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, Tim 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, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, (Viking, 2015), 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, and so on.” He indicates this book is for those who operate at the second and third levels, though readers quickly will gather the book’s content is overwhelmingly aimed at the third level of preaching.
Such preaching is different than other modes of Christian communication, Keller explains. “There is a qualitative difference,” he notes, “between the sermon and a study, or even a sermon and a lecture.” When such proclamation is rooted in “the very words of God” and is empowered by the Holy Spirit within the church, there is “extraordinary power” in preaching.
Early in the book, Keller shares his own conviction that all preaching should be Christ-centered, no matter where in Scripture the text may be found. With Paul, Keller believes that Christ is “the key to understanding each biblical text,” and 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 and makes the case for exposition as the preferred (but not exclusive) approach for pastors.
At the same time, he cautions against potential dangers. For example, while the verse-by-verse exposition of entire biblical books (often continuing through months and sometimes years) may have been suited to an age when listeners “lived all their lives near where they grew up” and would be in the same pew Sunday after Sunday, today’s more transient congregants may need preaching that “exposes the congregation to the full range of biblical teachings and subjects.”
In other chapters, Keller returns to the issue of preaching Christ “every time, from every passage,” which is required if we are to help our listeners see how the entire biblical narrative fits together. Such preaching, he says, combats the twin challenges of legalism and antinomianism. Not only do we preach Christ in every text, but we also preach Him in every theological theme and through every major character, major image (type) and deliverance storyline.
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 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
In a chapter titled “Preaching Christ to the Heart,” Keller emphasizes the need to preach biblical truth in a way that it becomes real to listeners. “It must capture the listeners’ interest and imaginations,” he says; “it must be compelling and penetrate to their hearts.” He draws on the insights of Jonathan Edwards on preaching to the affections, which are “the inclination of the whole person when sensing the beauty and excellence of some object.” Keller then offers insights for preaching to the hearts of contemporary listeners.
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 quite a useful book for those who proclaim the Word. Also, don’t forget the endnotes, where Keller has provided additional thoughts on ideas contained earlier in the book.
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 which deserves a spot on any preacher’s bookshelf.