Every week preachers become the little boy on the hillside who sat in the multitude listenng to Jesus and was willing to give his two fish and five rolls into the hands of the Master. Haddon Robinson closes his book Biblical Preaching with this picture: “We will give Him our best. Yet, in the final analysis there are no great preachers. There’s only a great Christ who does startling things when we place ourselves and our preaching in His hands. . . . Even on our best weeks we have only some fish and bread. But we serve the living Lord. Give Him your small lunch and trust Him to feed His people.”1
Thus, when it comes to preaching, the best lesson comes from a nameless boy sitting on the grass, responding to the question asked by Andrew: “Will you give what you have to Jesus?”
As preachers, we cannot turn away from Robinson’s line: “We will give Him our best.”
Preaching has always been at the center of Christianity because Christianity has as its foundation the Word of God, and preaching is its exposition. Preaching is the most visible part of a pastor’s ministry and has a significant influence on the spiritual journey of a congregation.2 However, there are problems and questions in the shadow of the pulpit.
Problems in the pulpit
No preacher seeks to be irrelevant, but any preacher can become so. Research by the Barna Group said that 46 percent of all churchgoers reported no impact from their time there, and “three out of five church attenders said they could not recall an important new religious insight from their last church visit.”3 The research (based only on churchgoers) showed that while they do see an importance in attending, half of those in church do not perceive any benefit from what they experience. While these numbers can be influenced by several factors, it stands to reason that the sermon, being the central part of the worship service in most churches, is at least a primary factor.
In the opening chapter of his book As One Without Authority, 4 Fred Craddock gives six reasons5 why preaching struggles today. While each is worth the time for every preacher to review, they are, to some degree, outside of the preacher’s control, except for the last one. Craddock believes the difficulty of achieving meaningful communication is that few preachers are naturally good at it. Maybe we have been giving ourselves a pass. We slide because there were half a dozen members last week who said it was the best sermon ever and two elders confided that the preaching was better than that of the last pastor.
Treating preaching as a practice
While an individual may have gifts, abilities, or even a personality that supports the calling to preach; excellence in preaching is not an innate activity. Preaching with excellence is a learned and developed practice, similar in some respects to the practices of law and medicine.
The practice-oriented treatment of preaching can be distilled to five central components:6 (1) frequent exposure to examples of excellence, (2) a supportive environment of high expectations, (3) identifying and learning the distinct interrelated parts that constitute the specific practice, (4) engaging in an action-reflection model of learning, and (5) a commitment to lifelong learning and development in the practice.
1. Frequent exposure to examples of excellence. The impact of frequent exposure to examples of excellence was well illustrated by the world- famous Japanese violin instructor, Shinichi Suzuki. Suzuki was known for developing a violin pedagogy in the mid-twentieth century that is still in use today. His inspiration came when he observed that all children were able to learn their native tongue, without respect for ability or talent. Suzuki’s conclusion was that people learn from their environment because of constant exposure to the environment. In teaching violin, Suzuki encouraged saturation to music as early as possible, with students playing in groups and performing in public as often as possible, to make it natural.7
Augustine pointed to the experience of infants learning to speak by observing the expression of speakers and maintained that preachers could be made “eloquent” by reading and hearing the expressions of the eloquent.8 The key factor, then, is exposure to excellent preaching from various preachers, including historical greats. Through this listening-watching experience, the preacher may become aware of a consistent set of principles manifested through a variety of styles.9
2. A supportive environment of high expectations. Preaching has always been difficult. In an ever-changing world, the listening congregations are individuals who come with a different past, a unique present, and a myriad of distractions. Our modern era is arguably the era of greatest need in communicating God’s Word. While the need and task are great, so is the lack of excellent preachers. When
asked what counsel he would give to pastors preaching to or teaching the generation of postmoderns, Thom Rainer responded: “First of all, do not take the moment of preaching lightly. Be extremely well prepared. Study. This generation knows the difference.”10
While an environment of high expectations is, at the foundation, an individual choice, something must be said of the responsibility of the local conference or hiring organization. Most often at this level, the environment of support and high expectations can be created. Business and administrative duties must take place, but part of that business must include account-ability in the area of preaching. This accountability might include the pas-tor’s diagnosis of congregational needs and an assessment of the quality of preaching employed in addressing the expressed needs.
