At a 2009 Baptist World Alliance Conference in Holland, David Coffey delivered a paper called ‘Truth on Fire’ and offered 7 dimensions that any budding preacher must integrate; serving also as a reminder to experienced preachers of what is important.
The warning he offers, serves as the rubric for seeing what the 7 dimensions are trying to accomplish, and it comes from Bishop Quayle, who said, “It is no trouble to preach, but a vast trouble to construct a preacher.” Indeed.
I was inspired to write this partly in response to the oft repeated calls that preaching has had its day. I disagree. Bad, shallow, weak, irrelevant preaching has had its day! But preaching proper is Gospel food for the starving soul. Even those who didn’t know they were hungry realise they were starving when they hear good preaching! Or to change the metaphor, you may be able to take the horse to water, but apparently, according to the proverb, you can’t make it drink! I disagree. Good preaching is not only the food we need, but the salt. If you put salt into the horses food, it will drink!
Preaching should feed the willing hungry, and drive the hesitant or unwilling to the water of life – which is Jesus himself.
Dimension 1: The preacher must be secure in their identity in Christ. Everyone has a worth before God even before the do anything for God. Coffey offers the ABCD of church life: A for Attendance figures; B for Building and Maintenance; C for Cash flow which sustains ministry; D for Discipleship. It is the preacher/minister who must, first and foremost, who is the prime practitioner in the congregation for what it means to be a life-long learner in the school of discipleship. In this sense, D comes way before ABC. Thus the main task of the preaching is to conform to God’s purposes in producing Christ-like disciples in the congregation, which he describes as painstaking and agonising.
Dimension 2: The preacher must know they are called to preach and this calling needs a lifetime of sustained commitment. Here Coffey offers his testimony of how God called him, being aware in a moment that “I was a called person.” Thus every preacher need to be able to confess with a vulnerable dependence on God: God called me; God called me; God called me. Having this tripartite emphasis, will ensure one is carried through dark days and dark nights.
Dimension 3: The preacher is required to persevere in the task of preaching the Word ‘in season and out of season. Perseverance and dependence upon God are the watchwords here. There simply is no way to avoid mental pain and physical weariness from having to constantly prepare and deliver sermons that mean something. Sometimes the last place a called preacher wants to be is the pulpit. It is an exposed and vulnerable place to be, because personal relationships within the church can have influences on a pulpit ministry that can be good and “damaging” and must not be underestimated. Nevertheless, the damaging element must never be allowed to disfigure the character the the task of preaching to which the preacher is called. Quoting a favourite of mine, P. T. Forsyth, who offers an antidote to the vicissitudes of the pastorate to preach Christ in the pulpit,
“We must preach Christ and not about Christ; why we must set the actual constraining Christ before people and not coax or bully people into decision. If we put the veritable Christ before them He will rouse the faith before they know where they are.”
Dimension 4: The spirituality of preaching requires a conscientious preacher. There is an unavoidable discipline about sermon preparation and entering the world of the Scriptures to unlock its meaning on behalf of a congregation. John Stott called it, “painstaking and meticulous work.” To neglect this long-term work is to offer the congregation scraps and left-overs that only leave them malnourished and shallow disciples. To those who need to restore this discipline may need a radical re-ordering of the ministerial diary and a re-prioritising of activities. Even so, Coffey offers a helpful analogy of the “Sermon Kitchen” in which we will surely need, on occasion a microwave message here and there, the for the long term fruit, messages must be stored in the deep freeze. Quoting Spurgeon, “He who has ceased to learn has ceased to teach. He who no longer sows in the study will no more reap in the pulpit.”
Dimension 5: Concerns the spiritual authority in preaching. This is reinforced by regularly reflecting on the ministry and calling, including reading good books on the subject of preaching. This is to remind oneself of the high calling and high view the preacher should have of preaching – which, by the way, is more than the mere imparting of knowledge (as a teacher in school does), it is, if we think biblically about it, a leading of the congregation to encounter the power of God in salvation and redemption, and here I go off script and quote Forsyth directly on this matter, “the orator stirs men to rally, the preacher invites them to be redeemed” and there really is a world of difference in these distinctions. It is in the preaching that we are caught up in this eternal conversation of the Holy Trinity as the Holy Spirit empowers us to take the ancient words of God and bring the contemporary people of God into the eternal conversation, thus the sermon is not so much an encounter between the preacher and the congregation (although it is this in part), as between the congregation and the biblical texts. Rather than ask the rather worldly and abstract question ‘How did the preacher do today?’ the real question is ‘How are we to respond to this Word from the Lord? What does this word mean for me?’ This nuanced but correct switch presupposes a high view of Scripture.
Dimension 6: The preacher who wants to apply the Word of God must love God’s people. Good sermons are never confined within the walls of Scripture, they are always bursting out of the Bible into the lives of people. This is what Forsyth meant when he said “preaching is the Gospel extending itself out into a congregation.” This, once again, presupposes a good grasp of Scripture and the world today; its cultural shifts that shape everyone. Coffey reiterates, soaking in the Word is one thing, but the pastor who preaches must also soak in the lives of the congregation, this is, to my mind, the bulk and graft of pastoral ministry and although misunderstood, must never be confused with the low-lying views and demands that often masquerade in the congregation for “pastoral ministry/care”! Many people see the world unravelling and the confidence of a cynical youth often turns into failed marriages and relational estrangement by what Forsyth calls “the most dangerous period” middle-age! Therefore, preach the immanence of God and the closeness of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Dimension 7: The conviction that when the sermon is over the Holy Spirit goes on working. Preaching should catch the congregation with the challenge of God’s word, and should not let them escape. Always check the sermon was full of grace and truth and focused on the person of Christ. In this way, the preacher knows the sermon is never complete in itself, but that the Holy Spirit brings it to completion in the people after the sermon ends. The story is always unfinished, otherwise how would we be invited up into the Theo-drama that God offers?
For fire in the pulpit there needs to be a constant fire in the preacher’s heart, what Paul called, “never lacking in zeal and maintaining spiritual fervour” (Rom. 12:11)