Skip to content

Sustaining Preachers [and] Preaching: A Practical Guide – George Lovell, Neil Richardson

June 9, 2016

SPPI was once taught by Neil.

This book grew out of a decade-long process of dialogue and reflection among the local preachers and ministers in the Leeds North East Circuit, which has generated a dynamic new approach to continuing preacher development.

The title is a deliberate double entendre – preaching needs to sustain its hearers and preachers need sustenance.

In ‘The Debate About Preaching: a Challenge for all the Churches’ we are reminded that people don’t normally listen to monologues any more – we are in the age of Facebook and Twitter. Also, people don’t know their bibles as well as they used to.

‘Steps Towards Sustainable, Effective Preaching’ looks at the different needs among congregations and the different experiences of preachers.

In ‘The Private and Public Vocational Life Cycles of a Preacher’ we’re told thinks like you shouldn’t use a sermon to score points, particularly as people can’t answer back. Nor should you convey personal information gleaned from a confidential pastoral conversation. There’s an extremely helpful reference to an article on their website addressed to retired preachers seeking further purpose in their lives.

In ‘The Preaching Circle’ they explain the various processes by which preachers craft a sermon. There’s bible study, awareness of current affairs, a period when the sermon brews, like tea in a pot, the delivery and the feedback. Sometimes the preparation is a hard slog. Other times inspiration comes in a flash and you feel compelled to write the whole thing out there and then before you lose something precious. I cannot understand those vicars who don’t start to prepare until Saturday night or, worse still, get up around 5 am on the Sunday. My blog had over a thousand hits for a sermon I posted for Trinity Sunday. The vast majority of those hits were on Saturday night. Desperate preachers indeed!

  • Preachers and the Nature of Congregations
  • Pressures on Preachers Today
  • Using the Bible in Preaching
  • Constructing a Sermon
  • Sustaining Personal and Interpersonal Support
  • Facilitating Local Developmental Programmes and Interpersonal Support
  • An Ongoing Local Development Programme
  • For Such a Time as This: Continuity and Change in Preaching
  • The Renewal of Preaching

They say that ‘a sermon which is very limited in its length may be somewhat limited in its outcomes; as someone once remarked, `sermonettes’ tend to produce `Christianettes’.’ That ‘someone’ was John Stott.

They rightly point out that we shouldn’t stereotype the scribes.


American theologian, John Cobb, wrote that there will be no renewal of the Church without the renewal of preaching.

preaching which is anaemic will result in an anaemic Church.

Bishop John Taylor wrote, ‘God is not so much interested in making us religious, as in making us alive’. In more explicitly Christian language, the authority of a good sermon will be experienced by the wav in which it increases the faith, renews the hope and replenishes the love of those who hear it.

In his second letter to Corinthians, Paul wrote, For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor. 4.5).

The twofold ‘ourselves’ highlights the paradox of preaching. In some churches it is the normal practice, before a service, for a leading layperson to pray with the preacher before they go into the church itself. On one occasion, one such person offered the following prayer: ‘Lord, bless Thy servant who will preach Thy word today, and, as he enters Thy house, blot him out’. The last part of this prayer illustrates rather dramatically what Paul meant by ‘we preach not ourselves’. Preaching can never be an opportunity for self-display or self-promotion. It is a profoundly self-effacing activity.

Yet `… we proclaim … ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake’. Preaching, even though self-effacing, remains a very personal form of communication. This personal character of preaching, according to Paul, is inseparable from its content, i.e. Jesus Christ.

Does the ministry of Paul illustrate the point we are making here, preacher as preacher working with others? Direct evidence is g. But if we imagine daily life in the first century Mediterranean including the kind of accommodation an itinerant apostle would have had, (no private rooms for the likes of Paul!), privacy and ‘rude would have been hard to come by. Countless conversations ­it many contexts – would have contributed to Paul’s preaching over the years.

So a one-sided reading of the Bible may have contributed to the widespread picture of a preacher working primarily and normally in isolation. The internal architecture of many churches down the centuries – at least in Western Europe – has probably strengthened the image: the pulpit was often so high that the preacher could not fail to preach, literally, six feet above contradiction.

