The Barnabas Files

“A word of advice: following the emotion, exhilaration, excitement or despondency of delivering our sermon, we should avoid the temptation for immediate self-evaluation of our own preaching.  After the elapse of some time it can certainly be helpful to listen to positive and negative comments from those with maturity and discernment who may offer advice.  Even here, however, we must be careful; our listeners will bring a mixed bag of moods and motives, even with the best intentions.  Accountability to a group of fellow-preachers is probably even more helpful.  Balance is needed.  Excessive praise can lead to pride; total failure ever to give praise can bring deep despondency; regular negative criticism can drag us into discouragement.  Every sermon I preach fails in some respect and a feeling of self-dissatisfaction is the norm rather than the exception in my own case.  Ultimately our responsibility begins, continues and ends in adequate preparation of sermon and self.  Beyond that, we must consciously remember that the ability of the Lord to use his own precious and powerful Word does not depend on our own positive or negative feelings about our performance in the pulpit.  Such an awareness ought to produce that combined fruit of deep assurance and deep humility in the expository preacher.
Derek Newton 
And the Word Became…..A Sermon
Fearn: Christian Focus, 2003   p245

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The Preaching That Revived A Nation: Simple

In the first post on this subject, I highlighted the comment by J C Ryle that it was “a few individuals, most of them clergymen of the Established Church, whose hearts God touched about the same time in various parts of the country” and their labours “shook England from one end to the other.” The means through which they effected such change was simple – “no more or less than the old apostolic weapon of preaching…They wisely went back to first principles, and took up apostolic plans. They held, with St Paul, that a minister’s first work is “to preach the gospel.”

Ryle then lists and comments on ten features of the 18th century preachers and their preaching, each of which, I believe, has lessons we need to note in the spiritually bleak days in which we live, certainly in the western world. First on Ryle’s list is that they preached everywhere.

Secondly, says Ryle, is the fact they preached simply.

“They rightly concluded that the very first qualification to be aimed at in a sermon is to be understood.  They saw clearly that thousands of able and well-composed sermons are utterly useless, because they are above the heads of the hearers.   They strove to come down to the level of the people, and to speak what the poor could understand.  To attain this they were not ashamed to crucify their style, and to sacrifice their reputation for learning.  To attain this they used illustrations and anecdotes in abundance, and, like their divine Master, borrowed lessons from every object in nature.  They carried out the maxim of Augustine, – “A wooden key is not so beautiful as a golden one, but if it can open the door when the golden one cannot, it is far more useful.”  They revived the style of sermons in which Luther and Latimer used to be so eminently successful.  In short, they saw the truth of what the great German reformer meant when he said, “No one can be a good preacher to the people who is not willing to preach in a manner that seems childish and vulgar to some.  Now, all this again was quite new a hundred years ago.” [i]

Surely there is much we could learn from this for our own generation? We live in a day of great emphasis on academic qualifications and intellectual ability and there is no doubt that it has hugely infected and impacted the preaching in many churches. In fact, one College Lecturer tried to persuade me a few years ago that the average person in the pew in Scotland in the 21st century was interested in the JDEP theory and we should reflect that in our preaching!

As in so many things, and as Ryle points out, our Saviour is a great role model for us in this regard. Jesus didn’t use technical or theological jargon but spoke in such a way that normal people could understand and relate to and, says the Scripture, they heard him gladly. Jesus spoke in Aramaic, the everyday street language of his time and didn’t resort to philosophical concepts or arguments but talked of everyday objects that anyone could easily relate to.

Someone has said, “Jesus taught profound truths in simple ways. Today, we do the opposite—we teach simple truths in profound ways.”

The Puritan, Richard Baxter wrote, “Our teaching should be plain and simple as possible, people cannot benefit from our ministry unless they understand it. if we obscure the truth we are enemies of the truth. If we cannot teach a subject clearly it usually means we have not understood it clearly.”

I love J C Ryle’s pithy way of expressing this important truth, “Have a clear knowledge of what you want to say.  Use simple words.  Employ a simple sentence structure.  Preach as though you had asthma! Be direct.  Make sure you illustrate what you are talking about.” [ii]

Josh Buice has some wise advice.  “Far too many preachers seek to unleash their theologically robust and esoteric vocabulary upon the church without considering the common man and woman among the church who may not get it. In other words, it’s best for the preacher to put the cookies on the bottom shelf as often as possible in order to deliver the truth and unleash God’s gospel.” [iii]

Let me suggest three ways in which we can increase simplicity and therefore effectiveness in our preaching.

First, we need to keep the message itself simple.  By that I mean, have one clear, overriding, dominant theme and focus to our sermons; something that can be summed up in a short phrase or soundbite.  Too many preachers try to communicate too many truths in one sermon and this is counter-productive.  As one preacher once said, however many points your sermon has, it should still only have one point.   To apply the old adage, for preacher, less is usually more.

Second, we need to keep our language as simple as we can.  Spurgeon is right when he says that “simple” should not mean “vacuous” or “shallow”…Let your teaching be clear as crystal, but deep as the sea.”   I don’t know the actual statistics but I am confident that, at least in most churches, the vocabulary of the average preacher is, or even ought to be, considerably greater than the average person in the pew; apart from anything else because of our reading and study and training.   So we need to work hard to make sure that we speak their language.  Here’s a thought – keep a Thesaurus handy and next time you plan to use a complex or three-or-more-syllable word try and find a simpler alternative.

Thirdly, we need to keep our outline/structure as simple as we can.   The simpler it is, the more likely it is that our hearers will remember it – and that’s an important goal to aim for.   If we use words that our hearers are not familiar with and don’t immediately understand, they are far less likely to remember them.

Let Spurgeon have the final word, as he makes exactly the same point as Ryle did when he identified that preaching was the agency by which Christianity was revived in 18th century England.

“Ah, my dear friends, we want nothing in these times for revival in the world but the simple preaching of the gospel.  This is the greatest battering ram that shall dash down the bulwarks of iniquity.  This is the great light that shall scatter the darkness.  We need not that men should be adopting new schemes and new plans.  We are glad of the agencies and assistances which are continually arising; but after all, the true Jerusalem blade, the sword that can cut to the piercing asunder of the joints and marrow, is preaching the Word of God.  We must never neglect it, never despise it.  The age in which the pulpit is despised, will be an age in which gospel truth will cease to be honoured…God forbid that we should begin to depreciate preaching.  Let us still honour it; let us look to it as God’s ordained instrumentality, and we shall yet see in the world a repetition of great wonders wrought by the preaching in the name of Jesus Christ.” [iv]

[i] [i] Christian Leaders of the 18th Century   Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1978  pp24-5

[ii] qtd by Sinclair Ferguson in Some Pastors and Teachers   Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2017  pp760-761


[iv] ‘Preaching! Man’s Privilege and God’s Power’   Preached on 25 November 1860