Reflection on “I Believe in Preaching”
Seth Wright is a first year ministry student at Union College. As part of an assignment for a class in Homiletics he was asked to read a book on preaching and then identify key lessons he learned from it for his preaching ministry. Seth chose John Stott’s book, “I Believe in Preaching”. This is his reflection.
In I Believe in Preaching, John Stott makes a case in favour of contemporary preaching. As he does so, he gives the theological and historical basis for preaching before describing the content, methods, and virtues that produce good preaching. I found the entire book useful in its clarity and insight: Stott has the rare gift of making a reader think, “That’s so true! How did I never think of that before?” Reading I Believe in Preaching has given me a much firmer grasp on why preaching is important, what it’s meant to do, and what makes preaching good. Whilst I could discuss several ways in which Stott’s work has sharpened my thinking, I’ll focus here on the chapter entitled “The Call to Study.”
My reflections begin with a brief history of my relationship with preaching. In short, the preaching I received until my mid-twenties did not meet Stott’s high standards. By that time, however, my understanding of the preacher’s task had been shaped by the failures of the various preachers I had listened to. I Believe in Preaching confronted my misunderstandings of the intellectual preparation that lies behind good sermons.
When I was thirteen, my parents had become dorm-parents at a missionary boarding school in a small town in Venezuela, where I lived until I left school and moved back to the States. Our ecclesiastical situation during those formative years was anomalous, to say the least. Consequently, I acquired many unthought assumptions about preaching during those years, soaking up as ordinary a highly unusual situation.
To begin with, we were not members of a local church, possibly because of mission policy (after all, we were still members of the sending church in Colorado). During summers and holidays, we attended a few local churches. During term, all the staff and students of the boarding school were required to attend the worship service at the school. Although there was a community of believers consistently worshipping together, it was never constituted as a church. The sacraments were never offered, church discipline was never exercised. There were neither elders nor a pastor. Instead, the male staff members preached by rota, regardless of their gifts or abilities.
Very few of the missionaries were gifted preachers; they worked at the boarding school because of their expertise in teaching or other specific trades. As preachers, they made a motley crew. Some, such as the auto mechanic, were visibly uncomfortable standing in front of us. Others, such as the aging history teacher, were uninspiring in the classroom and downright boring behind the lectern (there was no pulpit). A few gave good, applicable sermons. Between them, the men displayed the best and worst of American evangelical preaching. They loved God deeply and served him sacrificially. Their faith was personal and genuine, and their love for God and respect for his Word was always evident in their preaching.
At the same time, the missionaries exhibited a general lack of preparedness. I don’t mean a lack of preparation. Most of them took their task seriously and worked hard: there were a lot of three-point sermons with creative alliteration. Nevertheless, in more general terms, they were not well-prepared. They exhibited the anti-intellectualism typical of American evangelicals. None of them knew Hebrew or Greek. I suspect that few of them did much serious reading, despite the school’s passable library. I seldom saw in their sermons an exegetical approach grounded in a comprehensive, well-understood theology. Consequently, most of the sermons emerged from close readings and personal experience of the passage at hand.
I don’t recall a single series of sermons in the six years I spent at the boarding school. Perhaps this was because there were so many preachers. Instead, each of the men used whatever passage God had laid on his heart. Naturally, these tended to be favourite passages, mostly from the Psalms and the New Testament.
By the time I left school, I had learned the following things about preaching at the school, which I mistakenly thought applied to preaching in general:
- Exegesis is basically personal and idiosyncratic;
- Sermons are disorganized and more applicable to the preacher’s life than to the congregation’s;
- The Bible is read piecemeal for personal edification, and the Old Testament doesn’t really matter; and
- Historical and literary context don’t exist, and any learning extraneous to the Bible itself is at best irrelevant and at worst dangerous.
The church I attended during university did little to change those unfortunate perceptions. In fact, it added one more lesson to that sad catalogue:
- Preaching is boring.
All in all, I did not have any models of preachers who were prepared in the holistic sense of being intellectually, spiritually, and practically ready to write and deliver a sermon that engaged the congregation’s needs with biblical truth.
During my final year at university, however, God’s grace led me to a Bible study called Reformed University Fellowship. It was led a man named Ted, a Presbyterian minister serving as a chaplain at a neighbouring university. I was surprised by his sermon connecting the First Commandment to the Sermon on the Mount. I had never heard a preacher joining the Testaments like that: there were real connections! I also felt convicted of some specific sins, and I heard the offer of grace through Jesus Christ. Ted was clearly articulating God’s truth into my situation as a student.
