Unashamed Workmen 4: Ajith Fernando

March 3, 2015 | by: Bob Schilling | 0 comments

Posted in: Preaching Tags: Preaching, Book Review, Sermon Prep, Ajith Fernando

I'm taking ten weeks to work through the book,

"Unashamed Workmen: How Expositors Prepare and Preach"
edited by Rhett Dodson

We're eavesdropping in the study of ten proven, veteran preachers to glean some helps and observe some legitimate differences in sermon preparation. I'm enjoying the book and recommend it as profitable for both seasoned pastors and aspiring preachers. Even brothers and sisters who don't preach, I hope you will like enjoy some blogs that give you a peek into some pastor's hearts and minds.

Here again is an overview of the ten practitioners (and links to the previous blogs):

- Peter Adam, St. Jude's Carlton in Melbourne Australia
- Rhett Dodson, Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Hudson, Ohio
- Iain Duguid, Christ Presbyterian Church (ARP) in Grove City, Pennsylvania
     - Today, Ajith Fernando, serves as Teaching Director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka
- David Jackman, former President of the Proclamation Trust, retired, London
- Simon Manchester, St Thomas in North Sydney, Australia
- David Meredith, Smithton Church, Iverness, Scotland
- Josh Moody, College Church in Wheaton, Illinois
- Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Senior Lecturer at Queensland Theological College, Brisbane, Australia
- Richard D. Phillips, Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina

     Section 4: Ajith Fernando: Sermon Prep on the Run

Ajith writes as a veteran preacher of nearly five decades (46 years; pg. 107), but not as a local church pastor. For 35 years he served as the National Director of Youth for Christ, Sri Lanka, and now serves as its Teaching Director. He’s been vitally involved in his local church for years, serves also as a seminary professor, and still preaches on average, 4-5 sermons a week. This is a man that knows whereof he speaks.

His chapter on sermon prep was well worth the read. A man cut out of different cloth than many, unconventional in some of his methods – and, very, very refreshing. I want to mention a couple of the bigger highlights for me up-front and then work through his separate sections.

A. Why do men sometimes burn out in ministry?

I am convinced that burn out takes place
More as a result of insecurity than hard work.”

Let’s face it, he says in so many words, ministry is hard work. Very hard. But that’s not the primary reason men burn out. If a man is genuinely called the ministry, work unto exhaustion is part of the calling.

“Paul uses the verb ‘kopiao’ which carries the idea of toiling or working to the point of exhaustion, thirteen times, and the corresponding noun ‘kopos’ eight times, in connection with Christian ministry [verses are listed]. This suggests that hard work and tiredness are inevitable in ministry. But if our hard work and passion for success come from trying to overcome our insecurities, we will never be content in ministry, and we will keep pushing ourselves until we get burned out.” (101)

He says of himself later in the chapter,

Those who choose to follow the path I am advocating may experience tiredness. I have been in vocational ministry for thirty-seven years, and I think I have been exhausted for thirty-seven years! I have been preaching since I was about eighteen years old, that is, about forty-six years. Though exhausted, I must say that I am more enthusiastic and thrilled about preaching than I was forty-six years ago.”

I believe my exhaustion is because I have tried to live a balanced life. I see the balanced life not as doing everything in moderation but as being obedient in every area of life. So we give time for study, for reading, for observing what is happening in the world, for preparation, for prayer, for fun times with the family, for other family responsibilities, for exercise, for weekly Sabbath rest, for personal ministry, for neighbors…Just reading that list could leave you exhausted!” (107)

He goes on to say that concurrent with the challenges and difficulties of a busy life, time is made for renewing influences, activities and rest.

“There is a balance between output and input, between fun and work...
So we are tired, but we are also refreshed.”

I really think he’s on to something with this idea that men burn out, not so much because of over-work, but because they’re spending too much of their time chasing the wrong thing: the esteem of men above God. It’s required of a steward, not to be successful, not to win the applause of men (see Luke 6:26), not to be ‘affirmed’, but to be faithful (1 Cor. 4:2), and to please the Commander who enlisted him (2 Tim. 2:4). If a man of God is constantly wrestling with insecurity, if he believes that he never measures up – and by the way, he will never, ever do enough to silence all his critics, external or internal. Laboring under the weightiness of self-doubt and the fear of men will eventually sink a mortal preacher. He won’t be able to push to the finish line under that kind of heaviness.

We need to be frank and admit that the source of much of this kind of pressure is pride. The temptation to “make a name for ourselves”, the subtle “delusions of grandeur” and the more ordinary insecurities born of misguided motivations for being in ministry. If a pastor is not called of God to be a preacher and a shepherd of souls – if he’s going to rely on gimmicks and methods of pragmatism to keep the plates of successful ministry spinning atop the sticks of utilitarianism and effectiveness (I hear Al Mohler saying, “there’s a sentence screaming for an editor) – he will, in the language of the Apostle Paul, “lose heart” and burn out (2 Cor. 4:1).

