Prologue: What is good preaching?
Most pastors aspire to be good preachers and teachers. We know that the one meeting where the most members come together is the weekly worship service. A half hour or more from the start of the service, the preaching of the word takes centrestage. Even though pastors have different strengths and passions, there is a general expectation that he or she should be able to preach well.
One of my habits since I graduated from seminary was to read a book or two about preaching every year. I would glean some insights to incorporate into my philosophy of preaching. I would seize practical tips and methods and eagerly test them out. In the last decade, even though this annual readings has reduced, on the average, it is one book a year. This year I picked up Timothy Keller’s book on “Preaching”. I read it during a vacation to Bangkok. Now I am reading it again and writing my reflections on it chapter by chapter. Today I look at the prologue or introduction.
Keller gives his answers to the question, What is good preaching and how is this different from great preaching? Good preaching depends on the preacher’s gifts and skills – his ability to crystallise the truth, give it good organization and order, punchy illustrations and images, strong arguments and persuasive reasons, and applications that reach the heart. On the other hand great preaching requires fire from heaven, the Holy Sprit’s power to persuade and motivate and change. He gave the example of George Whitfield whose sermons were great and saved and transformed many lives but were sometimes poorly interpreted and structured. Great preaching but not good preaching. Great preaching is preaching with unction. Good preaching is sound interpretation of the word, with truths ordered logically, and delivered clearly and convincingly. Good preaching becomes great when the Holy Spirit takes it and open the heart of the hearer to heaven’s choir. However bad sermons can also become great when the anointing is present.
Keller says good preaching comes from loving the truth and loving people. This love makes the preacher exegete the text in its context and larger theological context to uncover the truth that needs to be proclaimed. Good preaching loves the people and knows them in the culture that influences them. It is able to analyse the culture and its counterfeit gods. It is able to show how God’s truth addresses the falseness of the culture, and how Christ actually fulfils the aspirations of the culture. Proper exposition of the text, and the transforming power of the Spirit, meet together, when Christ is revealed and proclaimed in the text..
How important is rhetorics, the art of communicating, in order to persuade and motivate people? Paul’s “I did not come with eloquent words or human wisdom” and “my preaching was not with wise and persuasive words” (1 Cor 1:22-24) does not mean that we reject all oratorical and rhetorical skills. Paul actually refers to “verbal bullying”, trickery and manipulation. Rather like Calvin, we need to acknowledge that rhetorics has it proper role: “Eloquence is not at all at variance with the simplicity of the gospel, when it does not disdain to give way to it, and be in subjection to it, but also yields service to it, as a handmaid to her mistress”.
Every pastor wants to spend adequate time and give proper attention to preparation of the sermon and its application to the hearers. However, I know from experience that its tough to do it week in and week out. The pastoral ministry is multi-tasked. Your days would be packed with planning, organising and evaluating. There are people and cell groups to meet. There are administrative and routine tasks from bulletin input to answering WhatsApp. In addition there are always interruptions and emergencies as well as the emotional drain of handling people. So the weekly ideal of ten hours allotted to the preparation of the sermon is often sliced away by urgent tasks that yelp for attention.
It would be great if churches had multiple staff or active and wise lay leaders who shield the pastor so that he can devote himself more to the ministry of the word and to prayer (Acts 6:4). Such churches are blessed indeed! For then the pastor can do justice to preaching.
However, I find the labels “bad”,”good” and “great” reminding me of the teacher’s frequent remarks on my exercise book in primary school. Our assignments and exercises were marked, Good, or V.Good or Bad or Do Your Corrections! The better term to rule all the terms Keller used may be “faithful”.
Faithful preaching is what God calls us to do. We have to be faithful to the text to bring out its true meaning, fulfilled in Christ, and to deliver it persuasively. We have to be faithful to apply the gospel truth to people in a culturally relevant way so that it changes lives in the long run. And we faithfully pray before, during and after sermon preparation for the Holy Spirit to guide and anoint us. And all this has to be done in time that is at times reduced due to the press of other responsibilities. However the final impact our sermons makes on people we leave into the hands of God. “Great” preaching cannot depend on quick polls, or members shaking the pastors hands and appreciatively saying Thanks pastor for that word. The label “good” and “great” are subjective and synthetic. We need to strive to be faithful preachers who preach Christ.
