As has been well-publicised, Liam Goligher has been called to pastor the historic Tenth Prebyterian Church in Philadelphia.
‘I’m hoping that those of you from the other side of the pond might appreciate hearing from UK expositors too. One of the best-known preachers on British shores is Dr Liam Goligher, pastor of Duke Street Church Richmond upon Thames. Liam not only preaches consecutively in his own church but is a regular conference speaker at the likes of the Keswick Convention and The London Men’s Convention . He is also author of The Jesus Gospel – Recovering the Lost Message. With great pleasure, I give you Liam’s thought provoking responses to our ten questions.
1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
I think it would impossible for me to exaggerate the importance of preaching to the life and health of a church. It lies at the heart of corporate worship where the united life of a congregation finds it expression. There, in symbol and in fact, the people of God are gathered, guided and governed by the Word of God. the word preached is the public statement of the truth by which the church lives and through which it aims to reach the world for Christ. The Word preached should begin to ‘spawn’ the varied ministries of the church, and is therefore the source of its vitality. It should enlarge people’s hearts for the lost and for one another. The preaching ministry is primary in a church that takes everyone’s ministry seriously.
2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
About the age of 12 I felt a great desire to preach the gospel. I started to read theology and to prepare short talks which I practiced aloud in the fields behind our house. I made a real impression on the cows I remember! Well from the age of 15 I started preaching to real people. I took on every kind of speaking engagement that came my way. I went into the weirdest contexts and spoke for anything from 5 minutes to 50 minutes. I mostly preached badly but I told myself, ‘there’s always next time!’ and I kept at it. I still preach badly but believe that I’ll do better next time. I believe you learn to preach by preaching. I’m still learning. The lesson I’ve learned is that call to preach stems from inward constraint and the confirmation of the church.
3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
I take more time now than I ever did. In my first church (when I was 22) I had four sermons a week to prepare plus do all the visiting. So I spent 12 hours each on the Sunday one’s and ‘got by’ on the mid-week ones. As we have built up a staff and developed a radio and conference ministry it has become more important to spend more time in the word. I am privileged to belong to a church that sees this as the Minister’s priority calling. So I give about 20 hours to each sermon. I try to take Saturday mostly off (though some of Saturday evening is spent making a final revision of the sermon and preparing myself for Sunday).
4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallise it?
The think the ‘Big Idea’ idea is a good idea so long as it doesn’t become the touchstone of orthodoxy. It is important to remember that as we approach a text we are approaching it with a pedagogical intent, that is, we want to teach people from it. So we should let the text dictate how many ideas are in it. Our job is to extract them and order them in such a way that people can look at it when we are finished and say, ‘yes that definitely came out of the text!’ there may be a number of ideas in a given text and our job is to see what holds them or links them together then express that in a sentence.
5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
It takes us years usually but in the end we need to find ourselves! Early on my style tended to be driven by the person who had impressed me last! So I had a Lloyd-Jones phase, a Eric Alexander phase and so on. Somewhere in my 30’s I found myself and I believe my preaching started improving from that point on. My worry is that as some people are being taught preaching today they are adopting a ‘house style,’ usually indicating who their major influences were. This is good so long as they get over it and are not crippled by expectations to conform to a style that isn’t them. My personal heroes of today have vastly different styles and I love them all.
6. What notes, if any, do you use?
I started with the back of a borrowed cigarette box! I graduated to two sides of A5, then developed in the middle part of my ministry to 8 small hand written pages. I now type 13 pages of printed A5. My manuscript is now fuller than ever, highly colored (though I lost what the codes were meant to mean long ago I’m afraid).
7. What are the greatest perils that preacher must avoid?
Perhaps the greatest dangers are professionalism and laziness. By professionalism I mean that we prepare sermons for other people without ever preaching them to ourselves first. I think that must be the reason some of us slip into sin. I think the other danger is ministerial laziness. I get lazy about reading – when I just do my sermon prep and no longer push myself to read the new books of theology or church history that have appeared, when I don’t keep up my languages. I get lazy in my preparation when I rush to the best websites to read what this or that one has written or better, preached on this passage. We must continue to do the spade work on the text throughout all of our ministries, it is this that builds up our own faith in the bible and which yields the best fruit for ourselves and the people of God.
8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (eg. pastoral care, leadership responsibilities)
In my early pastorates I would work in the study in the mornings and on two afternoons a week, and then visit morning and evening. Now my preaching preparation gets the priority in my time and freshness. So I work from early morning till mid afternoon in the study most days. I hold staff meetings and make appointments to see people from 3 or 4pm onwards into the evenings. I try to read the bible with a couple of people on a regular basis
9. What books on preaching, or exemplars of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
In my teenage years when preaching was becoming a passion for me I lacked guidance in my reading. By the time I was 14 I was a convinced Calvinist and knew no-one in my circle of acquaintance that held that view. So I had to take what was available. At that time Murray’s The Forgotten Spurgeon was of enormous help. There Murray describes the passion and power of Spurgeon’s preaching. Spurgeon’s Lectures to my Students was helpful at one stage, as was W. E. Sangster. I was a student at Seminary when Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers was published. Today I think Sam Logan’s The Preacher and Preaching is very helpful.
10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
We have developed an intern (Trainee) programme to specifically address this issue. The folks who come have typically finished university or have been in the workplace for a few years and want to ‘test the waters’ as far as Christian service in concerned (they come for one or two years). They are given training in Bible handling skills and theology with some church history as well as ministry experience in the church. My hope is that some will be called to full time word ministry (and this has happened with some proceeding the theological seminary); others I hope will want to be godly elders in local churches, well equipped to support biblical ministries over the long term; while others will develop word ministry to women in the churches at home or overseas.