3. Identifying and learning the parts of the specific practice. Fred Craddock was right in stating that while it is possible to learn to preach, “preaching itself is a very complex activity.”11 Homiletical instructors agree that breaking down the components that make up the practice of preaching increases the ability of the student to excel by targeting each part separately.12 Support for this position
comes from educational greats like Suzuki as well as Maria Montessori.13 “In 1971, Albert Mehrabian published Silent Messages, in which he discussed his research on nonverbal communication.” Based on his conclusions, the words on your paper are only 7 percent of the com-munication process. The way you say those words is 38 percent, and your body language (including eye contact and
facial expression) is 55 percent.14 While the accuracy of these percentages has been challenged,15 we generally accept that how the speaker communicates significantly impacts the listener. The need to be able to identify the interrelated parts and target them for excellence cannot be restricted to sermon delivery (i.e., verbal and nonverbal) but is also relevant for sermon construction (e.g.,
introduction and appeal).
4. Engaging in an action-reflection model of learning. Ben Mandrell states, “Practice is prerequisite to excellence, and a sermon should be spoken several times before it’s publically shared.”16 Derek Morris maintains that practice should be undertaken “at least five times prior to preaching your sermon in public” and that “during your walk-throughs, think of gestures and visual aids that will help you drive home your main idea.”17 Part of a successful action-reflection includes the discipline of writing out a manuscript of the sermon. Whether or not that manuscript is positioned in the pulpit will depend on the style and preference of the preacher, but the discipline of writing the manuscript will afford the preacher invaluable reflection.
In the spring of 2013, a semester-long approach focusing on the discipline of practice was formed and implemented in one of two biblical preaching classes taught in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. Two specific focuses were on the impact of peer accountability and task repetition (reflection/action) make on one’s preaching ability. The effectiveness of the disciplines of peer accountability and task repetition was measured by classroom observation and qualitative interviews. The discipline that was reported to have had the most impact on improving preachers was watching or listening to their sermon with someone while reflecting on areas of strengths and weaknesses.
In a study of expertise, Malcolm Gladwell notes that researchers found that masters in the game of chess spend thousands of hours learning to recognize patterns of chess pieces’ positions on the chessboard and then memorizing and selecting game strategies based on those perceptions. From that research came an entire field within psychology focused on observation. Gladwell maintains that “it takes a lot of practice to be good at complex tasks.”18 If ever there was a complex task—influencing with one talk the destinies of 1 or 1,000 individuals, each unique in personality and experiences—it would be preaching. Gladwell concludes: “The ten-thousand-hour research reminds us that ‘the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.’ In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals. Nobody walks into an operating room, straight out of a surgical rotation, and does world- class neurosurgery. And second . . . the amount of practice necessary for exceptional performance is so extensive that people who end up on top need help.”19 Practice means engaging in an action-reflection model of learning that really looks more like action-action- reflection-action-action-reflection. Pastors will need to ensure that preaching excellence does not come with pastoral burnout.
