Darryl Dash is one of my close friends in ministry here in Toronto. Knowing someone can make you either want to read what they write or not want to read what they write.
So when Darryl’s new e-book came out yesterday, I made sure to read it through, the first chance I got. Knowing Darryl, I wanted to read his thoughts on preaching.
The book itself is short. And frankly, that’s refreshing. Though there are 28 chapters, none are more than a few pages. Each chapter is concise, contains a single thought, and engages the reader well. Much of what you will find are lessons that Darryl has learned from authors, teachers, and preachers from whom he has learned. He is sharing with us what he has gleaned from years of study.
Ordinary Preacher is divided up into six decidedly uneven main sections: Fundamentals, Planning, Preparation, Application, Delivery, and Final Thoughts. Most of the content of the book is found in the Planning, Preparation, and Final Thoughts, with less space devoted to Application and Delivery.
Many of you earnestly desire to hear your pastors preach better sermons. While you can tell that he labours away, you long for more passion, more earnestness, more deliberateness, or more clarity. That’s understandable. Most preachers would like to grow in these ways as well. (And the ones who don’t really need prayer.)
One of the best ways you can help your pastor’s preaching is by praying for him. But did you know you can do even more than that? And it’s not that difficult, either.
What is the likelihood you’ll be at church on Sunday? 50%? 75%?
Recently, I heard an experienced urban minister reflecting on the reality that in most urban contexts, among most young Christians — even reformed evangelicals — church attendance peaks at around 2-3 Sundays per month.
Before you judge, honestly evaluate your own attendance over the past little while. I say that because for most of these young people, if you were to ask them, they would indicate that they are very committed. In their own perception, they are more likely to be there than not, whether or not the facts bear that out. Many think they are more faithful than they are.
That’s been on my mind today because I’ve been studying about Jesus. Here’s what I read:
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been raised, and he entered the synagogue as was his custom on the Sabbath day and he rose to read… (Luke 4.16)
Four little words stuck out to me. Did you catch them? ‘As was his custom.‘
If there are things we tend to not like as younger people, particularly younger evangelicals, it is commandments and customs. We don’t like to be told something is necessary. But if something is good, shouldn’t it be customary? If Jesus made it his custom to go and hear the reading and explanation of the law for the first 30 years of his life before beginning his ministry, shouldn’t that inform some of our customs?
I was further rebuked by this statement from Josephus:
‘He [Moses] appointed the Law to be the most excellent and necessary form of instruction, ordaining, not that it should be heard once for all or twice or on several occasions, but that every week men should desert their other occupations and assemble to listen to the Law and to obtain a thorough and accurate knowledge of it, a practice which all other legislators seem to have neglected’ (Ag. Ap. 2.17 §175).
In sermon preparation this week, I’ve been struck again by the simplest of realities. (Why is it always the simplest things that I have to re-learn the most often?) As I was praying over my study for the day — with my mind wandering from sustained prayer to thoughts about the text, and then back to prayer again — I found myself burdened with this reality:
The point of the text is the God of the text; apart from knowing the God who breathes the words, the knowledge of the meaning of words means nothing.
What does it profit a church-goer to gain a whole dictionary of knowledge, but forfeit the opportunity to know God? It is God himself who is exceeding joy, and whose love is better than life (Psalm 43.4; 63.3). It is God who is our refuge and strength, and God alone who proves himself to be for us when all else seems against us (Psalm 46.1; 56.9).
Don’t get me wrong. Rigorous study is an absolute must and precise attention to grammatical and contextual and historical detail is absolutely essential, lest we misunderstand what God is actually saying. But in the midst of the grammatical trees, we must not miss the covenantal-relational forest: Our God has revealed himself to us! He gave us these words that we would know him, and love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deut. 29.29; Mark 12.29-30).
The reason any person speaks is for the purpose of being known. Our God speaks that he might be known, and that we might live in covenant with him. If my sermon — or any sermon — explains the words of the text, but doesn’t bring people face-to-face with the living God who spoke the text, it must ultimately be deemed a failure.
We must work with all diligence to discern the meaning of the words of the speaker, so that the speaker might be understood, cherished, and loved. May God make that true of me this week and every week!
Maybe it’s because I’m naturally a pessimist, but the most natural way for me to figure out how I can grow as a preacher is to identify what mistakes I most commonly make and try to work on improving those, by God’s grace. For the purpose of self-evaluation and ‘fanning into flame’ the preaching gift that I have, I decided to list out the mistakes I most often make in sermon preparation and delivery.
I imagine that I’m probably not the only preacher who makes some of these mistakes with regularity, so I thought I’d share them here in case my list ends up helping any of you brothers who are working on preaching evaluation / improvement as well.
Top Mistakes I Make in Sermon Preparation
1. I Don’t Pray Enough
This one is simple. There are more weeks than I care to admit when there is very little by way of earnest, extended times of prayer for the ministry of the preached word. This reflects self-reliance, and a disturbing amount of trust placed in my gifts rather than the one who actually has the power to do spiritual work in the hearts of the hearers. This one is first because it’s clearly the worst offence.
2. I Don’t Study Enough
This doesn’t happen quite as much for me, but sometimes I think my sermons are lacking in power because I just simply haven’t studied broadly enough. If I’m not absolutely confident that ‘this’ is what the text says, then I can’t preach it with absolute conviction.
I’m thankful for the 10 reasons for expository preaching listed by HB Charles Jr. Though I am committed to expository preaching through successive biblical texts as the norm for our church, it is all too easy to forget the reasons why, and to just assume the practice without thought to the reason.
In particular, one item on Charles’ list stuck out to me:
Expository preaching addresses the needs of the people which never occur to the preacher
I simply cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen this. Almost invariably, when someone feels that something in particular in a sermon is ‘for them’, it is not something I knew was going on in their life. It was not a need I was aware of now. But it is a need that God knew of so long ago when he inspired the text and ordained for me to preach it on this particular Sunday.
Viewed from that perspective, of knowing the needs of human hearts, we actually begin to see something of the audacity of not habitually preaching expository messages. Preaching topically, or as I see fit, actually places more faith in my ability to assess the needs of our people than it does in the sufficiency of the revealed word and will of God.
Expository preaching forces us to preach on topics and texts that we would never choose. Expository preaching forces us to be controlled in what we talk about next.
If the medium does indeed convey the message, then expository preaching in and of itself serves both the preacher and the people well in that it says: ‘This man is being told what to talk about; he is not the one who knows what we need.’ It militates against the projection of the false image of the pastor as the one who is ultimately setting the vision for the church. If the vision for the church is biblical, people will see it as it is drawn out from the word, rather than created in the mind of the ‘visionary’ pastor.
This is a busy study week for me. In the Lord’s providence I’ll be preaching three very different messages over the next few days, so I’m studying lots in preparation.
Tonight as I finished working my way through another commentary and compiling notes I had a funny thought:
Even on the most productive of days, a pastor often has nothing tangible to show for all his labour.
I worked hard today. I laboured to stay on task, I made my way through a lot of material, and I think I understand the word of God better. I think I’m better prepared to teach God’s people what they need to hear from God.
But there’s nothing yet tangible to show for it. Nothing in the world (apart from a few files on my computer) are any different now, despite a full day of work.
By Whose Standard?
Honestly, that can be a little discouraging. By way of comparison, I could spend 30 minutes pushing a lawn mower and it looks like I’ve done something productive. But now I spend an entire day at a desk, working hard, and it doesn’t look like I did a thing.