Back in 1997, Mark Greene carried out some research into the outcomes of preaching, and found that ‘it was clear that for some people a sermon could be excellent – but irrelevant’.¹
His findings indicated that the reach of the sermon was largely limited to the church premises: ‘the further Christians get from the church building the less likely they are to have an adequate basis of teaching to lead their lives in a godly manner.’ That’s quite an indictment!
Sadly, the passing of two decades does not seem to have improved the situation much. As a recent major study carried out by the Church of England, published under the title Setting God’s People Free reports, ‘one of the most common reflections we heard from frontline congregations was that people lacked “confidence” in applying their faith into their Monday to Saturday lives’.²
So, how do we preach in a way that people are equipped for the challenges of life, obeying Jesus and functioning as salt and light in their part of God’s world? And how do we prepare ourselves as preachers, so that we are not simply the messengers but also the embodiment of the message of whole-life discipleship?
The Listening Whole-Life Preacher
John Stott famously advocated the skill of ‘double listening’, by which he meant listening to the Word and listening to the world. For a preacher, to become culturally aware in a general sense requires paying attention to contemporary media, cultural trends, what and who is making the news, and so on. But for the whole-life preacher, double listening involves paying attention to what is happening much closer to home, in the daily lives of our actual congregation.
Fred Craddock observed that ‘sermons are not speeches for all occasions but are rather addresses prepared for one group at one particular time and place… the listeners participate in the sermon before it is born’.³ To allow that to happen, a whole-life preacher should adopt three practices: inquiry, immersion, and imagination.
Take every opportunity to ask individual members of your church about the realities of their daily lives. Train yourself to make sure that, whether you are engaged in a formal pastoral encounter or an after-the-service coffee conversation, you enquire about what they do Monday to Saturday and what it’s like to do it as a Christian. These conversations become part of a rich stream of information which ensures that when we wrestle with God’s Word in our sermon preparation, we also address the real worlds of those we have spoken to. However, we may wish to go beyond mere investigation and actually immerse ourselves in their worlds in some way.
As a church leader, I arrange to visit people in their workplaces. My first such outing was with Ted, who drives a large cement tanker, collecting dry cement from Bristol and Newport docks before delivering it to various building sites around South Wales and the West of England. Spending the day with Ted was fascinating and gave me a real insight into his world of work.4 Immersion doesn’t have to involve visiting the workplace; it could be as simple as spending time in a local coffee shop or walking around a local housing estate, paying attention to what you are seeing, hearing, and sensing as you do so.
This is where, as a deliberate act within our sermon preparation, we bring the fruits of our inquiry and times of immersion to mind, and ask what difference this text makes to Ted or the people in my local coffee shop. What questions would they want to ask – and am I addressing those in my sermon? I always try to imagine a range of different people’s responses to the text so that my sermon might have traction and implications for as many listeners as possible.
Spending time listening to our congregation’s experiences of Monday to Saturday living is a vital first step towards becoming a whole-life preacher. However, there is really no substitute for developing our own frontline.
A ‘frontline’ is somewhere where we spend significant amounts of time with people. Those of us who are lay preachers or bi-vocational have a great advantage here, because we are not solely dependent on the second-hand accounts of frontline discipleship shared by others, but are regularly having our own experiences!
For those of us who are paid as fulltime church workers, the situation is rather different. It is quite possible to live in a Christian bubble, spending nearly all our waking hours with other Christians. Or when we do meet non-Christians we do so ‘on duty’, in a quasi-professional role that colours both the way we relate to others and the way they relate to us. The disconnection that this professional distance can cause between our preaching and our congregation should not be underestimated. Rather than preaching as ‘one of the congregation’, sharing their experiences of daily life, we are perceived to be one step removed from their reality, and therefore from being able to apply God’s Word to their world. To bridge the gap between our church based ministerial role and the lives of our congregations, why not consider developing a frontline, where you are not ‘on duty’, where you get to build relationships with non-Christian people as an equal, and where you get to work out what whole-life discipleship feels like from the ‘other side of the fence’?
