For the past couple months I’ve been studying George Herbert’s classic A Priest to the Temple, or, The Country Parson. It was written in 1652 and is full of advice for the “country parson,” or local parish priest. I’m not going to reflect on every chapter, but there are many parts that I’d like to share and process here.
Chapter 7 – the parson preaching
George Herbert considers the pulpit the parson’s throne and joy. He lists only three possible reasons for a pastor to refrain from preaching in church:
- He’s too sick that day
- there’s a festival that he’d better celebrate without preaching
- so that when he returns, people will hear him with fresh ears
In any case, the pastor makes sure that the stand-in preacher will build upon the pastor’s precedent (that is, not conflict with what has been taught in the past). Herbert also suggests that the guest preacher be encouraged to preach something that the pastor had trouble convincing the flock, so that by multiple witnesses they might be better convinced. I resonate with much of this, as I value continuity from week to week very highly. And even in my very short time as a Deacon thus far, I’ve already experienced seeing a guest preacher come in and give exhortations to my flock that I don’t think I’d have the guts to make! (It was nothing drastic, don’t worry.)
With that brief introduction in place, Hebert goes on to give some specific advice about getting peoples’ attention:
- speak earnestly, so people will take you seriously
- particularize your speech; people easily miss or ignore “general advice”
- include relevant Old Testament judgments of God to emphasize the nearness of God even today
- include stories and sayings; people remember those well
I struggle with #2 and #4 here. Often, I substitute “regular life” stories and sayings for Old Testament stories and sayings, effectively folding #4 into #3. Sometimes that’s fine, but I still need to work on the art of sermon illustration. Same with generalization – I have to remind myself each week to get specific in what I’m going to preach. This season I’ve made it easier for myself by making the Epiphany sermon theme on our mission as a church plant, inspired by my recent post about the church as a farm.
George Herbert then begins the next paragraph with an important statement: “the character of his sermon is holiness: he is not witty, or learned, or eloquent, but Holy.” Don’t be deceived here, George Herbert was a very educated man, and is best remembered for his poetry… he was witty and learned and eloquent! But he argues that above those three fine qualities remains the most important quality: holiness. What makes a sermon holy? He lists five things:
- Preach from texts of devotion, not controversy. Theological argumentation does not make for inspiring people to Christian living.
- Run everything you’re going to say through your heart before saying it. In other words, you’ve got to preach from your heart if you expect people to receive God’s words in their hearts.
- Make “apostrophes” to God every now and then, such as “oh Lord, bless my people and teach them this point…” like in Isaiah 61:1 and Jeremiah 10:23.
- Make “frequent wishes of the peoples good, and joying therein,” such as St. Paul does in Romans 1:9, Ephesians 1:16, II Corinthians 1:4, and Philippians 1:4.
- Frequently remind people of the presence and majesty of God.
Personally, I’m not so sure about #3 here. That might be more culturally-dependent than the others. I feel as though such comments to God while preaching to people may come across as pretentious today. Then again, most of the preaching I’ve heard in my life has been teaching-heavy and exhortation-light, focusing on the mind far more than the heart. Perhaps it’s worth a try one of these days?
Then George Herbert gives two pieces of advice on how to prepare a text for preaching:
- Give a plain and obvious explanation of the text.
- Make some key observations on how that text fits into the rest of the Scriptures.
He offers #2 here as a counter to another method that he despises: “crumbling a text into small parts.” That, he says, “has neither in it sweetness nor gravity nor variety, since the words apart are not Scripture, but a dictionary.” I can’t help but chuckle every time I read that. Such piecemeal fragmentation of Scripture passages has been a common practice off and on through history, and though I think he’s overstating his case against the break-down strategy, he’s spot on about putting the text in its proper context within the entirety of Scripture. To this day that is an all-too-often-neglected discipline among preachers. It’s a lot more work, sure, but it’s far more faithful to the idea that the Bible is the word of God written because it forces us to treat the Scriptures consistently, and avoid interpreting one passage in a way that is repugnant to another.
Herbert’s final advice about preaching touches upon one of those big questions young preachers ask: how long should a sermon be? His answer also makes me chuckle. “The Parson exceeds not an hour in preaching… he that profits not in that time, will less afterwards… and so he grows from not relishing to loathing.” How I sometimes wish I could get away with preaching for 40 minutes! One of my former pastors regularly preaches about that long, and I miss that. Now, I’m a Word & Sacrament kind of guy – I don’t believe the sermon is the apex of a worship service. Nevertheless, I think longer sermons would be of great benefit to Christians in America today. I’m not sure what the folks at my church were used to before I started preaching for them. Many Episcopal churches do the 20-minute deal. I think I average around half an hour. Longer sermons, again, would mean more prep work, but in many cases that would be very beneficial to our many sick churches today.