PREACHING: SOME OBSERVATIONS AND OPINIONS
(A Protest Mainly Against the Medley of Online Advice)
By Roger Salter
Special to VIRTUEONLINE
April 1, 2017
Proclamation is the principal ordinance of the Christian Church. It is not strictly confined to the pulpit, for all believers in their various vocations and circumstances are commissioned to make Christ known according to ability and opportunity. However, preaching, the declaration and exposition of the inspired revelation of God in Sacred Scripture, is of the utmost and incomparable importance in the life of the people of God, and the prime task of the truly called Christian minister. It demands the strongest exertions of God-given human talent and faculties. It deserves absolute priority in management of pastoral time. It is an exercise in absolute leaning upon God. In preparation and delivery, it is to be permeated with the sweetest, warmest, liveliest affection and reverence for the Lord. The soul of the preacher is to be filled with the fear of God, the fire of the Spirit, the love of the truth, the courage of conviction, and fondness for the hearers of the Word.
Immediately, it can be perceived, that no individual in themselves is armed with the necessary disposition and capacities to claim fitness for the role of preaching. God must call, God must compel, God must equip, enable, and uphold, and yet no honest preacher feels or believes that he measures up to the demands of his vocation or that his service is anywhere near worthy of his most exalted and merciful Lord.
Dissatisfaction haunts the mind and the attendant aspiration is, as one well known expositor has opined, to eventually preach a “proper sermon”. Who can adequately plumb the mind of God and do justice to the wealth and riches of the Book of God? There is always more to be seen, more to be said, greater skill to be had, and there is utter dependence upon the Spirit of the Lord even to mumble an ill-formed sentence. Without divine illumination, the Bible is a closed book totally in terms of its spiritual meaning, and the consequence is that the mouth of an “uninspired” man should remain closed.
If the ministry of preaching is to be exalted because of its exalted Master and matter, the preacher himself is not to be exalted - respected and encouraged certainly, because of the office, if worthily fulfilled, but never placed on a pedestal or flattered. Mere men are never meant to eclipse the luster of the Word. Their communication is given to them in the generosity and condescension of God and never to be self-generated or invented by the imagination. The preacher should be ashamed and appalled at those sneaky cravings for applause. The yearning for popular approval should be firmly shunned: “It is too common a fault that men desire to be taught in an ingenious and witty style . . . . Doctrine which solidly edifies is commonly attended by little display . . . . The infirmity of the minister does not destroy the faithfulness, power, and efficacy of God’s word . . . . No man is fit to preach the gospel, seeing the whole world is set against it, save only he which is armed to suffer.” (John Calvin).
Symptomatic of the downgrading of preaching in some Anglican circles is the occurrence of such things as follow: *Services of Holy Communion without the accompanying exposition of the Word which determines the meaning of the sacrament. *The convening some years ago in London of a preaching competition (and the awarding of a prize); the participants in which would surely be horrified if asked to enter a similar event in presiding at Holy Communion (preaching is not a performance, and preaching with a view to a ministerial appointment or towards a seminary qualification is morally perilous. Preaching is artificial if intended to create a favorable impression rather than edify). *A charismatic event where following the presentation of the Word of God by a very worthy servant of the Lord the worship leader rose to say at the introduction of the praise band, ‘And now we shall see what the Spirit really can do’ (shocking and shabby). *The notion of some clergy (Anglo-Catholic in one’s experience) that 3 -10 minutes will suffice for the ministry of the Word.
There is a depreciation of the value and importance of the sermon that is designed to engender the lofty and heavenly thought appropriate to the Presence of God among us. “It is impossible to honor God as we ought, unless we know him as he is” (Stephen Charnock). Furthermore, if memory is not defective, one recalls the view of the Hanson brothers in their collaborative work entitled Reasonable Belief - neither Bishop Richard nor Professor Anthony anywhere near conservative evangelicalism - opining that not even an angel could adequately proclaim a message of the kingdom in ten minutes.
Advice as to what is to be told from the pulpit and techniques in doing so, need to be scrutinized for telltale signs of the pursuit of human and oratorical success. No minister discharges his assignment in perfection of thought, utterance, gesture, and demeanor.
Sometimes too much attention is devoted to the talent of the man rather than the truth of the Lord, which only he can make effective (1 Samuel 3:19). The Lord allows mistakes and sometimes “wild-fire” to demonstrate human fallibility, sinfulness in his servants, and the continual need of careful reliance - that delicate thing- that should characterize the man of God (in all things).
