Every preacher thanks God for these encouraging words:
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. —1 Timothy 4:13–16
Not perfection, but progress. That’s what every preacher wants and that’s what every church needs in her preacher. To this end, from January 26–28 we hosted a preaching workshop for area preachers through a partnership with the Charles Simeon Trust. We were joined by 50 teachers and preachers from 28 churches, including 23 lead pastors.
Eric Vander Ploeg is one of the area pastors that joined us. I’ve asked him to share about himself, his church, and the workshop we just hosted.
1. Eric, thanks for joining us at the workshop this year. Tell us a little about your church and your role.
Twenty-eight years ago, Heritage planted Grace Bible Church as an outreach to the city of Spartanburg. The location was strategic—a church once surrounded by farmland now finds itself in one of the fastest growth corridors of the city. Excavators are everywhere, and developers are fast turning the red dirt into apartments and condos and neighborhoods and businesses. Hundreds of spiritually hungry people now live five minutes from our campus. It’s a tremendous opportunity, and one that only exists because of the prayer and the giving and the sacrifice of the people of Heritage. We are so grateful!
I joined Grace a little under four years ago serving as Lead Pastor and following a line of faithful men committed to the careful exposition of the Word. We try to live up to our name—passionate about giving and living God’s grace, standing on the unchanging foundation of the Bible, and seeking to build a healthy, life-giving, Christ-exalting church.
2. It’s no small commitment to set aside the better part of a week to join us for a workshop. All of your other pastoral responsibilities remain. Why did you prioritize this?
I had heard great things about the Simeon Trust and its unique approach to training preachers. When Heritage brought the workshop to my own backyard, I had to give it a try.
It’s not easy to get better at preaching. Kind church members give us (usually) well-meaning feedback, but it takes a preacher to really train a preacher. It takes someone who knows the craft, who knows the tools, who has spent a hundred Sundays in the pulpit doing his best, and a hundred Mondays wishing he’d done better. That’s the kind of man who has an ear for what needs to happen in the pulpit and who knows at the same time how to give feedback.
And that’s feedback we preachers rarely get. So to gather with sixty like-minded men and to present our work and receive well-informed, field-tested, life-giving feedback is so valuable. It’s well worth the investment. No conference I’ve ever encountered does the job as well as the Simeon Trust workshop.
3. A preaching workshop includes instructional sessions, expositions, but also about six hours of small group time where we share and push one another in our sermon preparation work. You just gave us some insight into the benefit of that small group time. Share with us about the format those small group sessions take.
There are books and trainings and conferences where you hear about preaching, but a workshop gets your hands dirty in the task of doing preaching. And you really only learn to preach by doing.
Each year the workshop focuses on a genre of Scripture and on a book of the Bible. This year it was narrative preaching from Judges. Each preacher prepares a few texts ahead of time—basically, all the work you do to write a sermon without actually writing it. Simeon has created a template for preparation, a worksheet that slows us down and takes us back to basics as we study the text. We have to wrestle with how the text is structured, with the context that is relevant for understanding the passage, with the argument the author is making, with how the passage fits into the whole Bible’s story of salvation in Christ, and how the text touches down in life—all in that order, which is crucial. We have to get our conclusions on these things down to crisp sentences.
During each small group a preacher gets five minutes to present the fruit of their studies. Then a teammate responds with that precious feedback—with encouragement and challenge. Then the rest of the group chimes in, and then the leader focuses in on the areas most helpful for growth.
I won’t lie—it’s intimidating. It’s humbling. Even exhausting. But it’s so valuable, and the men are so desiring for you to succeed and to grow. It’s a kind of sweet sharpening that makes every one of us better, and makes every one of our churches better served.
4. Our goal at these workshops isn’t perfection but progress. How did this year’s workshop help you make progress in your Word work?
When you preach for a while you can start to get bad habits in your prep. I feel like this year surfaced a few of those for me. The speed of pastoral ministry can sometimes lead to exegetical shortcuts with the text. The workshop slows you down and makes you walk through each and every step. No shortcuts. And that’s when bad habits become all too clear.
There’s also something inspiring about rubbing shoulders with fellow preachers. Watching another man stare at the text and see insights I totally missed makes me want to stare at that text a little longer. Watching a preacher handle the word with skill and art and passion, where the story comes alive and the truth behind the story comes home, makes me want to preach better. I left tired and grateful and aspiring to “practice these things, to immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Tim. 4:15). I have a list of things I want to do better this year. By God’s grace, that’s progress!
5. How can we pray for you and your church?
I’d always heard of preachers wondering if they were old enough and wise enough to tackle Romans. This past year I concluded I might be. Time will tell, but we embarked on our journey with Chapter 1, Verse 1. Pray that God would illuminate his Word as I hold it in uncertain hands and seek to proclaim it in all of its brilliant detail. Pray that the text would first move me before it moves my people.
I also lead a team of preachers. Each brings his own voice and experience to the text and makes for a rich diversity of preaching. Pray that I might help each of them make progress in their craft.
And, of course, Grace sits before a wide open door of opportunity. The world is moving into the neighborhood! Pray that we might make the most of every day, of every ministry initiative, and of every conversation.