The Challenge of Preaching: John Stott, Abridged
This book sets out to encourage preachers by reminding them of the importance of their calling; to exhort them to spend time in careful and prayerful sermon preparation; and to remind them of the personal qualities that must characterize every faithful preacher of God’s word. (x)
It easily succeeds in this goal. I found myself bolstered in my sense of calling as a preacher. And the abridgment is compelling in its description of how the preacher should prepare (a) sermons and (b) himself or herself.
The book gets better as it progresses. I bristled at the first chapter where I thought there was both an overemphasis on the word in Christian communities, as well as only vague criticisms of the culture at large.
Words: The Church’s One Foundation?
Of course I agree with Stott that “God chose to use words to reveal himself to humanity” (1), but I’m not sure we can rightly conclude that this is “the truth” which “Christianity is based on” (1). One might alternatively suggest a truth like, “God is love,” or the truth of John 3:16 as a more robust foundation than that of the written and spoken word as “the foundation on which all Christian preaching rests” (14). What I thought was an undue overemphasis on the word shows up elsewhere. The church, for example, is “the creation of God by his word” (21). That’s true as it goes, but leaves a lot out.
Even how the word/Word is interpreted is narrowly construed: “Everything in the rest of the text must relate in some way to the main issue” (55). And again, “Every text has an overriding thrust” (58). It’s difficult to think of biblical passages that support the notion that a biblical passage must have one overriding thrust. Why think this? I was left unconvinced by an assumed claim that I hear often repeated in some evangelical preaching traditions.
I agree with Stott on the primacy of the biblical text in preaching preparation: “We have to be ready to pray and think ourselves deep into the text, until we become its humble and obedient servant” (59). But herein, I think, lies the rub: while I desire to willingly submit to Scripture, isn’t it better to say that we are first humble and obedient servants of the Lord who stands behind Scripture, who breathed it into being, and who breathes life into us even now so we can understand and follow his words? This may seem a subtle nuance—and Stott is clear in emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit in the process—but I think one has to be careful not to give too much weight to the written and spoken word. We don’t want to unwittingly fossilize it.
Challenges to Preaching
The first chapter is “Challenges to Preaching.” Here Stott mentions “Hostility to Authority” (2), “The Electronic Age” (5), and “The Church’s Loss of Confidence in the Gospel” (9). The criticisms are unfortunately broad and sweeping: “People have also become emotionally insensitive” (6). Which people? What constitutes “insensitive”? What is the basis for the assessment? Each of the challenges suffers from vagueness like this (“We must trust God, not our computers…” (8)). A better model for cultural criticisms is the depth and winsomeness so readily on display in David J. Lose’s Preaching at the Crossroads. I think this may just be a fault, however, of the book’s being abridged. The longer version includes more studies and citations to support the criticisms Stott makes.
Similarly, the second chapter (“Theological Foundations for Preaching”) includes assessments of the pastorate that wasn’t convinced were warranted. Bemoaning “today’s pastors” (which ones? in which denominations? according to which studies?) who don’t take the New Testament seriously (measured how?), Stott writes, “Instead, sadly, many pastors are more involved in administration” (25). Don’t get me wrong: I’ve read Acts 6, and I would love to spend 20 hours a week in sermon preparation, but I really do believe God has entrusted administrative aspects of church leadership to me (with others), whether it’s helping the leadership work toward a mission-driven budget, helping to organize Sunday school classes, etc. I appreciate Stott’s views, but I found them at times to be unmerited hermeneutical leaps.
(It’s worth pausing here to say: disagreements and frustrations with the first part of this book aside, if I could one day be half of half the pastor John Stott was, I would rejoice greatly.)
Metaphors for Preachers, and a Non-Neutral Pulpit
From the beginning of chapter 3 (“Preaching as Bridge-building”) and throughout the rest of the book, I found myself nodding in agreement and with conviction. Stott’s six metaphors the Bible uses to describe preachers is a compelling and really helpful way to frame the role of the preacher: heralds, farmers, stewards, shepherds, ambassadors, and workers. “In all of these New Testament images,” he says, “the preacher is a servant under someone else’s authority, the communicator of someone else’s word” (31). May God forgive me those moments when I take this truth for granted—it is at the heart of my preaching philosophy, and why I continue to get up into the pulpit Sunday after Sunday, seeking to communicate God’s love with God’s people. Seeing these specific ways to understand my role encourages me to continue to seek to be faithful in my calling.
Along these lines I found myself convicted by Stott’s line, “The pulpit cannot be neutral” (39) when it comes to social issues. Amen! He offers a set of examples that could make folks on all sides of the political spectrum (including centrists) squirm a little: “We also need to address issues of injustice, poverty, hunger, illiteracy and disease; the pollution of the environment; failure to conserve natural resources; abortion, mercy-killing or euthanasia and capital punishment; inhumane technocracy, bureaucracy and unemployment…” (38-39). A good word, indeed.
He adds a wise caution only a seasoned leader can: “We need wisdom not to go beyond what is written in Scripture and to speak carefully where Scripture is not clear” (39). May God give us preachers wisdom to know the difference!
Study and Character
Chapter 4 suggests some (realistic) habits of study in sermon preparation. The 5th chapter goes more in depth, including this great question for preachers to ask: “What response does the Holy Spirit want to this text?” (55) He calls for both study and prayer in equal measure (57). His suggestions (even in this abridged version) are specific, practical, and ones that a preacher could implement this week. I was especially intrigued by his suggestions that the preacher write the body of the sermon out, then the conclusion, and (only) then the introduction! (65) He reasons, “Only after doing this, will we be sufficiently clear about what we are introducing” (66). I’m in the habit of writing the introduction first, once I have my outline. I plan to try Stott’s proposed order first chance I get.
The final two chapters focus on the character of the preacher (chapter 6, “Sincerity and Earnestness” and chapter 7, “Courage and Humility”). The first appendix is an abbreviated (though still fairly robust) overview of the history of preaching. I thought it was wise to make this an appendix, though it serves as the first chapter in the longer Between Two Worlds.
Conclusion and Where to Get It
In the end, even if I didn’t agree with all of Stott’s approach, I found this book refreshing and inspiring. He quotes Spurgeon, who said to his students, “Our preaching must not be articulate snoring” (82). Stott’s passion for Scripture and wisdom in preaching are clear. Reading even this abridged version of his classic book serves as yet another reminder of a life well lived, and a ministry faithfully carried out. We preachers are fortunate to be able to access Stott’s hard-earned wisdom.
Thanks to Eerdmans for thinking to send me a copy of the book.