Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Book Review: Lectures on Preaching

Having attended various preaching and ministry conferences over the years, and listened to even more tapes, cds and now mp3s, the oft-repeated phrase from the lips of speakers continues to sound: 'Preaching is the bringing of truth through personality.' The phrase comes from Phillips Brooks, the Episcopal Bishop of Boston, who you might know as the author of the Christmas carol 'O Little Town of Bethlehem.' His definition was shared in a series of lectures delivered to the Divinity School of Yale College in 1877, written up and published under the title 'Lectures on Preaching'. The book has long stayed on my shelf (probably since the days of the free book giveaways in the RCB Library for students at CITC), but has now been read and enjoyed.

The first chapter focuses on the Two Elements in Preaching - as seen in his definition:

'Preaching is the communication of truth by man to man. It has in it two essential elements, truth and personality.' (5)

The rest of the chapter begins the process of examining these two elements. 'Truth must come through his character, his affections, his whole intellectual and moral being.' (8) Therefore, preparation for ministry 'must be nothing less than the making of a man.' (9) He shows that the truth may be summed up in two words - message (not speculation) and witness (which is personal). On personality, he discusses the need to be yourself, but a true self, honestly and not self-deceived by over-familiarity with holy things - like the station worker calling out the destinations of the trains and imagining that he has been to those places himself while never leaving the platform.

Chapter two shines the spotlight on the Preacher Himself. These take the form of a suggested list of necessary qualities of the preacher: (i) personal piety; (ii) mental and spiritual unselfishness; (iii) hopefulness; (iv) physical condition of self=consecration in self-giving work; (v) a 'born' preacher - with enthusiasm or eloquence or magnetism or gift (call it what you will, as he struggles for the right word). From these qualities, he launches into the preparations needed for ministry, such things as special studies, growing in doctrine, and making connections to the truth from all areas of life. He rounds off the chapter with a realistic and salutary warning of the dangers to a man's character from being a preacher: self-conceit, self-indulgence, and breadth.

From there he moves to consider the Preacher in his Work. 'The work of the preacher and the pastor really belong together.' (78) Yet he admits that 'the two parts of the preacher's work are always in rivalry' - the pastoring and the preaching vying for attention and predominance. What is interesting is that even then, he was critical of the unheroic and non-radical nature of modern Christianity. Does it ever change? On the method of the preacher, he laments the absence of method, the canny-go-easiness of so much that passes for preaching, with the danger of 'the passion for expedients' (93) - those things that will completely transform everything and everyone. 'There is nothing so insignificant that some petty minister will not make it the Christian panacea' (96) - including such things as children's church and serving tea! The real need is for hard work, the importance of faithfulness in giving one's best to the work.

Chapter Four presents the Idea of the Sermon. 'Whatever is in the sermon must be in the preacher first.' (109) The purpose of the sermon is 'the persuading and moving of men's souls.' (110) He appeals for the preaching to not just be doctrinal discourse - it must be applied. Otherwise, he says, it would be like a doctor providing medical lectures to sick people rather than giving the necessary medicines. Towards the end of this chapter there's an excellent discussion on the danger of simply addressing visible moral problems. Rather, these are to be used and seen as symptoms of the underlying spiritual conditions.

The fifth chapter brings the preacher one step closer to the pulpit as he discusses The Making of the Sermon. He recognises that each sermon is different, due to the unique combination of the preacher, the element of truth being communicated, and the congregation. Sermon making shouldn't just be about following rules, but should be a 'fresh and vital process.' He also highlights the danger of getting caught up in trying to prepare 'great' sermons, and in so doing shying away from what needs to be said. Disappointingly, he seems to almost advocate a random scatter-gun approach to picking a text for each week, rather than a SCEOTs type approach (Systematic Continuous Exposition of the Text - that is, working through a book of the Bible). This Bishop didn't seem to be fussed about lectionaries! He also cautions against too much special reading for this week's sermon, with the apparent danger of having unformed thoughts which are shared but later regretted. It is better, rather, to build up settled convictions and to work from the body of truth known and sure.

While he may not advocate SCEOTs, he does, however warn against the abuse of texts. Single verse texts may be isolated and twisted, and so it's much better to get into the flow of Scripture. 'Only let your texts be real.' - that is, what they actually mean in context!

Chapter Six brings consideration of The Congregation. With clarity and compassion, Brooks points out the danger of thinking of the people gathered as 'my congregation', through a mixture of a love of power and an anxious sense of responsibility. There then follows some interesting discussion of the nature of crowd dynamics, in which he reckons that people are more receptive gathered in a group. Thus, the need to speak to 'man' in general, rather than the specific individual. I wasn't entirely sure of this bit. He does, though, move on to consider the various types of hearer, with the need to apply the message to those specific needs. Perhaps the most helpful piece of advice in the chapter comes in relation to judging the 'success' of the preaching - by its evidently changed condition (over a period of time).

The next chapter considers The Ministry for Our Age. Men are always men, but also found within a specific time and culture, and so he discusses the culture to be reached and preached into. 'Truth and timeliness together make the full preacher.' (220) He also asks whether the preacher's handling of the Bible helps people to read it for themselves, or will they become convinced that the Bible is only a book for 'experts'?

The final chapter is on The Value of the Human Soul. 'There is a power which lies at the centre of all success in preaching... the value of the human soul, felt by the preacher and inspiring all his work. It is this value which must motivate us to commit to preaching and reaching people with the good news as they move towards that day when judgement comes.

As you'll have noticed, there are lots of things to think about; plenty of helpful advice for the preacher, all of which can be boiled down to the maxim 'truth through personality.' Those considering ministry will find it a useful guide; those who are in ministry will find lots of encouragement to keep going and keep striving. In some places, the language and discussion shows that it is almost 150 years old, and yet there is still much of value to be found in these pages.

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