I love reading novels, sports books, and political history. In that order.
Yet through my years in seminary and then full time ministry, a number of books have shaped my understanding of what it means to preach. Namely: what is the purpose of a sermon and how do you design it and deliver it so that you get there?
So here are five that have influenced me the most:
5. John Stapleton, Preaching In The Demonstration Of The Spirit And Power. In spite of the book’s title — which sounds like it comes straight from a Pentecostal publishing house — Stapleton is a confirmed mainliner who stands a couple of feet (at least) my theological left. Yet this book remains resonant with its emphasis that the preacher should strive to give the congregation an experience of rather than merely a talk about the particular biblical truth. Almost every week, my preparation notes will include “give an experience of . . . .”
4. Ralph Lews, Inductive Preaching: Helping People Listen. If you went to Asbury Seminary in the 1970s or 80s, you have to include this one on your list. Lewis helped me realize that most people listen & learn from the particular to the general. In other words, you don’t start with the truth or proposition of the day, you identify with and carry the congregation on a journey that gets you there.
2. Frederick Buechner, Telling The Truth: The Gospel As Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. Buechner’s influence on preachers and preaching far outweighs his actual output of sermons. He served as a pastor-chaplain for nine years at Phillips Exeter Academy and then settled down to write books at his mountainside home in Vermont. So he writes about preaching more than he actually preaches. Nevertheless, this one is a keeper. I hope to have a bit of each — tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale — in each message. Tragedy: the human situation. Comedy: the gospel goodness. Fairy Tale: what that goodness is like in your life “ever after.”
1. Andy Stanley, Communicating For A Change. Andy Stanley is so much the best preacher I’ve ever heard that he’s at least a lap ahead of the rest of the field. Irony alert: his father, Charles Stanley, is, um, not on my list of favorites. Anyway, Communicating For A Change conveys the two-headed genius of a sermon design that has the following movement:
and crystallizing the message of the day into one, memorable truth. Before I read this, the people of Good Shepherd had to endure four-point, fill-in-the-blank sermons. No one ever came up to me two weeks later and said, “Talbot, I love those four points you made!” and then recited them all. But many times these days people repeat the bottom line from messages given weeks or even months ago. Andy Stanley now is the weekly pastor of my own daughter Taylor, but with over 30,000 people per weekend, I don’t think he’s aware of that particular claim to fame.