Richard Allen Bodey, Inside the Sermon: Thirteen Preachers Discuss Their Methods of Preparing Messages (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), 214 pp., paper.
Though preaching is a public activity, sermon preparation is not. Few preachers have the opportunity to observe other preachers at the task of sermon preparation. Richard Allen Bodey addresses this lack of opportunity with the publication of Inside the Sermon.
As Bodey comments, “Nothing fascinates preachers — and students of preaching — quite as much as learning how other preachers … go about the task of preaching.” Inside the Sermon offers a unique glimpse into the homiletical methods of thirteen notable preachers.
Each of the contributors is an established evangelical preacher. Diversity of denominational pedigree is matched with a combination of older and younger preachers. Together, the volume represents a cross-section of evangelical Protestant preaching in the English-speaking world. Each contributor submitted a chapter detailing his homiletical method and a sermon illustrating the method at work.
J. Sidlow Baxter is a household name in many evangelical households. Born in Australia, Baxter served churches in England and Scotland before moving his ministry to the United States. Baxter describes his homiletical method as “reading till captivated by the text.” As Baxter notes: “My usual procedure is to let a text or a passage capture and compel my own heart and mind.”
Baxter roots his method in the continual reading of Scripture, though he warns that such reading must not look only for sermon suggestions “as a hunter stalks deer.” From the text Baxter moves to organization and presentation of the message. He warns against “over-elaborateness or intricacy,” but also levels criticism at the sermon “which is merely like an unwinding ball of string.” Such sermons can end up as a “meaningless ramble.”
Direction and purpose are important components of Baxter’s homiletical method, and he states clearly that “From the opening sentence onwards we should give the impression that we are going somewhere worthwhile and that we are going there by the best route.” Likewise, illustrations should “illuminate,” not just “decorate.”
Several of the contributors gave attention to the definition of preaching. This definitional process is all the more important in contemporary preacher for much of what happens in pulpits today is something other than preaching, as classically defined. Baxter defines the sermon as “a message from God, derived from his written Word, under his guidance, through meditation, prayer, study, and the illumination of the Holy Spirit.” As such it differs from essays, poetry, dramas, and lectures, each of which has a different form and purpose.
Should the preacher use notes? Baxter proposes that the use of notes should depend on the type of sermon preached and the content of the message. “My own experience,” he relates, “is that I must be free enough from notes to maintain eye contact with my audience, yet have just enough memos to ensure that I do not omit any link in the argument.” Other contributors reveal radically diverse opinions and practices on this issue.
Bodey himself contributed a chapter and a sermon. In “Preaching Through the Church Year” the editor/contributor cites his concern for doctrinal preaching as the determining factor in his appreciation for the church year.
In framing his own homiletical method, Bodey cited the influence of Donald Macleod, Lloyd M. Perry, George A. Buttrick, and Stephen Olford, among others. As a young pastor Bodey read each day a sermon by an outstanding expositor, “not primarily to glean materials for a sermon … but to observe their methods of handling the biblical text….”
As professor of practical theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Bodey also points his students toward what Andrew Blackwood called a “homiletical garden,” where sermon ideas are planted and cultivated for later harvest. As Bodey comments: “All of life is grist for the homiletical mill, and the wise pastor will train himself to think homiletically, seeing sermons everywhere.”
Several contributors chose metaphors to describe their method of sermon preparation. Stuart Briscoe, pastor since 1970 of the Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, suggests that developing a sermon should be like “constructing a sermonic ‘Taj Mahal’.” Preparing a sermon “is not unlike putting up a building.” Stage must follow stage in the process of construction.
The type of building to be constructed is also of vital importance. As Briscoe asks of each message: “Why on earth am I going to preach this sermon and what do I intend to achieve by it?” Any number of sermons would be improved — or laid aside — if preachers took this question with full honesty and seriousness.
Briscoe’s first step is “selecting a site,” that is, determining the text. At times, the particular need may drive the preacher to a text; at other times “it is often advisable to preach through complete passages of Scripture, in which case the site is picked in advance and the only question is ‘What kind of building needs to be erected on this passage of Scripture’?”
The next step is “drawing up plans.” The preacher must have a “a clear idea where he wants to go.” Briscoe points the preacher to the virtues of simplicity and clarity.
“Gathering the materials” and “laying a foundation” are the next stages in construction, and Briscoe sends the preacher to the exegetical task through commentary research, word studies, and other study. The preacher must keep in mind that his task is to say something. As Briscoe warns: “We need constantly to pray that we might be delivered from the art of almost saying something.”
“Putting up the structure” and “finishing the building” are the final stages of construction. Briscoe reveals that he does not preach from a manuscript, but warns that this must be supported by ample preparation.
Stuart Briscoe is one of American evangelicalism’s most popular preachers, exerting a powerful ministry from Elmbrook Church and his conference speaking ministry.
