Saturday, March 4, 2017

Book Review: "Grace Is Greater" by Kyle Idleman

Kyle Idleman.  Grace is Greater: God’s Plan to Overcome Your Past, Redeem Your Plan, and Rewrite Your Story.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017.  188 pp.  $15.99.

Grace is a major conversation topic within Christianity.  The front matter of this book alone attests to that: Of the 13 advanced praise statements, 11 are from author who have a book with the word “grace” in the title.  It, honestly, leads one to question why we need another book on grace.  The answer, equally simply enough, is that the doctrine of grace is multi-faceted.  It is wide-ranging and requires a multiplicity of voices to help us understand it.  And, as you will quickly learn through his stories, Idleman is one who is learning what grace is all about.

Following an introductory chapter, the book is divided into three sections.  Each section focuses on a particular area of concern, an area that Idleman argues that “grace is greater” than: mistakes, hurt and circumstances.  The first unit focuses on the mistakes that can separate us from experiencing God’s restorative grace (guilt, brokenness, and regrets).  For me, the chapter that really stood out in this section was the chapter on regret (chapter 3).  In this chapter, Idleman explores the difference between regret and shame, with regret being defined as “feeling bad about something you have or haven’t done” (p. 51) and shame being defined as “feeling bad about who you are or how you think you’re being perceived by God or others” (p. 52).

The second unit focuses on the hurts that can prevent us from experiencing God’s healing grace (wounds, bitterness, vengeance and resentment).  For me, the chapter that really stood out in this section was the chapter on vengeance (chapter 6).  It was a refreshing chapter because of Idleman’s opening words: “If you’re in ministry, some people won’t like you.  At all” (p. 103).  As one who has been burned in ministry before, Idleman’s focus on releasing my rights to hold on to that pain was very enlightening.  Ministers are often quick to speak about grace, yet we move slower than most when it comes to extending it.

The third unit focuses on the circumstances that can derail us from experiencing God’s guiding grace (disappointments, weakness and despair).  For me, the chapter that really stood out in this section was the chapter on weakness (chapter 9).  In a culture that has tried to “Christianize” suffering by adopting cliché mantras like “just pray about it” or “God has a plan for your suffering,” Idleman addresses how these trite views actually devalue the powerfully redemptive grace that God offers us through Christ and the daily indwelling of the Spirit. 

Overall, I really liked this book from Kyle Idleman.  It was thoughtful, humorous, decently researched (often a shortcoming of “Christian living” books) and practical.  In addition to the lack of solid research, “Christian living” books are often impractical.  What I mean is that they sound really good, yet they fail in actually providing instruction on how to integrate their concepts into the life of the reader.  While his book is not as practical as books by, say, Arron Chambers or John Ortberg, Idleman does try to give some ways of integrating his concept of accepting God’s grace.  For example, in the chapter on weakness (chapter 9), he asks the reader to state a weakness.  Then he offers two reflective questions to help the reader process why this is a weakness and how to find strength to overcome the weakness.  Finally, he walks the reader through the process of accepting grace and integrating this into the reader’s life.

Finally, this book would make an excellent discussion topic for a small group or book club study, a recommended read for a “new Christians” class, or even as a guide for a preaching series.  Idleman’s easy-to-listen-to style makes for a quick read and can easily be accommodated for the preacher who is looking for a practical way to speak about such a central doctrine of our religion.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Book Review: "Preaching Killer Sermons" by Lane Sebring

Lane Sebring, Preaching Killer Sermons: How to Create and Deliver Messages that Captivate and Inspire (Centreville, VA: Preaching Donkey, 2016), 191 pp. $12.48.

I took my first official preaching course in the Fall 1999 semester.  In that course, I was introduced to a text that laid the foundation for my communicative practice in preaching, tips and tricks that I still use today.  A decade later, when I taught my first introductory preaching course, I used that same book, Preaching that Connects by Mark Galli and Craig Larson (both, then, journalists with Christianity Today).  Their material was simple, basic, almost common-sense.  It was pulled from a combined decades of journalism, writing stories with punch that related to the everyday reader.  Although not necessarily preachers themselves, they wrote a book that, in my opinion, every preacher must read.  It is not a theory book; it is a mechanics book, yet one that will absolutely help your development.

