclair Ferguson all day. Mark Dever probably engages me intellectually more than anyone I can think of right now. Mark’s approach to application has been particularly helpful.
10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
Currently, I try to devote the church’s Sunday evening services to helping men discern and develop their gifts in preaching. I usually send them a short review of the sermon the next day, noting things I appreciated, asking questions or prompting them to think further about some point or another. Usually, though, I’m simply trying to encourage them in their preaching. Beyond this, I’m meeting with a couple of men and reading through good books on theology or the ministry, and suggesting various other resources like the 9Marks website or some of the preachers listed above.
* Some x-ray questions from David Pawlinson via Justin Buzzard.
* This looks worthwhile to have on your study shelf
* titus2talk is recommending Christian biographies
* Abraham Piper with 12 ways to love your child
* Entire Lloyd Jones Romans series for sale.
* John Brand is debating whether preaching is caught or taught?
* Tomb of Herod the great find?
* Speaking of Thabiti Anyabwile, he’s thanking God for CJ Mahaney.
* Mohler vs Piper on Singleness
* Tim Challies is live blogging the Basics Conference, including Voddie Baucham’s session on Preaching to Postmoderns.
* Every pastor is called to be a Theologian
* Fighting lust with lust?