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having your head in the clouds (of unseen witnesses) – john tucker

index

I have been reading, lately, about educational theory. It’s fascinating!

According to social learning theorists, people learn by observing and imitating those around them. What’s the easiest way to learn a second language? The way we learned out first, by immersion, by listening at great lengths to those who speak the language fluently. How do Suzuki students learn to play the violin? Immersion. Before they set bow to string, they spend hours listening to excellent performances of the music they will eventually attempt to play.

Preaching is no different, right? How do preachers learn to preach? By immersion. By watching and listening to other preachers. I like how David J. Schlafer puts it: “Anyone who has gone to church with any regularity has preaching ancestors – preachers who have modelled, for good or ill, what a sermon is supposed to sound like: how long, how loud, how laced with Scripture references, how esoteric, or how heart-rending it should be. Whenever you stand up to begin a sermon, there is a cloud of unseen witnesses behind you. . . . They are present. And they are not silent.”[1]

We preachers are shaped by the preachers we have watched and heard. For good, or for ill.

In the field of music – according to David Lose – “some theorists believe that tone deafness is not the result of a physical defect of the ear or brain but rather the result of repeated exposure to an out-of-tune musical gamut. The solution, in such a case, is to overwhelm the history of negative examples with positive ones.”[2]

This has got me thinking. Maybe the reason so many emerging preachers never really fulfil their potential is the simple fact that they have heard – and continue to hear – so much bad preaching that it overwhelms any good homiletics instruction they might once have received.

To grow as preachers, and to keep growing as preachers, we need to be exposed to a steady stream of excellent preaching. So these are the questions I’m asking myself at the moment:

  1. Who are my role models? Could I list 5 or 6 preachers who form my “cloud of unseen witnesses”?
  2. Am I regularly listening to them, watching them, or reading them? How often?
  3. Do I reflect on what I observe in them? How could I do this with my preaching colleagues? (I meet regularly with a small group of preachers to discuss a preaching book, watch each other preach, and provide feedback. I love it – and would highly recommend joining or forming a preaching cluster for your own ongoing formation.)
  4. How might I consciously – but appropriately – imitate my role models? Teachers of preaching, ever since Augustine, have recommended imitating exemplary preachers. (Didn’t John Wesley give his preachers collections of his sermons with the instruction that they should not attempt to prepare their own sermons until they had first preached their way through his?!)

If you have time, I’d love to hear who your role models are. Who are the preachers you frequently look to for inspiration?

[1] David J. Schlafer, Your Way with God’s Word (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1995), 196.

[2] David J. Lose, “Teaching Preaching as a Christian Preaching,” in Teaching Preaching as a Christian Practice: A New Approach to Homiletical Pedagogy (ed. Thomas G. Long and Leonora Tubbs Tisdale; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 41-57, 46.

how do preachers grow? – john tucker

growing-plants

What enables a preacher to keep developing as a preacher?

There are many answers to that question: make a habit of watching or listening to great preachers; read good books on the theology and mechanics of preaching; meet regularly with other preachers to share resources and inspiration.

Of course, one of the very best ways to improve as a preacher is to obtain honest and informed feedback. But, as we all know, this can be remarkably difficult to find. In my experience, a lot of feedback is simply too general to be really helpful. So at Carey Baptist College we’ve recently redesigned the sermon evaluation forms that we use with our preaching students. Here’s a copy:

New Sermon Evaluation Form (John Tucker)

I’d really value your feedback! How do you think this form could be improved? (Feel free to trial it with your own preaching, although please don’t remove the Carey logo).

While I think these kinds of generic forms can be extremely valuable, I’m starting to wonder if our evaluation processes need to be more targeted. From his recent doctoral research Marc Rader of Morling College suggests the following process:

