Derek Tidball, Preacher, Keep Yourself from Idols, IVP, 200pp.

This review appears in the March 2013 issue of The Record of the Free Church of Scotland.


This book is based on a set of lectures given by Derek Tidball, former Principal of London School of Theology and a well-known preacher in churches and at conferences. The lectures were given at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 2010.

The book begins with an introduction in which the author briefly looks at the nature of idolatry. Aware that some may be surprised by his choice of topic, he asks if the two words 'preacher' and 'idolatry' go together like snowman and sauna. If idolatry has the same effect on a preacher as a sauna will have on a snowman, then the preacher should be concerned about it. The author reminds us that what may be an idol to one preacher may not be to another, and he also notes that what may not be an idol at one time may become one later on. His book then contains four sections, each divided into chapters.

The first section is concerned with Idols of the Self and in it the author gives a chapter each to the pulpit, to the position of authority, and to popularity. Each comes from God, but each can become an idol for the preacher. Preaching, it should be remembered, is not the only way by which God communicates to his people (in this chapter he takes issue with Martyn Lloyd-Jones and others who seem to stress that preaching is the primary way to deal with spiritual issues). And, after all, a preacher at one level is only an ordinary Christian with a specific spiritual gift.

While a preacher speaks with authority when he declares the meaning of scripture, it is obvious that it is easy to abuse such power. The author mentions several ways by which this is done, and I could have put a tick beside some. They include using the pulpit to preach at people who disagree with the preacher, to be dogmatic about minor, disputed areas, to go beyond what God has required, and to use the pulpit to comment on issues that are not the remit of a preacher.

Concerning popularity, Tidball leans heavily on the insights of Chrysostom, the early church father, and gives seven responses to it. After all, a preacher usually cannot help becoming popular, but he can help how he responds to it. Each of the responses is wise and should be adopted by popular preachers. If a preacher is popular, he should accept it as a gift from God. If he is not popular, he should not seek it. A preacher should not be fooled by popularity and assume that such praise is an accurate assessment of his sermons. He should develop a healthy independence from people's opinions (which is not the same as indifference). And he should be aware that the basis on which people praise is often faulty (Chrysostom realised that people normally listen for pleasure, not profit). Popularity should never prevent a preacher from telling the truth. In any case, some people can be fickle and will soon move on to support another preacher. Of course, the most important response to popularity is to remember the Day of Account when Jesus will give the final and correct assessment of what went on.

The second section is concerned with four Idols of the Age: success, entertainment, novelty and secularisation. We should look for success, says the author, because faithfulness usually leads to fruitfulness. It is normal for gospel churches to grow. Yet growth for the sake of growth is dangerous because it can be attained without solid preaching, and that is idolatry.

It is inevitable that entertainment can be an idol for a preacher because it marks our society and is almost impossible to avoid. The implication for a preacher is that his sermon should not be boring, and why should it since he is speaking about the most exciting story ever told! Tidball points out that the only benefit that can come from a boring sermon is patience! Instead our preaching, he says, should be as riveting as our gifts allow. Nevertheless a desire to entertain can be part of a person's personality and if unchecked will spoil preachers. Tidball cites Haddon Robinson's complaint, 'Such sermons hold people's interest but give them no sense of the eternal.'

The search for novelty is often an idol, especially if preachers look for a new insight in a verse in order to get praised for it by sermon-tasters. Instead of that kind of novelty, preachers should be looking for fresh ways to present old truths that will illuminate the passage for their hearers. He suggests we listen to the comment, 'Anyone who simply sets forth the text and gives its meaning distinctly will be accused of freshness.'

Secularisation may seem an unlikely idol for a preacher, but it can become so because it has affected church life to some extent. We now live in a society marked by pluralism and relativism and they can influence the way we preach.

The third section is about two Idols of the Task: oratory and immediacy. The danger of oratory is a dependence on vocal techniques and the danger of immediacy is to judge a sermon only by its instant effectiveness (calling for a response). Obviously both can be helpful, but clearly both can become idols.

The final section is concerned with three Idols of the Ministry: professionalism, busyness and familiarity. One way to deal with professionalism is to remember that all ministry is a relationship before it is a task. Busyness, as we all know, is one of the most effective ways of doing nothing. And it can prevent a preacher having sufficient time to prepare. Familiarity too has its effects and we can easily think of what some of them are.

The author says at the beginning of the book that his aim is not to condemn but to alert preachers to subtle aspects of their work that can turn into idols. He manages to do this. As he indicated, every preacher does not have the same idols. Yet it would be very surprising if one or two of the nasties he deals with are not present in the lives of our preachers. If you are a preacher, it would be a pity if you decided not to buy the book because you imagine most chapters might not concern you. After all, one idol is more than enough!

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