Monday, December 30, 2013

Book Review: Speaking God's Words

The first time I encountered Peter Adam, I was preaching in a small group at a Proclamation Trust Ministry Students Course. The sermon was terrible, and the feedback, while gracious, was also fairly direct. I hadn't preached the idea of the passage at all, importing material from elsewhere, and my illustrations weren't saying what I had thought they were saying. I was thoroughly chastened. But at least I would never see Peter Adam again.

Fast forward a few years, and I'm a busy curate in East Belfast. I'm dispatched to the airport to collect one of the speakers for the Northern Ireland Ministry Assembly the next day, who, as I'm sure you've guessed, was none other than Peter Adam. He didn't remember me, but I surely remembered him! We chatted about the conference and he began to realise that we had in fact met before, but faithful were the wounds of a friend, as they helped me to get back on track in preaching the passage.

Speaking God's Words: A Practical Theology of Preaching has been sitting on my bookshelf for quite a while - perhaps even from those heady days in London. I finally managed to get around to reading it this year, wanting to keep myself fresh on the theory of preaching, and to sharpen my skills for the sake of my congregation. This was well worth taking the time to read, with lots of helpful encouragement to continue the task at hand.

'Preaching is such a demanding activity... And all the pressure on a pastor or minister is to spend time and creative energy being a counsellor, social worker, administrator, friendly visitor or public-relations worker. The pastor needs a robust theology of preaching to find any time or energy for preparation.'

Even from this sample sentence, you know that Adam is on your side. He's been in the trenches, he knows the struggles. So to learn from one with such experience is a joy and delight, and gives spring for each step. The book is divided into two main sections - firstly, three biblical foundations of preaching, and then a second section observing the preacher at work.

The Biblical Foundations of preaching are, Adam argues that: 1. God has spoken - 'Any human ministry of the word depends on a God who is not silent.' 2. It is written - as the revelation has been written down and passed on to us, 'preserved by God as his revelation for his people.' 3. Preach the word - with a God-given source (the Bible), there is also a God-given commission to preach, teach and explain it to people. A variety of examples of this ministry is discussed, from Moses through the Old and New Testaments, to the ongoing work of the church, and especially some notable preachers.

With the foundation in place, Adam then turns his attention to the preacher at work, looking at some distinct but connected aspects of the work.

In Preaching as a ministry of the word, he criticizes Phillips Brooks' famous definition of preaching {preaching is truth through personality} as being too general. But the principle behind Brooks' definition still stands as he explores what the ministry of the word means, and how this is bigger than, but not exclusive of preaching. The word is also ministered in lots of different contexts through the week, so that he clarifies: 'our ministry may be pulpit centred, but it should not be pulpit restricted.' The chapter concludes with a useful survey of Bible words and images of word ministry which would be worth revisiting regularly to check that the full spectrum is included in what the pastor attempts.

In The Preacher's Bible, there's a useful reminder that teaching the Bible is the means of explaining the gospel, but not the end in itself. We're not just producing Bible swots, but wanting to see people growing in grace through the administration of the word. That was my takeaway point of the chapter, because the rest of it was discussing various issues I didn't really grasp - whether through the way they were discussed, or the fact that they are gripping disputes in a certain corner of the theological world.

In The Preacher's Purpose, Adam builds on my observation from the previous chapter, pushing the point home that it's not enough to ask 'did I preach well?' but rather, did the sermon help lead to transformation. To use the question of Charles Simeon: 'Does it humble the sinner, exalt the Saviour and promote holiness?' This prompts Adam to discuss the threefold purpose of a sermon: to serve God and Christ, serve the word, and serve God's people. In all, there are some good pointers for the preacher setting out or recapping and re-learning the basics. However, the illustrative discussion of John Calvin's ministry was, to my mind, a little too long and not overly helpful.

The final chapter, The Demands of Preaching set the preacher straight as to their work in terms of loving and obeying God and Christ, being committed to the truth, loving people, working hard, relating to the real world, enduring suffering, and finding our sufficiency for these things in God. Sobering stuff, but also providing sustenance for the work ahead.

Speaking God's Words is primarily written for the pastor, especially those who want to refocus on why preaching is such a major part of the pastoral work. There will be much to encourage you as you continue to labour for the Lord. Speaking God's Words is available from Amazon.

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