Bonhoeffer: Lying Destroys Community

 

Source: German Federal Archive
Source: German Federal Archive

Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his Cost of Discipleship:

Because the first and last concern of truthfulness is the revealing of persons in their whole being, in their evilness before God, such truthfulness is resisted by the sinner. That is why it is persecuted and crucified. The truthfulness of the disciples has its sole basis in following Jesus, in which he reveals our sins to us on the cross. Only the cross as God’s truth about us makes us truthful. Those who know the cross no longer shy away from any truth. Those who live under the cross can do without the oath as a commandment establishing truthfulness, for they exist in the perfect truth of God.

There is no truth toward Jesus without truth toward other people. Lying destroys community. But truth rends false community and founds genuine fellowship. There is no following Jesus without living in the truth unveiled before God and other people.

Bonhoeffer’s Last Words, Before He Was Hanged (74 Years Ago Today)

 

Source: German Federal Archive
Source: German Federal Archive

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in the Nazi concentration camp of Flossenbürg on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the U.S. military came to liberate it.

John W. de Gruchy describes the lead-up to that day in his Editor’s Introduction to Letters and Papers from Prison (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, volume 8):

On October 8 [of 1944], Bonhoeffer was taken to the cellar of the Gestapo prison on Prinz-Albrecht-Straße, where he stayed until February 7, 1945. From then on, all correspondence came to an end, and contact between Bonhoeffer and the family and [Eberhard] Bethge was broken. From there Bonhoeffer was taken first to Buchenwald and then, via the village of Schönberg in Bavaria, to the Flossenbürg concentration camp, where he arrived on April 8. That evening he was tried by a hastily rigged court and condemned to death. Early the next morning Bonhoeffer was executed along with several other coconspirators.

He was hanged April 9. His family would not learn about it for several months.

The July before he had written to his trusted friend (and later biographer) Eberhard Bethge, one day after the failed assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. He wrote:

How should one become arrogant over successes or shaken by one’s failures when one shares in God’s suffering in the life of this world? You understand what I mean even when I put it so briefly. I am grateful that I have been allowed this insight, and I know that it is only on the path that I have finally taken that I was able to learn this. So I am thinking gratefully and with peace of mind about past as well as present things. …

May God lead us kindly through these times, but above all, may God lead us to himself.

His final recorded words before his hanging are especially appropriate in these days that lead up to Easter Sunday:

This is the end–for me the beginning of life.

 


 

This post is adapted from a post I wrote around this time five years ago, as part of the “Tuesdays in Lent with Bonhoeffer” I was doing. See other gathered posts here.

A Book You Should Read: Amy L. Sherman’s Kingdom Calling

Any church is an outpost of the Kingdom of God. There is the mission of the church, expressed in terms of what it does together as a congregation. Then there are the myriad ways members of a congregation—especially but certainly not limited to ones involved in teaching, social services, and other care-taking roles—live out the church’s call to love, to be salt and light, to share the good news of God’s love..

Even if we are at church four hours a week, we churchgoers spend some 98% of our lives not gathered with the congregation as a whole. How can churchgoing folks continue to build the Kingdom of God, not just when we are together, but when we are apart?

3809There exists among congregations an impressive amount of what Amy L. Sherman in Kingdom Calling refers to as “vocational power–knowledge, platform, networks, position, influence, skills and reputation.” As a pastor I am keenly aware of the importance of equipping the body of believers to use their “vocational power” for the growing of the Kingdom of God. How, as Ephesians says, can we “equip the saints for the work of ministry”—ministry not just at church but in our day-to-day lives, in all the places in which God has set us?

Sherman sets the course with a definition of vocational stewardship: “the intentional and strategic use of one’s vocational power (skills, knowledge, network, platform) to advance the values of the Kingdom of God.” In calling for “foretastes” of the Kingdom of God, she speaks of a righteousness that has three dimensions: up (God and me), in (myself), and out (the world and me). This robust understanding of righteousness gets at the heart of the Old and New Testament’s definition of righteousness as right relationship with God, self, and others.

Throughout Kingdom Calling Sherman tells inspiring stories of non-profit owners, teachers, pastors, small groups, construction workers, cleaning service providers, and many others who are helping to advance the Kingdom of God by offering foretastes of it in their own spheres.

