How to welcome people in
Does your church have a flash-y website (geddit?). What words greet visitors as they surf to find out a bit more about your church? I was struck by the welcome that Dale Ralph Davis gives seekers to Woodland Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg. It's typcical DRD – ending with a warning to newcomers:
Now I must warn you. This church is full of sinners. Everyone who comes here is one. You'll need to remember that if you associate with us – or you may be unnecessarily disappointed.
I think he wins the award for honesty, if nothing else….
And another book….. or why pastors should read military history
During last week I also read another book worth a mention. It's not a Christian book at all. In fact (yawn!) it's a book about military history. When I became a pastor some 10 years ago, another pastor recommended (though I didn't need much persuasion) that one of the most fruitful reading areas for a minister of the gospel is military history. "Pastoring a church is most like being a battle general," he told me. And I found his words to be true. There are more similarities between being a general in battle and being a pastor than between being almost any other kind of leader and being a pastor. It's certainly more relevant than, say, a politician. Generals are given orders from above which they have to exercise judgement in carrying out. Sometimes those orders come with specific boundaries – sometimes they are more general, but in each case the commanding officer has to interpret and implement whilst enthusing those in his command.
In God's common grace, men are raised up to be superb leaders of others: and seeing how they exercise such leadership can be enormously rewarding ground. I emphasise that this is common grace, not special grace (where perhaps the most significant picture of leadership is that of a shepherd) – but we must not think there is no wisdom in it. I didn't need much persuading – I love history of all kinds – and particularly military history (something, apparently shared with that great OT commentator Dale Ralph Davis).
So, last week, during the evenings, I read a book I got from the library (remember those?). A soldier's story is the personal account of General Omar H Bradley, a US commanding general during WWII. Unlike many generals of the time (Montgomery and Patton, for example), "Brad" was a quiet (often described as humble) sort of guy who won people over through persuasion rather than direct command and practised what I can only describe as superb delegation. I found it interesting, stirring, stimulating and challenging too.
Yes, another ESV study Bible…but worth a look
I'm personally not a great fan of study Bible for their own sake. But they can serve a useful purpose if used well. Up to now, my favourites have been:
- The Archaeological Study Bible (NIV) – this comes top of my list for it is an unusual type of Study Bible – it's like having a background commentary alongside the text. The reference Bible I use most.
- The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (NIV) – this was a rework of the New Geneva Study Bible and with notes from such people as Vern Poythress, Greg Beale, John Frame, Jim Packer, Jim Boice, Ed Clowney, Graeme Goldsworthy etc it is still the NIV measure of excellence (though sadly often overlooked in favour of the less-good, but more popular Zondervan Study Bible) [UPDATE: though I'm happy to be corrected, it seems Zondervan may have withdrawn this Bible because it has effectively been replaced in the constituency by the ESV study Bible]
- The one everyone raves about, of course, the ESV Study Bible. I'm not sure I would ever preach from the ESV out of personal choice, but there's no doubt that this is an excellent study resource.
There's a new one on the block however. A few years ago John MacArthur published a NKJV study Bible with verse by verse notes in. They're actually pretty good (which should come as no surprise seeing as he is a good Bible teacher). He is thoroughly reformed and his notes contain some real gold (he is, however, premillennial – and if this is not your persuasion you need to read around some of that stuff).
Well, the real point is that he's now got together with Crossway and there's a new ESV edition of the study Bible – see the microsite for details. It will do a different thing from the ESV study Bible – but I've personally found John's notes to be very helpful and insightful at times.
Hitting the target
My last book of this year's reading week is The Archer and the Arrow by Philip Jensen and Paul Grimmond (Matthias Media 2010, ISBN 978-1-921441-806, available from The Good Book Company for £8). It's a hard task reviewing a book with so many endorsements (especially one from your boss!). William Taylor, Mark Dever, Al Stewart, Vaughan Roberts and Colin Marshall all give it a thumbs up.
