It’s not a sin

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I’m writing this eating my breakfast on the train. Which means a cup of rather weak black coffee, and a carton of microwaved stodge.

Which brings me to preaching. Because I reckon we’re serving up a lot of microwaved stodge from our pulpits, and letting ourselves off the hook by quoting a bible verse or two.

The gospel is the power of God for salvation. The cross is folly and weakness. God will not share his glory with another. A preacher cannot simultaneously preach the cross and want to appear clever. (That last one’s not a Bible quote but it’s still true).

The false step comes when we serve that message up in a lazy, boring, or stiff way because we think that to do otherwise would be to take glory from Christ. In other words, in order for Christ to be glorified I must aim to be boring.

Is the cross boring? Is God’s glory trite? Is his Word stodgy? Of course not. So why, when people criticise our preaching for being boring, do we refuse to acknowledge that we might, actually be the problem? That we might, by being predictable week after week, be making the cross stodgy?

You’ll push back. We mustn’t be novelty preachers. We mustn’t have a different gospel every week. We must be predictable.

You’re right.

But that doesn’t mean we always have to have three points every week. Beginning with the same letter. That we always explain, illustrate, explain, apply.

I learnt to drive when I was 17. I remember sitting in the car in a driving snowstorm with my instructor repeating the mantras, Accelerator, Brake Clutch. Mirror, signal, manoeuvre. It made me a safer driver.

If you sat in the car with me now and I muttered the same mantras to myself, you would rightly feel rather nervous, and would probably get out and catch a bus instead. Because by now those things ought to be so instinctive so that that I can drive the car well, talk to the passengers and fantasise about going round the Top Gear track. I don’t have to convince Joy, my instructor, that it’s safe for me to turn on the ignition. I’ve learnt. I can drive.

I learnt to preach in my early twenties. I was taught mantras. I was taught to write my full notes so that they would tuck inside my Bible. Many of my contemporaries were taught in the same way, and many young folk still are. It’s an excellent way to learn to preach.

But why are we still preaching in the same way, years later? Why haven’t we had a bit of experience, and learnt how to push the format a bit, to spin the wheels and rev the engine?

That’s what people mean by stodge. It’s not evidence that they want us to preach a different gospel. It’s that we’re confusing preaching the same gospel, with always preaching it the same way. I’m not suggesting that we stop preaching through a book, section by section, or verse by verse. I’m just suggesting that it’s possible to be a safe driver without always saying, ‘Mirror, signal, manoeuvre.’

It’s just that it’s not a sin to be interesting.

  • Have a look at some of your earliest sermons. Don’t rely on memory, get them out of the filing cabinet. Could you still preach them? What does that tell you about whether you are developing as a preacher?
  • Are you still preaching the same gospel? Take some time to re-read some classics, like Knowing God, or The Cross of Christ. Do those books seem wiser to you than they used to? What does that tell you about how you are developing as a theologian?
  • Dig out your last ten sermons. Do they share a similar architectural shape? Is that by accident or design?
  • Who taught you to preach? If you could travel back in time, what would you say to yourself that you have had to reach yourself in your reaching ministry?
  • Watch some of the presenters on the TEDS website. Could you communicate with similar clarity and passion if you were given the opportunity? Guess what…

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