John Wesley’s Advice – Part 3

Continuing our walk through twelve points of advice from John Wesley.  So far we’ve looked at numbers 1-2, and numbers 3-5.  Let’s move on…

6. Speak justly, readily, clearly… Clearness in particular is necessary…because we are to instruct people of the lowest understanding… Constantly use the most common, little, easy words (so they are pure and proper) which our language affords.  Most of us are not preaching to uneducated miners like Wesley did, but don’t let out-of-date phrasing obscure the point he is making.  Our job as preachers is to communicate, not to show off.  If you don’t have a theological and grammatical terminology that is higher than your preaching vocabulary, then you are either aiming too high with your words, or you are too weak in your study.  Say the profound things that the Bible says.  And say those things in the simplest way possible.  Even if ten PhD’s walk into your church, you still need to preach so that people with the least understanding (by means of their education, church being an alien environment, English not being their first language, or whatever) will be able to understand what you are saying.  Be clear.  Simple.

7. Beware of clownishness… Avoid all lightness, jesting, and foolish talking.  Again, good advice.  There is a place for humour in preaching, but we do need to be very wary of entertaining or making the sermon about us.  I suspect that if we avoid jesting and foolish talk, as well as clownishness, then we are on safe ground.  We don’t have to come across as sombre in every moment, but we should speak as if we have a very important message to convey – which we do if we are preaching the text properly.  We need to be wary of inappropriate formality.  Just as wearing a tuxedo can feel out of place, so can a strange and affected formal tone or a presentational gravitas that is not consistent with our personality and natural demeanour.  In our fear of jesting, let’s not come across as unloving, lacking in warmth, or out of touch with the room.  

8. Never scream.  Never speak above the natural pitch of your voice.  This was probably a greater concern before amplification equipment.  Nevertheless, this point still applies.  There is a natural upper limit to your pitch, your power, and even your pace.  Don’t go above that level to achieve some kind of emphasis.  The screamer seldom communicates anything other than a loss of control.  In fact, it is good to consciously work on going down instead of up for emphasis.  Down in pitch.  Down in power.  Slow down the pace.  Emphasis sounds very natural in the opposite direction, but it takes unnatural work to develop the skill!  And even more foundationally, your emphasis and impact is not ultimately determined by your vocal delivery, but by God’s Spirit bringing conviction to your listeners.

Next time we will finish the list.

John Wesley’s Advice – Part 2

So last time we started this list of 12 points of advice to preachers from John Wesley.  Let’s keep going!

3. Choose the plainest texts from the Bible to preach on.  Again, if I were purely speaking to non-believers then I would completely concur.  However, in a typical church setting, we will be speaking to both Christians and non-Christians.  A steady diet of the same evangelistically oriented passages will lead to some malnourishment among God’s people.  I think it is good to help our churches experience the full breadth and scope of God’s Word.  You might preach more from the New Testament than the Old, but if they never hear the Old Testament preached, why would they read it?  And if they don’t read it, what a vast vista of theological truth is lost.  Different types of text are also important for the health of the church.

So on the one hand, I would agree that every passage has a redemptive force that should be brought out because believers never move beyond the need to hear the gospel being applied to their lives.  On the other hand, while every passage is useful, not every passage is equally useful on every occasion.  Don’t be stubbornly preaching through Jeremiah when people are coming for a Christmas Carol Service.  Bottom line?  Be selective and choose what you are going to preach appropriately for the listeners and the occasion, but in a church choose from the whole Bible because people need more than your favourite five passages.

4. Take care not to ramble from your text but to keep close to it.  Can I just say I agree and move on?  Of course not, otherwise this would be a “Quote” rather than a “Blog!”  It is quite remarkable how little weight the Bible passage will have in some sermons.  Some will leave it behind to ramble into excessive personal anecdotes and humorous illustrations.  Others will leave it behind to ramble into theological presentations that resemble explosions in a concordance factory! (Hyper cross-referencing is very common in some circles!)  Few seem to recognize that this passage is uniquely powerful and should not be missed by superficial coverage in the sermon.  Your church may not be back in that passage for several years.  Keep close to it, do it justice, allow time for clarity to emerge and its impact to be felt.

