I have just returned from a weeklong preaching consultation at Wycliff Hall, Oxford University, which took place from Monday 14th to Saturday 19th June, 2010. Oxford University, as you may know, is a place that is rich with history. This is where Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, were burnt at the stake for holding on to the Protestant Faith. This is where John Owen was Vice Chancellor, and where George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers met. What more can a man ask for? Just visiting these sights was worth the price of the air ticket!
About 15 to 20 homiletics instructors were gathered from the Majority World (i.e. Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean Islands) to talk about how to improve the quality of homiletics instructions so as to deliver to the next generation an army of powerful expository preachers. For five days, we were locked up in honest, Bible-based, self-examination. I came away very refreshed because of the evangelical flavour and openness of these meetings. By the last day, one message was very clear: No great preaching is going to be produced in our seminaries and Bible colleges unless we have churches that already have great preachers as role models.
David Cook (on extreme right), principal of Sydney Missionary Bible School for over twenty years, put it this way during the consultation; “The best preachers we have in our seminaries come from churches where we have the best preachers in town. Preaching is not taught; it is caught.” He later added, “When Don Carson came to open the school of preaching at Sydney Missionary Bible School, he said, ‘If I were the evangelical Pope, I would take the ten best preachers in the country and put them in the pulpits of the city where the seminary is, so that the students could sit under their ministries as role models while undergoing training.’”
Dr Victor Nakah (next to David Cook), the former principal of the Evangelical College of Zimbabwe, said, “The church must take ownership of the process of training preachers, and then bring in the seminary to help in this process. Seminaries cannot train preachers apart from the church. They are specialist arms of the church, and so they must train preachers in partnership with the church. There is need to make this partnership work and grow.”
My mind went back to my own formative years as a preacher in the early 1980s. I sat under the preaching ministry of Joe Simfukwe (seen here with his family in 1984), then pastor of Lusaka Baptist Church. The preaching was electrifying. You could not move me from my favourite pew, right in front of the pulpit. I listened with pen and book in hand, taking down the sermon points and always ending with the phrase, “Lord, what would you have me to do?” I would not rise from that pew without answering that question. And, often, the answer was very clear from the sermon itself.
Those were perhaps the most glorious days of my Christian life. There, before my very eyes, was what Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones called, “Theology on fire!” Above the pulpit was a slightly faulty fan which made some noise after so many turns. I have never forgotten how the preaching would often be so powerful that the whole church was dead silent as we listened. When the preacher paused, you could hear a pin drop! The only sound we could hear in the entire auditorium was that fan. God was working. God was speaking to us. I rose from that pew many times saying, “Lord, if I can be used by you to preach like this, my life would have been worth living even if I died a pauper!”
I have now been pastoring Kabwata Baptist Church for almost a quarter of a century (makes it sound like a long time!). On the tenth and twentieth anniversary of my pastoral ministry, I wrote to my former pastor and acknowledged the incalculable debt I owed to his faithful ministry in those first five formative years of my Christian life. Hence, although I now have two Masters’ degrees in Theology, one of the most difficult situations I often meet with is when people hear me preaching and ask me afterwards where I trained. To say that I trained at the Cape Town Baptist Seminary is true, but that is not where I learnt to preach. If I said my homiletics training took place while sitting in a pew at Lusaka Baptist Church, I would be closer to the truth.
Please do not get me wrong. My studies since those early days have proved very educative. I gained a lot from reading books like Lloyd-Jones' Preaching and Preachers, and from men like Dr Gerard Venter who took me in homiletics at CTBS. What my reading and training in homiletics has done for me is to show me how I can be even more effective in my preaching. It has helped me to understand why my former pastor preached the way he did. Due to the training that I have now received, I am also better able to articulate the art of preaching to those whom I am training. However, I should not deceive myself that my classroom instruction will bring to birth in my students what was birthed in me when I sat under the ministry of Joe Simfukwe in the early 1980s. That cannot be taught. It must be caught.
So, I have returned to Zambia convinced that if our seminaries are going to produce great biblical preachers, there must be a welding of the church and the seminary. And it must not be with just any church. It must be with local churches where there is the best of preaching. So this coming Sunday, as the enthusiastic faithfuls occupy the pews at KBC, I will be asking myself, “Are they experiencing the power in preaching that I once experienced when I occupied the front pew at Lusaka Baptist Church?” Only if this is happening will we bring forth seedlings that can be further nurtured in seminaries into a great army of powerful expository preachers.