After two years, and five sermons, I’ve finally finished reading this book. By which stage, it’s now in a second edition and thus the front cover looks quite different from the one on the left there. But that’s okay. I’m sure it’s still got a lot of the same stuff in it.
Very simply, this is a book on preaching, so those of you who don’t think you’re ever likely to preach a sermon in your life can feel free to drop off here.
For the rest of you, this book (whose subtitle is “Redeeming the Expository Sermon”) deals with how to construct an expository sermon. To define my terms, an expository sermon is one that takes a particular portion of the Bible and explains it to the congregation. If you’ve ever sat through a sermon that never refers to the Bible at all, or just strings random Bible verses together, let me tell you – those type of sermons are not talked about in this book.
Instead, Bryan Chapell constructs a solid step-by-step guide to constructing a thorough sermon that is both faithful to the Scripture passage being taught and relevant to the congregation that is listening.
If followed to the letter, I can tell you, that this method of sermon preparation would produce some fairly outstanding sermons. Certainly, it’s been useful in my own times when I’ve had to preach. If there’s one big idea I believe is fantastics, it’s Chapell’s concept of the Fallen Condition Focus (FCF) of the text. Every text of the Bible, he says, addresses some fallen condition of the audiences that it was being written for. So when we understand what area of the original reader’s lives that was being address, we understand what the focus was back when the text was written. When we then take the further step of recognising what our modern congregation has in common with that ancient audience, we can then successfully preach the text in a relevant way to the congregation, even though the text is some thousands of years old.
This is a brilliant concept, and one that I’ve found very helpful. Also, the concept that all your sermon introductions should point to this focus is a great concept. How many sermons have we heard where, in the first five minutes, the preacher has pretty much made it clear that he’s now going to spend 20 minutes talking about something that has no relevance at all to our lives?
According to Chapell, if the congregation is not given a reason within the first few minutes of why this text speaks to them and why they should listen, then it’s all wasted. Very, very good advice.
There were only really three issues I had with the book – one of them is stylistic and the other two are question marks. Style-wise, this book is rather long. It’s certainly very comprehensive, but it’s a bit amusing almost that in a book on how to make sermons to-the-point and avoid long-windedness, that it takes page after page to explain the concepts. But that’s not so much of a worry.
The first question I had was: Why only expository preaching? I do believe that all preaching should be grounded in the Scriptures, but my understanding of an expository sermon is that the preacher says, “Right. I’ll preach on – hmm – Habbakuk today.” And then he proceeds to work out what Habbakuk says to his congregation. This is a very good thing, because if we weren’t constantly hearing about different books of the Bible, we’d probably only read our favourite parts, but if the minister is only preaching through various books, there could well be issues that are important to the congregation that aren’t being addressed.
For instance, perhaps the congregation needs to hear about, say, what the Bible says about child-rearing. There’s not one particular book of the Bible that speaks about child-rearing, and so you would have to take a different approach than just preaching through a book. Chapell doesn’t really explain how that should be done. I’m sure it would still involve many of the same principles, and it definitely needs to be grounded in Scripture, but I think it would have to be a different type of sermon than just a straight expository.
My second query was with the redemptive-historical method of preaching that Chapell supports. At the risk of getting technical, this means that in every passage we preach from (whether Old or New Testament), finding out where that passage fits in the redemptive story of the Bible (or, to phrase it another way, finding out how it points to Jesus) and then explaining that passage in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The opposite of this, according to Chapell, is the errors we sometimes see where ministers will read, say, an Old Testament passage and then rather than show how that fits into the Bible, they’ll try to drag a moral message out of it. (“Okay, now Jacob lied to his dad to get a blessing. Lying is wrong.”) Instead, we should be making sure each sermon points to Christ.
I agree with that in theory, but I wonder whether sometimes, in the hands of someone who’s not sure exactly how that works, that could lead to bad preaching. For instance, if you’re preaching through Isaiah, while it would be very tempting to latch on to all the prophecies there about Jesus and “preach Christ” that way, there’s also a lot that Isaiah is saying about social justice and how the people have treated the poor and been corrupt, etc. A lot of the passages are not passages about redemption but open condemnation for sinful behaviour, so there’s a sense in which a message about morals would be in line with the spirit of the passage.
Anyway, I’m sure that if someone understands their theology well, they will both be able to draw out what the passage is really talking about and connect it to the Gospel, without doing damage to the text, so I don’t want to criticise Chapell on this point. I’m only worried what might happen if people don’t understand the concept properly.
But on the whole, this is an excellent book on preaching and if you were only going to read one, you could get a lot out of this one.
4 1/2 out of 5.