Ronald E. Sleeth, God’s Word and Our Words: Basic Homiletics (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1986), 136 pp., $7.95, pb.
The late Ronald E. Sleeth spent his lifetime preaching and teaching preachers. A long and distinguished teaching career took him to several institutions of note, including Southern Methodist University, the Vanderbilt Divinity School, and the Iliff School of Theology. Recognized as a statesman among preachers, he was the author of several books and served as president of the Academy of Homiletics.
God’s Word and Our Words represents the distillation of Sleeth’s philosophy of the preaching task. Not yet fully complete at Sleeth’s untimely death, the manuscript was completed by Fred B. Craddock. Though the subtitle is “Basic Homiletics,” the text is not at all basic in the sense of simplistic or pedestrian. It deals with foundational issues, and many preachers will benefit by covering these bases once again.
The reader is impressed from the onset by the explicitly theological perspective taken by the author. In the very first line of the volume Sleeth suggests: “To understand preaching correctly, one needs to see that Christian proclamation is a theological act.”
The act of preaching rests upon a theological claim, that God has spoken a word to humanity and that the preacher has been entrusted with its proclamation. The gospel itself, avers Sleeth, is a preached gospel, not a static possession of the church. He borrows from Calvin to identify an essential mark of the true church as where the pure Word of God is preached.
Sleeth’s observations in this regard are nothing new. Nevertheless, they are a warning to the contemporary church to guard the centrality of the Word of God preached. Sleeth’s cogent presentation serves as a challenge and admonition to the preacher. He cuts to the heart of the issue: “To state it starkly, many preachers’ malaise about the preaching task is not really their concern with the effectiveness of preaching to touch lives, but it is rather their own struggle with revelation–or even faith.”
Sleeth turns next to the roots of preaching in the Jewish tradition and classical rhetoric. Preaching was first the mark of the Jewish communities of faith. Rejecting the familiar prophet/priest and synagogue/temple distinctions as reductionistic, Sleeth suggests that the proclamation of the Word was a part of both the temple and the synagogue, and was central to the role of the priest, as well as that of the prophet. The contemporary Christian preacher is impoverished by a neglect of the Old Testament witness to the purpose and power of preaching.
In much the same manner, Christian preaching finds much of its rootage in the classical patterns of rhetoric popular in the New Testament and Apostolic eras. Indeed, Sleeth suggests that the role of classical rhetoric in the development of preaching cannot be overemphasized. While this background has been disparaged by some, Sleeth stresses the positive contributions of the classical tradition as rooted in Aristotle’s Rhetoric and evidenced by Paul at Mars Hill. Sleeth’s treatment of this issue is exceedingly brief, and can but point to the rootage in this tradition.
Beyond the Jewish tradition and classical rhetoric, Sleeth identifies the nature of the gospel itself as the third and final root of Christian preaching. While appreciative of C. H. Dodd’s work in the early Christian message, Sleeth rejects the firm distinction between kerygma and didache assumed by many. This leads the author into his next chapter on words as the medium of God’s presence.
While demonstrating his familiarity with the communication theories of Marshall McLuhan, Sleeth stresses the inherently oral character of Christian preaching. While never suggesting that sermons should not be written, Sleeth does stress that the sermon must never be considered a written document. The sermon is that which is presented orally. The spoken word remains the basic unit of communication and comprehension in spite of the advent of the printing press. One might surmise that the quantity of spoken words has not decreased since Gutenberg, though the quality may have suffered greatly.
“Using the Bible Biblically” is one of Sleeth’s central concerns. Assuming a commitment to exegetical honesty, the author suggests a succession of steps from text to sermon. In a most creative fashion Sleeth describes an impressionistic paraphrase, and a more developed interpretive paraphrase as helpful steps toward the isolation of the central idea the sermon will eventually take.
