Learning to Preach – An Interview with Peter Adam

This is a shortened version of a longer interview conducted by practicetheology.org (see part 1 and part 2)

Q: Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that a person should preach with their whole personality. What are your thoughts on this? How should who a preacher is shape how Scripture is preached? 

Preaching with our personality does not mean becoming a ‘personality preacher’ trusting in projecting our interesting selves to gain an audience. It means preaching which flows from the person God has made us to be, in creation, in experience, in salvation, in suffering, in troubles, in successes, in relationships, in life, and in ministry. Our words flow from our hearts: we need to pray, ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God.’ 

Preaching with our personality means preaching which flows from the person God has made us to be, in creation, in experience, in salvation, in suffering, in relationships and in ministry

We need to process who we are and what we do and what happens to us in a godly way, with appropriate acceptance, submission to and trust in God, obedience to God, and thanks and praise to God. This includes our bodies, our upbringing, our temptations, our struggles, the people who have shaped us, our personal relationships, our ministry relationships, our gifts, achievements and frustrations, our success and our failures, our health and our illnesses, our joys, pleasures, disappointments and griefs.

[Read about Peter Adam’s experience of processing clinical depression here]

This is a life-long process, and involves life-long learning, increasing trust in God, more and more love for others, humility, repentance, and hope.

People look for authenticity in the preacher. Does the preacher know God? Is the preacher trusting and obeying God? Does the preacher believe the Bible passage? Does the preacher live the Bible passage? Does the preacher struggle with living the Bible passage? Is the Bible passage shaping the preacher and the sermon? 

Q: Lloyd-Jones also listed a number of qualities that should be evidenced in a preacher’s expression. Three of these qualities are zeal, warmth and emotion. How do preachers whose personality has a more intellectual or cerebral orientation develop these qualities?

One of the downsides of intense intellectual aptitude and work is that it can absorb energy and creativity and awareness, and so diminish other areas of life, such as emotions and relationships. It is easy to become misshapen! The intellectual world can provide an escape from difficulties, such as emotions and relationships which are hard to manage. Ideas, books, and computers are easier to deal with and control than people! They are less demanding, less unpredictable, and less complicated! Hard work can also be used to escape these pressures as well. So if you combine intellectual pursuits and hard work you have a great place to hide!

However this attempted escape does not work, and to be unaware of emotions makes you more likely to be controlled by them without realising what is happening.

A complementary truth is that in Western Society we assume a false dichotomy between mind and heart. We assume that to be intellectual is necessarily to be unemotional, and that to be emotional we have to be un-intellectual. We easily fall into this false dichotomy. But think for a moment of God’s revelation in the Bible. It is at the same time profoundly intellectual, highly emotional, and immensely practical. And think of Jesus. He spoke the truth; he felt deeply; and he was very practical.

We assume that to be intellectual is necessarily to be unemotional. But think of Jesus. He spoke the truth; he felt deeply; and he was very practical.

So when I tell a young preacher to put more emotion into the sermon, they think I am saying to reduce its intellectual content. They may need to reduce the quantity of intellectual content, but must not reduce the quality. And when I tell a young preacher to increase the intellectual content in their sermon, they think I am telling them to reduce its emotional impact. The Bible is passionate and practical truth: our sermons should be passionate and practical truth. 

Q: What are some practical steps for preachers with more intellectual orientations?

Work on increasing your emotional awareness.

What are you feeling? Why are you feeling what you are feeling? 

What are your godly feelings? How can you increase them and act on them? What are your sinful feelings? How can you put them to death by the power of Christ’s death, and live in the power of his resurrection?

Learn to ‘preach to yourself’ from the Bible in regard to your feelings; that is, apply the Bible to your whole self, including your feelings.

Work on increasing your relational awareness.

Learn to speak the truth in love. 

This is true: but is this the right time to say it, is this the right way to say it to this person or these people? How will they hear what I am saying? How will they respond to what I am saying? How will they feel about what I am saying? How is it relevant to their lives? Why is it important for them to know it?

Work on increasing your cultural awareness.

What are appropriate current voice and body language emotional signs in our culture[s]? In some cultures or sub-cultures plain-speaking is valued: in others it is regarded as rude. In some cultures strongly-worded arguments are appropriate: in others they are not. In some cultures admission of weakness is a strength, but in others it is an embarrassment. Some cultures expect generous displays of emotion in public: others do not.

We also need to be aware of current issues and current news. If people’s minds are full of an issue or recent news, we need to be aware of that when we preach. We can either name and pray about it in the service, or else, if it relates to our sermon, refer to it during the sermon.

Of course what we say will be shaped by the Bible passage we are preaching: but the way we preach it must be shaped to serve the people who are listening.

 Q: Were you mentored in your preaching? If so, what did that relationship involve?

No-one intentionally mentored or taught or trained me in my preaching, I am sorry to say.  I learnt to preach by hearing good preachers. 

I have also been inspired by and learnt from the preaching of John Chrysostom, John Calvin, John Donne, and Charles Spurgeon. I have learnt different lessons from each of them.

I have read many contemporary books on preaching, and benefitted from them.

You can plot what I have learnt about preaching by reading here.

Q: How many sermons did it take for you to find your ‘voice’ and how did the waiting shape you?

I think it takes about 10 years constant preaching to find your own ‘voice’. I naturally imitated good preachers, but then, by trial and error, developed my preaching by asking two kinds of questions: 

First: What preaching can I manage with my character, relational style, public presence, and ability?

