BEDFORD, Tex. (BNC) by Eddie Parrish — July 11, 2018 marked the 30th anniversary of my first day as a student at the Brown Trail School of Preaching in Bedford, Texas. I would graduate two years later on June 10, 1990. Without doubt it has been an amazing 30 years. Recently I sat down to look back over the last three decades and jot down some lessons I have learned. Some of these lessons I acquired via my own mistakes. Others I picked up by observing the mistakes of fellow preachers. Some I learned by listening to the wise advice of teachers, mentors, and peers.
As you read please remember two things: (1) I do not always act in harmony with these lessons, but I do try; (2) the longer I preach, the more I realize how much more there is to learn.
So here are ten lessons I’ve learned over the last 30 years, in no particular order:
You Are Not All That
It hurts me to admit that even before I graduated from preaching school I developed a bit of an attitude. Though I learned a lot between enrollment and graduation, I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did. Paul wrote that knowledge can breed arrogance if one isn’t careful (1 Cor. 8:1). I wasn’t careful. What it took me too long to understand is this simple truth, “So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth” (1 Cor. 3:7). One of my elders in my first full-time work, who may have seen something in me that I had not yet seen in myself, took me aside one day and said, “Son, this church existed a long time before you got here, and barring the Lord’s return, it will be here a long time after you’re gone.” He was right. When we can honestly live by the principle, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30), then we will be truly “useful to the Master” (2 Tim. 2:21).
Don’t Immediately Dismiss Criticism
Perhaps it is human nature to react defensively to criticism. But if we never consider the possibility that we might need to improve, we never will. The Proverbs abound with appeals to listen to and learn from the correction of others.
Give instruction to a wise man and he will be still wiser, teach a righteous man and he will increase his learning.
A wise son accepts his father’s discipline, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.
He who neglects discipline despises himself, but he who listens to reproof acquires understanding.
Listen to counsel and accept discipline, that you may be wise the rest of your days.
When a good brother or sister expresses disappointment in the way you said something, or when someone says that they couldn’t follow your reasoning, or when you are told – as I was one time – that “I understood that subject until you taught this class on it,” don’t automatically dismiss the analysis. Give it serious consideration. If the criticism is valid, learn from it, thank your critic, and change. If it isn’t, thank them anyway, and dismiss it. But never reject a critique merely because it is offered.
Value Opportunities to Hear Older Preachers
I never had the opportunity to sit at the feet of certain men who distinguished themselves as great Bible students and faithful proclaimers of the truth – men like J.W. McGarvey, Marshall Keeble, G.C. Brewer, N.B. Hardeman, Gus Nichols, and others. But I cherish the times that I was able to personally hear, learn from, and know men like Maxie Boren, Wendell Winkler, Johnny Ramsey, Avon Malone, Thomas B. Warren, Roy Deaver, Guy Woods, and others who have gone on to their reward. Thankfully, many of the sermons and classes that these men taught are preserved through audio and video recordings. As helpful as those recordings are – and I encourage you to find and utilize them – there’s nothing like being able to follow up the listening with personal interaction. Take advantage now of opportunities to see, hear, and know those great Bible students and faithful preachers of the gospel who may be aging, but still have plenty of fuel left in the tank. “Honor such men” (Phil. 2:29, ESV).
Notice the Good Things
Yes, there are problems and challenges in the life of the church. Have you read the first Corinthian letter lately? As ministers of the gospel, we are often more keenly aware of problem areas in the local church than others in the congregation may be. But herein lies a danger: we can become so focused on the problems and challenges that we fail to see and enjoy the positives. Even in the midst of death and destruction, Jeremiah still could see abundant evidence of God’s goodness in his life.
The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I have hope in Him.”
Make time to reflect on the good things going on in your ministry. Look for evidence of God’s grace as it works in and through the local church. Count your blessings. Rejoice in them. Thank God for them.
Cultivate Relationships With Those You Serve
Given the number of classes, sermons, and articles that we must create and study for each week, it’s not hard to fall into the habit of being little more than a sermon factory. We can close ourselves off in our offices and just churn out the lessons. Even though Paul invested time for personal study (2 Tim. 4:13) and occupational work (1 Thess. 2:9), he still made time to create and maintain close relationships his brothers and sisters in Christ. Note his words to the church in Thessalonica,
Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.
1 Thessalonians 2:8
In one of the first chapel services I attended in preaching school, one of my teachers told us, “If you don’t have time for people, then don’t be a preacher. Do something else.” Let’s not merely share the gospel with people, as vital as that is. Let’s share our lives with them, too.
One of the great characteristics of the church in Colossae was their “love…for all the saints” (Col. 1:4). Let’s be honest, sometimes it’s hard to love allthe saints. Specifically, I have in mind Brother Cantankerous, Sister High Maintenance, Brother Short Temper, Sister Social Sandpaper, Brother Complainer, and Sister Grudge Holder. While we should never condone sin, we should be patient with people as we try to help them to be molded more and more into the likeness of Jesus. Preacher, do you have weaknesses? Do you struggle in some areas of Christian service? Do you have imperfections? So do I. Let us all pray that we will be as patient with the weaknesses and sins of others as we want God to be with our own.
