Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Learning how NOT to Preach

I'm preaching away this weekend at an evangelistic Sunday for a church in Bristol (The Village Church). While doing some research for a sermon illustration I came across a hilarious parody of preaching and was  reminded of the need we preachers have to be able to laugh at ourselves from time to time.

There's a a long tradition of parodying preaching styles in order to help improve preaching and clarity in communication.

For my 22nd birthday my parents bought me a copy of C.H.Spurgeon's 'Lectures to my Students'. For the uninitiated, Charles Haddon Spurgeon was a famous preacher in London in the 19th Century. He is known as the 'Prince of Preachers'  because of the remarkable power of his preaching. He pastored the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London for 38 years which was packed out every week with 5,000 people seated and 1,000 people standing. He also founded a seminary for training preachers that was name posthumously after him.

'Lectures to my Students ' is a transcription of the addresses he delivered to these trainee preachers, and while dated now, they are still full of down-to-earth practical wisdom.

I had just started preaching at the time and had been recommended it by a mentor. (I guess that just goes to show how weird a 20-year-old I was! Can you imagine the average 22 year-old today asking for a copy of one of Spurgeon's books for their birthday?)

Lectures 6 and 7 of Volume Three were my favourite by far. Entitled: 'Postures, Action, Gesture etc' (the Victorians didn't go in for catchy titles) Spurgeon urges his students not to fall into the various bad habits common among preachers of his time. It even includes pictures! He is merciless and comprehensive in his parodying and it is absolutely hilarious in places!

Here's just one example (I picked this because as far as I can remember none of us at Woodgreen fall into this trap!!)

'There is a class of action which must, to use the mildest term, be described as altogether ugly. For these a platform is 'generally necessary,' for a man cannot make himself so thoroughly ridiculous when concealed in a pulpit. To grasp a rail, and to drop down lower and lower till you almost touch the ground is supremely absurd. It may be a proper position as a prelude to an agile gymnastic feat, but as an accompaniment to eloquence it is monstrous; yet have I seen it more than once.'
If you want to read these two lectures, click on the appropriate one below - unfortunately these don't include the pictures! (full links are given at the end of the blog)
lecture 6
lecture 7 

The serious point of course is that a preacher's job is to focus people on God's Word and anything that distracts from that, however trivial, is unhelpful.

To quote Spugeon again:

'No minister would willingly cultivate a habit which would blunt his arrows, or drift them aside from the mark; and therefore, since these minor matters of movement, posture, and gesture may have that effect, you should give them your immediate attention.'
A preacher's mannerisms, tone and pulpit habits can become obstacles to be overcome by the listener, rather than tools that help focus attention on God's Word.  All of us who preach regularly therefore need to continually reflect on and learn from each other when it comes to the WAY in which we preach, as well as the CONTENT of what we preach.

And so, in the spirit of learning by parody, I invite you to listen to the following 'sermon', a sketch written by Alan Bennett many years ago. I issue it with a health warning for all preachers: you will wince more than once as you hear yourself in this!

The Village Church, Bristol:
Vol3, Lecture 6:
Vol3, Lecture 7:
'Take a Pew' sketch: