Privilege the Text!: A Theological Hermeneutic for Preaching
Moody Publishers, 2013
336 pp., $35.99
Rewiring Your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons
Richard H. Cox
IVP Books, 2013
182 pp., $16.00
Missional Preaching: Engage Embrace Transform
Judson Pr, 2012
192 pp., $16.99
Scott A. Wenig
Insights for Preachers
According to Cox, a variety of external elements and brain functions conspire to either facilitate or retard the process of sermon retention. For retention to happen the brain must "tie back" to something it has heard before. By repeatedly attending to sermons, the brain begins to construct new neurological pathways and think new thoughts. And over time, this habit of "sermonic continuation" can lead to significant behavioral change.
If all this sounds like Paul's command in Romans 12:2 to be transformed by the renewing of our minds in order to live in a God-pleasing way, Cox would shout "Amen!" Both theology and neuroscience reflect that God designed our brains to influence our behavior, making preaching a non-negotiable task of pastoral ministry and an integral part of worship. In fact, Cox goes on to argue that the spoken word has the power to influence a person's whole well-being, including personal healing, and that preaching, rightly done, can move an entire community towards relational and emotional health.
While not everyone will be drawn to this book, I found it valuable for three reasons. First, Cox demonstrates the developing synthesis between good science and theology, a process of great significance in a society dominated by scientism. Second, he raises some interesting questions about the brain's receptivity in the context of corporate worship. Cox strongly believes that the use of Christian symbols such as the cross and the altar contain untapped power to open the brain's gates to receive truth. Contrarily, this means that the overuse of Power Point, rock music, and videos in place of traditional styles and symbols may actually hinder the brain's reception of the sermon. This is a debatable point, to be sure, but one worth serious consideration when the retention of Scripture is at stake. Third, Cox enunciates the value of preaching on almost every page, functioning as a cheerleader for pastors and preachers to communicate the Word "in season and out."
Al Tizon likewise values preaching but wants to move it beyond the usual pale of "Christians helping other Christians become better Christians." He tries to show us how in Missional Preaching, a book that will certainly challenge and perhaps even offend some readers along the way. For starters, the word "missional" has been under-defined and over-used in recent years, creating confusion and rendering it suspect to the charge of faddishness within the Christian sub-culture. Yet Tizon, a professor at Palmer Seminary, states clearly what he means:
To be Missional means to join God's mission to transform the world, as the church strives in the Spirit to be authentically relational, intellectually and theologically grounded, culturally and socio-economically diverse and radically committed to both God and neighbor, especially the poor.
He then uses three chapters to lay a solid biblical and theological foundation for preaching based on an ecclesiastical expression of the Missio Dei. In Tizon's view, since the story of Scripture is one of God expanding His rule and reign, this theme must be the driving ethos of genuine biblical preaching. He then explicates seven themes of mission to the world ranging from inculturation to the scandal of Jesus. Each of these is accompanied by a sample sermon on that topic, including some by such luminaries as Greg Boyd, Brenda Salter McNeil, and Ron Sider.
While I appreciate the stated intention of this book, it's at this latter point that it seems to go astray. What we're given under the guise of missional preaching is an egalitarian, pacifistic, anti-consumerist, and somewhat self-righteous take on the nature of the American church from the perspective of the left wing of evangelicalism. Certainly there is truth to be had here, but the focal point of Christian mission is calling people to faith in the Sovereign Savior. Unfortunately, this portion of the book de-emphasizes that in favor of a particular brand of social justice rooted in segments of the liberal tradition. If the last seventy years of American church history reveal anything at all, it's that such an approach ultimately leads to ecclesiastical oblivion. Moreover, given the enormous evangelistic and social impact of churches like Willow Creek, Redeemer Presbyterian, and The Village Church in Texas, why not include some sermons from Bill Hybels, Tim Keller, or Matt Chandler in a volume dedicated to preaching the Missio Dei?
Nonetheless Missional Preaching, along with Rewiring Your Preaching and Privilege the Text!, can be a valuable aid to all those interested in expanding the scope and impact of their preaching. As more attention is given to the oh-so-important task of proclaiming God's Word, we may in time enter an age of homiletical brilliance.
Scott A. Wenig is Haddon Robinson Chair of Biblical Preaching at Denver Seminary.
Copyright © 2013 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.