In the Spring of 1983 I crossed the Irish Sea to fulfil six preaching engagements in Glasgow (all in the one day!). It was an exciting venture because I also got to meet for the first time one of my heroes, the Rev George Philip. The Rev Philip was minister at the great Sandyford Henderson Memorial Church in Glasgow which was a bastion of expository bible teaching. Along with his brother James (minister at Holyrood Abbey Church, Edinburgh), and the Revs William Still and Eric Alexander, he was responsible for influencing a whole generation of young pastors and ministers in Scotland and throughout the world. When I went around to his house for tea I was hoping that he would be dazzled by my preaching itinerary, which had also brought me to churches as far away as Canada back in 1980. As it happened he was singularly unimpressed to hear of my globe trotting. He reminded me of how young and inexperienced I was; how little of life I had actually lived. Then he let me in on some of the deep, but more mundane things that God might have to do in my life before I’d be fit to tell others how to live. I have never forgotten our first and only ever meeting. I went home to Ireland with my tail between my legs.
Anybody who has ever heard George Philip preach will know they are listening to somebody who lives in intimate fellowship with his Lord. But it’s not just his preaching that grips one’s attention. It’s worth tracking down one of his online sermons just to hear him pray before he shares the Word. I learned much from this godly man back in my late teens and twenties. I don’t know what he’d make of me now thirty three years on – whether he’d think I’d matured very much since we last met! I can at least say that I don’t have the lust for preaching that I once had or an appetite for a diary full of fancy speaking engagements. I think one of the prerequisites of being a preacher is to recognise that an upfront ministry is only of value if God actually wants you up there. Too many preachers take themselves too seriously and use their ministry as much as an opportunity to promote themselves and their petty agendas as the Word of God.
As we move into a new year it might be a good thing for those of us who preach (and for those who have to listen to us) to reflect on what it means both to proclaim and hear the Word.
I reproduce below a gutsy piece which George Philip wrote on sermon preparation. It will give you something of a flavour of the man’s character and of the God he serves. I expect it will infuriate as much as challenge and inspire – but it won’t leave you unchanged – especially if you happen to be a preacher. For those of you who listen to sermons each week this article provides an opportunity to reflect on how much you think your local preachers and teachers live up to some of the ideals that the Rev George Philip lays before us. Either way
In preparation for this paper I have glanced at a variety of books but was not able to consult one of the best, Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students. I have lent it to someone and it has never found its way back home. Spurgeon’s book is one I would recommend that all preachers should read periodically and take seriously.
In another book on preaching I read the following comment, “We may recall Rousseau’s recipe for a love letter: to write a good love letter you will begin without knowing what you are going to say, and end without knowing what you have said.” These words could well describe many sermons. In the same book this further comment is made, “Large numbers of persons who have been accustomed to read the Bible and to listen to preaching all their lives have the loosest possible acquaintance with the details of biblical history, and their concepts of doctrinal truth are extremely vague. They are grateful to any man who will make their knowledge of the facts of Holy Scripture definite, and who will give sharpness and form to the outlines of their conceptions of truth.”
To give a paper on preparation of sermons is a task full of hazards, not least because to propound a set of rules or a technique would lead to an approach that is mechanical and indeed dangerous. We are all different in gifts, capacities and personalities, and therefore there must be a wide variety in our approach to the business of preaching. At the same time certain principles can be set forth. Perhaps the essentials are summed up in Nehemiah 8:5-8 RSV, “Ezra opened the book in the sight of the people… …And Ezra blessed the Lord the great God… …And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” That text focuses the essence of what I want to say. The purpose of preaching is to bring the Word of God to the people and to bring the people to the Word of God. We are charged to feed the flock of God, to instruct them in faith and righteousness, and to build them up in their most holy faith.
That being so we must identify at once certain things which are not preaching. This will save a lot of time in the business of preparation. Reading a theological paper, however sound, is not preaching. A homily on your latest bright idea, theological or practical, is not preaching. Speculation on fancy interpretations of Scripture, dealing with sanctification or prophecy or any other theme, is not preaching. Lectures on sociology, politics or morals are not preaching. Chatting amiably over the pulpit with cheap language is certainly not preaching. A man is preaching when he has in his heart a message from God that he feels his people must hear.
