“A young man said to me, ‘What is the– ‘ and he was kind of starry-eyed, and I’m sure he expected some spiritual esoteric answer. He said, ‘What is the real key to great preaching?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s the ability to keep your rear end in the chair till you understand the text.'”
It was early in December, probably a decade ago. The invites to seasonal parties and get-togethers and functions seemed to be popping up faster than bubbles in sparkling wassail. It is a busy time for a lot of people, Christians seem to plan even more festivities (and they do have good reason), and the expectation is that a pastor will make an appearance at all of them. I was mentioning this calendar burden to my family around the dinner table one evening, and, as I recall, my attitude about it all was, mmm…, less enthusiastic.
My wife made a comment to me that not only was and is true, it has proven itself very helpful. She said, “Look, Sean, you are not the captain of the ship, you are like the mermaid on the front of it. Your job is to be out front and get wet first.”
Because our church believes and really tries to practice the plurality of elders/pastors, I am not The Pastor, I am a pastor. It turns out that much of my role involves being in front and opening my mouth. But this is not an indicator of importance, it is my assignment. Referring to the position as the mermaid position serves well to poke at the preciousness and pretentiousness of so many pastors, myself included.
I’m sure that some seminary professor somewhere would disapprove of the analogy. I mean, it’s not biblical. Another pastor might argue that it makes light of a high calling; certainly it is a critical responsibility for which we will give account to God. And yet, maybe some of us would be a greater blessing to the “ship” if we took ourselves a little less seriously and earnestly looked to the Chief Shepherd, the Head of the Body, as the actual Captain.
Anyway, I’ve been using the imagery since then. A couple summers ago my in-laws commissioned one of our favorite local artists to paint a pic of me as mermaid. There’s a number of details that make it fun, such me holding a battering ram (which we talk about for sake of our Sunday morning assembly of worship), and a couple raggants, which is the mascot of our school. We’ve yet to find the perfect spot to hang it in our house, but now you know the story when you come and visit.
It’s probably been too long since I’ve read a book-length treatment of preaching. There are probably too many blog posts about it these days, and while they are fine, they are not always as well vetted. It compares to the productivity bloggers who write up their exhaustive thoughts after one whole week trying a new system/app.
Brooks’ book comes from lectures he gave at Yale University (in 1877) after almost twenty years of preaching. While I don’t think he and I would be doctrinal twins, I certainly appreciated his homiletical observations.
For what it’s worth, Brooks wrote “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and was a contemporary of the well-known evangelist, D. L. Moody (from whom my father-in-law and brother-in-law were named).
Here are just two of my (many) underlined quotes, both tagged in my system as #emergency for when I need some vocational encouragement:
“And so the first business of the preacher is to conquer the tyranny of his moods, and to be always ready for his work.” (p. 63)
“A man’s first wonder when he begins to preach is that people do not come to hear him. After a while, if he is good for anything, he begins to wonder that they do” (p. 60)
My dad had a six-bypass surgery when he was 47. He struggled on for another thirteen years of life, but struggled is the key word.
I turned 47 in June. It’s been on my mind all year.
In a sermon about medicine just a couple days after my birthday, I had a long paragraph about some of my physical problems. I won’t repeat it all here, but to sum up, I have been more weak than strong, and not always as edifying about it as Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:10.
For 2021 I didn’t make any resolutions, but I did choose a theme, which is FIT. It has two or three applications, but the first is, as you should certainly expect if you’ve read this far, related to my body.
I mostly bring it up, not necessarily for seeking public accountability, but because I just read an entire section about qualifications for preachers regarding their health. The book is, The Joy of Preaching, written by Phillips Brooks.
“[E]verything that you do for your body is not merely an economy of your organs that they may be fit for certain works; it is part of that total self-consecration which cannot be divided, and which all together makes you the medium through which God may reach His children’s lives.”
If God gives illness and pains and weaknesses and afflictions, then we know He has His reasons. He uses affliction to teach us His statutes (Psalm 119:71), and He afflicts some, especially ministers, that He might also comfort them so that they can share that comfort with others (2 Corinthians 1:3-6). By His grace I have learned, and by His grace I have been a medium of comfort. Also by His grace, I’m still thinking about what I can do on my end to be less of a “sick minister [who] is always hampered and restrained” (Brooks, 48).
