Book Review: Preaching Adverbally
In response to books with titles such as “Biblical Preaching” or “Expository Preaching”, Mitman makes the case that preaching needs to be described, engaged and expressed in different terms. To that end this book, as the title proclaims, is making a case that preaching is more a verb than a noun. Yet, the author is not satisfied with making a case from noun to verb; he entitles each chapter relying on the power of adverbs to convey how various kinds of preaching ought to be expressed. So, the chapters are variously entitled, Preaching Biblically, Preaching Liturgically, Preaching Sacramentally, Preaching Invitationally, Preaching Metaphorically, Preaching Doxologically, and so on.
The book is written in such a way that each chapter can be read as a stand-alone chapter, yet the author has also written the book so that each chapter builds on the one before. Hence, it serves as a textbook and a handbook.
The writer is, to quote him, an “unrepentant” preacher of the lectionary. He explains that he is preaching the same texts on a three-year cycle given the lectionary format; and makes the claim that he never preaches the same sermon. As any preacher knows, such a claim is well-founded, such is the dynamic nature of Scripture. Nevertheless, there remained a space in his apologetic for the lectionary to speak to the oft-mentioned concern that significant sections of Scripture do not receive treatment.
Mitman also makes it clear that he is writing from a liturgical context and makes the distinction between that tradition and what he describes as those who are in “free worship” settings. His description of “free-worship” contexts is that the choice of the text to preach from is based on various decisions concerning selection and the order of service is more fluid. While the author acknowledges this “free-worship” tradition, there is not, in my view, a sustained conversation with it. As someone who fits more into his “free-worship” definition, I had more of a sense of looking on and listening in as I read his book. This required an effort to duck some of the comments about various traditions which felt uncalled for.
Sometimes he states a strong case and there are thinly disguised descriptions of particular worship styles and streams within Christianity. There were times when I could understand the case he was making but was left feeling sympathetic to his targets. There is an authenticity about their mode of worship even though it is different. He clearly has had some experiences which he is relating but some comments seemed unnecessarily dismissive. There is also at least one strong story which takes a theological position and pastoral practice that some could have issue with. Hence, depending on your position, you might either linger on the page or turn it.
This book has the feel that it is the author’s magnum opus. I like reading people’s reflection as they near the twilight of their ministry. Such reflections allow for some time travel as the reader can join him as he reflects on current practice based on years of ministry experience. He is widely read and so does a lot of the heavy lifting for the reader and the bibliography is extensive.
This is a book on “why” rather than “how.” The “why” is something that preachers in New Zealand probably need more of, rather than the “how”. So you will be disappointed if you are after a one-two-three step process of how to write a sermon. Yet, even so, there are enough examples throughout and at least one chapter (Preaching Metaphorically) which includes the breakdown of a sermon.
The main trajectory of the book is making a case for an organic relationship between sermon and the rest of the worship service. Parts of the book are as much about worship services as they are about preaching; so in the writing about it he is modelling his vision and practice of it. The book ranges throughout worship, theology, and history. Oft-times the sermon is not the focus in the discussion even though the discussion is intended to advance a particular approach to preaching. Hence, in the descriptions and discussion, rarely if ever are you solely reading with the sermon in mind. The whole worship event is in the frame as are the whole people of God. So overall, he works hard to place the sermon in the wider context of the worship service and with the range of adverbs he casts a vision which is wide and rich.
I am left with the question “Does the author have a high view of preaching?” He has a high view of worship and ecclesiology; his preaching serves that.
Does he offer something new? He offers something authentic.
This book will not appeal to everyone of course, but given the range of subjects and approaches contained in it, there will at the very least be some necessary challenges for preachers.
Geoff New is Dean of Studies at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He teaches on preaching, pastoral care and Christian formation.
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