I recall the Master of Christ’s College Aberdeen saying, “Most ministers have only six sermons.” He was cynical, but he had a point. He saw the danger of hobby- horsing, a dread disease, which has the effect that no matter what part of Scripture a man is supposed to be dealing with he ends up flogging the same solitary thought. That is wresting the Scriptures and its issue is destructive. That kind of preaching makes the Scriptures serve our purposes, whereas we are supposed to be servants of the Scriptures. To have a selective or a manipulative attitude to the Bible may be understandable if you are a liberal unbeliever but it is not permissible if you are a conservative evangelical. The tragedy of the evangelical church is congregations which have had evangelical ministers for years but who are still totally ignorant of whole tracts of Scripture and who have no real clue as to historical sequence or where the patriarchs and prophets fit in. The popular phrase “New Testament Christianity” makes me cringe, because neglect of the Old Testament has led to evangelicals taking refuge in orthodox but abstract theology, totally propositional, but never clothed with flesh or demonstrated in the lives of the men and women of the Bible. In many ways, called to be preachers, we must answer the prayer of the people, “Lighten our darkness, O Lord, we beseech Thee.”
We say all this because unless we are quite clear in our own minds what we are trying to prepare we will never manage to prepare it. Most housewives have a clear idea about what they are going to cook before they start in the kitchen. Preparing a meal should never be a slap-dash thing. Preparing sermons is all too often on that level. The Professor of Divinity I referred to (and this is proof that I did sometimes listen to lectures) also said that the essence of preaching is, “Tell them what you are going to say, say it, and then tell them what you have said.” Sometimes a preacher is not too sure at the end of his own sermon what he has said, if in fact he has said anything, and if he is not sure what he was trying to say then there is little hope of the congregation having understood or benefited. This is no warrant for dull repetition. We must give our congregations credit for reasonable intelligence and if we don’t they will simply switch off. But there is biblical warrant for authentic repetition. Paul said that it was not a hardship for him to say the same thing over and over again. After all, we face a situation vitiated by the obtuseness of human nature, the unwillingness of men’s minds, and the activity of the Devil in both blinding the minds of those who do not believe and in snatching away the seed of the Word as it is sown. There is a lot to be said for planting it again.
The business of preaching is not an incidental activity in the life of a minister, and the preparation for it must not be squashed in to what time is left after visiting and a variety of other activities. Our sermons must not be prepared and preached with the dregs of mental energy. Sermons need preparation, not in the sense that we manufacture the Word, but that we handle the Word honestly, not deceitfully, not tampering with the Word but being servants of the Word. We do not give life to the Word and if we try, we tend to introduce strange fire which is not productive. Nor do we give the Word of God its substance. We are dealing with God’s revelation, the truth as it has been expressed. We are servants of the truth, which stands valid even if no one believes it. Our business is to manifest the truth, holding back nothing, and declaring the whole counsel of God. Of course we must not try to give the whole counsel of God in every single sermon.
We are in fact dealing with a message and not just a sermon and therefore we are God’s messengers. But in order to make sure that our messages are from God we are bound to the Scriptures and we must be in submission to the Scriptures, saying what the Bible says and keeping to what it says, stopping where Scripture stops. And, since we cannot deal with all the Bible every time, we are best if we stick to a given passage. That is far better than preaching from a text. We do not ascribe inspiration and infallibility to the chapter divisions of the Scriptures, but there is reason in the order of Scripture and the little Jack Homer technique of pulling out plums is not a good one. Apart from anything else a constant diet of plums becomes rather sickening. One of the great dangers is that of superimposing on Scripture our particular pattern. Some ministers are like homing pigeons. No matter where they start, with a few fluttering circles to get their direction, they head straight for their particular hobby-horse be it judgment, forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, the five points of Calvinism, the interpretation of prophecy or what you will.
I remember a man preaching in my own congregation and he indicated that he was going to deal with a certain chapter. My heart was glad because I was spiritually hungry. However he began with something like verse 15, and in a few moments hopped back to verse 3, then he went on to the last verse of the passage and after that he went back to the beginning. Perhaps he knew what he was trying to do, but I certainly did not. After all, if we believe in the inspiration of Holy Scripture then we must believe that God got the verses in the right order. I know that we are stewards of the mysteries of God, but it is no part of our task to leave our congregations baffled.
