Review: It’s All in How You Tell It, by Haddon and Torrey Robinson

Subtitle: Preaching First-Person Expository Messages.


This book, by Robinson and son, has a clear target. The sleek and well prepared script of the book flies effortlessly to hit that target. Unhindered by extraneous information, disconnected asides or time-consuming tangents, the book achieves its purpose. Preaching first-person expository messages.

The first major thrust of the book is to convince the reader of the efficacy of first-person preaching. Like a stealth bomber that flies in undetected by the defensive radar systems of modern believers, this kind of message can hit the heart like no other. By thinking through the audience and strategically designing the message, the preacher may be more effective using sanctified stealth than throwing traditional telegraphed torpedoes at them. People love a story. God’s Word is overflowing with them. So why do we tend to dissect a story and make it a lecture, leaking power at every stage in the process?

The book goes on to describe the process. Since this is expository preaching, it begins with massive amounts of study – of the text, of the character, of the setting. A key decision is what stance the character should use in light of the text and the audience. Are they with us, are we with them, do they know the listeners are there, etc? Then comes the well-worked big idea, definition of clear purpose, followed by structure, flow and the meat on the bones of the message. The process of preparing a first-person message is described essentially as a simplified Robinson process, with the additional step of character stance. The purpose of a message is not to perform (preacher-centered), but to effectively bring the big idea of a text home to the hearts and lives of the specific listeners that will hear it (Bible and audience centered).

There is a helpful section dealing with specific aspects of delivery such as movement, delivery, costume and so on. Obvious hindrances are overcome in the final chapter. One important lesson brought out in this section deals with the issue of sanctified imagination. As a preacher it is possible to easily assume people can tell the difference between fact and added detail. Assumptions are dangerous. A colorful illustrative detail can be misleading for an unaware audience.

The book ends with seven example sermons showing different approaches, different character stances and so on. Both Matthewson’s and Edward’s, as well as the Robinsons’ Herod sermons left an impression, even just in print. I would have liked to experience the effect of these sermons in person.

This book will leave you with one question. Why don’t you use first-person preaching more often?

2 thoughts on “Review: It’s All in How You Tell It, by Haddon and Torrey Robinson

  1. “A colorful illustrative detail can be misleading for an unaware audience. ”

    An illustration from Alpha course comes to mind that I also heard one Sunday at church during the sermon.

    It’s when the bible is compared to a car manuel. As the illustration is told, it is quite funny. However, it seems to me that it diminishes the power of God’s word, relating it to a simple manuel.

    At the Alpha meeting, a visitor whole-heartedly agreed with the illustration and thought that people who focus so much on the Bible are wasting their time.

    I know that N. Gumbel and the person teaching the sermon at our church didn’t mean that, but it is an inadvertantly misleading illustration to use, it seems to me.

  2. I share your concern about this illustration, Terry. The point in the review, and the book, relates to the challenge of the use of imaginative detail when preaching in first person. It is important to think carefully about whether people will be able to differentiate between added imaginative detail and Biblical fact. However, your point brings out a warning to all types of preaching – we must be careful to think through how our illustration could be misapplied.

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