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.

Show and EvanTell: a couple of book reviews

Thanks to Kregel Publications for providing me with copies of Larry Moyer’s books–Show Me How to Preach Evangelistic Sermons, Show Me How to Illustrate Evangelistic Sermons–in exchange for this blog post and review. I am passionate about preaching and want to grow in my ability to preach sermons that are impactful. I particularly want to be used by God to bring people into his Kingdom. Both of these books offer some sound advice about how to engage non-Christians with life-giving Good News.

Larry Moyer is the founder and CEO of EvanTell, Inc., a ministry which trains people in evangelism. He has a Masters of Divinity from Dallas Theological Seminary and a D.Min from Gordon Conwell and is sought after as a speaker in evangelistic outreaches and training seminars across the country. He has written several other books but all are on the theme of Evangelism and books to aid new Christians.

Speaking from his passion and expertise Moyer has a lot of positive things to say which are instructive and we can learn from. Let us take a look at each of these books and explore what they have to offer:

Show Me How to Preaching Evangelistic Sermons

Show Me How To Preach Evangelistic SermonsIn Show Me How to Preach Evangelistic Sermons, Moyer addresses both the exciting opportunity available in Evangelistic preaching (part 1) and the content and delivery of our message (part 2).

In part 1, Moyer begins by telling his own story of being called as an Evangelist (as a youth with a speech impediment) gives reasons for evangelistic preaching and commends and describes expository evangelistic preaching. His method of Evangelistic preaching is rooted in particular biblical texts. Moyer commends especially the gospel of John as the one New Testament book written with non-Christian’s as it’s explicit audience. Nevertheless peculiar challenges arise from preaching Evangelistically from a text. Chief among them is the reality that few passages proclaim the complete plan of salvation, “1) We are Sinners; 2) Christ died for us and rose again; 3) We must trust in Christ. (43). So while Moyer advocates preaching from a text, he encourages preachers to shore up what is missing from a text by explaining the whole plan of salvation when we preach with Evangelistic intent. The rest of part 1 describes how to make the most of the opportunities for evangelism: How do we develop our Evangelistic speaking skills?; how can we pay attention to and speak to non Christians?; when are good times to deliver an evangelistic message? what false assumptions should we avoid?; and how do you make the most out of the setting for your message?

In part 2 Moyer addresses both the content of our message (i.e. the meaning of sin, the nature of repentance, what we are asking non-Christians to do, what is the nature of belief) and our method of delivery. He advocates short, well illustrated messages with judicious use of humor, pedagogically repetitious and aimed at the heart. He gives practical advice about how to craft an expositional evangelistic message and the different forms of invitation and follow-up.

If you have read more than a few of my reviews, you know that one area of sustained critique I have against many Christian authors is their reduction of the gospel to what Dallas Willard calls ‘Sin Management.’ Certainly I agree with Moyer about the importance of personal salvation and the necessity of trusting Jesus for your eternal security, but I find that his definition of this as ‘the gospel’ is reductionist (which isn’t to say it isn’t still very important!). The gospel is nothing less than the proclamation that Jesus fulfills all of Israel’s hopes and that he is King (and by extension Caesar is not). This would paint the gospel, in much more politically challenging, holistic and compelling terms. I hear what Moyer is saying and I want more. As Scot McKnight has demonstrated, not every Evangelistic message we are given in scripture emphasizes our sinfulness, but they all emphasize Jesus.

Nevertheless there is some helpful advice here in crafting messages which speak to non-Christians about their need for a savior (most of his expositional advice is rooted in Haddon Robinson’s approach). I certainly found enough meat here to help me grow as a preacher and help me aim my message at those who do not yet know Jesus.

Show Me How to Illustrate Evangelistic Sermons

How to Illustrate As the companion volume to Show Me How to Preach Evangelistic Sermons this book endeavors to help preacher’s messages connect with non-Christians. Moyer begins by outlining the usefulness of illustrations and gives advice for finding illustrations and the use of humor. Moyer contends that a well illustrated evangelistic sermon has at least fifteen illustrations (for a 30 minute sermon).

Most of this book provides examples of illustrations and advice for their use under three headings: Sin, Substitution and Saving Faith. These correspond to the three essential elements of Evangelistic messages which Moyer describes in the previous volume.

What I like about this book is its discussion on the use of illustrations. I enjoyed reading a number of his examples, but personally would not make much use of them. There are quotes, jokes and stories that illustrate different aspects of Evangelistic messages. While many of these are good, I find my best illustrations have been ones that I have personally gathered. I do not harvest illustrations from books of illustrations because they are less compelling to me, and therefore to my audience. So I read with an eye toward Moyer’s practical advice.

In the end, I find Show Me How to Preach Evangelistic Messages the more helpful book. Both books have good things to say, but if you just get one, get the other one.

Nothing of Substance to Say

Blank stareI have just finished up editing my two sermons for tomorrow and excited about them. Beware a preacher who is excited about what he has to say! Then again: beware a preacher who is not excited about what he has to say! As I have pressed into the meaning of the transfiguration and the transforming power of the Gospel (as described in Ephesians:1-7) God has wowed me and I am encouraged and hungry for more of his presence and transforming power. My hope is that my hearers catch my excitement!

So obviously I think I have something of substance to say, but not here and not today. Instead I thought I would give y’all a heads up on what I will be posting here in the weeks ahead:

    -I’ll link these sermons I’ve blogged on, when they are posted online.
    -Expect more book reviews, starting with the book I will be using as my prayerbook through lent
    -Speaking of Lent, I will take this season to press into the nature of sin and hope to blog my thoughts on the subject and interacting with writings of contemporary authors, desert saints, and puritans (or if you have any other suggestions, happy to oblige)
    -In the same vein, I will blog the so called penitential psalms
    -Expect to see some more of my commentary, my cranky cynicism and small graces

Stay tuned, sooner or later I will have something substantive to say.

Sermon Storyboard: The Transfiguration

So as you may know, I am writing two sermons this week and would love interaction from people on it. So far, not takers. So I thought I would give you my outline for one of them, though it may not make sense to anyone but me. My (only) point with this passage is to get people to see that when we enlarge are picture of Jesus, see him for who is, we are transformed and are able to walk with him the road to the cross and enter into the suffering of the World with him. So here is my outline:

Mark 9:2-9(and 10ish)