Our charge is to feed the flock of God over which we have been made overseers; to feed the sheep that belong to Christ and not to us; to preach the Word and to commit that Word to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Our business is to teach, not to impress, entertain or divert. Our business is to impart truth, not to evoke emotion or admiration. We are called upon to declare the truth of God, not to initiate response, because that is the work of the Holy Spirit.
In his book Preaching the Eternities Hamish MacKenzie makes this astonishing statement:
“After all, the pulpit is hardly the place for systematic instruction. That should be reserved in the main for the small groups and classes which supplement private Bible study. Any formal learning imparted by the preacher is purely incidental. The object of public worship is not to educate. It is to glorify God, and to establish that divine- human contact of which we have already spoken in a previous lecture.”
To my mind that statement is totally false and dangerously erroneous. But it is sadly true of many services and sermons. The preaching of the Word and spiritual worship go together, and if they don’t we end up in the situation that Paul found in Athens with people worshipping an unknown God. The tragedy of the second half of the twentieth century is simply that inside the church God is not known because the Bible is not known. We may not any more assume biblical knowledge on the part of the congregations to which we are called. At the same time I believe there is in different levels of society the stirring that causes people to ask, “Is there a word from God?” In our preparation of our sermons we must be clear that we are to stand before the people and to address ourselves to them saying, “Hear the Word of God.”
If our function is to feed the flock of God then we must learn from the cook, housekeeper and mother. We must serve a balanced diet of good food, well prepared and well served. Quite a few of us have had the experience of our children saying, when a plate is set down in front of them, “What is it?” We have to make sure it is the Bible that we serve up to our people, and that it is served well. One of the first things we have to do is to encourage people to open their Bibles. You do not need to follow my specific pattern but in the very early days of my ministry, having given out the reading in the usual way, I paused and stood looking at the congregation until they were just a little bit embarrassed. Then I said, “What is the point of my saying every Sunday, ‘Let us read together in the Word of God,’ if none of you open your Bibles?” Then I said, “Let us read together in the Word of God,” and there was a frantic reaching to the end of the pews to get Bibles and to turn them up. One business lady sitting well down to the front of the church glared up at the pulpit, very angry, and folded her arms in a pronounced way, as if to say, “I will not.”
Whatever method we use we must get through to the people that our function is to bring them to their Bibles, not just to make them listen to sermons, that it is good for them to open their Bibles, and that if they do so, following us as we read (very possibly elaborating the reading), then they will begin not only to know their Bibles for themselves but to know how to use their Bibles. I know that the Directory for Public Worship in the Westminster Confession of Faith says that we should not comment on the reading of the Scriptures, but of course it is the Bible that is inspired and not the Confession of Faith. On one of my first visits to my Sunday school when I went to Sandyford, the leader of the Primary Sunday School read through practically a whole chapter of Isaiah and the poor kids just sat and goggled. They hadn’t a clue. They needed it explained. I doubt if I would ever allow the reading of the Scriptures to be done by anyone but the minister, except on special occasions. The reading of the Bible is a vital part of the service.
We must now come to grips with the mechanics of preparation. This is not easy to do because the process varies from person to person. It is always instructive and helpful to watch carefully how other people do it. When there are tradesmen working in my house I like to go and watch them for a spell, not least to admire the skill and competence which is theirs as a result of years at their own particular trade. Whenever I get the chance to be in a congregation I watch everything as carefully as possible because if we ever stop being learners we are finished.
One of the first things we have to decide is what it is we are going to give to our congregations. To my mind, by far the best method of preaching is that of a sequence of studies going through books of the Bible, balancing Old Testament and New Testament in reasonable proportion. Apart from anything else, as we mentioned earlier, this recognises the unity of sections of Scripture. But we must be very careful. Too long a series, especially to a new congregation, can be disastrous. When Rev. John Spiers went to his first congregation and started an evening service, he went through the whole of Ephesians in six weeks. I think he was very wise because at the end of that series, which was a completely new experience for his congregation, some of his elders said, “Let’s do that with another book of the Bible.” I am not suggesting for a moment that every individual in our congregations will be thrilled with this kind of ministry but there will be those who want to learn what God says and these people are the nucleus of the congregation of the future. Of course, however enthusiastic we may be about our ministry, we cannot say the final word on any passage on any one occasion. There is just too much to handle. There is also a limit to what a congregation can take in, as there is a limit to the length of time that they can listen profitably. But in our ministry we are not on our own. God is there to guide.
