Meet the ministers – 50 years of preaching (3)
Peyton Jones discusses preaching with Peter Jeffery in this concluding article of a three-part series. This focuses on his advice to young ministers; part one (May ET) looked at the power of God in ministry, part two (June ET) the practicalities of preaching.
Peyton: What would transform a dry, lifeless sermon preparation into an on-fire, heart-warming, heart-burning, ‘fire-in-my-bones’ kind of message?
Peter: There are some times when you can spend three hours in the study and you haven’t gone further than the end of your nose. You know what it’s like — sometimes you can’t even know where you are going to preach from, what text, what passage, what subject.
And yet God does undertake. He undertakes every week. Most pastors preach Sunday mornings and evenings, with a Bible study in the week, to the same congregation.
I was doing that three times a week. It’s a lot of preparation and there are times when you grow weary. But you’ve got to keep at it.
Peyton: Was there a method to your preparation?
Peter: When I first started, I had two sermons to do in a week. I’d split it up so I’d spend the first morning reading and thinking around the text. On the second morning I’d write the sermon out. On the third morning, I’d start again on the next sermon.
But I would read around the text, think about the text, and then get on with it. As I was preaching through a series of sermons, I might have five or six books on the go. I would spend the first day reading around these things.
I know some preachers who don’t start doing sermon preparation until Saturday — that would give me ulcers! I like to start preparing a sermon on Monday, so then you live with the sermon for a week and are ready by Saturday. So when you preach, out it comes.
But the congregation has to see that you’ve come from the presence of God, and are not just spouting it out. If they can see you are sent by God, they will benefit from your ministry and will pray for you, which makes a vast difference.
Peyton: Did you need to spend a lot of time preparing your illustrations or did they come to you?
Peter: They were all prepared. I may have recalled an occasional illustration while I was preaching perhaps, but they all came from part of my experience of life and of God.
Your whole life is full of illustrations. Illustrations are windows of truth, meant to point people to the full truth of the gospel.
I haven’t the brain to make things complex. I preach it as I see it. I don’t like complicated sermons and people shouldn’t have to take a dictionary to church.
The Scriptures should speak clearly and the language should be such that they can understand what is being said. The illustrations should be relevant to them today, not where the Victorians were.
Peyton: You’ve mentioned in the past that R. M. M’Cheyne and Dr Lloyd-Jones were influences on you. What did you learn from the ministry of Lloyd-Jones, in particular?
Peter: When I started college in 1960, we had no biblical theology taught to us and most of my theology came from Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who was just starting to publish books then. Two volumes on the Sermon on the Mount came out when I was in college and I used to devour these books.
He gave you a sense of God, when you heard him preach. He also could recall things in detail and was widely read. But when he came to the pulpit, even children could understand what he was saying.
Peyton: What did you learn from C. H. Spurgeon’s and A. W. Tozer’s ministry?
Peter: Spurgeon was different from Lloyd-Jones. Spurgeon didn’t believe in preaching a series of sermons. He argued you could never know where God wanted you to go next Sunday, so he just preached one-offs.
He got to Christ as quickly as he could and took you with him. He exalted Christ and delighted in Christ. It is a joy to read those sermons.
Tozer helped me to speak to the congregation and could put his finger on the point in your life that needed pressing. He was traditional in many ways, in terms of music and things like that. But he wanted to bring people to God. He knew what was right and wrong and would talk about people being convicted of sin.
Peyton: Would you say that a preacher shouldn’t strive to be like somebody else?
Peter: You can learn from others. For example, Tozer was a folksy sort of mid-western farmyard preacher and wasn’t polished in any way at all. But he brought you to God, and that’s all that matters.
I love hearing preaching. We go to conferences and hear some great talks, but there is something about preaching, you see, that’s unique.
I was converted 55 years ago, in May 1955. I went on a train from Neath in South Wales to Wembley Stadium in London to hear Billy Graham preach.
My girlfriend, as she was then — my wife, as she is now — persuaded me to go. I thought it was daft to go 200 miles to hear a sermon. I suppose in those days I would have thought it was daft to cross the road to hear a sermon! But there is something about preaching, when God is in it, that is unlike anything else on earth.
