Lori J. Carrell
The Alban Institute, 2013, 242 pp., $20
Virtually all books about preaching are written by preachers. That is not surprising; most cookbooks are written by cooks; most books on plastic surgery and written by practitioners; and so forth. Preachers are the ones who study, live and breathe preaching; so, naturally we are the ones who will invest vast portions of our lives in writing about the subject.
Preaching that Matters, however, is written by a non-preacher, and that is one of the things that makes it particularly valuable. Lori Carrell is not a preacher; she is a professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and she has invested much of her scholarly career in research on how contemporary insights about communication can inform and enhance the preaching craft. Clearly she is a non-preacher who loves preaching.
More than that, Carrell believes in preaching. She believes preaching matters, that it can produce life transformation. In this book, she grabs by the lapel those preachers who have settled for pleasant, informational homilies and insists they have sold themselves and their calling short.
As the book begins, she recalls leading a clergy workshop:
“Listeners do love their pastors, and they agree with the sermon content they hear,” I began, “but most sermons don’t ask for change, and most listeners don’t experience spiritual growth as a result of the sermon.” I saw the eager faces of these people I respect droop with discouragement. But then up went a hand, and a participant asked the question I love to hear: “Let’s get practical. I want my preaching to make a difference. What changes are worth making, and how do I make them?”
My answers to that pivotal question emanate from the experiences of thousands of people—preachers and their listeners—who have graciously allowed this communication professor to study their efforts over many years. The purpose of this book is to share those practical answers, inspiring and equipping clergy to make changes that will enhance the transformative power of their preaching.
In her study of preaching and its transformative effects in more than a decade, Carrell has developed a research base that includes hundreds of pastors and more than 30,000 consumers of preaching. Of particular value to an audience of preachers is her fresh perspective: She has intensely studied preaching, yet she comes from outside the guild.
As readers progress through the book, they will benefit from a treasury of research-based insights about the power of preaching to transform lives. That discussion is linked with what she calls RPCs (Reflective Practice Challenges), which offer readers action steps to move toward personal implementation of the insights being shared. (If only every sermon were so helpful!)
Early on, Carrell suggests her alternate term for preaching: sermon communication. Recognizing some pastors think communication is an insufficient term for what they do, she believes it helps pastors think differently about their task. She explains: “By incorporating the idea of communication, I seek to help capture the essence of preaching at its best: people in relationship with one another and with God, speaking and listening for the purpose of spiritual transformation.”
She dispels a number of myths about communication, then takes on one of the great misperceptions about preaching: that it is about transferring information to the listeners. Oh, we preachers talk about sermons as targeted to change, but Carrell notes that “of the hundreds of sermons” included in a recent study, “more than 95 percent inform rather than transform.” A majority of listeners of all ages, genders and church types reported that of the sermons they heard, they understood and agreed with what was said, but that the sermon called for or led to no “changing beliefs or actions as a result of the sermon.”
For example, one issue Carrell addresses is the problem of organization in the sermon. Confusing sermon structure becomes an obstacle to transformative preaching, based on the response of listeners. Many listeners report great love for their pastors but frustration that sermons are presented in confusing or aimless ways. Many pastors clearly are not aware of that perception in the pew. She suggests a variety of ideas for approaching and improving the structural weakness of many sermons. (As a teacher of preaching, I agree this is one of the significant needs I see in many sermons—a lack of cohesion and unity, as sermons bounce from one unrelated idea to the next.)
Preaching that Matters is a valuable tool, which also can become a workbook for preachers as they address their own communication challenges. It deserves a place on every preacher’s bookshelf.