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! But 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.

200283311-001These 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.

Most 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…)

I think there are three other factors which put further pressure on the task of preaching.

  1. A loss of confidence in the role of preaching within the church as a means of teaching, growing faith and growing disciples. In a world with so much entertainment, and so many opportunities for learning, can this still be an effective use of our time? The answer for me is ‘yes’—but the reasons are the subject for another post.
  2. Pressure of time. We live in a busy age, and many clergy and lay leaders feel keenly the demands to be doing lots of other things. Giving time to preaching preparation is a discipline, a decision we have to make. Chris Green wrote a great post this week on the use of time. When someone asked how he found time to read and study, John Stott, overhearing the exchange, boomed out: ‘He doesn’t find time. He makes it.’ If we think preaching matters, we will prioritise preparation time in our diaries.
  3. The challenge of feedback. Preaching is not something that you can learn in the classroom, even if you can learn a lot about it there. It takes practice—and then feedback, and clergy are not always skilled at giving feedback.

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.

 (adapting from a post originally written in 2013).

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5 thoughts on “Why is preaching so hard?”

  1. Ian, I really appreciate what you’ve put into words as it sums up my experience from my early years of preaching, if not so now.

    Sometimes I come across people who really don’t understand how difficult it can be. Brought up on a diet of readily available ‘celebrity’ preachers who do make it look easy, who do have a wonderful style and do balance content with credible delivery its hard not to feel inadequate by comparison.

    However, where I feel we have an a head start is exactly what you said here. We know our people, and by knowing our people we can hone in on a passage where we know it has special relevance to our folk. Of course this can be abused, but where its done with love and integrity it can be especially powerful. Thanks for your wise words as ever.

  2. Seriously I’m aghast that you dontt mention prayer. Great preachers of old including reformers such as Spurgeon declared that sermons had to be born through prayer and the annointing to preach the text had to come from above.

  3. A really helpful and thoughtful post Ian. Two quick reflections:
    1. On preparing together – can I mention the value of preaching groups? I was privileged some years ago to be part of a preachers group in Sheffield that met monthly to share a sermon we were each preparing for the coming Sunday. Always we learned from each other and always it improved our preaching. It was particularly valuable to have preachers at a variety of stages in ministry, not least one or two who had a combination of humility and wisdom we all gained from. More recently as an Area Dean I enjoyed the practice of one of our Archdeacons who began meetings with us by giving half an hour to reflecting together on the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday. My guess is that for those with diaries too full time be part of a preachers group something like that might be an idea, I.e. Using part of an existing meeting of clergy to support one another in preaching.
    2. You mention skills in the ‘historical, social and literary contexts’ – I’m sure you didn’t mean to omit this, but I’d want to add ‘and biblical and theological contexts’. A further challenge is to set this text in the bigger framework of biblical and systematic theology. And within that to ask: how is this connected to Christ and the Gospel? Hopefully that enables us to be preachers of the good news, not just a text!

  4. Dear Ian
    As I started my training as a LLM my wife said to me – when you preach teach me something new – eg a new fact and then make it relevant to me. Surprise me with something I may not know This is what engages and makes me sit up and listen
    It is something I have not forgotten and often helps to shape my sermon and engage with the listener and they with me . It is also an approach that opens the door for dialogue and an exchange of views

    Feedback is not something as preachers we are not taught to actively seek yet can be rewarding and helpful My congregation did not what to say at first so needed prompting In Salisbury diocese they gave us a form to use I still use it and find the feedback often eye opening in many ways The congregation are now happy to (and more importantly understand why ) give feedback

  5. A lot more reflection on this topic please!
    Thanks for this.
    Recently started supporting a clergy team and confregation and had a desperate response whe I suggested reviewing eachothers sermons.
    But when we got there, the feared criticism was of course a source of help and inspiration.
    I like Ashley’s idea of “something new” It really does make the “something old” better attended!
    When I was helping students back in the day, the first To look for was how many “I”s and “me”s there were in the script.
    I had a laminated notice made for them to place on their desk … It read
    “tell them about Jesus”


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