  • Ensure that the purpose of feedback is formative not summative (i.e. it is for the preacher’s development, with no disciplinary consequences). The results are their property.
  • Identify the specific area or areas in which you as a preacher want to develop (e.g. introductions).
  • Read a chapter from a homiletics text on that area.
  • List several items to be assessed – usually these will divide into primary items (e.g., what introductions are meant to do) and secondary items (e.g., how introductions typically do it).
  • Make sure these items are observable (e.g. not “was Christ glorified?”, but “was Christ mentioned?”).
  • Rate yourself against each of these items.
  • Select a facilitator (e.g. a trusted church elder) to facilitate the feedback process.
  • Choose your feedback team. Confidentiality is essential, so select a team of at least three.
  • The facilitator should invite the team members to participate, explaining that you have asked that they be involved and what the feedback will be used for (development not discipline).
  • Give the team training in “what good looks like” (e.g., give them a copy of the chapter you have read).
  • Set an appropriate rating period (anything from 1 to 12 months).
  • Ensure that the feedback questionnaire tests development over time (rather than individual sermons).
  • Frame questions in positive terms (i.e. instead of a value scale of “excellent” to “poor”, a frequency scale is better – “most of the time” to “rarely”). Some people will not feel qualified to say whether an introduction was “excellent”, but they will be able to “strongly agree” that it held their attention.
  • Include a catch all question: “Do you have any other comments about my preaching?”
  • Give these questions to the feedback team at the beginning of the period, during which they observe the preacher in the areas requested.
  • At the conclusion of the rating period, ask the raters to complete a survey.
  • The facilitator explores with the feedback team any discrepancies between ratings and obtains examples where necessary.
  • The facilitator and preacher discuss the results and compare them with the preacher’s own self-assessment at the beginning of the period.

What do you think? Have you ever tried anything like this? I’d be really interested to know how it went. And, if you’ve found any other methods of evaluation to be helpful, I’d love to hear about it.

how to end a sermon – john tucker

The-End

I was in a preaching lab at Carey Baptist College. A pastoral leadership student was preaching to his year group. The sermon was, in many respects, quite outstanding – until the conclusion. The message, which had started so well and promised so much, ground to a thudding and disappointing halt.

I’m struck by how many sermons – or, at least, how many of my sermons – are just like that. They take off with lots of energy. They reach a good altitude. But then, towards the end, they nose dive and land very badly. Why do you think it is that so many homiletical journeys, sermons that promise so much, come unstuck at the end?

One of the main reasons, I suspect, is that we typically prepare our messages in the order in which they will be delivered – introduction, body, and conclusion. So if we get tired or run out of time it’s the conclusion that usually suffers. We default to ending the sermon in much the same way as we did last week – and the week before that.

I was really interested, therefore, to come across some advice from Fred Craddock on how to conclude a sermon. In Craddock on the Craft of Preaching (St Louis: Chalice, 2011) he lists thirteen ways to end a sermon:

  1. End with the beginning. Return to that unfinished story with which you began the message. Repeat that striking phrase with which you started the sermon. Answer that opening question which you left hanging in the air.
  2. End with a simple exhortation. The preacher does not have to be the one who gives the exhortation. It could be someone in the congregation who is asked in advance to discern and articulate what the Spirit is saying through the sermon.
  3. End with repetition and summary. Some sermons take the shape of an argument. In these cases it is often good to simply finish the message with a concise summary of the main points.
  4. End with a musical response. Instead of sealing the sermon off from the rest of the service, why not finish the message with a musical item – a piece that is carefully chosen to bring the sermon to its climax.
  5. End with an appropriate prayer. Not an ad-libbed prayer. Not a tossed-off prayer. But a carefully composed prayer that doesn’t just repeat the sermon or add to the sermon but serves to shift gears and land the sermon.
  6. End with an invitation to some decision or expression of faith. Give people an opportunity to make a visible or creative response to the message they have heard. It might involve moving to a station, writing a letter, or taking communion.
  7. End with a story. But make sure the story serves the sermon’s purpose. Sermons don’t just say things, they do You might have a compelling story. But does it say and do what this sermon is trying to say and do? Remember, Isocrates said that the first law of communication is appropriateness.
  8. End with silence. Just sit down and make space for silence. Unrushed silence. Give people time to assimilate the message. Our worship services could do with more of this.
  9. End with a question. Not a smattering of questions, but one carefully honed question. A question that grows out of the message and which I want the listeners to consider seriously.
  10. End with a fractured syllogism. A syllogism runs like this: major premise, minor premise, conclusion. All sinners are punished, Emma is a sinner, Emma is punished. Why not structure the sermon as a fractured syllogism? All sinners are punished, Emma is a sinner, Emma is forgiven. There’s a twist in the tail.
  11. End with a refrain. Repeat one more time that sentence you’ve woven like a golden thread through the fabric of the sermon. “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.” This rhetorical device emphasises the main idea in a way that few techniques can.
  12. End with a broken sentence. Don’t complete the sentence. Just say, “Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock…” Stop the sermon there, and watch the congregation’s lips moving: “… and it shall be opened to you.”
  13. End with no conclusion. Leave some loose threads hanging, like the book of Jonah. Finish the sermon with a hint. Just a hint. And leave it to your listeners to draw the connection.

