Good news about preaching
Sydney’s Anglicans take preaching pretty seriously, as we should.
The Lord rules his church by his word and the reading and exposition of the word of God in the midst of the people of God is indispensable to true worship. We, rightly, have high expectations.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that we set our standards very high and that there is criticism of our preaching.
In a sense this is only right, since preaching is so significant and we all wish to see it improve. Thus, it is good to hear there was a debate about the length of sermons in last year’s Synod.
Over the years I have heard (and have given voice to) the following generalisations about “Sydney preaching”: the sermons are too long; they are boring; they all finish with the same exhortations (either “You must evangelise” or “You must believe in Jesus”); they are unbiblical; they are unapplied; they are preponderantly on the Pauline Epistles. And so on, and so forth!
Two preliminary observations.
First, preaching is an extremely demanding undertaking. It requires very high intellectual, spiritual and personal qualities, not least when the same person is occupying the pulpit for years on end. I would rate it as far harder than lecturing, although of course lecturing requires a strong technical research base. In our critique of preaching let us not underestimate what it involves if it is to be done well. Furthermore, let us not judge the parish preacher by the standards of the “platform preacher”, whether we hear them at Katoomba or access them on the internet. It is a different task.
Second, for good or for ill Australians are a critical group. Our American friends are very affirming – so much so that we can feel (from our perspective) there is insincerity and sentimentality.
On the other hand, people from outside our culture may think of us as cynical. I am an Aussie as this point – but we must be careful not to so downplay ourselves and others that we become unbalanced. To be instinctively critical can be as worldly as to gush with flattery.
An opportunity to listen
In the middle of last year I had an eye operation that left me unable to read for some time. Instead I began to analyse Sydney sermons, since so many churches now record the preacher and have sermons available on their websites. In just a few months I listened to about 40 sermons. I deliberately chose senior ministers from different parts of the Diocese without respect for reputation or expectation.
In the nature of the case this provides only a limited base from which to work. It constitutes only about 15 per cent of the ministers. It tells us nothing about assistants and lay preachers. I was not able to compare and contrast, for example, by checking another denomination or another city or another country.
Furthermore, listening to a sermon is not the same as being physically present, especially bearing in mind that the sermon is both a spiritual and pastoral occasion and there may be things happening unknown except to those who are at hand. I had no idea of numbers; I could only guess at the visuals in play; with only one sermon to go on I had no way of knowing whether the preacher was interesting the first time and exquisitely boring after half a dozen outings.
In short, I would see my comments as a partial and interim report, but not altogether lacking in veracity for all that.
For the sake of analysis I used the time-honoured technique of asking myself about matter, method and manner. I also checked things such as Bible passages used, length, fairness to the text and exhortation.
Here is what I have found so far:
1. The expository sermon from a passage is by far the most common type of sermon and the passages are preached on consecutively through a biblical book. That is, formally at least, the preachers are not simply letting their own spiritual thoughts loose on the congregation, or preaching moralisms or headline news. Their aim is to let the word of God dwell among the congregation, so that Christ may rule through his own revelation of himself in his word.
Overall there were more sermons taken from the Old Testament, the Gospels and Acts than there were Pauline ones. It is likely that Paul will provide much of the instruction in church given the nature of the material, but in my judgement this was not unbalanced. Personally, I think that there should be more doctrinal and ethical sermons, but I would rather the fault to lie on the side of biblical exposition.
By far the most usual time for a sermon was between 20 and 30 minutes. A few went between 30 and 40 minutes. I heard none above that range. I know that there are those who argue that sermons should be less than 20 minutes. Perhaps that is right, but it is worth remembering the biblical and spiritual maturity of so many in the congregations means our lay people are very good listeners. But the idea that Sydney sermons are 40 minutes long, as a rule, is a myth.
I did hear two 40-minute sermons from “ordinary” parish ministers. Both were worthy of the time. Both addressed significant issues, at depth, in a way that kept my interest. Another, however, preached on a difficult passage (for which he should be praised) but so missed the key points that I wondered if he had studied the passage with the help of a commentary. It was both long and shallow.
Although there were a variety of methods of application and exhortation, with some such occurring at the end as the preacher drove home the point of the passage, mostly exhortation was woven through the sermon.
Of course some preachers failed to apply completely; others gave little sense of the passage in their attempt to draw out its lessons. But mostly the listener was invited to interact with the passage fruitfully on the way through.
It was very rare indeed to hear an exhortation to evangelise or even (and I think that this is a worry) to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus to be saved. If this was the case in years gone by, it is no longer the case.
I would say that the theme of most sermons was to exalt the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and to call for obedience to his word. Indeed, I would say that the rush to a Christological reading of every passage needs to be modified (not abandoned), as there can be a failure to see important features of the passage that also need to be attended to.
On the whole, the preachers were faithful to the passage, although they may not have followed the line of argument through explicitly.
Some variations were notable. In my opinion, one man preached himself rather than the text; one or two showed exegetical ineptitude; one of the more eloquent preachers managed to preach beside the text rather than from it – that is, he focused on the secondary rather than the primary. But these were variations rather than the norm.
Bear in mind that I was listening, not watching.
Australians, in general, are not rhetoricians and orators. We do not seek out orators to train for ministry and we do not turn ordinands into great speechmakers. I remember being struck by the contrast when I lived in the UK for several years.
But does that make for poor preachers? No doubt we could all develop a more practiced gift for language and show a deeper mastery of structure, drama, silence, variation of tone, imagination or deliberate address to the heart. But you can have all those things and still not be a good preacher. It may be mere technique.
I heard something more precious: the expression of passionate belief. I never heard one person who was dulled by mere routine. Depending on the sermon and the preacher, the words that came to my mind in describing the style of different people were: enthusiastic, lively, deliberate, personal, relational, clear, pastoral, engaging, edifying, pious, folksy, interesting, authoritative, animated, elevated, persuasive, quiet, chatty. Of course, some were less than interesting. But most of the sermons I heard were listenable and not boring, dealing as they do with important topics, passionately believed in.
Mostly, the preachers I heard – for all their variety of skill, interest, manner and method – were aiming to teach the Bible. They clearly saw themselves as “pastor-teachers” and, indeed, effective preaching is an indispensable element of pastoring.
There is no doubt in the world that our preaching could improve and that discussion of preaching not based on cynicism or a misapprehension of what can be done is a good thing. I am very pleased that bodies such as Moore College and Cornhill Sydney are constantly challenging us – and I welcome discussion that is constructive and not mere cynicism.
But let us not be negative about what God has mercifully given us. We live in world of growing ignorance about the word of God. The evil one has tempted us and we have denied the word, repudiated it and abandoned it. This has even happened in the churches of the Western world, as the churches have been afflicted by doubt arising from complacency, academic failure in the seminaries and the power of the secular narrative.
Yet you and I can go to churches where almost certainly the word of God is given a central place and preached on, with depth of belief, Sunday by Sunday. It is not treated as a routine exercise, or merely a curriculum for an exam. Our preachers want us to hear and believe and obey the word and they want us to worship the gracious Lord who has given us his word.
Our churches are clearly shaped by this teaching and they provide an intellectual and spiritual alternative to the dominant secular narrative. Furthermore, the preaching is supplemented by encouragement to personal, family and small group study of Scripture.
Good news! Thank God! Press on! Do better!