Preaching And Practical Disciplines

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Doing things well and continuing to do so requires the kind of self-maintenance conducive to excellence.  Given the ordinary course of degenerative tendencies in unchecked human behavior, we do ourselves a favor by caring for, not only our need for improvement but our propensity for demise as well.  We should expect our preaching habits, especially in the area of preparation, to drift into disrepair when unscrutinized.  The practicality of systematic discipline becomes a servant to better preaching in this regard.
In a useful little book, entitled, The Disciplined Life, Richard Taylor said, “Disciplined character belongs to the person who achieves balance in bringing all his faculties and powers under control.”  He said, “The difference is habit and habit is character.”  These thoughts lead us to consider, how could our preaching improve if we applied systematic discipline to our approach to preparation?
  Suggesting to preachers that our preaching could be better is similar to offering child-rearing advice to parents or telling your wife how to improve her looks.  It is precarious; however, that does not mean that many parents do not need the advice, and wives…well, you get the point.  I remind my readers, for whom I am grateful that I share these thoughts out of the overflow of research on the subject of Biblical preaching.  I do not consider myself an expert, nor am I beyond the point of improvement -  quite the contrary.  It is difficult to image a preacher so haughty or hyper-sensitive that challenges to improve would be met with resentment.  
By discipline, I mean to recommend the routine application of three practices that would help polish the finished product for any preacher from novice to veteran.  By improving our preparation, we are sure to elevate the entire experience of preaching.

3 Disciplines For Improving Our Preparation

  1.   Reading

In his second letter to Timothy, pleading for assistance in his last days of service on earth, the apostle Paul told him to bring, “the books, but especially the parchments”  (2 Tim. 4:13).  Concerning this verse, “Spurgeon said, Paul was an inspired apostle; yet, he wanted his books,  He had been preaching for at least thirty years; yet, he wanted his books.  He had seen the Lord; yet, he wanted his books.  He had heard things untranslatable; yet, he wanted his books.  He had written a major part of the New Testament; yet, he wanted his books.  ‘Bring the books,’ he said” (Exploring 2 Timothy, John Phillips).  When preaching in Athens, Paul included, “…as certain also of your own poets have said,” (Acts 17:28), demonstrating the usefulness of an intentionally-developed, cultural sophistication.  
  William Cathcart, in his fantastic publication, The Baptist Encyclopedia, gave six-and-a-half pages of information under the entry, Baptist Literature.  The amount of material that faithful Baptists of the past have written is staggering.  While Alexander Whyte famously said, “Sell your shirt and buy a book,” we know that many of the great works of the past are available online, free of charge.  There is no excuse for the small amount of reading accomplished by the average preacher.  A cursory glance at social media would indicate that we have time for parties, dining out, ball games, concerts, travel, hunting, fishing, golf, and endless activities intended to please and entertain, but mention the need to read and it is amazing how busy everyone becomes.
  It has been noted that if one reads slowly (250 words per minute), he could read 5,000 words in twenty minutes.  The average book has about four hundred words per page, meaning you could read twelve-and-a-half pages in twenty minutes.  At this pace, for just twenty minutes per day, you could read fifteen books a year on one subject, or you could plow through larger, classic works, in brief, nightly readings.  The busiest of preachers can read, and if they do not, their listeners will know.  A good goal for the extra reading required for front-loading for future preaching tasks or self-education in particular areas of theology or history is to set aside one hour daily, a morning, afternoon or evening weekly, a full day each month and a week annually.  
Merely taking in words from the pages of a book does not constitute wisdom.  Mortimer Adler said, “To be informed is to know simply that something is the case.  To be enlightened is to know, in addition, what it is all about.”  Montaigne spoke of “an abecedarian ignorance that precedes knowledge and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it” (How To Read A Book, Mortimer Adler, pp. 11, 12).  I am not saying that knowledge, eloquence, and polish make a preacher, but neither does ignorance, incoherence, and crudity.  How the fact of God’s powerful, effectual working through His word somehow negates the sense in our striving to be the best we can be is unclear.  Improving our preparation through careful research and aggressive reading is no danger to faithfulness, though it may present certain hindrances for those who wish to confine us with convoluted philosophies and humanistic traditions.