And they are right to. This is an excellent little book filling in some gaps that seemed to be missing in The Trellis and the Vine (which sometimes felt a little weak on preaching..?). Essentially the book is an expansion on Philip's desire:
My aim is to preach the gospel by prayerfully expounding the Bible to the people God has given me to love (various pages)
In the book, Philip unpacks each part of this statement and shows why he is both passionate about it and how to go about it. Up front, it's worth saying that "expound" gets a lot of attention and, thankfully, it's much more than the oft-quoted line from Philip "just explain" (which needed to be understood in its context). So, to expound:
is to start with an existing text or message and to explain it, elaborate upon it and argue for it. It's what the Levites did for the people in Nehemiah 8.8: 'They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and then they gave the sense, so that people understood the reading.' (p39)
Jensen uses an extended illustration of an archer, his arrow and his target to explain (expound?) his statement. It certainly taught me a few things about fletches I did not know, although at times the illustration just felt a little strained. But this is a minor quibble.
The very short (sadly) section on prayer is thoroughly good despite its brevity (p38). Given that this is an area where many preachers struggle, it would have been good to see a little more flesh on the bones (not sure how that translates into the arrow illustration). The summary paragraph is worth repeating:
We know that we need God to be at work in every aspect of preaching – both in the preacher and the hearers. We know equally that he responds to and uses our prayers in his powerful work. And yet we so easily and frequently neglect to pray. We can preach competently, earnestly, faithfully, intelligently, interestingly, missionally, passionately, humorously and even brilliantly. But we fail when we do not preach prayerfully. (p38)
Amen and amen! Glad that Philip said this. God save us from excellent expositors who never pray!
The bulk of the book is taken up with the question of what it means to expound the text. If you know any of Philip's material there won't be anything here that particularly surprises you, I don't think, but the ministry of reminder is no less useful for that. Philip shows how theology and exegesis (essentially the hard work of a sermon) contribute to its effectiveness, humanly speaking. I'm not going to repeat his six principles (starting on page 56) – I want you read the book, after all – but suffice to say they contain some very helpful pointers and boundaries for preachers, including a short but targeted section on the use of commentaries.
For me, chapter 4 is the most helpful. Entitled "On the importance of feathers" Jensen makes a case for preachers being both systematic and biblical theologians. This may surprise some who have a very one-sided view of what comes to us from down under, but is a very welcome argument for both disciplines:
As faithful preachers we must put aside the illusion that we are unpolluted sponges, ready to soak up God's word and squeeze it out, pure and fresh, for our adoring listeners. We must work hard at shaping our own systematic and biblical theology in the light of what God actually says. Good preachers must be good biblical and systematic theologians. (p66)
To put it another way, the 'simple Bible preacher' is in fact the faithfully self-conscious biblical and systematic theologian. (p84)
Almost as significant is the last chapter "The risks the preacher takes" which calls all preachers to a dangerous ministry. There is an especially useful section here on balance, or rather that preachers avoid balance, for:
…we can never say everything in a sermon…. (p112)
Preachers are compelled, therefore, to be unbalanced….we cannot confront people's lifelong presuppositions by merely mentioning them in passing. A penitent heart is one that has been battered by the truth. We are better off attacking one important point with vigour, humour and repetition than presenting a balanced and comprehensive message that causes no wounds (p113)
Who is this book for? Philip himself says it is for preachers – and that subset is certainly true. I don't think it's particularly for the man or woman in the pew. And it's most relevant for new preachers (indeed, some of the exhortations are directed at this group). Buy it and give it to those starting out in this ministry. Nevertheless, within the book – even though it may not contain anything new – experienced preachers will find warm encouragement and exhortation – and for this it is more than worth the time it will take to read.
Oh, and just in passing, a wonderful little exposition on Proverbs 17.8 (bribery a good thing?) – see page 74 for details!!
Watch Mark Dever interview Philip below.
More like this:
Words, words, words
My third book I've waded through this week is The Power of Words and the Wonder of God, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor and published by Crossway (2009). The ISBN is 978-1-4335-1049-6 and I see that Amazon have it for £8.99. It's essentially the edited contributions from the September 2008 Desiring God conference and I have to say I found it (with one or two minor exceptions) thoroughly uplifting and helpful. This is the one this week (so far) which has really grabbed me. Unusual, because conference books don't always work – this one, though even includes edited transcripts of the panel discussion at the end – and even these, somehow, work in a book!
