Monday, July 11, 2011

Questions of the preacher

“His throne is the pulpit; he stands in Christ’s stead; his message is the word of God; around him are immortal souls; the Savior, unseen, is beside him; the Holy Spirit broods over the congregation; angels gaze upon the scene, and heaven and hell await the issue. What associations, and what vast responsibility!” -- Matthew Simpson, Lectures on Preaching


I've been thinking about preaching lately. This past Sunday, while listening to David Hyman preach on John 5, I was struck by the art that's involved in preaching a good sermon. At the very least, preaching involves the art of rhetoric and the art of oratory. The one relates to the way in which words are organized and speech is persuasive. The other concerns the manner in which speech is delivered to an intended audience.

Doing both well requires a lot of hard work, specialized knowledge, years to hone the craft, a love for your hearers, a bit of talent and the humility to recognize that you can always learn something new, no matter how many times you've done it. (Then of course there is the Spirit of the God.)

This last element reminds me of the two things for which I am most grateful during my later years at Hope Chapel. As a member of the preaching team, I had two gifts: the gift of a team that helped me to discern what I was to preach in the Sunday to come and the gift of a list of questions.

The first gift was invaluable. It reminded me always of John Stott's experience at All Souls Church, which he recorded in Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today. It reminded me that wisdom occurs best "in the counsel of many," as per the Proverbs. It reminded me that before I could speak on behalf of the community, I needed to listen to the community. And in addition to my weekly meeting with Geno, Jack and Steve, I would often send emails to the congregation requesting their input so that the "word of the Lord," which the Spirit might speak to us, could become a word that took seriously the people in whom the Lord was already at work and in whom the Lord would put that "word" to continuous work.

The second gift is a list of questions that Geno and I hammered out together. We can't claim much originality. Both of us had been influenced by countless other preachers. But these questions served to order the discussions which occurred before we preached and after we preached, as both anticipatory and evaluative exercise. Rarely, in the aftermath, did we give ourselves high marks. We certainly kept trying, though. We at least knew what we could aim towards and we knew that we had each other's constant prayers and even last-minute-Saturday-night-revision-suggestions help.

I offer these questions, then, in the hope that they might encourage present and future preachers. They're the kind of practical questions that enable the preacher to cultivate the arts of rhetoric and oratory. By no means are they comprehensive. Nor do pretend to serve all ecclesial cultures. Nor of course do they substitute for the humble heart and the utter dependence upon the Spirit that a preacher requires for the sermon to begin to be effective. Yet if we wanted to become better preachers, these were the questions that kept us "training" toward that goal.

QUESTIONS FOR THE PREACHER 

Evaluating the sermon already given:

1. Were you open and personable with the congregation? Were your gestures, body movement, posture, eye contact "fitting" or haphazard?
2. Was the task of your sermon clear?
3. Did the people understand clearly what you were calling them to live out? Was it concrete and simple or was it vague and complicated?
4. Could your sermon walk? Could the people envision throughout the week one thing they could be living out in discipleship as a result of your sermon?
5. Did you comfort and disturb?

Structure:

6. What was the one thing you were trying to communicate? Not two things, not three or seven things, but the one thing?
7. Was your introduction strong? Did it capture attention, evoke need, relate clearly to the body of your sermon?
8. Was your conclusion strong and appropriately summarizing?
9. Was your use of Scripture sufficient and effective?
10. Did your illustrations serve the purpose of your sermon? Were they vivid and particular or were they fuzzy and distracting?
11. Were your transitions strong and clear? Was the movement from point to point clean, smooth, strong, natural? Or did you stumble or meander from point to point?
12. Did the form of your sermon serve the content?
13. And again: What was the one thing you were trying to say?

Use of Time:

14. How was your pacing?
15. What was your total time?
16. Did you try to say too much?
17. Did you spend the appropriate amount of time preparing?
18. Did you pray? Did you ask others to pray for you?

As you look ahead:

19. In what ways do you feel you are growing as a preacher? What areas do you wish to give attention to in order to grow stronger?
20. Did the message serve the mission of the church? Did it serve both the short-term and long-term discipleship of the church that God has made clear to the leadership?
21. Did you do a good job of connecting this sermon to the series which you're currently in and/or to the season of the church's life?
22. Have you helped the people have a clear sense of the big picture, of where things are going, of continuity?
23. Are you living what you're preaching?
24. Have the people seen the gospel transforming your life too?

5 comments:

cardiphonia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
cardiphonia said...

David, I wish I would have read this 30 minutes ago. Could have just pointed people here. brilliant post. It was a great exercise to replace 'preacher' with 'worship leader'in your questions at the end.
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http://cardiphonia.org/2011/07/11/worship-leaders-prepare-like-a-preacher/

Zac Hicks said...

Great post! These are helpful and perennial questions. Preaching-as-art is under-explored in recent days...perhaps in days of old the "art" of preaching was more commonly discussed.

w. david o. taylor said...

Bruce, I guess great minds were thinking about the same thing at the same time. Great post yourself.

Zac, my hunch is that preachers in the 19th or 13th or 5th centuries had less things to distract them. Or perhaps the demands on their attention were less--say, ten demands vs. 10,000 demands (if you count the internet as an infinite demand on our attention). Busyness and distractability have rarely made anyone better at the art of anything.

Globalkeeper said...

Excellent, questions, David. And the fact they were done in community, not just by you on your own, adds strength to their effect in sharpening and shaping. I will probably steal them from you for my life and colleagues, too.