Preaching Where it (Grey) Matters Most: a book review

As I write this review I am knee deep in crafting a sermon for Sunday worship. I have preached enough to see a variety of responses from people to my preaching. Some nod and smile and laugh politely at my jokes. Others appear distracted and disinterested. I’ve seen teary eyes and heard from parishioners about a particular aspect of my message that touched them.  Often my words are met with glassy-eyed stares and I wonder what is firing in their brain.  Everybody who has ever stood in the pulpit has wondered what good, if any, their sermons have done for the congregation.

Rewiring Your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons by Richard H. Cox

In Rewiring Your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons Richard Cox ((M.D., Ph.D. D.Min)  issues a call to purposeful preaching . Cox is an ordained minister (PCUSA) and teaches in the department of psychaitry and behavioral sciences at Duke Medical School. He believes that knowledge of modern  medicine, psychology and neuroscience illumines how the brain makes sense of the sermon (or rejects it) and that this knowledge will help us preachers attend better to our task of proclamation. The Spirit of God is at work enlivening our preaching and speaking to hearts and minds in the congregation; however knowledge of how listeners’ brains process external stimuli can aid us in our sermon writing and presentation.

In fourteen chapters, Cox covers a number of aspects of  preaching and the brain. In the first three chapters he addresses how the brain processes external stimulus, and in particular, preaching. It turns out that while the brain processes sermons like other stimuli, it also sees preaching as unique.  Only in a church is truth proclaimed from a pulpit, and despite scandals of clergy misconduct, people still regard preaching (and the preacher) as an authority in religious matters. Whether or not the preacher’s message ‘connects’ with a hearer depends on how well the brain is prepared to ‘hear.’ All sound is heard and enters the brain, either as new information or confusion to be discarded. The difference is how the brain is prepared to hear the message and add new information to old. Cox calls the process religare– meaning ‘tying back.’  Through repeated listening to sermons and other messages about faith, the human brain is able to tie things together and make new connections.

In chapters 4-7, Cox describes the power of the spoken word to impact the brain. He argues that brain-based-preaching brings healing because it provides the integration, synthesis and hope that the brain longs for.  Furthermore, Cox asserts that preaching allows the brain to rethink and construct new  neurological pathways. Through preaching, people can enter a new way of thinking and this has implications for behavioral change as well.

In chapter 8 Cox describes the way the work of  ‘the pastor’ differs from the work of ‘the preacher.’ Each role that a minister takes (preacher or pastor) occupies it’s own unique sphere and requires particular skills. On the other hand each role reinforces the other (a good pastor enlivens the hearing of their congregation, a successful preacher is able to care well for the flock).

In Chapters 9-14 Cox talks about the nature of healing, the brain and preaching. In chapter 9 he discusses the unique contribution of theology (and the power of sacrament, symbol and liturgy to help people make new connections). In chapter 10 Cox looks at how the brain processes pain and the way preaching can bring hope and peace to the one suffering. Chapters 11-13  discuss the way the brain interacts to bring healing to the soul, the mind and the body.  Cox argues that the spoken word has real power to impact a person’s whole well-being. In the final chapter  Cox discusses how the brain is impacted by social realities and how a word rightly spoken from the pulpit may bring healing to community.

Cox is able to effectively communicate knowledge of the brain in non-technical language. He offers much food for thought. I particularly was struck by his insight that symbol, liturgy and sacrament open up the brain to process and make sense of new stimuli. He also makes an impassioned case for purposeful preaching: preaching should call people (their brains and all) to action.  Cox is able to demonstrate that it is impossible for the brain to process information and not act on it; either by synthesizing or discarding it. Effective preaching should enable congregants grow in understanding, faith and aid in their spiritual transformation.

Cox has many wonderful things to say about what is going on in the brain when we preach. If  his only contribution was to show how fearfully and wonderfully humanity is made and how our brains interact with the spiritual life, it would be enough. Yet all who preach will be encouraged and exhorted by this book. This is not a ‘how to’ book on preaching. But it will get you thinking about your role as preacher and the ways you can preach more effectively. 4 Stars

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Family Ministries: A Comprehensive Guide (a book review)

Family Ministry A Comprehensive Guide, second edition by Diana R. Garland

Our families are either a source of great joy or great pain for us. Probably both. Families are the context in which we learn to trust and love and grow and where we learn to be human. Churches and family ministry are resources for families which help nurture families and help them grow. But what is the purpose of family ministry? What is the nature of family and how do churches support families and help them fulfill their calling?

