By Henry Whyte
I was in my mid-20s when I was invited to preach my first sermon. I was so nervous beforehand that I was physically sick. I now look back on 42 years of ordained ministry during which I have preached thousands of times. I now listen to more sermons than I preach and have many reflections on preaching and preachers. Amongst them are:- 1The task of the preacher is a demanding one. It is so to speak that God’s written Word becomes a living and life-changing word in the minds, hearts and lives of those who hear.
This is not easy and one reason is that, in the population at large and also in the churches, there is far less knowledge of the Bible than there was when I began to preach. One of my favourite cartoons appeared in this newspaper about 20 years ago. It showed two Sunday school teachers talking together. “It’s amazing the questions that children ask nowadays”, said one. “What were you asked today?” said the other. “I was asked the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament,“ replied the first. “And how did you respond?” said the second. “I said I would look up the answer and tell them next week.” Alongside a diminishing knowledge of the Bible there is more scepticism and many more questions in the minds of people who do think about it. For example, “did God really order and approve the slaughter of thousands of Canaanite people?”So every preacher has to decide at what level to pitch his or her sermon. If it is at a beginner‘s level it may evoke the complaint that “what we need is deeper teaching”. On the other hand if the sermon assumes, say, some basic knowledge of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians it may lose the attention of the newcomer in the first few minutes. A related matter is that while some sermons may have the flavour of a theological lecture that is seemingly unrelated to the lives of the congregation others may be so full of the nitty gritty of daily life that there is all too little Biblical content. It can often be hard to find the right balance between unpacking what the Bible has to say and its application to life in the 21st century.
2There are great benefits to be had when those who preach in a local church, or group of churches, meet together to plan the preaching programme.Prayer and thoughtful discussion about how the preaching will be taken forward and co-ordinated with the other ministries in the church, such as Home Groups, is time well spent. One important aspect of such discussions will be the anticipated make up of the congregation at any out-of-the-ordinary services. A Baptism at which large numbers of very occasional churchgoers will be present is a different preaching challenge and opportunity to a “normal” Sunday service. Every preaching team will need some flexibility. After all, in the Book of Acts the apostles presented the Gospel in a different way to Jews, who had knowledge of the Old Testament, and to Gentiles who did not.
3Mutual feedback about sermons that have been preached can be very helpful for all concerned. In my years at theological college sermon classes were a vital part of learning to preach. A group would go from the college to pray for and support the student preacher and then, later on, would give feedback on what was good and what might have been improved. It is sometimes a sensitive process but in, my experience, it has been a rewarding one in churches in which I have served. In one of them a few members of the congregation were invited to contribute to the discussions.
Nowadays I sometimes send a draft of my next sermon to trusted friends and I always value their comments. It is obviously better to improve things beforehand rather than to wish one had done so after the event.
4New preachers and those who preach infrequently often say too much in one sermon. Perhaps they feel that now that they have the opportunity they must share all that is on their hearts and minds. Or maybe some even want to make up for deficiencies that they see in the preaching of others. However in preaching, as in many other areas of life, less is often more. The same is true of the length of the sermon and I enjoy the story of the preacher who went on far too long and who belatedly realised that he was losing the attention of the congregation. He tapped the microphone and said “I wonder if you can still hear me at the back?” To which came the instant reply, “Yes I can but I will gladly change places with someone who can’t!”
5The personal and spiritual preparation of the preacher and thorough preparation of the actual sermon are two sides of the same coin. Congregations are discerning if one or both have been lacking in a significant way. Sermons deserve the best efforts of all who preach them and not least because the Sunday services are at the heart of the life of the local church. They are also a shop window for those who are looking in and wondering whether they will take things further.
6Preaching involves lifelong learning. If preachers are not learning and making progress on their Christian journeys it is less likely that their congregations will be doing the same. In the words of the late John Stott, “double listening” is always necessary, both to the Bible and to the changing world around us. It is in and through such double listening, and then speaking, that preachers will grow in faith, hope and love and so, please God, their congregations will be doing the same.