Monday, December 14, 2009

Iain Murray on what is lacking in modern preaching

One of God's wonderful gifts to the contemporary church is Iain Murray. Minister, Author and lecturer, Murray founded the Banner of Truth Trust in 1957. The publication and distribution of "Banner Books" has been one of the chief instruments in the revival of gospel-centered Christianity in our day.

Iain Murray's books and preaching have always proved helpful to me. I regard his 2 volume biography of Martyn Lloyd-Jones as unsurpassed in biographical writing. Volume 1 was used by God to strengthen me at a very pivotal time early in my pastoral ministry and is one of the most influential books I have ever read.

So, when Iain renders an opinion on an important issue, I want to take it to heart. Today I received his latest "Murray News" email. Buried within descriptions of his recent travels and ministries, he offered his view of things that he regretfully finds lacking too often in contemporary preaching. They are not all equally important, but they are all worth considering. I pass along his short, provocative list for my fellow pastors and for future pastors.
Among things missing in too much preaching I regret the following: 1. Too often no distinct text is announced at the outset (almost as though a text is a boring way to start a sermon). But nothing is more important. In former times a preacher often gave out his text twice. 2. Lack of passion and urgency 3. Lack of on the part of the preacher; by which I mean, not faith in his message, but faith in Christ to enable him to speak in His name without dependence on a written manuscript. There is too much paper in pulpits! 4. Lack of memorisation of Scripture! We all ought to know much more Scripture by heart than we do, and especially preachers. An occasional turning up of a reference with the congregation is understandable, but to make a practice of it, and to fail to quote Scripture freely, is to diminish what preaching ought to be. 5. Far better to be short than to be dull! A number of eminent preachers could be quoted who did not think 20 minutes ‘short’ or unacceptable. There ought to be more variation.


Chris Roberts said...

I would be curious to hear him speak more on #3. My morning sermons almost always come from a manuscript while I use an outline in the evenings. I prefer using my manuscript though I have heard some say, like Murray, that preachers ought to have less notes, not more.

But what would be a reasonable argument against manuscripts? I have heard criticism of manuscripts on the basis of delivery style, etc, but there are ways to preach a manuscript well and stylistic considerations can be quite subjective anyway.

David B. Hewitt said...

My first thought would be to agree with you, Chris. The main reason for me for using a manuscript (which I nearly always do) is that I wouldn't misrepresent the Scripture. My research and discoveries are carefully documented on my manuscript and therefore easily reproduced from the pulpit without relying on my often untrustworthy memory. :)

This is not to say I disagree with benefits of being free from one and having more memorization of Scripture, perhaps also of one's sermon. Such things I would suggest would be best accomplished through more practice and rehearsal of the message one intends to deliver.

Anyway, my 2 cents.


Stephen Jones said...

Thanks for sharing this. I was particularly challenged by the need to memorize more Scripture. I do feel a special empowerment by the Spirit when I can freely quote Scripture during my preaching.

Is there a way to sign up for this "Murray News" newsletter?

Tom said...

I recommend to less experienced preachers to write their sermons out in full. The discipline of writing helps create precision in speaking. But, I don't encourage the use of a a full manuscript in the pulpit. In my early years, I wrote a manuscript and then outlined it, taking the outline to the pulpit. Now I generally write an annotated outline and use it when I preach.

I also regularly preach without notes or with only a few notes. That was a real challenge for me the first few times I did it, but it has been a good discipline and it exposed what Murray speaks of--the lack of dependence on the Holy Spirit.

Preaching without notes does not mean preaching without preparation! Study is still required and care with the text is still an obligation.

Chris Roberts said...


My preparation goes the opposite direction. I write a thorough outline then turn the outline into a manuscript. Helps keep my thoughts and direction organized and it gives me a backup if I don't finish my manuscript.

My basic stance on manuscripts is that if it's good enough for John Piper, it's good enough for me. :)

J.D. Rector said...

Thanks for the exhortations from Murray. But, I'm curious about one thing in his points. Who or what determines what is the appropriate length of a person's sermon?
Any thoughts or comments on that?
J.D. Rector

Tom said...


You should preach as long as people are listening and not a minute longer! ;)

It is subjective, I think. Sometimes we tend to measure spirituality or "depth" by the length of the sermon. That is wrong, in my opinion. One of the best preachers I have ever heard is Walt Chantry. He consistently preached 35 minutes without wasting a word and always said more than I could say in twice the time.

Some men are able to hold people's attention a lot longer than others. And some sermons are able to hold people's attention more than others. I would argue that we should not have an set length as a standard of excellence.

shane77m said...

As a lay person I like to hear sermons with some sound Biblical content, something that will fill me up and not leave me hungry.

I don't necessarily like sermons full of anecdotes and personal stories. Like when someone reads a verse of Scripture and then fills in the rest of the sermon with some cheesy story that doesn't seem to fit into the context of the Scripture they read. I can get more out of the Bible myself than with sermons like that. A sermon shouldn't always make people feel good about themselves.

Give up on the "raise your hand decisions", "sinner's prayer", and the "altar call decision". I said the "sinner's prayer" many times and it never done me anygood. I would have to agree with Paul Washer on that matter.

Gabaptist said...

I agree with sticking to the text from beginning to end. Unfortunately, a lot of SBC preachers use the text as a spring board and never come back to it. Illustrations are powerful when they are used sparingly and in context. I preach at 2 diff churches every Lord's Day so I get more mileage over the same sermon. It comes out different each time and is almost without notes at the second location.
I usually study, outline, write and then type out the outlined manuscript. Those are enough steps to be familiar with the sermon.
Of course, you are at that stage where manuscripts start appearing in the mind. As you already know, Spurgeon immersed himself with his text and sermon the entire week. Notes were not needed when you work it out all week. Amen?
GA Baptist

strech7951 said...