Diana R. Garland, dean of the Baylor School of Social Work, wrote Family Ministry: A Comprehensive Guide to help family ministries support Christians as they live out their faith through their families. She draws on her own experience as a social work educator, researcher, family ministry consultant, congregant and family member (17).  The  first edition of this book won the 1999 Academy of Parish Clergy book of the year to Family Ministry. This edition substantially reorganizes the original material, integrating the biblical content with the social sciences and the theoretical with the practical (this edition also provides indexes which were missing). These changes make this book slightly longer than the first edition (656 pages). Having not read the first edition, I can’t say whether this edition improves upon Garland’s earlier  effort. However I can tell you that this is hands down the  most helpful book on ministry to families. Period.

Family Ministry is divided into four sections. In the first section Garland sketches the American concept of family in history and the current forms of family. She relates that to the history of Christian thought and biblical teaching on family. The sociological, historical and biblical data demonstrate that family is a fluid concept which has changed over time, often taking different forms. The ‘traditional’ family consisting of a breadwinner father, homemaker mother and dependent children has not been the reality for ‘more than 5% of Christian history'(40).  Within the current American context, families are increasing defined by persons choosing to be family, the purpose of family is no longer birthing and raising children and marriage is’ no longer the exclusive social location for sexual partnering (48).’  The Christian and Biblical understanding of family affirms monogamous marriage is the proper context for sex but also challenges  the ‘traditional’  definition of family. Jesus relativizes commitment to families of origin and recasts family as the community of faith. In light of this, Garland proposes:

The church is community on mission , a community that attempts to embody the characteristics of Jesus Christ. With that community on mission as the context, family ministry is any activity that directly or indirectly (1) forms families in the congregational community; (2) increases the Christlikeness of the family  relationships of Christians; or (3) equips and supports families for the work to which they are called together (120).

These three prongs of Family ministry provide the structure for the rest of the book.

In section two, Garland probes family formation and how the congregational community can support families. She discusses how families relate to one another,  how families develop, how physical and social spaces nurture individuals and families, the impact of stress, crises and castastrophe on family life and how cultural and ethnic identity inform our understanding of ‘family’ and our expectations. Garland  begins this section by telling the story of one group of individuals who become family for one another and discusses how the concept of Christian family  both builds on cultural definitions of family while remaining distinct (15).  She presses the notion that families develop in stages (linearly) and suggests that families develop cyclically (as phases of relationship).  Her exploration of how culture shapes our understanding and expectations of family also reveal the way in which rituals, culture and shared stories nurture give families their identity and nurture them. This has implications for congregational life.

Section three is about interpersonal dynamics within the family and how family ministry can help families become more Christlike.  Garland talks about the dynamics of communication, conflict and anger, forgiveness and repentance and intimacy. She explores the nature of power and roles, arguing for a more egalitarian approach to family relationships. She also discusses the appropriate and most effective forms of discipline and the problem of family violence and how ministers should address the issue of abuse

Section four is where Garland explores how families fit within the mission of the church and how families and churches mutually support one another in extending God’s kingdom. Congregations support family life when they have hospitable worship services which welcomes and includes every member of the family, nurtures their formation, offers pastoral care and leadership. Garland also provides a template for assessing congregations, neighborhoods and evaluating family ministries. She concludes by providing a number of examples where congregations have provided programs and ministries which nurture neighbors and families and invites families into the work of ministry.

