Practicing the Preaching Life (David B. Ward) -- A Review

PRACTICING THE PREACHING LIFE. By David B. Ward. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2019. Xviii + 193 pages.

There are many books that offer guidance on how to preach. They offer advice as to forms and styles—some inductive, others deductive. They are all valuable and will help preachers and students of preaching in their preparation and delivery of sermons. Form and style have their place, but what about the person who preaches? How does one practice the preaching life? That is the question addressed in this book by David B. Ward, an ordained minister in the Wesleyan Church who serves as associate professor of homiletics and practical theology at Indiana Wesleyan University.

Titled Practicing the Preaching Life, Ward’s book addresses forms and styles, but not until the end of the book. What Ward wishes to do in this book is to address the person of the preacher. He speaks to the aims and the virtues that are involved in preaching. Just in case you’re wondering, Ward doesn’t offer a Donatist vision of the connection between the person and the act of preaching. That is, preaching doesn’t depend on the purity of the preacher (Donatists emphasized personal purity as foundational to sacramental/liturgical efficacy). Neither does he offer a docetic vision, where the person of the preacher is irrelevant. That is, preaching is not a disembodied exercise. The person of the preacher is central to the task. It is an embodied act, but we who engage in preacher are not without our flaws. We are all in need of grace. 

Ward designed this book to assist those who preach to become good preachers, and not just in terms of skills, but in terms of our entire being. Thus, preachers might, as Augustine taught in his primer on preaching On Christian Teaching, able to love God and one’s neighbor. Following Augustine, Ward believes there should be joy in the preaching life. To get there we must conceive of preaching as a spiritual practice. Since much has been written recently about Christian practices, he is able to draw upon these writings. In terms of these practices, he writes that "understanding preaching as a Christian practice can help preachers realize that preaching is a virtue-sustained and virtue-sustaining practice that serves an ultimate end beyond itself." (p. 7). That aim lies beyond the church and leads us into the world. With this in mind, in chapter 2, Ward explores the aims of preaching, which involve loving God and neighbor. The aims of preaching involve the functions—that Ward draws from Augustine—of teaching, saving, healing, and freeing. But this is not enough. There is also the question of what makes a preacher good—again not in terms of skills or deliver, but in terms of what he calls contextual virtues (chapter 3). There are three such virtues: centered humility, compassionate empathy, and participatory wisdom. These virtues form, along with the functions of preaching, the foundation for the preaching life. 

The act of preaching involves looking beyond the church to the world. Thus, as noted in chapter 4, there is a need for courageous justice or the prophetic word. There is a need for a liberating word—good news for the poor. Such a word can come in different forms, but it seeks to "liberate a community of faith from delusions and systems of injustice so that the world might be a place of equity for all people." (p. 69). To do this will be risky, and so one must be rooted in those virtues discussed earlier. 

In chapter 5, we come to what Ward calls the “backbone of the book,” his discussion of "practicing a Christian life." In other words, the preaching life must be deeply rooted in the practices of the Christian life. These include a life of prayer and study, practices that help form us spiritually. In other words, the preaching life is not simply a job. Although he is Wesleyan, he discusses visions that emerge out of both Reformed and Wesleyan visions. These practices involve both devotion and compassion; that is, being engaged with God and with the world. 

Chapter 6 speaks of the "rhythms for preaching." I expect we all have patterns that move us from text to sermon to delivery. Some of us might begin on Saturday evening, though that’s not wise! Many of us have developed a weeklong rhythm, starting with engaging the text on Monday and moving toward delivery on Sunday. It's a pattern that has worked well for me for the most part. It isn’t however, the pattern Ward recommends. He offers the reader a four-week pattern, which he believes is less burdensome and allows for more development of the person and the sermon. He may be right about this, and it is worth exploring. I'm not sure he convinced me to give up my current pattern, but for many, it might be an important way forward (and probably would be good for me as well). He lays out a fairly detailed description of this pattern, so one can put it into practice. He offers a guide for both Monday and Friday days off (yes, days off are part of the process). This is probably the first step into the practical.

From there we move into a couple of chapters that speak to the sermon itself. Chapter seven reminds us that preaching is an oral/auditory event. Thus, we need to attend to this. He suggests ways of giving voice to the sermon so that we don't end up reading an essay or even speaking an essay. He envisions speaking the sermon as we write it. This is a good reminder that preaching is a spoken/auditory event. It’s a practice I’ve tried to incorporate, but it’s always good to be reminded. When it comes to speaking the sermon as it is under preparation, he suggests we try things out while walking or driving. I've been trying that out! From there we move in chapter 8 to "giving voice to life." He speaks here of three metaphors—herald, witness, and testimony. Each has its place, and each has its dangers. Each voice has a connection to our own identity. The herald, for instance, declares the word, but it is a bit distant from the person. Witness and testimony are more personal. There is a time and a place for all. Ultimately this about "giving voice to life." (p. 155). 

As we near the end of the book we come to a discussion of forms of preaching. Ward describes both inductive and deductive forms. He does so for the purpose of connecting those forms to what has gone before. In this chapter, he reminds us that whatever the form the sermon takes, these forms are related to the functions of preaching and the virtues inherent in practicing the preaching life.

Again, there are many preaching books available to us. My shelves are filled with them, and new books come out regularly. Many of these books offer us a style/form the authors have taught to their students. These books are helpful, especially for those starting out. Other books take us a step further and seem to speak more clearly not only to those starting out but also to those of us who have been on the road for a while. Such is the case with Practicing the Preaching Life.  It is good to be reminded that my preaching is connected to my spiritual life. It is always good to know that we who preach in the modern world can draw from ancient teachers, such as Augustine. Wisdom of the ages. Thus, this is a worthwhile read for any preacher, whether in school or entering the pulpit for the one-thousandth time.  


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