Category Archives: Preaching

That Other Preacher, That Other Religion

He was so passionate, so intense.  He had a conspicuous religious fervour.  The man was on fire; he was preaching.  His pulpit was a small lectern in Tasmania’s Legislative Council.  The topic of his sermon was his “End-of-Life Choices Bill.”

Last week as I watched Mike Gaffney present his bill, at first it merely seemed to me that he was preaching.  But reflecting on it further, I came to realize he was a genuine master of the homiletical arts.   And Gaffney was using his homiletical gifts in service of his religion.

Tasmania (our home for the last 5 years) has held the line when it comes to state-sanctioned suicide.  Australia’s smallest state has faced several attempts to introduce legislation which would allow it, but so far each time those efforts have been in vain.  There’s great concern that this time will be different.  There definitely seems to be a strong degree of public support for it.

Reading or hearing those expressions of support, you often come across the idea that opposition to state-sanctioned suicide comes from religious people, whereas non-religious people (like Mike Gaffney) support it.  It gets framed as a religion versus no-religion debate, often with a few “separation of church and state” sentiments sprinkled on.  But is that really what’s happening here?

It’s all going to depend on how you understand “religion.”  If you understand “religion” to refer to belonging to an organized church (or synagogue, mosque, temple, etc.), the debate could be framed in these terms.  Specifically, most opponents of state-sanctioned suicide belong to Christian churches, whereas many supporters don’t.

However, most dictionaries will tell you that “religion” has a broader frame of reference.  For example, it can refer to sincerely held beliefs about what’s ultimate in life.  From a Christian perspective, whatever is ultimate in your life functions as a god, even if you don’t refer to it as a deity.  If it’s ultimate and functions like a god in your life, then regardless of what you call it, it’s a god to you.  And you’re a religious person.

He’d probably disagree with me, but Mike Gaffney is a religious person.  He’s devout in his commitment to an ultimate belief.  His ultimate belief appears to be personal autonomy.  It’s the right to individual self-determination.  Nothing is above that.  This is the root religious belief driving so many cultural trends:  transgenderism/LGBTQ, abortion, and state-sanctioned suicide.  This belief says that the individual is ultimate – the individual is essentially an autonomous god.  So if “god” says he is now a she, no one may question “god.”  If “god” chooses death for the child in the womb, no one may question “god.”  When “god” says that life is too much and “god” wants to “die with dignity,” then no one should question what “god” says.  Gods are always ultimate in authority and power.

It’s no wonder then that, given a pulpit, devotees of this religion can be such powerful, passionate preachers.  They’re on fire for their religion and will do everything in their power to spread it.  I was going to write “evangelize,” but that would give the impression that this religion of individual autonomy has good news on offer.  It doesn’t.  There’s no good news in a religion promoting death.  Christians have a religion of life – a gospel which proclaims a Saviour who is the resurrection and the life. We have a gospel which leads us to protect and honour life.  So why aren’t we just as, if not more, zealous than Mike Gaffney?


Christ-Centered Preaching

I read the first edition of this book in 1999, when I was still a seminary student.  It was probably the single most powerful influence on my development as a preacher.  One of Chapell’s emphases is the Fallen Condition Focus:  “the mutual human condition that contemporary persons share with those to or about whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage for God’s people to glorify and enjoy him.”  More than once, the FCF has gotten me out of a homiletical pickle — you know, when you’re stumped about how to preach the passage before you.  This third edition is considerably larger than the first.  It contains a lot more nuance and takes into account further developments in homiletics.  For example, chapter 10 on “A Redemptive Approach to Preaching” has been expanded significantly.  I especially appreciated Chapell’s discussion of various redemptive-historical methods and how they ought all to be accorded a place in the preacher’s toolbox.  I can hardly imagine there being any Reformed preachers who’ve never read Chapell — especially since it’s now a widely-used seminary text.  But, like me, you may have read the first edition many years ago.  If that’s you, let me say it’s worth a few clams to pick up the third and give it another go.


How COVID Changed My Preaching

The last few months have brought my preaching to a turning point.  COVID-19 opened my eyes to some problems I needed to address.  While I was saddened with not being able to gather for public worship, some good seems to have come from it.

Three things conspired to bring about a change in the way I approach the delivery of my sermons.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was doing live-streamed messages from the church building.  My family was at home watching those along with everyone else in the congregation.  Eventually, those live-streamed messages moved to my living room.  My family watched me live in person, while the rest of the church watched through YouTube.  However, we soon found that there were issues with the live-stream coming from our home.  The stream was inconsistent and so a lot of viewers had stuttering and buffering problems.  To address that, I moved to pre-recording the messages.  Now I was recording the messages on Saturday mornings and then uploading them to YouTube.  Then they’d “premiere” at 9:30 and 3:30 on Sunday.  Now, along with my family, I had to watch myself preach.

That was painful.  Many preachers, I think, can relate to the agony of watching yourself preach.  It’s awkward and embarrassing.  You see all the flaws, not only in the message itself, but also in the delivery.  I tried to disassociate myself as I was watching, pretending I was watching someone else, but that didn’t really work.