It is important in preparation that we should start thinking about our Sunday sermon as early in the week as possible. Have a piece of paper and write down your thoughts, if any. Continue this writing down process as you think and read throughout the week. Sit down with your pieces of paper and all your scribblings. Look at them, ponder them, link up the thoughts that belong together. Get some sort of order into the whole thing. A sermon is supposed to have a beginning, a middle and an ending in that order. Be honest enough to eliminate the interesting but irrelevant observations. See that your sermon, as you prepare it, has sequence.
When I first went to university, as a mature student (by age at least), I had an interesting experience with the first English essay I had to write. I had got a start to it and sought help from my older brother. His comments were something like this, “Your first sentence is good. Then you have thought out in your own mind the next two sentences and have written down the fourth one. You may know the sequence but the person reading the essay won’t.” I have never forgotten that lesson. I have the benefit of being married to a teacher of English. On one occasion doing the Congregational Magazine I had what I felt was a real burning message to communicate to my congregation and got it down on paper. I took it to my wife and left it with her. Some time later she came back with the comment that she knew exactly what I was trying to say, agreed that it needed to be said, but what I had done was no use. She explained why. I re-typed the whole thing and took it to her again and her comment then was that it was better but it was still no use. She pointed out that certain paragraphs that I had at the beginning belonged three-quarters of the way through the thing, and vice versa. I re-typed the first half of it this time and sought counsel and then went on to complete it. I was pleased with the finished letter. You may not all be as dumb and lacking in English capacity as 1 may seem to be from that illustration but I suggest that we could all do a lot with regard to tidying up of our sermons, not least that we might honour the people that we are called to preach to.
There is the question of what we are going to preach. That should not present too many problems because we have a whole Bible to preach and that, nothing less, is our remit: Christ in all the Scriptures. How we set about doing it is something that may be dealt with better in general discussion rather than in a paper.
Once you are clear about the theme to be dealt with or the course of study to be followed, get to the Scriptures, be it passage or text. See what it says, and don’t be afraid to go soon to commentaries, because other men’s thoughts can be corrective as well as inspirational. At the same time, however good a library of commentaries you may have, don’t feel that you need to read everything in your library on the specific passage. You will give yourself mental indigestion and your congregation will get a sermon that is couched in language and thought forms that are not really yours.
In all our preparation we have to ask ourselves the question, “Who are we trying to serve in our preaching?” It is God’s flock and He does not want them to go home hungry. This raises certain considerations. The first has to do with our attitude. I like the cartoon in Punch Magazine where the Rector is addressing the young curate and saying, “Young man, kindly stop referring to the congregation as the opposition.” I know that congregations can oppose the Word of God: that should not surprise us in the least because after all the whole world order lies in the wicked one, and human nature is certainly not neutral. But at the same time if we set out in our preaching to accost the congregation or to make every preaching something of a confrontation in which we are out to prove they are wrong, then we will end up in trouble and it will be our own fault. It can be unnecessary trouble. If we preach as if we were God’s gift to the Church, as if, having reached the ripe age of thirty, we know everything and have proved everything, we will not be listened to. Some have yet to prove themselves in a congregation and to show they can build a church. Some have not lived long enough to be so pontifical. We have to prove ourselves and we have to earn the right to be listened to.
Another aspect of our attitude is very important. If we look down on our congregation they will certainly be aware of the fact, and this will constitute a barrier. Talking down to people as if they were children or lesser breeds is absolutely fatal. It will create an attitude in them that will cause them to resist the Gospel for years. Remember that our inner attitude to people cannot really be hidden however much we try to hide, camouflage or deny it. To act as if we were graciousness itself while at heart we devalue or denigrate people is hypocrisy. People sense it, and the Holy Spirit is grieved. You will never preach rightly to people you do not value before God. Granted, many people are difficult to love, but without question, if we pray for the people given into our charge it may not quickly change their attitude to us and to our preaching, but it will certainly change our attitude to them. This will certainly have a profound effect on our sermon preparation.
