George Swinnock (c. 1627-1673) was a faithful pastor. Educated at Oxford and Cambridge, he was devoted to pastoral ministry and wrote “The Christian Man’s Calling”. One section in the book includes sixteen prayers for pastors to follow in their ministry.
His prayer for preaching includes the following:
“Because my work is to touch and pierce my people’s hearts, and not to tickle and please their ears, I wish that I might preach a crucified Savior in a crucified style. May I not paint my sermons with a showy display of words, but to employ all plainness, stooping to their lowest capacity (emphasis mine). May I be “made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (I Corinthians 9:22). I am a foreigner to my people, if I preach to them in an unknown language. I starve their souls, if I give them meat that they can never digest. Let me not read commentaries as the butterfly goes to the flower to gild her wings, but as the bee goes to the flower to gather honey to supply her young. Lord, let me never be guilty of painting the windows, thereby hindering the light of Thy glorious gospel from shining powerfully into the hearts of men and women.”
Swinnock was not advocating for boring preaching, and neither would I. There is great value however, in plain preaching. A significant temptation for the preacher is to draw attention to himself through crafty use of his personality, stature, and wit. His goal should always be instead, to draw attention to the beauty and glory of Christ. There are several reasons plain preaching is valuable.
1. Plain preaching can be understood.
The goal of every preacher, is to make the message clear so people can understand it. If they cannot understand it, they cannot take it to heart and respond to the message. The Holy Spirit impresses the Word of God upon the souls of the hearers. The role of the preacher is to proclaim it clearly, and not do anything that would hinder the Word of God being understood.
2. Plain preaching identifies with the context of the audience.
What is clear in one context, may not be clear in another. A plain message may be presented with appropriate nuances to a highly educated urban crowd, and with different nuances to a simple agrarian village crowd. The Word of God is not altered in any way, but the presentation of it is adapted to help people understand. The teaching of Jesus reflects this regarding the various people He spoke to and how He addressed them.
3. Plain preaching is direct, and difficult to ignore.
When the Word of God is presented directly, and in a way that shines the light of the Gospel into the hearts of men and women, it brings people to a crisis of belief. The hearers are faced with the reality of either receiving and acting upon the Word of God or rejecting it.
4. Plain preaching is sustainable, and can be faithfully practiced by all preachers.
Every preacher is unique. Phillips Brooks defined preaching as “communicating truth through personality.”Plain preaching does not deny the uniqueness of the preacher. Yet it also does not highlight the particular creativity of the preacher. I have concerns that technological crutches in preaching may hinder plain preaching. I am not directly opposed to them and in preaching we utilize projection, videos from time to time, and other creative methods. It seems in the long view, it is better to limit these things, rather than maximize them. If a preacher can’t be effective without electronic backgrounds, giant televisions to refer to on the platform, and a multitude of other creative things, it begs the question if he is preaching or performing. Plain preaching is sustainable, and can be faithfully practiced by all preachers regardless of ability, resources, or context.
May we be like the Apostle Paul who wrote to the Church at Corinth- “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” 1 Corinthians 2:2