So True:

Like cooking, preaching can become bland. It can fail to have that freshness worthy of the gospel table. There are many reasons why. One could identify a lack of preparation, lack of understanding, poor delivery, and shallowness. We would not disagree that under-cooking the homiletical meal is a problem. But there is something else that can make preaching bland: the deadly reality of not being personally wowed by the subject.

(Erik Redmond: The Missing Ingredient in Many Sermons)

Trip On Giving Good Time To Prep

Paul Tripp:

It is necessary for me to live with a passage, to carry it around with me, and to marinate my soul with its nourishing and thirst-quenching waters. I simply can’t do this in a couple hours. I need meditative time with the passage so the Spirit can work through it in me and through me to the people under my care. I’m about to make some of you angry, but I’m going to say it anyway. If you are developing original content late on a Saturday evening, you have no business preaching it on Sunday. It’s unlikely that you will have understood the full range of the radical gospel glories of the passage, it’s doubtful that they have confronted your heart, and it’s unlikely that you have developed much readiness to communicate them winsomely and practically to your listeners.

The whole post is a good read.


The Forest, The Trees And The Sermon

Some love the forest, others prefer the trees.

What I mean is that some preachers gravitate towards the “bigger picture” (the forest) and others love the details of the text (the trees). One expositor delights in “setting the passage in the wider sweep of biblical theology” (forest). Another revels in the joys of unpacking a critical point of grammar, or in explaining the precise meaning of a Hebrew verb (trees).

Doubtless, both are important. The Scriptures are meant to be understood in their breadth and depth. If man is to live on ‘every word’ that proceeds from God’s mouth, then not even the smallest details of the text are insignificant.  On the other hand, if all Scripture is God breathed, and is shown by Jesus (Luke 24: 27) and the Apostles (Acts 2:16-38) to interrelate in profound ways, then we will want to showcase those connections in our preaching.

The challenge is keeping the forest and the trees in proper balance. Let me give you an example of some of the forest and trees that I included in yesterday’s sermon. The story was the raising of the widow’s son from 1 Kings 17 v 17 -24.

The trees

There are a lot of fascinating details in this story:

  • the baffling sequence of blessing followed by tragedy.
  • the widow’s theory that suffering results from specific sins.
  • the two references to ‘man of God’ at the beginning and end of the story (the death of the widow’s son has called into question Elijah’s validity as a man of God).
  • the significance of Elijah stretching himself out on the boy three times.
  • the clever argumentation of Elijah’s prayer (‘O LORD’… ‘my God’…’the widow’…’whom I am staying with’).
  • the focus of the widow’s words in response to the miracle:  she affirms Elijah as a man of God and confesses that his words are the truth.

The forest

But what of the bigger picture?

  • This story is an implicit rebuke to apostate Israel. At a time when Israel is rejecting Elijah’s words, a Gentile widow living in Baal-country embraces his words as “truth.”
  • The miracle also shows us Yahweh’s supremacy to Baal (the fertility god). Yahweh is the true God of life. Baal was said to bow his knee to death, but death bows the knee to Yahweh. This miracle is a kick in Baal’s teeth.
  • In the broadest sense, this story addresses the problem of death, a death which has reigned since the Fall.
  • This is the first resurrection miracle in the Old Testament (there are only a total of 3 in the OT)
  • A token of the new creation, and a preview of the ministry of Christ (eg. Jesus and the widow’s son)

There was quite a lot of forest and trees that, for the sake of time, I had to miss out. We always have to cut down lots of foliage to make a sermon!







Room For Improvement?

For those who haven’t heard, and for those who would like reminding (especially any Aussies!) England became the top test cricket team in the world last summer following their victory over India who were the current champions. There was even worse news for the other cricketing nations of the world – England were not resting on their laurels.  After the final match in the 4-0 whitewash of India, Andrew Strauss the England captain said that there was still “room for improvement”. (recent results over the past year have certainly reinforced this!)