My own attempt to do this has meant carving out time to join a local music group. I don’t see this as my hobby, or as ‘me-time’, but as my place of intentional whole-life discipleship. It’s a place to work out what my faith looks like and how it connects to people who aren’t relating to me as the local minister but as a rather mediocre trombone player! It’s been a valuable experience. I’ve enjoyed the music-making, but even more so the interaction with a great bunch of local people whose lives I have begun to share in some way, and with whom I have been able to discuss faith to some degree.
The backwash of investing in my own frontline has helped me develop as a whole-life preacher. The members of my band also accompany my sermon preparation (though they don’t know it – yet!). As well as imagining how the biblical text would address the members of my congregation, I also imagine what questions my frontline friends might have were they to read it. In that way the practice of double listening is doing its work of joining the Word of God to the world of real people in my local community.
The Honest Whole-Life Preacher
As soon as we take time to listen to people about their everyday lives, and as we make room to engage in our own frontlines, we are forced to acknowledge afresh that whole-life discipleship is not easy! One of the perils of the pulpit is that it is possible to preach from a posture of idealistic indifference to the real-world challenges of being faithful to God. Jesus himself pulled no punches and offered no easy counsel here: ‘I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves… You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved’ (Matthew 10:16, 22). Paul is no less blunt: ‘In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Timothy 3:12).
If our preaching is to equip people for whole-life discipleship, we must reckon with the fact that this is no easy option but something that may cost them everything, and an enterprise in which disappointment, failure, and opposition are part of the deal. This means that our preaching needs to come with insight into the challenges posed by the worlds our congregation inhabit, and also be offered in a tone where disappointment, anxiety about the task, and frustration with the kickbacks are acknowledged as normal. Having our own stories from our own attempts at faithful frontline living is a way of levelling the playing field between the assumed poise of the pulpit and the real experience of our lives in the world.
The messy unpredictably of whole-life discipleship demands that we balance the call to action with the understanding that God is no taskmaster: he is the restorer of souls, the friend of sinners, and the one who lovingly recommissions those who have denied him by their words or actions on the frontline. So, whole-life preachers, let’s by all means consider how we may spur our congregations on ‘towards love and good deeds’ (Hebrews 10:24) on their frontlines, but let’s heed the cautionary words of Chris Voke as we do so: ‘If [the congregation] are left drained from a challenge they have not met, discouraged from instructions they have not kept or condemned by laws they have not obeyed, then they have not heard Christian preaching.’5
The Graced Preacher
One of the biggest challenges of whole-life discipleship is how to present it in such a way that it
doesn’t feel like a tick-list of tasks to carry out in daily life. Be kind to my colleagues: tick. Forgive my boss for his meltdown: tick. Confront the bullying attitude of my mates: tick. Tell my neighbour about Jesus: half a tick. If whole-life preachers give the impression that whole-life discipleship is just another God-given ‘to do’ list we’ve really missed the point.
The life of the disciple is really a matter of the overflow of God’s work in us, rather than the outflow of our work for him. Jesus offers to spiritually thirsty people who come to him not just a fullness of life, but an overflow of life (John 7:37–39). Whole-life disciples who live out of the overflow of the life of the Sprit within them can’t help but be a living witness to a different dimension of life. Engaging with a frontline overflowing with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control will tend to mark you out as different.
Challenging as ever, Dallas Willard wrote: ‘If those in the churches really are enjoying fullness of life, evangelism will be unstoppable and largely automatic.’6 This is far from a checklist approach to whole-life discipleship. It requires whole-life preachers to be ministers of Word and Spirit. More than that, it requires them to be modelling what the overflowing God-life looks like. We cannot overflow with that which does not fill us; if we want our preaching to inspire, envision, and equip overflowing whole-life disciples, then we ourselves need to be overflowing with that life.
