Four Sentences That Have Shaped My Preaching

No one can preach effectively without in some measure being a student of preaching. The preacher has to hone his craft and has to learn from others. That happens in seminary classes, more often by sitting under good preaching, and sometimes by reading books. I’ve profited significantly by sitting under good preaching and by reading.

But perhaps the most notable impact on me as a preacher (not so much on the act of preaching, but the preacher) have come from individuals. These were exhortations or encouragements that have lodged in my mind and heart and “fence me in” when I think about who I am and what I should be doing as a preacher.

“You Preach for an Audience of One”

That’s what Pastor Peter Rochelle told me on July 4, 1999 when I preached my first sermon and was licensed to the gospel ministry. I gave my attention to 6 that morning. It was and continues to be a text that grips my heart and defines pastoral ministry for me. As I flitted about that morning before the service, Pete pulled me aside to pray with me. We prayed. Then with one hand on my shoulder he looked at me and said, “Remember: you preach for an audience of One.” It was the thing a first-time preacher most needed to hear and understand that morning. Though a man may preach to man, even thousands, he should only ever preach for the One who sits high and looks low, the One who saved him and calls him to this indescribable gift. That morning the Lord used Pete’s words to not only quiet me before Him but to cut the tangling cords of the fear of man off this preacher’s heart. I’m forever grateful.

“Bring the Book”

On February 6, 2007, having only served as a Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman for about six months, I sat on the front row with other speakers at Desiring God’s pastors’ conference. I’d been invited by John Piper to address holiness in a pastor’s life. The theme was “The Holiness of God” and to my right sat Dr. R.C. Sproul, the guy who wrote the book by the same name. I’d been indebted to Dr. Sproul since the early days of my Christian life when I listened daily to his radio broadcast. The previous night my wife and I had shared dinner with the Sprouls and the Pipers, listening with rapt attention as they discussed the theological affairs of the day. That’s when I discovered up close that “most fun grandfather ever” quality of Dr. Sproul. He laughed, he joked, his eyes beamed all the while. As I stood to take the pulpit that morning, Dr. Sproul, eyes twinkling in laughter, as if they held a joke they couldn’t wait to tell, leaned over to me, caught my eyes with his, and said enthusiastically, “Bring the Book!” It startled me a little. But it also reassured me. That was my job–to bring the Book. That sentence liberated me from trying to be impressive or clever or inventive. I had only to bring with me God’s word and give it to God’s people. To this day, my wife will sometimes lean over to me or gently put her hand on my knee before I preach and quietly say, “Bring the Book.” It’s what I try to do whenever and wherever I have the privilege of preaching.

“Let the Word Fall Like a Hammer”

I don’t remember her name. I wish I could. She was the mother of one of the church members at FBC Grand Cayman. She visited the church during the summer or at holidays when she visited her children and grandchildren. She was a saintly older Jamaican lady. She knew the language of Zion and she had that inexpressible joy you can sometimes pick up from seasoned saints who’ve long communed with Christ. Every sermon she’d find a way to encourage me or interact with the sermon. I didn’t know she was in town that Sunday morning. But she found me, greeted me, and said something like, “I like coming here” or “I enjoy your preaching.” But what stuck with me as the next sentence, “The Word falls like a ‘ammer!” She swallowed her “h” the way most Jamaicans do when speak. And she said it with that inexpressible joy in full Jamaican accent: “The Word falls ike a ‘ammer!” As she exhorted me with she was also giving me a theology of preaching. And now it’s written on my head and heart and I pray regularly that God’s word would indeed “fall like a hammer” and break up the stony ground. I’m reminded to let the word have it’s crushing force and to depend upon it to break up things I never could. The word does the work.

“Wrap Your Hammers in Pillows”

I owe this to a young brother named Stephen Ryan. Stephen allowed my family to live in his tiny apartment on Outpost Road when we candidated for the pastorate at FBC. He was in San Francisco on a work assignment, so I wouldn’t meet him until months later when he returned. Stephen was a faithful servant in the church, especially with the youth. Eventually he joined staff as our director of youth ministry, then went to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary where he earned an MDiv, before returning to the island and the church. As a young preacher full of zeal but not according to knowledge, I quickly grasped something of letting the word “fall like a hammer.” But Stephen, a gentle man to the core, suggested in service review one afternoon that I should “wrap my hammers in pillows.” Let the blows of the word come, but let there be gentleness and love in the preaching. That stuck with me. So while I try not to fear man but God, bring the Book, and let the hammer fall, I try also to do it all in the gentleness the Lord requires of His servants (ff).

What about you? Are there any sentences that have impacted your preaching or your Christian life?

11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, (ESV)

29 Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces? (ESV)

24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, (ESV)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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