Apart from the discussion, there are six chapters:
- Paul Tripp: War of words about our words and our hearts
- Sinclair Ferguson: James 3.1-12 – sound like the conference exposition
- John Piper: Is there Christian eloquence?
- Mark Driscoll: How sharp the edge – all about controversy (or should that be controversy, it is a US book after all 🙂 ? )
- Daniel Taylor: Story shaped faith
- Bob Kauflin: What happens when we sing?
If you've read some of Tripp's other stuff you won't be surprised by either some of his illustrations (it's the apple tree one again) nor his sometimes-slightly-annoying use of long personal illustrations, but these minor faults aside, there is a gold mine here – as with much of his material. Problems with our words, he says (and we all have them) are problems with our hearts and we must not convince ourselves they are anything less.
"All of us are tricked into thinking our words aren't really that important because they fill all those little mundane moments of our lives. Maybe that's exactly why they are profoundly important. I don't want to hurt your feelings, but you only make three or four really important decisions all your life. Most of us won't be written up in history books. Several decades after you die, the people you leave behind will struggle to remember the events of your life. You live your life in the utterly mundane. And if God doesn't rule your mundane, he doesn't rule you, because that's where you live." (p24).
He then goes on to show (much like in Winter's book) how we convince ourselves that the problems lie outside of us rather than within; but there is grace to convict and change us. A good chapter – which helpfully leads into what seems to have been the conference sermon by Sinclair Ferguson.
His exposition of James 3.1-12 which he then expands into a study on words from the whole of James and which is then itself expanded into the context of the gospel is a great example of a conference preach. I don't think you would preach this way in a church setting necessarily – but for a pastor's conference it's ideal and I found real conviction here about my words. It includes 20 great resolutions (in the style of Jonathan Edwards). Later on in the discussion, Piper recalls how he found the sermon both uplifting structurally (!!) and in his heart to which I say a hearty 'Amen!' I think this one chapter is worth the price of the book even though you get the conference audio and video for free here. Here's a taste:
"The most important single aid to my ability to use my tongue for the glory of Jesus is allowing the Word of God to dwell in me so richly that I cannot speak with any other accent. When I do, the result is' teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing…and…in words or deed doing everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father' (Col 3.16-17)" (p64).
Piper was next with a rather curious chapter which turned into a feast! He ponders at the beginning the worry he has reading 1 Cor 1.17: 'Christ did not send me to baptise but to preach the gospel and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.'
"I dread nullifying the cross, and therefore it is urgent that I know what this eloquence-cleverness-wisdom of words is – so I can avoid it" (p67)
Unsurprisingly, Piper deconstructs eloquence rather, well, eloquently. He establishes that there is a bad eloquence and also a Christian eloquence – which is desirable. It serves a useful purpose:
- keeping interest
- gaining sympathy
- awakening sensitivity
- speaking memorably
- increasing power
(Not surprisingly, there is a little section on the eloquence of Jonathan Edwards!). It's a good chapter and helpful reading for every preacher.
Mark Driscoll's chapter is, in essence, about what it means to feed the sheep and shoot the wolves – and how far one should go in doing the latter. I guess how you view this chapter will depend on what you think of Driscoll – but I found it a useful analysis. He roots it in the life of Luther (always a good model?) and shows how shepherds have this dual purpose in this ministry.
"[True] some Christians are always angry and won't stop fighting. But it is equally true that some Christians are rarely angry and won't start fighting. The former are always renounced while the latter legion gets away with perennial cowardice in the name of nicety…..Discernment is knowing what time it is. Courage is doing what the time requires. While not every church needs a Martin Luther [or a Mark Driscoll?], more than a handful of denominations could use a good shooter because the wolves have the sheep praying to the demon gods of other religions while encouraging the rams to have sex with the rams and the ewes to have sex with the ewes." (p93).