  1.   Thinking

 Through the study of scripture and laborious efforts to read one’s self full of good books, we find ourselves in consequent need of careful thought.  The old advice is to “query the text” - to “beat importunately upon it.”  As we question every word, phrase and statement in relation to context and sound theology, we are essentially thinking through the truth.  We are referring to meditation (Jos. 1:8), which slows us down and takes us deeper into our subject.  Thinking enables better understanding, and therefore, clearer elocution.
Jesse Burton Weatherspoon, said, “‘The only way to learn to preach is to preach’ - yet mere practice will never bring the highest skill; it must be heedful, thoughtful practice, with close observation of others and sharp watching of ourselves, and controlled by good sense and good taste” (On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, John Broadus, New and Revised Edition, 1944, p. 8).  What we think shapes who we are and our authenticity determines the nature of our preaching.  Thoughtfulness produces a rich thoroughness of soul - the kind that comes out in great preaching.  Paul said to Timothy, in 1 Timothy 4:13-16:

Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.  Neglect, not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.  Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear to all.  Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.
A good rule for measuring doctrinal comprehension is, if you cannot teach it simply to someone else, you do not know it yourself.  Thomas Armitage said, “A great gulf is fixed between a preacher who has something which he must say and one who puts words together that he may say something” (Preaching: Its Ideal and Inner Life, Thomas Armitage, 1880, p. 166).  The preacher who “has something he must say,” is one who has read thoroughly and thought carefully about what he has read.  Armitage, warning about “shallow performances,” likened it unto “the farmer who scratches a thousand acres an inch deep, and then calls it plowing.  I prefer his neighbor, who tills a hundred acres by subsoiling it.  He puts the plowshare in to the beam and turns up the rich soil, for a harvest rank in its golden wealth.  You cannot cultivate gospel truth by the square rod.  Thorough work calls for an exhaustive process in that which you do till” (Armitage, pp. 246-247).  Along these lines, Broadus said, in reference to exposition, “He who begins it as an easy thing will find expository preaching surpassingly difficult, but he who manfully takes hold of it as difficult, will find it grows easier and more pleasant with every year of his experience” (Broadus, p. 153).  
Thinking, in sermon preparation, should include when possible, some element of rehearsal or “thinking out loud.”  I recommend this not for the pursuit of theatrical sensationalism (for this is unimportant, and should be avoided) but to discover the best possible way to communicate the passage.  Saying it to yourself before you say it to others can be invaluable in helping to develop big-picture concepts and smooth transitions.

3.  Writing

Few things would improve our ability to communicate like learning to write well.  I am not suggesting that preachers employ florid articulation or become sanctified Ernest Hemingways.  I mean to recommend better writing as a means for developing the ability to speak with appealing clarity. The purpose here is to be understood.  Broadus said, “The chief means of improvement in style is careful practice in writing and speaking - not mere practice without care, for this will develop and confirm what is faulty as well as what is good” (Broadus, p. 236).  A great sculptor loves to chip the marble.  A good preacher must learn to enjoy the language employed in the work of preaching.
One of the best helps available on this subject is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E. B. White.  In this indispensable little book, White quotes his beloved professor, Strunk:

Vigorous writing is concise.  A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.  This requires not that a writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but in every word tell (p. xiv).

Nothing that is suggested in this article is on the level with knowing God and scripture and striving to confront sinners and saints alike with the charge of divine authority. Instead, I offer simple, practical disciplines that could make good, Bible preaching better.  If a preacher made a habit of reading with systematic toil, thinking carefully about what he has read and endeavoring to convey his convictions with boldness, clarity, and zeal, his preaching would most certainly improve.  
Preaching well does not necessitate the “wisdom of words” (1 Cor. 1:17), but it does require wisdom (Jm. 3:17).  It is not entertainment but can be engaging (Lk. 24:25-32).  It is diminished by sensationalism, but not by excitement (Acts 2:14; 15:13; 17:1-5, 22; et al.).  Gimmickry in preaching is off-putting while clever applications are memorable (Acts 20:28-30; 24:14-16; et al.).  Mysticism is misleading, but truth embraced by the heart will lead to profound, emotional sermons (Acts 2:37; 7:54; et al.).  Every preacher would be helped by the disciplines of reading systematically, thinking through the material and writing out his thoughts to develop clarity and force.  When these extras are added to routine sermon preparation, improvements will be noticeable.

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1 comment:

  1. Speaking from a layman’s perspective I can appreciate the sermons which I have heard that have been thoughtfully and diligently prepared. The spiritual impact of a well prepared and thoughtful sermon brings about life changing decisions that otherwise might not come about. I am eternally grateful that I have a pastor who has determined to embrace sound doctrine, historical and biblical distinctives and practices intense study and sermon preparation. Therefore, I am confident that as a layman, my spiritual growth will only prosper.