Reaching a personal preaching milestone recently has provided an occasion to reflect upon the opportunities God has granted me over the years to exercise the gift of preaching and engage in the privilege of teaching His people the truth of His Word.
Here are a few of my reflexions on preaching and the past decade of opportunities I’ve had to participate in it. They are not the thoughts of a seasoned pastor or skilled master-preacher, but some musings of a journeyman who hopes to have many more opportunities to learn and grow in the years ahead. So take them for what they’re worth…
1. Preaching God’s Word is an incredible privilege and honour.
If anyone speaks, let it be as one who speaks God’s words; if anyone serves, let it be from the strength God provides, so that God may be glorified through Jesus Christ in everything. To him be the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:11, CSB).
This should go without saying and yet a preacher cannot afford to go without saying it.
That God should choose any of us to be His ambassadors and the communicators of the good news of Jesus is simply amazing. To have partnership with God in His mission to the nations is a greater blessing than anything else in this world could afford. All faithful Christians have that privilege, and yet those of us who preach God’s Word publicly are afforded a special opportunity to glorify God by speaking His words to the assembly of His people. There is nothing about me that makes me worthy to represent God in any way – apart from what Christ has done for me and what the Spirit has done in me.
2. Preaching is a mixture of science and art.
I’ve been saying this recently to a few people at the Bible College where I work and study. Preaching has a “science” component and an “art” component to it. Exegesis is very much like a science. You have a fixed data set (the actual content of the Holy Scriptures) and your task is to discover what the data says (the divinely-intended meaning of the text) and compile your findings into a format that is accessible to those you will convey the information to. But how you present the truths of Scripture in sermon-format is very much an art form. Illustrations and even application take a different kind of skill to that employed in exegesis. Piquing interest, highlighting key implications and persuading your hearers to respond in a certain way are all art forms.
Almost every Christian I know has listened to preachers who are skilled exegetes, but poor illustrators and appliers of their text and/or preachers who are skilled narrators and motivational speakers but abysmal handlers of God’s Word. Sadly, many of us have probably encountered more preachers who lacked in both areas than heard people who excel in both. I want to strive to do both aspects well.
3. Preaching over a number of years has seen me grow, but many of my natural strengths and weaknesses remain essentially the same.
Following on from the point above, I can see progress in my own preaching over the years, but I recognise that some things remain basically the same. Specifically, I have found that God has equipped me over the years to be reasonably adept at understanding the major points of a given biblical text and thus be able to explain it clearly to a congregation. But one piece of regular feedback I’d get as a student minister concerned my need to grow in engagement with my hearers, through pointed questions, helpful illustrations and specific (rather than general or superficial) application.
Several years on, I still find it easier to go into the pulpit with confidence that I’ve exegeted the passage well than be optimistic about my effectiveness in communicating the truths in an engaging, memorable and relevant manner. I believe I have grown, but need to grow more in the areas where I’ve struggled in the past.
4. Preaching expository sermons shouldn’t feel like a straitjacket.
When I first preached it was in a context where topical sermons were the norm. There may have been a Bible reading at the beginning of the message, but the likelihood of the preacher remaining in that text throughout their time in the pulpit was minimal. Through online influences, I had become convinced that I should preach what a biblical text says, rather than say what I wanted to say and draw on various Scriptures to make the case. Thus, my first few sermons were expositions of biblical passages – albeit dry ones that sounded like a poorly-written Bible Commentary.
I remain committed to expository preaching as a ministry norm. But my understanding of what that entails has changed over the years. Thankfully for anyone who has had to listen to my preaching, I have been trained to expound a passage from the pulpit in a more helpfully-crafted way than merely giving an explanation of each verse and some exhortation at the end.
But I’ve also realised that I’m not bound to a rigid format of what some deem to be the only acceptable means of approaching biblical exposition. Some of the most enjoyable sermons I’ve prepared and delivered in the last 2-3 years have been thematic. These involve tracing a key theme through a particular biblical book, rather than moving through a whole book chapter by chapter. They were still thoroughly expository, because my task was to show what that particular biblical author wanted to convey about that specific theme.
Likewise, when I preach as a visiting appointee-missionary, my sermon is not stock-standard passage-exposition, but has usually been approached with some creativity to demonstrate the implications that a particular portion of the Bible has for thinking about mission.
5. Preaching in diverse contexts is a valuable means of stretching a preacher to grow.
All of my early preaching opportunities were in a multicultural (but predominantly white) Pentecostal church in the rugged, working class suburbs of Logan City. Then I became a student minister (and later a pastor) in a multicultural (but predominantly Asian) independent evangelical church in the professionalised, middle-class orbit of the University of Qld in Brisbane’s Inner-West.
Not only did I need to rethink how to approach sermon illustrations and relevant application to people’s live – but even my expectation of congregational engagement had to change. My Pentecostal brothers and sisters were used to nodding in agreement, laughing at jokes (even the droll ones), verbally responding to questions and even “amening” key points I made in a sermon. My new congregation was for the most part still, silent and expressionless during my sermons and getting them to laugh at a joke sometimes felt like trying to get blood out of a stone.*
Engaging a different kind of congregation stretched me to think, prepare and preach differently. Since then, I’ve preached in a range of demographical and denominational contexts and some of them have been quite different experiences to one another. I’ve also preached at bilingual services and a children’s service – both of which test the preachers ability to convey the truths of Scripture with simplicity and clarity!
I hope to share a few more reflexions next time, so please stay tuned!
*N.B. It wasn’t an Asian cultural issue per se, as I’ve had better success at getting laughter in other Asian congregations. They were just a tough crowd!