William H. Willimon, The Intrusive Word: Preaching to the Unbaptized, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994), paper, 144 pages, $10.99.
Few writers have as much to say to preachers (or say it as well) as William Willimon, dean of the chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke University. His newest book — a follow-up to the excellent Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized — tackles the issue of effectively preaching the gospel to those who have “not yet heard the gospel in its life-changing, disruptive fullness.” The reality is that such an audience is likely to include many who sit in our pews week and week.
The Intrusive Word takes the form of a series of essays, each followed by a sermon from Willimon’s preaching ministry at Duke. He recognizes that much of what goes under the heading of “evangelistic preaching” is nothing of the kind; it aims, not for a radical transformation of life so much as for a nodding agreement.
In his first chapter, “The Miracle of Hearing,” Willimon observes that “We Christian communicators have expected too little from the gospel.” Desperate to receive a positive hearing, we preachers are too willing to trim the gospel’s demands or repackage it to accommodate accepted cultural patterns. As Willimon notes, “We preachers so want to be heard that we are willing to make the gospel more accessible than it really is, to remove the scandal, the offense of the cross, to deceive people into thinking that it is possible to hear without conversion.”
Willimon takes to task the contemporary heirs of Charles Finney and his “new measures” in evangelism, including not only “the inductive preaching proponents who measure all preaching on the basis of listener response” but also “marketing the church” gurus like George Barna. In contrast to the “preaching to felt needs” approach advocated by Barna and others, Willimon insists that
Our preaching ought to be so confrontive, so in violation of all that contemporary Americans think they know, that it requires no less than a miracle to be heard. We preach best with a reckless confidence in the power of the gospel to evoke the audience that it deserves, (p. 22)
Bad preaching, Willimon is convinced, often is a result of bad theology. The preacher’s lack of trust in the power of the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit lead to homiletical oversimplification. Preaching must not be built on a foundation of listener response but on the reality of the Easter event.
In the chapter on “Preaching as Baptismal Encounter,” Willimon takes on the recent trend favoring inductive preaching,
which begins, not with the biblical text, but rather with the hearer’s experience and seeks, through the biblical text, to evoke or tap into certain aspects of that experience. Assuming that modern listeners recognize no authority other than that of their own experience, the inductive preacher bows to that authority and forms the sermon exclusively on the basis of what the preacher thinks the listener already thinks. The listener’s experience, as described and defined by the listener, is taken as preaching’s point of origin, (pp. 40-4-1)
The preacher who seeks to identify the “felt needs” of the congregation and then patterns the sermon to demonstrate how the gospel satisfies those needs has “capitulated to the enemy without a fight,” Willimon claims. He points out that the gospel “is not a set of interesting ideas about which we are supposed to make up our minds. The gospel is intrusive news that evokes a new set of practices, a complex of habits, a way of living in the world, discipleship.” It is not something we will understand short of conversion.
The chapter “Making Room for God” challenges the well-worn cliche that preaching involves taking the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other and relating the two. Preaching is not so much bridging the 2,000-year-old gap between gospel and contemporary world as it is opening the gap. “When preachers try to fill all the gaps with our suggestions for better living, our solutions to the world’s problems, there is no space left for God to come and save us. God must have room.”
In addition to the six insightful chapters in the book, each is accompanied by a sermon which illustrates the concerns expressed in the preceding chapter. Willimon is a lively, humorous and engaging writer and preacher, which adds all the more impact to his indictments of much contemporary preaching.
Steve Brown, Haddon Robinson, and William Willimon, A Voice in the Wilderness: Clear Preaching in a Complicated World (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Press, 1993), cloth, 154 pp.
Imagine sitting in the studies of some of America’s most effective preachers and listening in as they discuss the agony and ecstasy of preaching. That’s the principle behind this book, which was developed by the editors at Christianity Today from a series of taped interviews with Brown, Robinson, and Willimon.
All three are masterful preachers who work hard at their craft, and their insights are refreshing and helpful. Each chapter briefly explores a topic, complete with a variety of illustrations. The writing is clear and conversational.
Those who have read Willimon’s recent books will recognize many of the observations he offers (particularly those discussed in Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized). His closing chapter, on “Preaching to the Disinclined,” offers a hopeful word to all who face the same task (and most of us do).
Robinson, who teaches preaching at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, takes on a variety of topics, such as ideas for making preaching relevant to our listeners, and preaching in the face of our own pain and struggle. Chapter 10, “Having Something to Say,” provides many useful insights into the process of developing effective sermons.
I particularly appreciated Robinson’s assertion that “Good ideas for preaching also emerge as we apply the Bible’s truths to people’s lives. Sermon ideas ignite when the flint of people’s problems strikes the steel of God’s Word.”
Robinson’s chapter on “Competing with the Communication Kings” discusses the legitimate anxiety so many preachers face as they are compared with the gifted media preachers and secular communicators who are so widely seen today. Robinson offers helpful encouragement to pastors to recognize their own strengths and advantages as communicators of the gospel in the local setting.
My personal favorites were the chapters written by Steve Brown, former pastor of Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church. He has a ministry of writing and as speaker for Key-Life Ministries, and teaches preaching at Reformed Seminary in Orlando. Brown’s chapters reflect his own winsome (and mischievous) personality, and offer as many insights for pastoral effectiveness as for preaching.
Every pastor faces the struggle of leading and preaching to difficult people. I appreciated Brown’s reminder that “God’s people are wonderful — at least 90 percent of them. If we constantly play to the 10 percent who get mad at us (and will be mad at us for eternity), we’ll never communicate effectively to the other 90 percent.”
These three effective Christian communicators confront questions many preachers may be asking themselves, and respond out of their own experiences, wisdom, and good humor. It’s a book that will benefit any preacher.

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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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