By Davy Ellison
Small changes can result in significant alterations. James makes a similar observation in his letter when highlighting that a small bit in the mouth of a horse can guide the whole beast, or a small rudder can manoeuvre an entire ship, or one little spark can set on fire an entire forest (Jas. 3:3–5). Small things can make big changes.
Jonathan Pennington’s short book Small Preaching advocates the same with regard to preaching. Small changes can have a big impact on our preaching. In part one of his book Pennington focuses on the character of the preacher. There are at least three implications for preachers.
If we are to be effective preachers we must know ourselves. The preacher must be cognisant of his strengths and weaknesses. Pennington relates this specifically to receiving praise and criticism, both of which are lethal if not handled correctly.
Helpfully, Pennington encourages preachers not to run away from praise. The reality is that God has created us to benefit from the praise and encouragement of others. If someone has something nice to say about you it is not a sin to hear them out. Some of us need a subtle shift in mindset at this point: “Praise is like food in that neither gluttony nor starvation is good. . . .Don’t be afraid of receiving praise, but handle it carefully and gladly” (p. 12). Do not starve yourself of praise.
Whenever it comes to criticism the stakes are high since “how you handle criticism will most often be the deciding factor in whether you survive at a church and in ministry overall” (p. 13). Although it is often difficult to hear, and at times unjustified, we must remember that we are not perfect. All of us have space to learn and grow in the task of preaching. Therefore, as difficult as it may be, criticism provides the opportunity to reflect and develop.
In my home church we have a preaching WhatsApp group in which participants are invited to share one thing that was good about another’s sermon and one thing that needs improvement—praise and critique in equal measure. I find this immensely helpful as others speak encouragement into my preaching while highlighting areas in which I fall short.
We must know ourselves, and in knowing ourselves avoid either chasing after praise or fleeing from critique.
Standing at the front of a church service, behind a pulpit, with an open Bible can feel very lonely; isolating even. It is therefore vital that we know others well.
The first group of people we would do well to know are other preachers. Pennington leans on the Band of Brothers metaphor at this stage, observing that “No soldier wins a battle by himself” (p. 20). The reality is that being in regular conversation with fellow preachers will aid ongoing growth and development as we continue to hone our skills as a preacher. Of course this is again a question of character: are we humble enough to open ourselves up to others? Pennington encourages us to “cultivate patterns of regular dialogue with other preachers” (p. 18).
The second group of people we would do well to know are fellow Christians. When executed well the preaching moment should result in a diverse congregation living out the Christian faith in harmony with one another. But this takes hard work behind the scenes:
The Sunday morning sermon—the word proclaimed—is simultaneously an incredibly important single moment of the church’s life and the smallest part of it. The pastor’s preparation is what makes the preaching moment what it is. This preparation includes a lifetime of study both of Holy Scripture and human experience. Both academic labor (past education and weekly study) and pastoral care (living with and loving real people) are the necessary preparation for conducting the weekly service. (p. 23)
We must be attentive to the needs and sensitivities of fellow Christians if we are to preach helpfully.
Know the Task
Related to both knowing ourselves and others is the necessity of knowing the task. What is preaching? After calling preachers to be God’s witnesses as opposed to his lawyers (a perceptive distinction that places the preacher on the side of the congregation rather than against them), Pennington attempts to distinguish between preaching and teaching.
Preaching and teaching are of course overlapping and complementary forms of communicating God’s Word, but they are distinct. Sunday sermons are not exclusively teaching moments but preaching moments—there should be a dynamism in the pulpit that is not always necessary in the classroom. We need to grasp this subtle distinction if we are to know God’s power in preaching.
It is also important to have patience in preaching. The first mistake students preparing for ministry make is to try to squeeze too much into a single sermon. Instead, “Each sermon is just one small contribution to your lifework in the pulpit. This is freeing” (p. 34). An individual sermon is not, and should not be viewed as, a one-time event in a settled ministry. It is another coat of Scripture paint, an additional patch on the gospel quilt, another meal in a Christian’s diet. Even visiting preachers should recognise that their sermon feeds into an ongoing preaching schedule. “Play the long game” (p. 35).
Part one of Pennington’s book calls for a subtle shift in mindset. He calls his readers to think about preaching in a different way. Consider your character. How do you handle praise? How do you incorporate others into the preaching experience? How do you view the task of opening and explaining God’s Word from the pulpit? These are small things but can having a lasting impact.
- Examine your heart. How do you respond to praise and critique? What can you do to improve your reception of both praise and critique?
- Are you willing to invite fellow preachers into your preaching life? Pray that God would grant you a Band of Brothers.
- Is your sermon too full? Reread or listen back to a recent sermon and ask yourself was this too full?