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Evangelicals on pulpit and table

05 July 2013

Sermons and worship are tackled here, says Peter Forster

We Proclaim the Word of Life: Preaching the New Testament today
Ian Paul and David Wenham, editors
IVP £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29

Encountering God Together: Biblical patterns for ministry and worship
David G. Peterson
IVP £9.99

IAN PAUL and David Wenham's multi-author collection on preaching explores the particular challenges of preaching on the different types of book, across the range of the New Testament. This is ambitious, and occasionally it declines into a brief introduction to the books themselves.

Yet there are some real gems. Among them is one of Dick France's last, posthumous, publications, covering the infancy narratives in the Gospels. He deals brilliantly with the relevance of historicity to the author's intention and the preacher's task.

Ian Paul tackles the Revelation of St John, which has been largely ignored by lectionary-compilers and preachers alike. He brings out particularly well the need to understand the context in which the book was written, if it is to be understood and applied in the life of the Church today. He also identifies, as not all of the authors do, the need to understand the Old Testament background to the New Testament. He has identified 676 Old Testament allusions in Revelation alone.

Helge Stadelmann, a German Professor of Practical Theology, provides a masterful survey of the "new homilectic". This seeks to replace a move from exposition of the text towards subsequent ap- plication with a more inductive understanding of human experience encountering biblical witness. Sermon preparation becomes more like getting ready for a jazz perform- ance than carefully crafting a symphony in three movements. A preacher is more like an actor than a teacher, and the aim of a sermon is to achieve today what the original text achieved in its day.

There is much food for thought here, especially for those who feel at home in the Evangelical tradition of expository preaching. As in so many contemporary books on preaching, there is a tendency to focus on technique rather than content, and on strategy rather than vision.

In Encountering God Together, David Peterson, a former Principal of Oak Hill, has produced a conservative Evangelical account of worship. The underlying theology is of the Church as a community gathered and rescued from an unbelieving world. The main purpose of worship is to build up the community, which is in tension with the evangelistic outreach that would best be achieved through specially designed events. The modern emphasis on making services seeker-friendly risks a dumbing down of the worship itself from its underlying purpose.

He has a point. Too much Sunday worship in the Church of England has become rather banal, more like a human gathering than an event with God at the centre. Peterson has some helpful observations - for example, in warning about the danger of music leaders' being regarded as worship leaders, and taking too prominent a part, mini-sermons included.

The strength of this book is that it portrays worship as a participation in God's presence wherein we listen to him, and are strengthened in his service. Prayer is the cement that holds the whole act of worship together.

While worship will always include praise, there is a tendency in many worship songs to regard praise as the all-embracing element. Peterson has words of caution about regarding church music as primarily an aid to our emotional expression in worship, a warning that should not be confined to Evangelical contexts.

The final chapters on the sacraments are rather narrow in their focus. Extraordinarily, he believes that the references in the Acts of the Apostles to the breaking of bread are to fellowship meals, not to the Lord's Supper. Similarly, any eucharistic reference in St John's Bread of Life discourse is rejected. Few are likely to be convinced, but this should not detract from the helpful analysis in the earlier chapters.

Both books are further evidence of the lively and serious state of Evangelical scholarship, despite its tendency to domesticate God to the life of the Church alone.

Dr Peter Forster is the Bishop of Chester.

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