Preachers who dare to be helpful...

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Concerning the preaching of the Church Fathers, in one of his lectures Princeton biographer and Covenant Seminary church history prof David Calhoun says this:

The Church Fathers are difficult to read, not only because they are long-winded, but also because they tend to go into all kinds of digressions. They really do not stick to the point. Gregory the Great, toward the end of the period of the Church Fathers, said:

“This is how a preacher should preach. A preacher of the sacred Word should imitate the manner of a river. For if a river as it flows through its channels comes upon valleys upon its banks it immediately flows with full force into them, and when it has filled them up it at once returns to its course. This is exactly the way the preacher of the divine Word should be so that when he is discussing something, if perhaps he finds an occasion near at hand to be edifying, he should, as it were, force the streams of his tongue to the neighboring valley, and when he has filled up the plain with his instruction he may return to the course of his main topic.”

Now, you will not be taught that manner of preaching at Covenant Seminary--or any place else, as far as I know. Homileticians tell us to have a point and stick to it. But the Church Fathers did not like to do that. One topic will raise another topic and they will follow all those ideas. 

If a man's preaching is bad in the sense of being timid and suggestive, only rarely moving out to the bold frontier of the indicative (and never to the imperative), then two or three points and you're done is a kindness and should be cultivated. And if that's the sort of preaching you want, Professor Calhoun says that Covenant Theological Seminary is the sort of academic institution that will work for you.

But brothers...

read the sermons of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Jonathan Edwards, and John Calvin. Read Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Read the Apostle Paul's letters--they're endless parenthetical statements! And speaking only for myself, I find the sermons of these men very helpful. You too?

This week I've been reading a sermon by Calvin on Titus 1:5,6 (from Calvin's sermons on the Epistles to Timothy and Titus). What wisdom! What food! What challenges!

As I've said before, any pastor could not do better than to buy Calvin's commentaries (I'd buy the Torrance New Testament set AND the Calvin Translation Society set on the whole Bible) and as many volumes of Calvin's sermons as you can find, reading Calvin and Lloyd-Jones and Matthew Henry and J. C. Ryle in preparation for preaching a text (books recommended for preachers including Kindle versions here). Don't waste your time on more than one modern commentary per sermon. You only read modern commentaries to keep the dogs at bay.

Homiletics classes and the scientific apparatus of exegetes have ruined preaching today. I remember my Dad saying forty years ago that Westminster Seminary men couldn't preach. Today, Covenant Seminary men have joined their ranks. (And if you say that's not true because your own pastor preaches well and he's a Covenant grad, please allow me to explain once again that categorical statements allow for those exceptions that prove the rule.)

At the Clearnote Pastors Conference last week, our theme was pastoral care and my own title was "Preaching and Pastoral Care." Once we give up preaching as performance; once we kill until it's dead-dead-dead our desire to become pulpiteers gracing tall steeple church pulpits holding memberships in the country club and Chatham House gatherings; once we turn our backs on the suits and their honorariums and royalties; once we settle for the simplicity of exhorting, encouraging, warning, refuting, admonishing, and rebuking; the sheep in our flock may begin to find us simply helpful. For a pastor there's no higher goal.

So say yes to tangents. Give yourself to parenthetical statements. Go whole-hog into asides. You'll never get royalties. You'll never be honored by an invitation to present the annual preaching lectures. But your sheep will have tears of repentance and it may someday be said of you what they said of Jesus at the end of His Sermon on the Mount:

When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7:28, 29)

(TB, w/thanks to Michael)