keller on preaching

I used to play a little football - or, soccer, as my American friends refer to it. Here the word 'little' refers both to time and talent. I didn't play for long and I didn't play very well. One of the challenges for me was that as I approached a position where I could shoot for goal, the goal-keeper would put this magnetic spell on my foot so that the ball would always go straight to him. Ugh. It was so difficult to strike the ball into the open spaces in the goal.

This is why I love Timothy Keller's new book on preaching - Preaching (H&S, 2015). He shoots into the spaces. He writes into the gaps - and here are the ones which I find to be compelling:

His tone
Yes, let's start with the spirit in which he writes. With Keller you always get the sense that he doesn't just love the gospel, he loves the unbeliever and enjoys the challenge of their skepticism. This was true of Reason for God all those years ago. For example, not too many proponents of expository preaching are perceived to be like this:
Try to remember that you are at odds with a system of beliefs far more than you are at war with a group of people. Contemporary people are the victims of the late-modern mind far more than they are its perpetrators. Seen in this light the Christian gospel is more of a prison break than a battle (155-6). 
His purpose
This is not 'a manual, but a manifesto' (213). While plenty of others have written the textbooks on 'how to write an expository sermon' (although there is space for a valuable Appendix on this topic, 213-240), Keller contributes a 'foundation for thinking about Christian communication of the Bible in a skeptical age ... (it is about) preaching the Word, preaching the gospel, preaching to the culture, preaching to the heart, all by preaching Christ' (241, emphasis mine).

His practice
The North American literature on preaching creaks under the burden of theory that is so difficult to translate into practice for unspectacular preachers - which is the vast majority of us. This book feels so much lighter and more accessible because it is laced together by so many examples and illustrations from Keller's own ministry (and the font is huge!).

His space
Keller is not narrow. At one point he takes a little potshot at 'expository legalism' (250). There is a place for topical preaching (30-31) and, even more satisfying, there is an advocacy of a more inductive approach to the sermon (102, 271-275, 305-308). These pages include a fascinating case study on how Jonathan Edwards shifted to a more inductive approach when he moved upstate to work among indigenous peoples.

His worldliness
Finally - an evangelical who takes the world seriously in their book on preaching. Hallelujah. Almost 40% of the book is devoted to this topic. About jolly time.

Yeah, I know this a hobby horse of mine. For years I have worked on a session which I call 'preaching worldviewishly' and now I have some required reading that I can give my students. Very exciting for me. Keller prefers to use the phrase 'baseline cultural narrative' (he identifies five of them, 121-156) noting the need to surface them, as they do tend to be assumed - and therefore invisible.
They are so pervasive, and felt to be so self-evident, that they are not visible as beliefs to those who hold them (127).
Then there is a chapter on Preaching Christ to the Culture (93-120) in which he provides 'six sound practices for preaching to and reaching a culture'.

His 'yes, but no, but yes' logic
Here he addresses the silly, shallow relevance that has so often marked the life of churches across the spectrum. For them is all about connection, but never confrontation. All salt. Little light. With Keller, the 'yes' is about affirming the deep cultural aspirations of the skeptic (cf Paul in Acts 17) ... the 'but no' is about demonstrating the futility of the search  ... and the 'but yes' is the rejoicing that 'only in Christ can this aspiration have a happy ending'. He uses this very logic in his engagement with each of the baseline cultural narratives. This is 'true contextualisation'. It is authentic relevance.
It means to resonate with, yet defy, the culture around you. It means to antagonize a society's idols while showing respect for its people and many of its hopes and aspirations. It means expressing the gospel in a way that is not only comprehensible but also convincing (99).
His balance
No wedges here. Keller is big on the Word, both in its written (Scripture) and living (Christ) forms. They go together. His double warning could not be more explicit: 'not to preach Christ without preaching the text, and not to preach the text without preaching Christ' (67). Scripture becomes the basis of the sermon because 'as we unfold the meaning of the language of Scripture, God becomes powerfully active in our lives. The Bible is ... God's power in verbal form' (34). Jesus is the focus of the sermon, as demonstrated in an exquisite chapter on 'preaching Christ from all of scripture' (70-90) - 'pull on the thread' (73) and find this to be true.

