Monday, December 08, 2014

Book Review: Preach: Theology Meets Practice

I've been preaching for over ten years now, and almost weekly for the last six. Previously, there was a steady stream of feedback and correction through staff meetings and supervision. Now that I'm in a parish as rector, there seems to be less sermon feedback (apart from the odd comment on the door, and some positive comments through text and Facebook), so I'm even more aware of the need to improve my preaching. While on summer holidays, lying in the sunshine far away from a pulpit, I read Preach, by Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert. Hopefully since those summer days, my preaching has developed thanks to those two guys.

A book called Preach is obviously going to cater to a fairly specific audience. The authors acknowledge it early on, and set out the purpose to be 'highly practical, highly specific, and drawn from our own practices in preparation and delivery.' They don't set out the only way to preach, but share their experience to guide the reader in his preaching.

The book arises from these two colleagues, and works as a conversation between friends. The relationship is obvious, and the book is successful in drawing the reader into the conversation as a listener. The other thing that is obvious is their conviction that 'God's Word is the most powerful force in the universe. It gives life, it heals, it corrects, it changes lives.' Building on that conviction, there are three reasons why a book like this is useful: 1. The authors see 'a loss of confidence in the preached Word of God', even in evangelical churches. 2. There seems to be 'a lack of confidence in biblical exposition'. And 3. 'We want to work against the bad name that even some expositional preachers have given to expositional preaching.' To counter this, the authors seek to show how to 'expose God's Word to a congregation in a way that's engaging, affecting, and convicting.'

The book consists of three parts. The first makes the theological case for preaching in general, and expositional preaching in particular; the second provides some practical considerations about expositional preaching; and the third provides sample sermons and feedback.

The theological case for preaching makes the basic claim that language and communication means something. It seems obvious, but many today argue that the reader has sole control over interpretation. Words must mean something - and it's rooted in the fact that God communicates. 'It is precisely God's words - His power to speak, to command, to be heard and understood - that sets Him apart from the false gods His people are always tempted to worship.' Indeed, the fact that God continued to speak after Adam and Eve's rebellion was 'the most amazing mercy and love'. 'Anytime God speaks in love to human beings it is an act of grace. We do not deserve it, and we contribute nothing to it. The act of preaching is a powerful symbol of that reality.'

Expositional preaching is seen in the first sermon of the church in Acts 2. Peter quotes from Psalm 16, Psalm 110 and Joel, and then 'he told them what this meant and how it was relevant to them.' And this, in its most basic form, is what expositional preaching is all about. Speaking God's word by explaining and applying it to the hearers. But it goes beyond that. It is the primary means of 'the proclamation of God's life-giving, ex nihilo creating Word... a matter of life and death.' Indeed, 'Preaching is not finally a matter of giving a few thoughts here and there about God or the Bible. It is the proclamation of an authoritative message from the throne room of heaven itself: Be reconciled to God through Jesus!'

They present a working definition of expositional preaching: 'preaching in which the main point of the biblical text being considered becomes the main point of the sermon being preached.' Such preaching is found in lots of different parts of the Bible - Jeremiah, Jesus, Moses, Paul, Ezekiel and so on. As such, preaching should therefore be the central aspect of the church's service, with hymns and readings leading up to it and flowing from it. Within the sermon, there will be two main aims - to edify and evangelise.

Part Two moves to the practical considerations. How do we actually do it?

They argue for systematic continuous exposition of the scripture, because 'God inspired each of the books of the Bible with a certain internal logic and order.' The Bible shouldn't be a lucky dip, but rather should follow the contours of the text within its context, from all genres and both testaments. Further, such systematic preaching means you have to tackle the issues and uncomfortable portions you'd rather avoid!

Dever then shares the diet of his first four years in Capitol Hill Baptist Church. Such an incredible spread, which I know I haven't achieved:

Mark in 13 sermons; Ezra in 4 sermons; 1 Thessalonians in 7 sermons; Ezekiel in 4 sermons; Overviews of the General Epistles (1 sermon per book) in 9 sermons; Proverbs in 5 sermons; Mark 1:1-3:6 in 9 sermons; Deuteronomy in 5 sermons; 1 and 2 Timothy in 6 sermons; 1 and 2 Chronicles in 4 sermons; 1 John in 5 sermons; Joel in 4 sermons; Mark 3:7-6:6 in 6 sermons; Song of Solomon in 2 sermons; overviews of the Old and New Testaments (1 sermon each) in 2 sermons; 1 Timothy in 3 sermons; James in 5 sermons; Joshua in 5 sermons; John in 11 sermons; overviews of the major prophets (1 sermon per book) in 4 sermons; Titus in 6 sermons; overviews of the wisdom books (1 sermon per book) in 5 sermons; 1 Peter in 13 sermons.

There follows some advice on deciding on what series to preach on next; how to divide up the books in passages; and specific sermon preparation, with the awareness that it's deeply personal. There was lots of useful, practical advice here on starting early, seeking to grasp the text and its relation to the gospel, and figuring out what you want to say in advance, in the study, rather than waiting for inspiration in the moment. One observation, though, was that prayer seemed to be omitted in the process outlined (unless it was assumed and unstated).

Something that was particularly interesting for me was the question of the delivery of the sermon. Full manuscript or just notes? Dever uses a full script (as I do), but he makes it plain 'that doesn't mean, of course, that I stand in the pulpit and simply read my manuscript... No, I labor to preach the sermon with passion and conviction, to move the hearts and wills of my listeners so that they are spurred on to respond well to God's word.'

Part Three closes the book with sample sermons and the feedback offered. It was interesting to see how the principles and practices are worked out by the authors. However, written sermons read in a book aren't quite the same thing as hearing or seeing it live. So I'm not sure quite how well this section worked.

All in all, this is a great book, with lots to learn for the preacher at whatever age or stage. It's definitely one that I'll return to again, especially for the opening section on God's word. If you're involved in preaching, then this is one to read and benefit from. It's available for Kindle from Amazon.

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