Borers in the pulpit?

Boring sermons are often the bane of church life. However, it need not be so. Rob Smith offers some reflections on how preachers can minister the word of God more faithfully and more effectively.

There’s an old joke about churches being afflicted either by borers in the pulpit or white-ants in the pews, or worse, both! Of course, the joke touches on what is, for many, a raw nerve—preachers frustrating their congregations with tedious, abstract and irrelevant sermons, and congregations demoralizing their preachers through unresponsiveness, criticism and lack of encouragement.

The following article is written by someone who, as a regular preacher and hearer of sermons, has the potential to be (and, no doubt, has been, at times) both a ‘borer’ and a ‘white-ant’. While there is much that needs to be said about how to listen to sermons, my aim in this article is to speak to my fellow ‘borers’ (both actual and potential), and to offer some theological and practical reflections on how we might better fulfil our God-given responsibilities.

In what follows, I’m going to assume that we’re already committed to what the Puritans called “the foolishness of preaching” (1 Cor 1:21 KJV) and that we’re convinced that our chief business is to teach God’s word by expounding the Scriptures faithfully and prayerfully. These are, perhaps, dangerous assumptions and matters that should never be taken for granted. But as they are not currently under contention in the circles I move in, I will instead focus my attention on six areas that seem particularly relevant at the present time: purpose, passion, energy, length, illustrations and application.

1. Purpose

What is the chief purpose of preaching? One answer that’s commonly given is “to teach people how to read the Bible”. Now, helping people learn how to read the Bible is immensely important, and good preaching will inevitably have this effect. But viewing this as the chief purpose of preaching is a little like viewing the purpose of providing a meal for a hungry family as an exercise in teaching them how to cook. Surely the main aim is to get much-needed food into empty tummies! Now if, while people are being nourished, you can also teach them how to make the same meal for themselves, so much the better. But this is clearly a secondary purpose.

The application of this illustration to preaching should be obvious: the primary purpose of preaching is to confront listeners with the living word of the living God. As Murray Capill puts it,

Preaching … is not merely intended to entertain, help or inform. It is intended to produce, by the grace of God, a deep impression on the hearts and souls of the hearers. It is a divinely ordained means of drawing people to God and compelling them to respond to him. It is intended to grip, thrill, move and change lives, well after the excitement of the meeting has worn off.1

To extend the above illustration, too many sermons are like a chef’s description of what’s on the menu, replete with explanations of how each dish is made. However, little actually arrives on the table or enters the stomachs of hungry people. Such preaching may have its uses, but it’s unlikely to strengthen believers to fight the good fight of today, or cause unbelievers to be cut to the heart and to exclaim that God is really among us.

God has spoken not simply to inform us, but to call us to repentance and faith—to save and sanctify us. The preacher’s task, therefore, goes beyond that of explaining the Bible. Preaching ought to be an event of what Don Carson has termed “re-revelation”.2 There should therefore be an unmistakable directness and immediacy about it—a ‘prophetic edge’, if you like, with all the urgency and applicability that that implies.3 In sum, the primary purpose of preaching is to bring the living word of God to bear on the lives of those who hear it.

2. Passion

This leads me to say something about the need for appropriate passion in preaching. Sadly, passionate preaching is regarded with suspicion in some quarters. Of course, passion can be falsely manufactured, or used to manipulate, and it’s certainly no substitute for solid, biblical substance. Nevertheless, there is surely something incongruous about the passionless preaching of God’s living word. Perhaps this explains why Scripture is full of examples of bold and persuasive preaching, often accompanied by tears (e.g. Acts 4:31, 9:28, 13:46, 14:3, 18:26, 19:8, 20:19, 31, 28:31).

We preachers, then, must pray and strive to be both gripped and gripping. For if the truth of God’s word hasn’t impacted us, we shouldn’t be surprised if our hearers aren’t impacted by it either. Of course, God is not ultimately hindered by our many deficiencies; indeed, his power is made perfect in our weakness. But weakness is not the same as dullness or lack of conviction. And while God can accomplish his purposes even through our unbelief, this is clearly no excuse for deadness. As the noted British preacher John Henry Jowett, once said, “Preaching that costs nothing accomplishes nothing. If the study is a lounge, the pulpit will be an impertinence.”4 Indeed, there is truth in the old adage, “We must bleed to bless”.5

Interestingly, those schooled in the rhetorical arts have long understood the importance of ‘pathos’ (i.e. appeal to the emotions) in communication. In fact, many rhetoricians over the centuries have considered pathos as the strongest form of appeal. But expressions of pathos are not simply a practical necessity in order to communicate effectively; they are a theological requirement. That is, they are bound up with the nature of God (who is “a consuming fire”—Deut 4:24, Heb 12:29) and the corresponding nature of his word. As the Lord said to Jeremiah, “Is not my word like fire … and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jer 23:29).

