Book Review: Homiletics Gurus

Laura Arnold Leibman

I will admit it: I love sermons.  Not only have I devoted many scholarly hours to reading and analyzing early Native American and Jewish American homilies, I also like listening to and watching contemporary sermons in my free time.  When my children were too young to go to synagogue, I would pester my husband and Sabbath lunch guests to repeat what the rabbi said during his drash.  This love of hearing people preach might make me possibly the ideal parishioner, if it weren't for my penchant for listening too hard.  Rather than letting myself get swept away, I often find myself analyzing how the speaker is creating his or her magic.

Yet sadly, apparently not all sermons are magical. I have been reading a lot of how-to homiletics books on in preparation for my "Art of Speech" class next term, and at least from a listener's point of view, there seems to be some shockingly bad advice out there.  While I love the attention certain sermon gurus give to how to rigorously close read the Bible and chart your ideas in preparation for giving a sermon, my main response is often wow--you could create some incredibly boring sermons using this approach.  And frankly if someone who loves complex sermons in antiquated language feels that way, the average listener doesn't stand a chance (see meerkat below).  

Yet meerkats everywhere would rejoice if they read Andy Stanley and Lane Jones' Communicating for a Change: Seven Keys to Irresistible Communication.  Stanley and Jones provide some of the best advice I have seen for how to write and deliver sermons that people might actually want to hear.

Who are Stanley and Jones, and why should we care what they have to say? Andy Stanley is the founder of North Point Ministries and Lane Jones is the campus director of Browns Bridge Community Church, a North Point Ministries campus.  For those unfamiliar with North Point Ministries, the organization started with one church in Atlanta, but has grown to six churches in the Atlanta Metro area and more than thirty "partner congregations" around the world.  The ministry aims for an "unchurched" audience, and uses technology to rethink how to reach parishioners.  To see some of their preaching in action, peruse the resources at their online North Point store, check out Stanley's videos on YouTube, or read/watch Stanley's sermons and his approach at  Unlike many homiletics gurus, Stanley and Jones' approach emphatically aims to be magical: as their store and subtitle explain, they seek to "make church irresistible." 

Communicating for a Change presents a seven-part strategy for preparing and delivering effective sermons that the audience can't resist:
  1. Determine Your Goal - What are you trying to accomplish? (Correct answer: "teach people how to live a life that reflects the values, principles, and truths of the Bible" [95])
  2. Pick A Point - What are you trying to say?
  3. Create a Map - What's the best route to your point?
  4. Internalize the Message - What's your story?
  5. Engage Your Audience - What's your plan to capture and keep their attention? (Meerkats rejoice!)
  6. Find Your Voice - What works for you?
  7. Start All Over - What's the next step [your audience should take after they hear what you have to say]?
Stanley and Jones's approach is indebted to the explosion of self-help books and videos on leadership and speaking in the past two decades.  If Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) encapsulated the self-made man's phoenix-like ascent out of the ashes of the Great Depression, then TED talks are the internet age's revisioning of how people can reinvent themselves in an era of economic downturns and scandals.  Stanley and Jones's advice in many way mirrors the best of current thinking about what audiences expect from speakers in a media-saturated era, albeit delivered with an evangelical twist.  Even though many forms of evangelical Protestantism seek to "bust the myth of the self-made man" by emphasizing God's role in our transformation, most groups agree some effort or preparation on our part is helpful.  Thus while the "seven" imperatives of Communicating for a Change and Jones' book Seven Practices of Effective Ministry seem like a deliberate echo of Stephen R. Covey's book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I assume that the magic of "seven" is more numerological in Stanley and Lane's case.  Seven is commonly understood in biblical symbolism to be a number of completion and perfection, and as such is fitting for the spiritual work that Jones and Stanley seek to do in partnership with God.

My favorite thing about this book is that it shows rather than tells.  The work consists of two parts, the first of which is an extended story told in dialogue about Ray, a minister whose parishioners are dying of boredom and can't be reached.  Through a road trip with Willy Graham, a lay-preaching truck driver, Ray learns where and how his preaching has gone astray.  This section uses all the tricks that Jones and Stanley seek to have us follow in Part Two (see the list of seven imperatives above), but does so through the analogy of preaching as a journey. By the time we reach the "how to" in the second half, we are sold that Jones and Stanley's goals are good ones.  Throughout the book, Stanley and Jones speak to us in vivid, direct prose that is succinct and non condescending.

If you don't study or give sermons, is this still a useful book for you?  I would argue it is.  Why?  Because that very same meerkat who fell asleep "When Pastor Starts Preaching" apparently also makes its rounds on the internet falling asleep listening to an academic give the "most important, most significant, most profound lecture" even given:

Unlike preachers, most academics don't envision our primary goal in lecturing as to "change lives" in a spiritual sense.  Those of us who don't work at Bible colleges are usually trying to deliver content, not inspire people to "live a life that reflects the values, principles, and truths of the Bible" (95).  Yet, given all the recent controversies about the importance (or lack thereof) of the humanities and a liberal arts education, it might not be a bad thing to begin each lecture by asking ourselves, "So what? and Now what?" (97).  Indeed the vast majority of the strategies Stanley and Jones propose would make for lectures that better engage students.  Importantly student engagement is directly related to retention, and getting students to retain information is surely a goal most of us strive towards.  Stanley and Jones's advice, for example, that ministers needs to "Pick a Point" (that is, ONE point, not three or ten) directly corresponds to Donald Bligh's observation that "A very common cause of forgetting [in lectures] is trying to learn too much...[and] It is a common fault of lecturers with good intention to try to teach too much" (What's the Use of Lectures? 35).  Stanley and Jones advice regarding structure is also informative. Recently I tried Stanley and Jones's ME-WE-GOD-YOU-WE structure from chapter thirteen for a secular motivational speech (though I substituted a secular authority on the subject for God's views from the Bible) and was intrigued by how much more inspiring this structure was than my usual "intro, three points, conclusion" structure.  Sometimes professors want the knowledge they impart to intrigue and motivate people, too.

Do you have a homiletics book you'd recommend? If so, I'd love to hear about it in the comments!


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