Book Review: Ways of the World

From time to time we include book reviews of new preaching resources on Wesleyan Sermons. Scott Donahue, a Wesleyan Master of Divinity student at Princeton Theological Seminary, has offered the below review on a new work by Dr. Sally Brown and Dr. Luke Powery. I recently led a panel reviewing their work at the Academy of Homiletics and was thrilled at the spiritually formative nature of the book. Scott is right, far too many preaching texts assume such central practices as prayer when considering the task of preaching. This work speaks a needed prophetic word in that direction and others. I not only join Scott in recommending the work, I have put it on my required reading list for masters students in the School of Theology and Ministry. I hope you will pick up a copy.  ~ Dave Ward


Book Review of:

Ways of the Word CoverWays of the Word: Learning to Preach for Your Time and Place by Sally A. Brown and Luke A. Powery

Sally A. Brown

Sally A. Brown

Luke Powery

Luke Powery

Sally Brown and Luke Powery combine their diverse and immense homiletical expertise in Ways of the Word: Learning to Preach for Your Time and Place. Both authors are professors at well-respected institutions (Duke University and Princeton Theological Seminary) and have years of practical preaching experience.  Powery grew up in a Pilgrim Holiness congregation and then worked in multiple theological traditions. Brown was formed in and teaches in primarily Reformed contexts. By writing from their shared and distinct perspectives, the book is intentionally ecumenical and offers diverse perspectives. Their goal in writing together was to be informed from multiple vantage points across ages, genders, ethnicities, and denominations. Each writer contributed individual chapters, while offering comments within the chapters that they did not write. Rather than argue for one particular method, form, and theory, the authors describe the best practices in each area and contend that preachers need to be well versed to be effective over time.

The first two chapters are devoted to understanding the Holy Spirit’s role in preaching. The authors contend that preaching is primarily driven by the Holy Spirit. Wesleyans should find the Spirit centered approach refreshing and congruent with our theological world view, in addition to appreciating the Christocentric method. The dynamic approach to preaching is summed up by their assertion that preaching “is more verb than noun.” That is, the sermon and the response to it are fundamentally dynamic. The authors balance the spiritual aspects of preaching by discussing the human elements of preaching, such as rhetoric. Effective preaching is a combination of the Spirit’s presence, faithfulness to the Word, and effective communication.

Chapter three reveals the importance of prayer in every part of the sermon practice. The internal work of prayer, study, and preparation are crucial to effective preaching. Along with these weekly practices, specifically set aside for preaching, is the preacher’s character. The congregation must trust the preacher and in order for there to be trust, they should witness the preacher’s character outside of the pulpit. Just as parishioners listen and respond to the words of a sermon, the preacher must listen and respond to the Word through prayer. The focus on prayer is an excellent addition to a preaching text, because despite prayer’s integral role in the sermon process, it is often neglected or underrepresented.

The fourth chapter highlights preaching as a form of worship and a spiritual practice. A goal of worship is to uncover God’s redemptive work in our world and give thanks. To that end, preaching must touch the mind and hearts of believers. Preaching cannot be purely cognitive (of the mind) because effective preaching not only educates but calls for a response. Holistic preaching reaches body, soul, and mind. The chapter contains a brief sketch of worship in the Bible and in Christian history in order to understand the modern centrality of preaching as worship. Brown challenges the reader to reflect on the purpose of worship and how sermons can contribute to worship. The notion is challenging because the reverse is often practiced. Preachers tend to think that worship enhances the sermon, as opposed to the sermon enhancing worship. Her corrective is welcome and necessary.

In chapters five and six the authors write about the preacher as interpreter of life and of scripture. The task of preaching calls for engagement with Holy Scripture and our 21st century lives. Brown’s emphasis on being specific to the needs of the individual congregation is well received, even though it means more work and intentionality for the preacher. The chapters on hermeneutics, how humans interpret, are the most technical and complex in the book. Yet, the chapters offer great insight and balance the rigor with illustrative material. For some, the specific discussion and implications may seem too academic, but those looking for homiletical theory to better understand the practice of preaching will not be disappointed.

The book touches on familiar ground with Powery’s utilization of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as an approach to good hermeneutics. Beyond using scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as lenses through which the preacher sees the world, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral informs and gives depth to sermons. It also asks the preacher to consider the experiences and traditions of the local community they are preaching, in addition to reflecting on the preacher’s own experiences and contexts that are brought public because of the privilege of the pulpit. In other words, how do our race, ethnicity, gender, class, and age influence the message we preach? Ways of the Word assists the reader in becoming more self-aware so that the Holy Spirit can intentionally utilize our experience for the betterment of the congregation.

Chapter seven describes deductive and inductive sermon forms, which is technical and advanced. The chapter provides an excellent framework for the novice or experienced reader. Along with other chapters, chapter seven is best grasped by the preacher willing to reflect on his or her own style. In order to grow, preachers should keep Ways of the Word in one hand, copies of their sermons in the other, and their congregation in mind. The book provides the necessary tools and frameworks for comprehensive growth but such growth takes intentionality and time.

The eighth chapter provides practical advice and reflection on the preacher’s body in the pulpit including voice, tone, gestures, and stance. Chapter nine offers a reflection on the use of technology in preaching. Both of these practical chapters contain theological rationale and insights into their topics. The final chapter pushes preachers to think about the stages of faith within their congregation. The needs of a new Christian are different from the needs of an unbeliever or a lifelong believer. The chapter contains ten useful strategies to preaching that enable Christian formation. Each has merit and when used appropriately enhances the preacher and sermons.