What I like about this list is the way it opens up my thinking about the range of creative possibilities for ending a message. I’d love to expand it, and pin it up on my wall. Can you think of any other ways of concluding a message not included in this list?

highways to christ – john tucker

204 road to cross 200

Charles Spurgeon, the famous nineteenth century preacher, once told a story about a young pastor who asked an older seasoned minister to listen to him preach and give him some feedback. The old pastor listened to the young man’s impassioned sermon and made the comment. “It was disappointing.” “Why?” the young preacher asked. “Because,” said the old man, “There was no Christ in it.” The young preacher responded, “But Christ was not in the text!” The old man replied, “Don’t you know, young man, that from every town and every village and every little hamlet in England, wherever it may be, there is a road to London? So, from every text in Scripture there is a road to the metropolis of the Scriptures, that is Christ. Dear brother, when you get to a text, say, ‘Now, what is the road to Christ?’ and then preach a sermon, running along the road to the great metropolis, Christ.”

 

I think Spurgeon was right. As Christian preachers, our impulse, surely, must be to proclaim Christ whenever we can. But how do you do that in a way that doesn’t do violence to the text and doesn’t sound the same every week? It’s a challenge! In their recent book, Saving Eutychus: How to preach God’s word and keep people awake (Sydney: Matthias Media, 2013), Gary Millar and Phil Campbell identify several legitimate routes to Christ. Drawing on their work, here are eight paths which I think are safe:

 

  1. Highlight the promise. Some passages point to Christ by way of a promise. They speak, for example, of a suffering servant (Isaiah 53) or one like the Son of Man (Daniel 7). In these cases it is easy enough to get to Christ simply by showing how he is the fulfilment of that promise.

 

  1. Expose the problem. Most texts don’t refer explicitly to the Messiah, but they often speak implicitly of our need for a Messiah because they highlight the tragic reality of human sinfulness (e.g. Exodus 32, Judges 21, Nehemiah 13). The way to preach Christ from these passages is to emphasise the problem and then explain how Jesus is God’s solution.

 

  1. Celebrate the attribute. Another approach is to train the spotlight not so much on our depravity, but, wherever possible, on God’s beauty – on those attributes of his character revealed in the text. It is natural with this kind of emphasis to then go on to show how these aspects of God’s character (such as his love and faithfulness in Exodus 34) are even more clearly demonstrated in Christ (John 1:14).

 

  1. Compare the action. Another option, with narrative passages, is to focus on the action in the story, particularly where God uses human actors to being about his redemptive purposes. From here, it is a short step to show how Jesus does the same thing on a grander scale. He is, for example, the true and better Joseph, who sat at the right hand of the king, and used his power to forgive and save those who betrayed and sold him. He is the true and better David, whose victory over Goliath was imputed to his people on whose behalf he fought.

 

  1. Trace the theme. Where the passage contains a major biblical theme (like creation, covenant, exodus, kingdom, temple or sacrifice) a good option is to trace that theme through scripture and show how it finds resolution in Christ. With Genesis 22, for example, rather than focusing on God’s faithfulness, or Abraham’s faith, we could explore the whole idea of substitutionary sacrifice and how it finds its ultimate expression in the cross.

 

  1. Explain the symbol. On occasion Scripture provides symbols (or “types”) that clearly pre-figure or foreshadow Christ. These can be events (e.g. God’s self-revelation in Exodus 34), objects (e.g. the bronze snake in Numbers 21) or people (e.g. Adam or Abel). In each case, where a New Testament writer explicitly cites that symbol as prefiguring the person and work of Christ, we can have confidence in drawing the link. So Jesus is the true and better Adam who passed the text in the garden and whose obedience is now imputed to us (1 Cor. 15). He is the true and better Abel who, though innocently slain, has blood that cries out for our acquittal, not our condemnation (Heb. 12:24).

