“Four essential elements in the act of preaching”

Tuesday Teaching Tips, Episode 192

Today another episode inspired by my reading of Dr D Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book, “Preaching and preachers”. Let’s look at some thoughts from the fifth chapter of the book entitled “The act of preaching”.

A sermon is not simply about the text. The point of the sermon is drawing meaning from the text for our lives. But the sermon itself is more than simply what is written on the page. We have all benefited from listening to lessons or watching them online. But there is something different about the live ‘performance’. Last year I went to a gig in a local pub by a Bob Dylan tribute band (the Zimmermen). I could have watched them on YouTube, but, as you can imagine, seeing them in the flesh was a totally different experience.

Let’s examine some of Lloyd-Jones’ points and see what we can learn today.

1. Personality

“…in preaching all one’s faculties should be engaged, the whole man should be involved.” p82

God brings his word to people through people. And people are…people. No two of us are the same. We have our idiosyncrasies, our experiences, our personalities. All play a part in the act of preaching. We must bring who we are to the sermon.

What does this look like? Perhaps it’s easier to ask what it should not look like. Partly it’s about you being a heightened version of yourself when you preach, rather than a different person. Many years ago my wife Penny said to me, “I don’t like it when you shout”. What she was getting at was not so much the volume, but the fact that that sort of aggressive communication was not ‘me’.

Listen back to your sermons. Does it sound like ‘you’? Ask others their opinion.

A brief note for new and inexperienced preachers. Learn from preachers you admire. Imitate them. But, don’t copy them. Learning to be yourself and develop your own ‘style’ takes time. Be patient with yourself and pray that others will be patient with you as you learn.

2. Authority

“The preacher should never be apologetic, he should never give the impression that he is speaking by their leave as it were; he should not be tentatively putting forward certain suggestions and ideas.” p83

There might be nothing more disheartening than to hear a speaker begin their sermon with words like, “I don’t know why I’m speaking today, I’m not worthy… Somebody else would do a better job…”. If that’s really how you feel, then don’t agree to preach. It’s fine to be nervous. In fact, it’s healthy. But to be apologetic? My goodness! Is that how Paul approached speaking, or any of the prophets?

We may say that Paul was humble in his speaking. He came to Corinth, “…in weakness with great fear and trembling.” (1 Corinthians 2:3 NIV11) but this is not the same as being apologetic. He was humble, he did not depend on his own self-confidence. But apologetic? Far from it!

How do we develop a confident yet humble authority? Primarily through prayer. Pray before you begin your sermon preparation. Pray over the text and through it. Pray as you prepare your lesson. Pray before you get up to speak and pray whilst speaking.

3. Freedom

“…the preparation is not finished just when a man has finished his preparation of the sermon.” p84

Since preaching is an act of the Spirit, no sermon is ever truly ‘finished’. At least, not until it has finished being delivered. Lloyd-Jones’ point here is that the preacher must not be too tied to the details of his outline. As the Word goes out from us to the congregation, the Spirit will be working. Sometimes that will be in ways we have not anticipated. On occasion we will be surprised in the way the Spirit works in the congregation, but also the way the Spirit works in and on us.

Jesus was clearly one who paid attention to the spirit whilst he was speaking to other people: “Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things?” (Mark 2:8 NIV11)

It’s too much of a copout to say, “Well, he was different.” Don’t we have the same Spirit?

What does it look like to speak with freedom? I can only share from my own experience, but there are times when I have a strong sense that I need to alter what I plan to say in the following ways:

* Skip a point, an illustration, a Scripture.
* Place more emphasis on a point.
* Add in a Scripture or illustration which has suddenly come to mind.
* Make an additional point not in my notes.
* Ask a question of the congregation and engage in some interaction.
* Open up about how I am feeling in that moment.
* Change the pace of the sermon. Most commonly this is to slow down and create more gaps using pauses.

Learning the difference between indiscipline and freedom is a key growth area for preachers. Where are you on the continuum? Does the congregation find it hard to follow your train of thought because you’re often rather random? Or, on the other hand, does your congregation find it hard to pay attention because you are too predictable?

Pray during sermon preparation, and before you go up to speak that you will remain open to the prompting of God’s Holy Spirit whilst you are in the act of delivering his Word.

4. Interaction

“… The preacher while speaking should in a sense be deriving something from his congregation… There is always an element of exchange in true preaching… An interplay, action and response…” p84

Here is where a preacher needs to be in touch with the responses of his congregation.

Do you notice the reactions? Are people folding their arms? Are they nodding off? Are they sitting up? Smiling, frowning, snoring? What are you seeing, what are you hearing, and what are you sensing?

Check out Matthew chapter 12 is an example of Jesus in action, interacting with those around him, answering their questions and teaching. It’s a masterful display of teaching what needs to be taught as a response to audience reaction.

As a side point, this is one of the reasons why good preparation is vital. If we really know our stuff we have space to allow our senses to take in the information the congregation are giving us by their active or passive responses. Somebody once said that public speaking was less about delivering a lecture, than about having a conversation with your audience. Even though most of the speaking will be in one direction, it can be a conversation if you’re paying attention to the queues your listeners are giving you.

Certainly this takes practice and experience. And this is one reason why we need to be very clear on our point, and not overcomplicate our lessons. The ability to pay attention to our audience is also facilitated by not trying to communicate too much material. Simple lessons, with one point, not going on too long will help us to stay in touch with those in front of us and around us.

I have to say, I remain somewhat confused by how many of my colleagues speak for 40 to 60 minutes on an average Sunday. I don’t believe there is an ideal length for a sermon. Much depends on the circumstances, the context and the gifting of the speaker. I’m not against long lessons. But, for the average Sunday, I find it difficult to believe that our listeners need this much information. Or alternatively that they need the limited information repeated so much. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on length. However, that’s not our main point today.

I’m going to stop at this point. We will go on and look at the second half of the chapter and some more of Lloyd-Jones’ points next time.

Today we have talked about the act of preaching and that it must contain four elements:

1. Personality
2. Authority
3. Freedom
4. Interaction

What I’d like to know today is, “Which of today’s four points are most applicable to you?”

Please add your comments on this week’s topic. We learn best when we learn in community.

Do you have a question about teaching the Bible? Is it theological, technical, practical? Send me your questions or suggestions. Here’s the email: malcolm@malcolmcox.org.

If you’d like a copy of my free eBook on spiritual disciplines, “How God grows His people”, sign up at my website: http://www.malcolmcox.org.

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“Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.” (Psalms 100:2 NIV11)

God bless, Malcolm

PS: You might also be interested in my book: “An elephant’s swimming pool”, a devotional look at the Gospel of John