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preaching from the second chair – greg liston

Someone once asked a famous conductor which orchestral instrument was the most difficult to play. “Second fiddle,” he quipped. He may have been joking, but he wasn’t wrong.
Most Kiwi churches have one person who is the predominant preacher. Let’s call this person preacher A. In any given congregation, preacher A delivers the sermonic goods about 60%-80% of the time. But many churches also have a preacher B who speaks less but not infrequently. What makes a good preacher B? As it turns out, after a long stint of being a preacher A, I now have a part time role which includes being a preacher B. Here’s a small sampling of some tips/traps that I’ve tried to adopt/avoid.
Trap #1. Don’t Compete. Particularly if preacher A is any good (and in my case he’s exceptional) the strong temptation is to measure your sermons in comparison to theirs. Don’t! Any short term gains in quality are quickly overridden by long term losses in relationship. It seems to me the best attitude to adopt is celebrating preacher A’s successes and mourning their shortcomings as if they were your own. Easier said than done, of course, for “Brother Ass”* is strong, but something to strive towards.
Tip #1. Be Yourself. Initially I hawkishly watched preacher A’s styles and mannerisms with the intent of replicating them. Mostly deductive or inductive? Sermon length? Content to story ratio? Type of jokes? “They’re here because they like what he offers,” I reasoned. Maybe there was something in this, but mostly I’ve ended up just preaching like me. Of course being yourself is virtually unavoidable, but what I’m saying here is that preacher B’s should revel in being themselves. We should “embrace our suckiness.” The best gift we can give the congregation is not who we think we should be, or who we want to be, but who we are, with all the sense and silliness that is inherent in that. As it turns out, variety is very welcome. Even if hearty roasts are people’s favourite Sunday feed, they still enjoy fettucine carbonara every now and then.
Trap #2. Don’t Complain. A strong memory from being a preacher A was the constant pressure to fit everyone into the schedule. There’s only so many preaching slots, and lots of people want pulpit time. Some even demand it. Forcefully. Repeatedly. However, if preacher A can be trusted as the congregation’s primary feeder and leader, they can also be trusted to determine the right mix of pulpit speakers. Pressure (even unspoken pressure) from speaker B doesn’t help. To be honest, I have found preaching less than previously quite hard, as I enjoy it a lot. But equally honestly there’s a lot of good that comes from deliberately choosing restraint. “In this way, you should serve one another.”
Tip #2. Be United. Both personally and pastorally it should be very obvious to everyone in the congregation that Preacher A and Preacher B are on the same page and headed in the same direction. And I see it very much as preacher B’s job to align themselves with preacher A and not vice versa. The most obvious way of doing this is simply to “talk up” preacher A. While important and necessary, my observation is this wears thin quite quickly, and congregations often perceive excessive “talking up” as false flattery, even if it is genuine. A better and longer lasting strategy is simply to use their stuff. Preacher B’s sermons should intentionally build on Preacher A’s offerings at their core, and not just summarise and repeat them before getting onto their own material. Mimic their themes, build towards their vision, echo their words. And do it intentionally and obviously. Treat them as the “giant on whose shoulders you stand.”

Clearly there could be a companion piece to this that talks about how Preacher A’s should treat Preacher B’s. And no doubt more could be said, and more nuance brought to the comments above. But hopefully the preacher B’s reading these tips and traps find something thought provoking and valuable here, beyond the fact that I’ve managed to (mis)quote Leonard Bernstein, St Francis, Ben Stiller, Jesus and Albert Einstein all in one post, in itself a unique and singular achievement. Bernstein finished his quip like this: “To find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm [as first violin] is a real problem. … And yet, if no one plays second fiddle, we have no harmony.” May those of us who are preacher B’s continue to serve God with endurance and enthusiasm, adding rich undertones of depth and colour to the sermonic song being sung each Sunday.

* St Francis often referred to the sinful tendency of his human flesh as “Brother Ass.” See for example

are you a poet or a prophet? – greg liston


In most things, Martyn Lloyd Jones and Karl Barth go together like chocolate milk and pickled onions—that is, they don’t really go together well at all. Yet according to a remarkable paper I’ve been reading by Aaron Edwards from the University of Aberdeen, there is one thing they had in common—their view of preaching.

  • They both despised a focus on preacherly personality in the pulpit.
  • They both espoused the centrality of the biblical text.
  • They both related the text to current affairs, without those affairs taking precedence.
  • They both affirmed the “sacrament” of bringing the Word of God by the power of the Spirit.
  • And, most pertinently here, they both saw preaching as prophetic, not poetic.