Dwight L Moody was right: “The best way to revive a church is to build a fire in the pulpit”.6 Preachers, we need more fire-building today. Not all our hearers will like it. Indeed, some will find it uncomfortable! But few will be able to ignore it. Richard Baxter’s motto must be ours:

I preached as never sure to preach again,
And as a dying man to dying men.7

3. Energy

Related to the need for passion is the importance of energy in preaching. As any preacher can tell you, preaching is exhausting work. It’s not only physically tiring; it’s spiritually and psychologically taxing as well. Indeed, as the prophets well knew, it takes a fair amount of courage and resolve to ‘stand and deliver’ the word of the Lord with crystal clarity and uncompromising conviction—particularly in the face of opposition. No wonder Paul felt the need to remind Timothy to “preach the word … in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2)—that is, regardless of either his own sense of adequacy or the receptivity of his hearers. Christian ministry, therefore, requires perseverance, and perseverance requires prayer—for only God can grant us the strength we need. But this does not mean adopting a kind of ‘let go and let God’ approach; rather, we must actively draw on the resources that God supplies. Paul’s words to the Colossians are worth reflecting on in this respect:

Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (Col 1:28-29)

But there’s another aspect of preaching with energy that is important to emphasize: it has to do with how strongly we project or ‘cut through’. A certain amount of ‘life’ is needed to hold our listeners’ attention. One of our difficulties here is that we preachers don’t see and hear ourselves the way others do. We can think we’re exuding a reasonable amount of energy, but it may not be reaching our hearers. I’m convinced that too many preachers assume their listeners are experiencing the same adrenalin rush that we are. Not so. There is not only a spiritual battle going on (with the evil one trying to snatch away the word), there is a physical battle going on too: people are tired, distracted and prone to drifting. Therefore, they need to be helped to listen. To help them, we need not only be authentic and sincere, but appropriately animated and energized in our delivery.

4. Length

This brings me to the question of sermon length. As a rule of thumb, PT Forsyth was basically right to say that “A Christianity of short sermons is a Christianity of short fibre”.8 Indeed, there are some subjects and passages that require time to expound.

However, as a rule, sermon length needs to be determined by a number of objective realities: the ability of the preacher, the capacity of his listeners, and whatever particular contextual or environment factors are relevant to a given situation. These may include things like the kind of occasion (e.g. is it a typical Sunday gathering, a convention or a wedding?), what else is happening in the meeting (e.g. is there a children’s talk or an extended prayer time, or are people being commissioned for missionary service?), and basic physical factors (e.g. sound, room temperature, seating, time of day, etc.). While none of these factors is ultimately determinative, all of them need to be taken into consideration when working out the size of the window you have to effectively communicate God’s word.

To employ a metaphor, a sermon ought to make a series of ‘deposits’ into the spiritual accounts of the hearers. However, preaching that is overly and needlessly long runs the risk of making ‘withdrawals’ as well. That is, there comes a point in any communication when most listeners have reached saturation level. If you continue preaching beyond that point (particularly when there’s nothing more that really needs to be added), people can become frustrated and resentful. While hearers too have responsibilities (e.g. to remain receptive, prayerful and persevering), it is easy to start taking away from the good that you have given. So my exhortation is simply this: preachers, do not exasperate your hearers!

Of course, there is a time to preach on and on, as did Paul in Troas (Acts 20:9); just don’t be surprised if you need to do some resuscitating too! However, there is also a way of giving a person so much to carry, they end up dropping everything. The last state, then, is worse than the first! Or, to return to an earlier metaphor (and to make the point somewhat more graphically), if you insist on overfeeding people, don’t be surprised if they bring up the lot! In short, long preaching is not necessarily effective preaching.

While I am hesitant to mention specifics, my own aim (in a typical Sunday gathering, at least) is to preach for no more than 30 minutes. Of course, I have sometimes spoken for much longer
(e.g. at conventions) and much shorter (e.g. at weddings). The bottom line is this: as I look back over my own preaching, I have to say that a large number of the sermons I’ve preached would have been more beneficial to my hearers if they had been better focused, more streamlined and shorn of needless repetition.

5. Illustrations

Like passion in preaching, illustrations sometimes get a bad wrap.9 There are reasons for this. When used badly, illustrations can dominate, distract or confuse. When used manipulatively, they can reflect a lack of confidence in the power of God’s word or an unwillingness to set forth the truth plainly (Rom 1:16, 2 Cor 4:2). However, when used in the service of the clear communication of God’s word, they can be immensely powerful, aiding the comprehension, digestion and memorization of vital spiritual truth.