As a pastor I appreciated Sherman’s focus on “four pathways for deploying congregants in the stewardship of their vocations” (22). These are:

  1. “Blooming where we are planted by strategically stewarding our current job,”
  2. “Donating our vocational skills as a volunteer,”
  3. “Launching a new social enterprise,” and,
  4. “Participating in a targeted initiative of our congregation aimed at transforming a particular community or solving a specific social problem.”

Sherman shares inspiring stories of church-school partnerships and congregation-wide initiatives, although it is hard to know how to replicate some of the successes Sherman mentions, absent more specific implementation suggestions. But insofar as her aim is to cast a vision to church leaders and attendees of vocational stewardship and the great potential found in vocational power, Sherman’s work has excited me to move ahead in my own church with what I’ve learned from Kingdom Calling.

Known By God: A Biblical Theology Of Personal Identity (Book Note)

NewImage

  

Brian S. Rosner has just published a book I’m excited about working through. It’s called Known By God: A Biblical Theology Of Personal Identity. Here is the overview from the publisher:

Who are you? What defines you? What makes you, you?

In the past an individual’s identity was more predictable than it is today. Life’s big questions were basically settled before you were born: where you’d live, what you’d do, the type of person you’d marry, your basic beliefs, and so on. Today personal identity is a do-it-yourself project. Constructing a stable and satisfying sense of self is hard amidst relationship breakdowns, the pace of modern life, the rise of social media, multiple careers, social mobility, and so on. Ours is a day of identity angst.

Known by God is built on the observation that humans are inherently social beings; we know who we are in relation to others and by being known by them. If one of the universal desires of the self is to be known by others, being known by God as his children meets our deepest and lifelong need for recognition and gives us a secure identity. Rosner argues that rather than knowing ourselves, being known by God is the key to personal identity.

He explores three biblical angles on the question of personal identity: being made in the image of God, being known by God and being in Christ. The notion of sonship is at the center – God gives us our identity as a parent who knows his child. Being known by him as his child gives our fleeting lives significance, provokes in us needed humility, supplies cheering comfort when things go wrong, and offers clear moral direction for living.

The book is part of Zondervan’s Biblical Theology for Life series. (Check the first results here to see more in the series.)

Especially with a new year approaching—and the potential resolutions that come with it—I’m looking forward to reading Rosner’s theology of personal identity.

The book is here (Zondervan) and here (Amazon). I’ll write more about it as I am able.

Leaders Should Be a Non-Anxious Presence

steinkeThis bit of wisdom in the post title comes from Peter Steinke. He affirms that anxiety itself is not bad; it can provoke positive change, but only if regulated.

In his Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What, Steinke says leaders should be non-anxious presences in their churches. He says, “Nothing new under the sun—especially nothing controversial—happens without confusion, resistance, or emotional reactivity.”

So leaders should “keep calm for the purpose of reflection and conversation,” “maintain a clear sense of direction,” and what I thought was hardest but maybe best, “tolerate high degrees of uncertainty, frustration, and pain.”

“To be a non-anxious presence,” he says, “means to acknowledge anxiety but not let it be the driver of behavior.” Don’t deny anxiety, but don’t let it defeat you or your people.

To Change the World (James D. Hunter): A Brief Review and Critique

James Davison Hunter makes helpful contributions to the discussion of how Christians should orient themselves toward the world and its need for improvement. His idea of “faithful presence” is a good one, if not especially novel. The idea’s rootedness in the faithful presence of God in Christ offers a theologically sound and relatable paradigm. Because of God’s love for and presence with us, any Christian, whether walking in the so-called halls of power or not, can exercise faithful presence.

Hunter offers a robust view of faithful presence as “the exercise of leadership in all spheres and all levels of life and activity” (260). One thinks of the oft-quoted Abraham Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ… does not cry, ‘Mine!'”

to-change-the-worldHunter sees the need for faithful presence to bring about both individual and institutional change, as it “generates relationships and institutions that are fundamentally covenantal in character, the ends of which are the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth” (263, my emphasis). Further, Hunter writes, “Culture is intrinsically dialectical” (34). His drawing on the Hegelian dialectic allows him to articulate a Christian relation to the world that avoids extremes: “Christians are called to relate to the world within a dialectic of affirmation and antithesis” (231).

