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The most important thing in preaching

pondererWhat would you say is the single most important thing in preaching—either as the person preaching or as someone who listens? I guess many people would suggest clarity of delivery, or humour, or connecting with the congregation, or being based in Scripture. All of these are of great importance, though of course all are open to a range of interpretations.

As I continue to preach myself, and sit and listen to the sermons of others, I keep coming back to something I first learned more than 20 years ago, and feel I keep on needing to learn:

Focus more on what God has done,

and less on what we ‘ought’ to do.

Why is this important? I think for several reasons.

First, it is what I need to hear. I think I live in a world where there are lots of people telling me what I ‘ought’ to be doing, either implicitly or explicitly. It happens explicitly in a lot of Christian teaching—I ought to be praying more, reading my Bible more, telling others about Jesus more, and so on. But it also happens on the news and from science, health and lifestyles gurus—I ought to be eating an apple a day, taking more exercise, fasting to lose weight. I also happen to be someone who takes seriously the lives of others, so when I see a programme about how someone lives, I feel the force of their lifestyle choices, and find myself asking ‘Should I be doing the things they do?’ All this can lead to anxiety about all the things we ‘ought’ to be doing—or, as a good friend of mine used to say, a ‘hardening of the oughteries’!

In all this talk of oughts and duties, I need to hear the word of grace—this is what God has done, and what he can do again. And if I need to hear that from preachers I listen to, then I need to preach this for the sake of those listening to me.

Second, it is primarily what Scripture does. If the Bible is anything, then it is the story of God’s actions for and on behalf of its people. Of course, it includes lots of other stories, of individuals and groups and their successes and failures in responding and being faithful to God’s call on their lives. But their action are always in response to the action of God, which is always prior to human action chronologically and theologically. God calls the world into being; God calls Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; God calls Moses to lead his people from slavery to freedom; God gives the gift of his law; the word of God ‘comes to’ the prophets—and so on. Whoever the human actors are in the drama, the principal actor is God—even when (as with Esther) this is not made explicit.

So if we are preaching from Scripture, we must always be asking, not ‘What did the human actors do here?’ but ‘What is God doing here? What did he do then, and so what does he do now?’ God is the subject of the story of the Bible, so if we are not focussing in our preaching on what God has done, we are misreading the text.

Third, we find this very difficult. I have lost count of the number of times I had heard a sermon—often a good sermon, inspiring, engaging and well delivered—but focussing not on what God has done but what we ‘ought’ to do. Even in churches (some would say especially in churches) where the focus is supposed to be on the grace of God and the centrality of Scripture, we seem to find it very difficult to focus on God’s grace.

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Fourth, this then is a litmus test of whether I am comfortable preaching the good news of God’s grace. As Tom Wright has argued in various places, a gospel is only a ‘gospel’ if it tells the story of what God has done for us. Collections of sayings of Jesus are not ‘gospels’ because they give us more things to do. It is no accident that the four canonical gospels do include Jesus’ teaching—but as a prelude the most important thing of all, what God has done for us in the ministry, death and supremely the resurrection of Jesus. God has done something, and we need to tell others—not so that they ‘ought’ to do more things, but so that they can see God’s gracious initiative in the past, and might receive this gracious initiative in the present, in their lives today.

Stanley Greidanus explores this in his 1978 book The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text in chapter 5. He distinguishes the two approaches to Scripture and preaching as ‘anthropocentric’ (centred on the human actors) and ‘theocentric’ (centred on God as the principal actor).

When one asks about the purpose of the canon, the thrust of the Bible as a whole, the answer seems quite obvious: the canon intends to tell us about God—not God in the abstract, but God in relationship to his creation and his people, God’s actions in the world, God’s coming kingdom. The individual authors’…primary interest is God’ action in human events, not the events themselves.

