Excellence in Preaching (a review)

With the prevalence of podcasting and live streams, it’s possible to listen to just about any preacher you choose.

Which has at least a couple of implications of this for those of us involved in the regular task of preaching in various local congregations.

One is that the people listening to us have experts available to them at the click of a mouse button; which means that it’s possible for the bar to be set at a fairly hight level when they turn up to listen to us.

Another is that, as preachers, we have the possibility of learning from a variety of voices as we seek to find our own.

Simon Vibert sat down to analyse the preaching of a dozen preachers (he acknowledges they are all Western voices) – the kind of preachers who have influenced him. The result is Excellence in Preaching: Learning from the BestHe devotes a chapter to each of preachers, usually analysing a sample of their preaching to highlight what makes them effective and what other preachers can learn from each of them. He includes three other chapters – one a brief introduction to the theme, one on Jesus, the preacher, and a concluding chapter that explores the question of what gives preaching its power.

For the record, here are the preachers he includes and a key feature he identifies in their preaching:

  1. Tim Keller – a preacher who handles the cultural and philosophical challenges to the gospel
  2. John Piper – a preacher who aims to inspire a passion for God’s glory
  3. Vaughan Roberts – a preacher who lets the Bible speak with simplicity and freshness
  4. Simon Ponsonby – an example of a preacher who combines both Word and Spirit
  5. J. John – who uses humour and story to connect and engage
  6. David Cook – an example of what it means to create interest and apply well
  7. John Ortberg – a preacher who works with spiritual formation in mind
  8. Nicky Gumbel – an example of what it means to make much of Jesus Christ
  9. Rico Tice – a preacher who preachers with urgency and evangelistic zeal
  10. Alistair Begg – an example of persuading people with passionate biblical argument
  11. Mark Driscoll – an example of directness, relevance and challenge
  12. Mark Dever – who aims to bring all of God’s word to all of God’s people

The book was was published in 2011 – I imagine that Mark Driscoll may not have made the cut if Simon Vibert had been writing more recently (though he acknowledges some of the controversy around Driscoll at the time of his research). It’s a great idea and there are worthwhile nuggets to be gleaned from his observations. While there is a degree of sameness in that these are all white, Western males, there is nonetheless a variety of styles and even of churchmanship. (I wonder why he didn’t include a chapter on Dick Lucas whom he acknowledges as an important influence).

Further work might be able to elaborate on the similarities and differences between the various preachers in the sample. For example, the book observes Nicky Gumbel’s ability to speak to the wider needs of society (this is highlighted as a lesson for preachers), while the chapter on Mark Dever observes that Dever ‘[offers] little comment on contemporary issues’ (137). Should we follow Gumbel or Dever?

A little nitpick is the author’s habit of referring to each of the preachers by their Christian name – it strikes me as too informal.

Here is what the author says about the measure of good preachers:

Good preachers bring God’s Word alive for today’s world.

And there is this, on power in preaching:

The power of preaching is found in the dynamic interplay of Word, Spirit and the godly preacher’.

The encouragement to preachers is that rather than be intimidated by our congregations’ podcast favourites, we ought to make the investment to learn what we can from others whose ministries testify to their effectiveness as teachers and preachers as Simon Vibert puts it, ‘learning from the best’.

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