The author spends more time than the reader might like in debunking other people’s ideas as to how to make the world a better place. This is a noble enough endeavor, but one wonders: On what authority does he offer his critiques? He begins, “I contend that the dominant ways of thinking about culture and cultural change are flawed, for they are based on both specious social science and problematic theology” (5). (That’s a big claim to have to defend.) He continues with broad, sweeping statements like, “Cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up,” (41) and, “Change of this nature [i.e., cultural change] can only come from the top down” (42).

Evidence, however, seems to be in short supply. One does not have to wade deep into the history of the African American civil rights movement, for example, to find figures who effected change from the bottom up. No doubt Martin Luther King, Jr. found support from “the top” in Lyndon B. Johnson, but King led a movement of the people, many of whom (King included) did not have positional power in the society they changed.

And to take a current example, there is the Black Lives Matter movement. While its long-term impact remains to be seen—and while the movement itself may not always speak with one voice—one would be hard-pressed to suggest that this “grassroots political mobilization” (42) has not “penetrate[d] the structure of our imagination, our frameworks of knowledge and discussion, the perception of everyday reality” (42). Already the Black Lives Matter movement can claim victory in that there is a greater societal awareness of race-motivated police brutality, as well as police departments taking increasingly deliberate measures (body cameras, and so on) to prevent it.

I do appreciate Hunter’s giving “priority to what is right in front of us–the community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people of which these are constituted” (253). But in some ways his “faithful presence” still reads just a little as, “Just try harder… this way is sure to work!”

Of course he is right in saying, “Christians have failed to understand the nature of the world they want to change and failed even more to understand how it actually changes” (99). But the reader rightly wonders: what makes Hunter immune? In short, while Hunter’s larger framework has much to commend it, his work seems to lack attention to important details—and fails to convince that all other visions of world change that preceded him are faulty.

 

Book info: Publisher’s Page (OUP) // Amazon

 


 

Thanks to Oxford University Press for sending me a review copy, which—I assume will be evident—did not influence my attempts at objectivity in assessing the book.

Review and Reflection: Greek for Preachers

Greek for Preachers (Chalice Press, 2002) divides into three primary parts. Part 1 is “The Preliminaries,” where authors Joseph M. Webb and Robert Kysar suggest initial tools for preachers who want to use Greek. Part 2 offers “Ten Principles for Uncovering Greek Meaning,” which makes up the majority of the book. Part 3 focuses on “Using the Greek Text in Sermon Preparation,” and is a hands-on application of the principles the authors have taught in the second part. The book’s aim is simple: “to bring the Greek text of the New Testament within reach of anyone who wishes to explore its riches” (x). The authors want preachers who have lost their Greek (or not had any) to find the language “both usable and exciting” for use in sermon preparation (7).

 

Part 1: “The Preliminaries”

 

I worried a bit when I saw “uncovering Greek meaning” as the title for Part 2. Somewhere along the way I learned that Greek is not just a language to decode, as if there could be one-to-one equivalents for everything, with “hidden gems” available to ones with secret inside knowledge. But the authors are balanced here. In the Preface they say, “We do not believe there is anything intrinsically magic or even necessarily sacred about the original language of the New Testament, even though we both assert the importance of biblical languages for the Christian tradition” (ix). This approach resonates with me, especially as they go on to affirm, “But, judiciously and frugally handled, the joys of the Greek language of our New Testament are as bright as newly cut diamonds sitting in a store window waiting for someone to pick them up and share them with others” (7).

The first part focuses primarily on introducing the preacher to two tools: a Greek-English interlinear and an analytical lexicon. From there the authors go over the Greek alphabet, syllabification, pronunciation, and helpful immersion in a few practice texts. (The Greek font in this book looks good and is readable.) It is also in this first part that the authors introduce their approach to words and meaning, one that I am fully on board with: “[W]e should never assume that a word is used in the exact same way in different passages. The context in which a word is used is more important than how another writer in a different document might use the same word…” (5). This, in fact, has preaching implications for me, because I can make points like this in my sermons without even bringing “the underlying Greek” into the picture.

 

Part 2: “Ten Principles for Uncovering Greek Meaning”

 

Part 2 is the heart of the book. The authors give ten principles around specific grammatical features. Concepts they explore include: articles (and how their presence or absence adjusts meaning), verbs, participles, infinitives, cases, and more. There are lots of examples from the Greek New Testament, including possible sermon angles to derive from interpreting the Greek grammar. There’s a wealth of interaction with the Greek text for the reader to work through. There are charts, glosses, and plenty of material that any Greek reader will benefit from reviewing.

