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Urgency in Preaching and Its Instruction (2)

Category Articles
Date February 2, 2015

One of the first, simple assignments homiletic students should be given is to assemble a team of prayer partners. Recruiting from their congregation, family members, mentors, and fellow students, the students are required to assemble a number of at least eight to ten people for their prayer team in the first week of the class. The student has them express a solemn commitment to pray throughout the course period for his development as a preacher, and make a special promise to pray for him on the days he is scheduled to preach. The student is encouraged to give regular updates to his prayer team, and invite them to attend the occasions he preaches.

Again, it seems that Paul sought such prayer support. ‘With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints, and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel’ (Eph. 6:18-19). In speaking on revival, which in part is characterized by a deeper and wider spread preaching urgency, J. I. Packer reminds us of the important place that prayer has in such movements by the Spirit.

Pray, because God has told us that we need not expect to receive unless we ask, and in the words of Jonathan Edwards, the classic theologian of revival: ‘When God has something very great to accomplish for his church, it is his will that there should precede it, the extraordinary prayers of his people: as is manifest by Ezekiel 36:31 . . . And it is revealed that when God is about to accomplish great things for this church, he will begin by remarkably pouring out the Spirit of grace and supplication (Zech. l2:l0).1

Continual Concentration on Sermonic Proclamation as Well as Preparation

A perusal of many homiletical textbooks designed for classroom use will show the material is heavily weighted toward sermon preparation. The teaching on sermon proclamation in these homiletical textbooks follows a predictable pattern: in the introduction or opening chapter of the book preaching is defined and proclamation is highlighted in an energetic, motivational treatise; then it is not addressed again until the end of the book in a chapter or two on delivery and tips regarding pulpit presence. Thus, the large majority of the material in the heart of homiletics textbooks is on preparing the message.

While sermon preparation is highly important and certainly needs to be a major focus in homiletics, when one considers that almost all the other courses offered at a seminary – theology, hermeneutics, languages, Old and New Testament, etc. – have as their intent biblical interpretation that should lead toward sermonic development, not giving due attention to proclamation in a class on preaching helps explain at least in part the woeful lack of urgency documented above. The subliminal message communicated through most
homiletic textbooks, and the classes that are structured around them, is that preparation is far more important than proclamation.Yet here is where Lloyd-Jones again helps us make an important distinction:

Here I believe that we have to draw a distinction between two elements in preaching. There is first of all the sermon or the message – the content of that which is being delivered. But secondly, there is the act of preaching, the delivery if you like, or what is commonly called ‘preaching.’ It is a great pity that this word ‘preaching’ is not confined to this second aspect which we may describe as the art of delivering the message.2

Just as spiritual formation in such areas of church life as membership, discipleship, service, evangelism, etc., requires not only teaching God’s people on the subject but also providing practical ways to implement it, so the student preacher should be helped not only in his sermon preparation but in his sermon proclamation. To regain balance in preaching instruction, the teacher should use every classroom period not only to work on helping students with sermon development, but also on sermon declaration.

This can be done through such means as the instructor demonstrating urgency in his own preaching in classroom devotions, seminary chapel, or pulpit ministry, taking deliberate steps to address both preparation and proclamation in lectures; using inspiring quotes from Spirit-filled preachers about sermon proclamation in his instruction; giving sufficient weight to delivery and the sense of urgency in the form of evaluation used for student preaching; emphasizing the need for, and listening to the presence of, the second person as the student preachers are encouraged to address the congregation directly with an exhortative voice rather than abstractly with a lecture manner in the third person; and discussing with students in the classroom or private times of evaluation the strength of the sermon in this area. George Whitefield wrote to another minister at one point.

The doctrines of our election and free justification in Christ Jesus . . . fill my soul with a holy fire and afford me great confidence in God my Saviour.

