The Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS) started on a new track in 2011 by organizing the first annual CRTS Conference dealing mostly with Old Testament topics in connection with the looming retirement of Prof. Dr. C. Van Dam. As 2012 dawns, the second annual CRTS Conference will be held on Evangelism and Church Planting. Once again professors, ministers, special speakers, and interested church members will be spending several fine days together in tropical Hamilton.
Yet this is not all that is happening in Steeltown. For prior to the conference there will be a preaching seminar. From January 3-5 students and teachers, as well as pastors from hither and yon, will spend their time and efforts dealing with all sorts of matters relating to preaching: how to expound on the gospels, how to use illustrations, what about the law, catechism preaching, homiletical habits, Revelation sermons, and Canadian Reformed preaching today. A second week will be filled with sermon proposals submitted by the students. All in all, it should prove to be a fruitful time. Unfortunately, I will not be there, so here’s a little of my input all the way from the West Coast.
The topic of preaching is a vital one for the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is a real sense in which the church lives and dies by the preaching of the gospel. Poor preaching will adversely affect the role that the gospel should play in the lives of God’s people. It will stunt their spiritual growth, shrink their redeemed appetites, and dampen their religious fervour. A healthy, living, true church needs faithful preaching and preachers.
Naturally, this raises the question as to what a faithful preacher looks like. What can and should we expect from a person in such an office? Let me suggest five basic characteristics.
The first characteristic that a faithful preacher needs is a beseeching or beggarly attitude. No, I do not mean that he should be standing by the church doors after the Sunday services with a collection bag looking for a handout. What I mean is that such a preacher needs to be aware of his complete and utter dependence on the Lord. He has to see himself as a believer, but then as a believer in need. What he needs is light, insight, wisdom, and help from above.
These gifts, however, do not come automatically. He needs to beseech and beg the Lord for them. In particular, he desperately needs to ask the Lord for the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
At the same time this means that the moment the preacher stops being dependent and becomes independent, he is courting disaster. His work is to be done in the daily awareness the Psalmist spells out in Psalm 127:1, “Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain.” He should make it his aim to wrap a blanket of constant prayer around all of his sermonic preparations.
On many occasions over the years I have found myself wrestling with Bible texts that I could not crack. No matter from what angle I approached them or what resources I threw at them, it did not help. I was stuck and so I did the only thing left to do and that was to pray more. Did it help? It sure did, for when I looked to the Lord, as the Psalmist says so often, he answered me.
So, preachers, believe and beseech, believe and beg! Pray at all times! Pray in all places! Pray over your sermons constantly!
Along with the temptation to be independent and to labour in one’s own strength, there are also the temptations of pride and superiority. Usually a preacher is an educated bloke. He’s spent years and years going to university and seminary. He’s acquired all of the linguistic and methodological tools of the trade. He’s equipped, or he should be. In that there is a danger, namely that we begin to look at ourselves as experts and no longer regard ourselves as servants.
Yet the latter is what we are and what we always must remain. Indeed, a proper preacher is a three-fold servant. First of all, he is to regard himself as a faithful servant of the Lord. His calling is to do the Lord’s bidding. He is to pass along the words and wisdom of his Master. He is to magnify the name of his King. He is not in the business of self-promotion.
Second, a preacher is to see himself as a servant of the Word. In truth it is not his ideas, insights, and opinions that matter. No, what matters is what does the Word reveal, convey, and teach. Sticking closely to the Word is essential. Always being under the Word is fundamental.
Third, a preacher is also to see himself as a servant of the church. He is to know the needs of the sheep under his care and he is to do his best to meet those needs with the gospel. In other words, it’s not about him and his ego. It’s all about what do the saints need in terms of spiritual food, awareness, encouragement, and direction.
So, preachers, look in the mirror and spot a servant, not a pope. Be small so that your people may become big in the things of God.
One of the great frustrations of being a pew sitter Sunday after Sunday may be trying to follow the meanderings of a preacher who does not know where he is going. Alas, this is not a rare experience. Some preachers love to play “now you see it” and “now you don’t.” What this means is that for a moment or two you can see where they are going, but then they lose you. A few minutes later they pop up again and catch your attention for a little while, but then they fade out all over again. Sometimes it continues like this all through the service and the congregation goes home with the frustrating feeling that preaching is a lot like handling jelly.
In truth, however, it should not be this way. The preacher has to be a clear communicator. He has to be able to convey the meaning of the Scriptures to his hearers in such a way that they can follow him, see where he is going and end up in the right place.
One proof that the preacher can get his message across is in the sermon notes of his listeners. Of course, I realize that not all of them take notes and some even have good reasons for not taking them, but if a member sets out to take notes and then gives up after a few minutes, you know that something is usually wrong. Such a preacher has lost a hearer. Somewhere along the line he made a sudden and unexpected U-turn.
So, preachers, make sure that what you are about to say is clear and logical in your own mind. Do not rely on your listeners to supply the logic and precision that you lack. That’s your task.
In the book of Proverbs there is a text that goes like this, “There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand” (30:18). Thereafter, he lists the four things. Whenever I read this I am tempted to add a fifth thing, namely the way of some preachers with the Word. How is it possible that there are preachers who mount the pulpit in a casual and indifferent manner? Even more, how is it possible that some preachers can turn great mysteries into boring and mundane musings? There is no life in their preaching, no energy, no excitement, no zeal. Whether they are dealing with the joys of heaven or the terrors of hell, they adopt the same monotone voice and the same comatose posture.
One thing is obvious and it is that they have not listened very well to the Apostle Paul. To Timothy, and to all the preachers who follow after him, he declared, “Preach the Word, be prepared in season and out of season: correct, rebuke and encourage...” (2 Tim 4:2). As well he wrote to the Philippians, “I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ” (3:18). He reminds the Corinthians that “I wrote to you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears...” (2 Cor 2:4). In short, there is passion in his writing and in his preaching.
So, preachers, is there passion in your preaching? Are you convinced that what you are bringing Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day to God’s people represents the most exciting and thrilling news in all of the world?
Now, this last characteristic may require some further explanation. Recently a candidate who accepted a call Down Under (he shall remain nameless) and who was on his way there, sat in on a worship service that I was leading. On the way out he asked me something that amounted to this, “What advice do you as an old preacher have for a young man like me who is just starting out?” I had only a few seconds to respond and so I said this to him, “Never stop digging.”
To this day I am not quite sure where that answer came from so fast, except to suggest to you that the Holy Spirit overheard the conversation and helped me out. For what I meant to say with those words is that the Word of God is like a bottomless mine filled with a never-ending supply of treasure. With respect to that Word the preacher is to see himself as a miner, as someone who has the task, the opportunity, and the privilege to constantly dig and unearth new rubies and diamonds. Forgive me for saying it, but this really is “the best job” in the whole wide world.
Yet it is only so if the preacher keeps on digging. The moment that he becomes lazy the gems no longer appear.
So, preachers, become miners who are always digging and who never cease to spread before the people of God the treasures and marvels that you have unearthed. They will bless you for it, and so will God.
Brothers, for what they are worth, these are a few of my thoughts on the matter. Enjoy your preaching seminar! May what you learn benefit the congregations you serve.