review: the fully alive preacher

The Fully Alive Preacher: Recovering from Homiletical Burnout
by Mike Graves (Westminster John Knox, 2006), pb, 178pp
“… in these pages … there is the tantalizing invitation to discover a purpose deeper than producing serviceable sermons on a weekly basis, by deciding to become a deeper human being. Mike Graves has preached long enough to know how the steady exposure of the pulpit can sunburn the spirit. … His good news for those who wish to keep preaching is that the cure for what ails us is not more skills, more workshops, or more books, but more life – and especially the simple pleasures of life that preachers routinely forego.” (p.xiii) [by Barbara Brown Taylor]
“Irenaeus, the early church theologian, put it this way: The glory of God is a human being fully alive. How many preachers these days can be described as fully alive? … What’s wrong with preaching these days may be more a matter of what’s wrong with us preachers. … Anne Lamott, reflecting on writer’s block, has captured the problem best in a statement that will not let me go: ‘If your wife locks you out of the house, you don’t have a problem with your door.’ She continues, ‘The word “block” suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you are empty.’ … In this book my primary interest is how our approach to preaching – and life – allows room for God to renew us – or doesn’t.” (pp.4-5)
“Part of our problem lies with how we define spirituality itself, cordoning spiritual matters off from the rest of our earthly existence … Do preachers require times of prayer and meditation, reading Scripture and reflecting? Of course we do, the same way plants need water and sunshine, or else they die. But we are more than plants; we are social creatures who desire times of recreation as well. Thus we can integrate … times of prayer in the study as we wrestle with Sunday’s sermon, but also a child’s soccer game on a Tuesday night – viewing all of our lives as lived in the presence of God.” (p.27)
“A primary reason [preachers] procrastinate is in order to build up a sense of deadline. Deadlines create a flow of adrenaline. Adrenaline medicates and overwhelms the censor. [Preachers] procrastinate so that when they finally get to preparing, they can get past the censor.” (p.39, quoting Julia Cameron)
“‘The process of arriving at something to say is to be distinguished from the process of determining how to say it.’ Or perhaps we could mount another of his statements on our wall: ‘Unless the minister has two eurekas, it is not likely the listeners will have one.'” (p.41, quoting Fred Craddock)
“… study is necessary, but not too much. … I love the image homiletics professor Stephen Farris uses for realistic levels of exegesis in the pastorate. He recalls an episode of MASH in which Charles Emerson Winchester has just arrived on the front line. He’s a meticulous surgeon, one who knows the finer points of his profession; but he’s slow, very slow, and soldiers are dying. Colonel Potter pulls Winchester out of the operating room, ordering Hawkeye to take over. Potter explains to the prima donna that in a situation like this they do ‘meatball surgery.’ There’s no time for anything else. Farris suggests that ‘meatball exegesis’ is what ministers must do in the church. Sunday is coming and the assignment is neither a formal exegetical paper nor an impromptu  devotional thought.” (p.51)
“Imagine if someone were to offer you an additional week of preparation time but require no more time than you already give to your sermons. Twice as much time without any more commitments on your part. … begin your sermon one week earlier and stagger the Sundays. … In other words, take the amount of time you currently spend in preparation and simply divide it over thirteen days or so. The way it works is simple, but the dividends are surprisingly rich. Recall Fred Craddock’s dictum that fundamental to sermon preparation is recognizing two distinct phases, the exegetical and the homiletical, each requiring its own eureka moments. If we let the two weeks of preparation correspond to these two distinct tasks … the exegetical work done in week one, whenever it occurs, is the beginning of sermon preparation for the Sunday of week two. The homiletical work in week two begins not from scratch, but by building on the exegetical framework begun the week before. … The important thing is that ministers allow themselves twice as much time to live with the sermon while no more actual preparation time is required.” (p.60)
“I have come to the conviction that the term ‘biblical preaching’ is both redundant and incomplete. It is redundant because the biblical message is what we preach, God’s redemptive acts and hope for humanity. It is incomplete because spouting ancient Scripture is never enough. We must make connections with our day, or else we have not preached!” (p.68)
“Honestly, I don’t mean to sound like Chicken Little, ‘The literacy rates are falling!’ but I worry about the reading habits of preachers these days. … We read not just to find stories for Sundays but to keep ourselves alive the other six days of the week – which, when taken together, eventually add up to a lifetime.” (p.81)
“When it comes to the imagination, we are like people who, having had little exercise, find themselves severely taxed by strenuous physical effort. Our imaginations are out of condition.” (p.112)
“One helpful way to move toward the creation of the sermon’s sequence is to divide the possible material into two categories: textual/theological and today. On a piece of paper divided into two columns, I write the textual/theological material in the left-hand column. I the right hand column I list some of the possible contemporary stories and images.” (p.115)
“… sermons come in three main colors: blue, red, and gray. I’ve applied this description to to preaching. Blue preachers are orderly and disciplined. They’re analytical, logical, rational, and restrained. Blue preachers capture the attention of the congregation by their precision. Red preachers are more charged in their manner. They are emotional, driven, charismatic, even impulsive at times. Red preachers are more passionate than precise. Gray preachers are none of these things. They’re not so much somewhere between blue and red, but somewhere underneath. Gray preachers are a dime a dozen, because being gray is what many churches have come to expect. In truth, it is possible to hide while preaching, to hide behind a mask of dull and drab gray.” (p.134)
“Part of our journey as preachers is discovering whether writing out the whole sermon, parts of the sermon, or none of the sermon works best for us.” (p.142)
“Rehearsing [the preaching of a sermon] is essential, especially when we preach without notes.” (p.147)
Can you relate to this?
After a day of creating announcement sheets, talking with folks who stop by, answering the phone, running a couple of errands, troubleshooting an office PC, ditching a couple of salesmen, answering a flurry of e-mails, visiting the hospital, and a couple of meetings thrown in for good measure, all the while thinking that somewhere in the midst of all of these urgent things you simply must talk to God and crank out a couple of sermons, the thought comes to mind: “I need to get a life!” And then, when you have finally, successfully sealed yourself off from the ever-demanding world for a few minutes to focus on sermon preparation, what do you find, but an empty net. You’re diligently trawling for ideas and answers, but all you come back with are a few empty shells and a car tire.
You’ve been there, right? Oh, that’s right, that’s where you live every day!
If you sense that your life is beginning to look way too much like a remake of Groundhog Day, you do need to get a life. For the sake of your sermons, those who listen to them and for your own sanity. And getting a copy of this book would be a good place to start on that fresh quest for fire.
And honestly, “Get a life” is basically the thesis of this book. Way too many of us ministers, way too much of the time, have put our lives on eternal hold for the sake of a thousand other things. Things that ultimately drain the creative life out of us and burn us slap out. Then we wind up preaching lifeless sermons because we live lives without life.
The remedy? It’s not necessarily more study time. Not necessarily more prayer. It’s not more and better books for our library (rats!). It’s about getting a life.
Look through a telescope at happenings in the night sky. Sit in the grass and look closely at the world between the blades of grass. Get away to a park or beach and treat yourself to a catnap in the sunshine. If you already have a walking route, try traversing it in reverse. Read aloud to a child; borrow one if you have to. Spend half a day in a bookstore browsing through titles until one of them finds you. Take a friend to a ball game, or a favorite museum, or a movie. Buy a gift for a friend; better yet, make something yourself to give away. Sing along with some of your favorite recording artists. Attend the opera or symphony. Savor a piece of chocolate as slowly as you can. Buy a copy of Polacco’s Thunder Cake ( and enjoy the treat. Those are just some of Graves’ many recommendations as to how to overcome homiletic burnout.
Mixed in with these recommendations are a great many questions for personal reflection. What is your favorite part of preaching? What is a drudgery? Where do sermon preparation and self-care rank in your priorities, not ideally, but at the end of most weeks? When do your best ideas occur to you? Does your sermon preparation fit with your spirituality? When do you normally begin your sermon preparation? What are your Saturdays like? Can you imagine different spaces for different kinds of work? What kind of study aids do you currently use? Do you ever seek congregational input?
I could go on and on, but I don’t want this review to sound like Groundhog Day. I can’t imagine a preaching minister not benefiting from this book. It will make you think and will breathe ideas for life into you. It’s easy-to-read and yet shows evidence of real thought and serious engagement with the realities of ministry. You can view the table of contents online at It’s well-documented, but in an unobtrusive way (thirteen pages of endnotes), but there are no indexes of any kind. This book is definitely required reading; I give it a 9.7. Get it and get on the road to getting a life.

