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On Preaching And Not Getting In The Way

luther-preachingAfter Ed Milliband went note-less and forgot the main points of his Labour Party conference address, some preachers have been quick to point out a cautionary tale for preachers. Use Notes! I'm not convinced that this is the lesson. After all, Emma Watson's recent speech - completely note-less - connected powerfully across the globe.

I'm not that interested in debates about whether to use notes or not in preaching. It seems to me that those kind of "how to" questions lie on the far side of a much more urgent discussion about the "what" and the "who" of preaching. Preachers everywhere have an opinion about the "how to" but I find that far fewer of them have done much serious thinking about what preaching actually is.

For what it's worth, here is an introduction to my theology of preaching (which is heavily indebted to Luther's threefold theology of the Word.) For me, preaching is Christ Himself heralded through human lips to needy sinners.

Jim Packer put it like this: “The proper aim of preaching is to mediate meetings with God.” Martin Lloyd-Jones said, “What is the chief end of preaching?  To give men and women a sense of God and his presence.” If this is true about the "what" and the "who" let's make a tentative foray into the realm of "how to"...

Since preaching is mediating meetings with God, it seems pretty important that preaching have the quality of immediacy - that we are in the immediate presence of the living Christ whose word is being spoken as a divine summons. Would we agree?

I think most people would agree. But at that point some preachers want to say: "Exactly, therefore the preacher needs to get out of the way in the preaching process. They should put as little personality into their preaching as possible and simply let the Bible speak for itself." Here they advocate for careful preparation in the study and a fairly full script for the pulpit. I sympathise greatly with the intentions here, but there may also be a mistaken view of revelation lurking somewhere. You see it is a good thing that preaching comes through human lips because God's word is meant to meet us where we are. Human personality is not a barrier to the Word coming across - it wasn't for Jesus, it isn't for the Bible and it shouldn't be for preaching. We should never bemoan the fact that preaching is a human event. We must never try to de-personalize preaching in order to get out of the way of some pure, non-human word - there's no such thing. The humanity of the preacher is great - it's a bridge not a barrier.

But the impulse to clear away obstacles in preaching is right. We must do that. But here's a hunch, see what you think - it may just be that the school of preaching that says "let's strip things back and just give a well-prepared Bible talk" is the most guilty of erecting a barrier. You see it's possible to make the sermon itself a third thing in between the preacher and the congregation rather than it being the personal and immediate address of the preacher to the congregation. The sermon then is something the preacher brings to the service and uses on the congregation rather than being what the preacher is saying this very moment in the midst of the congregation. I remember - half a life time ago to be precise - being introduced to university lectures by a man who said "Lecturing is the process whereby facts from the lecturers notebook transfer to the student's notebook without passing through the minds of either."

Is it possible that preaching can end up like that? Preachers bring a pre-prepared sermon and ensure that it is delivered safely into the possession of the congregation - but it's possible for it to go through the minds and hearts of neither. On this understanding, the sermon is a thing passed from preacher to congregation, not the very event in which the preacher addresses the congregation with living power. Am I imagining that distinction? I don't think I am. I'm pretty sure you can sense it when the sermon is an artifice and when it is an address. I think we should do whatever it takes to make our sermons the latter and not the former.

Let me say straight away I am not advocating for preachers to make up their sermons on the spot. I do not think a "spontaneous" word is in any way more spiritual (and it's in many ways more dangerous) than a word you've laboured over for hours in the study. Work hard in the study. BUT... there are ways of communicating a carefully prepared sermon where the congregation feels addressed in the moment, and there are ways of doing it where the congregation feels like the preacher is behind double-glazing. "Notes or no-notes" is not the centre of that discussion - but it is part of it. It seems to me that moving towards greater freedom from notes is a move towards a greater sense of immediacy in preaching and therefore a move towards better preaching.

Of course "freedom from notes" doesn't mean you won't carefully craft a full sermon script nor does it mean you won't bring that to the pulpit - not necessarily. I'm not ruling out reading such a sermon word for word. My first 200 sermons were delivered in just this way. But it's interesting that I would be happy when people afterwards said they didn't notice I was reading a script. I worked very hard on making it look like I wasn't doing what I was doing. And often that effort took me out of the moment and fixed my attention on the mechanics of the preaching rather than the word being preached.

Anyway, I need to get back to my sermons for tomorrow. (See? I believe in preparation!) Let me conclude: Preacher, as you address a congregation, it matters little how full the script is in front of you - so long as you've prepared accordingly. What really does matter is that the congregation is in front of you and that you preach as though they are your focus, not some artifice called "The Sermon". Your sermon is not a tool you use to reach the congregation. Your sermon is God's word to the congregation coming through your own lips. It is the living word of God to your brothers and sisters in the here and now. Whatever you do about notes, make sure your preaching is that.


7 thoughts on “On Preaching And Not Getting In The Way

  1. the Old Adam

    Great post, Glen.

    'Do God to them'.

    God's law…is DONE TO the hearer. God's gospel is DONE TO the hearer.

