One of the ironic features of the age in which we live is the recent resurgence of expository preaching. In many ways, the faithful exposition, illustration, and application of the Bible through preaching is a reactionary movement to the spirits of pluralism, pragmatism, relativism, political correctness, and moralistic therapeutic deism. But expository preaching is not so much a new art as it is a lost art, practiced by relatively few in churches. The best practitioners and teachers of this form of historic preaching find themselves in a unique cultural moment. The 20th century was a time of experimenting with different ways to communicate the faith once for all delivered to the Church. The radical fringes sought to eschew preaching altogether as a medium of communicating the gospel, proposing instead a form of conversation. The emergent movement of the early 21st century imported an idea pioneered decades earlier by some mainline Protestants. The moderate majority moved away from expository preaching toward topic and practical sermons that were “seeker-sensitive”. Such preachers aimed for a lower common denominator in an effort to change the primary audience for a sermon from Christians to skeptics, unbelievers, and spiritual seekers. The fruit of these two approaches is rotting. The secular “nones” (people who claim no religious affiliation or affection) are growing. One of the least discussed reasons for this phenomenon is that the Church in America has been losing its youth for at least 2 generations. The millennials are currently the generation of young adults. They explain the reasons why some many have rejected the Christian faith. (1) Church is for growing up. It teaches kids to be moral. As adults we don’t need it anymore. (2) Christianity is about making you feel good about yourself. When you have a felt need, God is there to cheer you up. As adults we’ll maybe call you when we need therapy. Maybe. (3) The gospel is about how God loves you and wants you to be happy. He loves you so much he gives you the freedom and space to live as you please. He’s a hands-off God, like a good parent to adult children.
Ugh! If that is the truth about God, Christianity, and the Church, then count me out too! Alas, we preachers need to return to some old paths. If people are going to reject Christ, then they ought to at least know the truth about themselves, God, and the gospel of Jesus. This is where telling the truth in relevant, compelling, honest, prophetic ways is making a comeback in expository preaching. This is why not just preachers but everyone, including you, need to read Tim Keller’s new book on the art and science of delivering the gospel to human hearts. Simply titled Preaching: Communication Faith in an Age of Skepticism, Keller’s book is perhaps the next must read for anyone who occasionally asks (or knows someone who does) “Why preaching?”
This book is strategic in so many ways. It is accessible. Its physical dimensions are small like a handbook. It doesn’t look like an imposing tome. Not including the Appendix and endnotes, it is barely 200 small pages. Its size says, “You can read me!”
It is well-informed. Keller is a pastor-scholar. A former seminary professor who planted a church in Manhattan, his message is appealing to academics and parish pastors. The endnotes reveal an author in dialogue with biblical wisdom, ancient tradition, historical practices, and contemporary authors. This is not a “copy-me” book, but a call to return to the historic tradition of expository preaching.
It is tried wisdom. Keller repeatedly admits that preaching Christ-centered sermons is rarer and more difficult than you’d think. Every pastor thinks he is basically writing and delivering sermons the right way, and is at least above average compared to others. Keller began as a self-confessed average preacher (in seminary he got a C in preaching!), so he had to work harder by listening to and learning from great preachers. He listened to constructive criticism from his audience, adapting and honing his craft of preaching. He learned from Christians in rural traditional-conservative settings and Christians in urban progressive-liberal settings. His experience now translates to wisdom that preaching can be received by Christians and secular people at the same time.
It is transparent. While this book is more of a manifesto than a manual on preaching, it is amazingly practical. The discerning reader will be able to answer the question, “How does this master of Christian preaching tailor his communication of the gospel to any audience he has?” How to answer such a question? Keller invites you into his thought process and into his study. The chapters reveal his thought process on preaching:
Part One: SERVING THE WORD
Chapter 1: Preaching the Word
Chapter 2: Preaching the Gospel Every Time
Chapter 3: Preaching Christ from All of Scripture
Part Two: REACHING THE PEOPLE
Chapter 4: Preaching Christ to the Culture
Chapter 5: Preaching and the (Late) Modern Mind
Chapter 6: Preaching Christ to the Heart
Part Three: IN DEMONSTRATION OF THE SPIRIT AND OF POWER
Chapter 7: Preaching and the Spirit
The appendix reveals his method of constructing the various parts of the sermon and putting it all together in preaching. And the endnotes show his sources, including bibliographical and annotated references, and explanatory notes. Because this book is a manifesto on preaching and not primarily another preaching manual, the sermon preparation manuals cites in the endnotes answer the question, “What did Keller and others like him read in order to learn to preach?” But good preaching is not just about method, it also entails digesting and synthesizing what people who inhabit a culture believe. Hence the endnotes also answer the question, “What does Keller read to gain such apologetic, incisive, heart-piercing insights?”
Yesterday I showed someone in my church Keller’s Preaching. She said, “That might be good for you, but not for me.” That is understandable. I never considered reading a book about preaching until I was a seminary student. Before then the subject of preaching seemed akin to the subject of computer programming. Programmers need manual on how to write code, but no one else should bother reading technical manuals. I viewed books about preaching the same way. But Preaching is not a manual on how to “write code.” I believe this book would be supremely useful for many kinds of people. Christians who are frustrated with their lack of growth as teachers, Bible study, and small group leaders. Believers who are looking for a missing piece in their quest to become clearer and bolder witnesses to their family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. People looking for a new church home who want to find Christ-centered preaching but don’t know what that really means. Anyone who wants to know the who, what, how, when, and why of good preaching. It is not enough to say, “I can’t explain it, but I know it when I hear it.” This book will help you understand what good preaching does and how it does it.
Which leads to the very beginning of the book. Keller observes that good preaching can be caught and taught. It is faithful to the biblical text, sensitive to the audience, and drives the message inexorably to the person and work of Christ. But what separates good preaching from great preaching is the work of the Holy Spirit. No preacher can make a sermon great. But God, in his mysterious ways, does use some sermons to cut to the heart of people to accomplish his wise purposes. Only he can provide the spiritual power behind good sermons to make them great. Thus Keller is a humble practitioner of the ancient tradition of expository preaching. He wants everyone to be able to recognize and respond in faith to good preaching. He desires every preachers to be able to plan, construct, and deliver sermons that are examples of good preaching. And he prays that God will use the faithful delivery and reception of good Christ-centered, expository sermons to create great preaching. If you want to preach to reach believers and unbelievers at the same time, read this book.
Communicating Truth in our Late-Modern Moment by Chris Brauns. This article is part book review, part summary, part table/figure explanation.