The Challenge of Preaching (John Stott and Greg Scharf) -- Review

THE CHALLENGE OF PREACHING. By John Stott. Abridged and Updated by Greg Scharf.  Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015. Xii + 132 pages.

If you’ve had any involvement in the Evangelical movement over the past half century you’ve likely encountered John Stott. He was a leading figure in the movement, but being that he was both British and Anglican, he had the ability to transcend boundaries. He was popular at Fuller and I had the opportunity to hear him speak to a large audience gathered at a relatively progressive Presbyterian church in Santa Barbara, California. Nonetheless he was both evangelical and relatively conservative on most issues.
            Stott died in 2011 at the age of ninety, probably a decade after I heard him speak. Career-wise he spent most of his adult life as the minister at All Soul’s Church, Langham Place, in London. At the same time, he was a well-traveled speaker and author.  He wrote on a variety of topics, both biblical and theological. He also wrote on preaching—with one of his better known books bearing the title Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century, which appeared in 1982. I was just beginning my seminary career when it came out, though I don't remember reading it (I'm sure I leafed through it since we had a copy on the shelves at the Christian bookstore where I worked at the time).  The book reappears now in an abridged and updated edition. The person responsible for the abridging and updating the book is Greg Scharf, a professor of pastoral theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. We are told that Scharf worked closely with Stott at both All Soul's Church in London and at TEDS, and had the permission of Stott to undertake this work.

While this is a book on preaching, it doesn’t really focus on methodology. In fact, the methodology that is offered is pretty standard fare, what I learned to do in college nearly forty years ago. The focus isn’t so much on the how of preaching as the rationale for preaching biblically.  Because this is not only an abridgement (of a book I’ve not read) but an updating of a previously written book the current reader is left wondering at times where Stott ends and Scharf begins. This is a criticism I have of the project. I appreciate the abridgement, which might make this more accessible to preachers today. That said, I’m not sure why it needs to be updated. The parts that are most assuredly updates are the references here and there to technology that emerged post 1982 or at least have become popular since the book was originally written. I’m just not sure those additions are necessary and leave the reader wondering what else was adapted/changed.

It is clear that Stott/Scharf are concerned about the state of preaching today. They are concerned that the preaching is not sufficiently biblical and that the audiences of those sermons do not sufficiently affirm the authority of the preacher (and the Bible from which the sermon is derived). While some of the rebellion against authority is affirmed, they are concerned that it’s not only institutions that have been targeted but ideas themselves: It is assumed that everyone has a right to their own opinions, which may not be challenged by anyone, let alone a preacher” (p. 2).  With this reality as background they encourage preachers to forge ahead anyway. They call upon preachers to embrace expository preaching, which I take to be deductive in nature. While there is some recognition of the need to take into consideration the genre of a text, the preacher is called upon to exposit the text so that the sermon will offer a clear point that teaches or convicts. The vision of preaching found here is quite different from the inductive model espoused by Fred Craddock.   Whereas Craddock encouraged preachers to affirm their lack of authority, and bring that into the sermon, it is clear that Stott believes that the preacher is a figure of authority (though humble).  While I would agree that Stott that the consumerist vision that seems to drive much of what we do in church today, I'm not sure that railing against those who won't recognize the authority of the Bible and its expositor will be of help.

Technique, while important, isn’t the primary concern. Instead, it is convictions that matter. Theology/doctrine is what grounds preaching, and preaching is to be biblical/expository. This shouldn't surprise us too much, for as a conservative evangelical Stott is committed to something akin to biblical inerrancy (the Brits tend not to be quite as hidebound on this issue as some Americans).  When calling for biblical/expository preaching he’s not calling for the preacher to ignore genre or suggesting that one should engage in proof-texting. But it is assumed that whatever the form, it is superintended by God, and so the task of the preacher is to find the core truth and bring that truth out to the congregants.  He (they) writes: "The expositor opens what seems to be closed, makes plain what is confusing, unravels what is knotted, and unfolds what is tightly packed" (p. 25). The challenge here is to bring that word into the present -- to build the bridge from then to now. He points to the premise espoused by Barth and Spurgeon that the preacher should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

It should not surprise us that Stott would emphasize the importance of study—both biblical and theological. Indeed, the most important job of the preacher is to engage in study at all costs (for someone like me that’s not a problem since I am addicted to study). This task is so important that the preacher should leave such tasks as administration to others. As much as I love to study theology and the Bible, I don’t serve a large parish, and so I can’t leave administration and pastoral care to others.  What is interesting is that while study is central, they used an interesting formula for sermon preparation. I had always heard it said that the proper ratio should be one hour of study to one minute of preaching. Being that I tend to preach between fifteen and twenty minutes, that would be somewhere around fifteen hours. But they use a formula of one hour per five minutes of preaching. That's three or four hours. While that would leave a lot of time for other things besides study, I’m not sure that’s enough time to properly prepare. So, I’m not sure how this works.  

While there is a chapter on preparing sermons, little said about delivery. More important is character, and much of the book is focused on that. Be authoritative but humble. Courageous but recognize limits. Most of all be biblical.

So, what do I make of the book? There is some good stuff here, but it seems rather dated. What we have here is a pretty straightforward method that starts with an introduction, moves to exposition, and then brings things to a conclusion (with a clear point at the end). Stott suggests that it is best to start by writing the conclusion, then build the exposition, and finally write the introduction. While this is somewhat old hat and doesn’t engage with the rationale for inductive preaching, perhaps this is a good word for seeker churches and those who turn the sermon into a TED talk or stand-up routine. Perhaps we are at a point where there needs to be something of Stott and something of Craddock in our sermons. There is room for and need for both deductive and inductive, but without some engagement with the inductive this is pretty old school preaching advice.

The one aspect of this book that gnawed at me was the decision to update the book, at least in terms of adding advice about electronic media and technology. While that likely needs to be said, I’m not sure that it helps to add this to this particular book. It seems that Scharf wants to say something, but needs to use Stott as the vehicle to say it. I would rather we had an abridgment of Stott and leave it there. There is a minor set of mistakes in the book as well. The dates seem a bit off. Stott is listed on the back as being born in 1911, when he was born in 1921. It is said by the director of Langham Preaching, Jonathan Lamb that he began his ministry as a young man in 1959, when it seems he began his ministry at All Souls in 1945.

As for audience: I think this might be of interest to a more conservative audience, but not sure it translates as well for more progressive ones.  I appreciate the call to be biblical, but there is more than one way of being a biblical preacher!


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