Preaching in an Age of Distraction: a book revie. . .hey what’s that?

We live in a frenetic age.  We hussle from one event to another and fill every waking moment with stuff. A thousand voices scream for our attention and they have it, though not for long: our cell phones ring and buzz with new calls and texts, email beckons us, Facebook, Twitter and (true confessions) Candy Crush. Beyond that we are preoccupied by the proliferation of choices in the market, demands at work or at home and relationships. When we do sit and think for a moment, our minds pull us in a thousand directions. Unfortunately for the would-be-preacher, our quiet moments often come during the twenty-odd minutes when they attempt to deliver their Sunday morning sermon.

J. Ellsworth Kalas argues that though ‘our age’ is peculiarly prone to some of these distractions this is not a new problem. Adam and Eve allowed an intruder to distract them from their work in the garden of Eden. We’ve been distracted eve since. Kalas is senior professor of homiletics at Asbury Theological seminary and has written a book exploring the nature of distraction and its effect on the preaching moment. Preaching in the Age of Distraction examines the peculiar distractions of congregations (and preachers!) and what resources we have to combat them.

This is not really a ‘how to’ book. Kalas doesn’t have a formula for delivering whimsical sermons which grip the congregation. Instead he shares from decades of experience as preacher and professor and draws heavily on his Evangelical heritage (especially in a Wesleyan key). And this book is full of practical insights for anyone climbing into the pulpit.

Preaching in the Age of Distraction divides into ten chapters. Here is a look at the book in skeletal form: Chapter one and two discuss the distractedness of our age (and others). Chapter three discusses the internal distractions that preachers bring with them into the pulpit, and chapter four describes some of the causes of the congregation’s distractions.  Chapter five discusses the benefits born out of distraction. Namely, Kalas sees the distractiveness of our age as a catalyst to strive for greater homiletic quality. Chapter six argues that excellence acts as a counter-force against  the problem of distractions. Chapter seven and eight unpack how to craft  sermons creatively and how to find your preaching style (or the style that best appeals to your context). But lest you think that Kalas is focused on ‘technique,’ chapter nine argues for the importance of sermon content. The best way to hold a congregations attention is to have something worth saying and there is nothing more worth saying than the Gospel. Finally, in chapter ten Kallas says that the preacher’s ‘secret resource’ stems from the care she has for the congregation.

I really liked several things about Kalas’s book. First of all, I think he names the problem of distraction incisively and a clear sense of the purpose of preaching.  He states:

Those of us who preach, teach or write are in constant battle on the field of distractions .We are engaged in the struggle for the souls of humankind: we compete daily for their time, their attention, their feelings and eventually theri commitment and conduct. For us, distraction is not just a personal problem with which we, like the rest of our race, must contend. It is much more, because of our calling and because of the talents we hope we possess, we must enter the distractions competition.We’re not satisfied that the race should go by default to those who have the largest budgets the best polling data or the most sophisticated facilities. We feel compelled to make our case because we believe that, quite simply it must be made (18-9).

As this passage makes clear, Kalas has a high view of preaching and the pastor’s role in speaking truth in the midst of this distracted age.

Secondly, I think he offers many practical insights on crafting and creating good sermons. The book is full of suggestions (from Kalas and from other ministers whose quotations pepper the text). Kalas suggests attention to our context, attention to scripture, and our craft. He also describes disciplines which will help train us into people with a broad appeal (such as reading poetry and fiction-p. 74-5).  In the preaching moment, he gives suggestions on how to make sermons more interact and involve congregants more in the process.

Finally I really appreciated his final chapter. In it Kalas urges that pastors foster connections with their congregation through regular conversations and pastoral care (152) and pulpit vulnerability, where as pastors we can admit our own sinfulness (158).  Long ago Aristotle observed that an effective public speaker  had logos (thoughtful content), ethos (moral character) and pathos (care for his audience). Kalas’s antidotes to distraction speak to the preachers ability to wed thoughtful exposition with demonstrative care for Christ’s church. This book packs a punch! I recommend this book for preachers (lay preachers and professional clergy) who are seeking ways to hone their craft. Kalas is a wise guide. I give this book five stars: ★★★★★.

Thank you to IVP for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest review.

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