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i hate preaching – thalia kehoe rowden


The writer Dorothy Parker famously said ‘I hate writing. I like having written.’

I wonder if many of secretly feel like that about preaching. Do you love preaching, as a calling, but find parts of it terrifying or exhausting?

When I was a full-time minister, preaching most weeks to – or with, really, as I think of it – a congregation of people I loved and shepherded, I loved preaching.

The 10.45am Sunday kind of preaching, I’m talking about. The time that doesn’t feel like time, when (on a good day) you stand there, building, brick by phrase by idea, a bridge between God and these people you love. The time when you look out at these people you love, and the extraverts nod and the introverts hold your gaze. The time when God’s Holy Spirit takes your words and pictures, your challenges and consolations and draws some of them to the attention of your listeners – and often not the bits you thought were most important.

On Sunday mornings, I loved preaching.

Like Dorothy Parker, I loved having preached, too. Hearing someone’s response or question at morning tea. Finding out a year later that your words quietly made a difference you didn’t know about.

But that was then. I’m not a full-time minister anymore. I’m a full-time mother of a toddler who disapproves of his mother preaching – or at least preaching without him at the pulpit. So now my only preaching is the occasional sermon to someone else’s congregation, and that’s a whole nother kettle of tofu.

The pastor at North Porirua Baptist Church asked me to preach there on Mothers’ Day this year, to speak about my experience of postnatal depression. I was glad to do so – I love preaching, remember? I prepared a cross between a sermon, a personal story, and an introduction to PND and it practically wrote itself.

But on the Saturday night, I said to my homie ‘Next time I’m considering a speaking engagement, can you please remind me that I don’t actually like preaching?’

Every time I have preached at someone else’s church over the last year, I have barely slept the two nights before, in between nightmares of forgetting the sermon entirely or not being able to lift my voice over an unruly crowd of Baptists throwing paper darts and fruit at each other across the church (yes, real dream).

On the Saturday night, I said with Dorothy Parker, ‘I hate preaching! I love having preached.’

But on Mothers’ Day Sunday, at 10.45am, I loved preaching. Even though I didn’t know these people, we stepped together into the time that isn’t time. I spoke. Some nodded, some held my gaze. Some cried.

In conversation after the service, it was clear that God’s Holy Spirit had been using my words about hope in sadness to connect these people to the mighty and tender God of the Universe. All sorts of different words – not always the ones I’d thought most important.

When it’s not the night before a guest sermon, I wouldn’t say, following Dorothy Parker, that I hate preaching but love having “praught.” But in this season of preaching to other people’s congregations, I find that I love preaching but hate anticipating it. Presumably it’s a fear of the unknowns (maybe at this church they do throw fruit!), so I suppose I need to remind myself of the knowns.

It is my experience that the act of preaching is a dance done together by God, preachers and churches.

It is a great mystery.

It is utterly unlike other kinds of public speaking which rest on a single person’s performance.

It is nothing like your practice the night before.

The efficacy of the preaching has surprisingly little to do with the excellence of the delivery, because the preacher’s words are simply tools that God’s Holy Spirit uses to tune up the conscience and character of the congregation. God is the real preacher. God’s pretty good at it and doesn’t mind using imperfect tools.

I know these things. So once I’ve done my preparation and practice, I really should lighten up. And maybe even get some sleep.

I’d be interested to hear which parts of the preaching process are most fun and scary for each of you. Prayer, study, writing, editing, practising, nightmaring, preaching, dodging fruit, reflecting, discussing: which hold the most terror, enjoyment or comfort for you?

a puritan, a prayer and a preacher – thalia kehoe rowden

How much has the task of preaching changed in four hundred years, do you think?

In my last year of training for pastoral ministry at Carey Baptist College I did a bit of guest preaching in different churches instead of a normal church placement.

When I preached at Roskill Baptist, the minister there kindly shared this 400ish-year-old prayer with me. He regularly prayed it in his study before preaching, and now I do the same.

I’ve also prayed it aloud with congregations before preaching, explaining that I’m letting them overhear my prayer for the sermon. The ‘slothful audience’ line usually gets a muffled giggle or three.

The unnamed puritan preacher who wrote this has a job that is pretty different from the way I practised church ministry. This prayer is for a Sunday morning, and yet the sermon is unwritten – not my style, it must be said!

