Maturing as a Preacher: Q/A with Peter Adam (Part 1)

Peter Adam is vicar emeritus of St. Jude’s Carlton in Melbourne, Australia and serves on the steering group for The Gospel Coalition Australia. He formerly served as Principal of Ridley College Melbourne and he currently speaks internationally at conferences for training preachers. He is the author of many books including Speaking God’s Words: A Practical Theology of Preaching and Hearing God’s Words: Exploring Biblical Spirituality. Peter is both a pastor and a scholar who preaches with humility, insightful application and expositional clarity. I was thrilled when he agreed to help launch our little endeavor by answering some questions on the subject of maturing as a preacher. This is the first installment of our two-part dialogue:

1) I am going to frame my first 2 questions by referencing one of the most influential preachers of the 20th century. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that a person should preach with their whole personality. What are your thoughts on this? How should who a preacher is shape how Scripture is preached?

We are called to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

To do this we need to engage our minds, hearts, bodies, imaginations, feelings, memories, hopes, desires, morality, relationships, lives, energy, thoughts and actions in loving God and loving our neighbour. We need to offer ourselves to God as a living sacrifice every day. We need to die to sin and live to righteousness every day. We need God to be transforming us into the image of his Son. We need to put to death the deeds of the flesh in our lives and ministries, and see the fruit of the Spirit in our lives and ministries. We need transformed minds.

We cannot afford to neglect our minds, our emotions, our bodies, our imagination, our relationships, our morality, or our thinking. We cannot afford to be intellects without bodies and without emotions; nor can we afford to be bodies without minds or emotions; nor can we afford to be emotions without minds and bodies. 

We must live in reality, about ourselves, about other people, about our relationships, and about the world in which we live. We cannot afford to escape reality, into mere emotionalism, into mere intellectualism, into selfishness, into immorality or amorality, into alcohol or drugs, into pornography, into hard work, into the past, into an imagined future, or any other distraction, or into any kind of denial of reality.

Hiding in a den of intellectualism is as futile as hiding in a den of emotionalism.

If we limit our personality, our personhood, then we will limit our ministry and so limit our preaching,

Preaching with our personality does not mean becoming a ‘personality preacher’ trusting in projecting our interesting selves to gain an audience. It means preaching which flows from the person God has made us to be, in creation, in experience, in salvation, in suffering, in troubles, in successes, in relationships, in life, and in ministry. Our words flow from our hearts: we need to pray, ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God’. 

We need to process who we are and what we do and what happens to us in a godly way, with appropriate acceptance, submission to and trust in God, obedience to God, and thanks and praise to God. This includes our bodies, our upbringing, our temptations, our struggles, the people who have shaped us, our personal relationships, our ministry relationships, our gifts, achievements and frustrations, our success and our failures, our health and our illnesses, our joys, pleasures, disappointments and griefs.

[Read about Peter Adam’s experience of processing clinical depression here]

This is a life-long process, and involves life-long learning, increasing trust in God, more and more love for others, humility, repentance, and hope.

People look for authenticity in the preacher. Does the preacher know God? Is the preacher trusting and obeying God? Does the preacher believe the Bible passage? Does the preacher live the Bible passage? Does the preacher struggle with living the Bible passage? Is the Bible passage shaping the preacher and the sermon? 

2) Lloyd-Jones also listed a number of qualities that should be evidenced in a preacher's expression. Three of these qualities are zeal, warmth and emotion. How do preachers whose personality has a more intellectual or cerebral orientation develop these qualities?

One of the downsides of intense intellectual aptitude and work is that it can absorb energy and creativity and awareness, and so diminish other areas of life, such as emotions and relationships. It is easy to become misshapen! The intellectual word can provide an escape from difficulties, such as emotions and relationships which are hard to manage. Ideas, books, and computers are easier to deal with and control than people! They are less demanding, less unpredictable, and less complicated! Hard work can also be used to escape these pressures as well. So if you combine intellectual pursuits and hard work you have a great place to hide!

However this attempted escape does not work, and to be unaware of emotions makes you more likely to be controlled by them without realising what is happening.

A complementary truth is that in Western Society we assume a false dichotomy between mind and heart. We assume that to be intellectual is necessarily to be unemotional, and that to be emotional we have to be un-intellectual. We easily fall into this false dichotomy. But think for a moment of God’s revelation in the Bible. It is at the same time profoundly intellectual, highly emotional, and immensely practical. And think of Jesus. He spoke the truth; he felt deeply; and he was very practical.

