My book “Excellence in Preaching. Learning from the Best” has now been published. IVP have done a great job and I am most grateful that the 12 preachers I examine have been gracious and cooperative in allowing me to write about them.
What have I learnt as a result? What produces excellenet preaching? In an attempt to distill my thoughts it includes the following:-
1) A deep love for the Lord, dependence on the Holy Spirit and sustained immersion in Scripture. Preaching is a deeply spiritual task and the godliness of the preacher shines through whether they intend it or not!
2) A certain grasp of what makes for good communication. Sermons need a “Big Idea” (or “Homiletical theme”) and preachers need to practice clear, concise, relevant and engaging communication.
3) The third thing preachers need to learn is what motivated the writing of “Excellence in Preaching”, namely that we learn much from preaching by listening to good preachers. Apart from the obvious fact that preachers need to hear God’s word explained and applied for their own spiritual health, the language of mentoring and modelling is important here. My prayer and hope is that good preachers will notice and appreciate the things good preachers do: not to mimic but rather to observe and learn.
I have learnt so much from Dick Lucas’ preaching: not from his teaching about preaching but from him doing it! His style is quite unique, with a delightful self-deprecating and dry sense of humour. But mainly – and this surely is the best test of preaching – there are so many passages (mainly from Mark’s Gospel) where I cannot read them without hearing Dick’s voice in my head. He regularly taught me things which I had not known before, and once I had learnt them I could never forgot the lessons.
“Excellence in Preaching” will be launched at Wycliffe Hall Oxford at 5pm on Thursday 17th November, but if you can’t wait it is available online in England now! (see
the book will be published in the USA at the end of the year
A composite picture of a good preacher
(Summary of the forthcoming IVP book)
The 12 things good preachers do well may be summarised as:
- apply ancient truth using contemporary engagement;
- be aware of cultural and philosophical challenges to the Gospel;
- inspire a passion for the glory of God;
- let the Bible speak with simplicity and freshness;
- be a Word and Spirit preacher;
- use humour, anecdote and stories to generate enthusiasm and dismantle barriers;
- create interest; apply well;
- make much of Jesus Christ;
- be urgent and fervent in reaching the lost;
- persuade people by passionate argument from the Bible;
- teach with directness, challenge and relevance;
- preach the whole counsel of God.
If we add to this Jesus’ authoritive sermons, Paul’s passionate plea for faithful preaching (2 Tim 4:1ff), and Barack Obama’s contemporary use of ancient rhetoric, we may state that good preaching requires the following:
Be relevant and show how the Bible is of direct interest and application to this to your congregation today. Immerse yourself in God’s word so that you are speaking from his agenda and not your own, and in order that people sense that God’s agenda is controlling what you are saying.
Use humour and story, show your humanity but in a way that helps the congregation see that you have found your joy, purpose and meaning in God. Give the congregation food for thought and send them away fed on God’s word, but at the same time wanting more.
Work hard to make your sermon clear, simple, and memorable using repetition, alliteration, rhetorical techniques etc which work for you. Use language and words as the well sharpened tools of your trade. Communicate the weighty importance and urgency of what you are saying, allowing it to move you and your congregation.
Be familiar enough with your material to speak naturally and in a way that shows that this message has already impacted you. Don’t be bookish, but be people-ish! Don’t disconnect with people in order to prepare a sermon. Rather prepare sermons by loving, praying for and rubbing shoulders with the people to whom you are preaching.
There are a number of things which we have not said about preaching in this book: We have said almost nothing about prayer and very little about the godliness and integrated life of the preacher. We have concentrated on the act of preaching itself and noted the good things which preachers do well. In fact none of the things listed above will be accomplished in preaching if the preacher is not growing as a Christian and deeply committed to preaching as a spiritual task.
The word that it sometimes used to describe such preaching is sometimes is unction:
There is sometimes somewhat in preaching that cannot be ascribed either to matter or expression, and cannot be described what it is, or from whence it cometh, but with a sweet violence it pierceth into the heart and affections and comes immediately from the Word; but if there be any way to obtain such a thing, it is by the heavenly disposition of the speaker. 
Unction is the word that is used to describe the extraordinary way in which God transforms the human words of the preacher in such a way that they come with the full force of God’s word: challenged the spirit and giving the hearer the sense that the living God has personally addressed me today. I long for more of that preaching today, don’t you?
 Attributed to E.M. Bounds,
Preachers should let the bible do the talking!
As I write this blog I am sitting in front of the TV watching the European Team Championships in Leiria Portugal. Some good performances by Brits, particularly the 4 x 400metre relay team, and Wayne Chambers, of course.
At the end of a busy 6 days in Wycliffe, I do feel a bit like I have come to the end of a marathon. But isn’t Christian ministry supposed to be exhausting and energy expending? It requires discipline, self control and a focus on the end game: Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. (1 Cor 9:25)
But there is also the caution that success will only be awarded to those who do God’s work in God’s way: An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. (2 Tim 2:5).
