Book Review: Preaching that Moves People, by Yancey Arrington
Yancey Arrington, Preaching that Moves People: How to Get Down the Mountain of Your Messages with Maximum Impact. Clear Creek Resources, 2018. 172 pages.
One of the most common criticisms of younger pastors, especially those who have recently come out of seminary, is that they are too academic and heady in their preaching ministry. Perhaps you’ve sat under these types of preachers who sound like a walking academic theology journal.
Anyone who’s determined to preach Biblically faithful messages has experienced the temptation to pack a bit too much into their sermons. Yet in many cases, a preacher’s desire to avoid emotionalism and manipulation can lead to overly fastidious sermons that fail to engage the hearts of our flocks.
It’s wise to strive to deliver biblically sound and heart-engaging sermons. For this reason, I found Yancey Arrington’s book, Preaching That Moves People insightful and worth considering—especially for younger preachers and those who are looking to train others in the art of preaching.
NOT JUST WHAT WE SAY, BUT HOW WE SAY IT
Arrington says that his goal is to help the preacher “learn how to identify [his] unique preaching personality, developing and leveraging that specific personality’s voice each and every Sunday” (21). Thus Arrington’s goal is not to discuss why we preach or what we preach, but how we preach and who we, as preachers, should aim to be.
Arrington also makes clear that God is sovereign in salvation, that the Spirit must move in preaching, and that Christ must be proclaimed in every sermon. These foundational truths are important to remember, especially as we consider how best to implement Arrington’s proposals and how to navigate areas of concern.
WHAT WE CAN LEARN
Arrington divides his book into two sections, both of which offer some helpful insights about the art of preaching and how to deliver messages that invite people to respond to Biblical truth.
The first section focuses on a topic that went largely unmentioned in my seminary homiletics class and gets little attention in most preaching books I’ve encountered. Arrington focuses on how to arrange sermons that keep listeners engaged and provides them with a concrete understanding of how they should respond to God’s Word.
One way Arrington pursues this topic is by helping preachers understand the beauty of tension. That is to say, Arrington encourages preachers not to telegraph their entire sermon in the introduction. Instead, he argues that preachers should organize their sermon to bring listeners to the edge of their seat. He writes, “Many sermons could be transformed from okay to exceptional if just one element was shifted to a position that maintained tension, rather than relieving it” (51).
Along with avoiding unnecessary rabbit trails and detours, Arrington’s proposal is a helpful reminder that we should labor to craft our messages in an emotionally engaging way.
Ultimately the Holy Spirit produces fruit, not our homiletical skills. Yet Arrington helpfully reminds preachers to care about their organization and delivery, not just their content. For many of us who desire to stick to our expositional convictions, we often miss the opportunity for creativity and imagination in crafting and delivering the central truths of the faith.
MAKE SCRIPTURE CENTRAL
While not questioning Arrington’s own convictions about the centrality of Scripture (which he affirms in the introduction), I do think he missteps and advocates practices that make Scripture peripheral, not central, in the sermon.
For instance, in his discussion on building tension in a sermon, Arrington does not account for the fact that some genres of Scripture lend themselves to creating tension more than others. How should a sermon be arranged for tension or emotional impact when you are preaching from Genesis or Amos or Luke or Titus? Throughout the book, Arrington often fails to illustrate his points with actual examples from Scripture.
More pointedly, Scripture often seems secondary in Arrington’s proposals. For example, with regard to pacing and emotional engagement, Arrington’s suggestions don’t prioritize the point of the passage but how we can maximize our effect on the congregation. He aptly calls his model people-centered preaching.
Arrington also suggests other troubling practices which sideline the centrality of the word in the sermon. For instance, he suggests that preachers use videos, props, and interviews to make your sermons more engaging and exciting. But God’s Word alone ought to compel our listeners to respond, not gimmicks and fluff.
The book falters because it assumes that the preacher and listeners must ultimately shape the sermon, not the text of Scripture. While preachers should, of course, consider their context and audience during sermon preparation, the text must ultimately drive their homiletical decisions.
A FEW PERSONAL REFLECTIONS
Since reading Arrington’s book, I have sought to implement some of his insights to my own preaching—particularly reflecting on the emotional arc of my sermons. I’ve also sought more pointed feedback, not just on my content but on my delivery. That process has again affirmed that preachers need to constantly re-visit, critique, and develop not just what they say, but how they say it.
While Preaching that Moves People has its flaws, it does offer some helpful insights on the art of sermon delivery. Some preachers may consign that entire discussion to a misguided attempt at emotional manipulation. Yet those of us committed to delivering biblically sound, expository sermons should consider how to best communicate the pathos of the text as we continue to grow in our delivery of the gospel.