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What all preachers should think about

by
01 November 2013

Peter McGeary on a must-read for all who give sermons

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Transforming Preaching: The sermon as a channel for God's word

David Heywood                                                                                                                    

SPCK £12.99

(978-0-281-06341-3)

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"I WAS never taught how to preach. My training included the opportunity to preach a sermon in front of a camera and review it, but little else. I have met many in a similar position. The only training we have received in preaching has come first through listening to others and then trying it ourselves."

Thus begins David Heywood's book. Rarely has something resonated so precisely with this reviewer's experience. In my case, I recall that more time was spent in setting up the camera than in delivering the sermon.

The only advice I was given about preaching, apart from "Speak from the heart," or "Be yourself," was to read other people's sermons. Not bad suggestions, actually: to read the work of great preachers of the past can give great insights. And the temptation to be clichéd or over-careful or artificial must be resisted.

The four sermons that I can clearly remember I remember not only because of content, but because of the way in which the content was delivered: it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it, as I have said before in these pages.

So a sermon needs to be authentic. But it also needs to be coherent and structured. This is where Heywood's book is very important. He is not interested here in telling the reader what to preach, but in how to preach. I was very relieved that he does not spend too much time discussing whether or not the sermon is a Good Thing; whether we like it or not, we have sermons, some of us have to preach regularly, and we should do it as well as we can.

Heywood begins with a consideration of what preaching is for: why do we do it? and what is its purpose? He then moves on to examine how people learn things, how information is communicated and appropriated, and how the sermon fits into this process. The "meat" of the book is a guide to preparing a sermon, outlining different ways in which a sermon might be constructed. A short final section looks at how a congregation might be more actively involved in the sermon slot.

Although there is rightly an emphasis here on technical matters to do with the discipline of form and content, the author never loses sight of the importance of the context of the sermon, and also how an understanding of context can come only from a genuine love and service of people and place and scripture (and God!).

I was reminded of those old books about music theory that I had to read at school: they gave the reader the basic building bricks of knowledge, without which creative freedom is not possible.

I wish this book had been around 30 years ago. It would have saved me (and my listeners) a great deal of bother. It should be required reading for all ordinands and most of the clergy - even those who think that they can preach.

The Revd Peter McGeary is Vicar of St Mary's, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest Vicar of Westminster Abbey.

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