But otherwise I feel real comradeship with this preacher. I, too, ‘go weak and needy to my task,’ and need to be reminded not to be proud. And I often choke up when I get to the lines near the end:

‘help me not to treat excellent matter in a defective way,

or bear a broken testimony to so worthy a redeemer’

This preacher knows the importance of the task, and pays attention to the role of the preacher, the congregation, and God, in joining together in the event of preaching.

It inspires me every time I pray it, and I offer it to you to share around, as it was generously shared with me.

My Master God

 I am desired to preach today,

            but go weak and needy to my task;

Yet I long that people might be edified with divine truth,

            that an honest testimony might be borne for thee;

Give me assistance in preaching and prayer,

            with heart uplifted for grace and unction.

Present to my view things pertinent to my subject,

            with fullness of matter and clarity of thought,

            proper expressions, fluency, fervency,

            a feeling sense of the things I preach,

            and grace to apply them to people’s consciences.

Keep me conscious all the while of my defects,

            and let me not gloat in pride over my performance.

Help me to offer a testimony for thyself,

            and to leave sinners inexcusable in neglecting thy mercy.

Give me freedom to open the sorrows of thy people,

            and to set before them comforting considerations. 

Attend with power the truth preached,

            and awaken the attention of my slothful audience.

May thy people be refreshed, melted, convicted, comforted,

            and help me to use the strongest arguments

            drawn from Christ’s incarnation and sufferings,

            that people might be made holy.

 I myself need thy support, comfort, strength, holiness,

            that I might be a pure channel of thy grace,

            and be able to do something for thee;

Give me then refreshment among thy people,

            and help me not to treat excellent matter in a defective way,

            or bear a broken testimony to so worthy a redeemer,

            or be harsh in treating of Christ’s death, its design and end,

                        from lack of warmth and fervency.

And keep me in tune with thee as I do this work.

You can find this prayer and others like it in The Valley of Vision: a collection of Puritan Prayers, Arthur Bennett (ed) 1988, Banner of Truth.

I’m keen to hear what you think.

Is there a line or phrase that resonates with you? Or is it completely foreign? Are there written prayers you regularly pray?

thalia kehoe rowden – minor master class

I was a sceptic when I arrived at West Baptist Church in New Plymouth in 2008.

For many years West had embraced an all-age approach to church life, including Sunday mornings.  Yes, you read that right.  In a church of 70-odd on a Sunday, the kids were in the service the whole time.

While I applauded West’s inclusiveness and clear valuing of children, I was pretty sceptical about how a preacher could feed such a broad range of people, week-in, week-out, without missing people at either end of the maturity spectrum.

Three-and-a-half years later, I’m not just a convert, but an evangelist, for all-age preaching, all the time.  It’s not easy, but I’m a better preacher for it, and the benefits to the congregation, in both preaching and community cohesion, certainly outweigh the difficulties.

All-age services offer the kind of deep community that including everyone fosters and the regular exercise of generosity this level of inclusion requires, and both these benefits mean I get really good bang for my buck in leading this community.

All our kids know a dozen adults outside their family who obviously think the world of them.  It takes a church to raise a child, right?  They all know that church is a place for them, where they are important (they each have jobs) and so is their growth.

Our aim is to have something in each service that is ‘for’ most groups of people.  We are also very clear that there will be parts of the service that are not ‘for’ you.  There will be action songs some adults feel silly singing, there will be boring talky bits that aren’t aimed at the youngest kids, there will songs that aren’t your favourites and YouTube clips that shoot over your head.  But isn’t this true in any church?  At West explicitly remind each other that generosity to other people, in allowing them space for things we don’t enjoy but that connects them to God, is worship in itself, and to be embraced.  And we get regular practice at this, week in, week out.

But what about the poor preacher, whose congregation ranges from babies and pre-schoolers not known for their love of sermons or quiet, to people who are eager to be stretched after forty years of following Jesus?

My approach is usually to think and write content for mature Christians, but present it creatively in ways that invite younger humans and younger Christians to engage with big ideas.  On a good day, this means that both ends of the spectrum are reached by the sermon.

We all use images, stories, evocative language to illustrate the points we make.  The trick to an all-age preaching lifestyle seems to be to make that imagery three-dimensional.  Instead of just telling a story or describing an image, here are some things I’ve tried:

  • read a carefully picked, excellent kids’ book, with the pictures scanned for the screen, and weave it into the sermon as the main illustration;
  • get adults and kids to be characters in a story, or even parts of a diagram, acting it out impromptu;
  • do a demonstration with props (think of the ‘rocks in the jar’ demo you may have seen);
  • do a brief craft activity that brings it all together;
  • or just have a great picture or prop to make the image jump out: hold a fishing rod while talking about fishing.