Next week I will write about my reflections on chapter one: PREACHING THE WORD.
CHAPTER 1: PREACHING THE WORD expository preaching today
Keller cites a seven volume history of preaching by Hughes Oliphant Old. Old names five basic types of sermons preached throughout the centuries. They are the expository (systematic explanation of scripture week by week based mainly on a single passage), evangelistic (conveying truths to nonbelievers), catechetical (teaching church’s confession and theology), festal (related to observances of the church year like Christmas), and prophetic (landmark sermons that addresses a juncture in history, event or culture).
To Old there are two main types of sermons: the expository organized around a single passage; and the topical or thematic which communicates a biblical idea from many passages or texts. Keller is of the conviction that “expository preaching should provide the main diet of preaching for a Christian community” (32) even though both main types of preaching would be needed today as it has been throughout history. He gives several reasons for his view: 1) expository preaching is the best way to display your conviction that the whole Bible is true. 2) Such preaching “makes it easier for hearers to recognize that the authority rests not in the speaker’s opinions or reasoning but in God, in his revelation through the text itself” (36). 3) It enables God to set the agenda for your Christian community. 4) It also “lets the text set the agenda for the preacher as well” (37). 5) It teaches your audience how to read their own Bibles and interpret the text. 6) It leads you to see the one overarching theme of Christ.
Expository preaching is not without its dangers. In the first 500 years the church used the lectio continua method, systematically working through whole books of the Bible taking years to bring the church through the Bible. This was followed by lectio selecta because of the increase in special feast and holy days. Selected texts covering large themes and special days like Christmas are used. In the last century great expositors have risen to revive the lectio continua and it has garnered quite a following. Even so Keller gives his warnings about this.
Times have changed and people are much more mobile. They do not stay their whole lives in one city like in the ancient days. And they do change churches for a variety of reasons. And they are various stages of maturity. Just going through a large book like Isaiah may take 2 years. So the pastor will have to ask himself: do I want to follow a rigid whole book approach or do I want to be more flexible and arrange a richer diet for the members and expose them to a greater variety of passages and themes from both Old and New Testament? Keller advises expository mini-series that cover various parts and genres of the Bible: Old and New, narrative, didactic, poetry, gospels in a reasonable amount of time.
The other danger Keller warn of is the tendency of expository preachers to dwell so much on sharing the gleanings of their exegesis and research that they neglect another vital area. “Neglecting persuasion, illustration, and other ways to affect the heart undermines the effectiveness of preaching- first because it’s boring and second because it’s unfaithful to the very purpose of preaching” (42).
The third danger is a too narrow definition of what constitutes “expository”. To some it has to be verse by verse. To others it is the one central truth and a streamlined outline. For others there is only one main point for any passage and only one!
I like what Keller says. More flexibility and creativity is to be welcomed. I believe that expository simply means bringing out the real meaning of the text. It could be based on a single passage or it could be based on many texts as when you preach about the Trinity. The main thing is that the texts should all be properly interpreted in their proper context. That is expository preaching: whether single or multiple texts were used. The benefits of the single passage exposition (stricter definition of expository), applies to the multiple texts exposition (topical) too, if a lectionary was used, or if one intentionally worked out a plan for a balanced coverage of biblical themes.
Let me end with a summary of Keller’s idea of expository preaching: “Expository preaching grounds the message in the text so that all the sermon’s points are points in the text, and it majors in the text’s major ideas. It aligns the interpretation of the text with the doctrinal truths of the rest of the Bible (being sensitive to systematic theology). And it always situates the passage within the Bible’s narrative, showing how Christ is the final fulfillment of the text’s theme (being sensitive to biblical theology).”(32)
Next week I will put out my reflections on chapter 2: Preaching the gospel every time.