1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
If church, as they say in Australia, is God’s people gathered around God’s Word, then preaching – if it’s biblical preaching – is central to the life and health of church. You find that in Acts chapter 2 the early church devoted itself to the apostle’s teaching. You find Paul commends the Philippians for ‘holding out the Word of Life.’ Jesus was a preacher. He was more than just a preacher, but he was a preacher.
This whole area of verbal witness is terribly important today; I was just chatting to someone about that this morning. It is said that Francis of Assisi was well known for the quotation ‘preach as much as possible and if necessary use words.’ As far as I can see, historically he never actually said such a thing despite how popular that quotation has become, and what’s more (irony of ironies) Francis was a preacher. The Puritans were preachers. The Reformers were preachers. Moses was a preacher. If you marginalize preaching from the life of the church you pretty soon have a human organization centered around human agendas. We constantly need to be brought back into line with God’s ways and God’s truth, and God’s means for doing so is the proclamation of His Word.
This does not mean that other aspects of church are insignificant, nor that social justice agendas, the environment, diversity of socio economic and cultural and racial backgrounds are not important. But it means that as we life up Christ he will draw all people to himself. It’s my constant experience that as we preach Christ from the Scriptures in the power of the Spirit, it is life changing. I’ve been to cities where the liberal churches that marginalize preaching and instead talk incessantly about diversity are made up of all middle class White Anglo-Saxon Protestants; and the evangelical churches that hardly mention diversity but preach Jesus are as diverse and multicolored as a rainbow. My screen saver on my computer for many years has been ‘Preach the Word.’ When Paul was passing the baton onto Timothy he emphasized this as the key last message he wanted to communicate to his protégé Timothy. Preaching for church life is so important that Paul’s famous last words in 2 Timothy were focused upon that charge to preach the Word.
2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
A paragraph! My first sermon was at 13 years old soon after I had got converted. I went to a largely secular, nominally Christian, ancient English private boarding school. It was founded in 1558 by the man who perjured himself to have Sir Thomas More killed. Ever since then the British Parliament has a law on its statue books that this school has to have an annual founders day service in commemoration of the founder or else cease to exist, a stipulation that was originally intended to be for praying for the founders soul when the foundation was part of a Roman Catholic regime before the country switched back to Anglicanism.
Anyway…there I am, somehow given the opportunity to preach to 500 of teenage peers, as a strapping 13 year old. I’d chosen the text from the end of Ecclesiastes on the end of everything being to fear God and keep his commandments. In that school, when the preacher walks in the whole chapel rises to its feet. You walk around to the pulpit which is one of those old ones where they are set apart next to a pillar and you rise up the steps to the top. I did so, asked everyone to sit down. And began to preach. It was a strange experience. Immediately afterwards I remember feeling that something was at work beyond just me. I put it to the back of my mind and went on through life, intending after Cambridge University to become what’s called a Barrister in the City of London.
But God had other plans and gradually wooed me to the pastorate. But I think my original sense of a call to preach was closely connected to a dramatic conversion/assurance experience when I was thirteen and preaching after that to my secular or nominal English boarding school. I think I most honed my initial gifts of preaching in the context of what was called “camp” which is a network of Bible camps for young people that has the heritage of producing English Christian leaders down through the years, like (for instance) John Stott.
3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
I was trained that you should take one hour preparation for every minute speaking. That said, it does all depend, and this question is a bit like ‘how long is a piece of string.’ Some passages you’ve preached on many times before, some seem to come easier as sermons than others. But the basic rule to remember is that preaching is work and you have to pray, pray, pray; study, study, study; think, think, think; and only then can you preach, preach, preach.
4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallise it?
A sermon is a message, it has a thrust to it, so yes it is important that there is a central controlling idea or thought that runs through the sermon. This doesn’t mean there has to be only one ‘point’ formally, of course, there can be many, or fewer, all depending on what the passage intends which you are preaching. My feeling is that the Bible is (as JI Packer said) “God preaching” and therefore the preacher’s task is to ‘re-preach’ the Bible. Sometimes a passage you are preaching may have two or three, four or five, or more, major ideas or themes, but there is usually, if not always, a controlling umbrella idea and that’s the one you need to focus on.
I’m not sure there’s a completely methodological way of crystallizing what the main point of the sermon is. Keep in mind Lloyd-Jones’ remark that great preaching is preaching on great themes. So be determined to find the big idea. Then express it in a clear way. Try expressing it verbally, as an active commitment, or encouragement, or command, or promise, or warning; try not to express it purely as a title or statement. But these are guidelines, and there are different ways of doing it. Preaching is an art, not a science. One of the most effective outlines I ever heard was by the British preacher Dick Lucas who said when preaching on Eli that Eli was ‘good but weak, and we should be good and strong.’ Powerful stuff.