 

  1. Describe the ideal. With texts in the Torah or wisdom literature that lay down how we must live or what it means to be godly a good approach is to identify the moral principle or ideal, acknowledge that we can’t live up to it no matter how hard we try, and then demonstrate how Jesus perfectly embodied that principle or character quality. In this way we show that the text is ultimately about Christ and his character, which his Spirit produces in us as we contemplate his glory (2 Cor. 3:18).

 

  1. Satisfy the longing. Some passages in the Old Testament (such as the Psalms) are charged with pain, disappointment and longing for God to act. It is natural, after acknowledging these emotions, to then explain how these longings are resolved by the coming of Jesus and the New Covenant.

 

These are eight pathways that, I think, can safely lead us to Christ from any passage in the Bible. What’s missing? What other path should be included on this list?

essentials of preaching – john tucker

question

 

In my role teaching preaching at Carey I often find myself discussing questions like: What are the essential ingredients of effective preaching? What are the fundamental qualities of a good preacher? I had the opportunity a while back to discuss these questions with a dozen or so committed and effective preachers – the Carey School of Preaching’s reference group. This is what we came up with:

Effective preaching:

Focuses on the living Word. It points people to Christ, as the telos or goal of the Scriptures, the centre of the gospel.

  • Submits to the written word. It is fundamentally shaped by the Scriptures – usually, but not always, a particular passage of Scripture.
  • Connects with listeners. It is attentive to their needs as participants in a process of communication. It honours their context.
  • Engages with culture. Effective preaching addresses the assumptions, idealogies and idols of an audience’s deep culture. It speaks to the wider world.
  • Communicates ideas effectively. It is clear and engaging.
  • Brings a fresh, relevant, life-changing word. The goal of preaching is to see lives transformed by the truth of the gospel. Good preaching is both pastoral and prophetic. It comforts and afflicts. It slays and makes alive.
  • Constitutes an act of worship. Both for preacher and people.

Good preachers are:

Anointed. There is a mysterious sense of God’s blessing and the Spirit’s empowering about their preaching.

  • Called. They have been called by God. Preaching, for them, is a priority. This calling is recognised by the people of God.
  • Humble. They are aware of their weakness and prayerfully depend on the Spirit’s empowering. They are submissive to the words of Scripture, allowing the word to shape them before they speak to others.
  • Authentic. There is congruence between what they say in the pulpit and who they are out of it.
  • Passionate. Great preachers love the Lord with a passion. They love his church, and they are passionately committed to the mission of God.
  • Patient. They deliver their message with urgency and conviction, but with grace and love. They recognize that it takes time for the seed to germinate, grow and bear fruit.
  • Sensitive. Good Kiwi preachers are sensitive to the Spirit, on the one hand, and to their listeners, on the other. They are aware of the issues and culture of contemporary Aotearoa, and seek to bring God’s word into contact with their listeners’ world.
  • Inclusive. They are motivated by love to enfold all their listeners with the gospel. They do not exclude people by their language, attitudes, dress or manner.
  • Sacrificial. ‘Someone must suffer for the sermon. If it is not the preacher who is willing to pay the price then it will be the congregation.’ Effective preachers recognise and embrace the cost of preaching.
  • Diligent. They give themselves to the study of Scripture and culture. They are readers, learners, hunter-gatherers. Yes, they are gifted and creative. But they carefully and faithfully nurture those gifts for the sake of their preaching and God’s glory.
  • Confident. They are gripped by a high view of God’s word and are confident of its power to impart life when faithfully preached.

I like these lists – I think they capture the heart of preaching. But I’m not sure that either is complete. It would be so good to develop a fuller statement of what we aspire to as preachers. So I’d love to hear what you think. What would you add?

preaching to a broken heart – john tucker

crying-broken-heart-heartbreak-22090342-700-530

One of the best books on pastoral ministry I’ve read in recent times is a little volume by Michael Jinkins entitled Letters to Young Pastors (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006). When giving some advice on preaching he recalls the words of the puritan pastor, Richard Baxter, and says: ‘preachers who aim their sermons at the broken heart will seldom miss the mark of the gospel’. I find that an intriguing concept. What does it mean to aim our sermons at the ‘broken heart’?