Charles Spurgeon had much to say about the value of illustrations in preaching, likening them to windows that let in the light and help one to see. In other words, they are service agents, and so, for this reason alone, they are something of a practical necessity for effective preaching. Indeed, said Spurgeon, just as a house without windows would be more like “a prison rather than a house”, similarly “a discourse without a parable is prosy and dull, and involves a grievous weariness of the flesh”.10

As a younger preacher, I was sometimes concerned when people would repeat back to me almost verbatim illustrations I had used in preaching. Had they really been impacted lastingly by the word of God, or had they just remembered a moving story? Of course, the latter is always possible. But in all the cases I took time to explore, it was the former: the illustration had functioned as a hook that brought with it the truth of God’s word.

The key issue, then, is whether a preacher’s illustrations serve the word of God or smother it. Do they glorify Jesus or elevate the preacher? We must ensure that they do the former, but not shun them simply because they have the potential to do the latter. Abstractionism is not the solution to anecdotalism. Donald Bloesch sums up the point helpfully: “Illustrations … do have a place, but they must arise from an encounter with the text rather than be brought in from the outside to validate the text. We can draw on experience, but it is always experience seen through the lens of the text.”11

Occasionally, however, illustrations are attacked on theological grounds—that is, on the premise that divine truth cannot be communicated through creaturely realities.12 This has always struck me as rather odd, for it cannot be denied that Scripture itself is replete with illustrations of almost every variety—especially similes and parables.13 Of course, it may be countered that the illustrations found in Scripture are inspired in a way that non-scriptural illustrations are clearly not. This is an important point, and one that ought to drive preachers not only to make good use of scriptural metaphors and language, but to become adept at using one part of Scripture to illustrate another. But does it mean that non-scriptural illustrations are invalid?

This question touches on the bigger issue of the legitimacy of non-scriptural language, per se. Should we conclude that because preachers cannot claim inspiration for their own words, they should only ever read the Scriptures and never add explanations of their own? Indeed, might we even conclude that we should only read the Scriptures in their original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) since no translation, however good, can claim the same degree of inspiration as the original texts?

I trust the folly of this line of thinking is self-evident. It involves a confusion of the inspired form of Scripture with the revelatory meaning of Scripture. None of our words can claim to share the same inspired form as the words of Scripture; this is why we must cleave closely to the text and expound it accurately. But that does not mean that we cannot speak the word of God in words other than direct scriptural quotation. The issue is one of fidelity to the revelatory meaning of Scripture. Whenever we translate, explain or illustrate the truth of Scripture faithfully, we have spoken the word of God truly.

6. Application

I turn, finally, to the matter of application. It has sometimes been said that preachers don’t need to worry too much about application; this is the work of the Holy Spirit. While such a sentiment has an appearance of piety, it is (frankly) poor theology—if not an excuse for laziness! While JA Motyer’s statement that “preaching is application”14 may be regarded as something of an overstatement, JI Packer is surely right to insist that preaching is “teaching plus application”15 or, otherwise put, exposition plus application. That is, faithful preaching is not less than exposition, but it is also more.

This ‘more’ can be spoken of in any number of alternative ways (e.g. contextualizing, bridge-building, relevance revealing, etc.), but the essence of it has to do with ensuring that the implications of God’s word are understood by our hearers. This concern is seen repeatedly in Scripture itself. For example, in Nehemiah 8, after rediscovering the Book of the Law of Moses and reading it to the people, Ezra and the other scribes not only “gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (v. 8), they then instructed the people in how to respond in the following terms:

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” (vv. 9-11)

The sermons found in the book of Acts reveal a similar pattern. The apostles not only communicate effectively the good news of the gospel, they then answer the all-important question that their hearers are driven to ask: “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Peter’s answer is clear: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). But lest we think that this was merely Peter’s closing line, Luke then tells us that “with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation”” (v. 40).

It’s possible, then, to have too narrow an understanding of what it means to preach the word of God faithfully. Just as preaching the gospel knowingly in a language that none of our hearers understands is nothing short of gross ministerial failure, so failing to spell out the implications of God’s word for our hearers is also a serious neglect of our God-given responsibilities. We need to both expound the word and apply it lest our hearers’ blood be required at our hand (Ezek 33:6; cf. Acts 20:26)!