Sleeth does not suffer sermonic incompetence gladly. He suggests that many sermons are like the universe before creation–“They are without form and void!” Without discussing sermonic types in any detail, Sleeth stresses the importance of “the three old chestnuts”: unity, coherence, and emphasis.
The remainder of the book deals mostly with matters related to the preacher and the actual delivery of the sermon. The totality of the preacher’s personality falls under Sleeth’s consideration. Integrity, character, and competence are leading components of this concern. The preacher must earn the right to preach and never isolate the eleven o’clock hour on Sunday as the moment when one becomes “a preacher.”
With the same candor, Sleeth addresses the delivery of the sermon as the Word of God preached, to borrow Barth’s designation. He identifies delivery as one of the key areas of sermonic failure.
“An otherwise good sermon dies on the runway when the preacher does not have the thrust to get it off the ground.” The preacher must take time to develop the sermon orally after it is in final written form.
Sleeth’s holistic approach leads him to consider the preaching event within the larger context of the service of worship. Rejecting the model of the preacher and choir as performer and the congregation as audience, he suggests a model of the preacher as prompter leading the congregation in the performance of worship before a divine audience.
The volume concludes with pointers toward biblical preaching, appropriate language, and the power of words in the world. For the first, Sleeth warns against the “schizophrenic sermon”-that is, “a topic at war with the text.” In matters of language he points to the necessarily metaphorical and analogical character of the word.
In less than 150 pages the volume covers most of the topics on the syllabus for an introductory course in homiletics. Not surprisingly, the book is remarkable more for its breadth than for its depth. This is not to detract from the value of the book, however. Though it covers some issues in a very cursory fashion, it deals with the theological foundation with care, and offers helpful observations in each chapter.
One may note the datedness of the discussions concerning contemporary communication theories, but other books deal explicitly with these matters. As it is, Professor Sleeth dealt with the preaching task with both brutal honesty and apparent confidence. We are richer for his contribution.
Kelly Miller Smith, Social Crisis Preaching: The Lyman Beecher Lectures 1983 (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1984), 125 pp., $9.95, hb.
Thomas R. McKibbens, Jr., The Forgotten Heritage: A Lineage of Great Baptist Preaching (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1986), 251 pp., $27.95, hb.; $18.95, pb.
Though one of the youngest publishing houses in a crowded field, Mercer University Press has charted an ambitious program and has already released several titles of note. Among those are these two volumes worthy of a preacher’s consideration.
Kelly Miller Smith, for over thirty years pastor of the First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, in Nashville and longtime member of the faculty of the Vanderbilt Divinity School, presents in Social Crisis Preaching his program for preaching as an agent of social transformation. Initially presented as the prestigious Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School, the content of the book rests upon the author’s conviction that preaching, “in spite of its fragility and other problems, is a viable means for addressing critical social issues.”
Smith begins with a brief review of the social crisis content of the Beecher Lectures of the past. This illuminating discussion reveals that preaching for social transformation is nothing new; as the author stresses, it is as old as our biblical faith. Preaching of any order is audacious and presumptuous, Smith suggests, so the preacher should not feel that social crisis preaching is of any other order. Controversy is a given, and is characteristic of all forms of convictional preaching.
The reader is not surprised to find that a black preacher who ministered in a Southern city the past thirty years found himself in the midst of a social crisis. Smith’s claim, however, is that every preacher in every context of ministry is found in the context of social crisis of one sort or another. The minister’s first task is to identify the social crisis in which the community of faith is found.
Smith offers a series of questions which lead the preacher to an understanding of the social crisis: “What crisis?” “Who are these people?” “Why are they here?” “What do I perceive their needs to be?” “What can I do about it?”
In later chapters the author deals with the actual structure and mechanics of the preaching task specially crafted for social crisis preaching. Interestingly, he also discusses the “post-delivery function” of the preacher. His admonition: “Believe and act on the powerful and uncompromising Word of Almighty God.”