You see, when it comes to preaching, to the art of crafting sermons, it comes down to 3 “Ds”: design, development and delivery.  Design has to do with the scaffolding or main structure that the preacher chooses to build the sermon on.  The design is the “bones” of the sermon.  Whether it is inductive (moving from general to specific), deductive (moving from specific to general), narrative (following a plot) or some other syllogistic form, all sermons, when deconstructed down to their base parts look exactly the same.  It’s basic rhetorical design, something that has been with us since Aristotle.

Now, development deals with the “stuff” that goes into our weekly sermons: textual commentary, illustrations, points of doctrine, and practical applications.  This is the blood, muscles and tissue of the sermon.  It’s the stuff that keeps our sermon alive long enough to be presented to a congregation, small group or digital audience. 

Then, there is delivery, or the way the sermon or message is presented.  To finish off the anatomy lesson, this is the skin of the sermon.  It’s the presentation, how the sermon looks and sounds to the audience.  If we do our jobs correctly, the audience should come away with a captivating, transformative experience that leads them closer to God and challenges them to better resemble their faith in Christ to their fellow humans.

Most books in preaching, essentially, land in one of these three camps, such as The Four Voices of Preaching by Robert Stephen Reid (design) or Speaking with Bold Assurance by Bert Decker and Hershael York (delivery).  Some, such as Expository Preaching by Harold Bryson, Preach by Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert or The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text by Sidney Greidanus, will try to land in two of the camps (usually design and development or development and delivery).  And, on scarce, blessed occasions, some will pull off the impossible and land in all three camps, such as classic texts like Preaching by Fred Craddock or The Witness of Preaching by Tom Long or Biblical Preaching by Haddon Robinson.  And when those books come along, they remain mainstays in the preacher’s library.

A new contender has come along that claims to be worthy of your and my attention in at least two of these camps, if not all three.  Enter Lane Sebring and his book Preaching Killer Sermons.  It’s a bold claim to be sure, especially from such a young minister and author.  You see, most of the above books have come from seasoned preachers.  Yet, most of their best works, ironically, came after they left the work of weekly preaching.  Preaching Killer Sermons comes from one who is deeply involved in ministry, as he serves as a minister who preaches each and every week.  There is something deeply comforting in that thought, very ethos-centric.  For in entering into this conversation, we are entering into it with one who is like us, who shares our struggles and our successes, and wants to share out of his common experience in an effort to build us up as we preach the gospel.

Ultimately, Preaching Killer Sermons is best understood as a delivery book.  And it is a fantastic book on sermon delivery.  His discussions on sharing the sermon in a way that relates well to our contemporary cultural context without compromising the integrity of the text, delivery mechanics and being intentional about self-care are absolutely worth the cost of this book.  Even his opening chapter on parsing a boring sermon is spot-on.  As I was reading, I found myself shaking my head because I have been guilty of a sin or two (and I have a doctorate in preaching!).  And if that was all this book was about, I would enthusiastically recommend this book for any preacher, novice or veteran. 

However, Sebring tries to do more in his one-stop shop preaching text.  And therein lies the problem.  As I mentioned above, there are three “Ds” to preaching—design, development and delivery.  Sebring nails delivery.  And, for the most part, he does an appropriately-decent job with development.  His main flaw is in design, for three reasons.  First, he claims no underlying theories are being promoted, yet he alludes to Aristotle’s concept of rhetoric as a basic model for communication (p. 112-113).  Second, his chapter entitled “Putting Your Sermon to Work” sounds like it has been inspired by Haddon Robinson’s book Biblical Preaching.  And third, he presents four “outline” approaches to designing sermons (p. 71-79), most of which have been largely dismissed by educators, communicators and preachers alike due to inability of those methods in producing true learning or transformative spiritual growth.

Fortunately, this is only a small portion of his book.  As I also stated above, the true strength in this book is his material on delivery, material that comes from a preacher who is in the pulpit each and every week and who is connecting with unchurched persons.  So, even with my concerns, this is a book that I would recommend…and maybe even start using as a textbook!