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A Conventional Ministry

The gospel shapes our preaching, discipleship and theological education.

-David Cook talks to Peter Hastie-

The Rev. David Cook is the Moderator General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia and the former principal of Sydney Missionary and Bible College, where he served for 26 years. He is married to Maxine and has five children.

David, you have returned from a major Christian convention in the UK. Can you tell us why you remain so supportive of convention ministries both overseas and in Australia?

As you know, Christian convention ministry has had a strong tradition in the West for well over a century. The reason I am so supportive of it is that convention ministry has a long established pattern of having expositors open the Scriptures and model how people should use the Bible, explain its meaning, and apply it to life.

I think the church owes conventions a great deal for the Bible-teaching ministry that they have exercised during this period. In the words of Charles Simeon, they have “exalted the Saviour, humbled the sinner, promoted biblical holiness and equipped people for life” – that is what we are after, and that should be the goal of every preacher.

The other encouraging feature of conventions is that large numbers of Christians from different denominations attend them. I always find it uplifting to remember that I am part of a far wider church – and that at a convention I can literally “sing with a thousand tongues”, as Charles Wesley would say. Also I think it is good for children to have access to resources at a convention which may not be available in the local church.

We are living through a period of great change and innovation in many areas of life. Does this apply to convention ministry as well?

Yes, there have been some trends developing in more recent times that we need to watch carefully. One of these is the increase in topical preaching at these conventions. I think we are getting into a position now with our convention ministry where we think, “As long as we’ve got one expositor, we can have a more popular topical preacher as well”. I, for one, am not convinced that this is a good policy.

I think the church owes conventions a great deal for the Bible-teaching ministry that they have exercised during this period.

The topical preacher can usually choose his topics and this means he can avoid the tougher sections of the Bible. He may well be a very popular communicator, so when people come back from conventions they put pressure on their pastor to preach like the topical preacher rather than like the expositor.

I think having a consistently expository platform is of vital importance. Incidentally, this does not mean that I am saying that we need to have dull and dreary preaching. Never! I want lively preaching that is spiritually engaging. We need real exposition that respects both the Word and the congregation, and seeks to apply and engage the congregation with the truth of the Bible. This whole idea of having different approaches, expository and topical, on the one platform is misguided.

Are there any situations where topical preaching is OK?

Yes, I think it’s fine to preach on all sorts of topics as long as you do it in an expository way. If we believe that the Bible is God’s Word then we should handle it as such and make the Scripture the front and centre of our preaching. So you give me a topic to preach on, and I’ll handle that in an expository way. I’ll tell you what the Bible says about it and I will speak to you from biblical texts, explaining their meaning and how they apply in our lives.

Is there a place for “occasional preaching” where you speak to a particular event or crisis, such as 9/11?

david cook

David Cook

Yes, there is. I take “occasional preaching” to refer to funerals, weddings, Easter, Anzac Day and being invited to the local Rotary Club. But I’m still going to bring the Word of God to bear on each occasion. I believe I am a herald and proclaimer of the gospel. That is my calling. If you say, “We want you to come and give a public address, but we don’t want you to talk about the Bible” – well, I’m afraid I can’t help you. I believe that God has spoken to us a vital and saving Word and I need to proclaim it. So when I am in an occasional setting, I will respect that setting but I will look for ways to bring an explanation of the Bible to it. I might only give a short address – I want to be sensitive to the situation – but my aim in speaking to an audience will only be to explain a passage of the Bible. That is my primary calling.

Until recently you had been the principal of a theological college for many years. Do you have any deep convictions about developing the future leaders of the church?

Yes. I think the development of good leadership starts early in the local church, where pastors and elders have the opportunity to mentor individuals. So I have come back to our church with a renewed commitment to make sure that my contract next year has a clause in it that says, “I am giving time to training younger people who are heading to ministry” – actually mentoring them.

I want lively preaching that is spiritually engaging.

The leaders of the local church have to be doing this one-on-one. Mentoring means setting a reading program for people, taking them with us when we go to lead in various situations so they can see the dynamics of leadership and what is required. Leadership needs to be encouraged by mentoring rather than by lecturing.

This especially applies to preaching. I am on an advisory board overseas for the Centre of Expository Preaching, and we were having a discussion of what makes a preacher a good preacher. We concluded that no matter which college you send a person to, if that student has already been given a model of preaching in the local church, that model generally will persist and resist change even though the student goes through theological college. This is why the earliest models that a future leader experiences are so important. Most theological students will leave college and preach consistently with the model they caught before they went in. This means if you take a person from PTC Victoria, SMBC, or Moore College, you cannot always predict what sort of a preacher he is going to be. You know what is taught in each of those colleges, but very often it is the model they first received after they were converted in their local church that will persist throughout their ministry. Old habits and patterns are hard to change.

What can a college do if the model in the local church is not good? The only way you can change the situation is to provide consistent models at the college, and then provide feedback on a one-to-one basis and sit students down in small groups of six and get them to work together on sermon preparation.

I think that the large class lecture is not really the place to make the big changes that are needed for preaching. We have to be able to put people into a situation where they can work in very small groups and go through the whole process of preparing a sermon, delivering it, and then receiving constructive feedback.

Do you have any suggestions about implementing these changes?

So I’ll tell you what I have done with one church, which was really very good. We took four days. Day 1, all the preaching staff of the church preached their sermon, and we all critiqued the sermon. Day 2, I did a day of lectures on preaching. Day 3, we had a day where they worked individually on their sermons. And then, on Day 4 they came back and preached another sermon that they prepared in the light of what I had said on Day 2, and that was critiqued. That process has been really successful.

Now you do that once and then repeat it six months later and you will discover that you are making a significant difference in the preaching of your church leaders. We need to be doing this because the health of the church stands or falls on the quality and integrity of its leadership and that, in turn, depends on the quality and effectiveness of their preaching.

If you were going to mentor somebody in preaching, what sort of reading program would you recommend?

There are several things I would do. The first is what Dr J. Graham Miller did with me. He taught me how to read a passage of Scripture and summarise it. Summary is the key to preaching. I want to sit down with a small group, and just learn to summarise a passage of the Bible. We would do it over and over again – reduce it, reduce it, reduce it – until you have got the main movements of the passage. Finally, you come to either the overt or implied question that the passage is answering, and that is what you should preach on. Rather than setting up a reading program, I think I would go through that and simply do it, again and again. Then I would see them translate that into the preparation of the sermon. Finally, I would listen to the sermon and critique the sermon, and then we would do it again.

However, you have also got to do some reading. So I would get them to read Haddon Robinson’s book, Biblical Preaching. I would ask also them to read Martyn Lloyd Jones’ Preaching and Preachers, which I think is a great book. I don’t agree with everything in it, but it’s still an excellent book. I would also get them to read Jay Adams’ book, Preaching With Purpose. That is a first-rate book too.

Summary is the key to preaching. I want to sit down with a small group, and just learn to summarise a passage of the Bible.

There are also a few other books I have in my study that are vital. When I am preaching I always have Robert Reymond’s Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, and Jay Adams’ Christian Counsellor’s Manual close at hand. So whenever I am preaching on a section of the Bible, I look at what the systematic theologians say about that section, and then I get out Jay Adams and see what he says. And invariably he is going to apply this truth in a really helpful way. So Adams is a great aid to application.

What are the great books of the Bible that we should always be preaching from?

The most important book to be preaching is Paul’s letter to the Romans. The reason I say that is because Romans is fundamentally about the gospel. If you look at the history of the church, you’ll discover that what is hated in the world will inevitably become hated in the church. The church is in great danger of just aping the world. The gospel is the antidote to that.

The gospel is also very humbling because it tells me I have got no contribution to make to my salvation. It is not about my goodness or religiosity – they don’t save me. Of course, the world doesn’t like to hear that. The gospel is exclusive. There is only one gospel. There is only one way to Jesus, and the world does not like hearing this. So Romans is constantly calling us back to the truth.

I find it interesting that the New Perspective wants to re-write the gospel in Romans. This should warn us about its danger. Incidentally, this is why we must also preach Galatians. The world always wants to change or add to the gospel but Paul is saying, “That is not the way; it is not the gospel. There is only one gospel, and one version of the gospel”.

The church is in great danger of just aping the world. The gospel is the antidote to that.

What I love about Galatians is the way Paul understands the relationship of the law to the gospel. He says the law is there to lead us to Christ, to define sin, to identify me as a law-breaker and a sinner, but it doesn’t bring me salvation; instead, it drives me to Christ. So Spurgeon said, “The law is the perfect storm which wrecks my hope of self-salvation but drives me to the Rock of all ages”. When I come to Christ I find forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit.

So in every discipling relationship I want to be reading Romans and Galatians with people.

Do you have any lasting impressions on modern theological education?

Oh, yes, I have learned a few lessons there. I think one of the greatest fallacies of modern theological education is that you need a faculty that represents a broad spectrum within evangelicalism. I think that’s fundamentally wrong.

I have heard people say you should have a reformed evangelical, a conservative evangelical, a liberal evangelical, a neo-evangelical, and a traditional evangelical on your faculty. I disagree. Faculty need to be united in their fundamental theological commitments, especially if they have a specific confessional commitment. If you look today at colleges that are politically driven and have representatives across the whole evangelical spectrum, you will find that this kind of college will only confuse students, and increasingly the number of people going to that college will decline. Principals and boards need to make sure that they have a faculty that is thoroughly united around the true gospel and the truth of God’s Word – it’s absolutely vital.

Are there any other priorities for theological educators and their church sponsors?

Yes. I think it is absolutely vital that our theological colleges model the environment that our students are going to work in. What I mean by that is this: if you, for example, at church on Sunday give your sermon, and then go and sit in your vestry with your ministry team and have morning tea, the congregation would think that is very strange. Therefore, your place as a faculty member is with the students at morning tea with them, just as your place as pastor is with your people.

Students must feel genuine access to the faculty. My mother was an interior decorator for 70 years. She was invited to design a faculty common room at a college in Sydney, and I said to my mother, “You will never do that at SMBC”, because I never wanted a faculty common room. If you have a faculty common room the faculty will gather there, and they need to be gathering with the students. So the students’ common room is the room where the faculty goes and eats, and sits, and talks, and prays.

I also think churches need to get serious about properly resourcing theological education. This is where we are providing intensive training for our future leaders and we should do whatever is necessary so they can function effectively.

Peter Hastie serves as the principal of the PTC Victoria in Melbourne.

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