This is Part One of a book review of the still timely work by John Stott entitled, Between Two Worlds.
After months of discussing the relevancy of preaching I have decided to write a book review of one of my favorite books on preaching. This book was written in 1982 but still has importance for important questions we have about the validity of preaching. People are asking, “Does preaching still connect with people today?” “Have preachers overstated their own importance and role in the life of the church?” “Where in Scripture do we find preaching that is exhortational in the church as opposed to evangelistic preaching in the marketplace?” The book Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today goes a long way in making the case that preaching is a God-ordained vocation that is still essential to the building up of the body of Christ today.
A Historical Sketch of Preaching
John Stott is the Rector Emeritus of All Souls Church in London. He has been an Anglican and an evangelical almost his whole life. He has written over 50 books and has been a major leader in evangelical Christianity. [Source]
In the first chapters of this book, Stott describes the glory of preaching. From the prophets of the Old Testament there has always been the man of God singled out to preach God’s Word. This sweeping sketch of the history of preaching invokes both a sense of humility and confidence in any would be preacher. The confidence comes first in that this is an historic calling that God himself calls men to preach and that we may stand with centuries of faithful men and women who have refuted error and stood for truth. This confidence is in the glory of those who have come before us. He quotes Charles Hodge who said, “In every age, great reformers have been great preachers.” Today there is still such a need and God still chooses broken vessels like us. Stott also quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said, “The preacher should be assured that Christ enters the congregation through those words which he proclaims from the Scripture.” I’m not sure that there are too many people today that still believe such a controversial statement.
After a deep confidence that is in the majesty and glory of God that is displayed through preaching must come humility. Stott makes sure the preacher understands that “The ‘message’ is God’s own Word. For the people have not gathered to hear a human being, but to meet with God.” A preacher doesn’t preach his own message but preaches the Word of God. He is a herald that proclaims not a lecturer that postulates. Richard Baxter is another one of the preachers Stott highlights. Baxter was successful in converting almost his entire town to become disciples. He was systematic in his catechizing of every family every year and also in his public preaching. Stott writes, “This catechizing would occupy Baxter two whole days a week, and was one essential part of his work. But the other part, ‘and that the most excellent because it tendeth to work on many’, was ‘the public preaching of the Word’.” Baxter valued preaching because it was an opportunity every week to share the message with many hearers. That seems to be a value lost on today’s anti-establishment crowd.
Contemporary Objections to Preaching
The second chapter in Between Two Worlds is about the contemporary objections to preaching. He writes, “The prophets of doom in today’s Church are confidently predicting that the day of preaching is over.” Written over 25 years ago, these words not only ring true, they have become an understatement. He lists three major arguments launched against preaching: “The anti-authority mood, the cybernetics revolution and the loss of confidence in the gospel.” I won’t go into each one of those things but will simply make some comments from the chapter as a whole.
Stott writes that “Christians know from both Scripture and experience that human fulfillment is impossible outside some context of authority.” As I read through this section I thought of the church through the example of “the family of God”. It would be silly if a dad didn’t correct and teach and exhort and discipline his own children. What a silly family it would be if it resembled a complete democracy. Besides, a sermon is not just an authoritarian monologue…if crafted well, the preacher has already thought through the issues that would arise in the hearts and minds of his people. Stott writes, “Preaching is rather like playing chess, in that the expert chess player keeps several moves ahead of his opponent, and is always ready to respond, whatever piece he decides to move next.”
Another topic Stott deals with in this chapter is how people learn. When disciples learn, they do so through listening, discussing, watching and discovering. Most would say that the preacher is limited to teaching the congregation through listening but that should not be the case. The preacher can and should provide opportunities for discussion but Stott goes even further with teaching people through observation. Not only has God ordained baptism and the Lord’s Supper as participatory visual aids, but the preacher himself is a visual aid. Titus was told, “Show yourself in all respects a model of good deeds.” Were it not for this example-setting, our words as preachers would fall on deaf ears. This gets to the heart of the purpose for my blog and the reason for the title ChurchETHOS. The way we live should be a visual aid to our congregation to help communicate Biblical ideas and the congregation itself is to be a visual aid to the world.
Stott concludes that “There is no other form of communication which resembles [the sermon] and therefore could replace it.” He writes, “For here are God’s people assembled in God’s presence to hear God’s Word from God’s minister.” When we as listeners of a sermon have that sort of anticipation about what we will soon hear, how can we not hear from God.
Theological Foundations for Preaching
There were several great thoughts from this chapter. The first that I thought was crucial to the success fo the pastor was that “Technique can only make us orators; if we want to be preachers, theology is what we need.” From here, Stott discusses various convictions that a preacher must have if he is to be successful. First, a preacher must have a conviction about God that he is light, that he has acted, and that he has spoken. Secondly, a preacher must have a conviction about Scripture that Scripture is God’s written word, that it still speaks to us today, and that Scripture is powerful. Next, a preacher must have a conviction about the Church and a conviction about the pastorate.
Finally, a preacher should have a conviction about preaching. Specifically, Stott believes in expositional preaching that transcends subcategories of topical or textual or narrative, etc. He writes, “Exposition has a much broader meaning. It refers to the content of the sermon (biblical truth) rather than its style (a running commentary). To expound Scripture is to bring out of the text what is there and expose it to view.” He believes that “The Word of God is the scepter by which Christ rules the Church and the food with which he nourishes it.” The preacher contributes to this process by faithfully proclaiming God’s Word to the congregation.
In the next part of this book review, I will look at the more practical chapters in Stott’s book. If the above issues raise any questions or objections to the role of the preacher in today’s culture, please feel free to discuss. I would highly recommend this book for your reading.
Ethos is a term from classical Greek that Aristotle used to identify the character or quality of an orator. When a person got up to speak but had spent no time establishing a connection with the audience, the audience was less likely to hear him out.
The word ethos also means the fundamental character, habits, or values of a community or person. Together, these meanings have to do with how we live and whether or not the culture around us will take us seriously. ChurchETHOS seeks to apply the term ethos to the way the Church behaves. What are it’s fundamental habits and character? What does a church do or not do? What habits do we need to form? What habits do we need to break? Ultimately, do these habits, that is, our ethos, help to transform culture? What are we saying? How are we acting? Is anyone listening and looking?
These are the questions ChurchETHOS will attempt to address. They are my thoughts on what it means to be a part of the family of God. The global Church is fractured into thousands of shards because of false doctrines and bad habits. It is important to think critically but lovingly about the doctrines and habits of the Church in order to have right belief (orthodoxy) and right practice (orthopraxy). Understanding the Body of Christ from a Biblical perspective under the guidance of the Spirit of God will help us to develop an ethos that will be faithful to God’s will and relevant to the culture around us. Jesus told His disciples that “[the world] will know that you are my followers because of your love for one another.” As one person put it: the Church is the best apologetic for the gospel the world will ever see. So what is the truth about the way we live?