Another realm of experience is found in Edmund P. Clowney. Former president of Westminster Theological Seminary, Clowney has an established reputation as a preacher. Those who have followed his preaching ministry will not be surprised that he entitled his contribution “Preaching Christ from Biblical Theology.”
Clowney’s emphasis on biblical theology will be appreciated by readers, who will admire the doctrinal content of his sermons and the warmth of his exegesis. Clowney suggests that preachers should give attention to “disciplines that prepare us to know the Bible, the Lord, and people.” These three components are mutually linked and inseparable in focus.
A similar theological contribution comes from Sinclair Ferguson, professor of systematic theology at Westminster Seminary. The goal and purpose of preaching, he suggests, is communion with God.
Ferguson’s commitment to the authority and purpose of Scripture leads him to see the sermon as more than instruction, for the task of the preacher must be “feeding, nourishing, strengthening, warning” and seeking the hearts of his hearers.
“It took me a while as a preacher to understand the significance of the fact that the Bible is a two-edged sword,” Ferguson testifies. “It wounds the listener in order to heal him; but it also wounds the preacher.” As Ferguson comments, this explains may of the mysterious experiences found in the course of preaching.
These five contributors are followed by Leighton Ford, H. Beecher Hicks, Herschel H. Hobbs, John A. Huffman, S. Lewis Johnson, Walter C. Kaiser, J. I. Packer, and Ray C. Stedman. Each has produced an essay describing his own method of sermon preparation and, in effect, a short philosophy of preaching. Each is a preacher of considerable skill and reputation.
The essays contain much that would be expected of the contributors, but surprises lurk as well. Some preachers who seem to have little structure in their sermons actually give more attention to this component than their listeners would ever guess. Most appealingly, the essays give a glimpse into minds at work.
Each of the preachers included in this volume has a following, and few readers are likely to be familiar with all the contributors. This adds to the value of the volume. No other volume puts H. Beecher Hicks, Herschel H. Hobbs, and John Huffman back to back, each discussing his homiletical method, and each contributing a sermon out of his ministry.
The review of material included in five of the chapters holds true for the whole. Preachers of all denominational traditions and those who preach to diverse types of congregations will find the volume both interesting and informative. A surprising (or perhaps not so surprising at all) revelation found in the volume is the diverse influences indicated by many of the contributors. In turn, each essay in this volume holds the potential of influencing the reader. Inside the Sermon will be welcomed by preachers and students of preaching.
Book Notes
Thomas G. Long and Neely Dixon McCarter, eds. Preaching In and Out of Season (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), 132 pp., $9.95, paper.
Thomas G. Long, professor of preaching and worship at Princeton Theological Seminary, and Neely Dixon McCarter, president of the Pacific School of Religion, have coedited a volume of essays by prominent homileticians, each addressing a challenge of the church year: not the liturgical year, but the special seasons and observances of the year such as labor day, thanksgiving, and family celebrations.
The nine contributors include Richard Lischer, David Buttrick, and Fred Craddock. The essays are fresh, informative, and thoughtful. As the editors suggest: “If the forces at work in our culture are able to persuade the whole society to mark one day or season in the year as Thanksgiving Day, Super Bowl Sunday, Labor Day, spring break, or so-many-shopping-days-until-Christmas, the Christian community must discern what is at stake in this and respond.”
Jan Milic Lochman, The Lord’s Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 171 pp., paper.
Jan Milic Lochman has established himself as one of the leading theologians at work in Europe. Having taught behind the Iron Curtain, he is now professor of dogmatics at the University of Basel. His previous studies of the Ten Commandments and the Apostle’s Creed led naturally to his exposition of the Lord’s Prayer. The volume is insightful and sensitive.
Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 172 pp., paper.
Hauerwas and Willimon, colleagues at the Duke University Divinity School, represent a powerful team at work. Both have made individual contributions to both theology and the life of the church. Resident Aliens combines Hauerwas’ attention to virtue and the Christian life with Willimon’s analysis of the church’s challenge in a post-Christian culture. Anything Willimon or Hauerwas write deserves a place on the preacher’s bookshelf. Joint efforts are often less than the sum of the two contributors, but Hauerwas and Willimon have established a powerful collaboration.
George Barna, The Frog in the Kettle: What Christians Need To Know About Life in the Year 2000 (Ventura, CA: Regal Publishers, 1990), 235 pp., cloth.
This volume goes to prove that you can’t choose a book by its title. The awkward title, based on the book’s opening parable, gives little clue that the book is a serious consideration of issues and trends for ministry in the 1990s. Barna leads a marketing research group and has produced what is, in effect, a “Megatrends” volume addressed to American church life. Preachers will find the book disturbing, infuriating, challenging, enlightening, and of genuine value.

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