Unmistakenably Driscoll! But even if you don't agree with how far he pushes things, there is no doubt that he has a strong argument that, biblically, pastors are use words both positively and negatively. Page 100-104 contain seven prayers that every congregation should pray for their shepherd, and I want to print this out and give it to ours.
Chapter 5 is the weakest. It is based on the session of Daniel Taylor, professor of Literature at Bethel University in St Paul (one of the twin cities). Titled "Story shaped faith" it essentially shows the place of story in the lives of humans: life is lived through story; God reveals himself in story, not propositional truth. Even where propositional truth exists it is rooted in story, so:
"There are very few propositions in the Bible and in life generally that do not originate in and depend upon stories (p111) and Propositions are shorthand for stories…the proposition stands in for the stories, but the propositions also depend upon the stories for their ultimate significance." (p110).
I can see what Taylor is saying, up to a point. The whole Bible is rooted in God's story. Nevertheless, his analysis doesn't always do justice to the various genres of the Bible which, sometimes, are simple propositional truth: and, moreover – as Mrs R. wisely pointed out to me – these stories themselves are often used (for example in the psalms) to teach propositions – so perhaps it is a false analysis to say one is superior to the other. Interesting stuff, but not ultimately as rewarding as the rest of the book.
Bob Kauflin's chapter is superb (even if you don't agree with him on what worship is). Analysing music and words he rightly rejects music that supersedes the Word and music that undermines the Word and says we must aim for music that serves the Word. He robustly defends the place of singing in the lives of God's people and argues that God gave us this remarkable gift to serve the Word:
- singing can help us remember words
- singing can help us engage emotionally with words
- singing can be a powerful demonstration of unity
"For instance, singing, rather than reciting the words to Amazing Grace enables us to stretch out and think more carefully about what we're singing. Likewise, the chorus to It is well gives us plenty of time to consider and enjoy the peace that God alone can bring to our souls. The music helps us engage with the words. The…music matches what we are saying. It's a peaceful, calming setting and the music swells to this appropriate climax of trust; it is well with my soul." (p128)
The two final chapters are the aforementioned panel discussions which have occasional nuggets, including Piper on which battles we choose to fight (p140) and some good material from all the speakers on penal substitionary atonement.
Tremendous! I shall be hawking my copy around the office.
Why to do a covenant Bible Overview
This term I am teaching the first year Cornhill students a Bible Overview. There are many ways of doing Bible Overviews, and I have benefitted so much from Graeme Goldsworthy and Vaughan Roberts on the 'kingdom', and more recently Christopher Ash on 'scattering' and 'gathering'.
As I was reflecting on how I would do the Bible Overview this term, I felt that it would be helpful to do it through the covenants. I was going to blog why I went for a covenant Bible Overview, but it seems that Liam Goligher has already very helpfully hit the nail on the head. Have a look at what Liam says here:
Review of Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment: Rediscovering passion and wonder, by Richard Winter. Published by IVP US (ISBN 978-0-8308-2308-6). Available from The Book Depository for £8.94.
I recently heard RIchard Winter (Professor of Practical Theology at Covenant Seminary in St Louis) at an Oak Hill teaching day. He is a Brit living abroad – a psychiatrist by training and a relatively prolific author and speaker. This 160 page book is a fairly meaty treatment of the subject of boredom. It's, at times, rather hard going for someone like me who is a simple analytical soul – I'm careful not to say "boring" for reasons that will soon become apparent! It did get me thinking about the whole subject of boredom – from what it means when our daughters echo the common refrain, "Dad, I'm so bored" to what it means pastorally dealing with a bored generation. Lots of helpful stuff – even though you have to wait for the end of the book for it to become a really Christian book.
Perhaps that is because of where Richard is experienced and coming from – and, for sure, a thorough and detailed analysis can be helpful – but I wanted the Christian stuff earlier. Nevertheless, it's not a huge book so you don't have to wade through treacle to get to the treasure.
It also, BTW, has perhaps the best opening line I've come across for some time.
No-one was bored on September 11th 2001.
Winter is convinced that Rowan Williams is right (!). Writing in the Sunday Times in 2001, he said:
We live in a deeply and dangerously bored society.
