With the recent success of The New City Catechism, catechisms appear to be back in style. Recent books like Mark Jones’s Faith. Hope. Love. have also been structured around the question-and-answer catechism format. New from Crossway is another kind of catechism, The Preacher’s Catechism, by British pastor Lewis Allen.
Allen’s book contains 43 questions, based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, but reworded specifically for preachers. Question 1, for example, becomes, “What is God’s chief end in preaching?” (Answer: “God’s chief end in preaching is to glorify his name.”) The book’s concept seems like such a good idea that I’m surprised no one has done it before.
For preachers like me who are still relatively young, some of Allen’s counsel will function more as prophetic warning. But Allen writes with such realism that pastors will feel the call to preach as both a heavy burden and also a heartfelt blessing.
Let all who preach take up and read.
Your book seems to be part of a renewed interest in catechisms. Why do you think the catechism format is so helpful—not just for children, but for preachers, too?
Ours is the soundbite age, where we want the headlines and the need-to-knows, with minimal words and in the shortest time. Catechisms have a way of hooking biblical truth into our crowded minds.
Catechisms also serve modern Christians because many are rightly tired of the shallow, a-historical, and ghettoized nature of church today. Catechisms are our opportunity to peek into what others believe in different places, including in previous centuries.
For example, I’m a Reformed Baptist but have turned to the Westminster Shorter Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism countless times for my own profit. One of the first things we did as a church plant was to take one question and answer from the Heidelberg to read and reflect on each Sunday. People were struck by the deep theology and memorable phrasing, and got to see how biblical, well-articulated theology feeds their souls.
You discuss Christ-centered preaching in your book (ch. 5). How do we preach Christ from texts where he doesn’t seem obvious without resorting to fanciful eisegesis?
Yes, we should be wary about eisegesis—but we usually have the opposite problem. Jesus is the Lord of all Scriptures, and the Lord in every Scripture, so we should read every passage expecting to see signposts to his gracious rescue and rule. If that’s our basic approach, the Scriptures will come alive as we see Christ and our need for him in every place, and we will keep inappropriate reading into the text to a minimum.
That said, we must preach Christ in a way that’s fresh and in keeping with the tone and purpose of each text. Who wants to hear the work of Christ bolted on to the end of each sermon in the same formulaic way, bearing little apparent relation to what the preacher has just expounded? Let Jesus be proclaimed in a way that suits the passage’s direction and content—be it one of hope, despair, crisis, reassurance, warning, or command.
And—mother of heresies—let’s admit that it’s sometimes okay to say relatively little about Jesus in some sermons. Hearers must be left feeling their need of him, and then going to him, in the light of the passage preached, without the preacher actually feeling bound to deliver a significant part of the sermon on him. For example, Ecclesiastes is all about the vapor of life. Preach life’s transience, and preach the permanence of Jesus and his kingdom—but let people really learn first about life as they find it under the sun.
Never before in history have we had such easy access to so many great preachers. (I’ve recently been listening to Martyn Lloyd-Jones online, something he would likely bemoan.) How can we use this online wealth of sermons to our benefit, and what are some pitfalls we should avoid?
Here would be my brief tips, especially to preachers:
Listen, but know why you’re listening. Don’t listen to myriads of preachers, or have them on in the background, just hoping that something will “go in.” Listen selectively and purposefully. I never manage to listen to more than two online sermons a week, and that’s plenty for me.
Learn from preachers, but don’t try to sound like them. If you succeed, you only succeed at sounding like Pastor X—and less like the you God is developing you into as a preacher.
That said, have a few preachers you love and trust as good friends. Learn how they handle a passage, handle their congregations, make their preaching effective, and so on. Think about how your preaching needs to grow, in the light of their strengths.
Listen to a good sermon several times over—and commend it to others.
Avoid the failure in much modern preaching of not preaching specifically to the needs and issues in your congregation.
Avoid the failure in much modern preaching of not preaching specifically to the needs and issues in your congregation. I sense that many preachers are trying to preach for the audio, and so for posterity. This is a great mistake. Preach for your church, for your church’s situation, and for the week ahead your hearers face. Bring challenge and correction where you must, and worry little if parts of your sermon don’t connect with others when it goes online (or might make the mask of your perfect-looking church slip). You serve your people, and forget about anyone else.
As men continually preparing sermons for one setting or another, it can be difficult for us to separate our sermon prep from our devotional life. Or should we even try? Is it dangerous for preachers to rely on their sermon prep for their heart food? (147)
I’ve never managed to locate this quotation after I read it 20 years ago (but would love help to do so), but the great 19th-century missionary to Muslim people in India and Iran, Henry Martyn, said something to the effect of “incessant sermon preparation has brought about a great strangeness between my soul and my God.” That really resonated with me as a young pastor, and still does.
I preach twice a Sunday fairly regularly. That’s a heavy pressure to bear each week (though I love it), and the sheer fact of being in God’s Word can sometimes fool us into thinking we have intimacy with Christ. We need to take stock and see if sermon preparation is feeding our souls, or actually starving them, because the prep is turning us into sermon machines, rather than delighted sons and servants of our God.
There’s no set rule, but for me, I need a meaningful engagement with God through his Word each morning, in passages other than those I’m working on. I need to read, make notes on the passage, write out prayers, and do soul work that is separate from sermon work. Others do it differently, and it’s fine if that meets their needs.
Ministry is a dangerous business, and we must guard and look after ourselves.
Based on your years of ministry experience, what’s the most important piece of advice you would give to a newly ordained pastor?
Ministry will break you. It will break your self-reliance, your expectations, your emotional and mental balance, and it will break your heart, over and over again. And all of this is good. Ministry is never the making of you, if “you” is a successful, fruitful version of the sinner who started out in the pastorate. Let God sanctify you through many ministerial disasters—and don’t ever believe you have permission to quit just because you’re discovering that it’s far harder than you thought. Jesus walks towards you in your failures, and strengthens you to press on.
Ministry will break you. It will break your self-reliance, your expectations, your emotional and mental balance, and it will break your heart, over and over again.
I would say to a younger brother starting in ministry, expect hardship and humiliation. Expect tears. Expect to feel overwhelmed. Embrace it all. Put in place habits of devotion, and schedule prayer times each day for the people you minister to and the ministry you bring to them. Don’t rush to the internet or your favorite podcast for all the answers to your latest ministry problem. Think deeply, pray over them, seek the counsel of your elders and friends in ministry, find out the wisdom of long-dead gospel servants in time-proven books. Grow as a servant, in other words, by being slow, careful, humble, thoughtful, and prayerful. Ignore the noise, cope with the pressure, keep going, in grace.