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In addition to Tim Keller’s book on preaching, I decided to read a booklet by J.C. Ryle entitled Simplicity in Preaching. I will confess that at times I struggle with being clever. I suspect that at times my preaching could use a little more (or a lot more) simplicity.

Ryle obviously thought many of his peers could also stand to exhibit more simplicity in their preaching. This is why he wrote the pamphlet (what is the difference between a booklet and a pamphlet, if any?).

It was interesting reading this on the heels of Keller’s book on preaching. He exhibited some of what Keller said, and advocated some of the same things. There was overall harmony here. He quoted from a number of “respected” non-Christian voices in the area of oration (Quintilian, Cicero, an Arabian proverb, a painter named Turner), as well as some respected preachers.

Rather than a manifesto, as Keller wrote, Ryle confined himself “to one point”. “That point is simplicity in language and style.”

“Unless you are simple in your sermons you will never be understood, and unless you are understood you cannot do good to those who hear you. … Of course the first object of a minister should be to preach the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but ‘the truth as it is in Jesus’.”

So, we see the same goals in preaching. We see a different emphasis on how to achieve that goal. We can do all Keller (or Stott or any other author) encourages us to do, but if we aren’t understood it doesn’t matter who awesome it looks on paper.

Simplicity is not to be confused with simplistic or childish preaching. The pastor shouldn’t be talking down to them. He should be speaking so they understand. Ryle is not speaking about using coarse or vulgar speech. Understandably, but as a gentleman is a lesson Mark Driscoll needed.

Ryle then goes ahead to note five points toward simplicity. The first is “Know your subject.” I simplified that for him. It the subject of the sermon isn’t clear to you, it will be even less clear or more obscure to the congregation.

“Never choose a text of which you do not quite know what it means.”

There is much wisdom here. We grow into some texts. I did not preach through Colossians until my mid-late 40’s. There is a spiritual maturity necessary to preaching some portions of the letter well and wisely. While I’ve preached texts in Hebrews and Romans, there are still some I am only now feeling mature enough to preach wisely. It isn’t simply about understanding the commentaries but being able to evaluate them and communicate the truth.

He also warns against “fanciful subjects and accommodated texts”. By the latter he means a whole lotta eisegesis, or reading into a text so that you make it say something it never tries to say. Chose texts that are clear so your point is clear and simple.

Secondly, use simple words. Or, as Keller says, define more complex terms. I rarely use a theological term without defining it for the congregation. Ryle argues that short words are often the “most powerful and forcible words.”

In the midst of this point he gets caught up in a controversy about Saxon words rather than words of French or Latin origin. It seems to be a bit of a hot button issue of his day. His focus is not on the origin of the words, but words people understand.

Thirdly, use a simple style. You can’t preach like John Owen wrote. Keep sentences short rather than complex with a series of colons and semi-colons. He notes to “take care to write as if you were asthmatical or short of breath.” This is because you aren’t writing a book and they aren’t reading a book. The congregants can’t rewind the sermon to hear that phrase until they get it, you keep moving merrily along.

“A hearer of English hears once for all, and if he loses the thread of your sermon in a long involved sentence, he very likely never finds it again.”

In addition to simple style, use proverbs and epigrammatic sayings. They are brief but pointed. This means they communicate well and can be remembered easily.

Fourth, use a direct style. Use “I” and “you” while avoiding “we”. I often use “we” to communicate it applies to me as well as to them. But he has a point in that the composition of “we” is unclear. Whom does it signify? If you clarify that periodically, use “we” as I do. But if you don’t clarify they won’t know what you mean- that they are part of “we”. The directness is for clarity as well as forcefulness. “This applies to you”, not some vague Anybody. He notes that Whitefield was well-known for such directness. It was a large part of his effectiveness.

Fifth, use plenty of anecdotes and illustrations. They are “windows through which light is let in upon your subject.” He advocates reading the Puritans, among others, to see how they use illustrations. He lauds Moody’s use of them.

He notes that a preacher with an eye for them is a happy preacher. Such a man finds them in books, movies, music and real life. He sees how these seemingly ordinary things communicate spiritual truth. Unless you are a good story teller, keep them short. Make sure you aren’t obscuring the truth you want to communicate by a lengthy or poorly told illustration or anecdote.

After repeating his points in summary, he adds a word of application (he’s essentially following the Puritan sermonic pattern). Simplicity is attained with much hard work and trouble.

“You must not think that God will do work for you, though he is ready to do it by you.”

God illuminates the Scriptures as we work in them. He doesn’t bypass our study of the grammar, history, context etc. Likewise, as we put sermons together we are to work hard. Exercise your brains in preparation and putting them together.