But what about something far more important than sport and a role far more important than that of the cricketer. What about preaching and the preacher? If you have been called by God to be a preacher of his word, are you resting on your laurels? Or is there “room for improvement”? For myself, and I suspect for most preachers, the answer is “yes”. I am my own worst critic and I can honestly say that, even after, especially after, 50 years since I first preached a sermon, I aspire to be, a better preacher. The strapline of 2 Timothy 4, the Preaching Trust I direct is “every preacher can become a better preacher”. But the problem is – how?

How to be a better preacher

The first essential (without which all else is in vain) is the help of the Holy Spirit as the apostle Paul reminded the church in Thessalonica:

For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you,  because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. (1 Thessalonians 1:4-5)

But as Paul reminded his young protégé, Timothy, that didn’t absolve him (and doesn’t absolve us) of personal responsibility:

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 Timothy 2:15)

So is it just a matter of “doing your best” – studying harder and praying harder to produce and preach better sermons in order to be a better preacher? Am I becoming a better preacher?   Or have I reached a certain level and plateaued out? And how can I judge? Do I need, and would I benefit from, the judgement of others?

The fear of feedback

As Tim Bridges pointed out (This might sting) the feedback from the critic in the church can be painful! However, I would caution against dismissing all feedback on the basis of the motives or maturity of the critic. I suspect, for some (maybe many?) preachers, feedback of any kind can feel threatening. In the tradition to which I belong, you “preach with a view” – that is, the members of the church vote for you (or against you) as their pastor on the basis of your preaching, usually on a set Sunday (you don’t/can’t “pastor with a view” though the wise leaders of a church evaluate your non-preaching gifts and character before putting you in the pulpit). This can then lead to the danger that your identity is tied to how well you perform in the pulpit week by week.  So any criticisms of your preaching is felt as a threat to your security (sometimes your literal security).

Now, this is a not a healthy state to be in for the security of any preacher (and any Christian) should be rooted in a far more secure foundation. This subject might merit another post, but the lesser danger I want to focus on here is that such insecurity can cut the preacher off from helpful feedback which could help to make him a better preacher.

The merits of mentoring

One effective way of providing such feedback is through a process of mentoring in which a more experienced preacher works with a less experienced preacher (in a similar relationship described in the Epistles of older men/women discipling younger men/women). This can work within a church – especially within a larger church with a team ministry in which younger pastors/preachers are mentored by more senior staff. However, it doesn’t always work and can sometimes lead to strains in relationships. And in many smaller churches, the first-time pastor is the sole pastor/preacher and may struggle to find effective help.

In such cases, “outside help” may provide a solution in which an experienced preacher can be linked with a less experienced pastor to provide feedback that is both constructive and confidential. In “2 Timothy 4” we have been trying this on a small scale, as I have been mentoring some ten pastors in Scotland during the past three years, ranging from those in their first churches to one with over 20 years of experience, serving in congregations ranging in size from 30 to 600.

This has been well received, but we are keen to encourage a culture of mentoring beyond “2 Timothy 4”, both within and beyond Scotland, and across denominations. We would like to know your experience (if any) of mentoring along with any other ways which have helped you to become a better preacher. Can I ask you to spare 10 minutes to answer 10 questions in a confidential questionnaire which will help us and help one another to become better preachers of God’s Word? If we get a large enough response, we will collate and publish the results.

Click here for the questionnaire.

Unlike cricket, the goal is not to become the best preacher in the world, but the best preacher I can be with the gifts with which God has entrusted me.

Lessons from an Olympic hero

I have recently been reading David McCasland’s excellent new biography of Eric Liddell, which I heartily recommend.  Liddell is well-known to many for his convictions that led him not to run on a Sunday in the 1924 Olympics and his subsequent gold medal in the 400 metres that inspired the film Chariots of Fire.  Less well-known is his later career as a missionary in to China where he recently became the first Protestant missionary to be honoured with a memorial.  But not many people know about him as a preacher.  So, what lessons can we learn from Liddell?

