By Steve Worsley
As a teenager I used to think I was pretty good at cricket, but I only ever played in our back yard. One day I was rung in to play for a team full of old men. You can guess what I was thinking: I could’ve run to the boundary and back in the time these guys could run between wickets! Yet with all my youthful vigour, I took no wickets and made a 12 ball duck with the bat. Later, one of the “old men” charitably said of the first 11 balls I faced, that I had kept the bowler out very well!
When I started preaching I thought I was brilliant at it. Looking back I realise my sermons were patchy at best and I’m thankful for the grace people showed in listening to them. When I joined the Baptist movement there were a lot of vibrant young ministers around my age and I imagined they would run vibrant churches and preach vibrant sermons. So it was a surprise whenever I read an article or heard comment about the “poor quality of preaching” in this country. I realised I had no yard stick.
I believe in the power of preaching. Where else in society do you get the opportunity to address people about issues of the heart, of purpose and meaning every week? How many of us heard a life-changing sermon at some point in the past? With so much at stake I determined to work hard at my preaching and see what it would take to improve.
How does one improve? I decided to approach people I considered to be great preachers and ask them how they do what they do. It was around this time that I got the idea to create the resource called One Step Ahead Preaching. I made a list of questions, got a camera crew and contacted the preachers I wanted to interview.
This was an exciting project. And the timing of it was advantageous. I interviewed Murray Robertson right around the time he was concluding his 40 year preaching ministry at Spreydon. I interviewed Paul Windsor just as he concluded 20 years of teaching students to preach. Mick Duncan’s array of story telling, motivational and upfront skills are well known but who has ever heard him explain how he does it all? On hearing the inspiring story of the growth of Bethlehem Baptist and the place that preaching had in that, I was delighted that Craig Vernall also agreed to an interview.
The biggest surprise for me was how much I learnt from the non-Baptist preachers I interviewed. Presbyterian Minister (and ex-BCNZ preaching lecturer) Geoff New’s interview was astounding and would make a worthwhile resource all by itself, as would that of Independent Church Minister Brad Carr. Anglican Minister Jo Kelly-Moore and Brethren minister Rowland Forman added some great input on team preaching and how to mentor lay preachers.
It was clear that life-changing biblical preaching is a passion that’s shared across denominational boundaries. Around the DVD material I created three beginner sessions and nine advanced sessions, with workbook questions, quotes and profiles of some of history’s great preachers.
This resource has helped me grow significantly in my preaching. I now know exactly what I’m working on and have a lot more tools in my preaching toolkit.
Paul Windsor argues that New Zealand has the weakest heritage in biblical preaching of all English speaking countries. He says in his early years of teaching students to preach at BCNZ it became clear from their questions that many of them had no idea about the kind of disciplined biblical preaching he was talking about, as they hadn’t experienced it.
In the Participant Guide I include the question: Who are the great New Zealand preachers of the past who are now no longer alive?
If we lived in the United States or in the United Kingdom I think this question would be very easy to answer. We do have some great preachers in our past, and it was enlightening to research them. But the scarcity of them and our unfamiliarity with them means that, as a nation, we lack preaching role models. We lack inspirational figures. We lack reference points for what makes preaching great.
I have great respect for Paul for giving 20 years of his life to training New Zealand preachers. It’s one thing to point to a problem, it’s another to do something about it. Through his work and that of others, I believe the heritage in this country is growing.
Perhaps just one last thing stands in our way: time. Or maybe it’s priorities. I often reflect with a shade of sadness on that passage in Acts where the apostles decide to elect deacons because “it would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.” Today pastors get pulled in multiple directions. Our congregations would have us be better visionary leaders, better organisers, better pastoral carers, better people managers, better mentors of our key leaders and so on.
Yet I’ve only heard of one situation in all my years of ministry where a church took steps to take a load off their pastor so he could spend more time on the ministry of preaching. How often does time get squeezed out of our week for sermon preparation and we have to make do on Sunday mornings with a message that is far short of our best, and far short of what our people need if their lives are to be transformed into the likeness of Christ?
It was once said that a disciplined approach to biblical preaching would result in church growth, but I have not heard that said in a long time. As a pastor it is easy to incline toward the things that you believe will grow a church and let preaching take a back seat. Such pragmatism surely robs the Kingdom of one of its most significant tools for life change and does little to strengthen the profile of preaching in this country.
Having discovered I was not the cricketer I thought I was, I was faced with a decision: Would I put in the extra effort to improve or would I be happy just being king of the backyard? And what of the parallel with our preaching? What steps will we take to improve? Who will we go to for advice? What would it take for a New Zealander to be named among the world’s great preachers? How many of us will hone our art, invest significant time, and become one of those who inspire the coming generations of preachers?
• Steve Worsley is Senior Pastor of Petone Baptist Church and creator of the One Step Ahead Preaching resource. For more information see www.onestepahead.org.nz.