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Why is preaching so hard?

Billy-Graham-preaching_p1713Many people in public ministry find that preaching is one of the most demanding things they are involved in. To put yourself and your theology on the line, to seek to offer an illuminating and life-transforming insight, week in, week out, is very tough! Why exactly does it feel so hard?

There are some obvious reasons. For one thing, there is an inescapable ‘performance’ element—you are on show in front of those are leading, and open to evaluation. (This is true whether or not people give you feedback; just because people are not talking to you, it does not mean they are not talking about you!) And given that public ministry (at least in the Church of England) still attracts a higher proportion of introverts than the general population, this is always going to feel costly.

Added to that, many of us are aware that we could be doing better, and that it often takes many years to develop a confident and effective style of preaching. This means that many in public ministry are living with a significant, weekly task which is demanding and which they feel they could be doing better. This can become a toxic combination.

Are there deeper reasons why this is such a challenge? When teaching preaching, I often ask groups to identify what they think is a good sermon, and most of the time there is fairly consistent agreement, even across personality types and theological outlooks. If we can identify what ‘good’ looks like relatively easily, how come it is so hard to deliver this?

My reflection is that, practical and personal reasons aside, biblically-based preaching demands two sets of very different skills from the preacher. (I do believe that all preaching should, in the end, be biblically-based in one way or another).

1. On the one hand, engaging with biblical texts, reading carefully, drawing out meaning, and understanding historical, social and literary contexts of a text demands quite high level analytical skills.

2. On the other hand, delivering a sermon which connects with our listeners requires skills of empathy and understanding, and ability to share experience, tell stories and connect with the lives and situations of others.

These two sets of skills explain why some say ‘It is study which builds preaching’ and others say ‘It is visiting which builds preaching’. In fact, it is both. This is where the challenge lies.

200283311-001Most people naturally are stronger in one area than another, and so preachers will often focus on one end of the task rather than the other. At the extreme, some preachers with gives lots of information and analysis, but fail to connect. Others will tell great stories and connect, but lack the depth that comes from serious engagement with and analysis of the Scriptural text. (At the risk of being lynched, I might venture to suggest that frequently men are better at the first and woman are often better at the second…)

How can we live with this demand, and grow more effective?

In terms of the shape of our ministry, we need to attend to both poles of the tasks—we need to continue to study and develop exegetical skills, and continue to visit and develop our pastoral and empathetic skills. The goal for ministry should be to develop an integrated personality, to be ‘one’ as God is ‘one.’ That, of course, is a long-term goal! But it should perhaps guard us from becoming too narrow and specialist in our ministry interests.

More practically, this issue suggests that we should have mixed preaching teams in churches, and that we should be learning from one another—and perhaps even working together in sermon preparation. It is no accident that in Acts, Paul always works with others, and in his letters almost always writes with others, and not alone. I wonder what conversations went on as the letters were written!

Thirdly, this suggests that those in the early years of public ministry need particular support in the development of their preaching, since the skills needed here are ones that are foundational for so many other areas of ministry. Those responsible for training (in local churches, teams or areas) could do with making this a priority.

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12 Responses to Why is preaching so hard?

  1. Paul Seymour July 15, 2013 at 11:25 pm #

    Thank you insightful commentary, the only thing I would add in terms of comment is the factor of time for sermon prep. For the 10years I have now regularly preached as an ordained person I would love a fiver for the times I have felt unable to spend the time preparing that I would like to.

    When lecturing in the past a lecture would become honed, practise made perfect but a congregation would soon complain if they got the same sermons every three years (lectionaries rule my church)

    Paul

  2. Ian Paul July 16, 2013 at 8:43 am #

    Thanks Paul. Yes, I too find this a continual challenge. It’s a complex issue, though an inescapable part of this is about our priorities in ministry. For many who find preaching challenging and draining, it is doubly hard to prioritise time for preparation, and even more so if there are multiple worship centres.

  3. Lucy Bolster July 16, 2013 at 12:11 pm #

    Thanks for this Ian. As a newbie on this journey, I’ve only preached twice, so can’t really comment as a preacher yet. As a listener, I get most frustrated when I am presented with a brilliant question/thought/idea and want to immediately hear what others think and engage in discussion about it, but due to the flow of the service, that is not possible. I also get frustrated when it feels like we’re given all the answers and there’s no space for thinking through things for ourselves….(note to self for future preaching!)

  4. Ian Paul July 16, 2013 at 12:40 pm #

    that’s a really interesting observation as a listener, and a challenge to all preachers. Do we ‘close things down’ too much and too quickly. Should we preach on the same thing several weeks in a row, allowing questions and reflections to shape what we say in subsequent weeks?

  5. David Holland July 16, 2013 at 12:41 pm #

    My brother in law works in law enforcement. To become qualified to use pepper spray you have to submit to being sprayed.

    In a not unrelated note, you don’t need to take a bullet to be qualified for a sidearm.

    The two jobs you literally could not pay me enough to do are Minister and Policeman (because if you paid me enough I could afford to subcontract).

    Thanks,

    David

  6. Emlyn Williams July 16, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

    I like this Ian, not least the suggestion of a communal dimension through preaching teams. But at the risk of sounding simplistic, can I suggest another factor and that is spiritual pressure? I think that preaching is a spiritual exercise as well as an intellectual, pastoral and presentational one. So it’s probably not surprising if preachers come under spiritual pressure (as does every Christian of course, but I think preachers are particularly vulnerable here).
    At the risk of sounding defeatist, it seems to me that this spiritual pressure is part of the cost to the preacher rather than (as with the examples in your blog) something in which you can develop.

  7. Wilfrid Kendall July 16, 2013 at 10:46 pm #

    Mixed preaching teams: that makes a lot of sense to me, and I’ve been fortunate enough to experience the benefit of something like this. Results: a rich variety of different experiences of the text, a closer and *different* engagement with the Word when you know it’s your turn next week, the sense of an ongoing godly conversation about discipleship week by week, and a considerable spread of pastoral/friendship connections informing the preaching. Sometimes a concern expressed about “uneven quality” – but set against that a clear growth in communication and exposition ability for many on the team.

  8. Ian Paul July 16, 2013 at 11:04 pm #

    Emlyn, I completely agree with you—but the difficulty with focussing on this is to say that we just need to become more spiritual! This is true, and I think we know it. But it has only struck me recently (and from a conversation with someone on Sunday) that there is also this practical and deeply embedded aspect which makes preaching challenging in a way that other aspects of (also spiritual) ministry are not.

    Wilfrid, that is really interesting—thanks for sharing.

    David—fantastic!

  9. Richard Briggs July 18, 2013 at 8:53 am #

    Is there theological mileage in saying ‘Preaching is supposed to be hard’. If it is transformative to engage with scripture, then maybe we can’t preach good sermons without being transformed in some way?

  10. Ian Paul July 18, 2013 at 9:37 am #

    I wonder if that means preaching should also be hard to listen to—in the right way…?

  11. Jean Walker July 18, 2013 at 5:36 pm #

    I have found that whenever I am to take a lead there a point when what I am preparing/writing seems pretty uninspiring and I am desperate enough to ask God to take over. Nothing dramatic happens but I have peace and He really does seem to take charge-
    As to sermons as one who is mostly on the receiving end, I like to know that the speaker has researched the subject (not reading an old sermon he’s used before0; that it is scripture based (I have actually heard sermons on Nietche and Darwin);that the speaker has spent time in prayer over it and learned something to share with her listeners.I want something to nourish my spirit-a focus on God rather than the speaker!

  12. Ian Paul July 18, 2013 at 9:50 pm #

    thanks Jean–a lovely set of challenges. Preachers need to do their homework, have something nourishing to say, and point away from themselves towards God!

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