Consider the two quotes below, one each from Barth and Jones:

A: “When God’s Word is heard and proclaimed, something takes place that for all our hermeneutical skill cannot be brought about by hermeneutical skill.”

B: “Christian preaching … does not start with man. … Christianity never starts with man. It always starts with God.”

It’s not easy to tell who wrote which, is it?

In this paper, Edwards argues that Barth and Jones see the difference between a poet and a prophet is that one speaks for people and the other speaks to them. A prophet speaks for God, empowered by the Spirit. A prophet looks for God to speak, and desires to be nothing more than a mouthpiece. A prophet expects that God will speak, and “tarries” until the power from on high comes. “This ‘unction,’ this ‘anointing,’ is the supreme thing. Seek it until you have it; be content with nothing less.”  (MLJ)

According to both Barth and Jones, preachers must sacrifice rhetoric so that God can speak. Human speech can convey divine content only if the poetic is subordinated to the prophetic. When the sermon’s form becomes more than a servant, the preaching necessarily becomes less than Godly proclamation.

Of course, this is not a pure either/or distinction. Sermons are necessarily oral. But neither is it a simplistic both/and solution so beloved by students in “Introduction to Theology” courses. The prophetic enhypostates the poetic. [Look it up. 🙂 ] The poetic serves the prophetic or else it becomes idolatrous. According to both these great men, it’s that simple.

And if two thinkers as disparate as Karl Barth and Martyn Lloyd Jones agree on something as important as this, surely there’s more than a good chance they’re onto something.

So which will you be this Sunday, a poet or a prophet?

the prayerlessness mess – greg liston

Could You Not Watch with Me One Hour?

Time for some honesty. The amount of prayer I put into my preaching falls well short of what I would like. It’s not that I don’t believe in the power of prayer. It’s not that I haven’t seen the difference it makes in the depth and delivery of my sermons. It’s not that I don’t care. It’s just that when it comes down to it, as much as I want to pray, as much as I know I should pray, as much as my heart longs to pray … I just don’t. Well … not as much as I’d like.

I’m like Peter in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus asks him to pray and goes away. An hour later, he returns to find Peter sleeping. Jesus asks Peter to pray again. And an hour later he returns to find Peter sleeping again. A third time Jesus asks Peter to pray. Surely this time Peter gritted his teeth (just like I do); he summoned up all his will power (just like I do); he determined with everything in him that this time he would not let the master down (just like I do). But when Jesus returned for the third time, Peter was sleeping (just like I do).

It could be that I’m the only one who has this problem. I might be the only Kiwi preacher that bemoans the fact that my sermons are not more saturated in prayer. I might be alone in having tried so hard and fallen short too many times. But I doubt it.

The more you think about it, the odder it becomes that the solution to prayerlessness we instinctively gravitate to is greater self-discipline and willpower. Andrew Murray writes “What folly to think that all other blessings must come from Him, but that prayer, whereon everything else depends, must be obtained by personal effort!” You can almost hear Paul’s biting exasperation: “Are you so foolish: having begun in the Spirit, are you trying to be made perfect in the flesh?” (Gal 3:3) Perhaps, purloining the words of Andrew Purves’ brilliant little book, “The Crucifixion of Ministry” this is another area of our ministry that God needs to kill so that he can resurrect it in Jesus’ image. Perhaps (Andrew Murray again) it will be “by falling down in utter weakness at the feet of the Lord Jesus, we find there that victory comes through the might and love which stream from His countenance.”

greg liston – getting the congregation you deserve

Just recently in the middle of a seminar on “Growing a Culture of Prayer” I was talking about the close link between the prayer life of a church and the prayer life of their pastor. And I wondered (out loud) whether congregations end up getting the pastor they deserve. “If you are an overly demanding congregation” I said, “if you constantly expect them to do ‘just a bit more’, you will get an overworked pastor who never has time to pray. But alternatively, if you are a deeply empowering congregation, a congregation that gives them lots of support and has their back, a congregation that lifts your pastor up in prayer yourselves, then you’ll get a deeply spiritual leader who models a life of prayer.” Now, it’s not entirely dependent on the congregation, of course. The pastor has quite some responsibility too. But often what a pastor can do, depends a lot on what a congregation will let them do.