The first half of the book maps our what boredom is; what causes boredom (understimulation, repetition and disconnection), what the various types of boredom are, and how our modern world has exacerbated the problem. 100 years ago we worked 70 hour weeks and lived to 40. Now we live to 70 and work 40 hours a week – giving us 22 years more of leisure to fill. He describes a family who took part in a reality TV show where they had to live like Frontier families for a period of time.
One family was interviewed after their return from the Montana cabin to their Malibu mansion. One of the children was having a hard time adjusting to a life where basic needs are met so much more easily. She said, "Life in 2001 is boring. Where's the fun in going to the mall every day?" (p33)
Winter then analyses the reason why boredom is an increasing issue:
- retreat from community
- overstimulation which dulls reactions (especially from the entertainment industry)
This last point is most interesting. He argues that the volume of advertising and the creation of a sense of coveting which is never fulfilled has contributed significantly to the culture of boredom in which we find ourselves.
Could it be that some have become so chronically disappointed by false promised and unfulfilled wants that they have shut down their deepest longings and desires and become apathetic and bored? The enticements to more exciting things have to get louder to catch our dulled attention…people give up hope and expectation that anything could ever give them deep pleasure." (p48).
It's at this point that I wish Winter had started to introduce more Christian analysis of the situation. He does this briefly, but it's only really at the end of the book that his analysis becomes biblical rather than psychological. He does get there in the end, but the book feels as though it's lacking by not having more in depth Christian comment woven throughout.
The next section of the book deals with the connection between personality and boredom (how different temperaments might be more susceptible to boredom, for example) – and even (p69) a test to take to see how susceptible to boredom one is. He then analyses how people have seen boredom historically and this is where things begin to get really good.
Winter argues that, historically, boredom was seen as a sin (and he differentiates it from depression and grief here). The puritans, he says, understood this and preached this strongly. They saw that boredom was fundamentally an internal problem rather than (as people say today) an external one. Moreover, the reason that boredom is more of an issue today is that the decline of religion has led people away from the view that there is something intrinsically wrong with them. "Boredom is opposite to faith." Therefore,
to avoid boredom we need to have a sense of meaning and purpose in life. (p95)
The reality of a personal Being who has created the Universe and us for a purpose imbues meaning to every aspect of our busyness. This Christian perspective on life encourages our deep involvement in relationships and our creativity in developing the resources that God has given us to enjoy. (p99)
Failure to tackle boredom, Winter argues, has led to some of the deep problems we see in society today:
- sexual addiction, especially pornography
- risk taking (written before the banking crisis!)
So, how do we counteract boredom? Winter has six suggestions:
- remember the big picture
- delight in the ordinary
- cultivate wonder
- develop a passion
- practise active engagement with the world
- FLOW (read the book to see what this means, I'm not sure I can summarise!)
His last chapter is the most Christian and, as a consequence, the best with helpful instruction for preachers, pastors and parents alike. Calling us to reflect on and to reflect the character of God, he says:
[God] is the one who helps us patiently endure the inevitable moments of frustration and boredom. As we live in a relationship with him and in the light of what he has told us about the world and what we are to desire, our perspective on the often difficult and boring is, day by day, little by little, transformed. As we see things more and more from God's point of view, we find there is rarely time to be bored!" (p142).
Yesterday, I started reading Richard Winter's Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment (review coming shortly). One of the things that struck me about what he says (and he is a psychiatrist, so I guess he should know), is the remarkable capacity for the human mind to think all manner of things. Quoting Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:
Eve Zeisel, the ceramic designer who was imprisoned in Moscow's Lubyanka prison for over a year by Stalin's police, kept her sanity by figuring out how she would make a bra out of materials at hand, playing chess against herself in her head, holding imaginary conversations in French, doing gymnastics and memorising poems she wrote. Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes how one of his fellow prisoners in the Lefortovo jail mapped the world on the floor of his cell and then imagined himself travelling across Asia and Europe to America, covering a few kilometres each day. The same "game" was independently discovered by many prisoners, for example Albert Speer, Hitler's favourite architect, who sustained himself in the Spandau prison for months by pretending he was taking a walking trip from Berlin to Jerusalem in which his imagination provided all the events and sights along the way.