You’ve probably done all of these at some point in your preaching to adults – it’s not rocket science, just methodical fleshing out of normal preaching practice.

This is not the dreaded slavery to trendy YouTube clips or dependence on technology that conscientious preachers rightly worry about.  It is simply making our existing imagery three-dimensional, more accessible to those with younger minds or non-auditory preferences.

All-age preaching has been great for stretching my skills.  It makes me a more thoughtful, creative preacher, because I can’t rely on purely oral sermons where the congregation works hard to keep pace.  I do some of those – not every sermon has to be for every person, in our approach – but more often, I preach sermons that have the same content as one intended for an attentive adult audience, but with the imagery made manifest in a way that broadens the accessibility.

In giving children access to our preaching, we accidentally include a lot of adults who might struggle to engage with purely spoken sermons, or who don’t have years of churchgoing to help them navigate them.

Could preaching to minors be a master class for you and your congregation?

* * *

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

thalia kehoe rowden: does anyone else want a turn?

The most controversial thing about my preaching, as far as my lovely congregation at West is concerned, isn’t that I mention chocolate or facebook in most sermons or that I’m too short for the pulpit, but how often I preach. Or don’t.

Some background: I’m the pastor at West Baptist Church in New Plymouth, a church full of warm, down-to-earth people, planted 20 years ago in the poorest part of town, to build community here and be a place of ‘shelter, faith and laughter.’ We average about 65 people on a Sunday, from a wide range of backgrounds. I’m the only paid staff member, and leadership and responsibility are well devolved, with almost every adult and teenager in the church actively contributing to our life together.

So in this church, I aim to preach about 75% of Sundays, though I usually do more like four out of five.

I’ll outline my reasons below, and then I’m keen to hear what you all think – sole and team ministers, ‘lay’ preachers, listening members of congregations. What would you do? What would you like your minister to do? What’s a wise pattern of preaching in a church like ours? What about in a church like yours?

Here’s why I think 75% is a good number for us:

  1. It’s important that the community hears other voices than mine. Other preachers bring different emphases, experiences, and styles that give our congregation a richer, more varied diet.
  2. There are currently five other people in our preaching team, none of whom preach for a living. That’s five people who would never get a chance to develop their gift for preaching if I preached every week.
  3. This may not reflect well on me, but it also lifts my game to be training and developing other preachers. My first narrative sermon after I’d led a workshop on narratives was my best in ages as I was spurred on by their enthusiasm (and knew they would be listening critically!).
  4. Having more than seven days between sermons helps my freshness and creativity, so my congregation gets better sermons than they would if I were preaching every week.
  5. I’m the sole pastor with pastoral responsibility for about 120 people in the church, and another few thousand in our suburb. I can do an awful lot more pastoral care, community building, planning, chatting, reading, writing, praying, insert-activity-here-ing in a non-preaching week.

Over the last year or so, we have been focusing at West on developing ‘7 day faith‘, where Sunday fuels Monday-Saturday living and vice versa – not revolutionary, but foundational.

How often the pastor preaches feels like a test of how serious we are about this. If we think the Sunday service is the point of church life, then it makes sense for our ‘professionals’ to be always on duty in the pulpit. If we think that Sunday is our opportunity to worship together, equip and encourage each other to build the kingdom of God in our patch of earth, 7 days a week, and that’s the point of church, then we’ll want our ‘professionals’ to have plenty of time to spend shaping our Monday-Saturday life, and we’ll be glad to have other people sharing the preaching.

There’s a balance to be found in here somewhere. What’s the magic number?

* * *

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

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. (more…)

thalia kehoe rowden: all the lonely preachers – where do they all belong?

The favourite game of Paul Windsor’s preaching students at Carey Baptist College was to casually mention in Paul’s hearing how helpful we’d found for downloading last Sunday’s sermon.

Now, Paul is a man with a twinkle in his eye, but his expansive sense of humour doesn’t stretch to the thought of anyone preaching a downloaded sermon.  So I hasten to say clearly before continuing that I have never done so – it’s ok, Paul!

But I can understand the appeal.  Pastoring can be lonely work: most ministers in New Zealand are in ‘sole’ positions, where they’re the only trained staff.  And writing a new sermon each week alone in your study is hard work!  I reckon most sermon downloading happens not because preachers run out of time, but because they are isolated, working without colleagues.

Does preaching really have to be lonely? (more…)