The Pastor of our church lent a book to my Dad a few weeks ago. My Dad read it, returned it and immediately bought his own copy and lent it to me. After I had finished it, I bought two copies, one to keep and the other to give away to another preaching buddy. I think that is probably the biggest test that shows ‘Communicating for a Change’ by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones is worth a look.
The book’s central argument is that the main purpose of preaching is to inspire and equip people to make changes that will bring them closer to the life God has for them. Preaching is for the benefit and blessing of the listener, not the speaker, so your approach to a message has to be focussed on the needs and ‘journey’ of the listener. That is not to say that it encourages a watered-down Gospel but it does push you to approach preaching in a way that best serves people, even when that means creating more work for yourself.
It’s a strangely formatted book, but it works. The first section is a short story/parable about Ray, a Pastor who is trying to up his preaching game whilst on a journey with a mentoring Gospel-sharing truck driver, Will. During the story Ray learns seven key principles for delivering change-inducing messages. It’s a bit like The Alchemist but much less metaphorical!
Now this storytelling approach could have come across as glib or condescending, but it really doesn’t. The conversation between Ray and Will allows the authors to explore counter arguments to their recommended approach and dig into the reasons behind each principal without the pace dragging.
It helps that Ray is relatable; he is not an incompetent fool but neither is he a squeaky clean perfect leader incapable of getting it wrong, he is utterly human. The problems he faces are real and his discomfort at having to face the flaws in his approach to preaching struck true to me. More importantly, the solutions offered are helpful and achievable enough that the discomfort is fleeting and soon replaced with optimism.
The second half of the book unpacks the lessons from the story and looks at how to apply the principles. Each suggestion is thoroughly explained and often comes with a few examples. This is where things get really practical and as I read through it I started thinking about my own messages and where these points are relevant to me.
By the time I had read the final chapter my head was buzzing with preaching ideas. I was itching to start preparing a message. My fingers began reaching for pens and notebooks to start jotting down thoughts. I was excited to preach again, and any book that can leave speakers feeling enthusiastic and eager is one I want to pass around.
There is one final thing I want to say about this book; it highlights the need for critical thought and evaluations in our preaching ministry. The discussion between Ray and Will is sometimes uncomfortable but it brought home to me the value of talking openly and honestly about these things.
Delivering the word of God to His church is too important a ministry to just let things bob along without continuously checking that it is fulfilling its purpose. When we neglect evaluation we tend to stunt out growth, and when it comes to preaching this means it can also stunt the growth of our church.
Evaluation is hard to seek out because nobody likes to examine where they got it wrong, and with preaching it’s even more difficult to keep a level critical head on, because when you speak you pour your heart and soul into the message. It is a very personal ministry! But I think that knowing that preaching is there to serve others is a big motivation to put ego aside and do whatever it takes to deliver messages that are actually going to help people. Ultimately, it’s not about you; it’s about Jesus and His people, they have to come first.
After I finished the book I did something I had put off for years; I got hold of the recordings of my last couple of messages and listened to them with a critical ear. I was really not looking forward to hearing my voice on tape and it was cringe inducing at first. But, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. In fact, there were parts of the messages that I was really pleased with and when I spotted some things in my preaching that need improving I didn’t feel like rubbish for acknowledging the flaws. In fact, I felt optimistic about trying out these new tools I had just read about. It is easier to face up to failings when there are ideas and suggestions on hand to help you do better next time.
I know I have a long journey ahead of me in my preaching, and that at some point that is going to involve asking for critique from trusted and wise people (eek!). But right now I am very grateful to be part of a ministry where I get to share God’s heart and life-changing wisdom with people. And I am excited about what comes next!
So whatever your experience level with speaking I really recommend that you give this book a try, if nothing else their enthusiasm for the ministry is wonderfully contagious!