Let me propose ten:

1. Some people have to be asked

It was miraculous to Liddell that he was a preacher at all.  He was naturally shy and reserved and it was only when he was directly asked to speak at an evangelistic meeting in Scotland that he accepted.  Even then it took a verse of Scripture quoted by a friend to give him confidence that God would be with him.  Sometimes people have to be asked.

2. You don’t have to be a great preacher to have an impact

It is true that Liddell’s celebrity status helped draw crowds to his message, but he was never a great preacher.  His style was to be rooted to the pulpit, he rarely gestured with his arms or hands, and his enthusiasm was quiet and steady rather than demonstrative.  Even when he arranged Bible studies for his students as a missionary, or preached in the Japanese internment camp where he died, people did not flock to hear him in spite of his Olympic win; rather it was his character that seemed to impress them.

3. Celebrate Christian teachers

When Eric Liddell turned his back on the fame and fortune of an Olympic gold medallist to become a missionary in China, he did so to become a maths and science teacher at the Anglo-Christian College in Tientsin (now Tianjin).  Liddell’s philosophy was to integrate evangelism with education, and he took every opportunity to influence those around him whether that was through participating in the religious life of the school by taking assemblies or playing sport.  He organised a voluntary club for some of his students to study the Bible and taught them the life of Christ and the Old Testament.  Conversions were few but solid and Liddell said that a slow reasoned acceptance of Christ was better than a sudden conversion which was based on little understanding.  If we are pastors we should remember to pray publicly for Christian teachers in our congregations.

4. Sacrifice

The whole Liddell family was involved in missionary work.  Eric was born to missionary parents in China (with the result that some have tried to claim him as the first Chinese Olympic gold medallist!).  Eric’s brother, Rob, was a missionary doctor and Eric himself became a missionary and evangelist to China – all at a time when it was very dangerous and politically unstable.  And yet the sacrifices were willingly undertaken.  These were the days when children were left sobbing at boarding school while their parents went to serve on the mission field.  Accordingly, Liddell’s parents sent Eric and Rob to school in England when they were only 6 and 8 knowing that they wouldn’t see them again for another five years.  Times have changed, and probably rightly so, but the willingness of families like that of Liddell’s to sacrifice for the gospel is striking.

5. Have a sense of humour

This doesn’t come naturally to all of us, and given what we have just said you might be surprised to hear that it came naturally to Eric Liddell.  His contemporaries consistently said that he was serious about God but not about himself, and this helped people to relax quickly around him.  After getting married, when his new mother-in-law started calling round every day for tea, Eric is said to have quipped that his favourite hymn was rapidly becoming “Peace, perfect peace, with loved ones far away!”  I am not sure that is a good model to emulate, but I do remember a conversation with one well-known preacher (who shall remain nameless!) who told me that he had to learn how to use humour in order to connect with people better.  Let’s remember that the gospel is serious, but sometimes humour can be a good ally.

6. The fuel of the Christian life is the devotional life

This is the lesson that stands out most prominently from Liddell’s life.  As a preacher he may have been unremarkable but there was the unmistakable sense that he knew Christ and sought to follow him wholeheartedly.  Liddell always emphasized the importance of morning devotions and made it his practice to have an hour with God at the start of every day – a practice he continued in a Japanese internment camp, often with a pen and paper ready to seek God’s guidance about the many issues before him.  When he met with his students he sought to encourage them in two things: 1) the habit of morning prayers, and 2) the expectation that the Bible had a message for them every day.  Those who knew Liddell were often amazed at the resources that he had to give to so many people and were left in no doubt that it came from the time he spent with God.  Later on, Liddell produced a daily Bible reading plan for a year to give to others and also a short book of daily prayers.  The latter contains the challenge: “One word stands out from all others as the key to knowing God, to having his peace and assurance in your heart; it is obedience.” (McCasland, p237).  His approach to the Bible was summed up as, “Read accurately, interpret honestly, apply drastically.”