The capacity for the human mind to imagine can be dangerous territory for the believer (I know this is true, as I'm sure you do!). We can't empty our minds of thoughts; it's a question of focus, as my reading in Philippians reminded me this morning:
Whatever is TRUE, whatever is NOBLE, whatever is RIGHT, whatever is PURE, whatever is LOVELY, whatever is ADMIRABLE, if anything is EXCELLENT or PRAISEWORTHY – think about such things.
So, I've been meditating on this today. How I need this!
Book review: Proclamation and Theology by Will Willimon
William Willimon: Proclamation and Theology (Abingdon Press)
It’s my reading week this week so I’ve got four books lined up to read, learn from and then review for The Proclaimer. This is the first. I forget now who recommended that I should read it (though I have a notion it may have been Garry Williams at the John Owen Centre). Nor do I know anything about the author – William Willimon is apparently a Resident Bishop in the United Methodist Church in the US – but I have no idea what that means in terms of theological position – nor did I try to find out; I wanted to read this book on its own merits, not because I share the doctrinal convictions of the author!
The book is based on three lectures on preaching given by the author and at times it feels like there has not been enough work done on editing and making it a book rather than a printed lecture. So, for example, there are times when it seems that Willimon is contradicting himself, albeit gently:
“We must recover a sense of preaching as something that God does – a theological matter before it is an anthropological matter – preaching is the business of God before it is our business” (p19).
He goes on to explain that this means the primary issues are of understanding truth, not playing to the gallery of our hearers.
“The Christian preacher is so much more interested in the nature of the God who is to be brought to speech rather than the nature of the listeners who are to hear the speech or in the limits or attributes of the speaker who must give the speech” (p41).
But he then later berates preachers who are “prejudiced against concerning themselves greatly with matters of style and delivery….in preaching, style is substance, the way truth is presented is part of the truth.” (p43). At times, then, there is the lack of internal consistency.
At other times, the book seems rather bitty – like a collection of thoughts strung together when a lecturer has reached the end of his allotted time and realised he still has a lot to say. Whilst this often works in a spoken context, it rarely does in a written one and I found those parts of the book hard going.
However, I don’t want to paint a negative picture. Far from it – this is a good book, especially in its initial defence of preaching as God means of communicating himself and growing the church. The first third of the book (probably the first lecture?) is a robust defence of what I would call “biblical preaching.”
The author also uses a puritan type language to align the work of preaching (both public proclamation and private exhortation) with prophecy.
“From my reading of Acts 2 and Luke’s account of the birth of the church I derive a few principles of prophecy: (1) The Spirit has given the world a prophetic community not simply a few outspoken social critics; (2) The goal of the Spirit’s descent is the creation of a polis a people who look, speak and act differently from the world’s notions of community; and (3) No individual prophets are possible without the existence of a peculiar prophetic community whose life together is vibrant enough to produce a band of prophets who do not mind telling the truth to one another and the world, no matter what” (p26-7).
He also has a high view of the nature of Scripture which is helpful for every preacher.
“The Bible was spoken before it was written….All Scripture is, in its various forms, proclamation remembered, recollected, and reformed in literary form. We will read Scripture in a way that is faithful to its intentions if we read Scripture as a sort of sermon before we read it as history, mythology, literature, biology or doctrine. Scripture may proclaim through literary modes that resemble what the world calls history or literature or myth or cosmology but we do the Bible a disservice any time we read it without being cognisant of its essentially theological, homiletical intent” (p32-33).
This high view of the nature of Scripture as essentially God’s sermon means that Willimon has a corresponding and welcomed high view of preaching itself. So the preacher is not analaysing an ancient text like a scholar with Homer’s Iliad, “desperately hoping to make this ancient writing relevant to a contemporary audience” but, rather, that “here, the living, resurrected Christ, intends to be with his people…Scripture is God in action, not just then but also now.” (p39).
The strong exhortation to think about serving God as our main aim is an encouragement to every preacher.
