The Joys of Preaching

As I continue to make my way through John Carrick’s new volume, The Preaching of Jonathan Edwards, I am continually astounded at the Northampton pastor-theologian’s preaching skills. A particularly interesting chapter for me was the one on Edwards’ sermon delivery. Edwards has the reputation of reading his sermon manuscripts from the pulpit looking up from the sacred desk every once in awhile to gaze at the church bell rope! This is one of those myths that refuses to die, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, but it is a myth all the same. There may have been a point in time when Edwards did read his sermon manuscripts, but he outgrew that practice while serving as pastor in Northampton. Many scholars, who recognize the myth of boringly read sermons, attribute Edwards’ development to the visit of the great orator George Whitefield. Carrick notes that this may be confusing the occasion for Edwards moving away from the use of full manuscripts for its cause. It seems pretty clear to me, from Edwards’ own comments about what good preaching entails, that he was moving away from reading his sermons in the pulpit before the Whitefield visit. But one thing is clear, by the time he settled in Stockbridge, he was preaching from notes. We even have evidence that he preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” from an outline. And, contra Wilson Kimnach, this is, as Carrick indicates, no sure sign that lethargy had set in. It was, rather, a conscious recognition that preaching is an oral event. Edwards was always concerned that he reach the head and heart of his hearers at the moment of the preaching event.

Preaching has been on my mind these last few weeks as I have had the privilege of filling pulpits of hard working pastors who have taken their well-earned vacations. Summers have always been busy preaching seasons for me, both as a licentiate and now as an ordained minister. I serve as the teacher of the congregation for an Orthodox Presbyterian Church in New Jersey and so my duties do not include regular weekly preaching. But one of the benefits of being a teacher is that I can help out others when they need pulpit supply. It has been my privilege to lift up Christ to various congregations these last few weeks. And my summer preaching run appears to be drawing to close with this Labor Day weekend. With Jeremiah, I cannot not preach Christ. There is a burning in my bones to make the gospel known.

I have been drawn to considering Jonathan Edwards’ sermon delivery practices as I wrestle with my own. I have been preaching on and off now since 1983, and fairly regularly since 1986. I am not in a position to gauge whether I have made any improvements in the intervening years. I hope and pray I have. Perhaps to be concerned with that question is inappropriate any way. One of the things I learned early in my own ministry in 1986 was that I had a tendency to read my sermons in the pulpit and I have read that voracious readers can have that problem. So I decided to attempt preaching from an outline. But since attending seminary I have returned to the full manuscript. Recently I was challenged by colleagues in the ministry to try preaching from notes once again. I began doing that last Lord’s Day and I must say that it allows for greater freedom and clarity of communication and engagement with the congregation. That is, after all, what preaching should be about. Preaching is the expounding of God’s Word, showing how Christ is the focal point of all revelation and driving it home to the hearts and minds of my hearers.

In the end, though, preaching is not about me or Jonathan Edwards or any other preacher. It is about setting forth the claims of the gospel in clear, forthright terms. Preaching is a matter of expounding the whole counsel of God with conviction and compassion. Preaching is one of the most demanding, challenging, frustrating, invigorating, and joyous endeavors. And I try to take advantage of preaching opportunities whenever I can, both in my home congregation and in other places when the call comes to me. Again, preaching is not about me at all. As I just was reminded last evening, one cannot step into the pulpit and be concerned to be a great orator and also preach Christ as a great savior! While I will always want to strive to improve and be better at proclaiming the gospel of my Lord Jesus Christ, a constant focus on Christ and him crucified is what the world needs to hear.

3 Responses

  1. gonpreachn

    I totally agree with your definition of preaching and I would say anything we can do to enhance Gospel proclamation we should do. I have found that preaching extemporaneously is often best. Our listeners tune out when they feel they’re being read to but the engage when they feel they are being spoken with. If we can organize our material into certain “thought blocks” during sermon development that are of a certain type and flow in a certain order, we can easily preach with no notes at all. For instance, whatever principle I may be proclaiming or teaching, I will develop 4 types of material to communicate that principle:

    1. Explanation
    2. Illustration
    3. Argumentation
    4. Application

    When I know that I am going to take my principle through that series, my mind will naturally flow to and through the material I have prepared. That is, I will remember what I decided to use to explain (restatement, word meaning, etc.) then I will remember the story I chose to tell next to illustrate the point. My mind will then flow to cross references, a logical point or whatever I have chosen to argue it. Lastly, I will walk through some solid, practical application ideas that I pre-determined and thought through in my study. This provides not only a check-list to a well rounded sermon for each point, but also helps my mind recall easily that which I have prepared, making a manuscript unnecessary and perhaps making notes unnecessary as well. This is a concept we discuss from time to time on our show at http://www.Sermonators.com. Keep up the good work and may the Lord bless your ministry.

    Scott Newton Smith
    The Sermonators Podcast

  2. Unity Presbyterian Church

    Thanks for the info on Carrick’s book. I just finished reading Edwards’ biography by Marsden and look forward to getting a copy of Carrick’s book soon.

    Mark Wright

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