Jim Ewing, member, Bearsden Baptist Church
Being asked to write on any subject forces one to stop and think about exactly what it is, so when asked to write about preaching I found myself wondering exactly what preaching is, what it is for and what form it should take. These are the thoughts of one with as yet little experience of preaching, who has only just been granted provisional membership of the Lay Preachers’ Association, so I run the serious risk of having this article cast up to me sooner or later!
Technically, preaching is the exposition of the Word of God, for His glory and for the edification of the faithful and the saving of the lost. Following technical definitions can of course lead to merely technical exercises but if God is to speak through us by His Holy Spirit we must be fit channels for His purpose. We are the rose on the watering can: just as water can be made to flow more heavily or lightly, so the Spirit of God can be constrained or given free rein and it is up to us to give sound, intelligent, comprehensible sermons through which God can speak to His people and those who would still be reconciled to Him.
In my view, there are three essential qualities which must be present in any sermon, whether it be thematic or part of a chapter-by-chapter Bible study series and regardless of where the intended listeners are on their faith journey – if indeed they have yet taken the first step.
First of all, all preaching must be Biblical. The whole point of preaching is to convey the meaning of the Word of God so it must be firmly grounded in Scripture. The expounding of the sacred text cannot take second or even equal place to that of any other, be it sacred, humanitarian or artistic, no matter how wise or illuminating it might be. Quite simply, the purpose of the sermon is to proclaim the Good News to the lost and to edify the faithful; salvation is to be found only in the Living Word and God’s complete truth only in the Written Word, so let us stick with that.
Secondly, if the sermon is to fulfil its purpose, it must be central to the service. This is not to say that it must take up most of the service but all other items in a regular service should defer to it, so that the preacher may do a proper job. Structured worship must be centred around the sermon if it is to be Christocentric and, thereby, Theocentric. When someone says that the praise band is going to lead us in “a time of worship” before the sermon, I wonder what they think the rest of the service is supposed to be.
Thirdly, if it is to be understood, it must be clear in meaning. There is no point in delivering a masterpiece of sound theology, expressed in magnificent prose, if not a soul in the congregation can understand it. Nor should we pander to the idolization of learning. I once lived and worshipped in a community which, historically, had a great respect for clergy and a very high regard for learning. Unfortunately, this had led to certain misconceptions about what was to be expected of the sermon: it was not unheard of for a preacher to be criticized for delivering an inferior sermon on the grounds that the critic had actually understood every word of it. Some of the faithful failed to appreciate that the essential purpose of preaching was not to display superior learning but, I stress, to convey information, to the glory of God, the edification of the faithful and the salvation of the lost. Obfuscation is no guarantee of quality – not that obfuscation equates using big words no-one else has ever heard before; we should not be afraid of using theological terms precisely and, if necessary, explaining them. We all started learning before we started school; no-one should stop learning the day they leave.
One additional point: if the sermon is to fulfil these requirements, it must be free of distractions. Anecdotes can illuminate and supply light relief but they should be used sparingly and thoughtfully, lest they dominate. I once heard a preacher who began by laughing at how stupid the commercial for his favourite potato crisps was. I cannot remember a single word of his sermon or his theme or main text and I do not believe that the famous meals simile (“I can’t remember what I had for most of them but I know I’m better off for having had them”) applies in this case. Personally, I believe I would have been better off with the crisps
May we all nourish His lambs.