The Challenge of Preaching: John Stott, Abridged

The Challenge of Preaching is an abridged and updated version of John Stott’s Between Two Worlds. The book is clear in its aim:

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?


Challenge of PreachingOf 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.

You can find the book at Amazon here. The publisher’s page is here.



Thanks to Eerdmans for thinking to send me a copy of the book.

5 thoughts on “The Challenge of Preaching: John Stott, Abridged

  1. Abram–I always enjoy your take and observations, including book reviews. Indeed, John Robert Walmsley Scott was a prince of expositors and deserves a listening audience.

    Permit me to do a gentle push-back on your “bristles.” (And your concern that the ‘abridged’ version may have contributed to the abruptness and unsupported statements may very well be true. Having read Stott for a number of years, it is very much unlike him to make sweeping assertions without providing a well thought-out rationale.) So, a few thoughts:

    1–Can there be a wrongly placed emphasis on and veneration toward the written word? Absolutely. Biblio-dolatry was alive and well in Jesus’ day, thus his caution captured in Jn 5:39. There is a difference in the written word and the Living Word.

    2–Having said that, it appears the Hebraic understanding of both the nature of the words of God and value of them written and spoken/read is perhaps a bit different than our modern day view. Consider the incredible high esteem the Hebrew Scriptures had in Paul and Peter’s day: Rom 3:2 (entrusted with the VERY words of God); 1 Pet. 4:10 (if anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the VERY words of God); see 2 Pet 1:13-21 (the [spoken] prophetic word made more certain…[i.e., the Spirit-originated Scriptures]. It is in fact a very thin line in Jewish thinking to separate the spoken/written word/s of God from the Author of those words. Recall the constant interplay in the Hebrews Scriptures between “hear the word of the Lord” and “the Lord says…”. (for instance, throughout the book of Amos). Our mindset compartmentalizes; however, the Hebrew synthesized and essentially equated the two–at least in authority. (Matt. 7:28-29; Jn 10:34-35)

    3–You asked, “which truth? [is Christianity based on] All truth–and all truth comes from the God of truth, Who has provided us with the words of truth (collectively). So, Paul says to his young protege: ‘Preach the word.’ Which word? That’s like asking ‘which truth?’ If it came from God, if it’s His word, then preach it. We could appreciate the general truths of a Creator’s divine power and eternal nature by observing the world (Rom 1:18-20; Ps 19:1-6), but we had no idea of the character of God and certainly no concept of his eternal purpose found in Christ unless that was revealed and recorded in the Word (Ps 19:7-11; 1 Cor 2:5f; Eph 1). Indeed, “Thy Word is Truth.” (Jn 17:17)

    4–I’m not sure exactly what you meant from your brief observation concerning Stott’s hermeneutic about the text providing ‘an overriding thrust.’ Perhaps he saying that we should give priority to what the text originally meant (and its surrounding texts) to the first readers–before we can began making a correct or meaningful application to current day readers. If we don’t understand what the text was suppose to teach then, how are we to make sure our interpretation is useful/truthful today? If the text didn’t mean to be understood or obeyed in a certain way back in that day, then making it mean something different in our understanding or obedience today is a false hermeneutic. That may be the “must” imperative that Stott is trying to emphasize. Is there leeway in understanding a certain text? Certainly–but in our post-modern mindset (which tends to dissolve the notion of any absolutes–certainly, of an ‘absolute truth’), Stott probably is encouraging those of us studying the text to do our homework well and find the primary thrust of the writer.


    1. Steve, thank you for your good thoughts here–I’m grateful to have a chance to interact with you on the blog! Re: Stott–I hesitated to offer critiques of such a gem of a man. Push-back is welcomed!

      1. Well put.

      2. I don’t disagree. Without looking at the context, “VERY words of God” may not necessarily reflect value on the words themselves, so much as emphasis on the source of the words, right? But maybe that just further supports your point, together with the other verses you mention.

      3. I think I might not have been clear–I didn’t mean which truth is Christianity based on. I really like your, “If it came from God, if it’s His word, then preach it.” I just mean to disagree that THE truth Christianity is based on (as Stott says) is that “God chose to use words to reveal himself to humanity.” I see what you mean, though–how else would we know God is love and John 3:16 without the written word to tell us? Point taken. However, I would be more comfortable if Stott had said, the truth Christianity is based on is that “God chose to reveal himself to humanity with and without words.” Even then, just because God’s self-revelation precedes our knowledge of God (and you’d better believe I believe this!), does that make God’s (word-mediated) self-revelation THE primary truth on which our faith rests? I think Scripture may point more in the direction of something like the resurrection of Jesus and/or the love of God in Christ, shown to a sinner like me. Though even trying to rate all these miracles feels like a category mistake. Perhaps another reason I was uncomfortable with his superlative.

      4. I just mean–why must each text be limited to having one big idea? I like reader-response criticism and the postmodern pushback against author’s intent, but I’m not wholly convinced by it, either. I’m old-fashioned in still thinking authors had intended meaning for their listeners, and that the meaning may not necessarily be permitted to be pluriform just because of what we bring to the text. (Though we had better be aware of what we bring to the text, and it can both enhance and limit our read of it.) But that feels like a different thing than saying each text has just one overriding idea.

      You may have a better read on Stott than I did, especially in your fourth point. It’s been a while since I read the full version this book abridges.

      Any replies and further push-backs or clarifications are welcomed!

      1. A–final comments:

        2–that is my point. Because they are words from God, that is what makes them so precious. The two (God/HIs word) in that sense are inseparable and equatable.

        3–yes, thanks for the clarification. The process of revelation (as apparently Stott is emphasizing) is absolutely necessary for us to consider primary truth/s such as the resurrection, God’s love, etc., and because He has chosen to reveal and record truth for generations to come, that may be “the foundational truth” Stott is referring to. How do we know about creation? About the context for Job’s misery (Job 1-2)? The sovereignty of God’s plan of crucifixion/atonement? Stott may be saying — were it not for specific (vs general) revelation, we would know very little definitive truths. Truly–“faith comes by hearing the word of God.” (Rom 10:17)


        Have a great Lord’s Day!

      2. Great comments, Steve, as always. Thank you. I actually (amazingly and in part due to a preaching directed study I’m just finishing) have a whole host of reviews like this that I’ll be posting in coming weeks and months….

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