#7 . . . It’s All in How You Tell It, by Haddon and Torrey Robinson (2003)
by Peter Mead, September 28, 2007
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?
#6 . . . The Supremacy of God in Preaching, by John Piper (1990, 2004)
by Peter Mead, November 2, 2007
This is neither a how-to manual, nor a full theology of preaching, but it does make a definite contribution to the field. The book is divided in two parts. The first part is a series of lectures Piper gave at Gordon-Conwell Seminary on the subject of preaching. The second part is a series of lectures given at Wheaton College, focused on Jonathan Edwards; his life, theology and preaching.
In his typical style, Piper diagnoses the problem of the church as one which can be remedied by a prescription for the pulpit. “People are starving for the greatness of God.” What people need is God, whether or not they want Him as the focus of the preaching. This kind of “God-entranced preaching” can only flourish in churches where the Bible is esteemed as inspired and inerrant. Piper calls for preaching that holds in dynamic tension the greatness of God through preaching with gravity, and at the same time a glorious gladness that comes from the gospel. Such preaching requires that the preacher be diligent in steady, constant and frequent Bible study.
Piper followed advice he was given in seminary, to find one great evangelical theologian and immerse himself in that man’s writings and life. He chose Jonathan Edwards and so the second part of the book provides a brief summary of that study as it relates to preaching. After a brief biography and theological review, his final chapter delineates ten principle lessons from Edwards on the subject of preaching.
This book is short and a quick read, but worthwhile. The main themes of the book are definitely worth taking on board, although if taken to an extreme the reader would feel obliged to throw out every lesson in preaching and communication that has been learned in the centuries since Edwards. Piper writes as a response to problems he perceives in the contemporary pulpit, so at times his pendulum is swung too far the other way. However, the basic premise is spot on, people need preaching that is both grave and glad in its presentation of our greatest need, God Himself.
If you have never read Piper, then by all means get a taste here. If you have read Piper and found each book to be more of the same, then this is still worth reading because of its specific focus on preaching. Read, enjoy the motivation, accept any rebuke that is deserved and prayerfully consider before God how to integrate this book into your personal philosophy and practice of preaching.
#5 . . . The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative, by Steven D. Mathewson (2002)
July 15, 2007, by Peter Mead
There are many preaching books, but only a handful I recommend wholeheartedly. This is one of them. Mathewson’s passion for the many narrative passages in the Old Testament is contagious. His passion for the effective preaching of these passages is greatly needed today. This is especially the case while significant preachers continue to view Old Testament narratives as primarily illustrative material, rather than preaching texts.
Mathewson’s work is widely researched, with significant influences including Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative and Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching.
The first of the three sections in the book is concerned with hermeneutics – how to move from the selection of a text to a focused central concept. The second section is more focused on the homiletical process – how to move from the central concept to the sermon. This section is strongly influenced by Robinson’s methodology and serves as a very helpful clarification on that method. While Robinson’s book is succinct and well-written, Mathewson’s presentation of the ten-stage approach with a specific focus will help the reader understand Robinson’s methodology more fully.
Mathewson’s explanation of biblical narrative forms support his central idea of developing sermons using the flow of the story, rather than a forced and rigid analytical presentation.
The third and final section of the book contains five example sermons from Mathewson, Donald Sunukjian, Paul Borden, Haddon Robinson and Alice Mathews. These are helpful in a variety of ways, although no example sermon can ever be perfect. There are also a couple of appendices – one on Hebrew plot analysis (for Hebrew trained preachers with a lot of time on their hands) and one on helpful commentaries.
There are many books on preaching, but I’ve yet to find one that can match Mathewson in terms of dealing with Old Testament narratives. This book is worth buying, reading and considering carefully. Having read this, you might also be inspired to read Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative, if you have not done so already. Two strong recommendations in one review – I would apologize to your bank balance, but these two books would be money well spent.
#4 . . . Invitation to Biblical Preaching, by Donald Sunukjian (2007)
by Peter Mead, August 10, 2007
Subtitle: Proclaiming Truth With Clarity and Relevance
Donald Sunukjian studied under Haddon Robinson at Dallas Seminary, then also taught there. He now teaches at Talbot Seminary in LA. Sunukjian has an ability to think through elements of preaching in minute detail, yet has a communication style that is clear and accessible – both in person and in his writing. These qualities have combined to make this a great book.