But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways.
We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word,
but by the open statement of the truth
we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”
(2 Cor. 4:2)

I know that many seem to get discouraged by the realism of the biblical message of day-by-day sanctification and incremental growth in godliness. Folks in our hipster “would-be-gospel-saturated” subculture of the evangelical church don’t much care for the biblical ethic of hard work (Phil. 2:12; 1 Cor. 9:24-27; 2 Tim. 2:4-7, 15; etc.). But above all people, O pastor – you, you most importantly must not shrink from this ministerial imperative. You are a “laborer” (1 Tim. 5:17-18). You are to be an example to the flock (1 Tim. 4:12) in such things as,

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men…”
(Col. 3:23)

Unapologetically, I, with this author and preacher, Ajith Fernando, exhort my brothers, especially those who have been called to “labor in the word and in doctrine” – to give yourself to hard work. Do you want to “not be ashamed in your handling of the word of truth?” “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker…” (2 Tim. 2:15). Listen to the realism of this seasoned pastor (Ajith),

“Quite often I am so busy with other things or I get stuck in my preparation because of an exegetical or other problem, that I am forced to work almost the whole night on a message for the morning. I go and preach and then come home to catch up on lost sleep. I do not detest this discomfort. Preaching is such a great privilege and such a thrilling call that I am happy to pay whatever price needs to be paid to prepare for it.” (107)

Been there many times. Done that many times.

Now, of course there’s a balance to all this. We do ourselves no favors, nor does the Lord require of us that we unwisely jeopardize our health in the name of ministerial sacrifice.

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil;
For He gives to his beloved sleep.”
(Psalm 127:1-2)

I wonder how many preachers are barely staying above sinking, not because they’re working too hard, but because they’re either wearing themselves out in what amounts to selfish ambition (compare Philippians 2:3 with Ecclesiastes 4:4), or, as is the case for some, they are laboring in a field to which they’ve not been called and equipped. I find bluntness, if it is true – very helpful.


B. A lesson he learned from John Piper in his book, A Godward Life,

Books don’t change people; paragraphs do.
Sometimes even sentences.”

This book is prime example of that axiom. Rare is the book whose whole content is consistently profitable and life changing (some books have had that kind of impact for some people, Packer’s, “Knowing God”, John Piper’s “Desiring God”, Bryan Chapell’s, “Holiness by Grace”, etc.). As we read books for spiritual nourishment and renewal, sometimes a certain section or chapter or like Piper says, a certain sentence floors you, overwhelms you. Sections of John Stott’s, “The Cross of Christ” did that for me – as did parts of unlikely selections that I happened to read in John Ortberg’s, “The Life You Always Wanted” and Larry Crabb’s, “The Pressure’s Off” (We need to guard against reading only authors or books that we believe we will largely agree with – particularly when we’re talking about other genuine believers, who, if they know Jesus, they have things to teach us). Numerous book have hugely impactful parts. The well-read man or woman will be well-blessed.

Some books you don’t need to finish, and others are worth persevering through, even though the forging ahead is difficult – sometimes the gold is many chapters in. With proven authors it is almost always good to read the entire volume if you’re able. The balance here is that we are free to read as we choose, but that lots will be lost or never gained if we’re not methodical and purposeful about planning and pursuing a wise reading practice.


Here’s the outline of what of Ajith Fernando covers in the methodology chapter:

     - Two Inaccessible Models of Sermon Prep
          - The Senior Pastor of a large, multi-staff church
          - The Country Parson in idyllic, peaceful setting
     - Sources for Preaching
          - Reading and Listening for Personal Renewal
          - Observation
          - Personal Ministry
          - Research
          - Bible Study
     - Preparation and Writing Sermon Notes

Let me give some of his details under those headings:

I. Two Inaccessible Models

          - The Senior Pastor of a large, multi-staff church
          - The Country Parson in idyllic, peaceful setting

Most of us won’t have 30 hours available every week to dedicate to sermon preparation. In fact Fernando stresses that that’s not a very biblical expectation or even a biblical model. Pastors are not merely preachers. They are shepherds. The ministry is multifaceted; it is messy; there are many distractions and demands. Ajith mentions that while a student at Fuller Theological Seminary in the mid-70s, John R. W. Stott visited the campus.

