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thalia kehoe rowden: does preaching count?

Can preaching be a spiritual discipline that helps our growth as much as our congregations’? Sure – this has been a theme of recent posts from John and George. Is it enough, or do I also have to do my own separate Bible study to be well-nourished? Now that’s a different question.

When I was exploring faith as a teenager in Palmerston North and Wellington, a daily half-hour ‘Quiet Time’ was the only model of personal devotional life I saw among my mentors and peers. Most of us weren’t very good at it, but it was the gold standard we aspired to.

A few years later, when my pastor, David Smith, preached a series on spirituality drawing on Gary Thomas’ book, Sacred Pathways, a whole new world of connecting to God opened up in front of me.

Thomas argues that people are created to connect to God in different ways, that one size of devotional life doesn’t fit all. Some people find great depth in silent meditation, others in exuberant musical worship or social action. These folks still need to become familiar with the Scriptures, so singing or bush-walking won’t replace the need for Bible study of some sort, but how one person engages in it could look different from their flatmate’s path.

What if I connect to God best through intellectual engagement with theology and Biblical study, and preparing to preach each week lights my personal devotional fire as well as being part of my role in my community?

I suggest it’s legalistic and confining to say that in this case, the Bible study and prayer involved in preparing sermons doesn’t ‘count’ as personal spirituality, because I’m being paid to do it for another purpose. And yet that’s the message that was shouted in capital letters when I was growing up.

For some people, preaching is a rich discipline, but not one that satisfies their need for connection with God. They also need to paint or walk a labyrinth or pray the Scriptures.

But what if preaching is exactly what I need to do to feed my soul, hear from God, learn and grow – at least this week, or in this season? Does it count? Am I being spiritual enough?

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Thalia Kehoe Rowden is an awesome parallel parker and the pastor of New Plymouth West Baptist Church, a place of shelter, faith and laughter.


  1. Geoff says:

    This is a very interesting and timely piece you’ve written here Thalia. At the moment I’m writing up my D Min thesis which is about the effect of using lectio divina and Ignatian Gospel Contemplation for sermon prep. Seven preachers joined me in the exercise for the research over several months. What you have written about came up as one of the most prominent tensions for us – personal devotions vs sermon preparation. We would use either of these prayer disciplines and engage with the text at hand knowing we were preparing for a sermon, however we would experience the conundrum of what was appropriate to now be included in the sermon. The encounter with the Scriptures and God, at times, left us with insights which felt very personal. In fact, sometimes TOO personal. For my money, I endorse your exhortation. To maybe put it crudely, congregations pay us to spend time meeting with God and expect to hear back about how that went. It’s not to suggest we are doing that to excuse congregations from the need for them to pursue such a discipline, but they hold a reasonable expectation that “all of me” will be invested in that moment of prayer and preparation for the sermon. With reference to my research, insofar as those of us who were part of the research shared some of the personal nature of the encounter with God in the subsequent sermon – while as preachers we described such a moment as vulnerable, the applicable congregations tended to describe it as powerful.

  2. Tena koe, Thalia. Like you, I’ve had some of my most intense spiritual growth moments through academic study, and that individual preference for encountering God through intellectual exercise feeds through into my practice of preaching preparation. From a straight-forward educational psychology perspective, how can preparing to preach not lead to deeper Spiritual Growth? We’re a people predicated on a passion for a particular book, and the deeper the engagement with that book, the deeper the growth. When preaching is framed as biblical engagement, then it’s bound to be good for the preacher, at least. If my scripture reading is just for myself, I can skimp on it, read superficially, and think nothing about what I read. If I have to exposit the scriptures to others, in a winsome way, then I have to engage with them critically and carefully, keeping the text and my own socio-cultural situation carefully in mind. If I want it to be life-giving for others, then I have to ask how the text feeds the life in me – what difference does it make? – and that inevitably leads to spiritual growth. The old educational adage, “If you want to learn something, teach it” is highly applicable.
    The question remains, how do I make the spiritual growth benefits arising from this discipline available to the others in the congregation? The problem is not that I preach (and enjoy all the spiritual benefits of that), but that we so often don’t ask the congregation to do any more than passively listen.

  3. Mark Maffey says:

    I think at different points in our journey different ways of spending time with God work, as a teenager developing a quiet time was essential for me in building a discipline of Bible reading,and of systematically reading the Bible and it has given me useful understanding of where there are in the Bible. At Bible College I found the need for prayer and reflection more important, it helped keep me sane as I struggled with the impact of the new things I was learning.Now as a home group study leader and occasional preacher,I am convinced that if I gain the most from preparing for studies or sermons, if we do not know and live the text we are preparing I think we are failing our audience or congregation. Like Geoff I believe that our preparation in prayer and in the word is what keeps us fresh spiritually. Another way I find that helps me is to write meditative poetry based on scripture.

  4. Mark Maffey says:

    Hi Thalia, I agree that preaching preparation can be a spiritual discipline, as a sometimes preacher, and weekly home group study leader, I think that if we aren’t spending time with God in the process and learning more about the text and the context we end up doing both our audience and God a disservice. I also think that is not so much what or how much we do, but rather the heart with which we enter into spiritual disciplines. At different parts of the journey different things will be more prominent and perhaps more beneficial, like you quiet times in my youth helped to learn the word. At BCNZ I found I needed to focus more on prayer and meditation. Now 14 years on I find preparation is largely my time in the word, but prayer and writing and meditative poetry are also keys. At the end of the day we are called to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling,remembering that we are no longer under condemnation we can’t beat ourselves too much about what we are or aren’t doing in the light of God’s grace.

    1. George Wieland says:

      For me the requirement to come to God for others has been a powerful driver in cultivating spiritual attentiveness – like Isaiah: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary wth a word. Morning by morning he wakens, wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” (Isa 50:4)
      But there have been periods when I’ve become aware that my listening for others has been deflecting what might feed or challenge me into potential sermon material. I have been in danger of being the waiter who takes food to the table but goes hungry.
      So I try to do both – to grow in attentiveness and understanding as I listen for (and therefore, hopefully, with) others, and at the same time to keep a different conversation with God running out of which may well come insights that will find their way into preaching or teaching, but whose primary focus is Shepherd to sheep, not Shepherd to shepherd!

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