For most churches, the sermon has a prominent place in the service. This is met with mixed reception from church goers—reception that is typically based on how engaging the preacher is and how long he preaches!
But why do we keep the sermon? In different progressive church models, there have been experiments to do away with preaching in the “stand and deliver” model. As this sort of monologue becomes increasingly foreign in our contemporary culture, should we still keep the sermon in our churches? Putting it into our current climate, should we listen to sermons online? If so, can I listen to the best preachers around the world? Do I need to keep listening to my pastor? Furthermore, is church more than a sermon?
We discuss these questions in this episode of our podcast. Our guest is Nigel Styles, the director of the Cornhill Training Course in London.
Links referred to:
- Preliminary Theological Certificate (PTC)
- Our next CCL event with Michael Kellahan and Chase Kuhn: “Is freedom of religion a human right?”
Runtime: 46:07 min.
Chase Kuhn: One of the regular features of our life together in church is often the sermon. This has been a feature of Christian worship for a millennia now, but it’s often something that’s taken for granted, and something that we in our worst moments maybe question why am I listening to this talk? Today on the podcast, we’re considering what is the place of the sermon in church life. Why is it that we sit under these strange monologues, if you will, from the Bible that are giving me firm instructions for my life, helping me to learn things, often giving me direction for life, and how should we think about the sermon in an online age, where we have so many talks available to us through podcasts or many other channels? How should we think about listening to a sermon from my pastor or from a pastor around the world somewhere?
And if I’m thinking about a sermon, what’s the difference between my Bible study and what I do alone in my own quiet time, and what somebody else offers to me either on a podcast or on a Sunday in a pew? As we move into isolated contexts now today in an ever-increasing time—especially in the face of coronavirus—how should I be thinking about participating in a digital space in listening to talks?
Today on the podcast, it’s our pleasure to welcome Nigel Styles, who I’ll introduce in a moment as we think about a sermon.
CK: Hello, my name is Chase Kuhn. I’m the Director of the Centre for Christian Living here at Moore College, and I’m coming to you from Sydney with Nigel Styles, who is the Director of the Cornhill Training Course in London. Nigel, it’s great to have you here in Sydney and welcome.
Nigel Styles: Thank you! It’s good to be here.
CK: Today, Nigel and I are going to be talking about the place of preaching in the Christian life—that is, why should we care about preaching? And I’m not specifically wanted to talk to preachers today, but I want to talk to everybody else that sits under preaching, and preachers included should listen in. But why should we care about preaching in our lives? Nigel, if you were to give somebody a short answer about that, why would you say someone should care about preaching?
NS: ’Cause as Christians, we believe in the theological necessity for change. And preaching is God’s change agent. So we really do believe that the gospel is all about change: it—it changes people from being on a path towards destruction and on a path towards life. It changes people’s destiny. We believe that preaching changes the Christian. It grows the Christian to maturity. So everything about our Christian understanding is built on the theological necessity of change. And how is change going to come about in somebody’s life? It is through the word of God.
CK: Yeah, excellent. So you’re saying, then, that preaching is indispensable to the Christian life.
NS: Absolutely! I mean I—I take it if—if we’re Christians listening to this, we’re thinking, “I want to grow as a Christian.” ’Course we do. How is that going to happen? Well, it’s going to happen as God, through his powerful word, brings about change in our lives. So the—the word of God is presented in the Bible as the thing that changes things. So there was nothing, God spoke and then there was stuff. He preached seven sermons, if you like. That—that was how he began the world: he preached to the world. And his word brought about things.
It’s exactly the same, Paul says, when somebody becomes a Christian: a word that is as powerful as the word that brought creation about works in somebody’s life and brings about a miracle that is no smaller than the change of the creation of the world. It’s—the way that God changes is through his word.
CK: Yeah. Fantastic. And it—I think we could break that down a little bit, I mean. If we think about it biblically in terms of the beginning points of the Christian life, Paul makes a lot about that. I mean, how are people going to be saved if they don’t hear the word preached, in Romans 10? And that’s why he says, “Blessed are the feet that bring good news”, because actually people need to hear the gospel preached to them to become Christians in the first.
But then, of course, one of the means of sustaining the Christian life, and even growing up people in truth is proclamation of the Word. Where do you take people in Scripture when you’re thinking about what we would call “edification” or building up Christians by the word preached?
NS: Well, I guess the other place that you could have mentioned there is 2 Timothy 3: 16 is the key verse, which is the verse we turn to if we’re doing the “Talk to the young people about what is our doctrine of Scripture”—that it’s breathed out by God and written down for us to learn. But “What is the effect of Scripture?” Paul says. Well, it is—it’s going to make people “wise for salvation”. So it’s going to make people Christians. And it’s going to “teach and rebuke and correct and train in righteousness”: it’s going to keep people Christians.
But the heart of that little bit is not to teach us a doctrine of Scripture, though it does that on the way through. The point of it is to say, so that “the man of God is fully equipped”. The “man of God”, I take it, there, is the pastor—the church leader. So the church leader who’s got the Bible in his toolbox has got the complete toolkit, because he’s got the Bible there. What’s the Bible going to do? Well, it’s going to tell people how to be saved and it’s going to grow Christians. What more does the church minister need than the word that does that? Which is why Paul, straight after that verse, begins chapter 4 and says to the pastor, “Preach it.”
NS: In other words, “Take the tool, get it out of the toolbox, use it, set it to work, ’cause if you’re preaching the word, the word will make you wise for salvation and teach, rebuke, correct and train in righteousness.”
CK: Yeah, it’s great that that injunction—we often stop at those famous verses of 3:16-17 and we kind of just draw a line there. But you spill right over into chapter 4 and you get that injunction: preach the word. “So therefore in light of this great word that we have, preach it.” Preach it to people and don’t shy away from that task. And we’ll talk about that in just a moment.
I mean, it’s interesting to think about our context, which is becoming more and more individualised, and I don’t think that—we get this cyberspace sense of community—that people can click online and find anything they want. But put that aside for a moment: why preaching over just individual Bible readings? I mean, there is something really wonderful we want to affirm in people reading the Bible for themselves. But why do I need somebody else to preach the word to me?
NS: Because, I think, any teaching—I need somebody to open the Bible and help me to understand it. So I think it’s very interesting to think what is the relationship between my personal Bible reading and what the preacher is doing when he preaches the word and I’m sitting under it. We sometimes use “Bible study” to refer to both of those things. So what I’m doing is my personal Bible study. And I go to the church and the pastor helps me to study the Bible. I wonder if neither actually are quite “study”. So I think Bible teaching, which is Bible explanation—Bible proclamation—bringing home to me the message of the Bible in the way that I can understand it—I need teachers to do that.
It’s not to say the Bible is a closed book to the ordinary Christian. But God has given teachers to the church to equip the saints. So the way I am going to be equipped to be a useful Christian to serve the Lord is partly through teachers explaining the Bible to me. So I need that.
So then why read the—to turn your question around: why ever read it on my own?
NS: Why don’t I just go to church and listen to it? And I think one of the key things is what I’m doing on my own is Bible reminders. So I listen to the Bible day by day—not primarily because I’m thinking—you know, my daily time with the Bible, I’m praying before I head out into whatever lies ahead of me. I’m doing Bible study. To be frank, who of us are able to fit in Bible study at that point. But what we need all the time is Bible reminders. So we need to keep refreshing our worldview or our outlook—our attitudes—which are so saturated with stuff that we are picking up from the world around us—entire worldview around us is something different. We need to keep refreshing our brain with Bible reminders.
I think that’s partly what the Old Testament means by Bible meditation—that we’re continually consciously saying, “I need to bring back to my mind all the time truth of the Bible”, and a daily time sitting with the Bible is Bible reminder—refreshing myself—washing by the word—that is, kind of cleansing my thinking to be in line with God.
CK: Yeah, the picture’s that hiding it in your heart, isn’t it. I mean you’re actually trying to store up this treasure in your heart—in your mind—that as you’re going through life, that it’s actually shaping up the way that you’re thinking about the world. That’s very helpful.
In what ways can a preacher, then, help us think beyond ourselves, because if I’m thinking about my own experience of Bible reading, I put up my own protection mechanisms, do you know what I mean? There are certain no-go zones that I can shield myself from to sort of justify my own inclination to sin. How is it that a preacher can help cut through that, or a teacher can cut through that?
NS: So I think we are very good at that, aren’t we. We’re very good at educating our consciences by persistent sin not to feel guilty about certain habits. We know that the Bible talks about the deceptiveness of sins: one of the ways sin deceives us is it makes us think sin isn’t sin. We kind of get used to it: habit rubs out the idea of it being wrong, and we just get used to it being part of our lives. I think one of the great things that God does through his word and the preacher is part of that process, is a Word from outside. So it is a Word from above just as Jesus the man from above—the Word from above—brought into our world: it kind of smashes through our shields—our kind of—our radar. And we often talk in the Cornhill course, when we’re training preachers, about wanting applications to get under the radar. In other words, to slip through our protective mechanisms.
I have a particularly cynical friend: he thinks when you’re listening to sermons, you can play—there are only about seven applications, he thinks. And when you’re listening to a sermon, you can play Application Bingo. You might like to try this at home! [Laughter] So Application Bingo is, you know, the seven ones would be, I don’t know, “Read your Bible”, “Pray more”, “Be more holy”, “Think about heaven more”, “Evangelise”, “Go to church” … I don’t know what the seventh one would be. But you get the idea. And basically the idea is to spot as early as you can in the sermon which of the seven you’re heading for, and then play “Bing!” when we get there. And there is that—we all know that kind of predictable application that you can spot a mile off, and that’s what we’ve got a very good defence mechanisms. We know how to deal with the sermon that is a beat-up to do evangelism. We’ve got our own way of dealing with that.
We want preaching, don’t we, to get under the radar. And I think that is one of the great things about somebody from outside ourselves bringing God’s word to us and helping us to see things. It slips under our radar, takes us by surprise and then we say—well, then we’re convicted, I guess—convicted of sin, convicted of need for change, convicting of—we’ve got to realign our lives.
CK: And that—that application that comes under the radar really comes from a—a close sitting with the text, doesn’t it? I mean, how is it that you encourage your students to get under the radar and to get beyond predictability in the application, because I think we all know what it is like to hear a predictable application. How—how do you help people to get beyond that to engage their listeners?
NS: We’re thinking a lot about application at Cornhill at the moment. One of the staff is writing a book about application and we’re trying to think through what is application?
I think we tend to think there is the work on our text, which suggests some areas. And we then put the text to one side and develop those areas into contemporary application. So I don’t know: we read something in the Old Testament about—the Old Testament people of God not caring for the temple, not giving it priority—and we end up applying that in terms of “I wonder we’re holding out from God in terms of the time that we’re able to give to him”. And you think, “Wait a minute: how did we get from caring for the temple to being generous with our time in the Lord’s service?” What kind of control is there? How did we get from one to the other? And it—it is: we’ve spotted some theme, which we then left the passage behind and developed that theme into contemporary application.
And I remember listening to a talk like this not that long ago, and somebody coming out afterwards and saying, “You know, is there no control on the issue of application? You can just jump all over the place.” But I think the best application—the kind of application that does get under the radar—is the kind of application where the preacher has spent longer in the text. I think this is a counterintuitive: we think, “Do the work on the text, thinking about them then, and then come and do lots of thinking about us now.” What I have discovered is that the best applications spend longer thinking about them then. The sharper we get the situation into which these words are addressed, the clearer we are on that, the more subtle, I think, we are on that. Then the more telling is the contemporary application. When we’ve really understood what was their situation and why this writer wrote this to them then, the more the contemporary application can get under the radar.
CK: Yeah. We talk about that here as the tension in the text, which, I think, raises—if this passage is teaching this, what was the question that was being asked? Or if this passage is aiming here, what was the problem that was needing solved? There was something happening for them in that context. And often the longer we spend on that context, the more we actually see, then, clear ways to our context, I think, because we’re actually truer to the text then in the ways that we bring that passage to our people with similar kinds of problems. And I think people feel this divide between 2000 years since it was written, or more, depending on where you’re reading in the Scriptures, and think, you know, “How does this relate to my modern problems?” Well, there are so many similarities with our condition, but actually the kinds of things we’re facing today, there’s really nothing new under the sun. And so the longer we spend understanding what’s happening in that biblical context, then the better we can make that move to us.
NS: Yeah, I think—I only—how—how do we know the fallenness of our lives? We’ll analyse culture. No, actually go back to the Bible.
NS: So actually the process is not “We come to the Bible with the questions from our world”—
NS: —it’s actually the Bible comes to our world with its questions.
CK: That’s right.
NS: And we’ve got to get those questions clear.
CK: That’s right. There’s a priority there, and we really believe that the Bible’s giving us a depiction of reality and our condition. Which is very very important for us to have right.
Now going through second Timothy or 2 Timothy—into chapter 4, one of the things that Paul cautions against is people that will no longer endure sound teaching, and he says, “They will find teachers for them to scratch their itching ears” is what he calls those. It’s a really curious phrase. We all have ears that desire to be scratched in certain places. For our listeners that are—are considering the value of preaching in their life and the value of preaching in their church for a moment, what are the temptations that we fall into? Maybe we’re our own blind spots of where we might be looking for somebody to scratch our ears.
NS: I think be very wary of the comment that says, “I really like his preaching”. “I really like his preaching” could mean, “When I listen to his preaching, my itchy ears are scratched. I like that!”
NS: ’Cause if you’ve got itchy ears, the one thing you want is them given a good scratch. There’s a sense in which “I really don’t like his preaching”—I think in 2 Timothy 4 might be a more accurate sign of a good preacher. “I don’t like his preaching, because when I listen to it, it—it makes me uncomfortable.”
NS: It—it teaches me things I recognise I didn’t know and it corrects me and it trains me in righteousness where I wasn’t walking. I have a friend who said that he’d been going to a church for two years, and in those two years, he hadn’t been challenged. An evangelical church. Now, was that church a church where they were preaching the Word? I think I would say it doesn’t sound like it, does it, if he hasn’t been challenged for two years.
CK: Yes. And people will end up feeling that they’re in a dry spell, and so they start looking elsewhere. And one of the things we face today is, of course, the whole world is at one click away. And so many people that I know, and we’re thankful for those who are listening to this podcast, but so many people are podcast junkies, and in particular, getting sermons piped in all the time. There are dangers with that, of course. What would you say to people that are saying, “Well, I value preaching. I’m listening to preachers all day long.” How do we discern the kind of preaching—I know you’ve given us some hints—but how do we discern the kind of preaching worth listening to?
NS: So I think what you’re saying is “Please turn off this podcast and go and do something better with your time!” [Laughter]
CK: No, no! Finish this podcast, then listen to a good sermon! But how do we know what’s the good sermon?
NS: So, okay, you can get good sermons online. So I don’t need to mention names, but we all would know the people who we might—I don’t know—if we’ve missed church and we’re thinking, “I want to listen to a sermon ’cause I missed last Sunday”, the kind of preachers who we go to and we think, “It doesn’t really matter what sermon [they] preach, I’m going to hear a good sermon from them”. And it is true: you will be able to listen to sermons that are better than your pastor’s sermons in the sense that the exegesis would probably be tighter, the application more telling, the stories more interesting—amusing or whatever you’re after.
Buthere is the difference between every podcast preacher and your local pastor: your local pastor is the only pastor who has spent the week praying and preparing for you. The best sermon you can hear preached is the one that was prepared for you, and that was the one done by your pastor.
Now, it may, as I say, not be the case that technically that is the best. But that is the person whom God has set in that role in your life to be the person bringing the word of God to you. There is no better sermon you can hear this week than going to church and listening to your pastor. Because that’s set in the context of relationship of what the church is—the place we are being schooled and trained—a pastor who’s concerned for you—longing for your spiritual growth—whereas somebody over in America’s never even heard of you. They’ve prepared great stuff, but they’re not praying for you. But your pastor is.
CK: Yes. Within a culture where—and you and I do this professionally for a living: we critique sermons. I mean, that is part of our jobs. Many of our people now in an ever-streaming age get their antennas up for what is good and what is bad. In terms of their local pastor, when they feel like maybe they’re not as engaged with their local pastor or they’re just feeling like it’s a bit dull—whatever it may be, what words of encouragement do you give to a listener in the pews for how to value that sermon and that preaching?
NS: Yeah. So at Cornhill, we listen to 1300 practice sermons a year. 1300 sermons. So—I mean—I’m not listening to that many. But I listen to about 100 student sermons a year. So that’s a lot of preaching that I’m listening to. Some of them are great. And some of those—particularly in our final year students, you know, I would say to them, “I’d be happy to be listening to you every Sunday. That’s good stuff. That’s congregation-ready.” But I know coming back to my home church, even if technically some of the sermons are not as good, there is something different about being in my local church with the people of God who are gathered here under the authority of his word in this place. So have that right attitude. I don’t go to church to critique my preacher, and if I got myself into that habit, I’ve got to repent of that and change that attitude, or if necessary, move churches to somebody where I can really submit to my church leadership. But I need to be in a situation where I love church, I love going to church and I love listening to my pastor’s preaching.
What things am I looking out for in good preaching? Or, to put it another way, what do we mean by “good” preaching? I think we’re meaning, by good preaching, somebody who is really letting me see, week by week—and pointing me week by week—to the Bible and saying, “Can you see what this says? Isn’t this good?” So there’s the kind of preacher who opens the Bible, reads the Bible reading and then shuts the Bible and puts it away. Obviously we’re not talking about that kind of preaching. There is the kind of preaching that opens the Bible and then puts the open Bible behind the preacher’s head so that I’m looking at the pulpit: the Bible’s there, but it’s hidden by the preacher. The preacher is very big and the Bible is in the background, and perhaps you can all think of examples of the kind of preacher that’s like that.
There is the kind of preacher that is in the pulpit and has got the Bible in one hand and has got something else in their other hand. It might be the newspaper: so actually I’m getting as much about culture and our world as I’m getting about the Bible in an unhelpful way. The Bible doesn’t seem to be sovereign. Or it could be there are other Christian books in the other hand that actually are taking on a very high degree of authority in the pulpit. So there might be books of, I don’t know, systematic theology or the latest idea of church growth or whatever. And what I’m listening to is the Bible, yes, but there is another authority that’s very high.
What I want when I go to church is a preacher who is holding up the Bible next to his head, open in front of him, and with his other hand, pointing all the time at the Bible and saying, “Can you see what this says? Look at this! Isn’t this brilliant! Can you see what God’s saying to you?” That’s what I’m look for in a preacher. And I think what that means is that I can tell absolutely the preacher himself has sat under God’s word this week—spoken to him. So a very good question, I think, that I often ask a trainee preacher is, “What have you learnt from this passage?” If he’s learned nothing, what do you think I’m going to learn? So I want the preacher to have sat under it himself, and I want the preacher in his sitting under the Bible and listening to it—to really have got behind “What is this passage absolutely about? What is the heart of the passage? What is the—the thrust of it?” Not everything it mentions—not all the teaching points that there might be in this passage—but “What is the heart of what is written here?”
And particularly, and I think this is the really crucial question, “Why did the original writer write this?” He was a pastor as he wrote it—Paul or Mark or Matthew or Isaiah or whoever. They wrote down these words with a pastoral heart, thinking about the people they were writing this for. What was their longing that the people reading this would do? What would happen in those readers as they first read it? If you like, what was their pastoral intention in writing this? What were they praying for the people as they wrote this?
Now I want the preacher to help me see what is the big idea of the passage and also what is its thrust—its intention—its purpose? What does God, through that human author, intend should be the reaction that comes from the word of God being brought to me today?
CK: Yeah. As you think about that and as you think about Jesus in terms of the centre of all Scripture, how does that method then lead you into thinking and reflecting on Christ, even as you’re thinking about something from Isaiah or Isaiah, as you call it [Laughter] and everybody else around me who calls it too?
NS: Yeah. I guess the—it’s very easy—particularly in the Old Testament stuff that—and I guess this would be another example of that kind of predictable preaching—
NS: —that we get used to hearing: the Old Testament really preached as a negative, to which Jesus is the positive. Or the Old Testament raises the question and Jesus is the answer. So actually in practice, we dash through the Old Testament, ’cause really this is a sermon about Jesus. Isaiah said, “Blah blah blah blah blah”, but that doesn’t matter; what he was—was really saying was this about Jesus. Or “I read this in the Old Testament. That puts me in mind of our Lord Jesus. Let me tell you about Jesus.” And there’s a lot of that in Old Testament preaching, isn’t there.
I remember somebody saying to me, who was questioning that easy transition from Old Testament to New Testament, or easy transition into “Jesus is the answer”. This person said, “If that were the message of the Old Testament—if it really was as short as that—why has the Old Testament got so many words?”
CK: Why is it so long? [Laughter]
NS: I think that’s a good qu—I mean, he—he meant it as a joke, but I think there’s a lot of truth in that.
NS: Why—why is there so much? Well, I take it that God is setting up in enormous detail and over centuries the categories to help us understand Jesus. And so, we will understand Jesus if we spend longer in the Old Testament understanding it. So this afternoon, for example, I’m teaching some session to some students here and some others who are coming to the Chapman clinic about preaching Old Testament narrative—how easily we treat Old Testament narrative like that. We read the Old Testament story, we know we shouldn’t say, “Oh, they’re just an example for us”. So we know we shouldn’t say, you know, “David picked up five stones; what are the five stones you need to pick up to defeat the Goliaths in your life?” We might know that. And we—
If you don’t know that, don’t read it like that, please! [Laughter]
NS: Thank you! [Laughter] And we dash from the Old Testament story—really getting through the story quickly—just driving some theological theme—which basically is the Old Testament people were idiots, in order to get to Jesus to say he’s the saviour we need. Of course that is the truth. But why did God give us these stories? Let’s preach the stories as stories and learn through the teaching points in the story. That will massively enlarge our understanding of Jesus.
So I think this is why the Gospels are so hard to preach, because we don’t know the Old Testament categories very well. I think the hardest bit of the Bible to preach is the Gospels for this reason, because they assume all kinds of immediate understandings of allusions that we miss. But if we preach the Old Testament more fully—more expansively—spend time understanding the Old Testament—we will understand Jesus more.
CK: As we take a break from our program, I’d like to tell you about two resources to help you in your Christian life. The first is the Preliminary Theological Certificate or PTC, as it’s more commonly known—a course that’s intended for Christians at various stages of life to learn more about the biblical, theological and historical foundations of our faith. We have over 18 units available online for you to engage with, including various books of the Bible and areas of doctrine. Each unit has great study guides and helpful questions for you to engage with so that you can internalise the material. And I can’t really think of a better way for you to spend your time during a coronavirus lockdown or restrictions you may be facing than to enrol in a structured course intended to help you grow as a Christian.
In light of these times, Moore College has generously reduced the cost of each unit to just $25, and I recommend you looking at the options available to you online at distance.moore.edu.au. Again, that’s distance.moore.edu.au.
The second resource I want to tell you about is the first CCL live event that we’re going to be holding this year. On May 27th, I will be speaking, along with Michael Kellahan, Executive Director of Freedom for Faith, about the topic “Is religious freedom a human right?” This year marks the 400th anniversary since the Puritan pilgrims set sail from England and North America in pursuit of religious freedom, and here in Australia, we’re fighting a battle of our own for freedom as a very important bill is before Parliament called the Religious Discrimination Bill. The question of how we can or can’t exercise our religion in a public context is very important for how we live as Christians, and I invite you to register for this event, which will be entirely livestreamed as a way for us to think afresh on what the Bible can tell us about religious freedom and its importance, and also to learn more about what’s happening here in Australian politics and culture that will have bearing on other interest groups, of course, worldwide.
You can register on our website at ccl.moore.edu.au. The cost is $10 per household, or your church can pay a fee of $60 for anyone in the church to stream the session. We really believe this is an important topic for all Christians to understand and support, and so I hope you’ll make it a priority to join us on May 27th.
Now back to our program.
CK: Okay. When we think about this, I mean, one of the dangers I know in the Gospels is there’s such a sequencing of events and even teaching sections, and often we drill down quite narrow and miss the broader picture of what’s going on around it. And that surely is informing some of these ways that—
CK: —we’re engaging.
CK: One of the things that we care about—both you and I know—is expositional preaching—that is, we believe that it’s probably best practice to be moving through a book sequentially. How we take on those books and what sections we divide, if you will, really matter for these things. Does this do away with other kinds of preaching as well?
NS: So several answers to that.
CK: Yeah, of course!
NS: The first one is I think expositional preaching is not the same as sequential preaching.
NS: So you can do expositional preaching as a method to do a topical sermon—
NS: —where you choose a passage and simply tell me what this passage says—what it means—in order to help me understand what the Bible teaches on this topic. So that is expositional preaching.
So sequential preaching—going through a book, you know, the next 10 verses or whatever, week by week—is a way of doing expositional preaching. But it’s not the same as it.
CK: Yes, that’s very helpful.
NS: So—so one of the things that we do, and I love doing particularly, is when I do a church weekend away—a church camp or something—I will do one book over a weekend. And the great thing about that is rather than having the series in Ephesians stretch to two and a half months, so that by the end, we can hardly remember where we began, by doing it in a concentrated way over two and a half days or whatever, and four or five talks, people get the message of Ephesians. And I love to see that happening—that people get the message of a book. Of course, there’s loads of details in Ephesians we might not have looked at on the way through. But we got the big thrust of why Paul wrote to that church—what is the heart of that message.
So expositional preaching, I think, is simply saying, “The main point of my sermon is going to be the main point of this passage.”
NS: The purpose—the aim of my sermon—is going to be the purpose—the aim of this passage. So I’m preaching what it says in line with whyit’s saying it.
CK: And that helps us, then, think we can value sermons that aren’t just in sequence. But we also have to recognise that preaching out of sequence is harder work in order to guarantee faithfulness, if you will—
CK: —because if we pick a slice of the pie without seeing the whole pie, it’s very difficult to actually know how true it is to the whole, and so it’s a lot harder work for a pastor that’s going to be preaching that kind of sermon. But it’s also harder work for a listener in terms of being like the Bereans, if you will—of weighing what the message is that’s being said (Acts 17:10-12). And so, that’s just something, I guess, to be aware of as we’re listening to things online in particular. That kind of work is having to go in both from a listener and from a preacher to make sure that there is a faithful word being brought to us.
NS: Absolutely. So I’m preaching tomorrow on a four-word text: my text is “useful to the master”—comes from 2 Timothy chapter 2 (verse 21). But behind that four-word text is a lot of work on 2 Timothy. So I try and do a Bible book a year in terms of my place I’m going to for study, and when I’m trying to do most of my preaching from. So 2 Timothy was my book last year. I kept coming back to it. I preached, I don’t know, probably 30 or 40 sermons on 2 Timothy last year. So that text—“useful to the master”—when I preach it, is going to be thoroughly embedded in the message of 2 Timothy. I’m not just preaching on Christian usefulness as a theme, but I’m preaching what Paul meant when he talked about Timothy being “useful to the master” and how he could be useful to the master in Ephesus in the context there, him as a church pastor facing opposition and so on.
CK: That’s great. And in terms of listeners to sermons and—and as they come into, say, a one-off sermon—like you’re going to give tomorrow—what kinds of preparation or way—what ways can listeners actually engage early with the sermon? Because in some ways, you come in cold, you’re unfamiliar with 2 Timothy, you don’t want the study Bible introduction from the preacher, which is terribly dull: this is what was happening, this is who’s who, this is when it was written or when it wasn’t; people are disputing these things. That kind of thing is very dull. So how do we actually get onside quick with the message and—and engage with the tension of the passage, if you will, as a listener? Do we have to depend on the preacher to lead us there? Obviously there’s some responsibility. But what other ways can we, as listeners, engage?
NS: The whole idea of preparing for sermons—oh, that delights my ears! If only people would! [Laughter] If only people came to church having prepared to listen! Wouldn’t that be wonderful! And I guess the key thing is, I want you to look and—about—at the passage and think about it.
I guess that’s part of the purpose of the Bible reading before the sermon; it’s just that we don’t treat that Bible reading that way. But interestingly, you don’t need to do very much to get engaged as a reader. Here’s a simple idea: print off next Sunday’s sermon passage. So tomorrow, for example, my sermon: print off 2 Timothy chapter 2. So you’ve got it on a piece of A4 paper. Go through it with a pen. Do loads of underlining. Put in the margin, I don’t know, an exclamation mark for anything that strikes you; a question mark for anything you think is weird or you can’t make sense of, or you don’t understand; little star for something that seems important; underline phrases and link them to similar phrases elsewhere. I call that process being an active reader, as opposed to being a passive reader. A passive reader is the kind of what we’re all like in church when the Bible reading happens, which is, “Oh, it’s the Bible reading. Drift, drift. My eyes are kind of following the words on the page, but I don’t know if any of this is going in my brain. But it doesn’t matter ’cause the sermon’s coming.”
CK: How could you do that? I never do that! [Laughter]
NS: So that’s the passive reader. The active reader, I think, going through a passage, what does that take? 20 minutes. And you come with some engagement with the text. I think that would be fantastic.
Some churches I know do their small group Bible studies link in with the sermon, so that perhaps after the sermon, the following week, the small group is thinking about last week’s sermon and the application of it. That’s great. I’ve got a bit of concern with that, because I think it means that the small group Bible study becomes Bible lite. If you’re just talking about application, you stop doing—looking really at the text. You’re really thinking about the implications of the sermon, rather than what the Bible says.
Another way of doing it, of course, is that the small group looks at the passage the week ahead and does some of that kind of active reading of the passage. That would be a great way to prepare for Sunday.
CK: Yeah. Following on from hearing a sermon, I mean, does our responsibility as listeners stop there? I mean, we close our Bibles, we say a prayer, we say “Amen”, and suddenly we’re starting to think about tea or, you know, what I’m having for lunch or dinner or whatever else. How can we actually as listeners in one sense get more out of the sermon following on from the sermon? I know we’ve talked about—you just mentioned something about the small groups and some of the dangers there. But I mean just even as an individual in my own personal responsibilities, how can I see that Word manifest itself in my life even better going out?
NS: So I think a real danger is to think my responsibility finishes at the end of the sermon. And I think, to be honest, in practice, that is how we do tend to think about it. We’ve listened to the sermon, we’ve—we’ve written our notes on the church bulletin or on a bit of paper or wherever—in our notebooks, and we shut it. We pray the prayer with the preacher at the end of the—the sermon. And we do think our responsibility ends at that point.
I think to twist it ’round, in many ways, that is where the hearer’s responsibility begins and the preacher’s responsibility ends. That’s devastating. I think the preacher still has a responsibility to pray for the impact of the Word in people’s lives and to follow up in conversation with people. But—
CK: And the hearer, of course, has to engage with the sermon beforehand; they can’t just passive in the sermon. Yeah, of course.
NS: Good. But that is where there—there is now a crisis point for the hearer and the crisis point is this: the Holy Spirit has spoken to me today: Hebrews 3 and 4; Psalm 95. Will I now harden my heart? And I think for Christian people, the way we harden our heart is we have heard it and it doesn’t go any further than we’ve heard it and made our notes and shut the notebook. And I think that is a crisis point: we are at a very very dangerous moment, then. So the Word has come into our lives, if you like—that Word from outside brought into our lives. We’ve listened to it: the pastor has been praying for us and preached his heart out to us. What am I now going to do?
Very often what that leads to is roast pastor at Sunday lunch, where we go home and discuss what we think of him. Whereas what we need to be talking about “What do you think of what he said?” “What I am I going to do about that?”
And I think—I don’t know whether it’s the same in Australia as it is in the UK—we often get exhortations at church: “Over morning tea, make sure you’re talking about the sermon. Perhaps you might like to ask one another—” Nobody ever does. Nobody does. We’ve got to change that culture. I mean, I—there are a number of things that are very—make the preacher feel very despondent. One of them is that nobody after Sunday preach is talking about the sermon. And you think, “All of that work and nobody’s talking about it! How—how can it be that we’re not talking about? Has God spoken to us? Yes! And we—we don’t talk about it? I cannot believe this!”
NS: And I think part of the problem is we’ve built it up into this big thing of talking about the sermon. I just think it would be great—going back to how we prepare to listen—one of the good ways to prepare to listen would be to have thought out ahead of time what is the question I’m going to ask somebody over morning tea about that sermon? And the question I ask them might be just a simple, “What did you think about what he said?” But it’s good to think about “What are going to be the questions?” Or “How am I going to engage in conversation?” I think the best way is not the question, but the comment to say, “I was really struck this morning by …” “It really me think this morning how I …”
CK: Yeah. “I’ve never thought about this before” or “I’ve never seen it in this light before”.
CK: Or. Yeah. It takes a vulnerability, though, doesn’t it—
CK: —for us to come out of ourselves. Which I think is only afforded to us in the gospel. If we’re clear on the gospel and if we get the gospel as the foundation for why we’re meeting together, and that levels us then, I don’t have to be insecure about who I am or even about some of the problems that I may have had in my own life. For the Word to kind of lay us bare before, again, Hebrews 4, the fact that we are laid bare before this Word and it’s cutting us, we can be honest about those things, because we have security in Christ. And so I can share with you those things, which will probably actually bless you as you hear me as your brother saying, “Wow that really struck that nerve—”
CK: —or “I haven’t been thinking about that enough in my life” or “I need to really prayerfully repent when I go home today” or “Would you pray with me now?”
NS: Wouldn’t that be great?
CK: Wouldn’t that be great!
NS: Yeah. That would change morning tea, wouldn’t it.
CK: That would really change, wouldn’t it: instead of talking about the weather or the football or something—yeah.
As we’re thinking about this, I mean, one of the—the defence mechanisms I’ve said before is that we get overly critical about the preacher. So you said it helpfully: you called it “roast pastor”, which sounds like a meal to me, because I don’t—I say my r’s, right?
CK: So we roast the pastor. [Laughter] We often talk about an analysis of the person or an analysis of the delivery, or wasn’t that funny? Or wasn’t that boring? Or I really didn’t like the way he did that. These are all in some ways attempts at us keeping good things at arm’s length.
And so the most difficult thing that I—I tell people to do is to find something good in anything: you read a book you disagree with, it’s very hard to appreciate something about that book when there are so many flaws that are obvious. Every sermon is going to have something surely that you could pick apart—whether that be an illustration that you thought was cheesy or it be an application point that you thought was misguided. The difficult thing is to appreciate it. And I guess how can we encourage people to be seeking out the good in the Word and seeking out things for application, even when there might be three or four things they didn’t find helpful. What—what kinds of—
NS: I—I think goes back to what was the preacher doing in the pulpit, and the idea of him holding the open Bible alongside his head and pointing to the good things there. You’re absolutely right: to make the attention after the sermon on the pastor’s delivery—the delivery of the preacher—is to miss the point. The preacher has spent all his energy and time wanting to say to you, “Look at this bit of God’s word: this is what God is saying to you. What do you make of it?” So I think focus on what God says in his word, rather than focusing on the man who delivered the message.
CK: Yeah. There is an appropriate scrutiny to the message. Again, the Bereans, with Paul, they weighed what he said, according to what was taught in the Scriptures. That’s exactly the kind of thing that you’re advocating, it sounds like. I mean, this—this pastor is standing before you, Bible open, saying, “This is what the word of God says.” Now we are saying, “Is that what the word of God says?” In a local church, it’s much more easy to be expectant of that, because no doubt you’ve settled there and have a relationship of trust with your pastor, believing that your pastor, with every good intention, is going to be teaching you the Bible. That’s the kind of church we hope people will settle into.
Online, I think it demands a different level of scrutiny, if I can be so bold, and say that actually, when you don’t know this person and they’re just a voice somewhere out in the atmosphere, listening even extra careful and scrutinising, according to the Scriptures, has got to be taken on board. Is that correct?
NS: Yep. I absolutely agree.
NS: Really helpful.
CK: Yeah. Well as we conclude this time, what—what kinds of suggestions would you love to give to anybody listening to a sermon? How can they better value preaching week in and week out in their local church?
NS: I think you got to get your thinking clear: this is God speaking to me. This is God addressing me. So I think it’s John Calvin described the pulpit as the throne of God. And that isn’t said to elevate the preacher as the king, but it is to say, “I am standing before the sovereign ruling God who deigns in his extraordinary condescension to speak to me today. How dare I then talk about whether I like one of the preacher’s stories!” You know, you just listened to God.
NS: So I think get that thinking clear—that this is God I’m listening to.
Second thing, I think be a Berean: so make my natural response to the sermon to be looking in the Bible to see “Are these things so?” And you’re absolutely right: I trust my pastor, but I still must be examining the Word. In the same way as the preacher has kept saying, “Can you see here? Look here. Look here. This is what it says”—that should be my reaction afterwards: “Oh yeah. Look here! Look here! Look here!” So I’d love morning tea to have all the kind of conversations we’ve talked about and open Bibles.
NS: There’s nothing delights me more after preaching than to see two people with a Bible open on their laps praying together
NS: That is wonderful. That is the most encouraging thing for a preacher.
CK: That’s rich.
NS: I’d must rather see that than have somebody come and say, “It’s a lovely sermon.”
CK: Yeah. And the reason why we value preaching isn’t the preacher. They’re a gift to us, but it’s like Paul—I mean, we carry treasure in jars of clay. They are frail vessels—sometimes very unattractive vessels—but they’re carrying treasure. And so we’re looking to them to help bring us something rich and wonderful. It’s not about the jar that’s carrying it; it’s about the goods that are inside, which is the word of God, that we’re actually listening to. And that’s—
NS: I think that’s really helpful. And we must make clear where—where we’re placing the authority. We’re placing the authority in the pulpit, because that’s where the Word is. It’s not that we’re investing authority in the man who brings the Word.
NS: So his authority—I remember when I first started out in church ministry, somebody saying, “Make sure all the way through your ministry that the authority you have comes because of the Word, not because of the role.” In other words, I’m a leader not because I’ve been given the job to lead, but because I bring the word of God. Any authority I have is seen to come from “I bring God’s word”, and it’s that word that we’re under. That’s our real authority.
CK: That’s great. Nigel, thank you so much for your time today. Really appreciate having you.
NS: Great. It’s been good to talk.
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As always, I’d like to thank Moore College for making the ministry of the Centre for Christian Living possible, and to extend thanks to my assistant, Karen Beilharz, for audio editing and transcribing. Music has been provided by Slow Nomad.