January 21, 2010 by Tony Reinke
Gaithersburg, MD—The strength of Sovereign Grace is hitched to the strength of the local churches. And the strength of the local churches is hitched to the health of its preaching.
That was the gist of the opening exhortation from Pastors College dean Jeff Purswell as he opened our first Expository Preaching Practicum last week (Jan 12–14). The Sovereign Grace Pastors College hosted the practicum, a modestly sized three-day preaching lab with 22 senior pastors invited from various regions including the suburbs of Phoenix, north Philadelphia, California, and Wales. The men gathered to sharpen their preaching skills through instruction, preaching, evaluation, and discussion.
Jeff Purswell led the practicum. He opened the week with these words:
I have an intense excitement about this week. We [Sovereign Grace] participate in a lot of conferences, but this is just a small gathering of a few of us, and hardly anyone knows about this. But the potential effects of this week will be vastly disproportionate to its visibility. I'm not sure that we can do much that is more strategic… Why are we doing this? As preaching goes in your church, so goes your church. If preaching declines, your church will decline. And more broadly the same is true. If preaching declines in the churches of Sovereign Grace, Sovereign Grace will decline.
After the brief exhortation the work of preaching and evaluation began. Ten of the men were prepared to preach a sermon before the group. After each sermon was delivered, the other 21 men completed detailed sermon evaluation forms covering everything from faithfulness to the text, the use of illustrations and application, clarity of organization, and strength of delivery.
Jeff then led a 90-minute period of discussion and instruction for each sermon. The group discussed the sermon’s strengths first, then its weaknesses. At C.J. Mahaney’s request, Jeff offered sermon structure alternatives and instruction on various aspects of preaching and Bible interpretation. C.J. added comments on the sermon and on pastoral leadership in general.
In attendance for the practicum was Eric Turbedsky, senior pastor of Sovereign Grace Church Orange County (Pastors College class of 2001). Eric was one of the ten fortunate men selected to preach. When asked if he was nervous to preach before the dean, a sage who can spot exegetical bloopers like a hawk spots field mice, he said, “Are you kidding me? I was terrified. I want to know who drafted me to preach! But seriously, who is going to complain about Jeff, C.J., and 20 guys who preach regularly, devoting concentrated time to encouraging you in your strengths and to offer hope for your weaknesses? It was clear from the very outset of the week that everyone in the room was for me…and about half of them were feeling the pain, too. I left way more aware of the grace available to preach and the joy of partnering with a hawk like Jeff.”
Although hosted in a classroom, the format was anything but merely academic. “The type of learning that occurred is something that could never be gleaned from a book or a lecture context,” Jeff said. “It was both stimulating and encouraging to hear such a wide range of types of preachers with different styles and different gifts, all effective in their own ways. It is encouraging for a guy to know that he can preach within the framework of the unique character and gifting that God has given him. And just by watching the diverse preaching styles and strengths it was suggestive and instructional for guys.”
Ian McConnell, who serves as pastor for preaching and vision at Grace Bible Church in north Philadelphia, was surprised by the format. “I was surprised that although it was in an academic environment, it was so much more than that,” he said. “It turned out to be an environment where God’s Spirit met with us through the preached Word and ministered grace to our lives in some very dynamic and discernable ways. I heard nine exceptional messages that filled my heart with greater faith and deepened affections for the Savior! I was not only challenged to preach better, I was challenged to live my life in deeper conformity to the Word of God for the glory of God.”
To Jeff, the most unexpected fruit of the week was watching relationships nurture. “Unlike a conference when you catch up with friends between sessions, the practicum enabled guys to build relationships as they worked together,” he said. “The week was intense. These men put themselves on the line by preaching and by receiving evaluation from other men. They were engaged together, working together on text after text, getting their hands dirty together. This relationship building during the week was of a different kind than I’ve experienced before in a typical conference setting.”
Collectively the week was a great success according to C.J. “This practicum was eight years in the making,” he said, “and it was a peculiar joy to see this dream come to fruition. I sat in the classroom listening to the sermons and the valuable feedback and imagined the thousands of sermons these men will preach in the future and how those sermons—and my sermons!—will be affected and improved by our investment this week. In seeking to strengthen the local church, our week could not have been more strategic or significant for the health of the local churches represented.”
The Pastors College plans to host future practicums with the goal of hosting all the Sovereign Grace senior pastors and later hosting all the pastors.
When asked what he would say to pastors who will experience the practicum in the future, Ian said, “The week was a very helpful time of receiving evaluation and instruction for my preaching. And it was a wonderful means of fellowship, encouragement, and God-magnifying joy! I expected the week to be great—and it was. I left thinking to myself, ‘I needed this—big time.’ I think you will leave saying the same thing.”
The next set of senior pastors will soon receive invitations to practicum #2, which is tentatively scheduled for June.