Book Review: The Preacher’s Catechism, by Lewis Allen
I have to admit: I was skeptical at first. Another book on preaching and preachers? Then I read it . . . and it read me.
Lewis Allen—the author, a pastor in England—organizes The Preacher’s Catechism in four sections with a total of 43 short chapters, each its own brief meditation on a catechetical Q&A designed for devotional use. The result is a series of edifying, searching reflections that tend the shepherd’s heart in a way that only a fellow experienced and self-aware shepherd can. The great contribution, even consolation, of Allen’s work is how he applies the gospel to address the preacher’s heart—his motives, fears, sins, and (over-)sensitivities; his oscillation between self-pity and self-congratulation; his petty complaints and emotional convulsions; his character flaws, ministry weaknesses, and strengths that moonlight as weaknesses.
Any of this sound familiar?
First of all, as I was reading this book it made me even more grateful for the congregation I serve. They’re so gracious with my ministry weaknesses and character flaws. They endure my often too-long sermons with patience, they respond to God’s Word with contrition and repentance, and by God’s grace they find food for their souls even when I feel like I burned their dinner and then dropped it on the floor before I got it to the table. Our elders are just as great a blessing.
One insidious and unique temptation for pastors is to begin loving the task more than the triune God, so much so that ministry can begin to feel like a treadmill and God can sound as if he’s demanding more bricks from less straw. I came away from this book convicted that my hearers probably won’t enjoy Christ any more than I do as the one who shepherds them to Christ. As such, I was refreshed by the reminder that I am not first God’s servant, but his son in Christ. How quickly we forget this.
Another great strength is the book’s sheer realism about Christian ministry. It’s slow, painfully slow. Gospel growth often remain invisible. And to the aggravation of our flesh, we often work in the obscure shadow of celebrity. Our faith wavers. We secretly doubt that we’re in “the right line of work.” We plant and water the seed, yet when the harvest doesn’t arrive in our own season, we doubt the organic dynamic. It all takes such faith (47–54).
This is why I’m grateful the author is painfully honest about evaluating our own call to ministry in the first place. Our own enjoyment of preaching plus the affirmation of others does not necessarily equal a divine call. To enter ministry based on mere skill or even personal compulsion will not sustain us. It’s when our service is compelling to others, and when we are compelled not by the greatness of our own gifts but by how far the pastoral task outstrips them—only then are we shorn of self-confidence and self-promotion, free to proclaim God’s kingdom instead of seeking our own. Only then will we thrive even in obscurity.
Maybe most encouraging section of the book is on Jesus for preachers. Brother-preachers, Jesus loves you! He knows what it’s like to serve and suffer as you do. He cares about all the ways you die every day. He is your justification, not your preaching or its results. He wants your soul more than your sermons. And he will be your reward (71–106).
At one point, Allen writes, “Love only the work, and the work will crush us” (210). That sums up quite well much of Allen’s point. And it’s a timely reminder for us, whether we’re in the early morning, midday, or late evening of our own service to the Christ who loved us and gave himself for us.
In dealing with our hidden motives and sins in preaching, Allen rightly encourages us to serve our people rather than our pride, and he admonishes us to know our sheep just as well as we know our Savior and our sermon text. In doing so, he quotes John Flavel on page 63: “Their people’s needs will choose their text for them.” Allen presses home the same point on page 73: “Do I choose passages or the pulpit because I know they will serve where my hearers are in need or because I prefer them and think I preach them well?”
As much as I like Flavel’s flavor, this counsel doesn’t taste right. We know what he means—we have to preach the whole counsel of God, not just the parts we feel are in our wheelhouse. And we have to preach not to impress people but to exalt Christ, to clarify the gospel, to address our hearers’ situations and sins, and to help them along to the Celestial City. Still, even if I preach for only 50 saints and I’m intimately attuned to their plights, can I always know for certain exactly what each of them “needs to hear” week after week? Just because they’re part of the same congregation doesn’t mean they all need to hear a single text that I myself can handpick to meet the moment.
As much as we may aspire to a Spurgeonesque spirituality of the sermon, we’re instead regularly grounded by the finitude not only of our knowledge of the congregation, but of our wisdom in discerning “what they need to hear” this week. This is not at all to advocate a blindfolded text selection, as if we should rest content to pin the tail on the textual donkey. I’m confident Allen affirms lectio continua, and I doubt he’d call it pastoral neglect to preach consecutively through whole books of Scripture. But it would have been instructive to see him show us how lectio continua and pastoral wisdom can go hand in hand. Of course, we’ll always need to give prayerful thought to applying each text in light of our hearers’ struggles, fears, tragedies, and pitfalls, but as we alternate between testaments and genres, we’ll give people a more balanced diet than if we try to select our texts directly in response to their most recent plights.
I know neither Flavel nor Allen means it this way, but such counsel is easily misunderstood as if the pastor needs a therapeutic or mystical sixth sense, a kind of divining rod to guide us all to the sweetest living waters week to week. Sure, we can pick a book to preach through based on themes that seem most relevant to the situations and sins of our members. But every preacher knows what it’s like to choose a text that ends up being relevant in ways he himself never could have planned. I’m experiencing that phenomenon this very month!
Preacher, if you don’t think you need to read this book, then, well . . . you need to read this book. You especially need to read it if you’ve been delving into a few theological tomes to resolve some textual question or theological controversy, or if you’ve been bruised and battered by a congregation seemingly tailor-made for your own growth in patience and self-control. Read this book, brother, and come up for some air. Come away awhile and let your brother Lewis Allen tend to you for a bit. Buy a copy for yourself and one for a pastor friend and read it together. Take your staff through it. Read it with your non-staff elders. Assign it to your interns. Use it for a pastoral duties class. But don’t be skeptical of it, like I was. This is a book on preaching that we need.