Short articles on Preaching

Confidence in the tools of our trade…

Something has bothered me for a while. I have not quite been able to put my finger on it until now. My unease started when I began my new job teaching preaching at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. There are a number of issues which I have been coming to terms with. For one, you really set yourself up when you are introduced to a congregation as the tutor in preaching. People expect you to be making comments or observations on another person’s sermon. And, of course, if you are about to preach, you are supposed to be something of an expert and will invariably disappoint! (Although my preferred definition of an expert is scientific: X is an unknown quantity, and a spurt is a gush of water!). The second bit of unease is a degree of uncertainty as to whether a spiritual gift can really be taught by an academic institution. Can I teach someone to preach? At many levels the answer is ‘no’. And of course, coming into an adult education environment where many of the students already have higher level degrees, persuading them to submit to being taught – well anything! – is a challenge. But I have finally realised what it is that has been nagging away in the back of my mind. I think it is this. If I was a perfect teacher I could fill my students’ heads with all sorts of information and understanding about the content of Scripture, the tools of exegesis, the craft of sermon construction, the ability to communicate engagingly and convincingly etc., but never have taught them to preach. In fact, it is possible that I could have made them worse preachers if they end up putting their confidence in the tools of the trade rather than in the thing that is most important about preaching. Everything I am trying to teach them is focused on filling up my student’s tool box in order to be able to prepare sermons throughout the rest of their ministry. I am sure that this remains the key priority of theological education. But, in order to preach, the preacher’s confidence should be in the God who is keen to communicate with the people he made. The task of preaching is to let God do the speaking through His word. Confidence.pdf.

Why learning to preach might not be so different to learning to play golf

Can you teach preaching? I am often asked that question. After all, is not preaching spiritual gifting from God; a spiritual exercise dependent on the Holy Spirit’s enabling? Older preachers used to speak of divine ‘unction’ to refer to the anointing which God gives when preaching is razor sharp and penetrating the soul. So, can you teach it? Well, I am banking on some teaching being required, or otherwise I am out of a job as ‘Director of the School of Preaching” at Wycliffe Hall! As I often remind my students, no illustration is perfect and the parameters of the illustration need to be understood. However, it seems to me that there is some parallel between learning a sport or musical instrument and learning to preach. After all, we all recognise that Alfred Brendel (who recently gave his last ever piano recital in England) or Tiger Woods are exceptionally gifted. At the same time, we recognise that their giftedness has only flourished as a result of hard practice and rigorous labour. The Apostle Paul encourages Timothy to: Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2 Tim 2:15) When I moved to London about 10 years ago I missed my walking in the beautiful Derbyshire Peak District. So, I decided that the next best thing was to take up a game that I realise is often called “a good walk spoiled”! How do you go about learning to play golf? I wonder, leaving aside the necessary prayerful pleading that comes alongside preaching preparation (although I did try that too with my golf!), whether there are not some parallels in how one learns to preach.  preaching_golf.pdf.

Make a house a home Some thoughts on preaching which hits home

We are preparing to move house again soon (2 miles across the other side of Oxford). As we prepare for the process of transporting all our possessions from one house to another my thoughts turned to what makes a house a home? The bare structure and location of a property only becomes home when it feels lived in and starts to reflect the personality of its inhabitants. The same could be said to be true of preaching. Many sermons which I listen to show evidence of structure, design and effort. But they often don’t feel lived in. They lack the warmth and personality which only comes when the preacher has inhabited the text for themselves and taken it home. House_a_Home.pdf.

Preachers should let the Bible do the talking!

As I write this article I am sitting in front of the TV watching the European Team Championships in Leiria Portugal. Some good performances by Brits, particularly the 4 x 400metre relay team, and Wayne Chambers, of course. At the end of a busy 6 days in Wycliffe, I do feel a bit like I have come to the end of a marathon. But isn’t Christian ministry supposed to be exhausting and energy expending? It requires discipline, self control and a focus on the end game: Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. (1 Cor 9:25) But there is also the caution that success will only be awarded to those who do God’s work in God’s way: An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. (2 Tim 2:5). As I reflect on the close of our School of Preaching week it has renewed my conviction that the hope for the future of the Church lies in its preachers.  Bible_talking.pdf.

Spectacle Frames and Skeletal Outlines

We had a great Study Morning with the Students at Wycliffe Hall last week. NT tutor Justin Hardin, Doctrine Tutor Benno Van DenToren and I to bring our integrated thinking to apply academic learning, spiritual formation and ministerial training from 1 Peter. My job was to do a “walk through” sermon from first read of the text to final form. Sometimes I detect a little impatience when we discuss matters of structure and homiletical form. Surely we need to get on with the task of preaching the message of the bible and spend less time on homiletics? But I have become increasingly convinced that form and content belong together. The skeleton of the sermon should not be protruding the flesh, but without any bones and support structure the body if formless and lifeless. Skeletal_outlines.pdf.

Some first thoughts on models of discipleship

I am enjoying the Postgraduate Diploma in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (PGDipLATHE) designed for Tutors in Oxford University involved in teaching adults. One train of thought has begun to percolate in my mind which relates to current educational trends and NT models of disciple-making. Much education literature emphasises the shift away from teacher-centred education to student centred learning. The old joke about a lecture being “the transference of the notes of the lecturer to the notes of the student without passing through the mind of either”, coupled with a suspicion of power and authority in the hands of the teacher, has precipitated a pendulum swing in the opposite direction.  Making_disciples.pdf.

“I/thou” relationships in the electronic age – is the internet the preacher’s friend or foe?

When Jewish theologian Martin Buber published his famous book “Ich und Du” in 1923 he made the important point that Christian faith is based not on “I/it” but the more interpersonal language of “I/thou”. Existence is encounter. God is not an object but He is a person. We relate to God in this way because God internally relates within himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. At the heart of the universe is an interpersonal God and all human relationships which flow from this foundation. I have been thinking quite a bit about the role of modern technology and the preacher’s role. As I have done so, Buber’s important book has been ringing in my ears. A couple of recent encounters have stimulated my thinking. I_thou_relationships.pdf.