The problems of preaching

Preaching is difficult. Yes, it is spiritually difficult – it costs, it hurts, to preach well. But that’s not what I mean just now. It is an astonishingly difficult task to ask of anyone to find a worthwhile and meaningful – and, ideally, engaging and entertaining – message weekly, or, commonly, twice a week, for the same group of people. It is something we ask of almost no-one else in our culture. There are a select handful of newspaper commentators who do it in print, and are rightly revered by other journalists. No broadcaster that I can think of, since the demise of the astonishing Alistair Cooke, would dream of doing it without a battery of researchers and writers in support. Yet we expect our pastors to succeed in the task. Talking to another member of my local church recently, I reflected on my own experience of the preaching ministry within a local fellowship. I have, it happens, only rarely, and for fairly brief periods, been the sole preacher in a church; I have fairly often sat under preachers called to a maintain the pulpit ministry alone – some of them extraordinarily able. When I began my own ministry, I regarded team preaching as a necessary evil; when in a particular circumstance four of us, all in full-time employment, had to work together to maintain the pulpit of a church in a difficult context, I thought it would be a problem: there would be problems with continuity and coherence of the teaching, but we would work to do the best we could. That team lasted, with minor changes, for over two years. By the end of that time, I had changed my mind: team preaching – with the necessary work to ensure continuity and coherence – is, for me, the ideal; solo preaching is common, but to be regretted. Why so? For the reasons I began with. Preaching is, just, hard. In particular, all of us have native styles, particular weaknesses, idiosyncracies, and even our own strengths. I think I am fairly self-aware about my own preaching. There are some things I do pretty well, and there are some serious weaknesses (I am not, for instance, good at detailed application – I am far more comfortable with ringing truths that remain in elevated oratorical splendour, without ever touching messy ‘reality’). Were (Deus avertat…) I to have sole occupancy of a pulpit, over time, inevitably, my weaknesses would become magnified, and my strengths vitiated. We speak sometimes of preaching being ‘food’ for God’s people; to feed on one foodstuff, rich in potassium and vitamin A, but lacking magnesium and vitamin C, is not good for us; eventually we will be desperate for a tiny dose of what we have been missing, and even sick of the the good things we have been getting in excess. So with preaching. It is not about (in abstract) how good a preacher is – it is about the need for God’s people to receive Biblical instruction, powerful inspiration, practical help, warm comfort, prophetic challenge, and all the rest – most of us who preach can only provide perhaps two or three of these with any competence. So, ideally I believe, we need a preaching team, indeed, a diverse preaching team – ordained and lay, some male members alongside the women, different ages, different cultural backgrounds, different styles and gifts. I know that ideals are never attained, but examining an ideal helps us, often, to come to a more clear-sighted evaluation of where we are and how we might address the imperfections of our present...

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