    Accuse them, expose them (and yourself)…and then freely proclaim what Christ has done about their desperate problem. Free them. Liberate them. remind them of the promises that God has made to them in their Baptisms.

    My 2 cents, anywho.

    Thanks, Glen.

  2. Marc Lloyd

    Thanks, Glen, very helpful and interesting.

    I think you're right that there's a difference between preparing my sermon and preparing to preach God's Word to these people, though making sure its the latter is easier said than done.

    I'd be keen to hear if there's anything that helps you to do that?

    I guess seeking to pray over the text for the people is a key thing? And trying not to be in too much of a hand to mouth rush to get the sermon done - consciously recall (as you say) what one is aiming to do - or have be done through you?

  3. Glen

    Chris Green recently spoke on his blog about sermons having a narrative flow to them - that helps deliver them with a point rather than "points" which could end up being scatter-shot. I think that's a helpful perspective.

    I think perhaps Luther's old dictum about the Christian life being lived far above us and far beneath us might be appropriate. We ought to be conscious of the word being Christ's and prayerfully expectant that *He* might show up... at the same time we ought to stoop beneath ourselves in serving our congregations - loving *them* not loving *preaching*. Praying for a love of the people in front of you and desiring to do them good (rather than simply aiming at the safe deliverance of a message).

    But yes, it definitely is helped by good preparation enabling greater freedom from notes. But I better not recommend that, lest I be a total hypocrite.

  4. Dominic

    Great post.

    The old saying that "When Cicero spoke, the people said 'what a great speech' but when Demosthenese spoke they said 'let's march'" has something to it. (Not that our aim in sermons is to make people do things, but that our aim in sermons is not for the sermon itself to be, as you say, a third thing to be admired.)

    The way a preacher connects with the congregation is important.

    And, as 1 Corinthians 14:8 says, albeit in a slightly different context: "Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?" (NIV).

    There are several dangers of a full script, e.g.:
    (1) You end up using words and phrases that people don't use in ordinary conversation. To take a simple example, when I'm chatting to someone, I'll rarely use words like "it is", I'll say "it's". But when I'm writing I'll use the longer form. So, when people sit down and write a sermon word by word they often don't write it in the kind of words and language that they would use when talking to someone and so it comes across as a bit artificial when it's delivered.

    (2) Also, when people sit down and write a script word-for-word they often don't repeat themselves or dwell on points enough. In conversation we do this all the time and that is what people are used to listening to. But when people write things out word for word the need to dwell on points and repeat them often gets overlooked (perhaps because Microsoft Word is staring in front of them saying "you've just typed a whole paragraph on that").

    (3) All the natural "selah"s in our conversation often don't make it onto a written script. Our speech is full of little pauses or throwaway words ("like", "you know", "great"). When a sermon is written out and delivered word for word, these natural throwaway words and pauses are often jettisoned and the end result is again artificial.

    Anyway, great post.

    And, while we're on the subject of "how tos" - somebody somewhere is training a generation of preachers to use the following motif which makes me go arrrggghhh every time I hear it. The motif is:
    "Perhaps you're sitting here today and you're facing x or you've just gone through y or you're worried about z."

    At best this leaves large numbers of listeners going "no, not me" to each of x, y and z. At worst, it sounds like the preacher is trying to conjure up an emotional response in the congregation. (Whereas people who are going through x know that without being told it.)

    Perhaps it's the use of the 2nd person ("you") - the 3rd person doesn't seem so bad.

    Anyway, thanks for a great post.

    In Jesus,

  5. Glen

    Hey Dominic,

    Very good points. It seems we aim to be Ciceros, but can being a Demosthenes be taught? Perhaps it can at least be aimed for / prayed for.

    The "perhaps you feel X..." approach was a real favourite of the Puritans. They cycled through every possible iteration of listener to make sure it was "applied" to each. That sort of thing does get taught in homiletics today too. When I hear it in sermons I think exactly what you think - but I've also noticed a gender difference here. Men don't tend to think the categories apply to them (when they do), women tend to think categories do apply to them when they don't. I think some of that more pointed stuff is best done one-to-one.

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  7. Steve Finnell


    Was Abraham, Noah, Moses, Enoch, and Elijah saved? Yes, they were. Can men today be saved like these men? No.

    Abraham, Noah, Moses, Enoch, and Elijah were saved without believing Jesus was the Son of God. They were saved without confessing Jesus as Lord. They were saved without believing that God raised Jesus from the grave. They were saved without being baptized into Christ. The were saved without being baptized in water for the forgiveness of their sins. Can men living today be saved like theses men? No, they were all saved before the new covenant was in force.

    Was the thief on the cross saved? Yes. Can men today be saved like the thief? No. The thief did not believe in his heart that God raised Jesus from the dead. He was not baptized for the forgiveness of his sins. He was not baptized into Christ. The thief was saved before the new covenant was in force.


    1. Faith: John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.(NASB)

    2. Repentance: Acts 3:19 Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord;(NASB)

    3. Confession: Romans 10:9 that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. (NASB)

    4. Water Baptism: Mark 16:16 He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved...(NASB)


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