Determining the best new book in the world of preaching and homiletics is a daunting and difficult task. The task is made all the more challenging by the release of several new volumes marked by originality, impact, and the potential for lasting significance.
Nevertheless, one current release stands as a symbol of the rebirth of preaching in the current era. This factor led to the recognition of Best Sermons 1, edited by James W. Cox, as Preaching’s 1989 Book of the Year.
Best Sermons 1 delivers precisely what its title promises — a collection of sermons exhibiting excellence and recognizable quality. Nevertheless, Best Sermons 1 is perhaps most significant as a symbol of the renewal of the American pulpit.
A collection of this nature would have been almost unthinkable just a few years ago — a period marked by what Fred Craddock termed as “the pulpit in the shadows.” The pulpit is in the shadows no more. Preaching has emerged from the turbulent sixties and the passionless seventies with a renewal of energy, intensity, creativity, and meaning. Best Sermons 1, the product of a widely-advertised competition, is indicative of the tremendous potential to be found in American pulpits.
Readers of Best Sermons 7 will discover 24 winning sermons joined by 28 additional sermons commissioned by editor James W. Cox from individuals of “considerable visibility” in the preaching world. Together these 52 sermons comprise one of the most interesting collections of sermons to emerge in recent years.
The 24 winning sermons demonstrate their worthiness with energy, discernment, pathos, and conviction. The commissioned sermons are drawn from preachers of proven and acclaimed ability, and are clearly from among the best in each preacher’s arsenal.
The sermons in Best Sermons 1 make the volume a must for the preaching minister. No other contemporary volume brings together such a wide variety of worthy sermons. The winning entries are fresh, innovative, and compelling. Sermons range from the didactic to the confessional, from prose to poetry, and from established sermon styles to more innovative and experimental models. None are quixotic or frivolous.
Though Best Sermons 1 has set for itself an exceedingly ambitious program it proves itself worthy of the preacher’s attention and investment.
James W. Cox, editor of Best Sermons 1, is by any measure one of the leading figures in the world of preaching. Professor of Christian Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, Cox has emerged as an established authority on preaching and preachers. The author of several books — including a major text on homiletics, Preaching (Harper and Row, 1986) — Cox is also the editor of the annual Minister’s Manual.
Professor Cox was interviewed by Associate Editor R. Albert Mohler.
Preaching: It has been almost thirty years since the “Best Sermons” competition of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Why a new series now? How did the idea come about?
Cox: Interestingly, the idea to inaugurate a new “Best Sermons” competition came about just as several major texts on preaching emerged. These comprehensive texts, including the works by Fred Craddock, John Killinger, Walter Burghardt, David Buttrick, and my own book, say much about the current state of preaching by their emergence and the readership they have enjoyed.
I was involved in the Academy of Homiletics from its beginnings in the 1960’s and later served as its president. The Academy served as a movement against the perceived decline in the pulpit. The current period must be seen against that backdrop. I really believe that there is a keener interest in preaching now than at any time in the last twenty-five years.
Best Sermons actually came about as an idea during a dinner conversation with my Harper and Row editor. The older series had been started by Joseph Fort Newton and continued later by G. Paul Butler. The time seemed right for a new series.
Preaching: You and your editorial committee read and reviewed over 2,000 sermons in the course of this competition. What did you discover in this process? Were there any surprises among these sermons?
Cox: Two factors came as surprises. First, the sermons were marked by a wide variety of styles and the absence of any stereotyped form. Yet, secondly, these same sermons exhibited so many common concerns — social problems, ethical issues, and theological issues. So many different preachers from all over America, yet they demonstrated a remarkable commonality of concerns.
In addition, these sermons were as relevant and biblical as they were imaginative. They demonstrated the preachers’ real ability to feel their way into a biblical text.
Preaching: You described in the book the process by which the sermons were judged. What have you found to be the essential qualities of excellent sermons?
Cox: I think you would have to look for originality, biblical basis, relevance, clarity, and interest. All of these must be present in order for a sermon to be judged as excellent.
Preaching: In your twenty-nine years of teaching preachers you have observed the waxing and waning cycles of the American pulpit. How do you read the past three decades of preaching in the churches?
Cox: There is no doubt that preaching has come into a new period of prominence. Part of this can be attributed to the more biblical character of much contemporary preaching. Preachers are more inclined to wrestle with the biblical text and do so with a thoroughness often lacking in the past. An additional factor in this renewed attention to the biblical text should be attributed to the increasing use of the lectionary in both Protestant and Roman Catholic circles.
Preaching: What counsel would you offer our readers — motivated preachers who are constantly seeking to improve their preaching?
Cox: I think the most important suggestion I can pass along is to plan your preaching. Plan for the short-term and the long-term.
As a part of this I would stress the importance of reading. George Buttrick determined to read two new books each week. Charles Haddon Spurgeon set for himself the habit of reading one hard book each week. Related to this, of course, is the importance of filing one’s material for fresh and interesting illustrations.
Preaching: What is the hallmark of excellence for the Christian preacher?
Cox: We must preach Jesus Christ as the revelation of God to us. We must do this with faithfulness and passion. We ought to present each sermon as an offering to God, through which by His grace Jesus Christ becomes the real preacher of the sermon. This will happen if we are faithful, and if we exhibit genuine love for the people hearing the sermon.
Ten New Books Every Preacher Should Read
1. James W. Cox, ed. Best Sermons 1. Harper and Row, 1988.
2. Richard Lischar, Theories of Preaching: Selected Readings in the Homiletical Tradition. Labyrinth Press, 1987.
3. Walter Burghardt, Preaching: The Art and the Craft. Paulist Press, 1987.
4. Donald Coggan, Preaching: The Sacrament of the Word. Crossroad Publishing Co., 1988.
5. Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, eds., The Literary Guide to the Bible. Harvard University Press, 1987.
6. David Rosenberg, ed. Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1987.
7. Timothy F. George, Theology of the Reformers. Broadman Press, 1988.
8. George Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism. Eerdsman Publishing Co., 1987.
9. Robert Wunthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion. Princeton University Press, 1988.
10. Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, J. I. Packer, eds., New Dictionary of Theology. InterVarsity Press, 1988.

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