5. Instilling a commitment to lifelong learning and development. In 2012, an interdisciplinary team from Andrews University began working on a study of pastoral family stress. Although the study is not published yet, this team of researchers and professors believe that continuing education for the pastor would reduce the stress that comes from the ministry and result in greater longevity.20
Ellen White was careful not to dis- courage preachers who have little or no training, while pressing the call for preachers to be diligently prepared: “The cause of God needs efficient men. Education and training are rightly regarded as an essential preparation for business life; and how much more essential is thorough preparation for the work of presenting the last message of mercy to the world! This training cannot be gained by merely listening to preaching . . . Nothing less than constant cultivation will develop the value of the gifts that God has bestowed for wise improvement.”21
Giving the best
Preaching is the most visible part of a pastor’s ministry, and it has a significant influence on the spiritual journey of the congregation. The sacrifice of a little boy’s lunch is a testimony that “[b]ecoming a preacher demands costly personal involvement.”22 Preaching is very personal, while being so much bigger than one person. Preaching is ultimately about Jesus Christ communicating to His church through His Holy Spirit. Only the Holy Spirit will convict hearts and change lives. The responsibility of preachers involves standing with the little boy on the hill, offering our best to Jesus, and letting Him multiply His Word to the hungry.
1 Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2001), 224.
2 Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert, Preach: Theology Meets Practice (Nashville, TN: B&H Pub. Group, 2012).
3 Adelle Banks, “Survey: Half of Churchgoers’ Lives Not Affected by Time in Pews,” EthicsDaily.com, January 16, 2012, ethicsdaily.com/survey-half-of-churchgoers-lives-not-affected-by-time-in-pews-cms-19114.
4 Fred Craddock, As One Without Authority (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2001).
5 First is the Social Gospel Movement and its push toward action, not talk. Thus, preaching is denigrated by the comparison to just—talk. A second reason is that the words the church holds on to are often language the world mistrusts. The third reason is the change from oral to visual sensitivity in a person’s sensorium brought on by television. The fourth cause is the loss of certainty and the rise of tentativeness in culture and among preachers. Those who stand and speak of the absolute are viewed with skepticism. The fifth cause for the long shadow from the pulpit is the relationship of the speaker to the listener. There is much discussion about the traditional preaching motif—a raised stage, one-way communication, and an authority figure versus the learner. The final reason Craddock listed is the difficulty of having meaningful communication. It is hard, and very few are naturally good at it. Craddock, 6–20.
6 Thomas G. Long and Lenora Tubbs Tisdale, eds., Teaching Preaching as a Christian Practice: A New Approach to Homiletical Pedagogy (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 44–51.
7 Shinichi Suzuki, Nurtured by Love: The Classic Approach to Talent Education (Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Music, 1983).
8 Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson Jr. (Indianapolis, IN: Macmillan / Library of Liberal Arts, 1958), 121.
9 Michael Duduit, ed., Preaching With Power: Dynamic Insights From Twenty Top Communicators (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006).
10 Michael Duduit, “Reaching the Millennials: An Interview with Thom Rainer,” Preaching (January/ February 2012): 6–12, www.preaching.com/resources/articles/reaching-the-millennials-an-interview-with-thom-rainer/.
11 Craddock, As One Without Authority, 16.
12 Thomas G. Long, The Witness of Preaching, 2nd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005).
13 Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind (New York, NY: Henry Holt, 1995).
14 Philip Yaffe, “The 7% Rule: Fact, Fiction, or Misunderstanding,” Ubiquity (October 2011), 1–5, ubiquity.acm.org/article.cfm?id=2043156.
16 Ben Mandrell, “Staying the Course,” Preaching (September/October, 2012), 19–22, www.preaching.com/resources/articles/staying-the-course/.
17 Derek Morris, “12 Steps for Preparing and Delivering Powerful Biblical Sermons,” Elder’s Digest (October/December, 2012), 22–25, cdn.ministerialassociation.org/cdn/eldersdigest.org/issues/ED%20Q4%202012.pdf.
18 Malcolm Gladwell, “Complexity and the Ten-Thousand-Hour Rule,” The New Yorker, August 21, 2013, www.newyorker.com/the-sporting-scene/complexity-and-the-ten-thousand-hour-rule.
20 Duane McBride et al., “The Stresses of Being a Pastor,” FOCUS 5 (Summer 2014), 10, 11.
21 Ellen G. White, Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1943), 538, 539.
22 Long, Teaching Preaching as a Christian Practice, 5.