I hope we shall catch fire from each other, and that there will be an holy emulation amongst us who shall most debase man and exalt the Lord Jesus.3

If preaching is ‘theology on fire’ as Lloyd-Jones said, then the flames of urgency must be spread through the instructor seeking to ignite sparks often and frequently in the classroom. For if a common characteristic of reformation in the church comes from ‘the persistent reappearance of small intentional communities in the history of church renewal and the thematic commitment to the larger ecumenical community characteristic of revival leaders,’ then creating an intentional atmosphere of expected, urgent gospel proclamation in a homiletics classroom, where future leaders of multiple denominations are present, would seem to be an important and vital strategy for the seminary in encouraging revival.

Regular Practice in Developing Preaching Urgency

Paul told the younger minister Timothy to ‘train yourself for godliness,’ and then instructed him to ‘devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, and to teaching’ (1 Tim. 4:7, 13). He then commanded him to ‘practise these things, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress,’ again in the context of urging him on as a preacher of the gospel (l Tim. 4:15). Thus, student preachers must be given the opportunities to practise their craft in a devoted way so they can show that they are making progress in their preaching.

Thus, the homiletic class should give ample time for practising. Regrettably many students speak of having the experience of taking a homiletics class, going week after week to hear the professor lecture, then coming to one or two times in the course semester where they make their first public presentation(s) by giving a sermon in a chapel or laboratory setting. This is similar to asking a piano student to spend ten to fifteen weeks listening to his teacher talk about piano, give the history of music, and discuss the mechanics of the instrument, then expecting the student suddenly to perform at a recital. Students go to music instructors to practise their craft under the teacher’s tutelage, and so must the homiletics student.

To that end should not homiletics classes have more of a ‘workshop’ format? At the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary (RPTS, Pittsburgh), each homiletics class has devotional and instructional content, but significant time is also set apart for student presentations. Week-by-week the students prepare parts of their messages and have two- to three-minute classroom presentations, with immediate feedback given on written forms that have categories for objective scoring and room for the instructor’s comments. For instance, the first week students must read their passage, with instruction and evaluation given on areas such as voice projection, enunciation, eye contact, etc. In the following weeks they present other components, such as the homiletical point, the outline, the introduction, an illustration they will use, and an evangelistic urging complete with a gospel call that they will make in their message.

Again, instruction and evaluation covers further categories such as commanding attention, the pleading heard in their voice, and aiming for the hearers’ hearts. By the time they actually preach their full message, they have already publicly given several components of it and had time to make adjustments.

Because of the more intensive teacher-student interactions this method requires in the classroom, actual class size is limited to ten students or less. This has required dividing some courses into sections. Though this means spending more time as the instructor with the students, the deeper relationships of trust that develop between professor and student; the atmosphere of mutual encouragement that has developed; the sense of ‘coaching’ or ‘mentoring’ which allows speaking more directly and honestly into the students’ lives; and the testimonies of the students in the sense of development and progress they are making more than offset the additional investment of time.

Yet further practice, with more frequency and a more ‘lively’ congregation than just fellow students and professors, is needed. Consequently, students are taught the importance of practising at home, and encouraged to work hard on their presentations before giving them. They are also required to take their homiletical outline and give a devotional message with five people or more outside the seminary, in order to work the text and its message further into their hearts and to share its contents with others. When preaching in chapel they are required to invite at least five people outside the seminary community to come and hear them. In one practicum, in addition to preaching their message in the seminary, students had to arrange to preach their evangelistic sermons in a setting where at least five unbelievers could hear, be it open air preaching, a special evangelistic meeting at a church, inviting non-Christian friends to their home, going door-to-door and asking to share, etc. Sharing updates and praying for the planning of these evangelistic opportunities have made homiletic classes livelier and led to the students offering greater mutual encouragement to one another. Students are testifying that these further exercises are helping them to be more intentional, intense, and direct in their preaching.

