If the Word of God is to come alive in the pulpit, it will necessitate the death of the preacher, according to Steven W. Smith in his new book Dying to Preach (Kregel).

As Smith asserts, “The inestimable challenge of preaching is at once to grow in the development of the task while simultaneously giving it away—that is, being willing to die for people so they might live. This means a preacher will care deeply about preaching while at the same time surrendering his communication to God…The death to self that is demanded of the preacher works life in his people.”

The first section of Smith’s book offers Paul’s discussion of ministry in terms of suffering through an extended discussion of passages from 1 and 2 Corinthians. He observes that “Paul exchanged his life for the life of the Corinthians. He died for them. He died so they could live.” Indeed, says Paul, “the success of Paul’s ministry was related directly to the amount he was willing to suffer.”

The second chapter applies this concept more specifically to preaching through an exposition of 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. In contrast to the rhetorical showmanship offered by the professional speakers of his day, who used speaking as a vehicle for entertainment and profit, Paul insisted on focusing on the simplicity of the gospel message.

Applying that idea to contemporary preaching, Smith writes, “There is a host of literature telling the preacher how he can find a style that best reflects the culture of the audience and use that style to communicate effectively with the audience. It makes sense. However, here Paul is saying, ‘Look, I know exactly the kind of style that you like, and I am intentionally not using it.’…Paul’s fear is that if he so closely identified his preaching with the expected Greco-Roman forms, they might like it. In fact, they might like it so much that they might understand his style as foundational to their faith. His desire was that their ‘faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God’ (1 Corinthians 2:5).”

Thinking of preaching in terms of artistry and performance does not accomplish the primary purpose of our calling, Smith says, which is “the exaltation of Christ through His Word. My fear is that my preaching will groom a new generation of pew sitters, perfectly skilled to recognize a gem when they hear it but still ignorant of what God says, not filled with a sense of the pressing impetus on them to obey the Word. This is the kind of preaching that builds churches but does not make disciples.”

In the second major section of the book, Smith explores the implications of the cross for preaching using four Scripture texts: 2 Corinthians 4:1-6, Colossians 1:24, Hebrews 13:10-14, and Philemon 1:5-11.

One of the dangers preachers face is the temptation to let our preaching itself become the heart of the message rather than Christ. Smith offers a list suggesting times we may be preaching ourselves, such as:

1. “Our sermons are filled with personal illustrations designed to draw attention to ourselves more than to the text.
2. We use illustrations that do not illustrate the text and, therefore, draw attention away from it.
3. We do not pay the price to study but defer to our own interest.
4. We do not explain the text carefully but choose to advance our opinion on a text. This is exalting our wisdom above God’s agenda.
5. We use a sermon structure that is predetermined instead of letting the structure of the text become the structure of the sermon…”

The final major section deals with surrendering to Christ and His cross in our preaching task. The preacher, he notes, must surrender to the text itself—”a commitment to proclamation not invention…to preach the text alone.”

Smith says that when the preacher dies so others may live, that is “surrendered communication” — “a relinquishing of our right to say anything we want any way we want. It is limiting our own freedom of expression in order to maximize effectiveness and minimize self-interests.” Surrendering to the text, he says, means “at all times deferring to the Scripture, to the point that the sermon is always an expression of the content and spirit of a particular passage.”

Smith concludes the volume with an appeal to strive to preach more effectively, not for self-glory but because we preach the cross.

“Of course God can use a bad sermon as well as a good sermon,” he writes. “Praise Him for the fact that He works in spite of my weakness! Praise Him that He even does great things with poor sermons just to teach me that this is His work, not mine! …However, the logic of the cruciform life is that if there is a Christian life, it is a crucified life, wholly given over to God. So if there is proclamation, it is done with surrendered excellence to His glory.”

This is a powerful book that deserves to be read by any pastor as a reminder that “the greatest threat to the pulpit is the giftedness of its preachers.” Smith does a valuable service in reminding us that only as we die can our preaching truly live.

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About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

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