review: preaching that changes lives

by Michael Fabarez (Nelson, 2002), hb, 224pp
“The conscientious preacher does not merely seek to impart abstract doctrine or plain facts to his people; he also pleads with them for heartfelt and earnest obedience.” (p.vii)
“… my goal is to challenge you to reevaluate and consider your practice of preaching through the matrix of application.” (p.xiv)
“‘A want of Biblical preaching is an announcement of death’ for the church.” (p.5, quoting D.A. Carson)
“The Bible does not call pastor-teachers to be entertainers, movie directors, or psychologists. God calls His shepherds to be preachers. He calls them to stand in the gap and skillfully proclaim His Word. … Though the church may be enhanced by a few, creative, well-placed amenities, be assured she cannot survive without the consistent, accurate, and authoritative preaching that intends, in every instance, to transform its hearers.” (p.5)
“A good sermon is one that bears fruit – a message from God that transforms believers’ lives. … we must purpose to evaluate every sermon we preach in light of the biblical change it brings about in the lives of our congregants!” (pp.9-10)
“Expository preaching provides our best hope of attaining His desired results.” (p.15)
“The personal life of the preacher is the foundation upon which his every sermon stands. … If you are to preach life-changing sermons, you must be able to say with 1 Corinthians 11:1, ‘Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.'” (p.25)
“If you only consider Sunday’s text in light of your audience and its spiritual needs, you may be edified, but only in areas of common need. Scripture will impact your life, but only at the point best described as the ‘lowest common denominator’ existing between you and your congregation.” (p.33)
“In our world of endless distractions, few things are harder than kneeling to talk with our Maker for even thirty minutes each day.” (p.33)
“Since verbs are the key to understanding the meaning of any text, we should target them for study first in any passage of Scripture. When it comes to determining the passage’s intended impact on life, we should revisit the imperative verbs. Oftentimes the passage’s imperative verbs will help govern the length of the passage to be preached.” (p.41)
“Here are four important questions to prepare you to formulate the specific goal of your sermon: (1) what specifically does your audience have in common with the original audience? … (2) in what specific areas does your audience lack commonality with the original audience? … (3) how is my audience currently practicing the applications? … (4) how is my audience currently neglecting or abusing the application?” (pp.48-50)
“If the purpose of preaching is to change lives, and if outlining is understanding the highpoints of our sermon, then we should make the passage’s applicational thrust the underscored points of our outline, accentuated throughout the entire sermon.” (p.58)
“… move the wording of your points out of the indicative mood (the way things are) and into the imperative (a call to the way they should be). While some preachers worry about sounding heavy-handed or oppressive, we must never ignore our calling as heralds. … we ought to frame our outlines in a way to be clear about the listener’s responsibility.” (p.63)
“If powerful, life-changing preaching is our aim, then like Luther you must resolve that open books and open eyes can only constitute half of the study. David Larsen is right when he asserts that ‘we have not prepared until we have prayed.’ Yet surveys consistently reveal that while pastors spend hours in a given day studying a passage of Scripture to be preached, on average they spend less than 30 minutes praying. Presumably, much of that meager half hour is spent on issues unrelated to the sermons they are preparing.” (p.72)
“There are at least five basic requests that can and should be made in relation to the preparation of the sermon. (1) Pray that the message you are preparing will be an evident part of your own life. … (2) Pray for the protection of your sermon preparation time. … (3) Pray that you will be given grace and illumination to rightly divide His Word. … (4) Pray that the words you choose will be effective tools for the Holy Spirit to employ. … (5) Pray that you will have insight into the needs of your audience as they relate to the sermon you are preparing.” (pp.73-74)
“It is supremely important that we pray for victory in the spiritual battle that ensues after the sermon has been delivered. … (1) Pray that people will put the sermon into practice. … (2) Pray that the sermon will not be compartmentalized. … (3) Pray that the application of the sermon will be contagious. … (4) “Pray that the sermon itself will be delivered repeatedly.” (pp.76-76)
“If you don’t make your own schedule and keep it, others will dictate and dominate it. Of course God always maintains veto power … but for the most part you’ll either protect your schedule of you’ll allow others to maintain it by default.” (p.87)
“Try this. Make a list of elements involved in your weekly study (e.g., reading and re-reading the text, consulting commentaries, praying for the sermon, wording an outline, finding illustrations). Keep a list that logs the time spent on each activity. Remember to enter a column for ‘interruptions.’ Each week analyze your time chart, then after a month compare your charts.” (p.90)
“The fact remains, becoming an office-bound hermit may result in a great tract ministry, but preaching will always be a face-to-face venture.” (p.93)
“Worship is rarely achieved when a good hymn is offered with the dissonance of the corner karaoke. And the same may be said for those of us who preach. A good truth poorly delivered rarely hits the homiletical target.” (p.99)
“You must be so personally occupied by the content and application of the passage that your heart has naturally been burdened with the concern that everybody appropriate these biblical truths as earnestly as you have. … If you sense a lack of urgency in the days prior to the sermon, then linger in earnest prayer until God grants it.” (pp.100-101)
“Without a good conclusion, the (otherwise) best sermon is a dud.” (p.102, quoting Jay Adams)
“… it’s time for preachers … to boldly stand up and declare that God does not exist for us, but rather, we exist for Him; He is not our servant – we are called to be His; we do not obey Him for our sake – we obey Him for His sake. Only when we truly understand that we exist for the glory of God can we end the slide toward people-centered ministry and restore a God-centered ministry characterized by God-centered preaching.” (p.113)
“Put Christ on display in every sermon.” (p.116)
“… to preach with authority is not authoritarianism. … Real pulpit authority comes from accurately presenting God’s mind on a matter, not our own.” (p.130)
“… don’t rely on one source; double and triple-check your ‘facts.'” (p.137)
“… I am concerned that some people, in their zeal to preach ‘doctrinal sermons,’ will consistently preach sermons so ‘far removed from the water cooler and the van pool’ that their hearers won’t see the truth’s relevance.” (pp.145-146)
“True applicational preaching always puts doctrine on display.” (p.147)
“The average congregation … has received little or no training on how to listen to and integrate the sermons they hear each week. … ‘A deaf church is a dead church.'” (pp.151-152, quoting John Stott)
“… at least once a year expound on a passage that reminds your hearers of their responsibility. Make sure sermons with such an emphasis are preached as part of a balanced biblical diet.” (p.153)
“Following are the essentials of listening that our congregations cannot afford to neglect. … (1) Focus on preparation. … we must come to church prepared. … (2) Pray for something significant. … Since most people leave with their spiritual expectations realized, it’s important to emphasize the need for the congregation to pray for its own spiritual profit. … (3) Pray for the preacher. … Be bold and ask your congregation in a spirit of humility to pray for you and your preaching. … General requests will bring general prayers, so be as specific as you can in order to enlist your congregation as true co-laborers in the Lord’s work. (4) Schedule around church. … Challenge them to think counter-culturally about Sunday mornings.” (pp.153-155)
“Computer programs that display the preaching portion and its cross-references on big screens during the preaching event are quite popular in the contemporary church. There may be an advantage to using such tools to highlight primary points. But I have found that keeping my listeners turning in their own Bibles proves invaluable in reinforcing the truths being encouraged.” (p.157)
“Some people … believe their Christianity is a ‘highly personal matter.’ By personal, they mean private. By private, they mean their affairs are no one else’s business. Such Christianity is entirely foreign to the New Testament.” (p.171)
“Because you are a pastor, you might think of several compelling reasons for keeping your struggles to yourself. Don’t fool yourself. You have an equal if not greater obligation to be personally accountable for the commitments you’ve made in your Christian life. Set the pace. Don’t hide the fact that you regularly submit yourself to scrutinizing accountability. Make it clear that you don’t believe in a double standard when it comes to being held responsible to do what you have vowed.” (p.172)
“Almost 90 percent of those who take notes during a sermon say the practice helps them to ingest the sermon. While a great teaching aid, the congregant’s notes may be most effective after the sermon is completed. … It will teach long after you have stopped!” … A second way to encourage the implementation of sermon content is the use of weekly application questions. … Printing the application questions on the backside of the worksheet keeps the scriptural basis contiguous to the applicational thrust. … Prompting your congregation to read good Christian material is another way to facilitate their application of your sermons. … print weekly reading lists. … we would be wise shepherds to raise up a congregation of readers.” (pp.176,178,179,180)
“Sharing our lives as well as our sermons must be intentional. We must recognize that if we are to become models of what we preach we must make room in our schedules to do so.” (p.193)
Imagine composing a list of eight items that are your congregation’s “distinctives.” What would they be? Determining such would be quite an exercise in itself, wouldn’t it? Now ask yourself further: would preaching appear on the list?
Compass Bible Church ( in Aliso Viej, CA made just such a list concerning itself. The second distinctive on that list is of particular interest to us here: “We showcase expository preaching.” Further elaboration on this distinctive includes these words: “Our goal is that Compass pastors won’t use the Bible to preach their messages, but that the Bible will use Compass pastors to preach its message.”
Have I got your attention?
Now Mike Fabarez is the founding pastor of Compass Bible Church. And he happens to be the author of Preaching That Changes Lives. The table of contents of this book is itself distinctive, a model of clear explanation, and pretty much says everything I could say in this review about what Fabarez is about in this work.
