David B. Ward. Practicing the Preaching Life. Nashville: Abingdon Press, March 19 2019. 212 pages
At some point over the week of preparation a frantic breath of prayer springs forth, “God, let this be a good sermon.” The sun goes down, Sunday comes, the sermon is spoken, and the preacher quickly finds that same prayer echoing once again. Many preaching texts speak to that prayer and equip the preacher with theory, forms, and techniques for good sermons. What makes Practicing the Preaching Life unique is its situating of the sermon in the life of the preacher. As a result, the question of what makes a good sermon becomes, “What makes a good life?” David B. Ward offers a timely text that speaks to pastors beginning their ministry, or further along, as well as those who preach week to week, or only a few times a year. Because at the heart of things, a good sermon springs forth from a good life, and a good life is one with God. This means that regardless of the amount of preaching a pastor does, the formation of the sermon is fruit of the formation of the Spirit(ual) life, a life for all of us regardless of role, context, age, etc. While Ward is ultimately focused on the preacher, what he offers in Practicing the Preaching Life is nothing short of new visions for living out the call of ministry.
Throughout the text Ward turns to Augustine’s classic preaching text On Christian Teaching, as well as scripture, history, theology, sociology, and more. In this way, his text reflects his premise, good preaching has more to do with a good life than simply good technique. The reader is invited to drink deeply from the wells that Ward has drunk, spanning multiple theological traditions. This is an enriching and accessible gift as his writing and the reflection questions at the end of each chapter has a way of being both a challenge and a balm—the best kind of grace.
The text can be read in two parts, with its centering chapter forming the backbone of the text. The first section, chapters one through four, form the framework for envisioning the preaching life as embedded in the Christian life. In the introduction Ward gives an apt metaphor for the reading of the text— building a house. I recall witnessing the process of a home being built as a child. We would take trips to the purchased lot and it seemed as if a whole lot of nothing had happened. Dirt was moved around. There was a hole. Eventually there were poles dropped in the dirt and concrete poured. It did not look like much of a house to my ten year old eyes. Soon enough, however, I realized that these unseen elements would sustain the weight of the house, making it possible to bear the load of its walls, and to sustain being buffeted by the elements. Without those foundational pieces, the house could not stand. So it is with this text. While the initial chapters do not yield the tips and techniques that many preaching texts might quickly offer, they should not be skimmed or passed over as they are necessary for the eyes of your soul, heart, and mind to see anew the life to which you are called. The first chapters are filled with thought provoking questions and resources that pastors need to build the deep foundation of a rooted and grounded vocation. Questions such as, “What makes preaching good across cultures and contexts?” “What makes a preacher good?” “What virtues mark a good life?” Ward digs deep into the interior life of the preacher with insight for ways the Spirit might be calling you further into grace. They are rigorous chapters, but winsome and reading them will stir your prayers to say, “Do this work in me today, God.” These chapters are the hidden work of transformation, the roots beneath the soil that allow for enduring growth— do not miss them!
The backbone of the text is chapter five, “Practicing a Christian Life.” To continue with the metaphor of building a house, it offers the blueprint for a good life. Ward presses us to consider what we are really searching for, a good sermon or a good life. He writes,
“Sunday is coming. This is true. Still, the more near-sighted preachers become in their focus on the next sermon, the longer they will remain in a hand-to-mouth pattern for preaching preparation. A deeply Christian way of life, when practiced well, yields sermons with much greater depth and ease. A deeply Christian way of life also prevents us from many sermonic sins we will only regret later.” (80)
This is what ultimately makes this preaching text unique from others: it is an invitation to discipleship for every pastor who at any time will preach, an invitation for one’s whole life to be swept up into God.
The second half of the text is where the walls start to take shape and the sub-floor gets placed. Ward offers weekly rhythms for preaching, sermon preparation processes, images for the act of preaching, and a whole host of sermon forms. There is an untold amount of learning in these chapters that can be employed in this week’s sermon. Just as with the first section— do not miss the learning here! Combining these chapter’s insights for the sermon and the preacher’s role with the first half’s development of a deeply Christian life, the preacher is intellectually and spiritually attended to, and the hearer is all the better for it.
If you are tired and burnout looms on your horizon, read this book. If you are entrenched in your ways of ministry and unsure of other options, read this book. If you are starting your ministry, read this book. If at any time you believed God’s offer of an abundant life and the ways of preaching or ministering have seemed instead like a burden or ill-fitting yoke, read this book. God is faithful to continue the good work begun in you, and the Spirit just might use this book to do it.
Book review provided by Leanne Ketchum