A highlight of the second part for me was the authors’ good distinction between grammatical gender and what they call human gender (also called social gender). They would support, for example, not using the generic “man” in English translations where the Greek has ἄνθρωπος. I am similarly deliberate in reading from the pulpit gender-accurate translations whenever I can.

While most of the instruction in this section is consistent with what I’ve learned from various grammars and exegesis courses at Gordon-Conwell (and reading Greek regularly since), there are a couple of surprising hermeneutical moves that I didn’t think were on firm footing.

For example, here is John 1:1:

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.

The authors say, “Look for the articles, especially the ones associated with God” (39). With the last part of the verse (θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος), the authors rightly point out that ὁ λόγος becomes the subject because of the article. So, “the Word was God.” However, they go on to explore “the nature of the articular nouns as they differ from the anarthrous nouns “(39), considering that the anarthrous θεὸς could simply mean something less specific like “God-like.” They approach the translation with humility, but unfortunately conclude, “Theologically, it raises the issue of whether or not the text means that God and the ‘word’ are identical” (39). Though it’s tempting to criticize this interpretation on account of what sounds like heterodoxy, Greek grammar alone (at least I thought!) settles the issue, that, “the Word was God” (and not just God-like). I can recall at least two Greek professors at GCTS making a similar point that the anarthrous θεὸς should not be interpreted in the way the authors explore.

greek-for-preachersAlso a curious was the interpretation of participles in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20. The authors point out the three participles in those two verses, the first of which is aorist. “But the aorist participle,” they say, “that begins the sentence gives the idea of ‘going’ before it mentions the command to ‘make learners.’ Those who are addressed in this passage are already going” (65). As Roy Ciampa (from a 2008 Every Thought Captive blog post called, “As You Go, Make Disciples?“) and others have argued, that aorist participle is actually a participle of attendance circumstance, and it simply has the force of an imperative: nothing more, nothing less.

How does this interaction impact my own preaching, beyond my desire to critically engage with anything I read for my ministry development?

The authors model humility in how they approach the Greek, even when I disagree with them. I want to follow suit here.

On the other hand, some of their Greek-based hermeneutical moves seem like classic anecdotes of “what not to do” when moving from Greek New Testament to interpretation to pulpit. One wants to be careful not to make too much of subtle grammatical points that may reflect merely on what wording the author felt like using at the time of writing. As with the John 21 example where John and Peter dance between two different Greek words for love, a given author could simply be using a rhetorical flourish, and not intending us to derive any meaning more than that the author writes with creative style. (John 21 seems less clear-cut to me, though, than the examples above.)

 

Part 3: “Using the Greek Text in Sermon Preparation”

 

In the third part, “Using the Greek Text in Sermon Preparation,” the authors move the process into the pulpit. They list seven steps, each of which is easy enough to implement. And they have a stance on commentaries that I really appreciate, even as I’m aware of the discipline required: “We suggest that you use commentaries to learn what others have said about the passage but not necessarily to learn what you should say” (172). Great advice. I also resonated with their explanation of a topical sermon, where “the text gives you entry into an extensive issue that reaches beyond the text itself” (163).

The book closes with two full sample sermons using Greek, the first of which was a really interesting (and helpful) take on “submission” (as mutual) in Ephesians 5.

 

Concluding Assessment

 

Greek beginners will want to turn to Part 1 right away, although I’ve had it drilled into me that interlinears are bad. I think they have their place, but a preacher who really wants to learn Greek might better avoid them and use a footnoted Reader’s Greek New Testament instead. The authors suggest that pastors actively using Greek can profitably skim Part 2 as a refresher–it can be consulted later as a reference–and cut right to Part 3 for the meat of using Greek in preaching.

I appreciate the desire of this book. On the one hand, the authors are right on when they say,

“A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Novices in the Greek New Testament are in danger of slipping into the same mold. Greek is not a cure-all for biblical interpretation nor the key that unlocks truth. It is only one more tool to help us (176).

On the other hand, I really like the idea of teaching pastors the basics of Greek so that they can begin to get their feet wet with word studies.