Part 1 – Rethink Your Task
  • 1 – Understand the life-changing power of preaching
  • 2 – Adopt a life-changing method of preaching
Part 2 – Prepare to Change Lives
  • 3 – Make sure your life is changing
  • 4 – Study your passage and your audience with life-change in mind
  • 5 – Frame an outline that will change your audience
  • 6 – Pray, pray, pray for a sermon that will change lives
  • 7 – Come to grips with the time it takes to prepare a life-changing sermon
Part 3 – Preach to Change Lives
  • 8 – Realize they won’t change what they don’t hear and understand
  • 9 – Keep the life-changer at the center of the sermon
  • 10 – Preach change with authority
  • 11 – Give them more than the bottom line
  • 12 – Preach periodically about life-changing preaching
Part 4 – Follow Through to Change Lives
  • 13 – Cultivate a culture of commitments and accountability
  • 14 – Provide tools to help your audience make specific changes
  • 15 – Personally model the changes from last week’s sermon
Three appendixes appear near the book’s end: (1) a [wonderful!] prayer guide for preaching, (2) a sample “message prep” prayer team schedule and (3) a preaching evaluation form. Sixteen pages of endnotes and a 105 entry bibliography round things out.
Fabarez isn’t turned on at all about needs-based preaching. John MacArthur wrote the foreword to this book; that should tell you quite a bit about the style and content of  preaching Fabarez is holding up for us to emulate. However, whether are not you buy completely into that model, this is a book you’ll want to read and likely keep.
Scripture references are frequent and practical advice saturates every page of this work. The chapter on prayer and sermon preparation alone is worth the book’s price and will definitely be something you’ll want to return again and again as time goes by (pp.69-81). And the chapter on creating a sermon worksheet for use by the congregation is the best I’ve seen anywhere (pp.175-185). But it is the relentless quest for quality application in sermons that is the overarching concern in every chapter and this fact alone makes it rather distinctive among books with which I am familiar on preaching.
I judge this book not only to be a keeper, but “a good ‘un” at that. I give it a 9.5.

review: why Johnny can’t preach

Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers
by T. David Gordon (P & R Publishing, 2009), pb, 112pp,
“… I wrote this book in 2004, while I was undergoing eleven months of treatment for cancer. … I had stage III colorectal cancer, and the various cancer Web sites at the time gave me a 25 percent chance of survival. … Having been concerned about the state of preaching for three decades, I believed that it would be irresponsible to leave the world without expressing my thoughts about the matter, in the hope that better preaching might be the result.” (p.9)
“… in my opinion, less than 30 percent of those who are ordained to the Christian ministry can preach an even mediocre sermon … what I say about preaching is generally true of preaching in North America in the twenty-first century; it is not merely peculiar to my own experience in the particular individual churches of which I’ve been a member..” (pp.11-12)
“… it is the conservative evangelical churches and conservative Reformed churches with which I am primarily acquainted.” (p.12)
“As starving children in Manila sift through the landfill for food, Christians in many churches today have never experienced genuinely soul-nourishing preaching, and so they just pick away at what is available to them, trying to find a morsel or spiritual sustenance or helpful counsel here or there.” (p.17)
“Nor am I alone here. At a faculty meeting at Gordon-Conwell once, someone reported that a study had disclosed that one-half of ordained ministers leave the profession before retiring. Most of the faculty gasped at this, but my good colleague Doug Stuart remarked: ‘I wish the number were higher; only about one in five can preach.'” (p.18)
“I’ve really desired something fairly simple for my family: to be able to talk intelligently about the sermon on Sunday afternoon or throughout the week. And to do this, all I really desire is the ability to answer three questions: What was the point or thrust of the sermon? Was this point adequately established in the text that was read? Were the applications legitimate applications of the point, from which we can have further fruitful conversation about other possible applications?” (p.19)
“… while I’m delighted to hear that ministers are faithful in visitation, compassionate in caring for the sick, efficient in administration, or winsome toward the youth or the lost, I’d be even more delighted to hear someone say the opposite: ‘Well, he’s a little awkward at visitation, but he is outstanding in the pulpit; and the preaching is so good, and so nourishing, that we put up with the other minor defects in other areas.'” (p.23)
“… a minister is an ambassador, who represents another, declaring the will of that Other. Therefore, he is not entitled to preach his own insights, his own opinions, or even his own settled convictions; he is entitled only to declare the mind of God revealed in Holy Scripture.” (p.24)
“Is the text merely a pretext for the minister’s own idea? … If ten people are asked after the sermon what the sermon was about, will at least eight of them give the same (or similar) answer? … Do hearers get the impression that the minister is for them (eager to see them richly blessed by a gracious God), or against them (eager to put them in their place, scold them, or reprimand them, or punish them)? … Does the sermon significantly engage the mind, or is the sermon full of commonplace cliches, slogans, and general truths? … Do the earlier parts of the sermon contribute to the latter parts’ full effect? … Is the effect of the sermon, on those who believe it, similar? … Could the hearers compare notes and reproduce the outline of the sermon … [or] could they state how it progressed from one part to another? … ” (pp.24,25,26,27)
“… sermon length is not measured in minutes; it is measured in minutes-beyond-interest, in the amount of time the minister continues to preach after he has lost the interest of his hearers (assuming he ever kindled it in the first place). Ministers have found it entirely too convenient and self-serving to dismiss congregational disinterest on the basis of attenuated attention spans or spiritual indifference. In most cases, the inattentiveness in the congregation is due to poor preaching  preaching that does not reward an energetic, conscientious listening. When attentive listeners are not rewarded for their energetic attentiveness, they eventually become inattentive.” (p.31)
“Several of the more incompetent preachers I’ve heard have jumped on the emergent bandwagon, and their ministerial careers are undergoing a resurgence now, as people flock to hear their enthusiastic worship leaders and to ogle their PowerPoint presentations. Their churches are no longer moribund, but then the annual carnival isn’t, either – it, too, is full of enthusiasm, activity, and lively entertainment. But I’m not sure these emergent activities have any more spiritual effect than the pig races at the carnival.” (p.32)
“Show me a church where the preaching is good, and yet the church is still moribund. I’ve never seen such a church. The moribund churches I’ve seen have been malpreached to death. But the fact that large segments of the church are abandoning anything like traditional preaching altogether establishes my point: that Johnny can’t preach. He preaches so poorly that even believers have come to disbelieve that God has chosen through the folly of preaching to save those who believe (1 Cor. 1:21).” (p.33)
“… we have an embarrassment of riches among homileticians at seminaries today. The problem is the condition of the typical ministerial candidate when he arrives at seminary. … The average adult reads fewer than nine books annually, and spends seventeen times as much time watching television as reading (including all reading – magazines, newspapers, etc.). … In two decades alone, from 1982 to 2002, there was a 10 percent decline in literary reading among adults in the United States. … As a consequence of this cultural shift, those human sensibilities (one’s capacities to know, understand, experience, or appreciate certain realities) essential to expository preaching have largely disappeared, so that a theological seminary attempting to teach a person who is not comfortable with texts or with writing organized prose is analogous to a theological seminary attempting to teach a dachshund to speak French.” (pp.35-36)
“While our culture has not yet become entirely illiterate, it has become almost illiterate regarding the close reading of texts. Further, our culture has become increasingly aliterate. … the phenomenon of people who can read but do not read.” (p.37)
“Those who write compose their thoughts more successfully than those who do not; they commit fewer of what I inelegantly call ‘sentence farts,’ in which one begins a sentence, partway through realizes that it cannot be successfully completed, and therefore begins again.” (p.39)
“[Ministers] … read for information or amusement, but they do not read because they cherish the aesthetic pleasure taken in something that is well written. They notice only the content of what they read, but do not notice the subtler semi-miracle of language well-employed. How does this phenomenon affect them as preachers? Well, they read the Bible the same way they read everything else: virtually speed-reading, scanning it for its most overt content. ‘What is this passage about?’ they ask as they read, but they don’t raise questions about how the passage is constructed. It’s almost as though a version of Microsoft Word were built into their brains that causes them to see some of the words in a biblical paragraph in boldface, as the theologically, spiritually, or morally important words that stand out in bold from the rest of the paragraph.” (p.46)
“Culturally … we are no longer careful, close readers of texts, sacred or secular. … We don’t really read texts to enter the world of the author and perceive reality through his vantage point; we read texts to see how they confirm what we already believe about reality. Texts are mirrors that reflect ourselves; they are not pictures that appreciated in themselves. This explains, in part, the phenomenon that many Christians will read their Bibles daily for fifty years, and not have one opinion that changes in the entire fifty-year span. … [we] ‘use’ texts but do not ‘receive’ them.” (pp.49-50)
“Our inability to read texts is a direct result of the presence of electronic media. The sheer pace of an electronic media-dominated culture is entirely too fast. … We become acclimated to distraction, to multitasking, to giving part of our attention to many things at once, while almost never devoting the entire attention of the entire soul to anything. The close reading of texts would be an antidote to such a pace because such reading is time-consuming and requires the concentration of the entire person.” (p.50)
“… few important matters can even be adequately introduced in ten minutes. A culture that reads can consider what is significant because reading takes time, and that which is significant ordinarily takes time to apprehend. But a culture that is accustomed to commercial interruptions every six or seven minutes loses its ability to discuss significant matters because it has lost the patience necessary to consider them.” (pp.53-54)
“As a medium, reading cultivates a patient, lengthy attention span, whereas television as a medium is impatient. One is therefore suited to what is significant; the other merely to what is insignificant.” (pp.54-55)