First, I think it means knowing the people to whom we preach. The great American preacher, George Buttrick, was once asked, ‘What is the most important thing you do in preparing to preach each Sunday?’ His reply, according to Eugene Peterson, was this: ‘For two hours every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, I walk through the neighbourhood and make home visits. There is no way that I can preach the gospel to these people if I don’t know how they are living, what they are thinking and talking about. Preaching is proclamation, God’s word revealed in Jesus, but only when it gets embedded in conversation, in a listening ear and responding tongue, does it become gospel.’ If our sermons are to hit the mark, it means taking pains to know the people to whom we preach and what is on their hearts.

But, secondly, it means being honest about our own hearts. Jinkins puts it like this: ‘any sermon aimed at the broken heart must originate in a broken heart – in the broken heart of the pastor who bears his or her own regrets, sins, loneliness, his or her own small, and perhaps large, betrayals of those he or she loves. The pastor longs to hear the word of grace alongside all the other broken hearts waiting for that word from his or her lips. I’ve always felt that the sermons that have the best chance of being heard are those where the preacher is a hearer too, where the preacher is allowing the Word of God to address both preacher and people in the same breath.’ This kind of listening, I’m convinced, is the secret to preaching with passion. As William Willimon once said, if we find nothing in Scripture that grabs us, it is doubtful that our sermon will grab anyone else.

So sermons that hit the mark are sermons aimed at the broken heart of both our listeners and ourselves. But they are also, thirdly, sermons that are aimed like an arrow at the broken heart of God himself. Tom Long notes that much of the preaching in our day has taken on the posture of wisdom literature. It is sage advice on how to manage our money or handle our relationships or [insert the particular life skill or problem of your choice]. But, Long says, ‘true biblical wisdom is less about life skills and the management of problems than it is a seeking of the shape of faithful living that results from an encounter with the living God.’ Preaching that changes lives – preaching that hits the mark – will involve an encounter with the living God. In our preparation this means looking first of all not for a sermon outline but for the God who reveals himself in Scripture. And in our preaching it means retaining this theocentric focus and proclaiming the truth about God and his character, his actions, his heart.

john tucker – sub-christian sermons

Do you ever go to your sermon file looking for an old message to rework and preach again? My experience is that it can be a little depressing. Invariably, I come across some old manuscript and think to myself, ‘Did I really write this? Did I really preach that?!’

Some years ago I preached on the David and Goliath story from 1 Samuel 17. I presented David as a fine example of courage in the face of fear. The story became a lesson on how we can defeat the giants in our life. There were three main points, three secrets to courage: (a) Look at your giants from God’s perspective (vv. 24-26); (b) Trust God with the smaller everyday challenges (vv. 34-37); and (c) Choose to seek God’s honour above all else (vv. 45-47).

A bit painful really. In retrospect, I don’t think I mentioned Jesus once. Not once. Was this a Christian sermon? Was there anything distinctively Christian about it? As I reflect back on ten years of preaching, I realise that many of my sermons have probably focused more on what we must do, than on what Christ has done. They’ve exhorted people to try harder, rather than to trust Christ.

The problem, I think, has been that in my preparation I have looked up (to God in prayerful dependence on the Spirit), I’ve looked down (at the text, with a sincere desire to be faithful to the passage). But I haven’t often looked back (to preceding chapters in the biblical story) and forwards (to subsequent chapters). Yes, I’ve tried to locate my text in its literary and historical context. But I haven’t been as intent on locating each passage in its broader theological context – understanding where it fits in the larger flow of the biblical storyline.

One way to do this, of course, is to identify the big unifying themes of the Bible’s story-line, and ask how any given passage intersects with those themes. One such theme, for example, is the search for a true king who will rescue God’s people from their enemies. It colours much of Israel’s history. The constant failures of the nation and its leaders point to their need for a different kind of king, a king that God promises to one day provide (2 Samuel 7). David, as Israel’s model king, is meant to point us towards the fulfilment of that promise, towards this future King.

