Preacher, Keep Yourself From Idols

From W.E. Sangster’s The Craft of Sermon Construction, through David Buttrick’s weighty 500 page Homiletic: Moves and Structures, to the mere 12 pages in Unit 2 of the Faith & Worship training course for Local Preachers (Hang on - is that right? Just 12 pages in the whole of five packed blue files on the actual practice of preaching?), there has never been a lack of advice for preachers when it comes to putting together a sermon.

However, Derek Tidball’s book Preacher, Keep Yourself From Idols isn’t really a ‘How To’ guide for preachers with advice on what to do when preparing and delivering a sermon. Rather, it is a warning of the temptations that can come a preacher’s way, alerting him or her to ‘those factors which, although good in themselves, become idolatrous, deposing the living God from the throne which is rightly and exclusively his.’

Beginning from the plea with which the Apostle John concludes his first epistle, ‘Dear children, keep yourselves from idols’ (1 John 5:21), the writer argues that preachers can very easily fall into forms of idolatry. Not that they might have totem poles on the front lawn, or Buddha’s on the mantelpiece. An idol can be anything that takes God’s rightful place, detracts from him, drawing attention away from his pre-eminence. Some preachers, by their pursuit of popularity, success or gimmickry, or indeed through their use of flowery language or inappropriate imagery and illustration, might indeed draw the attention onto themselves and their skills, away from God and his glory.

So, perhaps this book will be a timely reminder to some preachers to be wary of turning the pulpit itself into a kind of an idol. And yet, as I read the book I wondered whether we really do want preachers who are totally transparent, allowing only God and his Word to shine through them. Phillips Brooks defined preaching as ‘truth through personality’. God will use the individuality, the life and the joy of the good preacher, speaking his truth through their personality. Just as off-putting as the preacher who only draws attention to his or her own self, is the bland and mediocre preacher who draws attention away from God by sending the congregation to sleep.

And so I pray, ‘God save us from preachers who turn preaching itself into an idol by drawing attention away from God and onto themselves.’ If you know a preacher like this maybe you could buy a copy of this book and leave it in the vestry for them to find. But may I also pray with equal fervency, ‘God save us from the preacher who is boring and bland.’