Again, the drawback to using this book is that readers need enough Greek already to be able to discern what the authors are doing with John 1:1 and Matthew 28:19-20. The humility they model is admirable, though, and the majority of the other examples don’t make the same kind of questionable (in my opinion) conclusions those ones do.

For me, I try to use Greek as much as possible in my study. I’m reading through the Greek New Testament this year with a friend, and we’re taking (and sharing) notes as we go. I often find that insights from our conversations about the Greek text make their way into my sermons. So I wholeheartedly affirm with the authors that the integration of Greek reading and sermon preparation is a beautiful thing. Reading Greek for Preachers compels me to re-double my efforts in turning over the Greek (or Hebrew) text as an essential part of sermon preparation.

Greek for Preachers is at Amazon here, and at Chalice Press here.

 


 

Thanks to Chalice Press for sending me a review copy, which—I trust will be evident—did not influence my attempts at objectivity in assessing the book.

This Will Almost Undoubtedly Be the Best Theology Book This Fall: The Mestizo Augustine

Mestizo Augustine

 

A forthcoming book from IVP combines one of my favorite lenses for theology (mestizaje) with one of my favorite theologians (Augustine). And the author is none other than Justo González. I believe Michael Scott calls that win-win-win.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

Few thinkers have been as influential as Augustine of Hippo. His writings, such as Confessions and City of God, have left an indelible mark on Western Christianity. He has become so synonymous with Christianity in the West that we easily forget he was a man of two cultures: African and Greco-Roman. The mixture of African Christianity and Greco-Roman rhetoric and philosophy gave his theology and ministry a unique potency in the cultural ferment of the late Roman empire.

Augustine experienced what Latino/a theology calls mestizaje, which means being of a mixed background. Cuban American historian and theologian Justo González looks at the life and legacy of Augustine from the perspective of his own Latino heritage and finds in the bishop of Hippo a remarkable resource for the church today. The mestizo Augustine can serve as a lens by which to see afresh not only the history of Christianity but also our own culturally diverse world.

Coming in November! If you go to the publisher’s page, you can see the Table of Contents. Amazon has it up for pre-order. I’ll do my best to review it here this fall.

Probably the Best Broadly Evangelical Systematic Theology

Erickson Introducing Christian DoctrineMillard J. Erickson’s massive Christian Theology is now in its third edition (published in 2013). The hallmark of the 1,200-page book is its evangelical perspective, concern for application to life, and balance in covering multiple perspectives fairly.

There’s also a newly updated abridged version of the work, Introducing Christian Doctrine, which clocks in at a more modest 512 pages.

Introducing Christian Doctrine begins each chapter with an easy-to-grasp one-page summary, featuring “Chapter Objectives,” a short “Chapter Summary,” and a detailed “Chapter Outline.” This makes navigating the work a breeze, especially if you’re after a particular topic–as I am currently, since my five-year-old keeps asking me about heaven!

Erickson offers an engaging read from the beginning:

To some readers, the word “doctrine” may prove somewhat frightening. It conjures up visions of very technical, difficult, abstract beliefs, perhaps propounded dogmatically. Doctrine is not that, however. Christian doctrine is simply statements of the most fundamental beliefs the Christian has, beliefs about the nature of God, about his action, about us who are his creatures, and about what he has done to bring us into relationship with himself. Far from being dry or abstract, these are the most important types of truths. They are statements on the fundamental issues of life: namely, who am I, what is the ultimate meaning of the universe, where am I going? Christian doctrine is, then, the answers the Christian gives to those questions that all human beings ask. (4)

Readers can count on, even in this abridged version, a thorough survey of biblical references and concepts from which to derive a solid theology. Erickson covers well the expected basics: revelation, the nature of humanity, salvation, eschatology, and so on.

Balanced as he is, there are occasional areas that deserve further nuance, even in the unabridged version. In the larger edition, for example (preserved in the abridgement), Erickson says, “Jesus did not make an explicit and overt claim to divinity” (611). He means that Jesus never explicitly said, “I am God,” although verses like “I and the Father are one” seem to counter Erickson’s claim here. What follows, though, is a great read on Jesus: there are what can only be divine “prerogatives Jesus claimed” (611).

