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. Below is the second installment of our two-part dialogue on the subject of maturing as a preacher:
4) How many sermons did it take for you to find your "voice" and how did the waiting shape you?
I think it takes about 10 years constant preaching to find your own ‘voice’. I naturally imitated good preachers, but then, by trial and error, developed my preaching by asking two kinds of questions. Firstly: What preaching can I manage with my character, relational style, public presence, and ability?
What length of sermon can I manage without losing people? How much of myself should be in my preaching? How can I achieve maximum impact in my preaching? How can I use my gifts, my previous learning and training, and skills learnt in my previous work experience to enhance my preaching? What weaknesses do I have in thinking, praying, preparing, speaking, communicating, talking in public; and in my character, Christian life and experience? How can I work on these to improve my preaching?
Secondly: What kind and level of preaching is appropriate for this time, this culture or sub-culture, these people? I have preached in small churches, Cathedrals, prisons, and hospitals. I have preached to people with very little education, and those with too much[!] I have preached to people largely ignorant of the Bible, and to ministers who know their Bibles really well. I have preached in Australia, UK, France, USA, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka. And I have preached to old people young people, and children: and I have preached to unbelievers and to mature saints. I have preached one-off sermons, and also preached extended expositions of Bible books. I have preached topical sermons and expository sermons. I say all this not to boast, but to make the point that I need to adapt my preaching voice to different kinds of people in different kinds of situations.
I also aim to do a major rethink of my preaching style every five years, and also have some small aims to improve my preaching each year. [Next year it is to include more catchy phrases of expressions to encapsulate the main point I am trying to make!
I am very encouraged by the thought that God achieved his perfect verbal revelation in Bible through writers with such different characters and styles. Malachi does not write like Isaiah, Jeremiah does not preach like Amos, Paul does not write like James, and Mark does not write like John! So it is with preachers: God achieves his good works through us, and used our character and style to do so. He does not bypass us or obliterate us! So it is with the gifts of sympathy, encouragement, hospitality, etc. People do these in different ways, but God is working in all of us!
5) How open should a preacher be in his sermons? For example, is it appropriate for a preacher to share personal sin struggles from the pulpit?
It is wrong to indulge ourselves by preaching our problems and struggles in preaching, because this means we are serving ourselves, and not loving and serving our hearers. On the other hand, people do want to know if we are living what we say.
My general rule is to include at least one personal comment in sermons. These can be positive, as well as negative. ‘I am so excited by this verse, because….’ ‘I was thrilled when I realised that this verse is the key to this passage…’ etc. Or we can express our struggles. ‘I find this so hard to believe …’ I find this so hard to put into practice…’ ‘This is hard to understand …’ ‘This is a big area of weakness in my Christian life…’
In positive examples, show why you are so positive. In negative examples, tell people how you are grappling with this issue, and working to make some progress.
But don’t bore people with your habitual sins, or assume that everyone has the same struggles.
The value of being open is that people want to know if this Bible passage is real to you, if it is impacting your life. They don’t like it if you seem to hide from them. If we want people to be honest and open about the challenges and struggles in their lives, then we should model this in our preaching.
As nowadays I am usually a visiting preacher, and people do not know me, I am more likely to include some personal information, as a way of building a relationship with the people who are listening, to help them receive what I am saying.
6) How important is it for a preacher to have people regularly giving him feedback on his sermons?
Most of us get feedback, but not all of it is helpful!
The best thing is to select say 6 people from your congregation [male, female, young, old, new believer, mature saint], and ask them to give you feedback over the next 6 months. Then train them in giving feedback: give them a form with the questions. Here are some examples:
· Was the sermon fit the truth, emotions, motivations and purpose of the Bible text?
· What issues in the Bible were left unresolved?
· Did the presentation fit the Bible text in style, mood, and application?
· Did the preacher impose some person hobby-horses on the Bible text?
· Did the preacher engage with the congregation?
· Did the sermon relate to the big themes of the Bible?
· How did the sermon impact you personally?
Tell them how they should give you the feedback, and tell them that you don’t mind if they don’t do it for every sermon!
Then at the end of the 6 months, thank them very much, and choose another 6 people when you want to do it again.
7) How many hours do you spend in sermon preparation?
When I began preaching it used to be about 20 hours. Now it is usually 8 -10 hours. But some sermons come quicker, and some sermons take much longer!
A great help in expository preaching is to invest a lot of time in studying the whole book, find its central ministry purpose, and how each part fits in the whole book. When I was preaching expository series I used to spend a week on that book over the summer, and when I also divided up the book for the sermon series. Time invested in studying the whole book then reduced the time spent in preparing each sermon.
For more on finding the ministry purpose of a book of the Bible, click here.
9) How does prayer surround your study and sermon development? For example, how much time do you spend in prayer specifically for the sermon preparation and preaching? Are there certain verses you pray through, confessions that you express or prayer requests that you regularly make?
I pray for myself and for others each morning, and commit that day’s life and ministry to the Lord.
In regard to praying for the sermon, I began preaching by focussing entirely on the Bible passage, and would spend all my preparation on the meaning of that passage. Then I would pray that God would use my work for his glory.
Then I learnt to spend some preparation time thinking about 5 representative people in the congregation: an enquirer, a new believer, a mature Christian, a leader, someone wandering away from Christ. I would then adapt my sermon to serve people like that, and pray for people like them.
In recent years I have changed my preparation style. So now I spend half my time working on the Bible passage, and then half my time praying for the people who will hear the sermon, and reflecting on what they will think when they hear the passage read, what they need to know, what they will welcome, what they will have problems with, what they will misunderstand, and how I can help them learn, receive, trust, repent, and grow. So prayer-soaked reflection is now half of my sermon preparation.
[Of course this is more difficult when I am a visiting preacher, and don’t know the people to whom I will preach. But I try to find out as much as a can before I prepare, work out what kind of people they will be, and try to adapt to those needs and situations.]
I pray before a speak or preach, and then immediately afterwards. These prayers are sometimes based on the parable of the soils in Luke 8. So I pray against Satan plucking away the word, people having no endurance in times of testing, and the cares and attractions of the world in the lives of the hears: and I pray that people will hear the word and accept it, hold it fast, and that it will bear fruit in their lives. Sometimes I base my prayer on Isaiah 55, and pray that as God has promised, his word will not return to him empty, but will accomplish his good purposes. Sometimes James 1:22, that people would not be self-deceived hearers, but be doers of the word. Sometimes I base my prayer on the Bible passage I am preaching.
You need a wise heart to be a wise person and a wise preacher. Jesus tells us that ‘out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks’ [Matt 12:34]. Foolish words, foolish deeds, foolish ministry, and foolish lives come from foolish hearts. May God in his mercy give all of us ‘a heart of wisdom’ [Ps 90:12], that we may be wise speakers, teachers, and preachers.
Proverbs tell us, ‘trust in the LORD with all your heart’ [3:5]. So too, we should incline our heart to understanding, and wisdom will come into our heart [2:2,10]. ‘Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life’ [4:23].
We want to be ‘wise of heart’, to have ‘a tranquil heart’, ‘an intelligent heart’, ‘purity of heart’, a ‘heart at peace’, a ‘discerning heart of understanding’, a ‘joyful heart’ [Proverbs 10:8, 14:30, 18:15, 22:11, 15:14, 17:22]. We need a drastic heart transplant or heart renovation to become wise!
So we should pray with the Psalmist:
Teach me your way, LORD,
that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart,
that I may fear your name [Psalm 86:11]
You can read about my conversion to Christ here.
You can find my list of publications and some articles here.