The Pitfalls of Preaching

Much like charting a ship through a narrow channel it is useful for a preacher to know not simply the direction he wishes to travel but also the dangers that lurk beside the way. In concluding his book upon the Craft of Sermon Construction, W.E. Sangster details both some of the general and specific areas into which an unwary preacher might easily err. It is the aim of this paper to detail some of those areas.

The principle danger than Sangster identifies is that one might lose faith in ones preaching. Does the sermon I preach make a difference? Is sermon preparation really the best use of my time? The three remedies that Sangster suggests is that one should spend much time in prayer, that one should keep details regarding one's own preaching successes and that one should focus upon the great effect that other preachers have had historically. He especially encourages those that have been called to preach but not gifted in that area that the requirement of God is simply hard work and application.

The second general danger that Sangster identifies is that the material presented should become warped; he identifies three ways in which this can happen. Firstly a preacher can stretch for novelty; rather than relishing the old, old story the preacher can strive to present something that no one has heard before. Occasionally something new may arrive; but the Truth has been delivered once and completed. At the opposite extreme a preacher may become dull, especially if he is the only fare that the congregation is provided with. The counter measure suggested for this is that the preacher must realize the importance of the message; the zeal that realization imparts will automatically energize the delivery. Overarching both extremes stretches the danger of scholarly pride. It is possible to become so convinced of one's own ability that one assumes he will find new Truth or one's academic pretention encourages a reveling in detail and proofs which may be accurate but entirely unhelpful.

Scholarly pride can also lead to the third general danger which is disaffection for the congregation. This is especially dangerous in situations where a preacher from a highly educated culture is 'parachuted in' to work amongst the far less educated. The preacher then regularly has to remind himself to make the message understandable without concluding to himself that he is 'dumbing it down'. Disaffection can also spring from sources other than arrogance; another is disappointment. In a congregation where attendance is haphazard, or numbers are dwindling, or the advice delivered appears to be unheeded there is a great temptation to nurture a resentment of the other members of the church. "I'm working my socks off but they are not doing their part !" Of course the particular irony here is that the disaffection the preacher feels is almost certainly robbing his message of the power to change lives however hard he may feel he is working.

Having tackled the general pitfalls Sangster finishes by categorizing seven other particular faults which may arise:

  1. Do not apologize for a sermon at the start: Sangster acknowledges that sometimes you will step into the pulpit not being sure of the material you have to deliver, he cautions that they worst thing you can do is alert the congregation to this as the drop in their expectation will fuel the problem. He asserts that if the trepidation is due to lack of preparation then providing the lack springs from genuine sources that the Spirit will step in to make up the deficiency. Of course if the lack springs from laziness then the preacher will fail as he deserves.
  2. Do not be inaudible: in Sangster's time amplification would have been unusual and most Methodist churches were large with very high ceilings and dire acoustics. Therefore there was an inordinate need for the preacher to be able to project. This became even more problematic as fashion went away from preachers 'thundering' to a more winsome and conversational style which is very difficult to maintain with volume. Today the situation has changed with the ubiquitous presence of sound systems; yet the point still remains that we should ensure that our voice is clear and distinctive.
  3. Don't preach at, under or over people but to them and for them: The challenge here is that whilst we do wish to target and correct the errors of the congregation we do now wish to dwell at length upon sins they do not commit. We also do now wish to pitch so far over where they are that they have no chance of getting there. Even when our challenge is on target we need to ensure it is delivered in a way where they receive it and use it rather than erect barriers against it. Sangster's solution to all three problems is sensitivity to and identification with the congregation. If we know the people and are with the people we will know what all of the issues are - and what they are not. Further, if our identification is genuine and if we can genuinely include ourselves in any denunciation which is delivered it is far more likely to be accepted by those that are with us.
  4. Don't steal other people's sermons: Plagiarism is abhorrent in any realm but particularly so from the pulpit. Sangster makes clear that he does not consider it plagiarism if a sermon is copied but duly attributed and he certainly does not mind people taking ideas or concepts from the work of others. His condemnation rests directly on those who steal the main body of a sermon without attribution.
  5. Don't repeat your own sermons unless you can glow over them: In a sense this is related to the distinction Sangster makes in section 4. He has no problem with a skeleton being taken and reworked or with a whole body being so treated with attribution or self authorship - his concern is that the 'material' needs to go through the methodic preparation process each time so as to be 'tuned' to the congregation and the Spirit.
  6. Don't imitate other preachers or envy their gifts: Sangster realizes that those of meager gift are likely to envy those with more but urges against this. He points out that God has given each of us gifts and it is those gifts that He expects us to use. He encourages instead a diet of work and prayer which he considers the requirement that God has of us in our given task.
  7. Don't preach without preparing your own heart: In much the same way that preparation of a given sermon must grow out of a pattern of Godliness in the preacher the delivery of a particular sermon should spring from a spirit of Godliness which is within him. This is not simply to say he must be saved, although of course he must, but rather that his time with God immediately prior to delivery with give him an air and reality of spirituality which will both appeal to the listener but also allow the Spirit control over the message which is delivered.

Each of the general points Sangster makes here are easy to defend. It is clearly important that a preacher should believe in what he does, it is vital that the content of pulpit messages be winsome, relevant and doctrinally sound and the Word tells us repeatedly of the correct relationship between a shepherd and his flock.

Of his more specific points the first two relate to speaking in general; start positively and speak up. The advice against plagiarism is also general to any speaker and the admonition not to envy gift is common to all believers. The issue of rehashing sermons is more contentious; is it easier to rework what you have to try to make it new or is it easier to start from scratch using what you now know? His final point is the one that struck home to me personally. Whilst I can find time and quiet to prepare the sermon spiritually the 'Sunday morning whirl' makes spiritual preparation immediately prior to delivery extremely difficult.

In closing both this paper and this section of the book I would like to raise one question that, to me, heavily flavors the advice Sangster gives. Do we believe that all pastors are called to preach? If they are, and if we do not make the gift of preaching a pre-requisite for pastorship, then much of Sangster's advice in this section is reasonable. If you don't have the gift then you need to find a way to use 'craftsmanship' to attempt to manufacture the effect that the spiritual gift would give. If however we accept that pastorship need not imply preaching then some of these warning become less well directed and we can learn to nurture the gift rather than hone the craft.

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