The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

An assessment of preaching

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Hopefully, there will come a point in the life of a church when she is called upon to consider and assess the preaching gifts of men in the congregation. This is not the same thing as considering a man for the office of an elder, but it may be related to it. As the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith says, in chapter 26, paragraph 11:

Although it be incumbent on the Bishops or Pastors of the Churches to be instant in Preaching the Word, by way of Office; yet the work of Preaching the Word, is not so peculiarly confined to them; but that others also gifted, and fitted by the Holy Spirit for it, and approved, and called by the Church, may and ought to perform it.

In other words, while it is a particular duty of the pastors as pastors to be preachers in some form, there may be others apart from the pastors of a church who – being appropriately gifted and equipped by the Holy Spirit – have a related obligation to exercise their gift for the edification of the whole body. The assessment of that gift belongs to the gathered church, who, under the oversight of the elders – are to approve and call such a man to the work. (Again, I do not think that this is a formal setting aside, but rather a more formal recognition that here is a man whose gift is to be cultivated and who should be given opportunities for its exercise. Of course, where a man believes he is called to the ministry as a vocational pastor, the same kind of process may be appropriate for the assessment of his preaching gifts as part of the wider consideration of his graces and gifts.)

But how does a church make such an assessment? Is there not a danger of cultivating a wrongly critical spirit, in which the congregation begin to sit as judges upon the preachers rather than come under the Word of God with an intelligent appetite? But is there not another problem of super-spiritualising the process so that the church fails properly to consider the man and his gifts, with a view to a serious consideration and righteous assessment, and utterly suspends the critical faculty, appropriately exercised?

I would hope that, in a healthy church environment, the gifts of the more occasional preacher (awkward phrase, but work with me!) might gradually come to light through his service and demonstration of character in other spheres. For example, his character and disposition are likely to gain him particular opportunities to serve. His measured, earnest, varied, well-constructed and Biblically-sound contributions in public prayer will gain the approval of the saints. Perhaps he will find an initial platform for his gifts in the Sunday School for children of various ages, or in an adult Bible class, and the children will give their usual honest assessment of whether the man has any ability to hold their attention and instruct their minds. There may be some evangelistic work, either on the doors or preaching in the open air, where his zealous spirit cannot be quenched and his heart for sinners is evident. His interaction with other saints will manifest a capacity to instruct. His Bible study and wider reading will show an active mind seeking to immerse itself in the things of God. Perhaps he will contribute to the leading of services, or some other more public sphere in which his gifts, exercised in dependence on the Spirit of Christ, will be evident.

There will come a point at which the elders might give him an opportunity to preach. This should probably be in the most regular meetings of the church, where the saints are gathered with an appetite for the Word and a prayerful anticipation and an eager hope that God will feed them through a gifted man. In other words, the congregation will be willing and expecting the best for and from this brother. The first sermon may be a blinder, humanly speaking, or it may be a complete disaster. In either case, it is too soon to make a decision. The pressures of the pulpit do not allow for a single essay into the labour of public preaching to determine whether or not a man has a gift for some kind of ministry. So he stands again, and perhaps the blinder is followed by a disaster, or vice versa. More likely there is a gradual development, for few men spring fully-formed as preachers into the pulpit. The pastors give feedback, and perhaps a few mature saints are called upon to provide some insights personally to the would-be preacher and to the elders. The pastors seek to cultivate the man’s gifts, honing his attitude to and aptitude for the work. There are many rough edges to smooth off, there are at least as many idiosyncrasies and shortcomings as there are in a more seasoned preacher, but – over time – there is discernible progress. Eventually, the matter comes to the church: the point has come at which the gathered congregation must assess whether or not this is a man that they are ready to recognise as gifted in some capacity to preach, and to what extent that gift should be exercised. What frame of reference do they have for making such an assessment?

Without imagining that this is the final word, here is a framework that we have employed in the church which I serve. It seeks to draw on the Biblical data concerning and examples of preaching, as well as some of the wisdom of gifted men through the years. It has been useful not only for looking at developing preachers, but also for mutual and self-assessment by the existing pastors of our own pulpit labours. In the hopes that others find it useful, I offer it here.

Are the following things present in the bud if not in the bloom? If they are not present all the time, are they regularly and increasingly in evidence?

Personal integrity: Do his character, behaviour, and family life make him credible in the things he preaches? Do his family and employment circumstances allow him to give the time and energy required for preparation and delivery of sermons?

Spiritual authority: Does the Word of God come with a degree of power? Is the preacher gripped by the truth? Are you conscious that you are dealing with the things of eternity? Do you feel the pressure of the truth on your conscience? Do you feel anything of the burden of the man for the salvation of his hearers, their entry into and continuance along the narrow path? Do you believe that he has grasped the true sense of his text and been mastered by it? Is there unction? Is he himself governed by the Word and Spirit?

Homiletical clarity: Is the exegesis (the explanation of the text) accurate and clear? Are the points plainly derived from the text? Is there structure, order, organization, flow, an underpinning and compelling logic to the sermon? Are his illustrations appropriate, accurate, lively and helpful? Can you follow the reasoning in his sermon and are you persuaded by his conclusions?

Theological accuracy: Is there evidence of broader reading and theological meditation? Is the sermon enriched by a genuine understanding of the scope and flow of Scripture revelation as a whole? Is he labouring to acquire a deeper foundation that will support and enrich preaching opportunities? Does his exegesis and application commend itself to you as careful and accurate, in accordance with the wider teaching of Scripture? Are the sermons full of Christ: do they proclaim him and presuppose him?

Emotional profundity: Does he enter into the heart and mind of those depicted in the sermon and its text? Is he connecting with the events and circumstances he describes? Are you made conscious of his concern for you as his hearers? Do you recognise a man who cares for your soul? Does deep speak unto deep? Do you get the sense that he is gripped by his material? Does his spirit rise and fall in sympathy with his material, and does he carry you with him?

Applicatory pungency: Are his applications thoughtful and accurate? Is it a ‘distinguishing’ ministry i.e. does it make necessary, careful and clear divisions between different spiritual conditions and states? Does he address such different groups in a lively and appropriate way? Are the applications searching? Do they go beyond the surface and demand a definite response? Are his applications predictable and avoidable, or urgent and pressing?

Vocal and physical capacity: How easy is he to listen to? How well does he gain and keep your attention? Is there a helpful range of tone, pitch, and volume in his sermon? Do his vocal range and gesture help to communicate the truth in its various aspects and emphases? Is there appropriate and natural expression of face and gesture of body that helps to communicate his meaning? Is there anything static or stunted about his delivery? Does he preach with his whole being?

  • Are your souls being fed by this man’s ministry? Are you being taught, reproved, corrected and instructed in righteousness?
  • Do you believe that God has gifted this man in some capacity as a preacher?
  • If so, to what extent? Would you be eager (or, at least, content) to sit under this preaching on a more regular basis? If so, how often? Roughly once, four times, six times, twelve times yearly, or more or less often?
  • Is he consistently reaching a standard of careful, close, effective public ministry, or is it still a little hit and miss? Do you need more time to make such determinations?
  • Would you be content to have this man go to other congregations and preach as a representative of your Saviour and this church?

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 26 August 2011 at 08:22

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