No intention of being disrespectful, but I would take issue with the idea that anyone using a manuscript is somehow less spiritual than just speaking without notes. 1st it takes a lot of dependence on the Holy Spirit to write out a sermon or extensive notes in the first place. 2nd I have heard extemporaneous sermons from the pulpit, and my experience with those that do so is a wandering down many rabbit trails and also they leave me wondering what they started speaking on in the first place(not saying all do that just the ones I have heard) and 3rd We believe in the Sovereignty of God yes? Then we should remember the 3rd chapter of John: The spirit moves on who He wants to and when He wants to. Whether someone stands up and reads like Jonathan Edwards(that is my understanding of how he delivered his sermons someone correct me if I am wrong) or just speaks off the cuff and lastly I mean no disrespect to Iain Murray he has many years and much more wisdom than I, but infer that someone is less spiritual because there methods differ is just wrong. Maybe he did not mean it that way but that is the way I take it. One other note I do agree with the other points made in this blog just that point #3 sticks me a little bit.

Steve Haines said...

Cultural context is also important. I work in a largely oral culture, where a free, extemporaneous style is far more effective than any presentation tied to written notes. Some literate subcultures in the West may respond better to a more elaborate outline that was developed first "on paper."

An interesting aside from one of the orality conferences: Are church members in the U.S. becoming more and more like "oral learners" and less able to understand and respond to an earlier more literate approach?

My own perspective (now) favors an oral preparation for an oral event. That is, I try to practice and prepare my sermon out loud, without notes. I find that I don't write like I talk. If I put too much on paper, it affects the pace, the spontaneity, the ability to engage the hearer and bring him along with me. This oral approach doesn't mean less preparation, just different preparation. Since preaching is, above all, an oral event shared between preacher and hearer, perhaps the best preparation will also be oral.

Blessings to all.

Steve, Paraguay

Tom said...


Thanks for your insights. We do tend to default into a provincial way of thinking, don't we, whether it's about preaching or anything else. Thanks for reminding us of that.

It's good to hear from you. Give your family my greetings.


David B. Hewitt said...

Perhaps this is why I do like my written manuscript style of preaching when I do get the chance to do it. I tend to speak like I write, so it flows a lot more naturally.

Maybe. :)



What is truly lacking in almost ALL local churches, is Expository preaching.

Enough of this 15-minute "sermon" on the trendy topic of the day.

Too often we hear all about how to build self-esteem, how to have a relationship, how to sow seed money and get a 100-fold return (a false gospel) or other like nonsense.

The ONLY way to teach Holy Writ, and that is the primary function of the local church, is verse by verse exposition.

The content value of most of today's sermons could be written on the back of a postage stamp.

Tom said...

Objective Truth:

As one whose regular approach to preaching is verse by verse exposition, I don't think you can biblically sustain your assertion that this method is "the ONLY way to teach Holy Writ." Many of the sermons recorded in the Scripture itself would not pass this litmus test.

I appreciate your concern for expository preaching but we must be careful not to go beyond the scripture itself on this issue.


Tom, then let me be more specific. I much prefer expository preaching to any other I've been subjected to, or should I say, have had to suffer through.

I realize that verse by verse takes a lot of preparing, but having sat in churches with all types of preaching, expository is the one for me. I learn much more if I am going through a book verse by verse, than if on one Sunday it's Matthew 5:8 and then next Sunday it's from Timothy on the topic of qualifications of elders.

I will never attend a church that does not do expository preaching. Is it the ONLY way? It is the best way to teach scripture, and that is the main function of a church, a function that is lacking, or to really be frank, almost non-existent.

How on earth can people learn anything if they are subjected to a 15 minute sermon on the hot topic of the day, most of which are not worthy of a three second mention?

Tom said...


I like your qualification much better. But again, we have to be careful and not make the mistake of suggesting that the only alternative to verse by verse exposition is preaching "15 minute sermon on the hot topic of the day."

There has been some powerful preaching by annointed men who did not preach verse by verse. Spurgeon is the classic example. I would guess that you could have learned a great deal had you heard him preach regularly over 10 years.

Again, I say this as one firmly committed to v. by v. exposition. But to suggest that it is the only way to teach God's Word or that any other kind of sermon must necessarily deal lightly with Scripture is simply not true.



Tom, you make a great point. I've read many of Spurgeon's sermons and they are brilliant.

Hey, I guess there is an exception to every rule. He is one of my favorites.

Your point is well taken, but for me, I'll still prefer expository preaching over anything else.

Peace, my friend

Tom said...


We agree...which I suspected all along. Press on!


Amen to that, brother Tom. Have a great New Year, and aren't you comforted by the fact that God is in control--of everything?

Tom said...

I am...and by the fact that the One who controls everything is my Father who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for me and therefore will freely give me all things!

Press on.


Yes indeed! There is no comparison between the Triune God and His Sovereignty, and the pagan concept of fate.

Bryan A. Davis said...

I whole heartedly agree with Brother Murray. What we as preachers and or pastors need is not more seminary training(while it is necessary and good) but Holy Spirit unction that comes through prayer and or divine harships. It may be for our benefit or better yet for God's glory to have the wind of self dependence knocked out of us by God's Spirit and in turn our homilitics will have the touch of God. In Conclusion with question: Doesn't the new man desire the touch and unction of God for all avenues of life, especially preaching?