Here is a book on preaching which non-preachers are invited to read. Ryan McGraw’s recent book, How Shall They Hear? is subtitled, ‘Why non-preachers need to know what preaching is.’
This is an important topic, and yet I’ve come away faintly dissatisfied.
Overview of the book
The explanation of preaching itself is not unsatisfying. McGraw opens by showing from 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 what the task of preaching is: “Preaching is a public, authoritative proclamation of the gospel, through ordained ambassadors of Christ…” (p3). Then using Romans 10:14-17 he shows why preaching is necessary: “preaching is the ordinary means by which we must learn Christ and hear his voice” (p13). From 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 he shows that preachers must preach Christ crucified, in the power of the Spirit. Then from Colossians 1:28-29 he shows that preaching is hard work, because its aim is nothing lower than the salvation (justification and sanctification) of the hearers (p31). And from John 16:8-11, 14-15 he shows that the preacher’s aims in preaching must reflect what Christ has sent the Spirit to do through preaching – bringing people to Christ by convicting them (of sin, righteousness, and judgment) in relation to Christ (p42).
These five points take up the first five chapters, and so far these basic principles are clearly and persuasively laid out. This is a straightforward, comprehensive view of preaching and the preacher’s task and the preacher’s hope of success. If more preachers were more familiar with these principles and more consistently putting them into practice, without doubt we would all be happier and spiritually healthier hearers.
There is also certainly great value for hearers in having this clear a statement of what preaching is meant to be like, and what it’s meant to achieve. As McGraw says, although preaching is the primary means of grace, hearers often sit under preaching every week with only very little understanding of why it is the primary means of grace and what we can expect from it (p ix). But when this is left unspoken, and as it becomes forgotten, preachers lose heart (and confidence and authority) and hearers come and go mystified and unimpressed (and wither and weaken in their spiritual liveliness).
But for the next several chapters, the book seems to lose its focus slightly. Not so much its focus on preaching, but on what preaching means for the non-preacher. Chapters 6 to 12 are on topics like ‘proper methods for preaching Christ’ and ‘what should sermon application look like.’ It’s good material, there is plenty to think about, but it is geared for the preacher, with the applications for non-preachers having the distinct flavour of the afterthought.
It is only in the final two chapters that the non-preacher comes back into the picture again. In Chapter 13 McGraw argues that all Christians have a role in participating in sermons. He advises non-preachers to pray for preachers as they study and prepare. ‘Do we pray that the Spirit would increase love for Christ in our ministers so that they would preach him devotionally? … Do we pray that Christ would give them the ability to apply their sermons wisely…?’ (p104). He also reminds us to take diligent heed during the service to what we hear and how we hear. After the sermon is over, we can discuss it in conversation, ‘ready to highlight what is good in the sermon and to overlook any faults in the preacher’ (p105), and put it into practice in our lives. Overall, he comments that ‘the purposes of preaching should set the tone for our prayers for the preached Word,’ and for our aim in listening to sermons (p107). This is all good advice, because often you get out of a sermon (by way of spiritual profit) only as much as you put in (by way of self-preparation and believing expectation during and after).
Finally, in Chapter 14, McGraw tackles the question, ‘What if I sit under preaching that does not match the biblical model?’ This is perhaps the trickiest question in the book. The advice in response is necessarily given in broad outlines. If the preaching denies or neglects cardinal doctrines, it is time to find a new church (p110). But when preaching is doctrinally adequate but feels like watching a train wreck (p110) then hearers should have a charitable attitude which looks for what is good in the sermon, and they should be patient with the preacher, ‘looking to the Lord to develop them as preachers’ (p112). In general, we should pray always (p113): ‘first pray for the preacher, then talk to him about his preaching if necessary, and then talk to the elders of the church’ (p113).
The stated aim of this book is to be helpful to all believers, preachers or not. “It is only indirectly a homiletical manual for pastors; directly, it is a guide to believers” (p xi). In my view this should have been phrased the other way round. It is more directly addressed to preachers, and although it does perhaps have listeners more prominently in view than other homiletical manuals do, it is not geared towards them (us) directly. The book is not necessarily unsatisfying for its content but because it does not match its own sales pitch.
My disappointment with this book arises from the fact that for some time now I have been on the lookout for a book that would be helpful for non-preachers. In denominations which have a high regard for the Word and its truths and the preaching of it, there is a noticeable famine of the Word. For every person who says they love their pastor’s preaching and continually get spiritual benefit from it, there is at least one other person who loves their pastor and wouldn’t countenance leaving their church, but whose soul is not being fed by the preaching they hear.
