Timothy Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York, writes a timely book for Christians about preaching, aptly and appropriately entitled, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Scepticism.  The book is set out in three parts; the first part, Serving the Word, Keller outlines and explains why preaching is a divinely empowered activity – namely that God the Holy Spirit empowers the listener as well as the preacher[1]p.11 – “the difference between good preaching and great preaching lies mainly in the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the listener as well as the preacher.”; the case for expository preaching[2]pp.32-44; the ‘why’ of preaching the Cross everytime[3]pp.47-69 and the importance of preaching Christocentrically (preaching Christ from all of Scripture)[4]pp.70-90.

After setting the foundations for what preaching is and its necessity, Keller shifts his focus in the second section from the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of preaching to the ‘who’. In the beginning of this section he frames it well with a very helpful question, ‘How do we communicate the Christian faith now, in this increasingly secular age, (while honouring all that we explored in Part One of this Book)?[5]p.95

Part two is very helpful in its exhortation to preachers (and students of preaching) of the importance of contextualisation. In other words, knowing the context of those to whom you are preaching to, as well as the content of what you are preaching. Keller covers all the bases; vocabulary, avoiding ‘unexplained theological terms’[6]“Christian vocabulary was not wholly alien to any listener. That is changing rapidly. This means that you should not use unexplained theological terms like “hermeneutics”, “eschatological”, “covenant,” “kingdom,” or even “theological” repeatedly.” pp. 103-104., taking care to avoid “evangelical subcultural jargon and terms that are unnecessarily archaic, sentimental, or not readily understandable to the outsider”[7]p.105; the importance of knowing your audience (i.e. “using respected authorities to strengthen your theses”)[8]An example of this is the Apostle Paul. He preaches the gospel in the book of Acts; (Acts 13:16-43; to Jewish believers, they have the OT theology as mental furniture); (Acts 14:14-17 – to a blue collar pagan crowd – no OT theology) (Acts 17 –to a pagan intelligencia crowd). Paul uses different authorities, John the Baptist, Epimenides; uses different emphasis, doctrine of God, Christ and the resurrection) and his appeals are different.; and anticipating doubts and objections of unbelievers[9]Keller writes, “Show listeners that you are aware of their problems and queries about what you have just said and have thought through the resolutions and answers”. p.111..

Very insightfully, Keller elucidates the importance of affirming and challenging “things that ‘everybody knows’; premises that seem so self-evident as to be nearly invisible and unquestionable to those who hold them”[10]p.115, as well as using the different appeals of the Gospel.  Keller writes:

“the gospel offers many things – forgivenss, community, contentment, identity, freedom, hope, vocation. Christians communicators must consider how to arrange and articulate these great offers to apply their force frontally at the culture’s pressure points”[11]p.117.

If Part two of the book has an overarching theme, it is that preaching is not about giving people what they want, but about giving people God’s answers that they may not want. Part two is the strength of his work as he encourages the preacher to look at how their own understanding of the gospel is incarnated in their own culture so that they can discern and implement a better approach of articulating the gospel to somebody else of a different culture.

This is very helpful as most of our culture and its various facets are invisible to us and we don’t notice them,(e.g. concept of time, expressions of worship, demonstrating emotion), and they appear to be the norm and automatic. Furthermore there is nothing in the Bible that says one culture is right over and against another culture.  Cultures have different ways of reasoning and Keller reminds the reader that the appeals of Scripture resonate to different cultures. All of these are appeals (or motivations) that the Biblical authors use, yet most preachers tend to use one motivation when we appeal to people, and normally it is the one in which we came to faith. Various cultures resonate with certain motivations more than other motivations.  The good thing is that we can use different motivators and know that we are being Biblical.

Contextualisation is not superficial aspect of preaching, it is about time and about how one reasons with people and how you chose the authorities one cites, and it is about having the ability to look into a culture from the outside as an outsider and observing the little things that mean a lot to people inside of a culture. This is what makes part two of Keller’s book so helpful to the preacher, it forces the preacher to see their context and cultural context from outside. What has been modelled to me is the important of the preacher to be flexible as far as possible so that the gospel will not be made to appear unnecessarily alien at the cultural level. Keller’s book speak to this in this section, in fact Keller’s book is worth purchasing this book for section two alone.