Sometimes tutorials ascribe too much significance to gifts at the expense of resting in grace. Both Asahel Nettleton and John Witherspoon were each staggered at the way in which God enabled them to rise above their native abilities in announcing the gospel.
Imparted expertise and advice in preaching are to be received warily. Every preacher will do well to heed godly instruction and, in humility and prayerfulness, seek improvement - not for popular of self-approval but for effectiveness and winsomeness in presenting the gospel. However, the Lord calls a variety of personalities, minds, and folk of varying outlook, temperament, and background to cover the diverse array of insights lodged in the inspired disclosure of divine wisdom available to us in the two Testaments - the one Way of Salvation. Anyone venturing to coach another in preaching must do so from an enormous fund of humbling grace, otherwise it would be an expression of obnoxious audacity. We dare not trespass on ground where God has sown and is nurturing something unusual and specific which needs to be discovered and not covered by popular convention. Personality, however odd, counts for something in handling the Word of God, e.g. Ezekiel. To a homiletics professor the sermons of Rowland Hill might have seemed rambling and disorderly but he was used of God mightily. John Berridge’s spritely humor may have been interpreted as lowering the tone of public discourse. “Expert” advice can sometimes threaten to erase rare talent, as was often the case with the arts (Duke Ellington in many of his great compositions, excellent jazz now highly regarded as the epitome of American classical music, never knew that he was breaking the rules so adhered to by “experts”). Advisers should never impose.
Much harm is caused by the inevitable (unintended) encouragement to imitation of those preachers promoted as “stellar performers and celebrities”. It is chilling to receive requests for introductions to the perceived “stars” of the Christian scene. Self-conscious striving for success or to be someone is the bane of such promotion. Moreover, eminent ministers of the Word, for all their worth under God, and no one disputes their God-assisted usefulness, are in many ways recommending that which is suitable and even comfortable for them. In miss-alliance with God’s movement of them toward ministry of the Word they may suppose that their particular method is as inspired as the message they receive and relay. And everyone knows, that in every enterprise attempted by man, those who are consulted as experts and sought for their advice, usually advise in idealistic fashion well above and beyond their own personal disciplines, attainments, and performance. This proclivity creates standards that few mortals, if any, can achieve, and diminishes the confidence of those, mere novices, who need to look more to God than to men to stir up the gifts uniquely their own through divine donation.
Copy no one. One’s own reverent fascination for the sacred text arouses the mind and loosens the tongue. Charles Spurgeon commended something along these lines: Prepare as if there were no Holy Spirit to guide you, and then preach as if there had been no preparation. Thus may the Lord give spontaneity when the preacher is cast wholly upon him.
It is remarkable that among the best books on preaching, such as those by Martin Lloyd Jones, W.D. Cleverley Ford, Donald Coggan, happen to major in description, detail as to the nature of the task, anecdote, and narration of historical example rather than prescription. Anyone genuinely enthused by the Word as their greatest occupation or pastime will have something worthwhile to impart from Scripture, and increasingly so as they actually preach from that first frisson of fear all the way through to increasing awe at the splendor of divine speech recorded before us in the canon. It is also notable that many of the Lord’s greatest messengers attended no formal tutorials for their task. They were God’s workmanship.
As to style, decorum, mannerism, etc, listeners will have their subjective preferences according to taste, but to resolve to feed on the word attentively, whoever provides the fare, will soon adjust the appetite to the objective savoring of the oracles of God. They are the focus. As to content, we have the limitless Scriptures to explore and expound, the love of Christ as motivation, gratitude for eternal salvation to excite appropriate concentration, emotion and appreciation in speaker and hearers.
Script, outline, or extempore preaching? Pride should not enter into the issue. Superiority of mode should not be considered. It has been suggested that the minister ought to vary between all three options. Edwards, Chalmers, Phillips Brooks, all preached from manuscripts. Notes prevail among many. Luther entered the pulpit with a “konzept” committed to memory. Spontaneity and face to face contact is fine, but Luther recommended seeing the congregation as a collection of wooden stumps to avoid distraction from facial expressions and other diverting physical movement.
“Who is sufficient for these things”, declares Charles Spurgeon.
The Rev. Roger Salter is an ordained Church of England minister where he had parishes in the dioceses of Bristol and Portsmouth before coming to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Rector of St. Matthew's Anglican Church,
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