In the first of a series John Richardson considers the demands of modern preaching and the skills needed to address them
AN AMERICAN president with a reputation for stating the obvious is credited with saying something along the lines of “Whenever I am asked to speak, the first question I ask myself is, ‘What am I going to say?’” Yet this is the preacher’s constant dilemma. The preacher must speak – sometimes twice or more a week. And yet what to say is by no means obvious.
Moreover, the preacher bears an additional burden. I remember being forcibly struck by the remark of a friend at theological college struggling with his sermon for the weekend. When I suggested he was making unnecessarily heavy weather of it, he replied, “But this is the word of God!”? The preacher’s task is not merely to inform, much less to entertain. It is to proclaim God’s word.
The Priestly Task
The Book of Common Prayer describes the priestly office of as being “of dignity and great importance”, “weighty” and “of great excellency and great difficulty”?. This is because the priestly task is nothing less than:
… to be messengers, watchmen, and stewards of the Lord; to teach and premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord’s family; to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.
Yet the only tool given to the priest during ordination is the Bible. And the Bible is not merely a symbol of the priestly equipment. It is the tool to which all other gifts and skills are related since, as the Ordinal says earlier,
… you cannot by any other means compass the doing of so weighty a work, pertaining to the salvation of man, but with doctrine and exhortation taken out of the holy Scriptures, and with a life agreeable to the same […].
Even the Sacraments are derived from scripture: “ordained of Christ in the Gospel”? as Article XXV says. Their power lies not in qualities intrinsic to water or bread and wine, but in the scriptural words which identify this water or this bread and wine as sacramental. The priestly task is the ministry of the word.
In preparing to preach then, the preacher must first be persuaded of the immensity of the task. Preaching may sometimes feel like a burden. And yet to be entrusted with speaking for the Almighty God to his people is surely the greatest privilege humanly available in this life. The burden of the preacher is ultimately not the pressure of time but the responsibility of being an ambassador for Christ.
The Preacher’s Talents
The next step in preparing to preach, however, is still intensely personal. Good preaching is not simply the result of long hours at the desk. I have heard many sermons which were accurate, even erudite, in expounding a biblical text or theological concept. I have heard very few which warmed or stirred the soul.
This is not to disparage studious preparation. Those who do this are often members or associates of a church hierarchy which sees the acquiring of theological depth as an unnecessary and expensive luxury. The story is told of a medieval painter who was summoned before the Pope to demonstrate his artistic skills. When asked to give an example of his talents he simply drew a perfect circle – freehand! Similarly, preaching which looks easy is a signal of hard work and talent, not an indication of the easiness of preaching.
And here we must acknowledge that the preacher’s task does require a modicum of talent. Sadly, many are encouraged into a preaching ministry because the existing clergy are unable to delegate to them other forms of ministry to which these people are more suited. Yet in Romans 12 the Apostle Paul writes,
I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him. … Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them […].
It is not ‘unspiritual’ to say to oneself or to another that without the talent there wants evidence of the calling. Charles Spurgeon tells the following story:
I have heard of a gentleman who had a most intense desire to preach, and pressed his suit upon his minister, until after a multitude of rebuffs he obtained leave to preach a trial sermon. That opportunity was the end of his importunity, for upon announcing his text he found himself bereft of every idea but one, which he delivered feelingly and then descended the rostrum. “My brethren,” said he, “if any of you think it an easy thing to preach, I advise you to come up here and have all the conceit taken out of you.”
The trial of your powers will go far to reveal to you your deficiency, if you have not the needed ability. … We must give ourselves a fair trial in this matter, or we cannot assuredly know whether God has called us or not […]. (Lectures to my Students on the Art of Preaching: The Call to the Ministry)
But there is another ‘talent’ the preacher must have, namely a love for the people. Without love, preaching becomes simply ‘preachy’. In particular, an immature perspective on sin and weakness can result in sermonizing of the worst sort. Martin Luther once wrote:
“Living, or rather dying and being damned make a theologian, not understanding, reading or speculating”. And it is the mature preacher, who has personally experienced this “dying and being damned”, who can best speak from heart to heart rather than simply from head to head.
The Preacher’s Resources
Yet all preachers face the same regular problem – at a certain point in the near future they must stand in front of God’s people with something to say! The person who is not at some level thrilled by this prospect is probably not a preacher and should leave (or delegate) the task to others. Nevertheless, it all comes down to what we are to say, and when all the prayers have been prayed the sheet of paper or computer screen remains obstinately blank.
Here the adage of Jan van Andel is particularly appropriate – the pulpit must not drive us to the text, but rather the text must drive us to the pulpit. The Prayer Book commends the “godly and decent order of the Fathers”, whereby the “original and ground” of “Common Prayers in the Church” was the reading of the whole Bible every year so as to expose clergy and people to a constant diet of Scripture.
The Daily Offices are a useful the source of Bible reading ‘in bulk’. But there also needs to be that more deliberate approach which the Prayer Book commends in the ordinal:
… consider how studious ye ought to be in reading and learning the Scriptures, and … for this self-same cause, how ye ought to forsake and set aside (as much as you may) all worldly cares and studies […] so that, as much as lieth in you, you will apply yourselves wholly to this one thing, and draw all your cares and studies this way […] that, by daily reading and weighing of the Scriptures, ye may wax riper and stronger in your ministry […].