“We are swamped by the inconsequential, bombarded by images and sounds that rob us of the opportunity for reflection and contemplation that are necessary to reacquaint ourselves with what is significant. ‘According to a widely cited 1989 study by Kiku Adatto, the average weekday network news sound bite from a presidential candidate shrank from 42.3 seconds in 1968 to 9.8 in 1988 (with only 1 percent of the bites lasting as long as 40 seconds that year). By 2000, the average was 7.8 seconds. What kind of ministers does such a culture produce? Ministers who are not at home with what is significant; ministers whose attention span is less than that of a four-year old in the 1940’s, who race around like the rest of us, constantly distracted by sounds and images of inconsequential trivialities, and out of touch with what is weighty. It is not surprising that their sermons, and the alleged worship that surrounds them, are often trifling, thoughtless, uninspiring, and mundane. It is not surprising that their sermons are mindlessly practical, in the ‘how-to’ sense.’ … The great seriousness of the reality of being human, the dreadful seriousness of the coming judgment of God, the sheer insignificance of the present in light of eternity – realities that once were the subtext of virtually every sermon – have now disappeared, and have been replaced by one triviality after another.” (pp.58-59)
“The telephone has radically and profoundly altered the shape of society and of individual consciousness. … But this lack of visual response in conversation makes us literalists, whose capacity to see and interpret body language, gestures, and the language of the eyes atrophies because of comparatively infrequent use. … Now, the obvious point for this for preaching is this: If we become less practiced (and therefore less skilled) at reading people’s visible reactions to our speech, we will become less skilled at reading those reactions when speaking publicly. … As a medium, the telephone also robs us of composition skills. … we become accustomed to noncomposed thought and speech, and unaccustomed to composed thought and speech. … The consequences of this for preaching should be very obvious. Telephone conversations rarely have unity, order, or movement … [and many] sermons reflect the babbling, rambling quality of a typical telephone conversation.” (pp.63,64,65,66)
“A once common sensibility (close reading of texts) is now uncommon, and a once-common activity (composition) is now comparatively rare. A once-common daily occurrence (face-to-face communication allowing us to ‘read’ the unstated feelings of another) has been replaced by telephone conversation in which visual feedback is absent. A once common sensibility, the capacity to distinguish the significant from the insignificant, is becoming rare. For a minister today to preach a basic average sermon by early twentieth-century standards would require a lifestyle that is significantly countercultural.” (pp.67-68)
“… the entering seminarian today has the faculties of a sixth- to eight-grader sixty years ago, and the seminary curriculum cannot make this seminarian an adult by the time he graduates.” (p.68)
“… I also believe that preaching today fails almost entirely in its content. … the content of Christian preaching should be the person, character, and work of Christ. … What is offered to the congregation, in rightly ordered Christian worship, is nothing less than Christ himself.” (pp.69,70)
“Faith is not built by preaching introspectively (constantly challenging people to question whether they have faith); faith is not built by preaching moralistically (which has exactly the opposite effect of focusing attention on the self rather than on Christ, in whom our faith is placed); faith is not built by joining the culture wars and taking  potshots at what is wrong with our culture. Faith is built by careful, thorough exposition of the person, character, and work of Christ.” (pp.75-76)
“To clarify what I think Christological preaching is, it may help to contrast it with several common alternatives … moralism, how-to, introspection, and social gospel/culture war. … None of these false surrogates for real Christian proclamation nourishes the soul. They may inform or instruct about some aspects of religion, but they do not nourish faith; they do not feed faith. We feed on Christ himself …” (pp.78-79,88)
“Haven’t we already had a historical experiment that is precisely what the culture warriors want? Wasn’t ancient Israel a nation whose constitution demanded obedience to the revealed laws of God, and didn’t its executive branch use coercion to attain such obedience? Did Israel not, effectively, have the Ten Commandments in its courthouse? Yet which prophet ever had anything good to say about the nation? Indeed, as Jesus and the prophets more bluntly put it, which of the prophets did they not kill? If theocracy didn’t work in Israel, where God divinely instituted it, why do people insist on believing it will work in places where God manifestly has not instituted it?” (p.88)
“… there is a relation between what predominates in our preaching and what we deem to be of greatest importance. … I would suggest that nothing is more important for Christian proclamation than the central realities of the person, character, and work of Christ. When anything else predominates, the necessary inference of our hearers is that morality, or cultural improvement, or introspecting about our own spiritual health, is a more important consideration.” (p.91)
“… the solution is not more books on homiletics … nor is it to require more classes on homiletics at seminary. The solution is to cultivate those pre-homiletical sensibilities that are necessary to preach well. … learn to read. How can he preach the Word of God is he cannot read the Word of God?” (p.96)
“Most ministers will never know how bad their preaching really is without an annual review.” (p.97)
“Just as a middle-aged man doesn’t wish to ask his physician about his chest pains, for fear of what he might learn, the typical minister doesn’t ask about his preaching competence for fear he will discover that his preaching is not edifying to his hearers.” (p.99)
“… make efforts to cultivate the sensibilities requisite to preaching well. Perhaps the most straightforward way to do this is to … pursue a degree in English literature.” (p.101)
“Formal study of English literature, however, is not necessary. Informally, one can learn to read poetry by reading books about how to read poetry, and by reading classic defenses of verse (such as those by Spenser and Shelley, or the life-changing An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis) or essays on poetic theory and criticism, while also reading anthologies of poetry. I do not recommend, ordinarily, that one devote the majority of his attention to post-World War II poetry; from then on, poetry took on an almost perversely iconoclastic character, as though the severest obscurity were the highest attainment.” (p.102)
“I still tell every oncoming freshman at Grove City College who plans to major in religion (the department in which I teach) that if he intends to go to divinity school and become a minister, he should not major in religion but in English literature. None of them listen to me, of course, and I get the most puzzled looks from them (and looks of consternation from my departmental colleagues), but I continue to make the effort …” (pp.101-102)
“Those who are preparing for the ministry should also write handwritten letters whenever there is justification for doing so … The handwritten letter requires composition: that one considers before one writes what one wishes to say, and how one wishes to say it. … keep some personal letterhead on hand when one prays for his congregation throughout the week. … thoughtful composition … will ultimately spill over into sermons. … compose other material: articles for theological, religious or denominational periodicals; editorials for magazines or newspapers; journal entries; anything. And note that I think it doesn’t matter at all whether any of these ever get published. The value resides in the shaping of one’s sensibilities and abilities (especially that of composition) that comes from organizing one’s thoughts into writing.” (pp.103-104)
“Most pre-ministerial candidates, and most ministers, would be well served by taking a nonreligious course on public speaking. … In a nonreligious setting ,,, once can learn the important distinctions between poor organization, clarity versus obscurity, specific language versus general language, and so on One might even consider joining Rotary International.” (pp.104-105)
“Some ministers work on the technical aspects of their sermon preparation by developing a homiletical partner: another minister with whom they meet once or twice a month to discuss their recent sermons, and why they constructed them as they did. The feedback of another set of eyes can be helpful …” (p.105)
“To preach the word of God well, one must already have cultivated, at a minimum, three sensibilities: the sensibility of close reading of texts, the sensibility of composed communication, and the sensibility of the significant. Without these, a person simply cannot preach, any more than he could if his larynx were removed or were utterly illiterate.” (p.106)
“While most of my thoughts are addressed to ministers and pre-ministerial candidates, congregations should not overlook their responsibility in the matter. As long as the typical congregation runs its minister ragged with clerical, administrative, and other duties; and as long as such a congregation expects the minister to be out five or six nights a week visiting or at meetings, the minister will not have time in his schedule to read, write, or reflect. In short, those sensibilities essential to effective preaching will remain uncultivated. … preaching well requires more than preparing sermons; it requires preparing oneself as the kind of human who has the sensibilities prerequisite to preaching. An individual without time to read broadly and intensely, without time to reflect on life, without time to compose (even if merely in a personal journal), is not likely to be an individual who can preach.” (p.107)
Though I was just a pup when the ads first aired on television, I can still remember some of the old Mennen Skin Bracer after shave commercials. “… wakes you up like a cold slap in the face!” They were the first commercials I recall looking forward to seeing again. Why? Because they were shocking, to the point, hilarious, and, obviously, memorable.
And while it is anything but hilarious, T. David Gordon’s work Why Johnny Can’t Preach is a bit of Skin Bracer for preachers. To be sure, it stings, but the one who delivers this much needed slap can be trusted. He’s our friend; a friend we almost lost to cancer.
That’s right. What prompted this Greek and religion professor to pen this book was his diagnosis in 2004 with stage 3 colorectal cancer. When he learned that his chances of survival were only 25%, he became fearful that he might die without having said what he believed we truly needed to hear. And so, Gordon spent his eleven, grueling months of cancer treatment writing Why Johnny Can’t Preach.
Can you say “grit?”
And what is it exactly that we need to hear? What is his diagnosis for us? Quite simply, most preachers can’t preach. He believes over 70% of us have no business preaching. And the reason we can’t preach is either because we have never cultivated, or have lost, our literary sensibilities. That is, we have no real appetite for close reading of texts, having nurtured in its place a hunger for constant distraction and noncomposed thought and speech.