These two approaches have a radically different affect on our preaching:

Anthropocentric                                                    Theocentric

focusses on human examples                      focusses on God’s plan of salvation

tends to despair                                         tends to hope

tends to human effort                                 tends to trust in God

could be based on any human being            tends to base everything on the biblical text

speaks to the will & evokes effort                speaks to the heart & evokes worship

screws up divine/human relationship           (re)launches divine/human relationship

expects hearers to act                                 expects God to act

prescribes outcomes                                   leaves outcomes open God is too big!

I have just been preaching on the Epiphany from Matt 2.1–12. It would have been very easy to focus on the characters in the story, and draw morals from them. We should be strong and courageous like Joseph; we shouldn’t be defensive, aggressive and insecure like Herod; we should be adventurous and risk-taking like the Magi. (Should we also be silent and compliant, as Matthew appears to depict Mary?) But this misses the central actor in the story—God. Within the narrative, every critical turn depends on God’s intervention. And the point of the story seems to much more focus on who God is and what God does. God is one who reveals himself to those on the outside and draws them in. God is the one who speaks and guides, in ways that listeners can understand and relate to. God is faithful to his purposes, fulfilling his promises from of old. And God turns the patterns and power structures of the world upside down.

It is the story of what God has done and what he will do again that we really need to hear as a new year begins. [Post written Jan 2014]


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7 Responses to The most important thing in preaching

  1. Alan Jenner January 9, 2014 at 8:27 pm #

    Ian (and readers) This is brilliant and SO relevant. I was going to say (before looking at the articles contents) that the most important Q to ask oneself as preacher is “What does God want to say to these people when I speak” like the “burden” of the prophet.

  2. Tim Nevell January 9, 2014 at 11:07 pm #

    Your blog is totally in line with the sermon we heard on Sunday. The preacher took one example: the account of David and Goliath, recalling how he himself, as a youth leader had previously interpreted this as an exhortation to be like David in the face of imposing threats or problems – and this is a common approach, especially with children, mayybe. However, the point is, WE are nearly always in truth much more like David’s brothers and the King’s army, and cannot hope to take on David’s role. At this point David had already been annointed as king – he is a Christ-like figure who delivers the Israelites, and no one else could have done it. So although it may not be wrong to encourage a David-like trust in God, that is not the real point of the story.

  3. Ian Paul January 10, 2014 at 8:04 am #

    Thanks Tim–no, it is not. It seems to me the point is that the difference between David and the others was his understanding of who God is and what God can do. So actually it is not about being brave but about enlarging our vision of God—provided that is not just another thing we ought to do!

    Thanks for the fascinating illustration.

  4. Mary judkins January 10, 2014 at 8:36 am #

    But can we always talk about Jesus not just God?

  5. Terry Jones January 10, 2014 at 9:06 am #

    Whew! What an important short article! I read a book decades ago now by Watchmanm Nee which was a short summary of the message of Ephesians (if memory serves!). The book was entitled ‘Sit, Walk, Stand’. In it he emphasised that our faith begins with a great DONE and not great DO. To sit with him and enjoy his grace and what he has achieved and then to walk and in the last, stand. I posted this at Ian Paul’s suggestion on his facebook page.

  6. SeekTruthFromFacts January 20, 2014 at 11:36 pm #

    The illustration about David and Goliath comes from the opening of Goldsworthy’s ‘Gospel and Kingdom’. It strikes most readers of the books like a lightning bolt because we’ve misused the text in that way and we know if. It’s been very important in promoting Biblical Theology in Australian and British conservative evangelical circles. I recently heard it quoted by a preacher launching a series of on the topic ‘The Bible is a book about God, not about me’ – essentially the point of your post.

  7. Ian Paul January 21, 2014 at 6:10 pm #

    That’s really interesting. My only hesitation about that is that such a stark title might suggest it is not about us at all–when of course it is. But interesting to hear this influence. A lot of Conservative churches I have been in do follow the exemplary approach, so there is something more than theological tradition at work here.

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