To further drive the point home, I got to a point where I needed a break.  I’d been going hard since the beginning of the pandemic and I needed a week off.  My elders graciously arranged to find a recording of another pastor and upload that for the congregation’s edification in my absence.  So, that Sunday morning and afternoon, I watched another colleague preach.  It was a colleague I highly respect, whose delivery is spot on every time.  They say you shouldn’t compare yourself to others, but whoever “they” are, they’re not realistic.  I did compare.

The second thing that conspired to change my delivery was Zoom.  I went into the pandemic with an intense antipathy towards video chats and conference calls.  I still don’t like them.  But here we were forced to use Zoom not only for consistory meetings, but also for catechism classes.  At the moment, we’re still using Zoom for catechism, though I hope that’ll change in the next month or so.

But it was especially the catechism classes that got me thinking.  I ran it like this:  my students were all muted when they signed on.  Using my lesson plan, I would teach.  I give them opportunities for questions periodically but, unlike being in a physical classroom setting, they seldom ask anything.  So it ends up being me talking for 30 minutes straight.  When you have to talk for 30 minutes straight just talking off of notes, there needs to be some ability for public speaking.  I could do it.

Finally, this year I’ve been doing a lot of reading about preaching.  Some of the authors I’ve read have addressed the point of delivery and how to do that most effectively.  They suggested concrete ways I could improve.

For the last 20 years, I’ve almost always taken a full manuscript into the pulpit with me.  I did that partly because I believed in preaching with the most precise words possible.  I also didn’t want to go around in circles, I didn’t want needless repetition, and I wanted the sermon to flow smoothly from one thought to the next.  A full manuscript definitely helps rigidly control those things.  The downside to having a manuscript on the pulpit is that your attention can be more fixed on it than on the people to whom you’re preaching.  Eye contact can suffer; presentation can be artificial or stale.  The impression could be that you’re just reading from your manuscript.  Is that really preaching?

So recently, I’ve begun preaching from a two-page outline instead.  After I’m done my exegesis, I prepare a draft of the outline.  From that draft, I then prepare a manuscript.  I review the manuscript a couple of times and then make adjustments to the outline.  Through the whole process I pray that the Holy Spirit will give me the right words I need to say on the pulpit, gleaned from my preparations.

As I walk away from preaching from an outline, I feel that the preaching is rougher, more imprecise.  Transitions from one thought to the next don’t always go as smoothly as I’d like.  But I’m told that the outline slows me down (which is good — I often tend to speak too fast from a manuscript) and it improves the eye-contact and connection with the congregation.  I’ve watched part of one of these sermons and it’s still painful to watch, but better than what I was doing before.

It’s still early days in this new approach for me.  Hopefully with time and practice I’ll become more proficient at speaking from an outline.  It’s true that God can strike straight blows with a crooked stick — I’m sure he’s used my preaching from a manuscript in the past, just as he might with any colleague who’s doing that too.  However, I think of 2 Timothy 2:15, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”  A pastor always has to do his best, always has to seek to improve.  The glorious gospel we preach deserves nothing less.  God used a tiny virus to teach me that big lesson.


“Go to sleep” Says the Sermon

In his Lectures to My Students, Spurgeon has this little ditty which has always amused me:

It is an ill case when the preacher

“Leaves his hearers perplex’d —

Twixt the two to determine:

‘Watch and pray,’ says the text,

‘Go to sleep,’ says the sermon.

I couldn’t help but think of that as I was re-reading Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ great classic, Preaching & Preachers.  He notes that a preacher who appears untouched by the truth he’s preaching is not really a preacher at all.  He goes on:

I came across a notable example of what I am condemning recently when I was convalescing after an illness.  I was staying in a village in a certain part of England and went to the local church just across the road from where I was staying.  I found that the preacher was preaching that evening on the prophet Jeremiah.  He told us that he was starting a series of sermons on the prophet.  So he was starting with that great text where Jeremiah said he could not refrain any longer, but that the Word of God was like a fire in his bones.  That was the text he took.  What happened?  I left the service feeling that I had witnessed something quite extraordinary, for the one big thing that was entirely missing in that service was ‘fire.’  The good man was talking about fire as if he were sitting on an iceberg.  He was actually dealing with the theme of fire in a detached and cold manner; he was a living denial of the very thing that he was saying, or perhaps I should say a dead denial.  It was a good sermon from the standpoint of construction and preparation.  He had obviously taken considerable care over this, and had obviously written out every word, because he was reading it; but that one thing that was absent was fire.  There was no zeal, no enthusiasm, no apparent concern for us as members of the congregation.  His whole attitude seemed to be detached and academic and formal.  (p.88)

Sad, no?  It reminds me of a time I visited a Presbyterian church somewhere.  This church had a seminary and their homiletics professor was on the pulpit that Sunday morning.  The poor man had just flown in the day before and was dealing with a bad case of jet lag.  He yawned his way through the whole sermon.  Maybe it was just a bad day for that brother…


Preaching in the New Testament — Jonathan Griffiths

I just want to drop a little note about this great study on preaching from 2017.  The Second Helvetic Confession famously said that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”  Those of us who’ve been preaching for a bit know the popular biblical supports for this statement, passages like 1 Thess. 2:13.  Jonathan Griffiths discusses those, but he also goes way further and deeper.  Exegeting the relevant passages, he deftly explains what makes preaching a distinct form of word ministry.  Along the way, he also implicitly makes a case for why only men can be preachers of the gospel.  It’s a book not so much about the “how” of preaching as the “what.”