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: Learning to Preach for Your Time and Place by Sally A. Brown and Luke A. 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.