I used to assume that if you didn’t get benefit from a sermon preached by a faithful minister, the problem was on your side. This is more or less the implication arising from McGraw’s book and others like it. Ministers quite rightly don’t want to blame the Holy Spirit for lack of appreciation of and/or fruit from their ministry, but this means that the next obvious place to put the blame is on the hearers. And there are after all plenty reasons why the problem could genuinely be on the hearer’s side. No doubt if we aren’t acting on the advice McGraw gives in Chapter 13 on praying and preparing to hear and receive the preached word, some portion of the blame does belong to us as poor hearers. We’re not spiritually hungry enough, we’re not expectant enough, we’re too distracted by other problems (in everyday life, or our wriggly children in the pew), we’re too critical of the preacher, we’re too easily tricked by the devil’s temptations.
But there are also poor sermons, and poor preachers. There are worship services where, however well prepared and expectantly you come, the likelihood of spiritual nourishment is small because the content of the sermon is the equivalent of spiritual cardboard rather than the feast of fat things the hearer longs for. You wonder whether these preachers themselves get anything out of their sermons – whether they would really be satisfied if they were in the pew listening to someone else saying these same things from the pulpit.
When a hearer is disappointed over a period of time by the sermons of their faithful pastor, what can they do?
McGraw is offering basically the same advice as Christopher Ash gives in his booklet, ‘Listen Up! A practical guide to listening to sermons’ – pray, be patient, be charitable. Of course this advice is sound. It is however very difficult to put into practice, especially when someone’s problem with the preaching they hear has been ongoing for a long time. Little recognition is given to how demoralising and spiritually debilitating it is to sit under inadequate preaching long term.
Simply because preaching is the primary means of grace, it’s those who sit under disappointing preaching who are least well placed to pray and be patient and charitable. Easy enough for writers of homiletics manuals, who presumably preach fairly decent sermons to fairly appreciative congregations, to urge those less favoured to sit tight and exercise more of the graces of patience and charity. Much harder when the feeding you should be getting from the preaching is starvation rations and you’re resorting to dietary supplements in the form of your own reading and your own listening (with all the associated limitations and risks) in order to sustain spiritual life in your soul.
Hard too when you love your pastor and it feels like a betrayal to acknowledge that his sermons are not bringing any benefit. Or it’s a series of supply preachers because you don’t have a pastor, and none of them could preach their way out of a paper bag, but you feel guilty even thinking that because all of them are lovely Christians and gracious saints and they pray so beautifully. Or the sermons are always preached from such lovely texts, so surely it must be your fault for not getting something out of it.
What can you do? How can you keep turning up? What coping strategies are there? How can you turn a poor sermon to some benefit?
I suppose we could pray again. It’s the Lord’s day, it’s the Lord’s truth, it’s the Lord’s ambassador – it makes sense to ask for the Lord’s blessing.
And there are tough-love truths we could try to take in – the possibility that some people may be benefiting from the preaching even if we’re personally not, and the fact that there is more to being a believer and a member of the congregation/church than consciously benefiting from all of the services all of the time.
Sometimes it might help during a sermon to think your own thoughts on the text and whatever aspects of its meaning and implications the sermon would ideally be bringing out (although when does this become a disrespectful refusal to engage with the sermon the Lord has arguably given this preacher to preach to this congregation including you at this time?).
Or there are sanity-check measures we could take, like educating ourselves on what it is and isn’t realistic to expect from preaching, so that we can evaluate sermons on objective criteria rather than simply failing to profit from personal failings or prejudice, or continually doubting our own judgment. (For this, I would recommend How Sermons Work by David Murray, as exceptionally helpful – it equips you with concepts and a vocabulary to understand what’s going on in a sermon, so that when things go wrong, you can at least identify it to yourself.)
At institution level, those who are responsible for arranging supply preachers should perhaps do a more careful cost-benefit analysis of having poor preaching supply versus no preaching supply, in the light of what kind of preaching the congregation appreciates and needs more than simply who might be available to fill gaps in the rota. Churches perhaps need to be more rigorous in assessing who they accept as preachers, not just in terms of the clearness of the call they feel but also in terms of whether they have any gifts for preaching. Perhaps a case could be made of reviving the old practice of ministers meeting to preach to other ministers specifically for the purpose of getting brotherly feedback on their preaching.
But these are only partial answers (and at institution level virtually impossible for the average hearer to do anything at all to implement). Why does the Lord provide preaching as the main means of growth for his people and then let the preaching be dull, ineffective and wearisome even when you really want to benefit from it? To me this is still a conundrum, and I’m still waiting to find someone to explain.