“At a question and answer session a student asked him how a pastor should devote time for study. He said that the old model of the pastor giving the whole morning to preparation is almost impossible to follow today. Instead he said that we should squeeze in whatever time is available for preparation. Few statements about preaching have helped me as much as this one. It is a huge challenge to keep up with the preparation we need to do in this rushed world. But it is amazing how much time preachers could find if they discipline themselves to use the little moments of free time they get for studying.” (99)

II. Sources for Preaching

“Keeping ourselves enriched in order to have a wealth of insight to use in our preaching is a great challenge.” (99)

He says that he relies on five indispensable sources to fuel his preaching:

          - Reading and Listening for Personal Renewal
          - Observation
          - Personal Ministry
          - Research
          - Bible Study

His words in this main section of his chapter are plain and helpful. I thoroughly agree that a great part of maintaining pastoral wellbeing, in addition to the help it is practically for week to week sermon prep – a pastor needs to be regularly and consistently “reading and listening for personal renewal.”

There is a great danger that, in today’s digitized world, preachers get exposed to limitless bytes of information that fill (not feed) the mind but do not feed the soul.” (100)

A faithful preacher, like a scribe “is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:52). Reading, for most preachers, ought to be a regular routine. Thoughtful reading. Careful listening. And a personalized method of retaining and/or archiving the things we’re reading (one method of which is – this very thing that I’m engaging in: blogging through some of the things I’m reading).

Let me just share a few quotes from this main section (Sources for Preaching) that I found profitable and worth noting:

“In the first few years of ministry after completing my seminary studies, most of the illustrations I used were explanatory. They explained what a biblical truth meant. Now I find that most of my illustrations are applicational. Their purpose is to help people to apply biblical truth in their daily lives.” (103)

“I have had to live with a measure of prominence because of my call to be a writer and to speak internationally. But I have come to recognize that the prominence of public ministry is a burden to be endured rather than an honor to seek.” (104)

We must look at application as an exacting task that requires the same kind of rigor that we would give to doing accurate exegesis of the text from which we are speaking.” (104-105)

“My dream is to preach in such a way that people will be attracted to the Scriptures; that they will be amazed at how relevant the Bible is to their daily life; and that they will find themselves developing an inclination to live under the objective truths in the Bible. So preachers today need to be not only expositors of the Bible but also evangelists for the Bible and for objective truth. They have the task of convincing people that the truth of the Word is worth taking seriously. And one way to do that is to present the truth of Scripture in such a powerfully relevant way that it will trigger change in the hearers. The exposition must demonstrate what living under the Word means as it applies the Word to everyday life. In this way we can raise up a generation of Christians who learn to respect and eagerly sit under the objective truth of the Word.” (106-107)

III. Preparation and Writing Sermon Notes

In this final section of the chapter he mentions some nuts and bolts practices that uses in the process of gathering material and writing his sermons.

- He plans a preaching schedule out for two or three months ahead and uses individual clipboards or notebooks for compiling information about each particular message being planned (rather than using individual envelopes for each sermon as was the practice of an early mentor of his).

- He uses one or two pages for each main point of the sermon, writing on only one side – later additional thoughts are written on the backs of those pages.

- He always writes down, if able, any sermon or study ideas that come to mind.

- He writes out the text on just one half
of the study sheet so that the other side
is available for writing notes.

- He usually handwrites his sermons because he’s more comfortable reading his writing than typescript.

- He color-codes his messages using highlighters:
     - his main points are colored blue
     - his sub-points are colored green
     - Scripture is colored orange
     - Illustrations and Applications are pink


The second part of Ajith’s contribution is a copy of a sermon of his on 2 Chronicles 7:11-22). I’m just going to list his headings and make a couple of brief points.

Title: Moving from Judgment to Blessing

Text: 2 Chron. 7:11-22


Intro: The Need for an Ongoing Life of Obedience (my summary)
     1. Do These Promises Apply Today?
     2. Judgment for Sin (v. 13)
     3. Called by God’s Name (v. 14)
     4. Humbling Ourselves (v. 14)
     5. Praying and Seeking God’s Face (v. 14)
     6. Turning from Wicked Ways (v. 14)
     7. God Will Bless If We Remain Obedient (v. 14ff)

Big Idea: “We forfeit God’s blessings when we sin and we receive God’s blessing when we obey” (115). That main point is too broad. It needed to add the "thrust" - what is this passage saying about that subject? (see this blog)

The sermon was essentially a running commentary (typically, not a good method to open up a text) with application sprinkled in along the way. It lacked symmetry and didn’t have an outline that made clear sense of the passage. It also could’ve been clearer in explaining our role and God’s role in godliness – it would give the grace-only-sanctification crowd some fuel for their opposition to anything that comes across moralistic.

I love this man’s heart, but it wasn’t the best example of a solid, Christian sermon.


Next up: David Jackman, “Seems Odd to Me