You Can Be Passionate Without Being Rude
I can recall the days when I thought that the only truly good sermons were the ones that consisted of little more than blistering rebuke. To be holy was to hammer. True, rebuke is a necessary part of preaching the word (2 Tim. 4:2). It’s just not the only part. And even in the process of reproving, we cannot ignore all of those admonitions to be careful how we do it. It took me a while to learn how to be passionate without being surly.
Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.
The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.
2 Timothy 2:24-26
Let us never compromise the truth for anything or anyone. But let us never be guilty of turning the sweet gospel into something sour by our own rudeness. If we do, we might cause the hearer to turn away from God wincing instead of turning to him rejoicing.
Protect Your Study Time
Earlier I noted the importance of a preacher not becoming little more than a sermon factory – that it was important not to spend all of our time in the office, but to spend time with people, too (1 Thess. 2:8). Now let me balance out that principle with one equally important.
The foremost work of preachers is preaching. Our ministry is similar to that of the apostles. It is “the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2-4). It’s not that we are too good to minister in other areas, and to whatever extent we may reasonably do so, we should. But in some locations the preacher is pulled in so many other directions (e.g., benevolence, yard work, buying copy machines, IT maintenance, building upkeep, etc.) that he has precious little time to fulfill his own ministry (2 Tim. 4:5). While the apostles had the gift of inspiration, we do not. We must read, study, think, meditate, compose, write, and prepare. Preachers who skimp on their study time are not hard to identify.
A few years ago I did an analysis of my preaching and teaching with an emphasis on the time necessary to do the preaching and teaching well. Here is what I discovered, based on a typical week of preparing two sermons and two Bible classes.
My average sermon or class consists of about 5000 words. The average number of sermons and classes that I teach per year is about 180. That means that the number of words I preach/teach per year is about 900,000. The average number of words in a 400-page novel is about 100,000. That means that I am responsible for preaching/teaching enough material each year to fill NINE 400-page novels.
Now none of that is cause for boasting. “Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything” (1 Cor. 3:7). But many Christians simply don’t understand the amount of time that is necessary for a preacher to do his job well. So it’s up to us to patiently and kindly help people to understand that we simply must set aside time for reading, studying, and preparing for sermons and classes. And we must remind them and ourselves that those things don’t take away from our ministry; they are our ministry!
Study Old Doctrines With Fresh Eyes
The preacher never suffers because of honest and diligent study of scripture, even if it’s a study of passages or doctrines that he believes he figured out long ago. Is anyone really willing to affirm that there is a topic about which he can learn nothing more? And is anyone willing to affirm that he could not possibly be wrong about anything? Unfortunately, among some preachers, a climate of intimidation exists that strongarms others never to question “established” truths. I personally know good, faithful ministers of the gospel who have had to defend themselves over being labeled a “liberal” or a “false teacher” simply because they asked honest but probing questions about what the church had historically taught on some Bible topics. To scorn honest inquiry and open discussion only tends to stifle the very thing that we have long taught we need more of, namely, deeper Bible study. Truth does not fear questions and re-examinations.
Never be afraid to study anew any biblical subject, even such fundamental doctrines as grace, faith, works, baptism, church music, congregational leadership, the resurrection, judgment, heaven, and hell. Studying these and other topics with fresh eyes does not mean that you will abandon the truth. It means that you are trying to better understand it.
In this same vein, never reject something just because you may never have heard it before.
He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.
Knee-jerk reactions to new ideas are not helpful. Calmly reasoned and well-studied responses are.
The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.
Nicodemus was wise when he cautioned, “Our Law does not judge a man unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?” (John 7:51).
An honest, fresh-eyed look at our convictions will give us greater confidence in truths that are confirmed by that reexamination, and it will correct us in areas where we’ve been wrong. Let the truth take us where it will, whether we’ve been there before or not.
Keep Trying to Improve
We preachers often encourage our hearers to keep growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord (2 Pet. 3:18). We encourage them to discover their talents, develop them, and then utilize them in the work of the kingdom to the glory of God. That is part of our work as ministers, to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12, ESV). Well, what’s good for them is good for us, too. Preachers should always try to increase their knowledge of the word, improve their ability to craft sermons, and hone their presentation skills. To that end, may I suggest the following:
Consume at least one good homiletics book each year. Perhaps in future posts I’ll call attention to some good ones that I have read or have had recommended to me by others.
Attend at least one preaching workshop each year. It’s a great blessing that more of these are being conducted in the brotherhood: Polishing the Pulpit, Focal Point, and Betterare three that are worth considering.
As painful as it may be, periodically listen to your own sermons. It’s even better if you have them video recorded. Critique yourself on all those particulars that were part of your homiletics classes in school: posture, eye contact, volume, mannerisms, introduction/conclusion, outline, etc.
Don’t ever allow yourself to become stagnant. When you are sluggish in your personal growth, your sermons will become stale and dry. If you want people to keep coming back to the well, make sure the water is fresh.
It has been an exciting, humbling, and challenging thirty years. And these ten lessons are not the only ones I’ve learned. Hopefully I’ll learn many more by the grace and provision of God. May God help us all to follow this sage advice from an inspired apostle and preacher,
Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.
1 Timothy 4:16
Eddie Parrish works with the Brown Trail congregation and recently returned to blogging at preachingministry.org. This article was reproduced from that site with his kind permission.
Randal and his wife Vicki have lived and worked in Brazil since Nov. 1984. They have three married children and six grandchildren. He sometimes writes “7 Points.” http://randal.us