We are not questioning the preacher’s need for reflection and prayer, but the perspective needs to be adjusted, especially for those who are ordained. The preacher, whether ordained or lay, is a member of the laos of God. Laos is the Greek word in the New Testament meaning ‘people’; so all Christians, by virtue of their faith and baptism, are members of God’s laos. Such solidarity in faith and baptism of all God’s people precedes and outweighs any ordained/ lay distinction.

Some readers may find difficult, or even offensive, the idea that we might object to Scripture. They have a point. As an attendant in the National Gallery in London once remarked to a visitor who said he didn’t think much to the pictures, ‘It is not the pictures, sir, which are on trial’. But even when we have acknowledged that we are not in church to sit in judgement on the Bible, it is unrealistic to imagine that people will have no difficulty with many biblical passages today

as well as trying to anticipate the congregation’s responses to the Bible readings, the preacher will find it valuable to ponder other questions as well. For example, how has the congregation responded to, or what do they think about, the national and international events of the past week? Have those events challenged, or even threatened their faith? Can they be helped to see those events in the light of their Christian faith? And of the twenty, thirty, fifty people who will be sitting before them in church on Sunday, how many will be firm believers, how many less sure about their faith, how many in church, perhaps, reluctantly there because their partner or other members of the family wanted to go? And, for those in paid employment, what kinds of challenges await them on Monday mornings?

At one end of the spectrum of these emotional ups and downs are spiritually electric moments. These occur, for instance, when new, exciting insights come in a flash, seemingly from nowhere, along with the inner conviction to preach on them and the opportunity to do so. A range of feelings can be associated with such events: awe, euphoria, intellectual and spiritual animation. In such circumstances sermons may be drafted quite quickly in a flow of inspi­ration, with a sense of being used by God. Anticipating preaching is exciting. Such humbling and fulfilling experiences confirm vocations and re-energize preachers.

At the other end of the spectrum are the occasions when preachers simply do not know what to preach about, even though they have lots of sermons and commentaries. Preparation is laborious, mechanical, uninspired and blighted by sermon writer’s block. Feelings engen­dered by these experiences are the antithesis of those associated with the first kind. Then there is a variety of experiences and feelings that fall between these extremes: when, for instance, one or other of the components – insight, inner prompting, and preaching opportunity – is disconcertingly absent. There is also the added complication of the time factor: working against the clock can focus the mind or induce panic; on the other hand, preparation can take all the time available and more, expanding into time that should be given to other things and creating guilt feelings.

The emergence of these different scenarios is unpredictable: we cannot of our own volition engineer or create the good ones, nor avoid or prevent the bad ones; they just happen unexpectedly. While we cannot foresee, engineer or prevent them, we must expect them

Many of the sermons I have struggled with and agonized over are among the most rewarding that I have ever preached, but some of them are the worst! Unpredictably, what are considered to be ‘good’ sermons go badly wrong when preached in one church and extremely well in another.

Sermons of quality cannot be produced mechanically to order; they are conceived within us and, after their proper period of gestation, we give birth to them.

Unreflecting preachers little to contribute to the church and the world.

Busy preachers with access to the internet will naturally be tempted to look there for their sermons. We do not underestimate the value resources on the internet for preaching. But preaching someone s sermon can never have the authenticity and authority of preaching one’s own.

The greatest challenge lies in ensuring that the capacity of a preacher — whether ordained or lay — for reflection and prayer is not eroded by their busyness. What preachers are and do in the many hours when they are not occupying the pulpit will enrich or impoverish their preaching ministry. Everything in a person’s life can contribute to or detract from it.

many Christians prefer to say that the Bible contains, rather than is the Word of God

The task of preachers is not to correct from the pulpit what they consider to be defective views of the Bible, nor to challenge directly what they perceive to be prejudice, let us say, towards a marginalized minority in society. Such views, however inadequate or wrong, do not mean that the people who hold them are not Christians. A person’s view of the Bible, for example, may be a serious obstacle to their Christian growth, but it may be counterproductive to challenge even that directly in a sermon. Attitudes and relationships are all-important here: it is vital that no individual should feel ‘got at’ from the pulpit. That is very different from being challenged… Nor are preachers in the business of pushing their own views, whether of the Bible or a contemporary political issue. Their task is not to privilege one view over another — unless it is clear that such a view is distorting, or even betraying, the gospel. Such was the interpretation of Scripture, held by the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa, during the years of apartheid. Instead, the preacher’s responsibility is to enable the hearers, whatever their views, to hear the gospel, to encounter God, and to be enlightened and transformed by that encounter…. Preachers are not in the pulpit to advocate personal points of view, however passionately they may feel about them. The more passion­ately we feel about an issue, the more self-critical we may need to be.