The Unabridged Version
The Unabridged Version

To take just one example, Jesus forgives the sins of a paralyzed man in Mark 2:5-10. The teachers of the law object, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” They are right, of course, that only God can forgive sins. Jesus here is exercising a divine role: “But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10). Jesus also exercises an authority reserved only for God when he re-casts the Decalogue in his Sermon on the Mount with a refrain of, “But I say to you.” And when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead in John 11, he displays power over life and death themselves, a power available to no mere human being. This is not to mention Christ’s own resurrection, showing his divine power over death.

Erickson offers some nice turns of phrase, too. Speaking of God’s age, he says God “is no older now than a year ago, for inifinty plus one is no more than infinity” (91). Together with the Scriptural support Erickson gives for God’s being “infinite in relation to time” (91), one easily sees how useful Introducing Christian Doctrine can be in church settings.

The abridged version does a impressive job at condensing Christian Theology without significantly compromising or neglecting the content. One surprising move in the abridged version is that the chapters are re-ordered and numbered differently from the full edition.

This may be inevitable with an abridgement, but most readers will want to be able to know how the two titles relate, for purposes of accurate cross-referencing and further reading. Future editions ought to bring the abridged chapter numbering in line with that of the fuller version. Even the section headings change, so that Part 5 of the condensed version is “The Person and Work of Christ” (spanning chapters 23-27), while Part 5 of the unabridged edition is “Humanity” (chapters 20-24).

The annotated Table of Contents (see them here) in Introducing Christian Doctrine do, however, allow the reader to easily locate a given theme and sub-topic.

There’s much more to interact with in Erickson’s book, but it’s the best broadly evangelical theology of which I’m aware. Erickson blends academic thoroughness with pastoral concern, an approach I love.

And now, some link love: You can find the condensed Introducing Christian Doctrine here (Amazon), here (Baker), and in electronic form here (Logos) and here (Olive Tree). The fuller, unabridged Christian Theology is here (Amazon), here (Baker), and in electronic form here (Logos) and here (Olive Tree).

 


 

Thanks to Baker Academic for the copy of Introducing Christian Doctrine, which they sent me for review, but with no expectation as to this review’s content.

 

What I’m Learning About Preaching, and a Massive Resource that Helps

Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching

The Art & Craft of Biblical Preaching (Zondervan, 2005) is a massive and indispensable reference work for preachers. It is true to its sub-title: A Comprehensive Resource for Today’s Communicators. When it comes to the process of preaching–start to finish–there is very little the book does not cover. Virtually all aspects of sermon preparation and delivery are here, such as the call of the preacher (chapter 1), careful consideration of the listeners (chapter 3), sermon structure (chapter 5), delivery (chapter 8), and seeking sermon feedback (chapter 11).

The book’s 201 (!) chapters vary in length. A handful of the articles are barely a page, while others approach ten pages. Not that length correlates with quality. One of the most beneficial articles is the one-page set of self-evaluation questions by Haddon Robinson (“A Comprehensive Check-Up,” 701).

The quality of article is high, with just a few exceptions along the way–perhaps inevitable among over 100 contributors. (A handful of articles feel more vague than I would have hoped.) There is also an overwhelmingly disproportionate inclusion of male contributors, while there are just a few articles from female contributors, and no women on the book’s accompanying 14-track sermon audio CD. The CD is otherwise a great inclusion, since you get to hear great preaching examples in action. My five-year-old loved the first few stories on the disc.

The Art & Craft is a joy to read and a goldmine of a resource. Following are three highlights of the rich book, as well as some reflections on how they have informed my preaching.

 

1. Preaching with Intensity

 

“Preaching with Intensity” (596), by my friend Kevin A. Miller, is one of the best essays in the book. I first read the article two years ago, and only realized when re-reading it recently how much of Miller’s advice I’ve internalized. It’s that good.

He leads off by asking, “Why is it that sometimes we as preachers feel a message so deeply, yet our listeners don’t feel that? Why is something that’s so intensely meaningful to us not always communicated in a way that grips the congregation as intensely?” (596) He suggests four factors as to “why intensity doesn’t transfer.” One of these is “the time factor,” and Miller’s point hit me so hard the first time that I’ve never forgotten it. (That’s a rare occurrence for me.)

By the time I step into the pulpit, I have studied for this message all week. I meditated on the text. I read commentaries. I prayed about the message. I gave this sermon from eight to twenty hours of my best thought, prayer and energy.