Another important consideration in our preparation is the fact that our congregations are varied. We will have people of different ages, different personalities and different capacities, and it is best that it should be so. It would be ghastly to have a congregation of academics, or a congregation of students, or a congregation of young people or old people. Do your best not to sectionalise your congregation. But start with what you have. Remember that Paul started at Philippi with a very small women’s meeting. Remember this, that these people are the people to whom God has sent you. They are precious to God, given into your charge, and who knows what they will be, or their children and grandchildren. I recall when preaching as sole nominee, in the middle of the service, feeling that this was my people given to me by God. But there are various kinds of congregations. Not all are like Sandyford and it has taken twenty years to make Sandyford what it is and we are still working at it. Very early in my ministry a joiner who had been converted said to me on one occasion, “Mr. Philip, I have to take in enough on a Sunday to keep me going in my kind of workaday world for a whole week.” Our preaching has to feed all kinds of people and all of them are deserving of our best.
We may not feel adequate but we must have confidence in the Word of God and believe that preaching is a living exercise in which the Spirit of God is active. We are not on our own. Never forget that your sermons are the vehicles of God’s working to call out, create and build up a people for His own possession. The people are His and the work is His and both have to be valued accordingly. We are the shepherds and teachers, but of course sheep can be stupid and exasperating, and pupils are notorious for being rebellious and unappreciative. That is a part of the hazard of the job.
Then we must think of the capacity as well as the potential of our people. God remembers we are dust but we tend to forget that our congregations are human. A common error among young ministers who go out from colleges is that they are too technical; they have acquired the art of writing essays, but sermons are a different thing. Another error of young ministers going out from spiritually established churches is that they are unrealistic. They assume that a new congregation can be made like their spiritual home in a matter of twelve months. They tend to preach too long, sometimes trying to outdistance all other ministers. They tend to be too complicated, forgetting that most congregations just cannot follow the references and allusions. They may refer to Aachan’s sin, or Israel’s exile, or Daniel’s seventieth week, and the congregation hasn’t a clue. By and large our home congregations are too tolerant and kind to some young visiting preachers. Instead of thanking them for their preaching they should say to them graciously that it was hard to listen to, rather boring and uninspiring, even if it was sound and biblical. When men go to their first congregation they will not find people quite so tolerant. If they get a dull, badly put together sermon one Sunday they may come back the next, but if they get a second dose of dullness they will skip the next few Sundays. Once a congregation reacts like that and begins to back-pedal, it is hard to get them going forward again. One of the great disciplines of ministry is that we have to live with the result of our own sermons. Good food well served will not only satisfy, it will kindle the appetite for more and educate the appetite to discern between authentic, spiritual food and mere sermonising.
What do your people need? What are you serving them? It must be the Word of God served as bread for the soul. Our job is to feed, challenge, encourage, comfort, educate, and discipline (not necessarily in one sermon), and it is the work of the Holy Spirit to take the Word and apply it severally as He will. Never underestimate the working of God. Believe in what you are doing and be comforted in the fact that God is watching over His Word to perform it (Jer. 1:12 RSV). People say that ordinary congregations are not able to take expository and doctrinal sermons. They can, and they will, if these are served up properly in true biblical fashion. It takes work, hard work. But I am amazed at the capacity of ordinary folk to take Bible teaching.
We have spoken of what we preach and of our attitude to the people to whom we preach. What can we say about methods of preaching and preparation?
1) We must preach, but not with wisdom of words, because human cleverness makes the Word of God of no effect. In this connection, think first of the searching challenge in 2 Corinthians 4: 1-5. Paul insists that the hidden things of wrong motive, wrong attitude and wrong living have the effect of hiding the Gospel so that people hear only vaguely what should be loud and clear. A wrong life acts as a resistance, robbing the Gospel of its power, so that in its going forth it is a weak and powerless thing. The minister and his sermons may still be recognisably evangelical, but God is no longer in them. That is the reason why some well prepared and well delivered sermons are lifeless. The life-giving Spirit of God is grieved away.
2) We need to learn to use illustrations, but they must be natural and not obtrusive and they must come at the right place in the sermon. They must be essentially simple and not become a thing in themselves. I recall travelling back from one conference when we had discussed children’s addresses and a minister telling me about a magnificent children’s address that he had heard. He went into great detail with regard to a rather wonderful illustration. At one point I broke in and said, “And, what was the lesson?” With a typical laugh he said, “Crumbs, I’ve completely forgotten.” There is the warning. If people remember the illustration but not the lesson, we have gone adrift.