So, if I were to ever again preach this story of David and Goliath – and I’d like to! – I’d insert it into that larger story. As a representative of his people, David fights Goliath on Israel’s behalf. If he loses, they lose. But he wins. And his victory is imputed to them, even though they didn’t go out and fight. Clearly, this foreshadows Christ’s victory over sin and death on the cross, where David’s greater Son took down the only giants that can destroy us. If we will believe that, if we live as if those giants really have been defeated for us, then our lesser giants – like fear or suffering – are much less likely to hold sway over us. A very different approach.

As you reflect on your old sermons, what has made you think, ‘Did I really preach that?’ What would you do differently if you could start over? And what have you found helpful in regards to preaching canonically? How do you get to Christ when preaching from the Old Testament? I’d love to know!

* * *

John Tucker serves as the Director of Ministry Training at Carey Baptist College, where he is also involved in the teaching of preaching. He has recently completed a PhD on Baptist engagement in social issues in New Zealand.

john tucker: the greatest deficiency?

A while back I came across this statement by A.G. Azurdia: ‘It is my deep conviction that the greatest deficiency in contemporary expositional ministry is powerlessness; in other words, preaching that is devoid of the vitality of the Holy Spirit.’

What do you think?

Years before, Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, ‘The greatest essential in connection with preaching … is the unction and the anointing of the Holy Spirit. … You can have knowledge, and you can be meticulous in your preparation; but without the unction of the Holy Spirit you will have no power, and your preaching will not be effective.’ These are sobering statements. They raise the question: How do we get this ‘unction’, or anointing? How can we ensure that our preaching is ‘a demonstration of the Spirit’s power’, and not our own?

I doubt if there is a magic formula or secret recipe. Jesus said, ‘The wind blows where it wishes’ (Jn. 3:8). The Spirit is sovereign. But, with Paul Windsor, I’d argue that there is a ‘windy place’, where the Spirit has been known to blow, and where we can go and stand with every expectancy that God’s Spirit will move again.

Where is this windy place? What are its coordinates? Here is my list:

1. It is a place marked by a humble acknowledgment of our need for God

John Stott asks, ‘Why … does the power of the Spirit seem to accompany our preaching so seldom? I strongly suspect that the main reason is our pride. In order to be filled with the Spirit, we have first to acknowledge our own emptiness. In order to be exalted and used by God, we have first to humble ourselves under his mighty hand (1 Pet. 5:6). In order to receive his power, we have first to admit, and then even to revel in, our own weakness.’

2. It is a place marked by prayerful seeking for the power of God

Spurgeon put it well: ‘Prayer brings down upon our preaching an indescribable and inimitable something, better understood than named; it is a dew from the Lord, a divine presence which you will recognise at once when I say it is “an unction from the holy One.” … Let your fleece lie in the threshing-floor of supplication till it is wet with the dew of heaven.’

3. It is a place marked by the faithful exposition of the word of God

Throughout the Bible the word of God and the Spirit of God are intimately related. In fact, in some places they are almost interchangeable (e.g. Jn. 3:34, 6:63). The word of God is the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17). So, as Greg Heisler says, ‘Preaching that remains within the bounds of the biblical text is most likely to receive the benefits of the revealing ministry of the Holy Spirit.’

4. It is a place marked by a humble desire to glorify the Son of God.

Both the Scriptures and the Spirit share the goal of bearing witness to Jesus Christ (Jn. 5:39; 15:26). So if we want the Spirit’s blessing, then, like Paul (2 Cor. 4:5), we must preach Christ. As Azurdia says, ‘The central theme of the Bible is God’s redemptive program in Jesus Christ. Until this fact begins to shape our interpretive approach to the Scriptures Christian preaching will lack the accompanying power of the Spirit of God, whose stated purpose is to glorify Jesus Christ in and through the Scriptures.’

5. It is a place marked by obedient submission to the Spirit of God

Of course, we can grieve the Spirit by disobedience (Eph. 4:30). ‘Preaching,’ says Heisler, ‘is much like an iceberg: what people see in the pulpit on Sunday is the tip of the dynamics going on beneath the surface. … Spirit-led living is God’s prerequisite for Spirit-led preaching. … If we are not Spirit-led and Spirit-filled in our homes and in our communities, we should not anticipate being Spirit-led and Spirit-filled in the pulpit.’

Do you agree?

What would you add to this list?

