Each year we highlight a single book that has been published within the past year and has offered the most significant contribution to the literature about preaching. Sometimes it is because the book offers significant new insights about our work; sometimes the choice reflects the influence of the author, which gives the book the opportunity to shape the preaching conversation more significantly.
This year, our Preaching Book of the Year is Timothy Keller’s book Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (Viking). Keller is well known within the American church, which means pastors pay attention to what he has to say. While his book does not contain brand new insights about preaching, they are insights many preachers may not have integrated into their own work. Keller’s testimony may encourage pastors to explore new ways to communicate biblical truth more effectively in an increasingly secular age.
We reviewed Keller’s book in the November-December 2015 issue of Preaching. Here are some excerpts from what we said then:
Through his work as senior pastor of New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, chairman of Redeemer City to City (which has planted more than 250 churches in 48 cities), and author of best-selling books such as The Reason for God, Keller has become one of the nation’s best-known pastors and Christian leaders. While his previous books have been targeted at a more general audience—sometimes aimed specifically at non-believers—his newest book is one preacher’s attempt to share what he has learned with his fellow pastors.
Keller tries to broaden the audience a bit. In his introduction, he identifies three levels of the ministry of the Word. Level 1 is what should be expected of every believer: to be able to share biblical truth with others. Level 3 is what we identify as preaching: “the public preaching and exposition of the Bible to assembled gatherings.” Level 2 is what falls between informal, every-Christian conversation and formal sermons. Keller says that in the contemporary church, this level might include “writing, blogging, teaching classes and small groups, mentoring, moderating open discussion forums on issues of faith,” etc. He indicates that this book is for those who operate at the second and third levels, though readers quickly will gather that the book’s content is overwhelmingly aimed at the third level of preaching.
Early on, Keller shares his own conviction that all preaching should be Christ-centered, no matter what portion of Scripture in which the text may be found. With Paul, Keller believes that Christ is “the key to understanding each biblical text.” We preach, he says, not merely to inform but to be life-changing. In doing so, we must speak into the culture, challenging its faulty assumptions and demonstrating how Christ alone can enable people to achieve their deepest aspirations for good.
The bulk of Keller’s book consists of three major sections: Serving the Word, Reaching the People, and In Demonstration of the Spirit and of Power. In the first section, he focuses on the central purpose of preaching: the proclamation of the Word of God. Keller contrasts expository and topical preaching, as well as makes the case for exposition as the preferred (but not exclusive) approach for pastors.
In the second major part of the book, Reaching the People, Keller explores the challenge of preaching to a changing culture. He argues that expository preaching need not be juxtaposed against preaching aimed at life change; instead, preaching can adapt methods in order to confront the culture with biblical truth more effectively. He suggests and explains six practices that can enable preaching to reach a culture:
• Use accessible or well-explained vocabulary;
• Employ respected authorities to strengthen your theses;
• Demonstrate an understanding of doubts and objections;
• Affirm in order to challenge baseline cultural narratives;
• Make gospel offers that push on the culture’s pressure points;
• Call for gospel motivation.
The third major section of the book—in a single chapter—is a discussion of the role of the Holy Spirit in preaching. A valuable addition to the book is Keller’s appendix on Writing an Expository Message, a mini-manual demonstrating his own approach to developing a sermon. Many preachers will find this to be one of the most helpful sections of what is a quite useful book for those who proclaim the Word.
As Keller acknowledges, this is not a textbook on preaching, but it contains rich insights from an effective preacher who has demonstrated a Spirit-anointed ability to connect with skeptical young urbanites. It is a book deserving a spot on any preacher’s bookshelf.