Oddly, he notes not to spend time reading the Fathers. They are interesting and sometimes helpful, but he doesn’t want us to read for the sake of reading. Read wisely. Read people who not only provide good information but who model such simplicity (today we’d include listening to podcasts that model it for us).

He also notes that part of your “study” is talking with your people. Keller says something similar in terms of expanding your bubble and getting out of the echo chamber. He noted that his time in Hopewell was helpful because he was able to talk to his congregation about his sermons- what connected and what didn’t. Ryle is essentially saying the same thing. He uses an interesting illustration about a pastor asked about the Fathers noting he usually meets with the mothers when he visits because the fathers are at work.

“We must talk to our people when we are out of church, if we would understand how to preach to them in church.”

The goal is to hit their hearts with the truth. Talking with them means you’ll learn to talk to them and the concerns of their hearts.

He concludes with an important reminder:

“All the simplicity in the world can do no good, unless you preach the simple gospel of Jesus Christ so fully and clearly that everybody can understand it. If Christ crucified has not his rightful place in your sermons, and sin is not exposed as it should be, and your people are not plainly told what they ought to believe and be, and do, your preaching is of no use.

He also reminds us that simplicity is not a replacement for prayer, particularly for the Spirit’s work. Simplicity, though important, is not a magic bullet that covers a multitude of pastoral sins.

“… let us never forget to accompany our sermons by holy living and fervent prayer.”

Ryle provides preachers with a brief treatise that is helpful and often needful.

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Life has a way of becoming complex.  And people have a way of accumulating stuff.  It isn’t just the hoarders you see on TV.  All of us are prone to collect something.  I collect books and music.  Okay, I used to collect music until I got married and my disposable income had different uses.  I may start again, but at least it take up more space in my house, only my hard drive.  I’m sure you collect something: stamps, baseball cards, coins, dolls, coke logo items ….

In the 5th chapter of The Radical Disciple, John Stott talks about Simplicity.  He returns to the discussion of materialism from the first chapter here.  He tells a far too uncommon story of a man whose life was unencumbered by the possessions he could own, but rather he lived a life of great generosity.

I often say that government abhors a vacuum.  All left over revenues will be spent.  Rare is the government official who cuts a budget.  I remember someone is an organization saying “we’d better spend it or they’ll cut our budget for next year.”  It becomes about power and status.  This is who we are.

The followers of Jesus should be committed, not to power and status, but to simple lifestyles.  This does not mean living in a cardboard box, but recognizing God does not give us all He gives us for us to spend on us.  Did you get that?  I know, it doesn’t roll off the tongue.

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0875525628(this is the 3rd & final installment on Covenantal Worship by R.J. Gore)

Characteristics of Covenantal Worship

Simple– this is in distinction to the Old Testament pomp and circumstance.  Synagogue worship (upon which most early Christian worship was based) was simple.  The buildings were not extravagant, and the service was simple (not simplistic).  “New Covenant worship is preeminently worship in the Spirit, under the guidance of the Spirit, by the power of the Spirit (pp. 144).”  It is simple in that it is clearly understood, and reveals a progression in its parts that moves us from the presence of God to proclaim the message of grace to the world. 

 

Orderly– there is a structure to biblical worship.  Paul issues the command that worship be done “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) because God is a God of order.  Order is not to be mistaken for conformity.  Within the Created Order there is a great diversity of plants, animals, environments, sights, smells, tastes and… people.  Structure provides the boundaries for the exercise of creativity.  It does not stifle creativity, but prevents it from being chaotic.  As a result, our worship should be thoughtful (in preparation and execution).

 

Free– the conscience of the individual worshiper is guarded, so they are not coerced into participating in anything against their will.  People must not be chastised for not singing or participating in particular types of prayer.  Parents must not be forced to baptize their children.  Education and encouragement are not ruled out.  Leadership must also help them to not participate decently and in order.

 

Glorifies and Edifies– biblical worship must do both.  Congregations tend to gravitate toward one or the other.  God is the primary audience (though not the sole audience), and should be honored and glorified.  “Significantly, we serve a God who delights in blessing us (pp. 149).”  Those who faithfully worship will receive grace and encouragement.  Faith should expect this, but not make it the primary goal of worship.

The reality of community must be accounted for.  We do not worship as individuals, but as part of the Body of Christ.  “It is not enough that I am transformed by worship; I must also help to transform others, and I should allow other to be used by God to transform me (pp. 149).”

 

Catholic– as in universal (not Roman).  This means that “there must be a willingness to learn from others, a willingness to be taught by the entire breadth of the Christian tradition (pp. 151).”  As a result, the past is not to be totally discarded.  We can learn from the past, and incorporate some elements from the past.  The same can be said about the present.  “Worship that is catholic requires the willingness to hear the truth contained in other traditions, even when that truth has been obscured by non-biblical accretions (pp. 152).”

 

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