But as I was making these comments, I wondered (silently) to what extent the reverse is equally, or perhaps even more, true – whether pastors end up getting the congregations they deserve. And in particular, whether pastors end up getting the kind of congregations they preach to. It’s an intriguing idea. If our preaching aims to meet felt needs, should we be altogether surprised when our congregation demands their needs be met? If our preaching is “dumbed down” for everyone to understand, should we be altogether surprised when our congregation refuses to think? If our preaching is heavy on cute youtube clips and light on Biblical depth, should we be altogether surprised when our congregation spends hours on the internet and seconds in the word? Now, it’s not entirely dependent on the pastor, of course. The congregation has quite some responsibility too. But often what a congregation can do, depends a lot on what their pastor will let them do.

To put the same point another way. To what extent does a pastor who preaches a broad gospel which extends well beyond the borders of New Zealand cause their congregation to adopt a global worldview? To what extent does a pastor whose preaching is saturated with grace, life and prayer grow a grace-filled, life-giving, prayerful congregation? To what extent does a pastor that preaches from the word form a congregation that lives in the word? How much would change if you preached to the congregation you really wanted, as opposed to the congregation you’ve actually got? In your preaching? In your life? In theirs? It bears some thinking about.

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Greg Liston is currently pursuing doctoral studies in systematic theology, after recently completing 7½ years as the senior pastor of Hillsborough Baptist Church. Previous roles include strategic management consulting and a Ph.D. in quantum physics. He is married to Diane and has two children, Emily (9) and James (6).

greg liston – the view from the pew

It’s been about 6 months now since I stepped down from being the Senior Pastor at HBC. Six months of listening to sermons instead of preaching them. The view from the pew is not like the view from the pulpit – you see things differently from down here. And this different perspective has made me wonder what I’d do differently in my preaching ministry if I had it over again.

Here are my Top Five …

5. I’d encourage people more. When I was preaching every Sunday, my “key success factor” was change. My preaching animatedly urged conservative, comfortable, risk-averse Kiwis to abandon themselves completely to God. Not an unworthy goal! But many pew-dwellers are already abandoning themselves to God. And it can be disheartening constantly hearing how we should be different. If I had it over, I’d choose a softer tone, and make “endurance” as much of a key success factor as “change”.

4. I’d repeat myself more. When I was preaching every Sunday, a week seemed like a very short time. Just blink twice and the next sermon would be upon you. From the pew, however, a week is a very long time indeed. And often, with the best of intentions, we pew dwellers struggle to remember not just the content of last week’s sermon but even its topic. If I had it over, I’d spend more time creatively repeating myself each week, and take much more time to say much less.

3. I’d tell the story more. When I was preaching every Sunday, I felt a strong pressure to be relevant – to relate the Biblical text directly to the day-to-day experience of people’s lives. The view from the pew convinces me of something I’ve long suspected – the demand for relevance is bankrupt. Sermons shouldn’t fix my life in the world; they should fixate my life on God. If I had it over, I’d ignore the demands of relevance and remind people of their place in the grand story over and over and over again.

2. I’d “experience” more. When I was preaching every Sunday, I was constantly on the lookout for improvement opportunities. What shocked me when I became a pew-dweller, is that I had completely lost the ability to “enjoy” or “experience” a church service or a sermon, because I had become so used to “evaluating” it. If I had it over, I’d spend more time “experiencing” God through the service and less time honing my technique in it.

1. I’d worry less. When I was preaching every Sunday, I worried a lot about what people thought of my sermons. Certainly there was lots of positive feedback, but I often subconsciously (and sometimes consciously!) pictured people savaging my lame attempts at exposition. But most pew dwellers are fundamentally for the people on the other side of the pulpit. They’re with us, not against us. They’re on our side, not playing for the opposition. They want us to do well, and expect that we will. This is the biggest change I’d make if I had it over. I’d try to spend more time doing the job of preaching and less time worrying about it.

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Greg Liston is currently pursuing doctoral studies in systematic theology, after recently completing 7½ years as the senior pastor of Hillsborough Baptist Church. Previous roles include strategic management consulting and a Ph.D. in quantum physics. He is married to Diane and has two children, Emily (9) and James (6).

greg liston: two definitions, nine theses, one plea

Last week I finished pastoring at a suburban church. I am in a reflective mode. Here are some of my reflections on the state of Kiwi preaching. Intentionally provocative, necessarily brief, possibly ill-considered…  (more…)