This is definitely another book in the Haddon Robinson school of thought. The process is similar, the emphasis on the main idea and the purpose are evident, delivery without notes is encouraged, etc. Incidentally, the reader should not be intimidated by the “zigzag” big idea – if Sunukjian came up with such effective preaching ideas regularly, surely more would be included in the book! He admits that you go with what you have, and only sometimes is the preaching idea a real humdinger.
He defines biblical preaching simply as “Look at what God is saying to us!” Throughout this 370 page book, numerous biblical examples are given to make clear the point being taught. Sunukjian has a large bank of example sermons that show up throughout the book so that the variety is not random and overwhelming, but reinforcing and familiar.
His ability to think through the details comes out in areas such as whether to use inductive or deductive approaches according to the material being covered, or how to preach a chiastic passage so contemporary listeners will understand it.
Sunukjian’s speciality is the subject of oral clarity – preaching so listeners can follow. His six elements of oral clarity are detailed in a chapter, but exemplified throughout the book. Sunukjian demonstrates a real awareness of what works for the listener, a concern sometimes missing in other “how to” preaching texts.
After the process is detailed, there are two sample sermons presented in the appendix. These are repeated with helpful explanatory notes to guide the reader through the process.
In a book of 370 pages, it seems strange to point to a section being too short, but the delivery chapter is very short. However, it is fair to say that if a preacher follows the teaching throughout the book, then delivery will be improved. If there were any other negatives, it would be a slight discomfort with one or two of the biblical examples. Again, this is a small point since most are handled very effectively.
Overall this is a very strong book, perhaps even a great book. As I read preaching books, I mark helpful points with post-its. Many books have only a handful sticking out, this one has a forest of post-its! As an introductory text for a preaching class, this would work well. As a supplemental book for those of us who’ve read other textbooks, this is definitely worth having. It has many definite strengths, is clearly organized and engagingly written. This definitely makes my list of top preaching books.
#3 . . . Communicating for a Change, by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones (2006)
by Peter Mead, November 27, 2007
Let me be honest. I love studying the subject of preaching. I want to be a lifelong student of the subject. But if I’m honest, a lot of books about preaching are somewhat dull, tedious, repetitive and unengaging. Not this book. Engaging. Compelling. Motivating. Intriguing. Is it perfect? No. But, I think you should read it.
The book reflects a highly pragmatic authorship. Stanley writes, “I’ve listened to dozens of preachers and teachers whose stated purpose for communicating is changed lives but whose style of communication doesn’t support their purpose. If you are not willing to make adjustments for the sake of your goal then one thing is clear: Your goal is something other than changed lives. Your goal is to keep doing what you’ve always done, to do what’s comfortable.”
What does it take to preach for changed lives? According to Stanley and Jones it involves clear, engaging, relevant and applied truth from God’s Word. This book advocates strongly for one-point sermons. That one point is combination of textual idea, sermonic big idea and sermon purpose. The very slight confusion that comes from combining distinct elements of sermon preparation is worth forgiving for the clarity created in this model.
The book is in two parts. The first part, by Lane Jones, is an extended metaphor that teaches the concepts of the book. A frustrated fictional preacher gets the best preaching education of his life from an unlikely mentor. This narrative is well written, compelling and regularly convicting as well. The agenda is clear in this narrative, but since the agenda is practical skill training rather than a theological hobbyhorse (as in similar books in recent years), I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The second part is Andy Stanley working through the seven principles of the book. I found myself agreeing with so much here. Strong emphasis on the connection built by speaker to listeners, and on surfacing need and interest in the message, and on having a unity in the whole by the use of a main idea (the one point), and application driving every aspect of the message rather than being tacked at the end, and on and on. I found this book interesting, more than that, challenging and motivating.
