The “Preacher’s Trash Bin” (A Review of What Not to Say)

Here is some great preaching advice from my mother-in-law, a pastor: Never say from the pulpit that a certain idea came you to while you were in the shower.  Because who wants to think about their pastor in the shower?

Or as John C. Holbert and Alyce M. McKenzie put it, “Don’t tell stories that involve listeners picturing you naked. …So you received an insight into the cleansing power of God’s love in the shower on the mission trip as the cleansing and healing water cascaded over your body. Find another setting to tell about your epiphany.”

I set out to read What Not to Say: Avoiding the Common Mistakes That Can Sink Your Sermon, thinking that the book would be full of practical ideas like not sharing shower epiphanies as having taken place in the shower. Yet Holbert and McKenzie also write with theological depth and care as they coach preachers on what not to say and do in the pulpit.

Their chapters cover what not to say (and what to say): about God, about the Bible, at the sermon’s beginning, about the congregation, in the middle of the sermon, about yourself, in stories, and at the end of the sermon.

The goal of the book is “to give very direct advice out of the store of [the authors’] combined sixty years of preaching and over forty years of teaching others how to preach.”  They write, “It’s important in preaching to be as clear about what we are not saying as we are about what we are saying.” Here is where the theological depth of the authors comes to the fore, right in the first chapter: “First, affirming the sovereignty of God is not the same as insisting that everything that happens in my life and the world is directly the result of God’s actions.” The authors have a high view of God’s sovereignty, yet caution preachers against saying or implying, “Everything happens for a reason… and that reason is God.” Especially in a funeral sermon, for example, they say it’s theologically misguided for the preacher to say that God just “needed” the deceased’s voice to join the heavenly choir, or wanted “another flower for his heavenly bouquet.” God is sovereign, yes, preachers should affirm, but did he really cause a drunk driver to kill your daughter? No, the authors would say; free choice gone awry (i.e., stupidity) caused that. But preachers have to be careful that their words don’t somehow affirm that God’s sovereignty means He somehow took away that life. He may have allowed it; he didn’t ordain it.

Though the reader may not always find herself or himself in lock-step with the authors’ theology (I think the Bible is more of an “answer book” than they seem to indicate, and I respectfuly disagree with their interpretation of Romans 1, that Paul didn’t really understand the nuances of homosexuality), the reader will certainly appreciate their theological, Biblical, and homiletical care that grounds the eminently practical advice they give. The authors’ love of the Gospel, of the Church, and of preaching is on full display in these pages… and it inspired me as I read.

A few more highlights ought to convince anyone with an interest in preaching or public speaking to read this book:

  • The authors say the preacher should ask herself or himself this question honestly: “Do I habitually base my sermons on my favorite passages and avoid others I know little about or that may prove difficult?”
  • “Preachers throughout history have known that it is as important to exegete the congregation as it is to exegete the text. Jesus certainly did….”
  • “Sermons these days need to teach biblical and theological themes to often biblically illiterate listeners.”
  • “When we stir up people’s emotions without tying them to a biblical and theological message, what are they to do with their stirred-up emotions?”
  • Holbert and McKenzie want the preacher to ask: “Does the sermon tell the truth of the Gospel, not a domesticated version I assume the congregation would prefer to hear?”
  • On bad preaching habits (verbal filler, overused non-verbal gestures, etc.), they say: “Anything you do in the pulpit again and again will become over time the source of boredom and finally ridicule. When the youth sit in the balcony and count the number of times you say or do a certain thing, it is time to take stock of your preaching patterns.”
  • “Never make yourself the hero or heroine of your sermon” by using yourself as a positive example of how to apply a certain Scripture. “The sermon is not about us; it is about God.”
  • “Never use any of your children as sermon examples.” (Whether the reader finally agrees with this or not, the authors make a good case for it.)
  • Ask anyone for permission to talk about them in a story, even if that story shares something positive about them: “There are people in your church who would immediately transfer their membership if you thanked them publicly or singled them out in a positive way.”

It would be easy for me to go on about the helpful things I read in this book. I highly recommend it to all who preach or teach, in the Church or elsewhere.

The book is out now through Westminster John Knox Press.  (I am grateful to have received a digital galley of What Not to Say for review through Net Galley.)

I’ll give the authors the last word:

Preachers and teachers of preaching like to talk about the preacher’s toolbox. That is a positive metaphor. It signifies a repertoire of useful, effective sermonic strategies. There is also a preacher’s trash bin, a receptacle where we ought to put all the ineffective sermon strategies we don’t ever want to use again.

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