Review by Rev Dr Craig Thompson
In an age when large parts of the church are distracted by the question of what to do, Bruce Barber has prepared a valuable resource on the question of what to say, or how to preach, proposing provocatively: “It all happens in the sermon.”
Yet there is no advice here on how to structure a sermon, what makes for a good illustration, how long sermons should be or how to finish strongly.
The apparent non-effectiveness of much contemporary preaching, the author argues, is the result not so much of the rhetorical skills of preachers but is, much more fundamentally, a theological problem: how the content of a sermon ought to relate to the context in which it is heard.
Quite apart from how well it is delivered, what makes a sermon worth hearing?
The book’s first part deals with the theory of preaching and the second embodies that theory in a collection of the author’s own sermons. While about three times as much space is dedicated to the sermons as it is to the theory, the theory section is arguably the most important.
The author unpacks the different assumptions in pre-modern, modern and post-modern ways of thinking, how these are active in the church and the world today and how they impact upon our hearing of the gospel.
The questions we bring to the gospel are not innocent but are shaped by significant and enduring historical influences which limit what we can ask and hear. Cutting through these limitations is part of the task of the preacher.
If the theory of preaching is perhaps the more pressing need of the church at this juncture, the author’s sermons nevertheless delight, being filled with pithy and provocative remarks which drive home the practical implications of understanding the task of preaching as outlined in the first part.
One of the earlier sermons summarises well the argument of the whole book: what is required is more ‘irrelevant’ preaching. Such irrelevant preaching does not seek to relate the answers of the gospel to worldly questions. This may, of course, helpfully happen.
More important, however, is that the opposite be actively pursued by the preacher – that the answers the world has formulated in relation to its own questions themselves be called into question by the proclamation of the gospel.
‘Irrelevant’ preaching relates the world to the gospel, and not the other way around.
The value of Bruce Barber’s book is that it does what it proposes. It provides an analysis of the world in which we live and, out of that analysis, speaks a diagnostic and therapeutic gospel word.
The book would be a useful tool for local faith communities – both preachers and those who hear them – to explore the nature of the times in which we live and to reflect on what might constitute a helpful and faithful response to these times, whether in words or in actions.