5. Be sure to begin and end at the time appointed… People imagine the longer a sermon is, the more good it will do. This is a grand mistake… the Methodist rule is to conclude the service within an hour.  Several points in this one.  Let’s go one-by-one – (1) begin and end on time.  I understand that different cultures have different expectations in terms of time.  But the point still applies.  Abide by the expectations of the culture.  Once we break the general expectation, then we distract attention from the sermon.  If we go 10 minutes over, parents are concerned about children in kids’ groups, volunteers in kids’ groups start to lose their joy in serving, and others are concerned about their plans, their lift home, etc.  Generally speaking, stick to time.  Seems fairly simple.

(2) Longer is not necessarily better.  Again, agreed.  Haddon Robinson was captivated by how some preachers preach for ten minutes and it feels like an hour, while others preach for an hour and it feels like ten minutes.  Length tends to become the key focus when too little attention is given to clear, engaging and relevant content and delivery.  Generally speaking, longer sermons could be sharpened into shorter sermons.  But shorter is not automatically better either.  Some things take time.  Just as an illustration might be lost in two sentences, but really capture hearts in two minutes, in the same way, a sermon can be technically precise in a shorter timeframe, but more vivid and engaging with enough time given to let the listeners’ imagination flourish.  There is no right length of sermon.  It depends on preacher’s skill; listener’s background, expectations and focus; and the occasion too.

(3) Service length should be less than one hour.  That feels quite arbitrary and culturally bound.  I imagine that didn’t translate effectively in some other global contexts!  But, service length should be considered for the sake of church attendees, as well as their perception of service length for potential guests they might invite in the future.

Ok, let’s leave it there for this time.

John Wesley’s Advice

For some years I have had a postcard with “John Wesley’s Advice on How to Preach” sitting on a shelf.  I think one of my children gave it to me.  I thought it would be fun to work through these twelve points and ponder them together. 

Full disclosure, I have no dog in the fight when it comes to John Wesley.  I don’t feel the need to defend him, nor critique him.  So, let’s just engage with these points and see what we can learn in the process.

1. Always suit your subject to your audience.  Well, some might want to argue that since “all Scripture is God-breathed and useful…” therefore this advice is not necessary.  Just preach the Bible and it will be suitable, they might say.  Yes, 2 Timothy 3:16 is certainly true, but it does not mean that every passage of Scripture is equally useful to every set of listeners.  Some will take too much work to arrive at a point of usefulness for the listener.  For example, if I am speaking to a group of children with English as a second language who have no church background, then I probably don’t want to preach from Leviticus.  Seems obvious enough. Technically it may be useful Scripture, but for this group, it is probably not the best-suited text.  

We could restate the advice as follows, “make sure you preach to the people who are in front of you.”  Prayerfully ponder who they are so that your preaching will be suitable for them.  Think about your passage choice, your vocabulary, your manner, your demeanour, your volume, your speed . . . everything.  It would be unloving not to do so.

2. Do not preach more than twice a day during the week or three times on Sunday.  This feels a bit specific to his context.  It was a day of horse riding, handwriting and voice projection.  We live in a different world.  And yet, we are still human.  Perhaps the point still stands.  It will be tempting to do more and more because sometimes, there is more and more to be done.  We would be wise to evaluate our ministry schedules, and our tendency to accept invitations so that we know our limits.  Each of us is thoroughly capable of burning out or flaming out, so let’s think through our limits before we hit them.

Incidentally, I have been in settings where I crammed in as many teaching sessions as could fit and went way beyond these limits. Sometimes there may be a place for sacrificially serving like that, especially during a short and defined window (i.e. a conference or a visit to a place).  Even if we do that, we need to know our own capacity to give, our ability to sleep under pressure, our mental state if our sleep is less than ideal, and our recovery plan for after the event or visit is over.  And one thing is clear to me – we cannot sustain anywhere near as much as we can achieve during these brief windows of time.  Typically there will have been weeks of work prior to the conference or visit. And normal life simply needs more margin – not only for preparation, and for rest, and other responsibilities, but also margin for the unannounced encroachments that always hit us when we think we have found the perfect schedule.

We will keep going next time!