* * *

John Tucker serves as the Director of Ministry Training at Carey Baptist College, where he is also involved in the teaching of preaching. He has recently finished a PhD on Baptist engagement in social issues in New Zealand.

john tucker: the greatest deficiency?

A while back I came across this statement by A.G. Azurdia: ‘It is my deep conviction that the greatest deficiency in contemporary expositional ministry is powerlessness; in other words, preaching that is devoid of the vitality of the Holy Spirit.’

What do you think?

Years before, Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, ‘The greatest essential in connection with preaching … is the unction and the anointing of the Holy Spirit. … You can have knowledge, and you can be meticulous in your preparation; but without the unction of the Holy Spirit you will have no power, and your preaching will not be effective.’ These are sobering statements. They raise the question: How do we get this ‘unction’, or anointing? How can we ensure that our preaching is ‘a demonstration of the Spirit’s power’, and not our own?

I doubt if there is a magic formula or secret recipe. Jesus said, ‘The wind blows where it wishes’ (Jn. 3:8). The Spirit is sovereign. But, with Paul Windsor, I’d argue that there is a ‘windy place’, where the Spirit has been known to blow, and where we can go and stand with every expectancy that God’s Spirit will move again.

Where is this windy place? What are its coordinates? Here is my list:

1. It is a place marked by a humble acknowledgment of our need for God

John Stott asks, ‘Why … does the power of the Spirit seem to accompany our preaching so seldom? I strongly suspect that the main reason is our pride. In order to be filled with the Spirit, we have first to acknowledge our own emptiness. In order to be exalted and used by God, we have first to humble ourselves under his mighty hand (1 Pet. 5:6). In order to receive his power, we have first to admit, and then even to revel in, our own weakness.’

2. It is a place marked by prayerful seeking for the power of God

Spurgeon put it well: ‘Prayer brings down upon our preaching an indescribable and inimitable something, better understood than named; it is a dew from the Lord, a divine presence which you will recognise at once when I say it is “an unction from the holy One.” … Let your fleece lie in the threshing-floor of supplication till it is wet with the dew of heaven.’

3. It is a place marked by the faithful exposition of the word of God

Throughout the Bible the word of God and the Spirit of God are intimately related. In fact, in some places they are almost interchangeable (e.g. Jn. 3:34, 6:63). The word of God is the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17). So, as Greg Heisler says, ‘Preaching that remains within the bounds of the biblical text is most likely to receive the benefits of the revealing ministry of the Holy Spirit.’

4. It is a place marked by a humble desire to glorify the Son of God.

Both the Scriptures and the Spirit share the goal of bearing witness to Jesus Christ (Jn. 5:39; 15:26). So if we want the Spirit’s blessing, then, like Paul (2 Cor. 4:5), we must preach Christ. As Azurdia says, ‘The central theme of the Bible is God’s redemptive program in Jesus Christ. Until this fact begins to shape our interpretive approach to the Scriptures Christian preaching will lack the accompanying power of the Spirit of God, whose stated purpose is to glorify Jesus Christ in and through the Scriptures.’

5. It is a place marked by obedient submission to the Spirit of God

Of course, we can grieve the Spirit by disobedience (Eph. 4:30). ‘Preaching,’ says Heisler, ‘is much like an iceberg: what people see in the pulpit on Sunday is the tip of the dynamics going on beneath the surface. … Spirit-led living is God’s prerequisite for Spirit-led preaching. … If we are not Spirit-led and Spirit-filled in our homes and in our communities, we should not anticipate being Spirit-led and Spirit-filled in the pulpit.’

Do you agree?

What would you add to this list?

* * *

John Tucker serves as the Director of Ministry Training at Carey Baptist College, where he is also involved in the teaching of preaching. He has recently finished a PhD on Baptist engagement in social issues in New Zealand.

john tucker: leaping fountain or squeaking pump?

Confession time. Phillips Brooks once wrote: ‘The preacher’s life must be a life of large accumulation. … He must not always be trying to make sermons, but always seeking truth, and out of the truth which he has won the sermons will make themselves. … Then [his] sermons shall be like the leaping of a fountain, and not like the pumping of a pump.’ Too often my sermon preparation feels like the priming of a pump. I reckon I’ve spent far too much time making sermons and not enough time seeking truth. I haven’t, in Brooks’ words, been living ‘a life of large accumulation’.  (more…)