I noticed something last Saturday for the first time while reading Nehemiah 8 for the Bible Reading Challenge. Nehemiah 8 is classic passage about preaching. Ezra “brought the Law before the assembly” (verse 2). “He read from it from early morning until midday,” “and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law” (verse 3). Ezra “stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose” (verse 4). He “opened the book in the sight of all the people” (verse 5), he “blessed the LORD, the great God” (verse 6). “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that people understood the reading” (verse 8).
As a preacher I’ve gone to numerous preaching conferences where other preachers preach about preaching. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this paragraph of Nehemiah preached. Preachers who love the Book, who own the stewardship “to make the word of fully known” (Colossians 1:25), who do not “shrink from declaring…the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), point out the priority of reading the Word and explaining the Word.
What I cannot remember ever hearing are any comments about the next paragraph in Nehemiah 8, about the application that Nehemiah and Ezra expected of the people who had heard the Word. Those who “taught the people said to all the people”:
“This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them. (Nehemiah 8:9–12)
When God’s people hear God’s Word they are tempted to make holiness glum, to mourn and weep. They are tempted to act as if they must reject taste in order to prove they’re taking it seriously. But if we read and understand the Word, that is not to be the required response of those who understand the Word.
The joy of the Lord is your strength. Eat the fat and drink the sweet wine. Share portions and make great rejoicing. Though Nehemiah 8 obviously isn’t a reference to the Lord’s Table, it does provide a pattern for us: Word then wine, big portions, generously shared.
Which do you think is the greater problem in the church, placing too much value on preachers or too little? Good arguments could be made on both sides.
The existence of “celebrity” pastors is, sadly, a real thing. Calling some of them celebrities is unfair, since we typically call a celebrity someone who is famous for being famous. There are these types of celebrity pastors with mega-church book sales and TV audiences though they have nothing to say near as self-helping good as Marcus Aurelius/Tony Robbins. There are also “famous” pastors in the Reformed and exegetical parts of the evangelical landscape. These preachers probably didn’t intend to garner a bursting field of followers, but that we spend more time reading the notes in the study Bible than the verses in the Bible may be an indication that we’re giving them too much attention.
That said, the greatest influence many pastors ever exert is ruining a party when they arrive; it’s a spiritual gift. Whether it’s because they take themselves too seriously so that no one else could possibly bear their gravitas, or because they are too lazy to actually keep up with others, it’s hard to see how they influence much of anybody. People will listen unless its about a personal problem because the pastor doesn’t have a professional counseling degree. People will listen unless there’s something more exciting on their phone. Well, it doesn’t even need to be that exciting.
I bring up the question because the church in Corinth had, to some degree, divided themselves according to their favorite teacher/leader. Not only did they have their preference, they made their pick the only (see 1 Corinthians 1:12).
Paul addressed the problem in one way, which was to put the cross of Christ at the center. The word of the cross kills the pride of man, no need for rivalry. I also think we’d do better if we, preachers and people, were more Kuyperian. Preachers have their place, God has assigned them necessary work in the sphere of the church, and yet their work is neither at the top (God’s highest calling) or the end (God’s final goal). If we remembered that we’d probably be able to appreciate what preachers do without dividing over our favorite.
Preaching does not have to be an individualistic sort of activity. In fact, great preaching well understands this. The true preacher is not over against the Christian congregation but rather is an expression of the congregation. The true Christian preacher affirms the faith of the congregation, and raises up the hope of the congregation. Much of the genius of great preachers is their ability to express the faith of the people to whom they are preaching.
—Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures, 271
Delivery should be the spontaneous product of the speaker’s peculiar personality, as acted on by the subject which now fills his mind and heart…it implies that one is possessed with the subject, that he is completely in sympathy with it and fully alive to its importance, that he is not repeating remembered words but setting free the thoughts shut up in his mind.
—John Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 264-265, quoted by John MacArthur in Rediscovering Expository Preaching, 330.
Being “possessed with the subject” and “fully alive to its importance” every preaching opportunity is a supernatural work that I desire and for which I must pray week by week for the Spirit’s help.