Ha! If I didn’t know better, I’d swear Gordon was talking straight to us “Church of Christ preachers,” masters of improv that many of us are.
This book leaps out of the gate strong.
“Part of me wishes to avoid proving the sordid truth: that preaching today is ordinarily poor. … As starving children in Manila sift through the landfill for food, Christians in many churches today have never experienced genuinely soul-nourishing preaching, and so they just pick away at what is available to them, trying to find a morsel or spiritual sustenance or helpful counsel here or there.” (p.17)
And this book finishes strong, hardly having worked up a sweat.
“… the minister is expected to work about seventy-five hours a week, and also to be a good example of a family man! Churches cannot continue to exact such a toll from their ministers while expecting them to preach well, because preaching well requires more than preparing sermons; it requires preparing oneself as the kind of human who has the sensibilities prerequisite to preaching. An individual without time to read broadly and intensely, without time to reflect on life, without time to compose (even if merely in a personal journal), is not likely to be an individual who can preach.” (p.107)
Let the church say, “Amen!”
And there is not one weak page in between. No not one. I’m telling you:
“The slap of a friend can be trusted to help you …” (Proverbs 27:6 NCV)
Gordon has without a doubt put his finger on a huge factor influencing preaching (and the hearing of preaching) today. His cold-slap-in-the-face approach to writing is refreshing and needed. This book’s economy and clarity with words make it a quick read. In fact, I’d encourage you to read it twice. The first time through, read it in one sitting without pause. Intentionally feel the slap and sting. Then work through it a second time, this time thoughtfully and reflectively, at a simple pace of one brief chapter per day over the course of a week. Block out as much time to think about what you read each day as you do to read. For the real power of this book becomes even more clear as you deliberately ruminate its contents. The book utilizes footnotes and they are every bit as clear and biting, as well as helpful, as the primary text. Don’t skip them.
There’s precious little about this book for me to beef about. There are no indexes; a brief, combined subject and author index would have been helpful. My only other complaint is not with the author or the book, but with the publisher and for not enabling a preview feature on Amazon. Unless you’re unusually fortunate enough to find a copy in a bookstore, there is no way to peruse a bit of this book before you purchase it.
In recent e-mail correspondence with the author, Dr. Gordon informed me that:
“… the sequel on hymns [Why Johnny Can’t Sing] is now completed, and I hope to have it in the hands of the publishers by the end of the month.”
He also recommended three books, penned by other authors, that deal with some of the matters he discussed in Why Johnny Can’t Preach (i.e. – diminishing attention span, inability to closely read texts, etc.). Those three works are: (1) Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson (2008), (2) The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein (2008), and (3) Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher (2009).
And – praise God! – Dr. Gordon mentioned in passing that he had “been in New Hampshire for some hiking for ten days” recently. Five years post diagnosis and ten days of hiking. Sounds like a 25 percenter to me!
Make no mistake about it: Why Johnny Can’t Preach is required reading. Right now. It’s a keeper for life; the perfect 10. Take a copy of it with you to the next area preachers’ meeting you attend and talk it up. Get the word out.  It could well be the best cold slap in the face you’ll ever pay for.
To Dr. Gordon I can only say: “Thanks. I needed that!”

review: preaching, an essential guide

by Ronald J. Allen (Abingdon, 2002), 135pp, pb
“This volume has two purposes. First, it provides a basic guide to putting together a sermon for persons who are new to the task. I write particularly to lay pastors and seminary students who are new to preaching, though experienced ministers can read the book as an update on current thinking about preaching. … Second, this book provides a model for conducting a feedback session after a student sermon. … The seven chapters in this book identify seven categories for such discussion.” (pp.9-10)
“This book … begins with a sample sermon (one of my own on Mark 9:49-50). In each of the seven chapters, I reflect on an aspect of sermon preparation or embodiment. … The sample sermon is also a case study that I follow throughout the book.” (p.10)
“Chapter 1 reminds the preacher that the essential purpose of preaching is to bring the good news from God to the congregation. Chapter 2 points out that the sermon should offer a clear message resulting from a disciplined encounter with a Biblical text or topic. Chapter 3 develops three criteria to evaluate the situation of the congregation, the biblical text or topic, and the content of the sermon. Chapter 4 reflects on how the preacher and congregation can move from the meaning(s) of a biblical text or theological doctrine in the past to possible meaning(s) of such material for today. Chapter 5 stresses the importance of pastoral listening so that the preacher can develop a sermon that relates in a significant way to the congregation. Chapter 6 calls the preacher to develop the sermon so that the congregation can follow it. Chapter 7 provides practical suggestions for bringing the sermon to life in the pulpit in an engaging way.” (pp.10-11)
“I recommend a little exercise for preachers to help them be sure they are communicating good news from God in the congregation: summarize the main drift of the sermon in a single indicative sentence. … The sermon in a sentence cannot summarize everything that the preachers wants to say. However, it is the central idea around which the sermon revolves. … Formulating the news of the sermon in a sentence helps preachers avoid two common mistakes: works righteousness and moralism. Works righteousness is the belief (sometimes unconscious) that human beings must do certain things, perform certain works, for God to love and accept them. … Moralism is reducing the Christian life to a set of behaviors. The moralistic preacher spends the sermon telling people how to live without showing that Christian life results from God’s grace. … preachers need to summarize the theological heart of the sermon in a single statement: [because] (1) some people in the congregation are intellectually wired in such a way that they must hear the ‘point’ in order to get it and (2) by summarizing the gist of the sermon , the preacher is better able to evaluate the theology of the sermon.” (pp.21,22,23)
“Imagination can play an important role in this preparation of the sermon. However, exegesis of a biblical text and interpretation of a topic involve considerable study for which there is no shortcut or substitute. The preacher simply has to get books off the shelf and turn some pages, or call up some information on the web, or turn to some journals. When this work is complete, the preacher is ready to analyze the theological and moral claims of the biblical passage or the theological and ethical assumptions of the topic in preparation for formulating the direction of the sermon proper.” (p.29)
“I evaluate all texts and topics through the double lens of God’s unconditional love for all, and God’s call for justice for all. I ask of each text, and its various elements, Does this text affirm that God loves each person (and all parts of nature) with unconditional love? Does this text call for justice (that is, relationships of love in community) for each person and all constituents of the natural world?” (p.52)
“Although I have been listening to student sermons for more than twenty years, I am still surprised at the number of preachers who say things that they do not truly believe. This phenomenon usually takes place either because preachers simply do not pay attention to contradictions between what they believe and what they say (sloppy thinking), or because preachers use familiar language from the tradition that the preacher has not studied carefully and that does not express what a preacher truly believes.” (p.53)
“… most preachers work hard at exegesis. Most of the sermons are theologically adequate and offer sensible hermeneutical suggestions. However, few preachers relate the major theological concern of the sermon to the congregation and our larger world in concrete ways. To many sermons remain at a very general level.” (p.70)
“… imagine that several people from the congregation are in the study during the preparation of the sermon. As a preacher works, he or she carries on an imaginary conversation with the folk in the room. ‘Sue, where does the sermon-in-a-sentence intersect with your life?'” (p.73)
“Preachers sometimes unconsciously turn to material that is associated with one group in the congregation, while not including material that relates to others. One woman said, ‘If I hear another golf story, I will scream.'” (p.74)
“I find it helpful to think about relating the sermon specifically to the congregation and its world in terms of ever-expanding circles, moving from individuals in the congregation, through the congregation as a community to the local setting, the state, the nation, and the world.” (p.78)
“One of the most effective ways a preacher can help relate the sermon specifically to the life of the congregation is to tell at least one lifelike story that brings the good news of the sermon to life. A life-story captures the tensions of the text or topic and the complexities of life in the listening community. Indeed, I make it a rule that nearly every sermon should contain at least one such story. … I emphasize the importance of the story having the character of good news. … A story is usually a point at which the sermon has the most profound impact on the congregation. Indeed, telling a story of human pain often brings the congregation to profound silence as they feel the pain of the story. However, if stories in sermons represent only sin and its consequences, the congregation may eventually  – perhaps unaware – conclude that the power of sin and brokenness is greater than that of God, love, and justice.” (pp.80-81)
“Preachers often associate deductive preaching with making ‘points.’ While deductive sermons sometimes contain points, they need not necessarily do so … Preaching that makes points can be an effective witness to the gospel. However, this style should not be a straitjacket into which the preacher binds every sermon; it does not fit every preacher, every listener, every congregation, every occasion, or every biblical text or topic.” (p.91)
“There is no formula for beginning a sermon. Here are some possibilities: point out a peculiarity, an irony, or a theological difficulty raised by the biblical text or topic; tell a story from personal experience; pick up on something in the life of the congregation or the denomination; connect with an event from the wider world; ask a question; recall or create a circumstance that raises an issue; draw from a movie, a television program, a novel, a short story, or a poem; quote from a figure from church history or a contemporary theologian; refer to a day of the church year (for example, First Sunday in Advent, One Great Hour of Sharing Sunday, and so forth); give a lively preview of the content of the sermon.” (pp.100-101)
“The embodiment of the sermon should be characterized by spirituality, presence with the congregation, and tone. These qualities are hard to describe, but when they are present, the congregation usually feels a strong bond with the preacher. When they are absent, the congregation usually senses that something is missing. By spirituality, I mean the sense that the preacher has a deep and genuine spiritual life and that the sermon is born out of the preacher’s struggle to understand the text or the topic in relationship with God. … By presence, I mean the sense that the preacher is truly present to the congregation. The preacher needs to signal that he or she is attentive to the congregation is emotionally, intellectually, and physically open to the community. … The tone of the embodiment of the sermon should be consistent with its theological content. When the tone of embodiment differs from the tone of the content, the integrity of the sermon is undercut. When the message speaks of knowing God, the messenger should speak in a joyful way. When the sermon deals with sadness, the preacher should speak in a sad tone. When the text or the topic leads the congregation to struggle with God, the sermon needs to have the feel of a struggle.” (pp.108-109)
“Preachers should look directly into the eyes of the listeners, and not at the wall just above their heads. When the preacher habitually looks at the wall, the congregation may think he or she does not want to relate with them or that the preacher fears them.” (p.110)
“Students always want to know whether to preach with a manuscript, with notes, or with nothing at all. I can only answer, ‘You need to find the approach that most helps you in the moment of preaching.” (p.113)
“The following questions are designed for use in a sermon feedback group. … (1) What is the good news at the heart of this sermon?, (2) Does the sermon honor the integrity and otherness of the biblical passage or the topic on which the sermon is focused? … (3) Is the sermon theologically adequate? … (4) Does the congregation relate the text or topic to the congregation in a responsible way? … (5) What is the significance of the sermon for the congregation? … (6) Did the sermon move in a away that is easy to follow? Describe the movement of the sermon. … (7) Did the preacher embody the sermon in an engaging fashion? … (8) At what point did the sermon most connect with you … (9) What, in the sermon, most helped this connection? … (10) At what point was the sermon most distant, or otherwise difficult, for you? What made it so? … (11) What in the sermon most frustrated the sermon’s ability to connect with you? … (12) What is the most important thing you want to tell the preacher about this sermon?” (pp.118-119)
Which do you go for first: the quick start guide or the detailed manual? If you’re the “quick start” kind of guy, this book, Preaching: An Essential Guide by Ronald Allen, just might be the book for you. Why? It takes you  straight into the assembly of things, not wasting any time explaining the why’s of this and that. Why, this handbook even has a quick-start guide of it’s own (known as Appendix A on pp.117-119)! So, let me approach this review in something of a quick-start fashion.