Peyton: How does a man know that’s he called to preach and that he’s not being presumptuous or merely following his own ambition?
Peter: All I can go on is experience. I was preaching at 18. I didn’t know enough at 18 to preach, but people in the church stuck me in the pulpit and that was invaluable.
As I look back, I’d have been quite happy to go on lay-preaching, but God called me into the ministry. But I knew I was called to preach, because I had this God-given gift to preach, and I thank God for that.
When young men came to me and said they wanted to preach, I asked them to write a sermon and we’d go through it. I’d say, ‘OK, when you’re ready, preach this at a Thursday week-night service’; and sometimes it would be disastrous, but other times it would be tremendous.
You’ve got to give people a chance; and if a man is called to preach, he’s got to let the church test that call. But if a man can preach, you recognise it when he preaches.
Peyton: How would you advise a preacher so he’s not losing people’s attention after 30 minutes?
Peter: I got to a point where I thought I was preaching too long. In those days my notes would be four sides of paper. So I cut them down from four pages to three, which worked to a great degree.
You can be too long. I don’t think you can be too short. I know this is controversial, especially in some circles, but I think preachers go on too long.
For example, if you go to an old people’s home and preach in a stuffy lounge, then 10 minutes is very long. But I usually work to preach between 30 and 40 minutes, and I govern it by the notes.
For a student to get into a pulpit on a Sunday and preach for an hour is over-reaching himself. He can’t do it; he’s not Lloyd-Jones or Spurgeon and is probably regurgitating last week’s college notes.
It’s all about preparation. I remember hearing a preacher saying he’d only been given 20 minutes to speak and he spent five minutes bemoaning the fact. He should have shut up and got straight on with it, and not wasted the time.
Peyton: In any job, the tools of the trade are vital. You’ve mentioned the Bible, our walk with God, prayer and personal holiness. But what other practical tools can you pull out of the kit bag?
Peter: There are books that I would use — every Lloyd-Jones book, for example, as well as W. Wiersbe’s and J. I. Packer’s.
Their books fed my soul and, if they fed me, then they would feed the congregation. I would buy so many books — I must have had a couple of thousand at one time — but have given most away now. It’s no good having books doing nothing; they may as well be used again.
Peyton: What is the best advice you could give someone who wants to be a soul-winner?
Peter: The preaching should do that, but I know what you’re talking about. I used to go into the vestry after the evening gospel service and invite people to come and see me. And people did.
I found I ‘led few people’ to the Lord; they were converted directly by the preaching. We had one lady in Rugby who asked to be baptised. Because she’d been coming for a few months, I had assumed she was a Christian.
But when she asked to be baptised, she said she had only been converted three weeks ago, you see. Now I didn’t give her Four things God wants you to know, or ‘lead her to the Lord’, but God saved her and she is still going on with the Lord.
There were times when I sat down with people. But in the end they need to get alone with God. And, when they are alone with him, well, I believe the Holy Spirit is the best counsellor.
Peyton: What about application?
Peter: You’ve got to preach the sermon and apply it all the way through. For example, the appeal should start the moment you give out the text, not tag it on at the end of a sermon.
The application is in terms of holiness, obedience and fellowship. You have to think these things through in your preparation. Yes it’s all about God, but you need to prepare.
It seems obvious: apply the truth to the lives of people where they are, whether they are in the steelworks, a school or a shop; also, always trust in God.
I remember once preaching a sermon that really took off. The following week I was preaching it somewhere else and it was flat as a pancake. A friend of mine said, ‘Peter, the problem was the first time you preached the sermon you trusted God, the second time you trusted the sermon’. And I’ve always remembered that.
Don’t trust the sermon; trust God. Don’t minimise what God is doing; trust God. Do your work, prepare and pray.
Peyton: Can you give us some last words of advice for a young man starting out?
Peter: The ambition any young man should have is to be useable. Whether he’s an ordinary preacher or a great one, he needs to be useable by God and willing to be used.