5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
Style? There are whole books on that. I think the most important thing to be avoided is faking it. Not being yourself. Trying to be someone else. Preaching is a personal encounter. You are there. Make sure it really is you.
As important, if not more, is the idea of drawing attention to yourself. Avoid that like the plague. You are not there to draw attention to yourself you are there to draw attention to God.
There are many subtleties here of numerous kinds. Spurgeon’s ‘Lecture to My Students’ has many helpful guides. I would say that in addition to the things already mentioned it’s important, perhaps above all or nearly above all, not to be boring. God is not boring. Your manner of delivery must not be boring. That does not mean you have to shout at your congregation for an hour. You can be relatively quiet. But there needs to be an electricity in the air.
In the end, it seems to me that all the rules of rhetoric can be boiled down to trying to teach us how to speak as if we really meant it. There are other aspects of course, and that’s a conversation on that idea I once had with someone about it. But the key part of style in preaching is to really mean it. You can get away with a lot if there is that authenticity. True preaching is not about having perfect grammar.
6. What notes, if any, do you use?
I’m developing. When I first started preaching I hardly used any notes at all. Then I found as I was preaching more and more that I was actually learning my message, and that became a mental strain. Then I switched gradually to a full manuscript, and I found that that was what Edwards did and Lloyd-Jones did in their early years, and in Edwards’ case for most of his preaching ministry. I think there is real value, especially for the preacher who is preaching every Sunday and does not have the luxury of the itinerant of honing his message to perfection in his head, there is real value in the discipline of writing out every word. It makes you think clearly. It makes you look at what you are saying and ask yourself whether you really mean it.
That said, manuscript preaching should never be reading it. A colleague of mine once said to me that it is more like a security blanket than something you actually read. There’s a lot to that.
But as I say I am switching a bit at present. I still have the manuscript but I find now that for various parts of the sermon, particularly the illustrations, or narrative parts, it’s better just to indicate with a word or two what I was going to say and then say it. For the more accurate precise exegesis I still have large swathes of information. My guess is that as a preacher develops through his life there are certain topics where it becomes almost a barrier to have extensive notes. He needs the freedom to be able to express the idea with the words suited to the people in front of him at the time. But I do think it’s particularly helpful for younger preachers to start with full manuscripts. It develops precision, and people who have never done that can tend to sound rambling. Of course there are always the exceptions, and probably the most important thing is to develop an approach that suits your own temperament, gifts and personality.
7. What are the greatest perils that preacher must avoid?
Pride is the classic one usually mentioned. I think one that is seldom mentioned but which I find actually to be a more prevalent problem among preachers is discouragement. Preaching, if you are doing it properly, demands your heart and soul. As a pastor and preacher of God’s Word you want to see life change, heaven open, God descend, people saved, change, every time you preach. You are the aroma of life and death. Plus preaching is so personal and emotional. You are very exposed in a pulpit. It’s easy for a high on preaching Sunday to be a depressive low on day off Monday. We should neither rejoice in our victories (for they are his) nor wallow in our defeats (for they are not necessarily ours). Spurgeon’s story about ‘that terrible sermon’ of which he was so discouraged only to find several people had been converted through it is a lesson to all of us that the seed is sown and it gradually, and of its own, produces the growth.
8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (eg. pastoral care, leadership responsibilities)?
Basically, I prioritize the preaching. So that means my mornings, first thing, are given over to sermon preparation. Afternoons are for admin and counseling. Mornings are for preparation for preaching. All day Friday is for preaching. My job as a preacher/pastor is not to do the work of the ministry but to equip people to do the work of the ministry. I am the equipper, and I equip through prayer and the ministry of the word. As a senior pastor my job is to feed and lead, so there are many administrative tasks, but if the leading is primarily done through the pulpit, and when it is not it is still done out of God’s Word. So practically I guard mornings like a mother lion guards its cubs.
9. What books on preaching, or exemplars of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
Books: Lloyd-Jones, Preachers and Preaching; John Stott, I believe in preaching; Peter Adams, Speaking God’s Word; Spurgeon’s sermons; Edwards sermons; Jackman and Green When God’s Voice is Heard; Piper The Sovereignty of God in Preaching. People: Dick Lucas, John Stott, Mark Ashton, many others.
10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
We have an internship and a ministry resident program at the church where I work, and both of those are vehicles for training up future ministers of the gospel. I try to give people opportunities to preach – we have a large number of folk doing that over the summer months while I’m out of the pulpit – and good feedback when they do preach. I seem to remember sermons pretty easily; I remember freaking out one preacher I was mentoring by quoting back to him large sections of his sermon or at least all the structure of it some months after he had preached when we finally got time to review how it was going. It’s very encouraging to me to see folk I’ve been involved with over the years pastoring, teaching, preaching. We all have to replicate ourselves several times over as a matter of great urgency.