The book explores preaching in the context of the 21st century, both secular and ecclesial. One of the strengths of Ways of the Word is its synthesis and readability of modern homiletical theory. The authors utilize a variety of sources and often give comprehensive lists that help readers better understand their own views, while introducing them to the greater homiletical milieu. Each chapter ends with questions for reflection, methods of growth, and a list of sources for further reading. The book contains elements of Reformed theology and non-Wesleyan views, yet the purpose is not to indoctrinate but to expand. In fact, I find some of the Reformed comments and approaches to be an effective challenge to preaching that reduces faith to moral pietism and the “do more” mentality. One of the main benefits a Wesleyan pastor would receive from this book is its diverse perspective that invites the reader to think cross-denominationally about the most effective preaching practices and methods.

I would recommend this text to those who want to increase their existing knowledge of preaching. Brown and Powery offer an advanced preaching text that balances homiletical theory with preaching practice. The frameworks given are coupled with practical implications such that the reader will discover himself or herself within the text and uncover tools to enhance his or her preaching. The book does not offer simple steps to better preaching or easy correctives to poor preaching. Ways of the Word is driven by its strong content and desire to expand its reader’s knowledge. Wesleyan preachers would likely find themselves in the pages of the book and leave with a greater sense of self-awareness, a better understanding of why they preach a certain way, and methodologies to improve systematically.

Accompany Them with Singing – The Christian Funeral | Book Review

awsIf you go looking for a good book on funeral services, you will look for a while. Eventually, you will end up with one good book in hand: Accompany Them with Singing.

Most pastors I know would rather perform three funerals for well loved saints than one wedding full of family conflict and superficial pageantry. Ask yourself which wedding you performed lately that was really truly “meaningful” and you will probably find suffering or a funeral somehow connected to the story. Funerals are one of pastors’ most significant acts of ministry. So why are there so few books on how to engage them well?

The answer, apparently, is that funerals and worship at the time of death have been absorbed into the counseling sphere. In an interview on his book Tom Long states that “the disappearance of [writing] about the funeral was a major clue. That it had been absorbed into grief and psychotherapeutic literature was a good clue that there had been a shift, but I did not pick up on it.” Though he tries to help pastors realize there is more to funerals than grief care, more to the story of the people of God than a dead body, Long finds it difficult to convince people like you and me. “I can talk for six hours to a group of clergy, and they will still ask “but isn’t it really about grieving?” That’s how powerfully we have been trained in the psycho-therapy model to see death and dying only through that set of glasses. If you believe that even lament needs to be as much or more about God than about us, this book might help you find your way.

How do we know if our funerals have lost their way? Long highlights three elements that are required : necessity, custom, and conviction.

  1. Necessity reminds us there is a dead body and someone needs to do something about it. It cannot stay the way it is where it is. How are we dealing with that necessity? Are our dealings with it truly Christian?
  2. Custom is the simple realization that every society from the beginning of human history has found ways to ritually deal with death and the honor the body of the deceased. Christian pastors must deal with the necessity of the body and the customs of the community but what guides their choices Christianly?
  3. Conviction moves beyond “is” to “ought” and is rooted in the theological concerns of the Christian community.

For the process that includes a funeral to be done “well”, Long suggests it must attend to necessity, custom, and conviction. We cannot hand the entire enterprise over to business professionals, even Christian ones, and expect theological convictions to carry a significant force. We also cannot assume that every custom a community has is necessarily compatible with the convictions of the Christian faith. Long suggests we use this simple phrase when our convictions suggest our way of handling necessity could be more Christian: “consider this alternative…”

Where do we find alternatives to offer? One of the best contributions of Long’s book, perhaps even more significant than his very practical help in officiating funerals well, is a major shift in perspective about what funerals have traditionally been for Christians. Notice Tom Long’s journey toward realizing the difference between today and the past:

“The thing that finally was the figure/ground shift for me was doing the research on the history of the first five centuries of the Christian practice about funeral. I realized that I kept looking for what they did at the funeral. What did they do at the funeral? There was all this about how they would wash and anoint the body and sing and dress it in baptismal garments. They would carry it in broad daylight singing psalms to the cemetery and have Eucharist at the cemetery. Yeah that’s interesting, but what did they do at the funeral? And it suddenly dawned on me that that was the funeral. The drama of carrying the body to the place of farewell, with tear-soaked psalms of gratitude and thanksgiving, to give it back to God and to gather at the table with the saints—that was the funeral.”

Rather than a communal act of moving the body from the place where it died through theologically rich lament and worship to the place of its rest has been replaced, the funeral is now broken up into parts with very few people (even the family) knowing what happens in each of the parts. A sort of assembly line of death has been created, with a personal memorial at the end. God gets a brief cameo somewhere in the funeral sermon, primarily as cosmic counselor. Tom Long again, “everywhere I go the assumption is that grief management is what the funeral is about. That is a very powerful thing. I think that grief is accounted for and is part of the story: the great lament happens, but it is part of the larger script.” The plot for funerals according to Long, is the plot of the gospel not the descent into the soil.

The book is full of practical help for pastors who want to think through the theological, societal, and pragmatic issues related to pastoring at the time of death. The characteristics of a good funeral sermon are there. The elements of a well planned funeral are there. The best part of the book is this realization: the best way to grieve is to gospel. The lament is embedded in the gospel, but the gospel brings meaning to lament. I think Long is right in saying “the most basic need is not to be just comforted but to find meaning.” We need more than grief care at the time of death. To be sure we need that, and pastors for centuries failed to give it. Yet more than grief management, we need meaning for the soul. Otherwise with each death, a little more of our light leaks out.

~ Review by David B Ward, © 2015

Long, Thomas G. Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral
Louisville, KY, Westminster John Knox, 2009

Interview quotations taken from: Accessed, March 2015