Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Book Review: Preaching By Ear

In his book Preaching By Ear: Speaking God's Truth from the Inside Out, Dave McClellan (with Karen McClellan) wants to teach preachers "to be both verbally fluent and deeply grounded" in their sermons (Kindle location 105).  His goal is to teach them to speak from the inside out because their "flocks need to hear God's Word coming from our [preachers'] mouths in a compelling, convincing way, with passion and conviction," (Kindle location 113).

Mr. McClellan introduces his new style of risky preaching in Chapter 1, "Something Old, Something New":  "The oral orientation is a movement away from safety and predictability.  It's a move toward vulnerability with a hint of the spontaneous.  It's not knowing exactly where you'll go next.  It has an openness, an unfinishedness.  It pulls deeply from internal resources: emotion, experience, firsthand acquaintance with truth.  It requires the preacher to speak in a live moment from a whole heart," (Kindle location 176).  He continues: "Preaching by ear is this: speaking from personally held, deep convictions in a way that enables our words to unfold in a moment by considering the actual people present with us.  We are well-prepared, but we're not certain exactly how it will come out of our mouths," (Kindle location 185).

The author's main argument is that preaching a sermon is an oral event; therefore, preparing the sermon as a pure literary event creates a disconnect between skills and setting (Kindle location 257).  This approach places more emphasis on the preacher than what is being preached.  It is the Word of God that brings faith (Rom. 10:17).  However, the author dangerously proposes that it is the preacher and his presentation that is more important than the Bible and what God actually says to His people.  Mr. McClellan states: "Our theology must be experienced in our own lives to unlock the firsthand sense in our sermons.  Our own spiritual experience and maturity will necessarily be the governor on our sermons.  We can't take people somewhere we've never been," (Kindle location 393).  The author does not cite a biblical reference for this because the false idea that theology must be experienced before it is preached is not in the Bible.  Quite honestly, the statement that we must experience theology doesn't make sense.  Theology is the study of the nature of God.  The finite mind of a Christian can barely comprehend the attributes of God, let alone experience them.

As he moves through the book, Mr. McClellan seems to soften his tone regarding the superiority of the oral method in preaching.  He rightly notes that preachers are bound to the Bible (Kindle location 2175).  In Chapter 8, "Swallowing the Word", Mr. McClellan states that the background research done by a preacher is no different in the oral model (Kindle location 2365).  But instead of using homiletics and creating an outline, he recommends mapping the information using a narrative structure with pictures.  Instead of memorizing the sermon, the information should be sustained by memory (Kindle location 2437) so that it is delivered in a natural, extemporaneous style (Kindle location) without literary prompts (i.e. notes).  Regardless of the author's contention of supremacy, it is important to remember that the oral method may be good for some preachers, but not necessarily for all.

The author references many non-Christian experts on orality to support his claim: Aristotle, Jesuit Walter Ong, Quintilian, and Bakhtin.  Ironically, as he looks at Mikhail Bakhtin, a speech genre theorist, he states that "Any sermon genre that separates the preacher and his thoughts from the actual needs of the flock is deeply flawed...This is why sermons that are read lose something vital," (Kindle location 1889).  Jonathan Edwards, a prominent figure in the Great Awakening, was very unimpressive in his preaching technique because he read his sermons; however, it's quite obvious that his preaching was still powerful and used mightily by the Holy Spirit.

The London Baptist Confession of Faith states: "The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts (2 Cor. 4:13, Eph. 2:8) and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word (Rom. 10:14, 17)," (Chap. 14, para. 1).  Thus, saving faith is a work of the Holy Spirit by the Word of God.  The preacher is a means used by God in the foolishness of preaching (1 Cor. 1:21), but the preacher does not have any power in and of himself, nor does he have any control of the outcome of the preaching.  Therefore, to require a certain method of sermon preparation is not necessary.

I appreciate Mr. McClellan's admonition for preachers to preach "their way through a whole book of the Bible," (Kindle location 2181).  He gives sound advice for moving through longer books of the Bible.  In addition, he encourages preachers to use their memory so that it is easier to keep things in their head and recall things organically (Kindle location 2241, 2257).

The author also notes another modern disadvantage in today's churches: "Adding to the problem is so many new translations of the Bible.  For better or for worse, when one standard English version was established, all ears became tuned to that familiar vocabulary.  Now no one knows what Scripture "should" sound like because we all hear it in so many different versions and with increasing levels of paraphrasing," (Kindle location 2267).  I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment.

I find it interesting that the author goes to great lengths to vilify the invention of printing press.  He contends that this invention moved the focus from orality to the composition as the key to preaching (Kindle location 236).  It made the sermon a "thing" and separated the thought from the thinker.  However, God providentially brought about the invention of Gutenberg's printing press to produce a standard, printed form of the Bible giving it a fixed and stable format.

In the end, Mr. McClellan's focus on the preacher and his oral presentation creates a distraction from the ultimate focus of preaching--Jesus Christ.  I am not convinced that the oral method is the best way to preach, nor is it the only effective way.  I recommend reading Preaching By Ear if you are a pastor looking at various methods for preaching, but with the caveat that while the author has found a workable preaching style for himself it may or may not be a good style for you.

Full Disclosure:  I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.