Not long after that, I came to Belfast to study at Queen’s. As a result, I spent several years at Fisherwick Presbyterian Church hearing the preaching of Derek McKelvey. He was nearing the end of his ministry, so I heard an extremely gifted, deeply spiritual preacher speaking from a rich experience of ministry and meditation on the Word. Two of his series gave me a much wider view of the comprehensiveness and unity of Scriptural revelation. In one, Derek spent a week on each book of the Bible, which showed me for the first time how Scripture holds together as a unit. That was the first time I had ever heard a sermon on fifteen or twenty of the obscurer books. In the other, called “The Whole Counsel of God,” he spent a week on each of the major doctrines. There I began to see how topical sermons can be thoroughly biblical and Christ-centred.
At the same time, I learned a few bad lessons about preparation from Derek during the year I spent as an intern at Fisherwick. His wealth of experience, his copious memory, and his impressive skill as an impromptu speaker meant that he could preach a thoroughly biblical, highly applicable sermon with hardly any immediate preparation: in a sense, he had spent his entire ministry preparing. I hardly ever caught him at work on a sermon (though I suspect he did more than I saw!). His years of prior preparation freed him at the end of his ministry to devote his time to discipling young Christians and caring for his congregation. However, until I read I Believe in Preaching, I had never considered how unusual Derek’s gifting was. In terms of preparation, I cannot follow his example. Here are the bad lessons I “learned” from Derek:
- Good preaching does not necessarily involve hours of study;
- Pastoral care of the congregation is more important than sermon preparation;
- Scripts or extensive notes are extraneous; and
- Lavish gifts and talents can obviate the need for immediate preparation.
To sum up these recollections, my experience of preaching left me with a number of mistaken ideas about preaching. While Ted and Derek offered me good preaching, Stott’s book helped me clarify my thinking. The biggest challenge I found in I Believe in Preaching was about preparedness (as opposed to preparation of specific sermons, which itself is immensely important). Stott’s chapter “The Call to Study” gave me an excellent, well-thought approach to preparation in the general, long-term sense.
The chapter depends heavily on the controlling metaphor of the preceding chapters. For Stott, a preacher builds bridges between the inspired ancient texts and our sinful modern times. A bridge makes possible “communication between two places which would otherwise be cut off from each other,” and Stott observes that there is a “deep rift between the biblical world and the modern world” (123-24). Preaching is the bridge permitting revealed truth to reach people today, despite the vast difference in time, culture, and belief between the world in which the Bible was written and today’s world.
Every bridge has a foot on each side of a rift or chasm. Likewise, a preacher must understand both worlds. Obviously, a preacher without a profound understanding of biblical truth cannot communicate it well. Similarly, a preacher who ignores what the world tells the congregation will be unaware of the people’s struggle. Good preachers “explore the territories on both sides of the ravine” in order to “speak the divine Word to the human situation” with “sensitivity and accuracy” (165). That exploration, for Stott, is the work of a lifetime. His chapter on study encourages preachers to engage in lively, broad studies of the Word and the world throughout their ministries.
What he says rings true. The unprepared preachers I have heard didn’t take study seriously. While they understood the Bible from a personal point of view, they lacked the historical knowledge and interpretive skills to pinpoint what the inspired writers were saying by the Holy Spirit. They were also ignorant about the hopes, fears, desires, and sins of the congregation, and consequently many of their sermons missed the mark. In contrast, preachers such as Ted and Derek knew their material and their hearers. Their study allowed them to speak living words to living ears: they knew what the people were thinking and what God had to say to them through Scripture.
My personal experience is limited and certainly not authoritative. But one only has to read the sermons in the New Testament to confirm Stott’s point. Jesus knew the Law and the Prophets better than anyone—but he also knew his audience better than anyone, and so he used parables and peasant language that they would understand. Similarly, Paul showed a remarkable command of the Scriptures alongside a shrewd knowledge of his audience. He often wrote and preached from a Jewish point of view to Jews, but he was equally capable of speaking philosophically to the philosophers of Athens and quoting pagan poets.
In general, Stott calls preachers to dedicate themselves to the study of both the Bible and the world in order that they might use the former to engage the latter. I want to answer that call, because I want to be as well-prepared as possible for the task of preaching. Here are the practical steps that I am taking in response to what I have read:
- I will find a good Bible-reading programme and begin reading the whole Bible every year (see Stott 168-69);
- I will read one book from a wide range of perspectives (ie, philosophy, literature, psychology, cultural critique etc.) each month; and
- When I have the ability partially to determine my own schedule, I will undertake the “minimum” programme of study that Stott recommends: “every day at least one hour; every week one morning, afternoon, or evening; every month a full day; every year a week” (189).
Doing these things will certainly develop my mind and enable me better to approach my text each week. This will not leave me entirely prepared, of course. The tasks of writing sermons, knowing the congregation, and diligently using the means of grace will always remain. But a deliberate, long-term project of learning to think biblically about today’s world will hopefully place me in a state of ever-increasing preparedness. Then, like the great preachers of old so often cited by Stott, I will, God willing, meet the people where they are at with God’s transforming words.