3) Quotations likewise are dangerous and can be a distraction. It is a very difficult thing indeed to read a passage from someone else’s book in the context of a sermon, and unless it is brilliantly done it can be like a douche of cold water. The same warning holds good for name dropping in sermons. By all means use the wise words that other people have said but there is no need for us to be forever using the formula “as Calvin says,” or “as Bultmann says,” or “as George Philip says”. That may impress certain people with our erudition and our very wide reading but it is not strictly speaking helpful to the congregation. Mind you, there is a time for saying, “At this point, I think John Calvin is wrong”.
4) Another area in which we must be careful is the tendency to try to be ‘with it’ in language. This is not necessarily a benefit and is not necessarily the same as communicating, particularly when it sounds false to the hearers. We are not called upon to catch the spirit of the age, but by the truth of God and the power of God to correct the spirit of the age. I know that people are conditioned nowadays to the television techniques where things are presented in very short, brief, summarised packets. But this is leading to a form of conditioning in which people are becoming less and less capable of thought. This leads to less and less real understanding, and even less capacity for expression, and if the Christian church follows this pattern it will end up in a very serious condition. Here we must question the use of music and drama and a variety of other things in the service of the gospel. I read recently in a mainline Pentecostal magazine an article in which the writer was referring to days of real spiritual awakening in the past and pointing out that in these days the theatre was at a much higher level than it is now. Yet these mighty men of God were not disposed in the slightest to make use of that particular medium. I think there is a lot of very loose talk with regard to this. I believe it is wrong to quote the prophetic actions that are recorded in the Old Testament as warrant for the use of drama and dance. I believe we are in the realm here of a real distraction from the business of the proclamation of the Word of God. Not all methods serve to bring people to the Word of, nor to encourage and enable them to store up God’s Word in .their hearts.
5) Turn now to the conduct of the service. A very important matter is that of diction. As Spurgeon points out in his lectures, it is not for nothing that it says in the Bible, “Jesus opened His mouth and taught.” The most wonderfully spiritually sermon will be totally fruitless if people cannot hear. A conversational voice is fine for a little group of people but it is no use for heralding the good news of God. It is wise counsel to tell preachers to stand up, speak up, and shut up.
6) In our preparation of sermons we have to recognise that the whole service is the context of the sermon, and therefore the whole service must be a unity. Sometimes on holiday, I look at the hymn board and turn up all the hymns before the service to see if I can get a clue as to what the theme is going to be. Then during the service I get an Old Testament reading and a New Testament reading and still am not quite sure what the theme is going to be. When it comes to the sermon I get a text that seems to have no relation to anything that has gone before and I begin to feel that the man’s objective had been to keep us guessing as long as possible. If the sermon and the whole service are to be as worthy as they should be there must be a sense of unity.
7) Although dealing with the preparation of sermons a word needs to be said with regard to the preparation of our pulpit prayers. These pulpit prayers are not the same as private devotional conversations with the Almighty. There are things we say in private prayer that are not suitable for public prayer. In the pulpit we are not praying for ourselves or by ourselves as individuals, but serving as the mouthpiece of a whole congregation, enabling them to express their worship and their desire in the presence of God. In prayer as in preaching we need to know where we are going. How else can the people say, Amen?
8) What we take into the pulpit as aids to preaching the sermon is a matter that is very personal. Some use notes, some a very brief outline, some simply have headings, some have a full script. All of these have benefits and hazards. It is very difficult to read a full script well without the voice becoming monotonous and without losing rapport with the congregation. They become the audience. If we use a script and have had, for example, verses of Scripture typed out in full, it is far better to pause and let the congregation turn up these verses than for the preacher just to rattle through them. On the other hand I listened once to a fellow preaching without any notes at all. It was a good sermon, with lots of good material, but it would have been a far better one if he had been willing to use some notes, because that would have meant his progress would have been direct rather than meandering. We must find out the way that helps us best, but one important point should be remembered. Always know exactly how you are going to begin your sermon. Don’t splutter, start and stop like an old car on a frosty morning.
9) As far as possible know also how you are going to stop the sermon. Rev. Tom Allan used to tell the story of the man going to church with his car at the end of the service to collect his wife. The beadle was standing on the outside steps of the church smoking his pipe and the man asked if the minister was not finished yet. The beadle replied, “Oh, yes, he’s finished, but he won’t stop.” Campbell Morgan in his book on preaching makes this statement: “The last sixty seconds are the dynamic seconds in preaching. Of course, it is important not to approach the last sixty seconds until they are really near. If we value our reputation for truthfulness and fair play, don’t let us tell our congregations that we mean to conclude and then fail to keep our promise. Don’t let us say, ‘Now finally,’ and presently ‘in conclusion’ and a little later on ‘one word more’ and still later, ‘and now before we part.’ Dr. Paterson said that that kind of ending to a sermon reminded him of Pope’s Ode with a very different application:
Trembling, hoping, lingering, flying,
O the pain, the bliss of dying.”