Frequent Exhortations to View Preaching as Speaking on God’s Behalf

God has granted to the church the gift of preaching through men divinely set aside to proclaim the word of the Lord. The risen and ascended Christ has granted gifts to his body, as it says in Ephesians 4:7-8, ‘But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says. “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”‘ One special gift the Lord has given the church is that some among God’s people are ‘pastors and teachers’ (Eph. 4:12). In instructing students, they need to be regularly reminded of this truth. Again, Paul asks, ‘How will they believe in him whom they have not heard?’ We must hear this question very carefully. Some versions, such as the English Standard Version, actually add a word here by rendering this verse ‘How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?’ Yet the word ‘of’ is not in there, and seeing this helps emphasize a subtle yet wondrous truth about this verse. If people are to believe in God’s Word, they must not just hear about Christ. They must hear Christ. So then when Paul asks next ‘How will they hear without a preacher’ we are led to understand that people hear Christ’s voice through those proclaiming his Word. As James Boice says:

When Jesus sent seventy-two disciples ahead of him to preach in his name and prepare the people for his coming, he encouraged them, saying ‘He who listens to you listens to me. And he who rejects you rejects me’ (Luke 10: l6) . . . When I (or any other minister) stands up to teach the Bible, if I do it rightly, it is not my word you are hearing. It is the Word of God, and the voice you hear in your heart
is the voice of Christ.4

In my experience in 1988-1991 as a student at RPTS, Dr. Renwick Wright, God’s gift from Ireland to the American churches, would often turn the lectern into a pulpit, especially as he pressed upon us the sacredness of our calling and the nearness of Christ to us in it. Those instructing students in homiletics would do well to do likewise. Impressing students with regular exhortations through opening devotions, lecture reminders, and personal interactions that they are the Lord’s mouthpiece, and that as such they will be judged accordingly (2 Tim. 4:1-2; James 3:1), has a profound impact on them. Through this they can be encouraged not only to study the text of their sermons, but to examine the motivation of their own hearts in preaching. As Baxter reminds the ministers of his day,

If it not be your daily business to study your own hearts, and to subdue corruption, and to walk with God – if you make not this a work to which you constantly attend, all will go wrong, and you will starve your hearers.5

Indeed, Dabney points out that a clear demarcation between secular and sacred rhetoric is the character of the messenger. Secular rhetoric does not care so much about the virtues of the speaker, but rather about his performance, looks, and charisma. Yet sacred rhetoric is all about character – the character of God, the minister, and the congregation. The student needs to be constantly reminded that if he lacks virtue, churches will ultimately not listen to him.

If [the speaker] is evidently intelligent and shrewd, but of doubtful integrity, the plausibility of what he advances will be felt; but the more ability he shows, the more will the people fear to commit themselves to his opinions; for they have no guarantee of moral principle that he is not employing these forces of his genius, manifestly so powerful, to entrap and injure them instead of to benefit them.6

Dabney goes on to say,

His advice, moreover, will probably be corrupt, unworthy of a virtuous people, and, because immoral, foolish in the end, even if it be kindly meant.

The close proximity of their Saviour that students should experience in sermon preparation and proclamation should be used to encourage their spiritual growth, which is preparation for heaven itself. Regularly reminding them of the great privilege of being able to study the heavenly Scriptures as a lifelong occupation, of how the Lord will use their words as his words, and of being chosen as vessels by God to bring his grace to lost sinners is to remind them that Christ is near to them in a unique way as ministers of the gospel. This should greatly humble both instructor and student alike, bringing further urgency in the process.

An Ongoing Emphasis to ‘Exegete’ the Congregation as Well as the Text

One final place where preaching urgency can be cultivated is by constantly reminding the class to be students of human nature as well as the Bible. One personal preaching mentor regularly said to me, ‘When you are done studying the Bible, you are only halfway done. You must now study the congregation.’ Stott captured this sentiment in the title of his book on preaching, Between Two Worlds, as he encouraged the preacher to engage both the world of the biblical text and also the world of his hearers. Contemplating the spiritual state of the hearers helps the preacher strive for more direct applications that give messages urgency. This is vital in evangelistic preaching as well as in holiness preaching.