What length of sermon can I manage without losing people? How much of myself should be in my preaching? How can I achieve maximum impact in my preaching? How can I use my gifts, my previous learning and training, and skills learnt in my previous work experience to enhance my preaching? What weaknesses do I have in thinking, praying, preparing, speaking, communicating, talking in public; and in my character, Christian life and experience? How can I work on these to improve my preaching?

Secondly: What kind and level of preaching is appropriate for this time, this culture or sub-culture, these people?

I have preached in small churches, Cathedrals, prisons, and hospitals. I have preached to people with very little education, and those with too much[!] I have preached to people largely ignorant of the Bible, and to ministers who know their Bibles really well. I have preached in Australia, UK, France, USA, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka. And I have preached to old people young people, and children: and I have preached to unbelievers and to mature saints. I have preached one-off sermons, and also preached extended expositions of Bible books. I have preached topical sermons and expository sermons. I say all this not to boast, but to make the point that I need to adapt my preaching voice to different kinds of people in different kinds of situations.

I also aim to do a major rethink of my preaching style every five years, and also have some small aims to improve my preaching each year. [Next year it is to include more catchy phrases of expressions to encapsulate the main point I am trying to make!

I also aim to do a major rethink of my preaching style every five years, and also have some small aims to improve my preaching each year.

I am very encouraged by the thought that God achieved his perfect verbal revelation in Bible through writers with such different characters and styles. Malachi does not write like Isaiah, Jeremiah does not preach like Amos, Paul does not write like James, and Mark does not write like John! So it is with preachers: God achieves his good works through us, and used our character and style to do so. He does not bypass us or obliterate us! So it is with the gifts of sympathy, encouragement, hospitality, etc. People do these in different ways, but God is working in all of us!

Q: How open should a preacher be in his sermons? For example, is it appropriate for a preacher to share personal sin struggles from the pulpit? 

It is wrong to indulge ourselves by preaching our problems and struggles in preaching, because this means we are serving ourselves, and not loving and serving our hearers. On the other hand, people do want to know if we are living what we say. 

My general rule is to include at least one personal comment in sermons. These can be positive, as well as negative. ‘I am so excited by this verse, because….’ or ‘I was thrilled when I realised that this verse is the key to this passage…’ etc. Or we can express our struggles. ‘I find this so hard to believe …  I find this so hard to put into practice… This is hard to understand … This is a big area of weakness in my Christian life…’

In positive examples, show why you are so positive. In negative examples, tell people how you are grappling with this issue, and working to make some progress. 

But don’t bore people with your habitual sins, or assume that everyone has the same struggles.

The value of being open is that people want to know if this Bible passage is real to you, if it is impacting your life. They don’t like it if you seem to hide from them. If we want people to be honest and open about the challenges and struggles in their lives, then we should model this in our preaching.

As nowadays I am usually a visiting preacher, and people do not know me, I am more likely to include some personal information, as a way of building a relationship with the people who are listening, to help them receive what I am saying.

Q: How important is it for a preacher to have people regularly giving him feedback on his sermons? 

Most of us get feedback, but not all of it is helpful!

The best thing is to select say 6 people from your congregation [male, female, young, old, new believer, mature saint], and ask them to give you feedback over the next 6 months. Then train them in giving feedback: give them a form with the questions.

Tell them how they should give you the feedback, and tell them that you don’t mind if they don’t do it for every sermon!

Then at the end of the 6 months, thank them very much, and choose another 6 people when you want to do it again.

Q: How many hours do you spend in sermon preparation? 

When I began preaching it used to be about 20 hours. Now it is usually 8-10 hours. But some sermons come quicker, and some sermons take much longer!

A great help in expository preaching is to invest a lot of time in studying the whole book, find its central ministry purpose, and how each part fits in the whole book. When I was preaching expository series I used to spend a week on that book over the summer, and when I also divided up the book for the sermon series. Time invested in studying the whole book then reduced the time spent in preparing each sermon.

For more on finding the ministry purpose of a book of the Bible, click here.

Q: How does prayer surround your study and sermon development? For example, how much time do you spend in prayer specifically for the sermon preparation and preaching? Are there certain verses you pray through, confessions that you express or prayer requests that you regularly make?

I pray for myself and for others each morning, and commit that day’s life and ministry to the Lord.

In regard to praying for the sermon, I began preaching by focussing entirely on the Bible passage, and would spend all my preparation on the meaning of that passage. Then I would pray that God would use my work for his glory.

Then I learnt to spend some preparation time thinking about 5 representative people in the congregation: an enquirer, a new believer, a mature Christian, a leader, someone wandering away from Christ. I would then adapt my sermon to serve people like that, and pray for people like them.

In recent years I have changed my preparation style. So now I spend half my time working on the Bible passage, and then half my time praying for the people who will hear the sermon

In recent years I have changed my preparation style. So now I spend half my time working on the Bible passage, and then half my time praying for the people who will hear the sermon, and reflecting on what they will think when they hear the passage read, what they need to know, what they will welcome, what they will have problems with, what they will misunderstand, and how I can help them learn, receive, trust, repent, and grow. So prayer-soaked reflection is now half of my sermon preparation. 

I pray before a speak or preach, and then immediately afterwards. These prayers are sometimes based on the parable of the soils in Luke 8. So I pray against Satan plucking away the word, people having no endurance in times of testing, and the cares and attractions of the world in the lives of the hears: and I pray that people will hear the word and accept it, hold it fast, and that it will bear fruit in their lives.  Sometimes I base my prayer on Isaiah 55, and pray that as God has promised, his word will not return to him empty, but will accomplish his good purposes. Sometimes James 1:22, that people would not be self-deceived hearers, but be doers of the word. Sometimes I base my prayer on the Bible passage I am preaching.