This blog is not intended to be purely about preaching. But, as I reflect on the last 6 days, it has renewed my conviction that the hope for the future of the Church lies in its preachers.
Monday to Friday this week the students received a sermon from Vaughan Roberts of St Ebbe’s Oxford on Daniel 6. I preached on James 4 and gave them a lecture on the Nooma teacher Rob Bell and considered the power of ancient rhetoric. Archie Coates of Holy Trinity Brompton preached on the subject of ‘joy’ from Philippians 4 and we had two full days of teaching from Greg Haslam of Westminster Chapel which were under girded by his conviction that faithful expository preaching should be carried out with a sense of expectation that God will act when his word is preached, and we should look for divine activity from the Holy Spirit in bible-preaching churches.
On Saturday 20th June we had the inaugural conference of the Wycliffe School of Preaching, with Greg as well as seminars from Wycliffe Tutors, Michael Green, Justin Hardin and Peter Walker. About 40 delegates from the Oxfordshire area came for a stimulating and challenging day on the subject of Evangelistic Preaching.
Too much happened over these last 6 days to attempt to summarise them in a blog.
However these three convictions were reinforced for me:
Preachers must let the bible speak
Healthy congregations do not gather primarily to see the preacher display his oratory or rhetoric. For sure, Paul warned that a time would come men and women would gather around them preachers who would titillate their itching ears, giving soothing and comforting words. But this will do congregations no good.
In this passage in 2 Tim 4 there is a warning to congregations. But there is also a warning to preachers: have we heard from God in his word before we dare to stand before the congregation? This requires patient, careful listening to the Bible in all its fullness.
Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me. (Job 38:2-3)
Job was castigated because he seemed to assume that he knew more than God and could presume to tell God how he should act. Preachers must not be guilty of this sin.
Preachers must let the bible loose
Apologetics is a key part of Pauline preaching and an important part of our preaching training. We should be able to give compelling reasons for the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15). However, the preacher’s job is not to defend the bible but to preach the bible
Spurgeon’s comment on this matter is well known. “Scripture is like a lion. Whoever heard of defending a lion? Just turn it loose; it will defend itself.”
I have learnt so much from Dick Lucas’ preaching over the years. Most significant for me was the way in which Dick would preach a passage in such a way that whenever I came to read that passage again I understood what it meant and means.
Yes, it is good to learn how to speak articulately, to formulate messages memorably and illustrate and apply the message engagingly (see blog “Make a House a Home” below). All this is needed. But the central task in all this is to “let the bible loose” so that people are confronted by the living God through his living word. It takes time and self-deflecting effort to ensure that the preacher does not stand as a mediator between the living God and God’s people. His job is to let God do his work through his word.
Preachers must let the bible convert
By this I don’t just mean the first challenge of coming to faith. I also mean that the bible should ongoingly be converting attitudes, emotions and outlooks. The bible should be confronting and dealing with sin in the life of the preacher and in the life of the congregation.
At the end of 1 Thessalonians Paul prays:
Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess 5:23)
The context of this prayer is significant:
19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies. 21 Test all things; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thess 5:19-22)
I take it that to be “sanctified through and through” (NIV) is a work of Word and Spirit. I also think that J. I. Packer was right when he said, “The only proof of past conversion is present convertedness. If my preaching is faithfully biblical then over and over again I should be being persuaded by my preaching: “Yes Lord, if I was hearing this for the first time, I would hungrily grasp it for myself!”
There is so much more to preaching that these three things, but I am convinced that preaching is not less than letting the bible speak; letting the bible loose; and letting the bible convert and this is a great place to start!
- Preparing for suffering with the help of Job
- Existential Threats
- Some biblical wisdom on dealing with Stress and Worry
- The Hunger Games – Christian Review
- Wouldn’t you like to be a castaway?
- Lessons from the Long Distance Cycle Ride
- An Easter Word for Exhausted Preachers
- the agnostic, the atheist and the Christian
- Tim & Kathy Keller “The Meaning of Marriage”
- resources for training preachers in Osijek, Croatia
- with great thankfulness to John Stott
- a tall story
- back from the dead
- Bible by the Beach
- Big Ben
- Big Issue
- Bishop of Rochester
- Charlie Cleverly
- Christ Church Cathedral Oxford
- Christian Focus
- Christian Leaders
- Don Carson
- Egyptian Plagues
- Episcopal Church
- fellowship of word and spirit
- Fundraising Bike Ride
- General Synod
- John Piper
- John Stott
- John the Baptist
- John's Gospel
- Millennium Wheel
- New Testament
- Nigel Biggar
- no-go areas
- Oxford Church
- Professor Wotton
- reformed theological serminary
- Richard Turnbull
- Rowan Williams
- shi'i law
- Simon Vibert
- Son of God
- Song of God
- St Aldates Church
- St Paul's cathedral
- third millennium ministries
- wycliffe hall
- wycliffe hall students