How Shall We Then Learn to Preach?
(Part II: Preaching Is Caught)
Preaching is at least as much caught as taught. One day in a homiletics course, Richard Allen Bodey was discussing various preachers from whom we might learn. One of the students mentioned a Presbyterian preacher known to all in the room, and Mr. Bodey responded: “Well, I hope you can do better than that!” Another prominent Presbyterian was mentioned, and he said, “You might be that good.”
The point is that most preachers learn a lot about preaching from listening to the preaching of those who are prominent or whom they otherwise respect. But not every “good preacher” is a good model for preaching.
One reason is that average preachers cannot do what highly (some, almost uniquely) gifted preachers can do. For instance, very few, perhaps none, can do the kind of redemptive historical preaching Ed Clowney did. No preacher comes close to him as a Biblical theologian, nor can any do that kind of Biblical theological preaching and hold a congregation. The rest of us are just too clumsy to do it and too dull to pull it off.
Another reason is that average preachers cannot get away with others get away with very easily. James Montgomery Boice was a great preacher whom we had in the pulpit in
several times and would have had as often as he was willing to come. But, he had a voice and bearing that almost demanded respect and hearing. I knew that if I tried to do what Dr. Boice did, I would be ponderous and boring. Pittsburgh
Still another reason is that some preachers who impress us are not healthy models for us. Here is one place I think I and my generational peers sometimes went astray. The influence of an experiential Calvinist ministry in
Great Britain and of various powerful preachers from America and , often five points Baptists, had a formative influence on us. I remember a fellow student and I comparing our experience of Al Martin in chapel at RTS and commenting, “We felt like he nailed us to the wall at the back of the balcony.” So, I and some others thought at least at times we needed to nail our people to the back wall of our sanctuaries. Britain
We did pretty well at afflicting the comfortable; I not sure we did so well at comforting the afflicted. One laymen who was similarly influenced as we once said, “I think of my heart like a big sore that needs the scab picked off every Sunday.” I think we pretty good scab-pickers. We did not apply the healing ointments, the covering bandages, the gentle aiir, and the warming sunshine to hearts with sores.
It took me awhile, but eventually I asked myself the question: “What concept of my people will I use as I prepare and preach sermons? Are most of my hearers at best sleeping believers and quite possibly unconverted? Or, are they Christians, experiencing life’s joys and sorrows, often struggling with sin and trial, and often in need of encouragement?” The conclusion I reached made a difference in the models I chose for my own preaching.
One last caution about models is that we make a mistake when we slavishly follow any model. A preacher has got to absorb good models but find his own voice. I heard Martyn Lloyd-Jones for 8 days just before I entered seminary. I read him. I listened to his tapes. But it was foolish of me when I tried to be Martyn Lloyd-Jones - not to say presumptuous and arrogant. We must remember regarding whoever awes us: You are not that person; you cannot be that person; and you shouldn’t try. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery; but it is death to preaching.
As I think back about Richard Allen Bodey, I find he was not only an excellent teacher of preaching; he was also a good model. Why? Because he was not a great preacher but a good one. For one thing he lacked the voice to be a great preacher. Those of us who had the privilege of sitting under his teaching and his preaching would have done well to have paid more attention to him as a model.
Now again, as Mr. Bodey would never say, there will be one more to come: “Scared Straight about Preaching.”
(Yes, to any who would ask, this is highly personal. It is what I think, and that is all. I am not a good preacher but one who thinks he understands a little about the craft.)