a little handbook for preachers

It has been a vintage decade for books that help preachers get started on the journey.

My favourites include the ones by Chester & Honeysett (Gospel Centred Preaching); Leeman (Reverberation); Dever & Gilbert (Preach [Theology Meets Practice]); Motyer (Preaching?); Lamb (Preaching Matters); Capill (The Heart is the Target); Bartholomew (Excellent Preaching); Millar & Campbell (Saving Eutychus); and Helm (Expositional Preaching).

Before the sun sets on the decade, let me squeeze in one more book. I read it over three mornings in Lebanon earlier this month.

Mary Hulst's A Little Handbook for Preachers

There is a freshness, a simplicity and an energy in the way Hulst writes, helped no doubt by the fact that she serves as chaplain in an undergraduate Christian college. But more than this is going on here. In a world where stuff gets recycled a lot, she is more original - such good illustrations, for example - as she makes her way through 'ten practical ways to a better sermon by Sunday', one chapter at a time.

In her Conclusion (188-189), Hulst lists these 'ways', followed by a question. Here they are:

1. Biblical preaching: 
Was the text used to point people to God or to prove something you wanted to say?

2. God-centred preaching: 
What has today's sermon taught your listeners about the triune God?

3. Grace-full preaching: 
Did you tell them what to do or tell them what God has done and how we get to live differently because of it?

4. Compelling preaching: 
If your listeners had to put your sermon in one sentence, could they do it?

5. Imaginative preaching: 
If you used an image or prop to pull the sermon together, could a seventh-grade student remember the image and link it back to the text that was preached?

6. Contextual preaching: 
What deep needs of these people on this day did the sermon address?

7. Relevant preaching: 
Did the sermon answer this question: What does God do in our lives if this story is true?

8. Embodied preaching: 
If you courageously were to watch this sermon via video, what do you guess you would want to change about the delivery? After you've watched the video: did you guess right?

9. Selfless-preaching: 
Did you avoid any self-promotion in this sermon?

10. Getting feedback about your preaching. 
If you were to take one step toward getting helpful feedback about this sermon, what would it be?

It is so good, isn't it?

In the chapter on 'God-centred preaching' (33-50), Hulst urges us 'to stretch our language and our imaginations to help our hearers look for God in fresh ways' (46). She takes the reader back to the historic creeds of the church in the search for 'rich and deep God language' (41). She encourages us to use the '5 cent synonym rather than the 25 cent (creedal) term' (40) and in so doing speak more about all of God in our preaching. 'Our God language shapes their God language' (39). Ever practical, the chapter opens with an average sermon that loses sight of God and then the chapter closes with how that sermon could become God-centred. [NB: She uses this same approach in the chapter on 'Grace-full preaching' - such a good idea!].

With 'Compelling Preaching', it was fascinating to see how the focus of the chapter was on finding 'the big idea', or the 'sermon in a sentence', as being the critical issue in becoming compelling in our preaching. Not sure I've ever made a direct link between crafting that sentence and being compelling.

With 'Imaginative Preaching', I've always encouraged preachers to 'find the spiritually significant in the utterly ordinary and everyday' - and Hulst comes along with such a good image to accompany this discipline: 'think of yourself as flypaper for the rest of the week: anything that could link this text to the lives of these people should stick to you' (88). Just great to read a chapter by someone who is committed to exposition who is also committed to creativity. It is possible!

'Contextual Preaching' was not what I expected. It is about getting close to your people, caring for your people: 'preaching contextually means preaching a sermon for these people, in this place, on this day ... (it is) to sing the song of our people; it is to put their names in the Story' (101, 115).

With 'Embodied Preaching', it all becomes very practical - and uncomfortable - as issues of delivering the sermon are considered. 'And here's the big question: If the students in your youth group were going to imitate you, what would they do?' (139). A rather scary starting point - but a good one. Included is a probing list of questions - ten of them ... gulp?! - to ask about 'the sound of your voice' (142-144). Then, as a woman, Hulst comments on a different range of issues. For example, I haven't read before that 'dangling earrings are a sound technician's nightmare' (146).

Alongside all the refreshing, practical wisdom she crams into this book, let's acknowledge how good it is to have such a helpful book written by a woman, one from the (loosely, spaciously) evangelical-reformed tradition. Have we had such an author dealing with this topic before? I can't think of one. Inspiration is over-rated. Aspiration is under-rated. And here is a skilled preacher and a wise author who can be of aspirational value to a generation of younger women making their way into preaching within a church tradition that can be an inhospitable environment for them.

Can I slip in one little concern as I close? Having spent this past decade focused on the peoples of the majority world, I'd love to see a revised 'global' edition of this book. I often feel this way now, especially with North American authors. While they cannot be blamed for writing into their context, I wish they'd realise that their books travel and that sometimes their ideas do not travel as well as their books. For all its endearing strengths, this is yet another book that tends to assume a readership that is healthy and wealthy, free and safe. That is just not the case for the majority of God's people.

nice chatting


NB: Actually, I read an Indian edition of this book, published by GS Books (OM) and for sale only in South Asia and the Gulf. I'm not sure I have too many readers from those areas of the world, but just to say that for $3.00 you can have a superb book on preaching in your hands. The same is true for Murray Capill's The Heart is the Target, mentioned above.


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