Interestingly part three of Keller’s book, In Demonstration of the Spirit and of Power, comprises only one chapter. It is curious that in this section, Keller has a subsection entitled Preaching from the Heart[12]pp.205-207 yet the previous section contains a chapter entitled Preaching Christ to the Heart[13]Chapter SixWhile what Keller writes in the previous section is very helpful, I would have included that chapter in the final section. As it supports the rest of the section, where he comes full circle ending with the premise that he began with: Preaching, its efficacy, and its power comes from God himself and is a divinely empowered activity.  It would’ve been easy for someone of Keller’s theological and academic acumen to write a book on preaching from a technical and academic context. Yet, as he states that “half this book is dedicated to preaching to the heart. You certainly understand by now that you cannot hope to do that unless you are consistently preaching from the heart[14]p.205. He begins and ends with the premise that for God to work in the heart of those whom the preacher preaches to, he will first work in the heart of the preacher.

Thoughts

I’d certainly consider the section on contextualisation, namely section two, to be the book’s main strength.

Of course, just as there is no such thing as a perfect sermon nor such thing as perfect preaching, there is no such thing as a perfect book on preaching. There are two aspects of the book that I found challenging. Chapter five, Preaching And The (Late) Modern Mind, took a bit to work through, and not necessarily because of its length (55 pages). At best, I found this chapter rather ambitious. Keller provides a few, what could be somewhat deduced as, esoteric claims[15]Esoteric in that the appeal to Ancient Greek worldviews pertaining to materialism and Greek philosophy and belief may be not lost on some readers, and have little appeal to the wider audience of his book.. He doesn’t provide much in the way of evidence, either through citations or quotes to support the argument he is making. This is not to say the chapter was poor, but it was difficult to engage with. It simply attempted to say too much. Though I did find a highlight of this chapter to be the the way in how Keller tackled the difference in people’s interpretive grids.

The other weakness I found in this book was in regards to Keller’s desire to aggrandise the importance of preaching the Cross in every sermon. Keller critically points out the danger of doing this poorly and artificially, specifically in light of the dynamic that all preachers must face. Namely, ensuring that we do not “preach Christ without preaching the text, and not to preach the text without preaching Christ[16]p.67. Yet surprisingly, he doesn’t seem to devote more time to addressing how we can strike the balance right.

Lastly, this review would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that Keller shares something of himself. After outlining what preaching from the heart looks like[17]You preach, powerfully, wondrously, affectionately, authentically, Christ-adoringly (pp. 206), Keller succinctly asks the question, “Feeling overwhelmed? Me too.” One would almost expect Keller to write “Feeling overwhelmed? You should!” After reading this list, to say I felt overwhelmed would an understatement in my case. However, for Keller to state that he is the same company as every other struggling preaching is an encouragement. God’s grace is indeed sufficient. This is probably one of the most helpful things that Keller through,this book does — It reminds us that God is the one who works through the preaching (in both the preacher and the listener). Such a reminder can prevent preachers from falling into the two extremes: pride – thinking it is because of us; or despair – that nothing happens and this is due to us [18]See first paragraph of page 207.

Keller’s last words to this effect are so good, and I cannot think of better words to end this review:

“If you proclaim Christ and not yourself and let God’s Word come to people through you, you can also become a voice, like John did. It doesn’t matter if in yourself you feel weak. All the better”[19]p. 210.

Great words for every preacher, and a good book for any preacher, whether novice or ‘expert’.


Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Scepticism
Timothy Keller
Hodder & Stoughton
Find it at The Wandering Bookseller

References   [ + ]

1.p.11 – “the difference between good preaching and great preaching lies mainly in the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the listener as well as the preacher.”
2.pp.32-44
3.pp.47-69
4.pp.70-90
5.p.95
6.“Christian vocabulary was not wholly alien to any listener. That is changing rapidly. This means that you should not use unexplained theological terms like “hermeneutics”, “eschatological”, “covenant,” “kingdom,” or even “theological” repeatedly.” pp. 103-104.
7.p.105
8.An example of this is the Apostle Paul. He preaches the gospel in the book of Acts; (Acts 13:16-43; to Jewish believers, they have the OT theology as mental furniture); (Acts 14:14-17 – to a blue collar pagan crowd – no OT theology) (Acts 17 –to a pagan intelligencia crowd). Paul uses different authorities, John the Baptist, Epimenides; uses different emphasis, doctrine of God, Christ and the resurrection) and his appeals are different.
9.Keller writes, “Show listeners that you are aware of their problems and queries about what you have just said and have thought through the resolutions and answers”. p.111.
10.p.115
11.p.117
12.pp.205-207
13.Chapter Six
14.p.205
15.Esoteric in that the appeal to Ancient Greek worldviews pertaining to materialism and Greek philosophy and belief may be not lost on some readers, and have little appeal to the wider audience of his book.
16.p.67
17.You preach, powerfully, wondrously, affectionately, authentically, Christ-adoringly (pp. 206
18.See first paragraph of page 207
19.p. 210