In preaching to a diverse church, the preacher’s aim cannot be to promote particular views, and that of course must include endorsing a political party, even if it seems to embrace policies which are more Christian than its rivals. Sometimes, however, it is the preacher’s Christian duty to condemn a party — for example, an ultra-nationalist party — whose very philosophy is incompatible with Christian faith, and to articulate why this is so in a biblically and theologically informed way.

The Contemporary English Version (CEV) adopts this method, quoting Luther, ‘Words must obey and follow the meaning, and not meaning the words’.’ To give an admittedly extreme example, if we translated word-for-word what Jesus says to his mother in Jn 2.4, we should have to translate, ‘What to me and to you, woman?’ But translators recognize that behind the original Greek lies a Hebrew idiom reflecting a conflict of interest.2 So harsh though it may sound, the translation of the Revised English Bible (REB), ‘That is no concern of mine’ is rather better than that of the New Revised Standard Version (NSRV), ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?’ and certainly better than that of the Good News Bible (GNB), `You must not tell me what to do’.

St Augustine’s epigram expresses their unity well: ‘the New Testament lies hidden in the Old, the Old is made plain in the New’.

Job and the Psalms of lament remind us that cross-examining God, protesting to God, and even doubting God’s presence, come within life of faith, not outside it. The prophets will not let us forget the centrality of justice and the bias to the poor in the purposes of God. The books of Ruth and Jonah are wonderful testimonies to the God who crosses any and every boundary. The Wisdom literature, including Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs, remind us that the whole of human life falls within the biblical horizons, and the whole of that life is the gift of God.

But a text’s original meaning isn’t the only one there can ever be.

Before we leave the subject of the Old Testament in Christian preaching, we should note the practice of Jesus himself, as far as we can discern it. Jesus’ own use of ‘the Old Testament’ (our term, not the New Testament’s) has been described not only as authoritative (compare Mt. 7.29), but also creative and even subversive.

The epistles, too, have their own distinctive contribution to make to Christian preaching. Ignore the epistles, and you are more likely to concentrate on the life and teaching of Jesus, on Christianity as an inspiring ethical code with Jesus as your example. But Christian faith is far more even than this. The significance of the death and resur­rection of Jesus are what we might call the epicentre of the Bible, and St Paul and the unknown writer of the Letter to the Hebrews are two of the greatest New Testament exponents of the meaning of the cross.

Some shrewd words of a friend of C. S. Lewis, the novelist and literary critic Charles Williams, are worth keeping in mind: ‘Some people believe in the Bible, some people don’t; either way, nobody notices what the words are.’

‘Tell me what you see in your Bible, and I will tell you what kind of person you are’ was not being cynical – just realistic and honest.

Michael Mayne, in a Lenten meditation, observing that in the Old Testament God does not give simple answers to Job in his anguish, refers to the one thing that changes everything: the claim that God does not give answers. There are no answers. Instead, he gives himself. The most perceptive of the Old Testament writers had written of a God who shares his people’s joys and sufferings .

Here Mayne refers to Hos. 11.3-4, with its reference to God taking his people in his arms. This, says Mayne, was ‘inspired guesswork’ on the part of the prophet, whereas

What Christians claim is that in Jesus, rather than providing answers, God enters into the questions — and in so doing transforms them. Enters into them in the only terms we can recognize and understand, in terms of one man’s birth, life and painful death. Jesus comes to be the love of God in our midst’.

So, paradoxical though it may sound, our very belief in a Creator God, who became incarnate in Christ, is the foundation for expecting change, and weaving it into our ongoing understanding of Christian faith and our preaching ministry.

Even when St Paul appears to be summarizing the gospel in a nutshell, it is never the same nutshell: it is the gospel which the Thessalonians or the Corinthians or the Galatians needed to hear. (See, for example, 1 Thess. 1.9-10*, Gal. 4.4-6**, and 1 Cor. 1.23.***)

*They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.

**  But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”

*** but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentile

Return to the home page


From → Preaching

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: