I wish I could say that the idea to begin a ‘teaching preaching’ course at our church was part of a deliberate and well-planned strategy to equip people for ministry. The truth is I stumbled across the idea out of desperation as I tried to cope with ministry demands, but I want to share it with you because it is the most significant ministry training I have ever done in a local church context.1
My Presbyterian church started an evening congregation (Church on Pako) five years ago, and I was given the responsibility of organizing the preaching program and sharing the load fifty-fifty with the then minister. I was already busy in full-time university ministry as the local campus director with AFES, so in the second year I came up with a plan to equip lay preachers. This would help fill the pulpit during the months of August and September every year and give me a break. Our minister resigned at the end of that year so we were then left without a minister. I was invited to look after Church on Pako for a day a week, and have done so for the last three years. At that stage we were a small group of just over 30 people.
Here is a rough guide to how it worked. I would draft the preaching program for those months and ask the participants to select a week in which to preach. I would distribute the training resources (see next page) about one month before the group started, with the expectation that they would read it before they preached their sermon. That did not always happen, but it was a good aim.
Every sermon would have to be preached to me on the Friday night before the Sunday. I would give feedback and encouragement, and occasionally a ‘directive’. Often, in the earlier years or over difficult passages, the guys would run their big idea and outline past me for comment well before Friday night. Then on their Sunday they would preach at Church on Pako. Half an hour after church we would gather in the small hall to review the talk for 40 minutes and to discuss the training resource for 20 minutes.
The critique process
We would complete an A4 critique sheet of approximately eight questions ranging from introduction, structure, faithfulness, explanations, illustrations, application, big idea, and take-home challenge. This would last for about
In the early years I would hand out an extra two sheets to a variety of congregation members. This would involve them in the process, and meant that no one ‘complained’ that untrained people were preaching. It also meant that we got a range of perspectives, such as the thoughts of an elderly gentleman, a teenage boy or girl, and a young mum.
Before sharing any of this I would go around the circle and ask everyone to share one thing that the preacher did that was good. Everyone had to say something to create an atmosphere of encouragement. Thankfully, no one ever said, “I liked it when you finished”.
After this we would systematically work through all the questions. This was careful and controlled. I was fairly directive, and if I disagreed with a critique I would say so. I felt that as the experienced preacher that was my prerogative, and I did not want wrong things taken on board. When we reached ‘the big idea’ and the ‘take-home challenge’ questions I would ask everyone to read out their one sentence answer to these questions. This helped people see whether or not the big idea was clearly communicated and if the take-home challenge was ringing in everyone’s ear. Often in the first couple of years the comments were all over the place, but several times in the last two years everyone said very similar sentences. The big idea had been communicated.
Who was involved
Each course had between six and eight men, all hand-picked, plus myself. They included older lay preachers, a retired minister, younger elders, and young graduates. Some others dropped in and out from year to year, but the regulars were Derek, Drew, Jesse, Luke, Nick and Rhys. I found the course a great way to train and shape everyone. It’s good for older gentlemen who may have been preaching on the side for 20 years but who haven’t really been trained. They do not feel singled out as one who needs a ‘reconditioned motor’. In fact, a retired minister who joined us for a year commented after his critique that he had not had any sermon so helpfully critiqued in 25 years! It benefits younger ministers as well, without saying to them, “You have a lot to learn”. It is also a way of showing young would-be preachers that the task is much harder than they thought, and good sermons only result from much hard work and prayer.
The preaching program
Year 1—Part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-6)
I wanted the preachers to initially work hard at application, so I chose a section that lent itself to this. I also did not want them to get bogged down in detailed and difficult exegesis of a passage. My purpose was to train them to package a Bible talk well.
Year 2—Seven letters to the churches (Rev 2-3)
I still didn’t want exegesis to dominate but I wanted to add a section of Scripture that relied on historical and geographical background to enhance meaning. Passages were still short, and the preacher could not avoid application.
Year 3—1 Peter
Now it was time for heavier exegesis. I had spent a bit of time in 1 Peter myself recently, so felt I could break it up easily and into relatively short sections (nine in all which, with nine preachers, worked out nicely).
Year 4—1 Samuel 18-31
It was now time to tackle some Old Testament narrative. I chose the second half of 1 Samuel because we did Bible studies the year before on the first half. This was a longer series in which I filled in more gaps, and the training spread out either side of August and September, which turned out to be more of a negative. But never mind that, it’s just another lesson for me.
The training resources used
For this year only I prepared a preaching pack (Preaching Pack) of articles that those training could, should and would refer back to for years to come. They were what I judged to be the very best from my filing cabinet. Any new participants in subsequent years would receive a copy of this preaching pack and I would take them through it, albeit not thoroughly.
We used John Chapman’s Setting Hearts on Fire as the textbook. I selected eight chapters to discuss at our meetings. It was a terrific all-round resource with lots of fine quotes and backed by 50 years of experience.
We used Sydney Missionary and Bible College’s How to Prepare a Bible Talk this year. Lecturers from the college contributed articles as chapters. This resource was not as good, suffering from a lack of an overall editor. Most contributors gave their theology of preaching, which made it a bit repetitive. However, a couple of articles were of a high standard.
I selected a specialist book for our Old Testament narrative series. Everyone was delighted with Dale Ralph Davis’s insights and brevity in The Word Became Fresh: How to Preach from Old Testament Narrative Texts. After reading two chapters, I jumped online and bought his commentaries on 1 Samuel and Joshua. What a great find!
The lessons learnt
It would take a much longer article for me to be able to share every lesson learnt. Every week we would realize something new or remind ourselves of something in the original preaching pack. And it is amazing how easy it is to make basic mistakes from time to time: a fantastic introduction that doesn’t introduce the main point; a conclusion that adds something new; an application that doesn’t come out of the passage; a talk that has no real structure to hang it together in the mind; a sermon that suffers from being written without a main point clear in the writer’s mind; an overview that goes on too long; three introductions instead of just one; a sermon that doesn’t know how to end; a sermon that starts so quick we don’t have time to get on the train; an illustration that doesn’t illustrate the point; an explanation that needs an explanation itself because it was so complex… and so on and so on. One thing is certain: what one preacher learnt every preacher learnt! That was the beauty and effectiveness of the way we did it. The lay preacher did not just learn from his own mistakes but saw different and similar mistakes in others. And vice versa, seeing good patterns in a person’s talk encouraged everyone to try them. It multiplied and reinforced the lessons six to eight times. And, may I add, the lessons were six to eight times more powerfully learnt in the context of the group than from just reading this paragraph.
The results of a raised bar
It was great doing it in a group because we pushed each other to preach better. Some of this was a result of the mere fact that we were thinking about the art of preaching rather than just writing and delivering a sermon. Certainly the bar was raised for my own sermons—the standard was getting better. I think the guys really respected the fact that I subjected my own preaching to the same scrutiny as theirs. And yes, they lived up to James 3:1 pretty well—those who teach will be judged more strictly!
What was most surprising was the jump in standard from the first two years to the third and fourth years. During our last course I was overcome with emotion to think that God had entrusted me with the privilege of training these, mostly young, men who would be part of the next generation of gospel preachers. The sermons we heard were really very good. I would say they were exceptional for those who had no formal theological training. But I know that every single sermon was the result of a lot of hard work on the passage and four years of training. It has given me immense joy in the present and great hope for the future.
Furthermore, the whole process became exciting as we looked expectantly towards each week and how the sermon would turn out. I praise God that we did not suffer from competitiveness but just wanted each one to correctly handle the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). After one memorable sermon Drew said, “I look forward to this course each year just to hear Jesse preach. That was excellent.”
I think we also avoided pride that can come from delivering a ‘great’ sermon by human standards. Over the years we have come to realize that preparing sermons is hard, hard work. Every good sermon came with lots of agonizing and toiling over the passage. We all felt the need for God’s help and he gave it time and time again.
An additional benefit has been the increased confidence of the lay preachers and the sense of involvement as part of the team. This has meant that I have felt able to call on them to help me out in March last year during a particularly busy month in university ministry. Four of the group preached through 2 Peter, and my great ‘gap filler’ has always been Luke.
Why it is not done more often
The whole experience has made me reflect on why this simple practice is not done more often at the local church level and among the lay preachers. Several possible reasons come to mind:
- The minister is too afraid to place his own sermons under the microscope for fear of being found wanting. This really should not be the case. We are all ignoble vessels who require God to take our feeble efforts and make them effective in our listener’s hearts.
- The minister is too confident of his own preaching, thinking that he is the best available and the congregation should have the best. This may be true, but it is very short-sighted. When the minister is sick, on holidays, or transfers to another parish, the church leaders are ill-equipped for the task ahead.
- It is the minister’s job to preach. Again, this has an element of truth to it, but it’s also his job to train others and help raise up the next generation. The New Testament’s pattern involved lots of suitably gifted people in ministry, so it seems wise and strategic to train others to preach. If this is the expectation of the minister in your church context, I would encourage you to break out of the mould.
- All our lay preachers have been trained and are pretty good. This is over confidence again. I think we all can improve. I certainly have, and that’s after 20 years of preaching!
- The minister has become complacent about the task. Encourage them to resign. No task is more important and difficult.
We are getting a new minister soon, and that is exciting for us. But now that I have written it all down, I am sure he will want to continue with this training. In fact, I kind of like the idea of expanding it. We could turn March into a regular six week block for those who have done four years and then start a whole new group over six weeks around August-September. One year I would like to read an entire book on application as part of the course. It would also be helpful having training on preaching through the Psalms and on topical talks. All I know is that I want to continue being involved because of the benefit to my own preaching.
The Matthew 9:37 prayer
I want to close with a prayer. Our dear God and Father, we can see that the harvest is plentiful yet the workers are so very few. Please God, raise up more workers for the harvest, and use us, Father, to be part of answering this prayer. Help us to raise up workers or be those workers who are being raised up. Thank you for causing me to stumble across this idea of teaching preaching. May others stumble across it too, and may they both raise up more preachers and raise the standard of preaching in their church. We pray this for the glory of your Son the Lord Jesus. Amen.
- I owe much to John Chapman, who taught me preaching in my second year of Bible college. John kindly critiqued not one sermon (the standard number), not two sermons (the exception), but four sermons! I learnt something new from each critique. ↩