Preaching is not easy. All over the world countless pastors preach week in and week out, usually with no staff team to support them, often tentmakers laboring away at another job to make ends meet. It’s hard work, and they know it. They are grateful for any help they can get. In this book we have the written thoughts of Tim Keller (pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City), perhaps the best-known apologist for the Christian faith in the sophisticated West.
Keller’s newest book, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism [interview | 20 quotes], is organized around three main parts with an appendix. Part 1 (a little less than one-third of the book) focuses on “Serving the Word,” what it means to be faithful to Scripture. Chapter 1 makes a case for consecutive expository preaching being the best normal pattern. Keller suggests six reasons why exposition should be “the usual diet” for a church. Chapters 2 and 3 exhort and equip us to make sure we preach the gospel in every sermon and therefore preach Christ from all of Scripture. Much of this counsel overlaps helpfully with what is being emphasized in training courses, conferences, and published resources from the Proclamation Trust in the UK (where I serve) and the Charles Simeon Trust in the United States. It’s good to see these emphases reach a wider audience with this book.
Part 2 (nearly half the book) addresses “Reaching the People.” Here we have Keller’s reflections on “Preaching Christ to the Culture” (ch. 4), “Preaching and the (Late) Modern Mind” (ch. 5), and “Preaching Christ to the Heart” (ch. 6). Part 3 (a short but significant section) consists of one chapter titled “In Demonstration of the Spirit and of Power.” Although the body of the book is “a manifesto, not a manual,” Keller includes a short appendix (“Writing an Expository Message”) in which he suggests a brief “how to” outline.
Before mentioning some of the outstandingly helpful features of the book, I want to make two (I hope constructive) suggestions.
On the Point of the Text
In Chapter 1, Keller quotes, but disagrees with, the advice that “the main point of the text is”—or ought to be—“the main point of the sermon” (42). He considers this advice to be based on the simplistic premise that “every biblical text has only one big idea or main point to it.” He supports his critique with a comprehensive endnote (247–248). Keller is right that this advice can be misapplied, as if we are being told to overlook other matters in the text (which we are not).
But I want to suggest, after training preachers for more than a decade, that when sensitively followed this advice remains exactly right. Of course, some Bible passages are more tightly focused on one central theme than others; but the hard work of placing myself under the authority of God so that I search hard to find the dominant theme is a thoroughly bracing and searching discipline. I may not be confident I’ve succeeded, and I can never categorically say I’ve “got it right,” but the desire to reflect not just the content but the emphasis of a passage is, I suggest, integral to faithfulness.
On Cultural Analysis
Those, like me, who have benefited greatly from Keller’s speaking and writing won’t be surprised that there’s a considerable emphasis on speaking into a culture the preacher has studied to understand; this is especially true of chapters 4 and 5. There is penetrating cultural analysis here, informed by wide reading and study. Keller encourages preachers to “demonstrate an understanding of doubts and objections” by including sympathetic “apologetic sidebars” in sermons. He writes:
If you sprinkle your preaching with these interesting, concise, yet penetrating asides, you will not only encourage secular listeners to return, but also motivate Christians to bring their more secular friends to hear you. (114)
While we love to hear Keller do this—for he is a master of the art—I fear many of us will be discouraged by this challenge and feel such sophisticated cultural analysis is beyond us. I want to suggest that we shift the language away from the understanding and analysis of culture to that of loving and listening to people, which is something any pastor can do. Keller himself writes elsewhere of how the many, many hours of patient one-on-one time with people first informed and shaped his preaching ministry. How good to commend that to pastors.
For we can all do that, even if we cannot share Keller's cultural expertise.
Of the many good things in the book, two stand out for me.
First, Keller has a robust and consistent insistence (developed especially in chapter 6) that we are preachers of the gospel of Christ, whatever the Bible text we are expounding, and must therefore take pains to show—not simplistically, but persuasively—how this text preaches Christ to us. Keller shows that this task is far more than just an intellectual exercise (for example, working out the appropriate “lines to Christ” from Old Testament passages); we must preach Christ to the heart “affectionately, imaginatively, memorably, Christocentrically, and practically” (166–180). He writes:
Preaching Christ is not only the ultimate way to fully understand a text, nor just the best way to simultaneously reach those who don’t believe and those who do, but also the way to be sure that your address moves beyond a dry lecture and becomes a real proclamation of the truth that reaches the heart . . . . Jesus himself [is] the ultimate way to move from informing the mind to capturing the heart, from merely giving out information to showing everyone a Beauty. (177–178)
Preaching from the Heart
The other stand-out helpful section for me is the superb final chapter, “In Demonstration of the Spirit and of Power.” Keller writes of what he calls “The Test of the Third Text” (200–205). If the first text is the biblical text, and the second the context of the people to whom we speak, the third is “the subtext of your own heart . . . the message under the message,” what you are really wanting to say. Is it “Aren’t we great?” making us feel smug and comfortable about our practices or convictions? Is it “Aren’t I great?” wanting praise for the preacher? Is it “Isn’t this truth great?” which is better, but still less than the final goal? Or is it “Isn’t Christ great?” leading to whole-life worship? I found this a searching section. Keller writes:
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. What you are calling people to experience you must be experiencing yourself. What the Holy Spirit is to do in the hearts of your listeners he will normally do first in and through you. (205)
He is particularly helpful on how to preach to the heart: “If you want to preach to the heart, you need to preach from the heart. It’s got to be clear that your own heart has been reached by the truth of the text” (166). This view takes the focus away from spurious attempts to “emote,” and back to the preacher’s affected heart. No shortcuts to prayer—it requires preparation on our knees, and more prayer.
We should be grateful to Keller for his wisdom, scholarship, and humility.
Tim Keller. Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism. New York, NY: Viking, 2015. 309 pp. $19.95.