Preaching Reflections from an Old Master

Recently I was asked something like this: “Which individuals, living or dead, have been most influential in shaping your understanding of pastoral ministry?” A very good question, that.

To reflect upon an answer is to recognize the debt I owe to so many who will never know the contribution they have made.

A name that was immediately placed on the list was that of John R. W. Stott. Stott was an Anglican preacher and scholar (now retired) and has had a worldwide ministry through his published works and speaking engagements. He qualifies under the ‘living’ category of the above question, but obviously his impact on my life has not been the result of personal contact.

My earliest recollection of reading anything by him dates to the fall of 1978. Barb and I, newly married, were pondering seriously a perceived call to missions. So, to help us process that perception, I was reading Stott’s Christian Mission in the Modern World.

The result of those musings led us to the 1979 Urbana Missions Convention sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. The morning Bible exposition was provided by Dr. Stott. So, for five straight days we were able to hear him preaching on the book of Romans. One could not escape his deep concern for the glory of God nor his deep respect for the integrity and content of Scripture.

As a pastor I have had the opportunity to preach through many books of the Bible. On several occasions, Dr. Stott has been my companion and guide. His commentaries (particularly I am thinking here of those on The Sermon on the Mount and Acts) always combine scholarly rigor and theological and pastoral insight and wisdom.

Through a long and careful ministry, Dr. Stott has won the respect of many. But according to David Brooks writing in the NY Times a few years ago, too many have chosen to ignore him.

Ten or fifteen years ago I bought and read Dr. Stott’s book on preaching, titled in the US Between Two Worlds: the Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century. When one finds a mentor, it is good to spend time with that mentor. From such visits, one does not necessarily extract concrete plans and specific ideas. One may through such contact simply inherit a way of thinking and a general approach. That has been my experience of time spent with John Sott.

I chose recently to read this book again, to revisit Dr. Stott as he speaks in a passionate and personal way about the practice and power of preaching.

It has been a good, worthwhile, humbling, and challenging visit. As I’ve re-read the book, there are times I’ve had to simply go for a walk and ponder the significance of Dr. Stott’s wisdom for my own practice and approach.

These recent visits with Dr. Stott have spawned a number of reflections on the subject of preaching which I intend to post as a series for the next, oh, dozen or so Fridays. I worry that those who are not preachers will assume that these posts will be of no usefulness to them. Please do not think that. Yes, there will be much that applies to the practice of preaching. But the thread that unites it all is the nature of preaching, all the way down to the last, which I intend to entitle “The Art of Sleeping in Church.”

Though the posts will not always mention John Stott, and they will not necessarily reference the book at all, they have each of them been stimulated by the book. I picture this as you and I having conversation (which, of course, I have to initiate) after having visited with the retired master. I hope we continue, together, to learn from him.

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