Reservations about the book? Just one. I wish there was another chapter or two on the Biblical part of the message. I understand Stanley’s five-part progression through a message, and he states that the middle stage, the “God” or Bible presentation stage is the longest one. But what does that look like? He explains that we shouldn’t be superficial, or overwhelm with too much information. But what should we do in that part? This omission could be taken in a couple of different ways. Someone with a strong commitment to the Bible and exposition might try the Stanley model with a solid biblical core. Someone without that same commitment may preach a biblically weak idea birthed out of their own experience. The book allows for both. I wish it were stronger on the former. I’m left wondering . . . on the one hand I know who his Dad is, and I know where he studied, both clues lead me to expect a very biblical tendency. On the other hand the book is inconclusive. I am left looking for an opportunity to watch some of his messages on the internet to see how the theory works out in practice. In fact, I am highly motivated to do that. And I suspect I might be very pleased by what I see. If you read the book, do the same and let me know what you think.
The reservation is not a really a critique, it’s more of a yearning for more. This book is well worth reading. It will breathe new life into your preaching and your motivation for preaching. I honestly think that all of us would improve as preachers by reading and implementing at least some of what this book teaches.
#2 . . . Preaching with Variety, by Jeffrey Arthurs (2007)
May 15th, 2007 by Peter Mead
Sub-title: How to Re-Create the Dynamics of Biblical Genres.
I hope this book gets the recognition it deserves. This is a power-packed paperback that seeks to stimulate Biblical preachers in developing variety in their preaching through awareness of how the various Biblical genres function. Arthurs offers not only understanding of how the genres do what they do, but also many suggestions on how to reflect their diversity as we preach them.
Arthurs states, “I believe that a sermon’s content should explain and apply the Word of God as it is found in a biblical text, and a sermon’s form should unleash the impact of that text.” (p.13)
Arthurs is not arguing that the form of a text dictate the form of a sermon, even if that were possible. Rather he argues that genre sensitive preaching seeks to replicate the impact of the text. He affirms the great freedom in form available to preachers, and encourages that freedom by presenting the great variety found within the six major Biblical genres.
The first two chapters argue in favor of variety in preaching, firstly because God the master communicator uses such great variety in all His communication – not least in the diverse forms of literature used in His Word, and secondly because our listeners value variety.
The rest of the book deals with six Biblical literary forms: Psalms, Narrative, Parables, Proverbs, Epistles and Apocalyptic. In each case presenting an introduction to the genre, a helpful explanation of the rhetorical devices used to create their impact and numerous helpful suggestions on how to preach the different types of text. The result of these suggestions, if heeded, will be real variety in Biblical preaching.
Arthurs is as much concerned with rightly handling the Biblical forms as he is with prompting variety in preaching. He is urging effective understanding of the rhetorical function of Biblical genre, so that one’s preaching might also fizz with Biblical variety. This is not the definitive book on creative preaching, for there are others that suggest many exciting and bizarre possibilities. However this may well become a model book on interpreting Biblical genre (and in that divinely designed diversity is the shove we all need to vary our preaching!)
So I hope this book gets the recognition it deserves. Thomas Long’s brief paperback on literary forms has been rightly praised as a helpful introduction to the subject of genre studies with some help for the preacher. Arthur’s work may well replace Long’s, for it is a more complete introduction to more Biblical genres from a more definite evangelical stance, with much more in the way of practical suggestion for the preacher.
This book will help you say what the text says, and do what the text does!
#1 . . . Biblical Preaching, by Haddon Robinson (2d ed – 2001)
May 4th, 2007 by Peter Mead
In England this book is sold under the title of “Expository Preaching,” but if you get it online, I would go for the American title so you are sure to get the 2nd edition.
This is Robinson’s highly revered “how to” preaching textbook. He presents a ten-stage process of sermon preparation in his typically precise style. No word is wasted. In many respects numerous other books on preaching are building on this one, trying to offer some clarification or slight adjustment. That is certainly not true of all, but of many.
The emphasis throughout is on preaching a thoroughly Biblical message, through effective communication, in a way that is entirely relevant to the specific contemporary audience. The “Big Idea” is central to the philosophy and the procedure of preaching. So the ten steps move from understanding the text to the point of an accurate and clearly defined exegetical idea, through the process of developing the homiletical idea with clear purpose, to the practical matters of sermon shape and effective content. Although there are other books that deal in detail with issues of delivery, Robinson’s brief section on delivery is helpfully succinct.
I think it is fair to say that anyone interested in the subject of preaching should have this book. Robinson’s combination of Biblical commitment, expertise in communication theory, and renown as a teacher of preaching, effectively blend to make this a very effective book. It seems wrong to review another book before this one!