Amen! say the preachers! But here’s the blunt truth:

But the people listening to me are hearing the sermon cold. What’s become so meaningful to me has had no time to sink in to them. I can’t expect the truths that have gripped me during hours of study to automatically grip a congregation–unless I practice the skills I describe below.

Once you pick up this book, turn to page 597 to pick it up from here. Miller will walk you through what to do next.

Because of “the time factor,” one of my first steps in preaching prep (on my better weeks!) is reading through the text out loud in English, since that is what will happen immediately before the sermon in the actual church service. With note-taking capability ready at hand, I try to anticipate what questions and reactions might come up when the congregation hears it Sunday–that is what will be top of mind for them (not my hours of study!) as soon as I begin the sermon. It’s not that I need to try to come up with FAQ For Sunday-Morning Hearers of This Passage to start off every sermon, but keeping the congregation in mind like this has become an essential part of my process.

One more takeaway from Kevin Miller, since it’s stuck with me: don’t over-nuance your points. I was a philosophy major, and I have an educated congregation, so this is difficult for me. Miller doesn’t mean don’t be nuanced–our faith requires it at times. He just means:

Every nuance and qualifier, though it may add technical accuracy, also blunts the force of the statement we’re trying to make. Even if we believe something intensely, we can drain the energy out of our statement so that the congregation doesn’t sense that. It’s good to be accurate, to use nuance, to balance. But we must never let those good practices dull the share edge of the Bible’s two-edged sword. (598)

I’ve kept this advice close during my sermon editing process in recent months. Almost every draft revision includes taking out an overly (and probably unnecessarily) nuanced sentence or two.

 

2. Manuscript, Outline, or No Notes?

 

After my first 60 or so weekly sermons in the church I pastor, I remember moving from a 10-page manuscript to a 2-page outline. That entire fall I thoroughly enjoyed the flexibility of an outline, and found it enhanced my preaching, not made it worse (which I had feared). I swore off manuscripts forever.

The next spring, and ever since, I’ve been preaching from word-for-word manuscripts. (Ha!) Of course I add and delete and rephrase on the fly, once I look at the congregation and make connection with them. But I’m also thinking it’s time again for me to go back to using a more minimal outline.

Whether a preacher should write out her or his sermon, whether she should preach from an outline, or whether he should go into the pulpit with nothing but a Bible is a matter for the preacher to decide. It is, after all, a matter of style and personal preference.

In “No Notes, Lots of Notes, Brief Notes” (600), Jeffery Arthurs explores the benefits and drawbacks of each approach. I was pleasantly surprised by the nuance and balance offered, since Arthurs teaches at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where the modus operandi is to require preaching with virtually no pulpit notes. Arthurs explores “no notes, lots of notes, and brief notes” (600). For each he asks, “Why Use This Method?”, “Why Avoid This Method?”, and, “How to Use This Method.”

The point I found most useful was under the “Lots of Notes” section. Two of the drawbacks to such an approach (as in my current practice of preaching from a manuscript) are, “Most readers cannot read with skill” (604) and, “Eye contact is difficult or impossible” (604). Those two points have not been challenges for me, but the third drawback has been an area of growth: “Most writers write in a written style” (604). Arthurs suggests preachers should write for the ear, and specifically gives tips to that end. “Your writing will seem redundant and choppy,” he says, “But that is how we talk” (605). So I’ve made efforts this year to preach with orality in mind.

 

3. The Value of Sermon Feedback

 

Since I’ve been soliciting preaching feedback from a few members recently, I was especially eager to read Part 11, Evaluation. Bill Hybels leads off with “Well-Focused Preaching” (687), one of the longer essays in the book. Hybels shares in detail how he looks for sermon evaluation, especially from his church’s elders. It’s a refreshingly honest essay. Hybels also helped me see again the connection between what the sermon is trying to do in relation to larger church goals and vision. This is a link that is too easy to forget when yet another Sunday message seems to be just around the corner.