So when I tell a young preacher to put more emotion into the sermon, they think I am saying to reduce its intellectual content. They may need to reduce the quantity of intellectual content, but must not reduce the quality. And when I tell a young preacher to increase the intellectual content in their sermon, they think I am telling them to reduce its emotional impact. The Bible is passionate and practical truth: our sermons should be passionate and practical truth. Beware of being an intellectual humpback!

[Lloyd-Jones described preaching as ‘Logic on fire’. I would prefer, ‘Truth on fire’, because not all truth comes in the form of logic.]

What are some practical steps for preachers with more intellectual orientations?

Work on increasing your emotional awareness.

What are you feeling? Why are you feeling what you are feeling? 

How are your feelings shaping you, why you think what you think, and what you do with what you think? 

Notice the connections between what you are feeling and how you are acting. How do your feelings shape your actions?

What are your godly feelings? How can you increase them and act on them? What are your sinful feelings? How can you put them to death by the power of Christ’s death, and live in the power of his resurrection?

Learn to ‘preach to yourself’ from the Bible in regard to your feelings; that is, apply the Bible to your whole self, including your feelings.

Work on increasing your relational awareness.

Learn to speak the truth in love. 

This is true: but is this the right time to say it, is this the right way to say it to this person or these people? How will they hear what I am saying? How will they respond to what I am saying? How will they feel about what I am saying? How is it relevant to their lives? Why is it important for them to know it?

Work on increasing your cultural awareness.

What are appropriate current voice and body language emotional signs in our culture[s]? In some cultures or sub-cultures plain-speaking is valued: in others it is regarded as rude. In some cultures strongly-worded arguments are appropriate: in others they are not. In some cultures admission of weakness is a strength, but in others it is an embarrassment. Some cultures expect generous displays of emotion in public: others do not. Some culture value efficiency in communication: others do not. In some cultures, conflict is best dealt with directly: in others cultures, indirectly. For many people, sub-cultures are more important than national cultures. If we love people, we will teach and preach with a keen awareness of and adaptation to their sub-culture and culture.

We also need to be aware of current issues and current news. If people’s minds are full of an issue or recent news, we need to be aware of that when we preach. We can either name and pray about it in the service, or else, if it relates to our sermon, refer to it during the sermon.

Of course what we say will be shaped by the Bible passage we are preaching: but the way we preach it must be shaped to serve the people who are listening.

How can I help them to receive what I am saying?

This is an intellectual task [What do they know, not know?]; an emotional task [What will they feel about what I am saying?]; an educational task [How does what I am saying relate do their deepest assumptions, their existing knowledge?]; and a relational task [What are the barriers to their hearing this truth from me? How can I love and serve these people by helping them in the process of receiving what I am saying? What needs to be shape, kind, timing, and speed of my communication? What good assumptions and beliefs do they already have which will help them receive what I am saying? What barriers are in place within them, and how can I ease those barriers out of the way?]

 3) Were you mentored in your preaching? If so, what did that relationship involve?

No-one intentionally mentored or taught or trained me in my preaching, I am sorry to say.

I learnt to preach by hearing good preachers. 

The first was John Stott, who introduced wide-spread expository preaching in Australia when he visited in 1965 and expounded 2 Corinthians at a series of missionary conventions run by the [Anglican] Church Missionary Society. I had recently been converted, and was captivated by his Bible exposition, so much deeper and richer than the one Bible verse preaching I had heard. [See here]

The second was John Moroney, an Anglican minister in Melbourne, a vivid and compelling preacher. The third was Dick Lucas, who I heard many times in England and Australia, and whose sermon recordings through The Proclamation Trust were a constant diet. [You can find Dick Lucas’ sermons here]

The fourth was John Chapman, a very Australian preacher, from whom I learnt how to preach to Australians!

I learn to preach by studying good preachers from the past.

I have been inspired by and learnt from the preaching of John Chrysostom, John Calvin, John Donne, and Charles Spurgeon. I have learnt different lessons from each of them.

I have read many contemporary books on preaching, and benefitted from them.

You can plot what I have learnt about preaching by reading here.