Room For Improvement?

For those who haven’t heard, and for those who would like reminding (especially any Aussies!) England became the top test cricket team in the world last summer following their victory over India who were the current champions. There was even worse news for the other cricketing nations of the world – England were not resting on their laurels.  After the final match in the 4-0 whitewash of India, Andrew Strauss the England captain said that there was still “room for improvement”. (recent results over the past year have certainly reinforced this!)

But what about something far more important than sport and a role far more important than that of the cricketer. What about preaching and the preacher? If you have been called by God to be a preacher of his word, are you resting on your laurels? Or is there “room for improvement”? For myself, and I suspect for most preachers, the answer is “yes”. I am my own worst critic and I can honestly say that, even after, especially after, 50 years since I first preached a sermon, I aspire to be, a better preacher. The strapline of 2 Timothy 4, the Preaching Trust I direct is “every preacher can become a better preacher”. But the problem is – how?

How to be a better preacher

The first essential (without which all else is in vain) is the help of the Holy Spirit as the apostle Paul reminded the church in Thessalonica:

For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you,  because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. (1 Thessalonians 1:4-5)

But as Paul reminded his young protégé, Timothy, that didn’t absolve him (and doesn’t absolve us) of personal responsibility:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)

So is it just a matter of “doing your best” – studying harder and praying harder to produce and preach better sermons in order to be a better preacher? Am I becoming a better preacher?   Or have I reached a certain level and plateaued out? And how can I judge? Do I need, and would I benefit from, the judgement of others?

The fear of feedback

As Tim Bridges pointed out (This might sting) the feedback from the critic in the church can be painful! However, I would caution against dismissing all feedback on the basis of the motives or maturity of the critic. I suspect, for some (maybe many?) preachers, feedback of any kind can feel threatening. In the tradition to which I belong, you “preach with a view” – that is, the members of the church vote for you (or against you) as their pastor on the basis of your preaching, usually on a set Sunday (you don’t/can’t “pastor with a view” though the wise leaders of a church evaluate your non-preaching gifts and character before putting you in the pulpit). This can then lead to the danger that your identity is tied to how well you perform in the pulpit week by week.  So any criticisms of your preaching is felt as a threat to your security (sometimes your literal security).

Now, this is a not a healthy state to be in for the security of any preacher (and any Christian) should be rooted in a far more secure foundation. This subject might merit another post, but the lesser danger I want to focus on here is that such insecurity can cut the preacher off from helpful feedback which could help to make him a better preacher.

The merits of mentoring

One effective way of providing such feedback is through a process of mentoring in which a more experienced preacher works with a less experienced preacher (in a similar relationship described in the Epistles of older men/women discipling younger men/women). This can work within a church – especially within a larger church with a team ministry in which younger pastors/preachers are mentored by more senior staff. However, it doesn’t always work and can sometimes lead to strains in relationships. And in many smaller churches, the first-time pastor is the sole pastor/preacher and may struggle to find effective help.

In such cases, “outside help” may provide a solution in which an experienced preacher can be linked with a less experienced pastor to provide feedback that is both constructive and confidential. In “2 Timothy 4” we have been trying this on a small scale, as I have been mentoring some ten pastors in Scotland during the past three years, ranging from those in their first churches to one with over 20 years of experience, serving in congregations ranging in size from 30 to 600.

This has been well received, but we are keen to encourage a culture of mentoring beyond “2 Timothy 4”, both within and beyond Scotland, and across denominations. We would like to know your experience (if any) of mentoring along with any other ways which have helped you to become a better preacher. Can I ask you to spare 10 minutes to answer 10 questions in a confidential questionnaire which will help us and help one another to become better preachers of God’s Word? If we get a large enough response, we will collate and publish the results.

Click here for the questionnaire.

Unlike cricket, the goal is not to become the best preacher in the world, but the best preacher I can be with the gifts with which God has entrusted me.

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About Peter Grainger

Peter Grainger worked with Wycliffe Bible Translators in India, Pakistan and Nigeria for 20 years, served as a Pastor in three churches for 25 years (most recently from 1992-2009 in Charlotte Chapel, Edinburgh) and now directs 2 Timothy 4 (www.2tim4.org), ' strengthening Scottish preaching.' He is married to Nita and they have two adult children and a grandson.

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