Lists. You’ll find helpful lists here (i.e. – 34 different approaches to preaching [pp.87-88], types of introductions [pp.100-101], types of conclusions [p.103-104], etc.). Pastoral sensitivity and ministerial wisdom shows through in these lists, too, perhaps best evidenced in the list of questions a preacher always does well to ask himself as he prepares a sermon (pp.74-76).
Experience. Allen’s experienced advice is often helpful (i.e. – precisely when a topical approach to a text is best [pp.41-42]; to be aware of folks saying one thing, but meaning another when they give you their feedback/opinion [p.72 – ‘latent content’ is the fancy name for that]; save your best story/stories for the latter part of a sermon [p.82]; purchase one commentary every month [p.127]; etc.). And he’s not afraid to offer his opinion, even when he knows that opinion may not be popular (i.e. – don’t use non-sermon related jokes right before a sermon, p.103).
Balance. Allen is balanced in his views as to deductive (pp.91-94) and inductive (pp.94-99) preaching. He leans not hard toward one or the other, but sees them both as useful tools in the preacher’s toolbox. His description of inductive preaching through the visualization of four models (pp.97-99) is the clearest of all discussions of this subject I have seen anywhere. His balance also shines through in other discussions (i.e. – whether or not to use a manuscript [pp.113-114]).
Example. I especially appreciated Allen’s use of Mark 9:49-50 as a skeleton of discussion throughout the course of his book. At the start (pp.13-18), we’re given a manuscript of a sermon Allen preached from Mark 9:49-50. Constant reference is made back to this sermon’s components and movements throughout the book. I found this systematic scrutiny of a single sermon’s anatomy to be this book’s most helpful component. It is disappointing, however, that the link provided near the book’s end (p.107) as to where we can hear Allen preach this sermon online is now a dead link
Stuff to steal. To be sure, this is a handbook dealing with the mechanics of preaching, but you will occasionally (but only occasionally) will come across a paragraph of material that will likely be harvested for use as/in a sermon (i.e. – Thomas Long’s simple three-point outline of Psalm 19 that addresses how God communicates with us  [p.92]).
Help. No indexes are provided, but the book does conclude with endnotes (pp.131-135) and four appendices (A – a 12-step outline to preparing a sermon; B – 12 questions for a sermon feedback group; C – 4 kinds of preaching plans; D – 10 groups of resources for fledgling preachers).
Note: Readers among Churches of Christ will likely not find themselves comfortable with all of Allen’s views on this text or all of Scripture in general (i.e. – pp.60-62), but we’ve all eaten watermelon before and know how to swallow the meat and spit out the seeds. Any sermon preached from Mark 9:49-50 would be surely sharpened by a reading of the pertinent parts in this book.
Assessment. This is not “fun” reading, but it’s not supposed to be – it’s a “handbook.” But like a good handbook, it is helpful. It has a great deal of good information, but it is just that – “information.” As a veteran preacher, I will pass this book on to someone else simply because I already have much of this same sort of material in other full-sized manuals that I have read or am currently reading. However, if I was just getting started in preaching, I can see this book as something that would be of real help to me. For me, I give it a 7.9. For newbie’s, I give it an 8.7.

review: delivering the sermon

Delivering the Sermon: Voice, Body, and Animation in Proclamation
by Teresa L. Fry Brown (Fortress Press, 2008) , pb, 91pp
“There are as many different styles of delivery as … preachers in the pulpit.” (p.2)
“… when the preacher’s delivery is marked by obscure meaning, monotone delivery, misarticulation of sound, mispronunciation of words in the biblical text, insufficient volume, or failure to consider the language levels or abilities of the listener, the sermon – regardless of the proficiency of the exegesis, depth of poetic creativity, or brilliance of attire – will suffer disruptions in communication.” (p.3)
“The preacher must mine the deep. He or she should spend time listening to the language pattern of the congregation … The words of the preacher must be in the language of the people, the vernacular.” (p.8)
“The  longest trip a person takes is from head to heart.” (p.8, quoting Fred Craddock)
“Don’t be dull, tedious, or laborious. Don’t apologize for the sermon. Don’t be inaudible – reach the furthest person from the pulpit. Don’t preach at, under, or over the people, but to, with, and for the people.” (p.13, quoting Charles G. Adams)
“In today’s world, all preaching is cross-cultural.” (p.18)
“The increasing popularity of televangelism, Webcasts, religious conferences, international evangelistic crusades, and sale of sermonic audio  and videotapes has led to linguistic patterns that have pushed stereotypical, traditional, cultural, ethnic, denominational, and sexual ‘sound like’ boundaries. That is, congregations have access to a variety of preachers different from the local preacher. These models often become the standard by which the listeners gauge the efficacy of the local preacher.” (pp.21-22)
“The most common problems observed in preaching or public speaking are: speaking too long without a breath; pausing only for shorts gasps of air; too much neck and shoulder movement; audible breathing, as if affected by a cold, stuffiness, or exhaustion; decreased loudness due to fatigue, hearing loss, affect, insecurity, lack of confidence; being ill-prepared; excessive vocal energy manifest in speaking too loud (thus being inappropriate for feedback or hearing; creating a sense of intimidation or hostility; or done out of fear, habit, or from an inappropriate model).” (pp.30-31)
“Eisenson developed a brief-self-evaluation of voice that I have adapted for preaching: (1) Is my voice pleasant to hear? (2) Does my voice reflect the message I intended to convey in thought and feeling? (3) Does my voice have characteristics that I would consider undesirable in another preacher? (4) Does my voice reflect my personality? (5) Do I want to express the pastoral or the prophetic personality? (6) Is my articulation (diction) up to my own standards/expectation? (7) Is my diction similar to that of my peers or listeners? (8) Is there something in my voice that needs improvement? (9) Are the changes in pitch, loudness, duration, and quality appropriate to the changes in thought and/or feeling that I am trying to convey? (10) Would I listen to this voice if I were not a preacher?” (p.32)
“Correct articulation can make or break the communication chain. … One mispronounced word will be a slight distraction. Consistent misarticulation may be the ‘deal breaker.'” (p.54)
“Read Romans 1:1-7 and rewrite it in a manner in which your congregation or primary preaching location will understand its meaning. Consider the flow of speech, intonation, inflection, and articulation that most closely corresponds to the speech patterns of your primary preaching context. The paraphrase may be helpful in the body of the sermon.” (p.57)
“Any preacher who is interested in vocally and nonvocally embodying the word of God to the best of one’s ability should engage in a discipline of self-analysis of one’s preaching presence. … The challenge for the preacher is not only to be aware of her expressions but also to know how the expressions affect the transmission of words in preaching.” (p.61)
“It has been projected that about 40% of all public speakers experience performance anxiety.” (p.64)
“.   passion steps from the corners of the mind into the midst of the conversation. It may be subtle or pronounced, smoldering or blazing, soft or loud, but the passion should be ever-present in the sermon. It is the lens that overlays each text. It determines how we embody the sermon. As the bard would say, whatever you attempt in relating the word, make sure it is authentically you and not the result of pressure to be like someone else. Preaching is worship and not a separate entity.” (p.69)
“(1) Select on the listed passages: Genesis 1:1-19; 1 Kings 17:8-16; Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 23:44-49; Acts 3:1-10; Revelation 21:1-8. (2) Describe the elements [in the text] in terms of the following classifications: colors, sizes, shapes, smells, textures, sounds, tastes, movements, temperature, distances, emotions, tactile sensations/what or how does the surface of skin feel; body positioning, physically, location of characters in relation to each other. (3) What is going through your head as you read the passage? (4) Act out the text using your senses.” (p.81)
“… 70% of oral communication is misunderstood, ignored, or quickly forgotten.” (p.41)
Gee, thanks! I needed that word of encouragement as to the practical benefit of me being a preacher!
