I wrote some initial random thoughts here. Again, let me say, these are just some perspectives on where we’re at. I don’t want to be an armchair critic and I love the men I get to hear preaching in my own congregation and am grateful for other preachers that I hear. Please don’t think I’m holding myself up as some kind of model; I’m not a preaching connoisseur……….
People are more ready to listen than we are to speak – I want to argue we need more preaching, more opportunities to hear the Word. Partly it was reading Calvin’s Company of Pastors by Manesch that convinced me we need to saturate people with Word ministry but also my experience with lunchtime services. There are hungry Christians out there who want more of God’s Word. We are all slightly terrified of running something that only has small numbers; we need to get over ourselves on this. I think it might be worth an early evening preaching service one night of the week partly for those who work shifts or the like. The idea that we can survive on one sermon per week is a modern phenomenon that frankly isn’t true. Multiple opportunities for Word ministry provide greater opportunities for training, encourage believers and give opportunities for outsiders to hear the gospel. The other ridiculous argument is that people are so busy in church they have no time for outsiders. This doesn’t make sense when the service is only 30 minutes.
Sermon Outlines occasionally help but often hinder – To state the obvious, preaching is oral communication. It is different from writing a chapter in a book or an essay; it is not the same thing as giving a lecture. At it’s simplest there is a verbal spoken word by a man who is listened to and understood by the congregation which should take place in preaching. I’m not wholly against printing an outline of your sermon; they can be helpful, particularly when the structure of the passage is important (when people try to explain chiasms verbally it’s normally very painful). So what I am trying to say is people should be able to remember the points we have made without an outline. Sometimes I fear that outlines betray a view of preaching that is more a transfer of information than an encounter with Christ through his Word. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t think there have to be points, I need them because I’m not good enough as a communicator to do without them but, if we have them, work hard at them, make them memorable. To have outlines with long sentences of teaching points reveals that we’ve not put the thought in to make the sermon stick in peoples minds. I also wonder whether congregations seeing the outline in front of them, think, ‘I know where he’s going’ and subconsciously switch off. Perhaps giving an outline at the end of church might be a good prompt for devotions during the week.
Over Preparation and Under Preparation – Sometimes our preachers have done masses of work on the text, seen the biblical theology connections, given us insights from the original languages, clearly shown us the melodic line of the book, carefully crafted illustrations, introduction and conclusion and yet the sermon lacks an earthy connectedness. It’s correct but lacks life. The sermon just feels like an exercise of the mind. You can tell when this has happened as the heads of people listening drop or eyes glaze over as they stare blankly into space.
It’s hard to work out why this is the case sometimes, and there may be a variety of reasons, but I wonder if it’s because there is possibly too much time in the study and not enough time with people. I don’t just mean one to one Bible studies but sitting with older folk, hospital visiting, normal human interaction etc, working out what difference the sermon should make to different peoples lives. The big thing that I find I need in preparation is time; time to marinate and meditate on the text and how to shape the message that is right for the congregation. It means finishing our book work earlier in the week so the message becomes embedded in us.
Q&A – It’s the trendy thing at the moment to have Question and Answer after a sermon and I can see the merit in it, we’re told the model being Acts 17 where there is obvious dialogue, although preaching is always dialogical by its very nature. However, I think the q&a straight after preaching is pretty foreign to what we see mainly in Acts and the best models of preaching in Church History. If preaching is a confrontation with God through the Word of God by the man of God it would seem to me that the correct response to that is not Q&A but repentance. The authentic response in Acts is being cut to the heart. I fear the edge is taken off sermons often by Q&A. True preaching is adversarial – there is a collision between God and man every time someone preaches. We know this don’t we? Those times when God has spoken clearly to us through the preaching of his Word we’ve not wanted a Q&A, we’ve just known that we’ve done business with God. There has to be a place in congregations for discussion and Q&A but I’m not convinced straight after the sermon is the right place, preachers mustn’t think they are 6ft above contradiction. It’s just knowing the right context to do it in.
Death by feedback – Feedback on sermons is a good thing, particularly when you’re starting off. However, as you go on as a preacher, you ordinarily should be able to tell how things have gone. We have the phenomena in the UK of quite large preaching teams who give each other feedback weekly. What this can lead to I would argue is tentative, bland preaching that is particularly lacking in sharp application. The preacher has in his mind those who give feedback when he’s preaching and the sword is blunted, there’s no edge to the preaching. I spoke at a conference once and on the first day was told I’d offended the women and on the second day the men by the third session I was so paranoid of offending anyone I played it safe and the result was the preaching equivalent of blancmange. As to how preachers give feedback to one another, I’m not convinced that our Preaching conferences are right either. I can’t see the point of giving a 10 minute talk on a passage you’ve not really prepared to other preachers who have done even less preparation than you have. The London preachers conference which I went to for a couple of years was helpful in this regard. It took a recording of a recent sermon that the whole group listened to and then others gave meaningful feedback on it. That made sense in that people were listening to a sermon preached in the context of your congregation and were able to give helpful feedback on your preaching, not on a 10 minute talk you prepared in the car on the way to the conference. Feedback is valid; I’m grateful that my elders speak to me about my sermons, I’m thankful for good friends who will give me feedback after having heard me preach but not to the extent of blunting the preacher. There seems to me to be little tentative preaching in the New Testament.