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Preaching Class

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I have been in the USA of late, visiting a bunch of churches and meeting with a posse of pastors. At one point I needed to get from LA to Chicago, and – rather than fly – decided to take the opportunity to drive and see a wide swathe of America. I was joined by my friend Simon Leigh-Jones, who leads X1 church in Watford, and to help redeem the time it took to cover 2,300 miles we listened to a large number of sermons, assessing them on the basis of theology, structure, delivery, ‘take home’ point, and gospel application. We started by listening to sermons we had preached ourselves (always a sobering experience) and to others who had preached in our churches. We then continued with our ‘home team’, listening to Joel Virgo, Guy Miller, PJ Smyth and Andrew Wilson. We also listened to some with whom we might assume theological alignment, such as David Platt and Mark Driscoll, but then went where we would not normally go, with Bill Johnson and Joel Osteen.

Listening to a dozen or so sermons from a reasonably wide range of speakers in a concentrated period was an illuminating experience – rather like being at a conference, on steroids, only with a wider than normal spread of teachers.

On the plus side, every sermon contained a more or less clear ‘take home’ – the one central point the preacher was trying to get across. These ranged from “Lead your wife in a loving way and don’t be afraid to be a complementarian,” to “Care for the least – if you don’t honour them, honouring the ‘first’ doesn’t really count – and you may be entertaining an angel anyway!” to “God doesn’t call you to mission because he needs you but because he loves you,” and “Don’t get stressed!”

Theologically, there was some diversity, with a range of approaches on display. Platt was probably the most theological, but he was speaking at a pastors conference so that might be expected. Of the ‘regular’ sermons Driscoll was perhaps the most theological of the bunch, thoroughly unpacking a passage, sticking to the passage and applying the passage, while Johnson raised the most theological questions for me. His encouragement to find the ‘thin places’ where heaven breaks in on earth felt to me somewhat gnostic, or even sci-fi – a pursuit of the wormhole that can take us into another dimension.

In terms of structure and delivery there were again real differences, and this is where one’s own subjective preferences particularly come into play. For my money Driscoll was the funniest, but also twenty minutes longer than he needed to be. PJ was the clearest and easiest to follow. Some had a very conversational approach (which tends to make me drift off), while others were more point by point and punchy.

While all this was thoroughly unscientific – just one sermon per preacher is hardly a fair sampling system – it was when we got to gospel application that things became really interesting. Gospel application is the grid through which I tend to assess a message: How has the gospel been applied (to both believers and those who are not followers of Jesus)? What does the gospel say to this subject? What am I supposed to do in response? By this measure, the differences between the messages was stark. Some were outstanding in describing what the cross has achieved while one sermon had no discernible gospel content whatsoever. And a couple sounded like biblical messages – and were, in that they contained biblical stories and references – but were more theistic than gospel centred; by which I mean they didn’t really require any belief in or submission to the person of Jesus Christ – merely a belief in ‘god’. Which was troubling. It was also unnecessary as a little more work could easily have taken those sermons in a gospel direction.

It made me think though – both about how I preach, and about how I listen. I hope it will make me better at both; in which case that long drive will have been worth it for more than simply some stunning scenery.

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