So, if that’s true, what would I be willing to do to up the odds of what I have to say being heard correctly and remembered? Would I pay $12 for a speech-language pathologist to critique my sermon delivery (if they shared the results only with you, of course)? Now, imagine said pathologist was also a homiletics professor at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Would I be interested in some exercises they might suggest?
Yep. Er, yes. And that’s precisely what Teresa L. Fry Brown does for me, and can do for all, who engage her book Delivering the Sermon.
Frankly, reading this book is something akin to changing the oil in your car: not at all exciting, but honestly essential to help keep things working well. Newbies would especially benefit from this work so as to avoid the creation of bad habits, but veterans will also find themselves challenged to think again of matters they either gave up on or have passed over long ago as  “unimportant.” Mechanics matter and this little book is pure business. It’s like reading your car’s owner’s manual. Here is a simple outline of the table of contents:
ch. 1 – Communicating the Word
ch. 2 – Inculturating the Word
ch. 3 – Voicing the Word
ch. 4 – Articulating the Word
ch. 5 – Embodying the Word
ch. 6 – Animating the Word
For a more detailed breakdown of the contents, search for this book on and then, having found it, click on “search inside this book.” Read the introduction’s last page (p.4) at the same link to see a brief, explanatory paragraph of the thrust of each chapter. Notes to all the chapters do not appear as footnotes or endnotes, but are gathered together at the end of the book (pp.87-91). There are no indexes (grrrr!).
Now each of the six chapters conclude with several pages of exercises (pp.13-14,23-27,43-45,54-57,69-74,80-84). These exercises are the actual heart and soul of benefit to this book. The majority of exercises are thought questions so whether you actually take the time to ponder these questions or not will largely determine the good you get from this book. An example of an exercise follows (p.43):
  • Who are your preaching parents or models?
  • Who is in the ‘company of preachers with whom you regularly associate?
  • Do you sing, read or write poetry, or play an instrument?
  • What type of music do you listen to most often?
  • What is your ‘preaching signature’ ? What type of voice is most characteristic of your preaching?
  • If you could modify anything about your voice, what would it be?
  • How often do you listen to a recording of your voice?
Obviously, you’ll need to have read the chapter preceding each set of exercises to meaningfully engage these thought questions, and some of the exercises require group participation. For example (p.56):
In small groups, choose one psalm and take turns following the instructions below and then discussing the questions that follow:
  • Read it at your normal rate.
  • Read it as slowly as you can.
  • Read it as quickly as you can.
  • At which rate was the person’s speech most intelligible?
  • What difficulties did you note in the person’s production at each rate?
  • Did you detect any difference in pronunciation than what you usually use?
  • How many words were mispronounced?
  • What rate works best for your preaching, and why?
Chapter four (articulating the word) is the chapter I found most helpful (I’m still recovering from the bruises).  But, given that our heritage has its strongest representation in the southern states, I have to wonder if this isn’t the chapter most of us need to to hear, even if the only thing we stop to ponder there is the table of commonly mispronounced words (p.51). Okies and Texans might think this book was written by a Yankee, given her distaste for essential words like “ya’ll” and “git,” but do recall, she’s from ‘Bama.
My bachelor’s degree is in speech communication, so much of this book is about matters I was schooled in (yes, to those of you who have actually heard me speak, I just heard you and your chair hit the floor in astonishment). Nevertheless, I have to wonder how many preachers in our heritage are exposed to these matters if they aren’t a speech major. My experience in our heritage has been that we give preachers a lot of training on how to mine out the meaning of the text, but not so much in how to communicate what we’ve learned in a clear and compelling way. I know that in the preaching school from which I graduated, virtually none of the material in this book was ever addressed at all!
So, I’ll give this book two ratings. If you’re a communications major, I’d give this book an 8.4 because you’ve probably already been exposed to most of this material. What makes it a keeper for me is that it packs a great deal of the mechanics of communication into just a few pages and doesn’t waste a lot of time explaining various communication theories, etc. I’ll want to re-visit the exercises/questions whenever I’m feeling a need for a tune-up.
As to a second rating, though, if you’ve not been exposed to very much speech training, consider this work as having a 9.2 rating. Particularly if you’re new to preaching, or teaching preacher-wannabes, you’ll want to make good use of this work. It could very well be the cheapest, quality analysis money can buy. You’ll be hard-pressed to find more on communications mechanics written anywhere on fewer pages that also remains sensitive to the art of preaching.
One note of disappointment. This volume is a part of the Elements of Preaching series by Fortress Press. This promising, practical series is to be augmented by supplementary material on the website; however, at the time of this review, that site was still under construction ( That will change in time, I hope.
If you’re looking for ideas, illustrations and quotes to pillage for use in sermons, look elsewhere. If you’re open to the physical mechanics of your delivery being scrutinized and closely analyzed, you would do well to work this fine manual.

review: the write stuff

The Write Stuff: Crafting Sermons That Capture and Convince
by Sondra B. Willobee (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) pb, 123pp
“… what releases of torrent of inspiration in preaching is often not climbing a high mountain to gain some grand and sweeping vista but instead small things – taking an unusual sight line in a biblical text, raising a provocative question, or turning off the computer and paying attention to what is happening around us..” (pp.xi-xii)
“… the only thing worse than listening to a sagging sermon is delivering one.” (p.1)
“When we fail to reach people, it is not usually for lack of conviction or effort or sincerity on our part. Rather … our preaching usually falters for lack of craft. … Weak introductions, vague application, and slow narrative pulse. Too often, pressed by the demands of impossible schedules, we shortchange the process of shaping the message so that it can be heard. This is where writers can help us. Good writers know how to grab and hold our attention. … This book condenses material from the creative-writing shelf for busy pastors. Yes, our sermons must do more than dazzle. … But our people cannot judge the value of our ideas if they’ve quit listening.” (pp.2-3)
“Imaginative exercises used by writers can also help us outwit what I call ‘The Censor’ and ‘the Production Manager.’ The Censor says, ‘You can’t say that. What will people think?’ The Censor shuts down exploration before it’s even started. The Production Manager says, ‘Quit messing around. You’ve got calls to make, people to counsel, and meetings to plan. Come up with something now!’ Pressure from the production manager obstructs the flow of fresh ideas.” (p.4)
“Some preachers worry that too much attention to technique makes sermons calculated rather than inspired. … To dismiss craft, however, is to refuse the gifts of those who communicated the words of God through the ages. Prophets used imagery, plays on words, parables, and proverbs to get their hearer’s attention. Jesus used aphorisms, riddles, and hyperbole, as well as distinctive parables, to cajole and convict. Paul used every weapon from the arsenal of rhetoric to quell his critics and strengthen his congregations.” (p.5)
“All matters of technique have to do, not with the desire to be clever, but rather with the intention to be alive and open to the surprise of the gospel.” (p.6, quoting Eugene Lowry)
“Fred Craddock told his students to assume their listeners almost didn’t come to church that morning.” (p.12)
“For journalists and writers, the opening of an article, essay or story is called the ‘hook.’ A hook dangles something that is important to the listener. A hook incites interest, establishes the speaker’s credibility, sets the tone, and suggests something about the theme. Hooks also tell our hearers how to listen to the rest of what we are going to say …” (p.12)
“If the narrative process is to be followed, the sermon will begin – one way or another – with a discrepancy, a conflict, an ambiguity needing resolution.” (pp.14-15, quoting Eugene Lowry)
“Try this. Read Mark 3:19b-30 or 2 Corinthians 12:11-19. What are the conflicts or tensions within the text, stated or implied? What entities are opposed to each other? What is at stake for each of them? Write a hook that sets out the conflict.” (p.15)
“Whether you open your sermon with a conflict, an unresolved event, a question, a vivid character, a strong statement, an arresting image, or a joke, a well-constructed hook is a form of pastoral care. We pay our parishioners the courtesy of engaging their attention before speaking of difficult matters. We honor them when we respect the fears, doubts, fatigue, or rebellion that almost kept them from worship. A good hook meets our congregations in their need and prepares them to go the next step of the sermon with us.” (p.26)
“The most effective preachers seem to have unusual access to powers of imagination. By ‘imagination’ I mean the ability to enter deeply into the world of another, whether that person is a parishioner or a biblical character.” (p.29)
“… I suggest three ways that we can cultivate our imaginative powers: praying, playing, and paying attention.” (p.34)
“Telling stories is more than a way to entertain distracted listeners. Story is the way faith happens. … Therefore, sermons need to move as stories do.” (pp.44-45)
“Try this. Study the use of the refrain in Psalm 46,80, or 136. Reflect on how the refrain works in each psalm. How does the refrain tie together disparate elements in the psalm or deepen the relationship between similar ideas?” (p.51)
“A file folder of good stories is like a bag of gold.” (p.64)
“Where do we find good stories and examples if we don’t use prepackaged materials? What pastoral ethics and etiquette guide us when we use stories and examples in our sermons? And how do we incorporate them into our sermons so they don’t sound so contrived? … read widely for quality material … acknowledge your sources … motivate with positive examples … ditch the inappropriate illustration … create your own story … use dialogue to convey character and action … slant the story to express the theme … always ask permission … it’s not about you … make it up” (pp.65,69,71,75,77,79,80,81,83)
“More than 150 years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson complained about a preacher who failed to connect with the lives of his listeners: ‘This man had ploughed and planted and talked and bought and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches, his heart throbs; he smiles an suffers; yet there was not a surmise, a hint, in all of the discourse, that he had ever lived at all.” (p.92)
“We can trust language to do its work. When I asked him what advice he would give preachers, poet Thomas Lynch said, ‘Don’t explain the metaphor, just give it.’ If our our hearers don;t understand the metaphor right away, so much the better. They will mull it over during the week.” (p.96)
“The incarnate word is a deliberate word, chosen, weighed, sweated over. Here is the anguish of revising whole paragraphs, or even starting over. … To put ourselves in obedience to the exact word or the clearest image is a spiritual discipline as demanding as prayer or fasting. It challenges our laziness. It goes against our instincts. We won’t always do it. But when we do, when the words sing together like music, it is worth every drop of sweat.” (pp.99-100)
“When we leave our preparation to the last minute, we deprive ourselves of one of the most effective sermon techniques available: revision.” (p.103)
“… protect time to prepare … break it into small tasks … observe sabbath to refresh your spirit … say it out loud … trim everything that doesn’t advance the theme … review parts for effective order … look at it line by line.” (pp.104,106,110,111,112,113)
“Try this. Pick a random paragraph from a sermon you preached recently. Check for places where you can cut weak words and substitute stronger ones, changing passive verbs to active ones and cutting unnecessary words. Brevity communicates vigor.” (p.113)
I’m a fan of Tom Cruise and Thomas Long. Seeing the title – The Write Stuff – my mind leaped to Top Gun. Reading the top of the cover – “Foreward by Thomas G. Long” – I had to pick it up. Peeling it open to the foreward’s concluding sentence I read: “I cannot imagine a more practical, attentive, useful, reliable, provocative, and thoughtful guide to the delightful play of detail and form in sermons than this volume.”
I was instantly $15 lighter.
Granted, the brief table of contents doesn’t look inspiring, but don’t let that fool you.
  • Introduction
  • Part one – Hook
  • ch. 1: Use a Hook – pp.11-28
  • ch. 2: Inspired Imagination – pp.29-42
  • Part two – Book
  • ch. 3: The Plot Thickens – pp.43-63
  • ch. 4: Finding Stories – pp.64-88
  • Part three – Stone
  • ch. 5: Language of the Incarnation – pp.89-102
  • ch. 6: Time to Revise – pp.103-114
  • Notes
Understand (p.2), the three key words form the structure of this book’s three parts, you will remember the essence of the sermon creation process. Hook means “creating a compelling opening.” Book is about “how to generate suspense through structure.” And Stone tells you how to “arouse interest with vivid language.” Hook. Book. Stone. Got it.
This book is precise. It’s tightly written; there are no wasted words. Warning: if you’re a highlighter, you’ll run out of ink if you one of those who likes to highlight everything you like.
This book is perfectly practical. It’s not just a book; it’s a workbook. It’s not about theory; it’s all about practice. Read it and gain much; work it and gain much, much more. Don’t merely hear fifteen “Try This” exercises  (pp.4-5,15,26-28,40,51-52,58,61-63,78-79,80,82-83,85-86,97-98,100-102,109,113); do them. Put into practice the numerous, solid suggestions. Learn from the complete sermon manuscript (Genesis 32:22-31; pp.53-57). Harvest the abundance of good illustrations. Revel in the practicality of it all.
This book would be tremendous for the newbie preacher. If I taught a homiletics class, this would definitely be a required textbook. However, veterans can benefit from this work just as much as rookies. I know I did. No, I am. There are things in it I’ve forgotten, things I never knew, bad habits of mine that get called out and good habits that find reinforcement in every chapter. And so I’ve put it in my head to re-visit this book once a year to keep me sharpened. Where has this book been all my life?
And one quick aside. I recently read, and reviewed, Preaching On Your Feet by Fred Lybrand. The Write Stuff is something of “the other side of the coin” to Preaching On Your Feet; Stuff is primarily about preparation and Feet is all about delivery. It was great to hear these two very different voices almost in conversation. I’d love to see an interview exchange between Fred Lybrand and Sondra Willobee!
In sum: buy, read, ponder, work and keep this rare, little gem. Now. It’s a perfect 10.

review: NIHP

Paul Scott Wilson, general editor (Abingdon, 2008), hb, 506pp
Let me note at the outset that due to the nature and length of this particular work I have yet to read this book in its entirety. Which is the greater lunacy? To review a book yet unread or try to “read through” a reference work? You decide. As to the current method of my madness, I am reading one article in The New Interpreter’s Handbook of Preaching (NIHP) each day. There being 226 articles by 135 contributors, it’s safe to say that I’ll be at it for awhile.
NIHP has been published in very easy-to-read type; would that every book was this easy on the eyes! The format is double-column. Wonderfully (and all too rarely in this age of cutting every corner possible), the margins are more than ample for the scribbling of notes and references to other works in your library. A number of articles make very good use of bold and italic font to aid the reader in following the divisions of, and emphasis on, the thoughts being presented. References to articles that appear elsewhere in NIHP appear in ALL CAPS and the majority of articles contain such cross-references. The paper quality is top notch, as is the binding. NIHP was clearly designed to last a lifetime of frequent use.
Every article is just the way God intended them to be – signed. Almost all articles are followed by brief bibliographies (1-15 entries) that offer excellent guidance toward solid works that explore the subject at hand.  However, I was rather surprised, and greatly disappointed, to find that NIHP contains not a single index of any kind, be it an author, Scripture or subject. This wound, while anything but fatal, was, nevertheless needless and limiting. In fairness, this loss is somewhat compensated for by the inclusion of the cross references (ALL CAPS), an alphabetical list of all the articles (what a great idea!; pp.xxi-xxiii) and a detailed table of contents. Still, in my mind, there is no excuse for the exclusion of indexes in a work of this nature. Following is a listing of the eleven main table of contents divisions along with a sampling of six articles listed under each of the divisions.
1. Bible (17 topics; pp.1-63) archaeology, exegesis, four senses of Scripture, hermeneutics, suspicion, typology
2. Bible Genres (27 topics; pp.65-114) apocalyptic, conquest narratives, laments, parables, Psalms, Synoptic Gospels
3. Ethics (13 topics; pp.115-139) corporate ethics, environmental ethics, moralism, plagiarism, preaching (ethics of), self-disclosure
4. Literary Criticism (12 topics; pp.141-172) cultural hermeneutics, deconstruction, homiletical criticism, new historicism, reader/listener response, social scientific criticism
5. Poetics (19 topics; pp.173-211) film, focus and function statements, illustration and stories, imagination/creativity, metaphor and figures of speech, video clips
6. Preacher (19 topics; pp.213-251) anxiety, appearance, devotional life/lifestyle, long-range sermon planning, preacher’s week, sermon research
7. Social Location (16 topics; pp.253-289) bilingual setting, career path/life stage, preaching to children, pulpit (use of), war (preaching during), worship style
8. Experience (21 topics; pp.291-342) African-American preaching perspectives, merging church preaching, evangelistic preaching, Internet preaching databases, lectio divina, technology
9. Rhetoric (13 topics; pp.343-368) arrangement, memory, pathos/feeling, persuasion, rhetorical devices, technology and the sermon
10. Sermon (31 topics; ; pp.369-431) conclusions, funeral, preparation, sermon series, topical, without notes
11. Theology (17 topics; pp.433-506) Christology, ecclesiology, Holy Spirit and preaching, sin and evil, theology of proclamation, Trinity
There’s precious little about preaching that doesn’t get addressed in some fashion in the NIHP. And of the articles I have read thus far, though of uneven quality and clarity (as is to be expected from a work with well-over one hundred contributors), the average level of them all is quite high.
In sum, NIHP should find a welcome place in your library. Fast a few meals and acquire a copy. While not “required reading,” it is an exceedingly helpful reference. I give it a 9.1; the lack of indexes cost it .4 in ranking.