His wisdom
Plenty of wisdom to be 'caught and taught' here. For those who teach preaching, the 70 pages of 'Notes' at the end are full of wisdom. Maybe the easiest thing is to let some assorted quotations provide some flavour...
When the preacher solves Christians' problems with the gospel - not by calling them to try harder but by pointing them to deeper faith in Christ's salvation - then believers are being edified and nonbelievers are hearing the gospel, all at the same time (120).
It's fine if listeners are taking notes in the first part of the sermon, but if they are doing so at the end, you are probably not reaching their affections (166).
(On the need for a 'nondeliberate transparency) ... they can sniff out if you are more concerned about looking good or sounding authoritative than you are about honoring God and loving them. (166-167).
(It is about text, context ...) and subtext, the message under your message (201).
You may not have strong public-speaking gifts, but if you are godly, your wisdom and love and courage will make you an interesting preacher. You may not have strong pastoral or counseling gifts (eg., you may be very shy or introverted), but if you are godly, your wisdom and love and courage will enable you to comfort and guide people. You may not have strong leadership gifts (eg., you may be disorganized or cautious by nature), but if you are godly, your wisdom and love and courage will mean that people will respect and follow you (196).
Insightful preaching comes from depth of research and reading and experimentation (177). 
(Because of the mobility of people today) ... a strict, consecutive, whole-Bible-book approach will guarantee that most of your people will actually be exposed to less of the Bible's variety (40). 
(Illustration is) anything that connects an abstract proposition with the memory of an experience in the sensory world … (this) makes the truth real both by helping listeners better understand it and by inclining their hearts more to love it (169, 173).
Resist ending your sermon with 'live like this' and rather end with some form of 'You can't live like this. Oh, but there's one who did! And through faith in Him you can begin to live like this too'. The change in the room will be palpable as the sermon moves from being primarily about them to being about Jesus (179).
If your heart isn't regularly engaged in praise and repentance, if you aren't constantly astonished at God's grace in your solitude, there's no way it can happen in public. You won't touch hearts because your own heart isn't touched (168). 
His bibliography
I need to read everything Alan Stibbs and Alec Motyer have written - and then there is the grieving to be done for leaving Ryken's Dictionary of Biblical Imagery and Sam Logan's The Preacher and Preaching in storage at home in New Zealand. Silly boy.

Preach biblically. 
Preach to cultural narratives. 
Preach to the heart. 
... and preach the gospel every time.

A little personal aside, especially for my past and future students...
In teaching preaching I've enjoyed developing the 'four corners' model where the road to the sermon needs to visit Word, listener, world and preacher (neatly illustrated here, a wonderful site for preachers). There is exegesis to do and story to tell in each corner. Sometimes there has been a fifth corner, directing preachers back to the Word. Keller's book has been so energising because for the first time I overhear all four corners in a single book on preaching. What's more he has given me ideas on how to improve things. What about 1 Corinthians 1.18-2.5 providing a biblical basis - from a single passage - for all four corners? What about the first corner being Word (written) - beginning with a basis in the Scripture ... and the fifth corner being Word (living) - climaxing with a focus on Christ, ensuring the sermon is truly christotelic?

nice chatting



Ben Carswell said…
Have you read Motyer's book on preaching? Would love to see your thoughts on it.
Paul Windsor said…
Yes, I loved it, Ben. The mix of tender godliness and practical wisdom that stood out to me.

Our love to Josh!

Ben Carswell said…
Oops yes - sorry I missed that. :) Have you seen Len Sweet's 'Giving Blood'? I think it'll be a different angle for you, but he's often interesting/thought-provoking to read.
Ben Carswell said…
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