William Willimon includes a questionnaire for sermon evaluation: “Getting the Feedback You Need” (698). I’m not sure I would use his numbers for rating a preacher’s sermon, though. To my mind there’s a subtle but important difference between sermon feedback and sermon evaluation. The book speaks in terms of sermon evaluation, but I prefer to use feedback when soliciting input from congregants. The sermon is not a performance to be graded or an initiative to be voted on by the congregation. Using the language of evaluation could easily put a congregant in a mindset of grading a sermon, which feels like a category mistake for something that is supposed to be formative. There may already exist among churchgoers the evaluation of, “I liked it” or, “I didn’t like it,” and asking for “evaluation” could unintentionally encourage that. Of course, preachers need feedback to know what’s connecting and not, and we can always improve in our proclamation of God’s Word. Either way I found benefit in the section on evaluation.

Haddon Robinson’s “Comprehensive Check-Up” (701) is short but sweet. He gives the preacher a host of good questions to ask herself or himself. There are questions especially for the introduction of the sermon (“Does the message get attention?”) and its conclusion (“Are there effective closing appeals or suggestions?”). There is a sense in which some of these questions read as common-sense measurements, but in the press of weekly ministry and preaching, it’s really to forget them. Robinson does preachers (and has done me) a great service by putting so many good self-evaluation questions in one place.

Barbara Brown Taylor offers a refreshing perspective in her “My Worst and Best Sermons Ever” (710). Her account of a sermon at the death of a baby girl is moving:

When it came time for the service, I walked into a full church with nothing but a half page of notes. I stood plucking the words out of thin air as they appeared before my eyes. Somehow, they worked. God consented to be present in them. (710)

She concludes–in a subtle corrective to the use of sermon “evaluation”–that there is value in being “reluctant to talk about ‘best’ and ‘worst’ sermons” (710). Indeed, “Something happens between the preacher’s lips and congregation’s ears that is beyond prediction or explanation” (710). The reader finishes her short piece wishing her writing had been featured more than in this and one other article.

Finally, “Lessons from Preaching Today Screeners” (704), features 10 questions “by which we evaluate all the sermons received by Preaching Today, and some of the lessons we’ve learned from listening” (704). It’s a fascinating read, and a set of questions to use in sharpening one’s own preaching. I was especially convicted by, “Is the sermon fresh?” There Lee Eclov cautions against preaching to the congregation “things they surely already know and believe, and doing so in terms the congregation would probably find overly familiar” (705). This one is a big challenge for me.

 

Conclusion

 

The Art & Craft of Biblical Preaching easily lends itself to both quick and sustained study. Whether you just pick it up and read what you need to give you a boost one week, or whether you spend hours poring over its advice, it’s an outstanding resource to keep at the desk or quick-access bookshelf. In “How to Use This Book,” the editors wisely say, “A manual like this–overflowing with helpful information–must be managed. …You will consciously focus on one important principle from a chapter for weeks or months. Eventually it will become second nature, and you will be ready to focus deliberate attention on another principle” (15).

As a production note, the book’s glued binding is an unfortunate choice for a rich reference book like this.

The editors are right in their expectation: “We expect this manual is one you will grow with for years to come” (15). I’m looking forward to my own continued growth as a preacher, and grateful to have this resource to help me to that end.

Here are all the main sections in the book, with the questions they set out to answer:

Part 1: The High Call of Preaching (“How can I be faithful to what God intends preaching to be and do?”)

Part 2: The Spiritual Life of the Preacher (“How should I attend to my soul so that I am spiritually prepared to preach?”)

Part 3: Considering Hearers (“How should my approach change depending on who is listening?”)

Part 4: Interpretation and Application (“How do I grasp the correct meaning of Scripture and show its relevance to my unique hearers?”)

Part 5: Structure (“How do I generate, organize, and support ideas in a way that is clear?”)

Part 6: Part and Style (“How can I use my personal strengths and various message types to their full biblical potential?”)

Part 7: Stories and Illustrations (“How do I find examples that are illuminating, credible, and compelling?”)

Part 8: Preparation (“How should I invest my limited study time so that I am ready to preach?”)

Part 9: Delivery (“How do I speak in a way that arrests hearers?”)

Part 10: Special Topics (“How do I speak on holidays and about tough topics in a way that is fresh and trustworthy?”)

Part 11: Evaluation (“How do I get the constructive feedback I need to keep growing?”)

You can find the book at Amazon or at the publisher’s page. It’s available in both Accordance and Logos Bible software programs, too.

 


 

Thanks to Zondervan for the review copy, given to me with no expectation as to the review’s content, and certainly not with the expectation of a 2,000 word review essay!