10) A great help in the business of preparation is that occasionally (not too often) we should listen to our own sermons on tape to give us some idea of what it is like to be in the congregation when we are preaching. It is a salutary exercise. Some of my divinity students used to insist on coming to the manse after they had preached in Sandyford to go over the whole thing with the tape recorder. On occasion I would press the stop button and ask, ‘Why did you say that then?” Sometimes they couldn’t give me an answer and they drew the obvious lesson.
11) With regard to the carrying out of the business of preaching we must see to it that your handling of the whole service is such that it will not be a distraction. Even if you don’t feel competent, give the impression that you are. Have your hymns turned up in your hymn book, so that you don’t have to go fumbling around the pulpit and flicking over pages when it is time to announce the next item of praise. At the end of one hymn turn up the next and have it ready. Refuse, right from the start of your ministry, to accept lists of complicated intimations being handed in to the vestry just before you go into the pulpit. Don’t give your congregation a whole set of hymns that they don’t know because that will simply make them sour and by the time you get to the sermon they will be against you. Let it be seen that you know where you are in the whole service, and particularly in the sermon and get there by the most direct route. Then when you have arrived, and have finished your sermon, stop.
It is very interesting that in Christian Brethren circles, where the emphasis has been on the priesthood of all believers and the entitlement of all men to preach, they are beginning to say that what they need as a movement is full time ministers. They recognise from long experience that there needs to be system in the ministry of the Word, consistency in the teaching of doctrine, and comprehensiveness with regard to ministering to a congregation the whole Word of God. After all, our business in preaching is building churches. Our remit is not just evangelising or proclamation, it is also the preservation of the Gospel so that the next generation will have the truth as it is in Christ and will have men and women committed to it. In his pastoral letter recently Rev. Tom Swanston made the very interesting and salutary observation that while it is great to have so many more evangelical ministers in Scotland, do we have evangelical churches?
It is easy to ridicule the situation that we find in our national church and to harangue about big buildings and buildings that are not custom-designed and buildings that are not fully used during the week. It is easy to criticise the activities of worldly congregations. It is all too easy to despise the middle-aged and old (although most of us have come to thank God for them: they are the ones who go on for years and years and carry the work forward). To be obsessed by youth work is not a wise thing because you cannot build a church with youngsters. To get people “doing things” is a technique that can lead simply to evangelical churchianity. We must guard against giving people the impression that because they do Christian activities they are therefore Christians. What we must learn to recognise is that we have been given places to meet in, people who are prepared to come to these places and to listen to us and work with us. And we have a system in the Presbyterian Church that sets us wonderfully free to get on with the business of preaching the Word of God. These are things that we must appreciate, and give thanks to God for them. There are things that we do not like. So what? We may not like dog collars, robes and anthems. We may not be particularly enamoured with having to take the Chair at the Women’s Guild Daffodil or Chrysanthemum Tea. We may not be ecstatic with regard to attendance at Presbytery meetings, but it is a spiritual duty so to do and our failure to do it creates nothing but barriers to the Gospel.
There are all sorts of things that we don’t like, but the pattern we have been given is that of our Lord Jesus Christ who did not grasp His rights although He was safely entitled so to do. Our pattern is also that of the Apostles who were prepared to make themselves all things to all men so that by any means they might gain some for Christ. Our business is to serve. We are working servants of the Gospel. And, unless we are prepared to work hard at the business of the preparation of our sermons we will never be good and faithful servants of the Gospel. Never forget that we have been given one of the greatest privileges men can receive. We are called to stand before the congregation as ambassadors for Christ. We must see to it in what we do and in the way we do it, that we do not dishonour the name of the King. Our calling is not just to create centres of informed biblical truth and sound doctrine firmly held. It is to create a fellowship of God’s people in which both God Himself and His people can enjoy themselves.
[Originally published in Evangel 24.1 Spring 2006, reproduced here courtesy of www.biblicalstudies.org.uk]