George Whitefield often wept as he urged people to repent in his preaching that awakened thousands from their sins. When questioned, he explained the reason why he did this:

You blame me for weeping, but how can I help it when you will not weep for yourselves. Your immortal souls are upon the verge of destruction, and, for ought you know, you are hearing your last sermon, and may never more have an
opportunity to have Christ offered to you.7

These words remind us of how Jesus wept over Jerusalem, crying out to them that he longed to gather her people to himself like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. The godly man who sees the true spiritual state of the lost begins to care for them more greatly than they even do for themselves. Students can be encouraged to keep the congregation well in mind, and thus strive for urgency, in a variety of ways. One is to encourage the use of not only theological doctrines but anthropological ones in sermon preparation to help the student preacher keep before him the spiritual condition of the flock.

Similarly, having weekly exercises in sermon preparation where together in the classroom they identify in sample passages what Brian Chapell terms the ‘Fallen Condition Focus’,8 meaning ‘the mutual human condition that contemporary believers share with those to or for whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage,’ assists the student in thinking about the
congregation’s gospel need.

Making the distinction between hermeneutics and homiletics can also be helpful, especially with the use of analogies in teaching. For instance, reminding them that hermeneutics is like sharpening the arrow and tightening the bow, while homiletics is drawing the bow back and letting the arrow fly straight and true visualizes the distinction while at the same time encouraging urgency. Studying and discussing together such things as biblical passages on the condition of the lost, or admonitions regarding holiness, descriptions of diversified types of personalities present in congregations such as the ones Gregory the Great gives in Book 3 of his Pastoral Rule, or situations men may be facing in their own congregations, bring a great deal of lively practicality to men preparing to preach.

In certain assignments, having the students choose and deliberately address within a section of their sermon a unique group within the congregation, for example children, mothers, the rich, teenagers, or the aged, will tune them in on how to apply God’s Word more directly on given occasions. Explaining to them that, like families, each congregation has its own unique history, personality, traditions, house rules, and favourite memories provides assistance to them in seeing how to be more specific in addressing congregations. Reviewing with them the messages that Jesus preached to the seven churches of Asia in the Book of Revelation as examples of congregational diversity is a helpful exercise in this area.

Asking the class or an individual student during their evaluation how particular texts or even messages that have already been preached would have been approached differently with unique assemblies such as a college group, a women’s retreat, a mission chapel, a junior high devotion, or in a jail ministry encourage the student to be aware of and more prayerful over the people to whom he is preaching. Informally, when hearing of preaching engagements over the weekend, simply asking a student the question, ‘What is unique about the congregation you will be preaching to on Sunday?’ can stimulate them to talk to the pastors and elders of the congregation to know more about the people they will be addressing and be more reflective as they consider preaching to different churches.

A Final Consideration Regarding Urgency

Urgent preaching may be criticized as unnecessary emotionalism. At those times, we would do well to remember the words of Jonathan Edwards. When evangelistic preachers during the Great Awakening were accused of this by ministers in established churches, he countered,

I think an exceeding affectionate way of preaching about great things of religion, has in itself no tendency to beget false apprehensions of them; but on the contrary, a much greater tendency to beget true apprehensions of them, than a moderate, dull, indifferent way of speaking of them . . . Our people do not so much need to have their heads stored, but to have their hearts touched; and they stand in that greatest need of that sort of preaching, which has the greatest tendency to do this.9


  1. J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit, Chapter 7, quoting Jonathan Edwards, Works [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974], Volume 1, p. 426. This is from Edwards’ treatise Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England.
  2. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers.
  3. Letters of George Whitefield for the Period 1734-1742. Both quotations appear in letters written from Philadelphia on 10 November, 1739.
  4. James Montgomery Boice, Romans, Volume 3.
  5. R. L. Dabney, Lectures on Sacred Rhetoric, Lecture XVIII.
    • Life and Times of George Whitefield
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      One of the first, simple assignments homiletic students should be given is to assemble a team of prayer partners. Recruiting from their congregation, family members, mentors, and fellow students, the students are required to assemble a number of at least eight to ten people for their prayer team in the first week of the class. […]

  6. Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon.
  7. Edwards, op. cit., p. 391.

Taken with permission from the Reformed Theological Journal of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland, November 2014 (Notes added). The first part of this article can be found here.

Barry York is Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.

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