7. Watch what you wear

In 1933 Liddell appeared in the Union Church pulpit in Tientsin wearing shorts – something that definitely wasn’t done back then – and earned a swift reprimand from many in the very traditional British church community.  Liddell respected tradition but probably had little time for unnecessary discomfort in the heat.  However, he never wore his shorts again, not wanting his dress to cause more of a stir than his sermon.

8. Focus on the future

In one interview recorded by McCasland (p167) Liddell was asked, “Do you ever preach on the text, ‘So run that you may obtain?’”  “Actually,” Eric replied, “I’d rather preach on ‘The race is not to the swift.’”  The interviewer continued to ask, “Are you glad you gave your life to missionary work?  Don’t you miss the limelight, the rush, the frenzy, the cheers, the rich red wine of victory?”  Eric answered, “Oh well, of course it’s natural for a chap to think over all that sometimes, but I’m glad I’m at the work I’m engaged in now.  A fellow’s life counts for more at this than the other.  Not a corruptible crown, but an incorruptible, you know.”

9. Love your enemies

In the last few years of his life, Liddell meditated much on the Sermon on the Mount – no doubt partly as a response to what he saw going on around him in the Japanese occupation of China.  He saw in the beatitudes an ‘offensive of love’ and a way to know God’s peace amidst the frustrations of separation from his wife and daughters and constant delays and searches by Japanese soldiers.  In his internment camp he preached on Matthew 5:43 “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.”  He asked whether it was possible to love the Japanese guards, and then said, “When we start to pray, we become God-centred.  When we hate, we’re self-centred.  We spend a lot of time praying for people we like, but don’t spend much time praying for people we don’t like… But Jesus told us to pray for our enemies.  I’ve begun to pray for the guards and it’s changed my whole attitude towards them.  Maybe you’d like to try it too.” (McCasland, p267)

10. It’s all about complete surrender

Eric often said that the secret of the Christian life was to be found in complete surrender of one’s life to God.  He was even speaking about this topic to a teenager in the internment camp when he had a massive seizure and died just before the end of the Second World War.  It was later discovered that he had a brain tumour and that even the greatest medical care in the world would have been unable to save him.  Tributes poured in and perhaps the most famous has become that delivered by one of his London Missionary Society colleagues:

“What was the secret of his consecrated life and far-reaching influence?  Absolute surrender to God’s Will as revealed in Jesus Christ.  His was a God-controlled life and he followed his Master and Lord with a devotion that never flagged and with an intensity of purpose that made men see the reality and power of true religion.”

Rather less famous was the tribute offered by one of his old room-mates who said, “He lived a far better life than his preaching.”  May that be true of all of us.


Keep It Simple

Preaching simply is anything but simple. Far easier – for someone prone to complication like myself –  to feed our flock with the incomprehensible and indigestible!

In his brief work “Simplicity in preaching”, the former Bishop of Liverpool provides wise counsel to the novice-preacher in need of clarity. I return to this guidance often (even the outline below is profitable to read). Ryle’s full explanation is better still. It is found online here, or is available to purchase in book form.

 JC Ryle – Simplicity in Preaching

Four prefatory remarks

1.  To attain simplicity in preaching is of the utmost importance to every minister who wishes to be useful to souls.

2.  To attain simplicity in preaching is by no means an easy matter.

3.  I would not have my readers suppose I mean childish preaching.

4.  It is not coarse or vulgar preaching that is needed

Five hints to attain simplicity in preaching

1.  Take care that you have a clear view of the subject upon which you are going to preach.

2.  Try to use in all your sermons, as far as you can—simple WORDS.

3.  Take care to aim at a SIMPLE style of composition.

4.  If you wish to preach simply—use a DIRECT style.

5.  Use plenty of anecdotes and illustrations.

Four conclusions

1.  Preach sermons that which will do lasting good to souls!

2.  All the simplicity in the world can do no good, unless you preach the simple gospel of Jesus Christ so fully and clearly that everybody can understand it.

3.  All the simplicity in the world, again, is useless without a good lively delivery.

4.  Let us never forget that all the simplicity in the world is useless without prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the grant of God’s blessing, and a life corresponding in some measure to what we preach.