Back in the seventeenth century, the Puritan Richard Baxter wrote in his book of counsel for pastors: ‘Many a tailor goes in rags, that maketh costly clothes for others; and many a cook scarcely licks his fingers, when he hath dressed for others the most costly dishes… Take heed, therefore, to yourselves first, that you be that which you persuade your hearers to be, and believe that which you persuade them to believe, and heartily entertain that Saviour whom you offer to them.’7
To ‘entertain’ in Baxter’s day carried the meaning to receive as a guest, to show hospitality, and possibly to cherish or to experience. To equip whole-life disciples means to help them receive Jesus as a guest, to show him hospitality in their lives, to cherish his presence in every moment of every day, and to expect to experience his grace – not just in times of worship but in every nook and cranny of daily life. And this must also be true of the whole-life preacher.
James S Stewart (1896–1990) was a minister in the Church of Scotland, who in 1999 was awarded the accolade of being the best preacher of the twentieth century by Preaching magazine. His one test of preaching was to ask, ‘Did they, or did they not, meet God today?’ For Stewart, the preacher’s own encounter with God was central to the cause of the congregation’s own encounter with him. Preachers, he said, ‘must possess the Word – or rather… must be possessed by it – as a living, personal experience’.8
The surest way to slake our spiritual thirst and to continually receive Jesus as a cherished guest is by committed use of what are popularly called the spiritual disciplines, but which back in the eighteenth century John Wesley called ‘the means of grace’. I prefer Wesley’s language. It points to the goal rather than the practice. The practice of prayer is important, but the goal of prayer – to encounter God afresh – is life-giving. The value of reading Scripture is undeniable, but the goal of Scripture – to enable us to hear God speaking – is priceless.
This is not the place for a fuller exposition of the practice and value of regularly using the means of grace. But it is the place to assert that if whole-life preachers are not accessing fresh grace for every day, then their preaching is unlikely to enable their hearers to do so.
The recently published British Social Attitudes survey found that for the first time the majority – 52 per cent – of British people self-describe as non-religious. The situation was even more marked among 18–24 year olds, where 72 per cent claimed to be nonreligious.9 The bad news for those of us who inhabit church buildings on a regular basis is that what we do in there is perceived as ‘religion’ and therefore something that is of no interest to a growing majority of our nation.
If people are going to meet Christ, he needs to be encountered in daily life, introduced by whole-life disciples, those in whose lives he has taken residence. As the Setting God’s People Free report says: ‘Until, together, ordained and lay, we form and equip lay people to follow Jesus confidently in every sphere of life in ways that demonstrate the Gospel we will never set God’s people free to evangelise the nation.’10
Whole-life preachers have a vital role in this task of ‘setting God’s people free’ for confident, distinct living in their Monday to Saturday lives. To fulfil our role we need to be listening to the whole lives of those we serve as preachers, tasting the reality of frontline life for ourselves, honestly helping people face the ups and downs of real life (the Bible is an excellent resource for this, by the way!) and, perhaps above all, modelling what it means to live a Jesus-shaped, Scripture-formed life in the overflow of the Holy Spirit.
- Greene, M (1997), ‘Is Anybody Listening?’ Anvil 14, 4, pages 283–94.
- The Church of England (2017), Setting God’s People Free: A Report from the Archbishops’ Council bit.ly/CofE-SGPF
- Craddock, FB (1985), Preaching, Nashville: Abingdon, page 25.
- Bishops in the Diocese of London are making a habit of visiting members of their churches on Fridays. Reports of their visits are published online as ‘Frontline Fridays’, bit.ly/DoL-ff
- Voke, C (1999) ‘Putting the Gospel Back into Preaching’, Evangel 17, 2, pages 39–43.
- Willard, D (1996) The Spirit of the Disciplines, London: Hodder & Stoughton, page 257.
- Baxter, R (1974), The Reformed Pastor, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, page 54.
- Stewart, JS (1946), Heralds of God, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, pages 31, 217.
- ‘British Social Attitudes’, bit.ly/BritSocAtt
- The Church of England (2017), Setting God’s People Free: A Report from the Archbishops’ Council bit.ly/CofE-SGPF, page 2.
Note: this article was originally written for a special edition of Preach magazine (Issue 14). You can get exclusive free access to this whole edition here.
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David looks after LICC’s church consultancy projects in the South West of England, engaging with leaders and networks across the area through a mix of workshops and training days. He also leads Thornbury Baptist Church, and harbours a secret desire to be a lighthouse keeper.