Francis Grimke’s Practical Advice for Preachers

The death of a wife of thirty-six years has a way of making a man reflective. The waning of a fifty-year pulpit ministry has a similar effect. Combine these two, and you get the rich fare found in Francis Grimke’s Stray Thoughts and Meditations, the third volume of his published works. In 1914, Grimke’s wife Charlotte passed away, and he began to set his pen in earnest to what Carter Woodson, his publisher, states “is more serious than a diary.” As he preached less and less to Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., the congregation he had pastored since 1878, he wrote even more in his notebooks. By 1934, three years before his death in 1937, this African-American father in the faith had filled over 600 pages with the wisdom of godliness and experience on all manner of topics pertaining to life and ministry.

The upcoming book Meditations on Preaching (for purchase click here) contains approximately 200 stray thoughts and meditations that Grimke wrote about the highest calling of the minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whether one reads it cover to cover in one sitting, or as a daily devotional exercise, the sentences and paragraphs of the former slave turned Princeton Seminary graduate will convict, instruct, encourage, challenge, and inspire. In an article this size, it’s impossible to summarize all 200 meditations, for they cover many aspects of pulpit ministry. Yet the following is a taste of what Grimke had to say on the task of preaching, the message preached, the delivery of the sermon, and the messenger who delivers it.

Grimke had a sense for the gravity of the task of preaching. He wrote,

A minister should enter his pulpit, not in a thoughtless, frivolous mood, but with a deep sense of the seriousness of the work in which he is engaged – the work of calling dying, sinful men to repentance and faith before it is eternally too late. The thought of the tremendous issues that depend upon the faithfulness with which he addresses himself to the work should solemnize his heart and banish every frivolous thought from his mind every time he enters the pulpit. The business in which he is engaged is a serious one, and no one should be more deeply sensible of that fact than the minister himself.

It is a temptation to be careless in preparation or delivery, or even to follow the lead of our culture’s levity and turn the pulpit into a half-hour comedy show. Yet the message of God’s holy and gracious gospel, and the eternal destinies of our hearers, demand the seriousness to which Grimke points us. His exhortation should be kept in mind as we write our sermons and as we preach them.

What shall we preach? Grimke was unequivocal:

It is a great thing in preaching to expound the word of God, to draw out of it what is in it, and not attempt to expound our own views, to set forth our own ideas. What the people need is to hear the word of God, and not the wisdom of man, not what is passing current in the newspapers and magazines. The sooner we preachers learn this lesson and stick to it the more fruitful of good will be our ministry. It is a great privilege to be permitted, week after week, to appear before the people and to unfold to them the word of God. How careful ought we to be to see that what we do present to our hearers is the word of God, the plain, simple, unvarnished truth of God, and not the speculation of men, the vagaries of the human mind…

Grimke knew that at the heart of the word of God, and thus at the heart of our preaching, was the gospel of Jesus Christ. He saw clearly, “No man’s ministry is a failure, however meager the results, if he has been faithfully and earnestly preaching the gospel of the grace of God, holding up to dying, sinful men God’s message of redeeming love. Such a ministry is not, could not be, a failure.”

Grimke had strong opinions about the delivery of sermons. For example, he laid down these rules for preaching:

1. Know what you want to speak about. 2. Know why you want to speak about it. 3. Keep the end ever before you, from start to finish. Keep from wandering, from straying, from lugging in other things. 4. When you have said what you wanted to say, stop. To go on after that is simply to weaken the effect of the discourse or address. It is a good thing to know when to stop. So many of us don’t seem to know.

He also thought insightfully about illustrations:

In a sermon it is not well to use too many illustrations in elucidating any one point. One or two will be quite sufficient.

As one who has overlooked many a good opportunity to end a sermon and has frequently used too many illustrations, to the weakening of my preaching and the distraction of my people, Grimke’s wisdom has been a helpful check.

Finally, Grimke speaks directly to preachers and our tendency to love the approval of men rather than the approval of God:

In preaching are we seeking to impress the truth or to impress ourselves upon others – to draw men’s attention to Jesus Christ or to ourselves? Too often it is of ourselves that we are thinking; and this is one reason why, though we may preach brilliant and eloquent sermons, they are attended with so little results in the development of Christian character, in the building up of those who listen in faith and holiness. The preacher’s aims should be to get such a clear conception of the truth, and should be so impressed with its value, its importance, that in his effort to present it, he will not only lose sight of himself, but his hearers also will, in thought of the truth. It is of no importance whatever that our hearers should think of us, but it is important that they should think of the truth of God presented…The sermon that excites only the admiration of the hearers, that impresses them only with the intellectual ability of the preacher, or with his learning or eloquence, is the clearest proof of its failure. For the aim or purpose of a sermon, if it is really a sermon, is not to impress the hearers with the preacher, but with the truth; is not to win applause for the preacher, but to win the hearers over to a certain course of conduct…The end of the sermon should always be the good of the hearers and not to increase the fame or popularity of the preacher.

            Though he is dead, yet he still speaks. And from the grave, Grimke will help preachers grow into more faithful, effective, Spirit-dependent, Christ-focused, God-glorifying servants of the word.

My constant prayer to God is that he would help me to preach, not great sermons, but helpful sermons – sermons that will appeal, not mainly to the intellect, but to the heart, sermons that will tend to strengthen and develop the good within us, to inspire us with right desires and that will fortify the will. Lord Jesus, make me earnest, make me enthusiastic in the work thou hast given me to do. May I love to preach the gospel and love to work for thee. Paul was never so happy as when he was trying to lift thee up before men and to persuade them to come over on thy side. That is the kind of life I want to live. I want to be so thoroughly in love with thee and thy work that I shall delight to speak of thee to others. Simply to do it from a sense of duty doesn’t satisfy me; I want to do it because I love to do it.

May all of us who have the great privilege of feeding the sheep of Jesus week by week take these words upon our lips every day.