Last week, I was at the North West Partnership annual conference. One of the speakers was Denesh Divyanathan. During one of his talks about the need to preach the word, Denesh recalled some advice he was given about preaching. I can’t remember his comment exactly but the essence of it was this:
Your preaching is a bit like your mum’s cooking. My guess is that you can’t remember every meal that your mum made for you. You may have found some of them more interesting than others too. But, ultimately, every time she gave you food you were fed and nourished. Had she not fed you, you would have died. Even though you can’t remember what you had, you were nourished, fed and kept alive by the food she regularly gave you.
In the same way, your preaching is like that. Your people may not remember what you preach one week to the next, some of it may be more interesting to them than other bits, but every time you preach the word you are feeding your people. If you starve them of the word, they will die. Your job is, therefore, to faithfully continue preaching the word to nourish your people.
I was put in mind of another comment I heard from Adrian Reynolds. I can’t remember where it was, or the exact comment, but it was in response to the question, ‘what is your favourite book?’ (or something approximating that). He answered something along the lines, ‘usually it’s the last one I read. I can’t always remember things I have read in the past’. The interviewer followed up, ‘doesn’t it bother you that you can’t remember things you read?’ Again, I can’t remember the answer verbatim, but it approximated this:
Not really. I can’t remember every meal I ever ate, but I know it did me good. I don’t recall every sermon I ever heard but I know they usually did me good. I can’t remember every book I ever read, but I know that they usually do me good and have helped to form what I think now.
I shall let Adrian tell me if I have badly misquoted or misrepresented him, but from memory, I think that is a fair approximation.
This is the point. I can’t remember every book I ever read and I certainly don’t recall every sermon I ever heard. There is no doubt that some of them were more interesting than others, some were better than others. But I know that the things I believe now, the person I am now, has been formed more fulsomely by the hundreds of ‘ordinary’ sermons and books I have read far more than the most memorable conferences and brilliantly written books.
Truth be told, I don’t remember everything I studied at university, during teacher training or whilst doing my theology MA (sorry everybody who ever taught me anything). I definitely read lots of stuff – much of which I can’t remember – and I wrote lots of things, much of which I haven’t kept and at which I would probably cringe were I to read it back. But I have no doubt all these things, despite not remembering them several years later, all played an important part in forming what I think now.
I’m sure it would be great if I could remember all those things. But, truth be told, I can’t. In all honesty, I don’t expect many people to remember my sermons months later. In fact, only a handful of people would remember them the following week and only a slightly larger number would recall them a few hours on the same day. And that is OK. My sermons may be eminently forgettable but there can be no doubt that the repeated and regular teaching of the word expounded in weekly sermons, bible studies and one-to-one discussions have a greater effect on our formation as believers than almost anything else.
The upshot of this is not that you should content yourself to preach boring and forgettable sermons. The point here is that we need not lose heart when our congregations can’t pithily summarise the main points of last week’s sermon nor reference them in respect to how it clearly led to their growth in Christlikeness. Just as my son isn’t going to point to the vegetables he ate weeks ago and reflect on how fantastic they were for his overall wellbeing, our congregations aren’t going to be doing that every week regarding our preaching. The point is that despite whether they can remember it and precisely how it applied to them, at the end of the day, it did them good.
What is more, even if no one else can remember them, the preparation and delivery did us good. As we read the word, applied it to ourselves, prayed about it (you did pray about it, didn’t you?), it did us good too. Just as the preaching of the word forms our congregations, so our preparation and delivery helps to form us too. We may not remember our own sermons several months on, but there can be no doubt that as for our congregations, it did us good.