By David Latter
As one of John Wesley’s Lay or Local Preachers, I have an element of itineracy in my preaching appointments. I worship in a local Methodist Church but am planned to preach at one of fourteen churches within the Circuit to which I am attached, currently in North Hertfordshire. Throughout my nearly 40 years of preaching I have only been attached to two Circuits, although invitations to preach have come from other churches outside the Circuit.
Keeping it Local
My first activity is to look at which church I am planned to lead worship and pray about that church, its situation, its community life and its membership. Information about all three elements comes from speaking directly with the lay leaders and minister of the church, reading Church Newsletters and local newspapers. Because of this I have rarely preached the same sermon twice, as my approach is always to link preaching to the local situation. From memory, with nearly 700 sermons delivered, there have been about five repeats.
Defining the Focus
Having reviewed the local situation, I turn to the Lectionary, currently the RCL 26 Year B, and read the scripture passages. I allow scripture to filter through my understanding of the local situation and allow God to speak to me from the Bible. The result is a framework to which I can produce sermon ideas that turn into a focus for preaching. When I first began preaching my mentor said to me that I needed to write a telegram that defined my focus. For those too young to understand the significance of the telegram – words cost money and a telegram challenged the mind to use the least number of words to convey the key message; in today’s free information flow and easy access to text and social media, this conciseness may elude many of us, although an Emoji is a good way of looking at the challenge! However, five words that describe what message I am attempting to bring to a congregation is the challenge to myself every time I am in the early stages of preparation.
Sermon and Structure
The next stage is to look at ‘worship as a whole’ before focusing on sermon development. Questions arise around worship structure, including an understanding of how the congregation would respond to changes in worship; would an interactive sermon work well in this context, what hymn / song book can be used and what involvement has been requested or could be expected from the congregation? The answers lead to a structure that will include a scripture-based evangelical sermon, focuses on the Lectionary readings and ensures the needs of the congregation are included and speaks to those needs.
I was challenged to become a preacher in the Methodist Church after attending Cliff College for a weekend conference on ‘Wholeness in the Holy Spirit’ in 1977. The challenge centred on a session that looked at “Holy Spirit, Author of Mission and Ministry” and a word from God asked what I should be doing to release the Holy Spirit in my life. The answer was ‘Preach’ and ‘Preach for Mission’s sake’! During the conference I wrote: “Commitment by community and not by committee”, which correctly focuses where mission and ministry happens. The preacher’s task, and this drives me every time I stand in front of a congregation, is to find ways through scripture to allow the congregation to understand what commitment is required within the community.
Two scripture verses give me encouragement, Ezra 1:5 Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem and Hebrews 10:24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Both verses encourage encouragement; a colleague once told me that the words ‘spur on’ could be translated as ‘irritate’, in the sense that something that irritates is permanent, it doesn’t go away. The need to preach God’s word in scripture will not go away either and so I will continue to irritate through my preaching.