To conclude this point, Richard Baxter’s exhortation to preachers is worth repeating:

We ought to study how to convince and how to get inside people and how to learn to bring the truth to the quick—not to leave it in the air. Moreover, if ministers are to do the work of the Lord, it must be done more vigorously than most of us do it … What a tragedy it is, then, to hear a minister expand doctrines and yet let them die in his people’s hands for the lack of a relevant and living application.16

As I said at the outset, this article has been directed to preachers only (potential ‘borers’). I’ve said little about the responsibilities of hearers (potential ‘white-ants’). That’s not because there isn’t much to say: quite the reverse! In fact, Scripture has significantly more to say about how to hear the word of God than how to preach it! But that is another task for another day.

This article is also highly contextual. The issues I’ve raised are ones that I believe require consideration in the evangelical circles with which I am most familiar. They may not be the pressing issues in every circle. Indeed, I could well imagine writing a very different article at another time or for another context. So if the shoe doesn’t fit, don’t wear it! But if it does …

The heart of my concerns may be expressed helpfully in Christological terms: just as we must resist Arian preaching (which downplays the divine origin of Scripture and therefore the primacy of faithful exposition), so must we also resist Docetic preaching (which downplays the humanity of our hearers and the necessity of effective communication).

For those who find the sting of this challenge uncomfortable, let me assure you that I do too. Too many of my own sermons have been (and occasionally still are) dangerously lopsided—high on explanation and strong on exposition, but weak on illustration and light on application. This is not to say that God, in his grace, has not been pleased to use them. Often he has, and sometimes quite dramatically! But this neither excuses my failures, nor removes the need for continual growth.

That is, perhaps, the best note on which to bring this article to a close. We preachers simply need to keep growing in our ability to minister the word of God faithfully and effectively. There is always more to learn; in fact, the learner plates never come off! The lesson for the present time, I believe, is not that we should be less committed to exposition or less text-centred. God forbid! Instead, we need to work much harder at being listener-oriented and hearer-directed. Otherwise put, our business is to preach the word of God to people.

The final word is best given to Richard Baxter:

And now, brethren, I earnestly beseech you, in the name of God, and for the sake of your peoples’ souls, that you will not slightly slubber [sic] over this work, but do it vigorously, and with all your might; and make it your great and serious business.17


1 MA Capill, Preaching with Spiritual Vigour, Christian Focus Publications, Fearn, 2003, p. 12.

2 DA Carson, “Challenges for the Twenty-first-century Pulpit”, in Preach the Word: Essays on Expository Preaching in Honor of R. Kent Hughes, edited by Leland Ryken and Todd A Wilson, Crossway, Wheaton, 2007, p. 176.

3 It should be noted that the New Testament’s use of the language of ‘instruction’ (paraggelia), perhaps better translated ‘commandment’, often has this sense: it is direct, divine instruction (e.g. Rom 15:4, 1 Cor 10:11, 1 Thess 4:11, Titus 1:9). This is also why the apostolic ‘teaching’ (didaskalia) was normally accompanied by warning, admonition and exhortation (e.g. Col 1:28, 3:16, 1 Tim 4:13); God was speaking!

4 John H Jowett, ‘The preacher in his study: “A wise master-builder”’, The Preacher: His Life and Work: Yale Lectures, George H Doran Company, London, 1912, p. 113.

5 Attributed to both John H Jowett and Baron Nikolai.

6 Attributed.

7 Richard Baxter, ‘Love Breathing Thanks and Praise’, part 2, stanza 29, in Poetical Fragments, 1681.

8 PT Forsyth, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, Independent Press, London, 1907, p. 110.

9 Karl Barth, for example, says, “Especially unhelpful is the method of seasoning a sermon with all kinds of illustrations. In no circumstances should we hunt around for these!” (Homiletics, John Knox Press, Westminster, 1991, p. 117.)

10 CH Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students on the Art of Preaching, Marshall Pickering, London, 1954, p. 350.

11 DG Bloesch, A Theology of Word and Spirit, Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, 1992, p. 226.

12 Such an attack is usually the product of a poor theology of creation, a weak understanding of God’s immanence, a misunderstanding of the noetic effects of sin, and a rejection of general revelation. It is also often accompanied by a deep suspicion of apologetics.

13 For a list of examples, see JRW Stott, I Believe in Preaching, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1982, pp. 236-237.

14 Interview with J Alec Motyer in ‘The Edge: Fellowship of word and spirit’, Issue 2, Spring 2007, p. 10.

15 JI Packer, ‘Why Preach?’ in Power Preaching for Church Growth, edited by D Eby, Mentor, Fearn, 1996, p. 174.

16 Richard Baxter, Watch Your Walk: Ministering From a Heart of Integrity, edited by JM Houston, Victor, East Sussex, 2004, pp. 93-94.

17 Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1974, p. 46.

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