The publication of any series of Beecher Lectures is an event worthy of notice. These lectures challenge, inspire, and educate. Social Crisis Preaching also serves as a good introduction to a philosophy of black preaching, a rich heritage of which far too many preachers remain unknowledgeable. In a powerful section Smith discusses blackness as a “sign” and as “an assignment from God.”
In this volume we have the testimony of one whose earthly pilgrimage and ministry speak mightily of his faithfulness to his assignment. Kelly Miller Smith died shortly after the publication of this volume.
In The Forgotten Heritage Thomas McKibbens of Southeastern Baptist Seminary offers a helpful review of the development of a significant strain of Baptist preaching-a discussion which will profit both Baptists and the rest of the evangelical spectrum.
Though emotionalism and personality cults are often identified with contemporary preaching and attributed to the influence of revivalism and the frontier, McKibbens identifies another heritage of evangelical preaching, a heritage which “combines both intellectual rigor and evangelistic warmth in a happy homiletical marriage.”
To demonstrate his thesis McKibbens traces the development of this homiletical heritage from the early Baptists in England to John A. Broadus and beyond. Based on extensive and impressive research, McKibbens paints his canvas with a fine brush. English preachers such as John Clifford, Alexander Maclaren, and H. Wheeler Robinson are considered, along with the development of the “New Evangelical Calvinism.” This Calvinistic heritage is the subject of renewed interest among some quarters of Baptist life today, and is evidenced by the reprinting of seminal works from the period.
Within the American tradition the author discusses developments from the colonial period, in which Baptist preaching was considered by the established churches as a “hazard to the commonwealth,” through the revolutionary and civil war eras.
Of particular interest to many will be McKibbens’ discussion of John A. Broadus, whose The Preparation and Delivery of Sermons remains a hot-selling volume over one hundred years after its initial publication. Broadus is fully representative of the tradition described by McKibbens. In his treatment of Broadus the author cites approvingly the evaluation of J. H. Farmer of McMaster University that in Broadus “the preacher and teacher met together, the intellectual and spiritual kissed each other.”
It is just this sort of romance that McKibbens describes in the fourteen chapters of this volume. He has demonstrated the fruits of detailed research and presented a formidable challenge to those who point to the heritage of frontier revivalism as the sole fountain of Baptist and evangelical preaching. Significantly, McKibbens remains appreciative of that heritage as well, and does not ask the reader to choose between Spurgeon and Maclaren. He does, however, challenge the preacher to an intellectual rigor which complements evangelical fervor.
F. Dean Lueking, Preaching: The Art of Connecting God and People (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1985), 126 pp., $12.95, hb.
“In three decades of preaching, reading about preaching, and talking with preachers, I have yet to come across a full length treatment of the subject of this book: people in preaching.”
With this observation Lueking launches into a presentation which seeks to address the personal dimension of the preaching event and the life of the preacher. People, Lueking points out, are essential to preaching itself. The author’s aim is to demonstrate how the preacher can weave the richness of persons into the sermon.
Lueking has served the Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Illinois, for over thirty years. That explains at least part of his ability to weave the personal dimension into the preaching task; he knows his congregation very well.
He begins the book with a protest against preaching which is devoid of human experience. Such preaching, Lueking suggests, is “an offering of stones to people seeking bread.” He calls preachers to greater reflection about life and an intentional observation of the world of persons.
The Bible, it is suggested, is itself the story of people. From the accounts of Abraham’s faithful journey to the great cloud of witnesses seen by the writer of Hebrews, the focus is on the working of God in the lives of people. Biblical preaching will reproduce this personal focus.
Though the concern for integrating persons in preaching is the focus of the entire volume, Lueking deals with other matters related to the preaching task. The preparation for sermon development and the actual writing of the sermon itself should not be separated from the focus on persons.
The preacher, Lueking points out, is a person among people. Family, friends, and the congregation are just the beginning of the most obvious persons around the preacher. Lueking makes clear that every personal encounter or observation is potentially meaningful. His admonition is that the preacher become an exegete of persons as well as texts.
