Monday, 12 July 2010

How do we preach?

Last night, I completed reading a book about George Davidson, a nineteenth-century Free Church of Scotland minister in Caithness. He was an interesting character for several reasons: he was a nephew by marriage of John Macdonald (the Apostle of the North) and knew him well; he was a tremendous organiser and turned a parish that was in a chaotic state when he became its minister into four healthy, separate congregations of several hundred persons in each; he experienced times of spiritual power during the 1859 revival (although it was 1860 before it reached his congregation); he knew painful personal sorrow through family bereavements (he was married twice and each of his wives died a few years after the wedding); he has a direct link to the current Free Church in that his son-in-law (Rev. J. D. McCulloch) was one of the persons who maintained the Free Church in the crisis of 1900.

Yet the detail from the book that spoke strongest to me was not said by the author about Davidson. Instead it was a comment made about Robert Findlater, another minister and one with whom Davidson stayed for a few months before he became a preacher himself. Describing Findlater's preaching, the author opined that 'there was a blessed newness about his preaching. He spoke from the heart, and seemed as if joy made him speak.'

In saying that his preaching was marked by newness, the author did not mean that Findlater was preaching new doctrines that his parishioners had not heard before. Yet they seemed new to his listeners and they found his presentation attractive and compelling, and followed him in large crowds to different locations in his parish in order to drink in what he declared. Certainly the sense of newness came from the work of the Spirit in his heart and theirs. Of course, the opposite of newness is staleness, and I have heard plenty stale sermons (and no doubt have delivered quite a lot as well). So what was Findlater's secret in being able to preach fresh-sounding, eagerly listened-to sermons?

I suspect a major part of the answer is found in the other details of the author's description, that Findlater 'spoke from the heart, and seemed as if joy made him speak.' Obviously sermons have to contain information, but often the impression conveyed to me at conferences and sometimes in churches is that the preacher is speaking only from his mind and not also from and through his emotions. I suppose the problem is a lack of passion, although not all passion is good.

I am intrigued that the impression made about Findlater's preaching was that he spoke out of joy. It has often been stressed to me, and perhaps I have urged others, to speak out of love, which of course is necessary. Yet surely when preaching about deliverance from sin and the riches of God's grace, there should be such joy in the preacher that others notice it.

It looks to me as if Findlater's preaching was marked by newness because the themes about which he preached made him very happy. So while I may not have Davidson's organisational skills or not be given by God the blessing of sharing in nationwide revival, I would like to be a happy preacher like Findlater.