The greatest danger for seminary students is that they assume the lectures they hear in class are the model for the sermons they are to deliver from the pulpit. They are not. Preaching is a theological act. The preacher finds his counterpart not in the lecture theatre or the classroom or, most ghastly of all, on the stand-up comedy circuit. He finds him in the Old Testament prophets, bringing a confrontational word from the Lord which explains reality and demands a response.
Preaching is fundamental to Protestantism. The proclamation of God’s word is the primary means by which the Christian encounters God. So the obvious question is: why is so much preaching so poor?
This is not a problem found only in small churches of which nobody has ever heard. A few years ago I was at a conference where a group of preachers were being showcased as models to follow. One of the featured preachers who was from one of the largest and most well-known evangelical churches in the YRR universe delivered a sermon which was full of endearing personal anecdotes. By the end, I really warmed to him as a person. But as preaching, it was simply awful, functionally unconnected to the biblical text he had read beforehand. Frankly, he could have replaced the Bible reading with a soliloquy from King Lear and would not have had to change one sentence of the sermon. Well-delivered and moving it may have been; but as preaching it was complete bosh. But sadly it was bosh presented to a crowd of thousands as a model of what to do in the pulpit.
So why is it that so much preaching, even celebrity conference preaching, is so poor? One cannot answer this in a single sentence. Sermons can be poor for a variety of reasons. Here are the eight which seem to me most significant. I divide them into the theological, the cultural and the technical.
First, the theological: to preach well, the preacher has to understand what he is doing. Understanding what a task is is basic to performing the task well. If you think that preaching is about communicating information or providing entertainment or fostering a conversation, that will shape how you preach. The greatest danger for seminary students is that they assume the lectures they hear in class are the model for the sermons they are to deliver from the pulpit. They are not. Preaching is a theological act. The preacher finds his counterpart not in the lecture theatre or the classroom or, most ghastly of all, on the stand-up comedy circuit. He finds him in the Old Testament prophets, bringing a confrontational word from the Lord which explains reality and demands a response.
Second, there is a failure to provide proper context for the training of preachers. Seminaries can only do so much; and preaching three or four times to classmates while being videoed is not adequate preparation for the pulpit. This situation is not helped by the strange Presbyterian practice of discouraging those who are not licensed to preach from preaching. How can one license a man to preach unless one knows he can preach? And how can one know that unless he has had some real experience in a real church situation? The loss of the evening service in many churches is not simply a sad testimony to the loss of the Lord’s Day; it also limits preaching opportunities for those in training. Churches need to do a better job of encouraging those who think they might be called as preachers to test their gifts, perhaps at Sunday afternoon services at care homes or elsewhere. Creative thinking is required.
Third, there is the relativizing of the preached word and the growth of emphasis on one-to-one counseling. I am not here denying the usefulness of one-to-one counseling but I am saying that most problems which most of us have should be dealt with quite adequately by the public proclamation of God’s word. The world around tells us we are all unique and have unique problems. Talk of our uniqueness is greatly exaggerated. We need to create a church culture where uniqueness is relativized and where people come to church expecting that the preached word will meet their particular problem. I am struck by the fact that, while Paul does make some very pointed individual applications, he typically operates at the level of generality. Seminaries should make preaching a priority at every level; and preachers should be taught to preach with the confidence that they will impact individuals for the good as they speak to all from the pulpit.
Fourth, there is often a failure to find one’s own voice. Coming to faith in the 1980s, I remember there was nothing more embarrassing than listening to yet another British preacher who felt he had to sound like Dr. Lloyd-Jones and preach for as long as the great Welshman did. Many a brilliant thirty minute sermon was undone by the preacher carrying on to the fifty minute mark.
Today, if anything the problem is worse. A few years ago, I asked a group of students who their favourite model preacher was. Not one of them mentioned any of the pastors under whose care they had grown up. The names were all drawn from that small and incestuous gene pool that is the megaconference speaking circuit.
This is disastrous in many ways but not least for the fact that these conferences consistently present as normative a very narrow range of voices and styles. Every preacher needs to find his own voice; the tragedy is that the economics of filling a five or ten thousand seat stadium mean that the only voice heard are those that can pull in the punters. But many of those voices pastor to churches where there is little contact between pastor and people. They can fill stadiums but they are not the only voices to which aspiring preachers need to listen. Time and chance makes men megachurch pastors and big names. Many much better preachers operate in smaller churches and it is they who can really bear witness to the importance of finding one’s own unique voice.
Fifth, in Presbyterian circles at least, there can be too high a view of the ministry. This is counterintuitive, particularly coming from the pen of a high Presbyterian who believes that a high view of ordained ministry is an important aspect of a healthy church. What I mean here is this: if your church culture projects such a high view of ministry that congregations are left thinking that ordained ministry is the only worthwhile calling for a Christian man, the unfortunate consequence is that men who lack the basic skills to be ministers will nonetheless feel the need to be ministers in order to serve in a useful capacity. And men in the ministry who really lack the personal skills necessary to preach will not preach well. We need churches where a healthy understanding of general Christian vocation is taught and cultivated so that men do not feel such pressure.
There are many technical aspects to preaching but here are three of the most common technical failures that make preaching poor:
A failure to have a clear structure. My impression is that student preachers often assume that the structure of the sermon they preach is as clear to the congregation as it is to them. It rarely is. Experience preachers can make the structure clear simply through clarity of thought, logical progression and well-turned sentences. Until one reaches that level, I advise students to make their structure clear at the start. ‘The three points I want you to see in this passage are…’ may be a rather mechanical way to start the main section of the sermon, but it does at least make it clear where the preacher intends to go.
A failure to know or understand the congregation. This manifest itself in many ways. Usually for students and newly minted preachers, it manifests itself in cramming into the sermon as much arcane theological language (known as ‘technical terminology’ in the classroom and ‘total gibberish’ in the pulpit) as possible. The game is not to impress the congregation with your knowledge. It is to point people to Christ as clearly and concisely as possible.
A failure to know what to leave out. Perhaps, after lack of clear structure, this is the most common fault among student preachers. You have read all that you could on a passage; now you want to tell the congregation everything you have learned. You cannot do this. Do not make the congregation drink from a fire hose. Think carefully about what the most important things for this congregation at this moment in time are (which requires, of course, knowing the congregation to some extent) and focus on those. All that other fascinating material? Well, use it in another sermon on the same passage.
Carl R Trueman is Departmental Chair of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He has an MA in Classics from the University of Cambridge and a PhD in Church History from the University of Aberdeen. This article is reprinted from the Reformation21 blog and is used with their permission.