“[This is] different [to the] approach of contemporary homiletics. We tend to think of that the test of a sermon is the impact upon the listeners. Have they heard what is said? Do they consent to the argument? Are they emotionally moved? Have their lives been enriched?” However, “we are to love the text more that we love our congregational context. We preachers are to worry more about what is being said and how well we can replicate that word than we are to worry about whether or not what is being said is being heard in the world” (p20).
The second two thirds of the book though seem weaker. This may be because I have fundamental difficulty with the way Willimon applies his principles (with which I largely agree). For example, on the style of preaching,
“Biblical preaching tends to be narrative rather than abstract or propositional or theoretical because narrative is the typical way of dealing with the truth of a Trinitarian incarnate God” (p48).
“so-called expository preaching is not truly biblical when the extracted idea is expounded and applied, turning biblical narrative into abstract, general concepts and principles.”
I think I know what he is saying, but it’s not a helpful way to say it. For sure, those of us committed to biblical preaching can lack variety in our preaching (and I think Jeffrey Arthurs is best on this in his book Preaching with variety). Nevertheless, the epistles, for example, which Willimon acknowledges as God’s sermon, do precisely what he denigrates here – they do present the truth of a Trinitarian incarnate God in propositional terms.
Later on Willimon explains a bit more what he thinks it means to preach a Trinitarian God, but this section only gets 3½ pages and has some strange conclusions, for example,
"The conventional three point sermon, the sermon that explains, defines and fixes, is usually too tame and stable a medium for the dynamic living Trinity. Most of us preachers require a three year cycle of Scripture in the Common Lectionary..” (p64).
In the penultimate section “cross and resurrection in preaching” the author gives almost 5 pages to “Cruicform preaching” (which consists of 5 slightly abstract and unconnected thoughts) but gives 15 pages to “Resurrection preaching.” I would be the first to admit that Evangelicals can neglect the Resurrection at the expense of the Good Friday story – but I can’t go with Willimon’s balance. He links with crucifixion with “failure” in our preaching and the resurrection with “potential” (p79) but I’m not sure that this is a parallel that really works.
It’s easy, of course, to find fault rather than praise excellence and there is much in this book that is excellent and worthy reading for any preacher. Nevertheless, I finished up feeling a little cold about preaching rather than warmed and stirred. My initial enthusiasm gave way to befuddlement as concrete propositions gave way to somewhat confused (to my mind) application. Perhaps the book needed to be longer to allow Willimon to make his points more clearly?
Greg Jones (Duke Divinity School) wrote the blurb. “Will Willimon explains the urgent importance of preaching for the church and for people’s lives and he commends it beautifully as a theological task.” Yes, he does do that – I agree. But it is what he then does with his principles that left me feeling ever so slightly cold and more than a little dazed.
Avoiding boring sermon illustrations
Experienced preachers often suggest younger ones should start a file of sermon illustrations. There isn’t really any other way to avoid recycling illustrations everyone has heard before.
The trouble – at least for me – is that this involves an awful lot of organisation. You have to remember to write it down when the inspiration hits, or you hear that perfect story. Then you have to remember to file it properly. And you have to file it in the right place. There are plenty of illustrations that cross categories – that might be useful to illustrate humility, but seem more sensibly filed under marriage. Neither paper nor, until recently, computers, offered solutions to that problem that are anything other than baroque – at least if you build up a file of any size.
Recently I discovered a solution that is both simple and free: Evernote. This program will file whatever you like, and you can search all your notes easily – and find them by any of the words contained in it, not just by title or where you happened to file it. And then you can organise them however you want. Unlike paper notes, it is easy to tag your note both ‘humility’ and ‘marriage’. And all this is backed up to the internet, accessible from anywhere, so you can’t lose the files. It can file pictures, sounds, and web-pages as well, and even has the ability to search text in photos you add.
If you have a smartphone of almost any kind, it works on these too. So if you are out, you can make a quick note on your phone or take a photo, and when you get home it will be sitting there on your computer.
And as a result you spend far less time desperately trying to remember where you saw that article last month which illustrates exactly what you need to say in your sermon this week.