Laurence A. Wagley, Preaching with the Small Congregation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 140 pp., paper.
Does the size of the congregation shape the preaching event? Laurence Wagley thinks that it does, and Preaching with the Small Congregation is his manifesto for reclaiming the proper homiletical form for the small congregation.
Wagley, professor of preaching and worship at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri, grew up in a small church and has served small congregations as pastor and interim pastor. Reflecting on his youth, Wagley commented, “If the Rymers or Wagleys were absent, it was difficult to ‘have church’.”
Though this fact is often ignored, the vast majority of churches in the United States are small congregations — very small. The average size for a worshipping Protestant congregation is less than 75. Nevertheless, many preachers and homileticians function as if the small church was an aberration, rather than the norm.
“We live,” says Wagley, “in a culture that values bigness. If it is not big, it must be failing.” Ministers have been infected with what Wagley terms a “numbers virus” which demoralizes both preacher and congregation, if the large church is seen to be the norm.
The problem is not the size of the congregation, suggests Wagley, but the form of the sermon and the model of the preaching event. Preaching with the small congregation “requires a different kind of communication than practiced when preaching in the large church.” The preacher who does not understand the difference between these two congregational models is doomed to frustration.
Wagley looks to Jesus’ own model of preaching for instruction. He reminds the reader that Jesus preached to small groups, and that He shaped the form of His message to fit the preaching event. “Jesus’ preaching was participatory. It grew out of the lives of the people, used shared conversations as a common vehicle, and discovered the grace of God in social encounters.”
The small congregation, Wagley insists, is the place to emulate Jesus’ “dominant style of preaching.” Though society “measures success by bigness, the small congregation has made a life-style of swimming against the current.” In this swim against the current, small churches “represent something persistent and crucial in our modern society.”
What is distinctive about the small church? Wagley provides an extensive list of traits. Small congregations place a high priority on relationships, recognize the importance of the primary group, have more shared experiences, higher participation in worship, an informal communications system, and tend to incorporate family passages into the life of the church. These are but a few of the distinctions Wagley identifies.
Wagley suggests that the greatest danger faced by the small church is that it will seek to be what it is not. It may do this by attempting to emulate larger congregations, trying to conduct a “perpetual revival,” or by reducing its message to the reinforcement of community standards. The small church may also spend much time and energy “trying to be what it used to be” (or what members think it used to be).
This betrays the unique opportunity afforded by the smaller church. Wagley demonstrates that the small church offers the opportunity to affirm intimate relationships and koinonia. “Sermons are personal conversations in this setting. Personal needs are named and remembered.” Such tangible events and personal passages as the anniverary of a death or the recognition of accomplishment can be shared by the worshipping community, who know each other — a fundamental fact of the worship event not shared by mega-congregations.
Shared experiences should be central to preaching in the small church, Wagley suggests. “Remembering these experiences and making provision for church sharing is a strength of the small church…. It is a ministry deeply needed in this impersonal world.”
The small church can also “have a much more intimate level of participation in preaching than is possible in the large church.” This is Wagley’s most significant thesis and it shapes the book from cover to cover. Wagley presents a vision of preaching with the smaller congregation which includes extensive dialogue, response, and conversation between pulpit and pew. In the small church, he notes, most members have opportunity to have “some active role in the administration of the church and in conducting the worship service.”
Wagley’s suggestions related to participatory preaching are indebted to Ruel Howe, who reminded preachers that the preaching event was more than the transmission of ideas, but was an encounter. Yet Wagley moves beyond Howe — who called for dialogue after the sermon — to call for dialogue as a part of the sermon.
What sermon form is most appropriate? Wagley suggests that narrative sermons offer the most appropriate form for the preaching-as-encounter which should mark the small church. “Small churches share stories,” he reminds, and these churches recognize the central function of story in the life of the congregation.
Wagley’s volume is a helpful corrective to homiletical conversations which leave the small church out of the discussion, or make the large church normative. His book serves to remind all preachers of the important role filled by the smaller congregation and of the high calling of preaching with these churches.
These are times when “bigger means better” to most minds, and this mind-set has prejudiced the church. Yet, as Wagley reminds, when most preachers go home they return to small churches who know their stories and know them well.
His work offers a theological corrective as well. The small church “does not have a partial gospel because of its size. Such a church has all the resources of God.” And so it does. Preachers will find Preaching with the Small Congregation thoughtful and thought-provoking, even where they may not be comfortable with specific proposals. As Wagley suggests, “As the small membership church fulfills needs in many people’s lives, it also reminds and models for the big church what it means to be the church.”
Brian Butler, The Complete Guide to Preaching: Preparation, Performance, and Beyond (London: Marshall Pickering, 1989), 144 pp., paper.
Books advertised as “complete” seldom are. This volume is no exception to that rule. No guide to preaching can be condensed into a 144-page volume. Nevertheless, Brian Butler has produced an interesting and creative volume worthy of attention and thoughtful response.
Butler, a staff member of SIM International (an international mission agency) has taught homiletics and cross-cultural communication on mission fields around the world. He was previously vice-principal of Moorlands Bible College.
Butler acknowledges that some homileticians reject the idea that preaching can be taught at all. He cites Martin Lloyd-Jones, who held that preachers are born, not made. As he stated: “You will never teach a man to be a preacher if he is not already one.” Yet Butler clearly believes that preaching can be taught to those who have the gift.
He is concerned that preachers learn the “classical principles” of homiletics. “My convictions about this are founded on the observation of several hundred students and a multitude of other preachers. The rambling, unstructured, and thoroughly dull sermons that are frequently inflicted on long-suffering congregations suggest that many preachers have not learned the basics properly, and, sadly, may seem to despise them.”
Butler concedes that his use of the word “performance” in connection with preaching will raise eyebrows and defenses in some quarters, and he acknowledges the limitations of the term. Nevertheless, Butler uses the term because of his avocation as a concert pianist, a practice which has altered his understanding of the performance.
His central concern in connection to the performance is the essential link between preparation and performance. As he laments, “It is doubtful whether any preacher climbs the pulpit stairs having laboured over his sermons, or crafted them with such persistence, as the concert pianist has his programme.”
When do preachers arrive? Butler warns against such speculation, noting that the best defense against such sermonic smugness is the humility of listening. He warns against the arrival of the ‘facile forties,’ when preaching becomes ‘second nature’ and the preacher may feel that he has achieved a certain facility in preaching.
Butler’s volume offers a wealth of suggestive material and profitable proposals, and his chapters are bolstered with illustrative material from great preachers of the past and present. He clearly believes in the high calling of the preacher, and his book will assist preachers of all ages and stages in the task of improving their preaching.
William H. Kooienga, Elements of Style for Preaching (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1989), 127 pp., paper.
Both practitioners and theorists of preaching have given increasing attention to the role of classical rhetoric in the preaching event. Kooienga, pastor of First Christian Reformed Church in Crown Point, Indiana, proposes to enlighten a discussion of style in preaching by reference to the rhetorical traditions.
What is style? Kooienga does not define his use of the term with precision, though he makes clear that what he has in mind is the issue of “how, in what manner” a message is brought before a congregation. Such a style may be accidental or intentional, unique or imitated, effective or ineffective.
“Preaching,” Kooienga avers, “is a rhetorical act, and the style of the sermon is a rhetorical issue. The wise preacher turns against rhetoric and employs its principles in service to the sermon.” The author draws from Aristotle’s three levels of style as a basic component of his argument.
In successive chapters Kooienga deals with “the elements of a preaching style,” clarity, interest, evocation, energy, and emotion. Clarity, he proposes, “depends on cogent ideas presented in a logical manner.” Clarity requires that the preacher employ the right word, the best word, and avoid technical jargon.
Interest is another essential to good preaching. Kooienga suggests interest, imagery, contrast, tension, interesting expressions, the use of examples, questions, variety, and the avoidance of archaic language.
Kooienga’s proposals are informative and will be interesting to preachers unfamiliar with the rhetorical traditions. As he comments: “Style is not mere ornamentation, it is essential for effective communication. Set aside the bias against the subject, learn what’s possible from classical rhetoric, and apply its principles in a thoughtful and biblical way to the most important kind of speaking this world will ever hear — preaching.”
Book Notes
Michael J. Hostetler, Illustrating the Sermon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1989), 87 pp., paper.
Hostetler, a Baptist pastor, does not offer a source book of illustrations but a treatise on the appropriate selection and use of illustrations. His treatment of issues related to illustrations is helpful and insightful. Also included are materials for a self-study. (RAM)
James T. Clemons, ed., Sermons on Suicide (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), 160 pp., paper.
Given the stunning statistics which document the increasing occurrence of suicide, James T. Clemons noted that “it is strange indeed that so little has been said about suicide from the pulpit.” This collection of thirteen chapters on various aspects of the suicide issue is his response to this lack. The chapters are actually sermons preached in the midst of the suicide epidemic. (RAM)
Christian D. Kettler and Todd H. Speidell, eds., Incarnational Ministry: The Presence of Christ in Church, Society, and family (Colorado Springs: Helmers and Howard, 1990), 330 pp., cloth.
This substantive volume is a collection of essays in honor of Ray S. Anderson, professor of theology and ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary in California. The essays are worthy and the volume belongs on every preacher’s bookshelf. The book is true to its title. The essays are serious theological considerations of incarnational ministry. A sterling cast of contributors includes Thomas Torrance, Alasdair Heron, Geoffrey Bromiley, Colin Gunton, James Torrance, and others. (RAM)
George M. Bass, Is the Cross Still There? (Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing, 1991), 78 pp., paper.
This book contains ten baptismal sermons, with a particular emphasis on the Lenten and Easter season. Bass is professor of preaching emeritus at Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary, Saint Paul, MN.(JMD)
Clark M. Williamson and Ronald J. Allen, The Teaching Minister (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 138 pp., paper, $12.95.
This new volume is a challenge to the church to recover what the authors see as the central task of the church: teaching the Christian faith. Chapter 5, “The Sermon as Teaching Event Today,” will be of particular interest to preachers. Both authors are faculty members at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, IN. (JMD)
Harold C. Warlick, Jr., Homeward Bound (Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing, 1991), 181 pp., paper.
This collection of 21 sermons offers varied homiletical approaches to the subject of life after death. The author, formerly director of ministerial studies at Harvard Divinity School, is now chairman of the department of religion and philosophy at High Point College, High Point, NC, where he also serves as minister to the college. (JMD)

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