Lueking’s proposal is clearly that personal experiences, of the preacher and of others, should form part of the content as well as the context of the sermon. As described in this book, this process of integration focuses on stories illustrative of the biblical truth which forms the authority of the sermon. As presented in this volume this style of preaching would include, but not be limited to, what has been termed “confessional preaching.”
Lueking offers several guidelines for appropriate integration. First among these is discretion. Lueking deals candidly with the sensitive matter of speaking publicly of matters known to the preacher as pastor. The passage of time and the permission of the participants are offered as keys. Other guidelines include propriety and substance. In addition, Lueking warns that the object of all humor should be the preacher, and not another.
Lueking’s presentation should challenge all preachers to be more sensitive to the myriad of opportunities which come by way of persons. He offers several examples of stories which have come through his ministry–stories which serve as pointers toward other stories and not as illustrations for the reader’s sermons.
He deals also with the art of telling the story. The art, Lueking suggests, is in telling the story in such a manner that the hearers make the connection that the story is “about me.”
The volume is arranged into eleven chapters with a list of suggested readings appended at the end of the book. The book has obvious merit. Any reader who hears or reads a good many sermons a year will recognize the impersonal sterility of much preaching–and some preachers! Lueking’s challenge is well taken, and should encourage all to be better integrators of the personal dimension.
Some preachers, however, will find Lueking’s own model uncomfortable. All will find his suggestions instructive.
The book lacks a clear focus in several sections. The reader may not be certain whether Lueking is discussing preaching, the pastoral ministry, or the Christian life in its totality. But then, that is his point.
G. Curtis Jones, 1000 Illustrations for Preaching and Teaching (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1986), 406 pp., $9.95, pb.
Preachers who find illustration collections helpful will find a treasure trove in this volume. Arranged by fifty categories, the illustrations are easily readable. The indexing of such a collection is a vexing task, yet this volume has one of the most comprehensive indexes yet found.
Stephen A. Odom, editor, Steady in an Unsteady World: Sermons by Leslie Weatherhead (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1986), 128 pp., $7.95, hb.
Without any doubt, Leslie Dixon Weatherhead [1893-1976] was one of the most popular preachers of the twentieth century. Even as the religious life of Great Britain was in apparent decline, Weatherhead brought the crowds to hear him preach at the famous Methodist church in London, City Temple.
Idolized by some, anathematized by others, Weatherhead was a veritable power in the pulpit. Stephen Odom has put us in his debt with this collection of fourteen previously unpublished sermons. Though his voice is silent, his words bear powerful testimony to the vigor of his preaching and his stated purpose “to change men’s lives, to make God real.”
Alton H. McEachern, The Lord’s Presence: A Resource for Reverent Lord’s Supper Services (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1986), 154 pp., $4.95, pb.
Alton McEachern has established a reputation for creative and worshipful ministry. This volume includes forty complete worship services with the focus on the observance of the Lord’s Supper. Musical selections, appropriate readings and complete texts of communion meditations are included. All were the result of worship services at the First Baptist Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.
Lewis H. Drummond and Paul R. Baxter, How to Respond to a Skeptic (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 134 pp., $4.95, pb.
Skeptics abound in the contemporary world. Drummond and Baxter offer sound advice on approaching skeptics with the claims of the gospel. The authors identify nine different types of skeptics, ranging from the suffering skeptic to the humanist skeptic. Sound advice and biblical insights are offered to the preacher. “The love of Christ,” suggests the authors, “is to be our constraining motive.”
Albert J. D. Walsh, Reflections on Death and Grief (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 96 pp., $4.50, pb.
Walsh, a United Church of Christ minister, offers some meaningful insights which will be of help to every minister who deals with persons experiencing grief. It is appropriate that the author spends considerable time addressing Listening, Waiting and Silence before he comments on Speaking in his final chapter.

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About The Author


Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr. serves as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the largest seminaries in the world.

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