A Plea for Preaching

W.E. Sangster commences his book 'The Craft of Sermon Construction' with an impassioned plea for preaching; this plea is all the more poignant when it is placed in the context from which it was written. Sangster was the head and lead preacher in the British Methodist movement[1] at a time when its traditional distinctiveness, significance and numbers were dwindling. Methodism had grown out of the Church of England and had sought to replace tradition and aristocracy with logic and Biblicity. This distinction clearly relied upon the quality of teaching and preaching available in the church and Sangster was one of the main voices attempting to halt its decline. Ultimately this was unsuccessful and from the sixties onwards the Methodist movement has sought to join itself back to the Church of England and Church of Scotland and is an enthusiastic player in the evangelical movement[2]. I would also note that whilst purely anecdotal I have met with more than half a dozen British Methodist ministers over the years and have only found one that believed in the Resurrection; liberalism is rampant. In the following I will present the case that Sangster makes; it should be noted that I disagree in some cases with what is presented.

Sangster begins his defense of preaching by a series of assertions that it is not antithetical to other parts of church life. Again this defense is based upon two premises: that the 'minister' is responsible for everything that happens in the church and that the church service is a one hour production containing hymns, a Eucharist (breaking of bread) and a sermon. Given that this is a 'constrained resource' problem Sangster seeks to argue that the other parts of the service and other roles the minister is to play cannot adequately exist without preaching.

One of his principle assertions is that a preacher is de facto a pastor and that whilst he is a shepherd of the flock this does not require him to be involved on a daily basis in the lives of the sheep. Interestingly he does not argue for a lack of pastoring; rather he believes that a preacher should do enough to be sensitized to the needs of the congregation but not so much as to interfere with the preparation of the message. Secondly he states that preaching is a sacramental duty; he does this to assert that it is at least as valuable as the liturgical communion and worship that was common within his denomination.

Leading from the issue of sacrament but sufficiently separate and valuable to be noted is that Sangster makes a clear distinction between delivering an address and delivering a sermon. The former he views as a logical discussion (or monologue) based upon the underlying material. In contrast he views a sermon as the expounding of a direct revelation from God Himself. Sangster suggests that the delivery of a sermon and of an address can both be affected by the same person but that the expression preaching should be reserved for the delivery of a sermon.

Sangster then defends against the suggestion that his view of preaching is self serving and that it elevates the preacher to too high a position. His retort is simply that preaching is that important and for that reason we need to be extremely careful with those that we allow to preach. In particular he warns of the folly of employing those with the gift of speaking and a delight in the sound of their own voices but rather the church should use those that are called. Sangster the proceeds to state that the correct public view is that the preacher should not magnify himself but that he should exalt the office of the preacher. Specifically he states that it would be importune to preach without divine approval and that therefore the preacher must claim and assert that approval.

Sangster then moves from the elevation of preaching to the evils that might destroy it. The first he tackles is the unworthiness of the preacher himself; his remedy here is to re-assert that it is the office of the preacher that makes the preacher worthy of his calling. Thus a preacher can humbly admit his own inadequacies whilst standing upon the authority that his position holds. The second issue is tackles is academia; the potential problem that a well educated minister may become more involved with intellectual curiosities than the simple truth of the Word. Coupled with that Sangster notes that intellectualism can lead to arrogance which can both hurt and offend the congregation[3]. Thirdly he tackles the issue of counseling; here he asserts that psychology is a separate discipline and that the responsibility of the minister is to find people with needs and then refer them. Finally in this area he tackles the area of additional ministries, youth groups, clubs, community centers and alike and points out that they take time from the minister which should be devoted to the Word of God. In particular he notes that whilst a minister may get people to church by doing these things it is highly unlikely that he will have the energy left to make the church experience anything but fruitless.

Sangster then tackles issues regarding the mode of preaching; is preaching confined to a spoken sermon or are other methods such as Radio equally valid. Sangster died fifty years ago and the preaching alternatives are now more numerous and more sophisticated but his principle argument still holds. His assertion is that the physically present vocal preaching of the Word is the divinely authorized and most effective method of communication with regard to reaching the hearts of men. He bases this principally upon the observation that communication is essentially the fruit of the desire of one to communicate to another and that therefore the best way to do this is for both to be present. He tackles also the issue that the preaching method is difficult for those that do not have the gift to do it. His response here is that even if God has provided a given individual with only a small amount of gift then He will honor the individual that seeks with full earnestness to use it.

Sangster concludes the plea by detailing the life of a preacher; both the one laboring indefinitely to feed a small congregation and the one deployed haphazardly in varying situations[4]. Here he falls back to the majesty of the calling; the responsibility and privilege of opening the Word of God to mankind and addressing mankind of His behalf. He notes too that preaching can change lives and that even if an individual does not see massive fruit himself he might make a difference to another individual who themselves produce much fruit. Finally he asks the question if preaching is still relevant to modern man under the threat of nuclear holocaust and suggests that preaching is even more relevant in unstable times.

It is difficult to summarize a summary of a chapter which is a summary of a book which is a summary of one man's lifetime experience of leading a major denomination. This is exacerbated by the fact that he and I parted academic company with the opening assumptions. I can however recount and agree to his principle assertion; preaching is vitally important today. His attempts to separate out liturgy and preaching I would personally separate by noting that God gives those gifts to different people. Similarly I would separate the sermon from the address by noting that the Word of God individually details teaching, preaching and evangelism. The issue of the worthiness of the preacher I personally defer back to the Word of God; it is on that authority we should be standing. The distractions to preaching are valid in most churches but they would be less so if we would simply insist that we do as many extra-curricular activities as we have 'extra-curricular' people to lead them. Finally the issue of gift-less preachers and preachers' lifestyles I would respectfully suggest boils down to separating preaching from the 'Christian professional'. A true preacher will preach; if it is possible to financially reward him for preaching then that is Biblical. However to start from the presumption of a Christian professional that has to deal with 'the preaching issue'- strikes me as unwise.

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