Generally I find that certain words in a book title over promise. When a book says it is a ‘comprehensive guide’ I wonder if it can possibly deliver on its promise to say everything that needs to be said about its topic. However Garland largely succeeds.  She has written a book which is practical, theologically astute, makes good use of sociological research and addresses many of the dynamics of family life. Not everyone will agree with her conclusions (i.e. my complementarian friends would likely be unconvinced by her biblical defense of egalitarianism), but she is a great dialogue partner and she weds insights from the social sciences with a keen understanding of the mission of the church. Much of the research which this book builds on is summarized in these pages but an extensive bibliography points readers to other resources where they could dig deeper into the topic in a more focused way. If anything is left out of this ‘comprehensive guide’ it is the way technology is re-shaping family life.  The internet, the ubiquity of  smartphones and other devices have impacted our relationships with one another. Perhaps in a third edition.

I think this is hands down the best and most comprehensive book on family ministry. I highly recommend to all those who minister to families. That includes more than family ministers, children’s ministers, Christian ed directors, and youth pastors. Everyone doing the work of the ministry needs to have an understanding of how families fit within the mission of the church and what the church can do to support them.  I found this book to be tremendously helpful and their are sections which I plan on revisiting.  It assumes basic knowledge of sociology of marriage and family relationships but is written in an engaging and accessible way.  This is a great resource and I am grateful for Garland’s insights and thoughtfulness.

Thank you to IVP Academic for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Bringing the Broken and Disabled Good News: a book review

Disability and the Gospel: How God Uses Our Brokenness to Display His Grace by Michael Beates

For all the talk we Christians make about the church being a community of mutual care, churches are often remarkably inhospitable to the disabled. We prize those who are strong, gifted, and well put together. We don’t mean to exclude the weak and the vulnerable, but they often disrupt the order of service  and the flow of worship. And so in subtle ways we push those with disabilities away.

In Disability & the Gospel, Michael Beates helps us come to grips with disability and our response to it and he lays out a Biblical theology of disability. Beates is on the board for  Joni and Friends (the ministry of Joni Eareckson Tada) and is also the father of  seven children (one who is profoundly disabled and two others who face challenges).   Beates interacts with much of the theological literature on disability and helps us understand the ways disability (and the disabled) challenge us to greater dependence on God in all circumstances.

The book divides into four parts. In part one, Beates surveys relevant texts in the Old and New Testament which speak either directly or indirectly to the issue of disability. Part two provides a historical perspective on the issue, examining the issue of  disability in Greek and Rabbinic literature, the early church, the Reformation era, and in the early modern era.  The attitudes towards the disabled throughout church history is not always a pretty tale. In part three, Beates discusses what current secular and Christian voices are contributing to the discussion and in part four he provides some suggestions for Christian leaders and lay people on how to grow in our capacity to minister effectively to those with disabilities. There are also two appendices which offer a look at how God’s sovereignty relates to genetic anomalies and an example sermon from Beates on God’s love for the broken.

What I appreciate most about this book is that it challenges us not only to include the disabled in our faith community and be intentional about ministering to (and with) the disabled, but also to see disability and brokenness through a theological lens. We are all broken, weak and vulnerable people who are dependent on other’s and God’s care. The disabled among us hold profound lessons for us all about our common humanity, and we should not so easily shunt them away.  Beates also makes a strong case that God shows particular care for the weak and disabled and challenges us to do the same (though in an organic, holistic and communal way). I also really liked the biblical and historical data. I think there are other thoughtful authors (i.e. Amos Yong, Thomas Reynolds, Jean Vanier, Stanley Hauerwas, Marva Dawn, etc) who are wrestling with looking at disability through a theological lens,but what Beates brings to the table is attention to the Biblical text. This is an appropriate focus, well needed and grounds his theology in something more solid than the often contradictory and troublesome theological tradition reflecting on this issue or subjective experience.  Beates articulates a biblical vision of disability which emphasizes both God’s care for the weak and broken and God’s sovereignty.

So I think this would be a good book for anyone interested in getting involved with ministry to those with disabilities, either as ministry leaders or as a concerned lay person. Sometimes our inhospitality towards the disabled stems from fear of how to approach them. Beates offers good advice on that score. I don’t hesitate in recommending this one! It pushed me to think of the people who have taught me the most about depending on God and trusting in Him. For me, these weren’t the strong, talented, gifted and wise mentors but I can think of several friends who faced physical or mental challenges who learned dependence on God in their circumstances, providing a prophetic challenge for the rest of us.

I received this book from Crossway Books in exchange for this review.