preaching matters

Yes - another book on preaching, pitched primarily for people making a start.
(I've tried to surf this recent wave for readers - herehere, here, and here!).

Jonathan Lamb's Preaching Matters (IVP, 2014) has arrived.

I read the book in one sitting - or, one lying, to be accurate - early one jet-lagged morning in Kingston, Jamaica. Not sure I've ever done that with a non-novel before. Maybe they should add that endorsement to the dozen others that fill the first four pages!

Jonathan Lamb was Langham Preaching's first director and pioneer, under whose guidance the work touched sixty countries in just ten years, ex nihilo and with limited resources. Amazing. As his successor, it often leaves me breathless. Jonathan is now CEO and Ambassador-at-Large for Keswick Ministries globally.

There are a number of distinctives which help this book stand out from the crowd...
1. Jonathan distills such a wide array of reading and experience into simple, clear and brief description. This is what held me through the early hours as I read, just as it is the often overlooked combination that keeps people awake during sermons. Simple. Clear. Brief. For me, it means this book lines up alongside Darrell Johnson's The Glory of Preaching as one to use for required reading in more formal college/seminary courses. It is that good.

2. The use of Nehemiah 8.1-12 to provide an unobtrusive, gentle structure to the book is a bit different and it works well.

3. As a little aside...  Just before we shifted here to India, I taught a final preaching course, something that had been part of my annual rhythm for two decades. It was a master's course and so experienced pastors comprised the core, many of whom I had taught in their undergraduate days. Overall, it was a disappointing experience. As a teacher of preaching, I left NZ with my tail between my legs. Their confidence in the word seem to have eroded. Intimidated by a very difficult mission context, they seemed to be humming and hahing theologically. Deep conviction no longer seemed to hold them. As I listened to them preach, it seemed that the very sin I had pleaded with them to avoid all those years earlier was now holding them - namely, scanning the horizon for the (technique-filled) waves coming from off-shore, finding and riding the next big one, only to find that it crashes into nothingness on the shoreline - just like all the other ones before it. I chastened them but, more significantly, I chastened myself and have made changes in what and why and how I teach preaching as a result.

Techniques have their place. Of course they do (see below). But our confidence, our hope, does not lie in mastering the latest magical technique. It lies in the transforming power of the gospel which comes to us as word, written and living. The secret is found in being mastered by convictions - for a lifetime. In the opening pages (19-61), Jonathan weaves his way through truths and passages to identify some of these convictions, starting with:
Preaching matters, because it is a God-ordained means of encountering Christ (16).
If a preacher does not have this conviction holding them through thick and thin, they should consider another vocation. Later, Jonathan adds:
Too often, the Bible doesn't set the agenda; it is simply the background music (22).
If a preacher is not willing to work hard at letting the Bible set the agenda of the sermon, again they should consider another vocation. It is that big a deal.

4. Speaking of techniques(!), Jonathan then heads in this very direction (62-108). As he does so, the approach of Langham Preaching is overheard on every page. This is intentional, as the book is partly motivated by a desire to get a basic resource into the hands of those we train worldwide. In a nice touch, Jonathan dedicates his book 'to the courageous preachers of the Majority World from whom I have gained so much inspiration.' Then he takes the reader step-by-step through the process of moving from text to sermon in pursuit of a sermon that is faithful, clear, and relevant. So practical and so useful. The Appendix even gathers some of the worksheets that are being used worldwide.

With Jonathan at one of my favourite places on earth
- St Bathans in Central Otago (New Zealand)
Reading Jonathan's book provoked another trajectory of thought. There is an irony here. The quotation which I hear attributed to John Stott more frequently than any other is his phrase 'double listening'. In fulfilling our callings - including the call to preach - we need to listen to word and world, text and context. Or, changing the metaphor to the title of Stott's definitive book on preaching, our callings involve 'bridge-building' - particularly in the call to preach.

But here is the irony. Those who stand in this Stottian tradition - particularly the British and Australians with whom I have chatted and trained and whose books I have read - don't seem to me, in practice, to take listening to the world as seriously as the Stott quotation suggests they should. Does not double-listening suggest that in the course of the sermon we need to be biblical exegetes, but also cultural exegetes? Does not double-listening suggest that in the course of the sermon we need to instill the true biblical story and worldview, but always alongside the need to expose the false stories and worldviews of those with whom we live and move and have our being in wider society? Does not double listening suggest that in the course of the sermon a preacher is a skilled biblical theologian - but also, at the very least, an amateur sociologist? Have we listened carefully enough to Stott's call to be double-listeners?

These are some of the questions on my mind, as I read Jonathan's book and as I pick up the reins of  leadership from him. Don't get me wrong. The pursuit of relevance in the sermon is given priority (109-121), as is careful application (150-157). A foundational session on 'making the connection' inhabits the basic Langham training. It's great. But I do wonder aloud, for those who stand in the Stottian tradition, whether this area needs further strengthening - even methodologising. What are the techniques to use? Just as there will be steps to take and skills to learn in handling the word well, will there not also be steps to take and skills to learn in handling the world well? I think so. But my hunch is that well-convictioned preachers don't want to go there because they think to do so will diminish the preaching of the word in some way. It ain't necessarily so. Either we go there, learning new steps and skills, or we pull back from the claim to be double-listening, bridge-building preachers.

nice chatting

Paul

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