Preaching is, in a number of ways, a bit like driving. In our early days we are conscious of the serious responsibility of making sure we do it well: lives are at stake. We are conscientious in sticking to the rules we have been taught.
But over time bad habits can begin to form, often subconsciously. We find that we need to do things a little more quickly than the rules allow (we justify this as being more efficient). We are less conscious of the responsibility we carry, and more conscious of just needing to arrive at our destination. We might have the occasional near miss. But even this we can assume was their fault. The truth only really dawns if we’re pulled over by the police. There is no mistaking it; we have now officially become sloppy drivers.
Inasmuch as this can be true of preaching as well as driving, it’s vital for us to realize where we’ve become sloppy or blasé in our preparation. This might happen through a thoughtful colleague or church member who gives us feedback. Or it may be that we need to read David Helm’s recent book on preaching.
Blue Flashing Lights
At its heart, Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today is a wonderful primer on preaching. A new installment in 9Marks’s Building Healthy Churches series, the book doesn’t say everything that could usefully be said, but it outlines the essentials better than anything else I’ve read. This will now top the list of books I recommend for new and younger preachers.
But it’s also hugely helpful for the experienced preacher. If, like me, you are tempted to think you do not need a primer on the basics, then this is likely a book you very much need to read. I started reading Expositional Preaching thinking it would be good to know so that I could pass it on to others. I’ve been preaching expositional sermons most Sundays for more than 10 years. But what I expected to be a bit of a pat on the head turned out instead to be the equivalent of blue flashing lights in the rearview mirror. I was being shown that I’d allowed bad habits to creep into my preaching.
Drunks and Melodies
Top of the list of these for me is where Helm, pastor of the Hyde Park congregation of Holy Trinity Church in Chicago, begins. The book has four main chapters, and the first is where many (most?) of us instinctively want to begin as preachers: contextualization. We want to say something that feels relevant and powerful to our churches. We want our sermons to have an effect. Yes, and amen. But the danger is when we rush through our exegesis in order to get to the gritty application. We simply don’t spend enough quality time with the passage, just us and the text. And at our worst, we become the subject of Helm’s version of Andrew Lang’s famous quip: “Some preachers use the Bible in the way a drunk uses a lamppost—more for support than for illumination.” The fact is that our sermons can only have relevance and power if they are faithful to the biblical text itself. The part we easily skip over is that very part that fuels the power and relevance of our sermon: the meaning the biblical author intended.
The next section (“Exegesis”) is a wonderful and succinct overview of how we can get to the purpose of the text. As a British reader, it was gratifying to see Helm acknowledge the influence of Dick Lucas at a number of points. Lucas is well known to many in the UK as one of the great elder statesmen of expositional preaching (more commonly known as “expository preaching” in the UK). Through a long ministry at St. Helen’s in London and preaching conferences through The Proclamation Trust, Lucas has helped preachers get to the heart of a passage’s meaning. Talking about the text is not the same thing as faithfully preaching it. Helm shows us how we need to allow the context, structure, and emphasis of a text to shape how we arrive at its meaning. A gem is when he shows us Lucas’s principle of finding the “melodic line” of the book we’re preaching and understanding our passage in the light of this line.
The next two sections deal with “Theological Reflection” (seeing the message of the text in the light of the rest of the Bible and in the light of the gospel) and “Today” (drawing our insights together into a clear, applied sermon that will serve the congregation). Throughout, Helm peppers his writing with practical insights and asides. We’re reminded that “the great preachers are the clear ones,” and of how our congregations don’t exist to serve our word ministry (it’s the other way round).
Hone Your Craft
Throughout it all, Helm draws self-deprecatingly on examples from his own preaching where he’s made mistakes. This not only illustrates the points he’s making, but it assures us he’s improved by learning from such mistakes, which is encouragement indeed to flawed preachers like me.
We are blessed in these days to have many fine books on preaching. We are spoiled for choice. I’ve always tried to make it a habit to read at least one book on preaching each year (some years just happily re-reading John Stott’s classic Between Two Worlds). In recent years, to keep up with the stream of goodies coming our way, I’ve made it three or four. Mindful of such choice, Helm still deserves to be read by every preacher. It is short and punchy. It reminds us of what matters most. Those starting out will find few better introductions to the craft, and those more experienced will long to do it better. And, above all, Helm makes his principal point passionately and convincingly: through faithful expositional preaching we can speak God’s Word today.