Book Review: How Sermons Work, by David Murray
David Murray wants the church to benefit from the faithful preaching of the Word of God. You can tell just by looking at the callings he’s pursued as listed on his blog, “Leadership for Servants”: he identifies himself, in order, as a follower of Christ, a preacher of the gospel, and a Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And before joining a seminary faculty he served as a pastor in Scotland.
Murray’s passion for faithful preaching is also evident in his new book How Sermons Work.
You can get a good idea about the book in this entertaining promotional video by HeadHeartHand Media. It begins with a church member receiving an email from the church office. The pastor is sick and has called upon him to preach! The man begins to type, “Not in a million years” only to delete those words and retype, “Sure.” For the rest of the promo the man scours the Internet for counsel on how to preach. He finally finds Murray’s book, How Sermons Work. The video is a helpful reminder that the book’s main audience is lay elders and other church members looking for “a simple step-by-step guide to help them to prepare sermons in an efficient enjoyable and edifying way” (9).
How Sermons Work is divided into eight parts.
First, prepare to preach. Every preacher, even someone asked to deliver a message while the pastor is sick, should strive to ensure that his heart is in the right place and that he has the requisite gifts to preach the Word.
Second, select a text. Murray doesn’t take a stand on whether it is better to preach from one verse or from an entire passage. Instead, he drives home the main point that the Bible must be our text. He also suggests that some verses more than others lend themselves to being preached.
Third, exegete the text. This chapter is a fine overview of the questions that need to be asked when dealing with the original languages, translations, context, and so on. I especially appreciated his reminder that exegeting the text is hard work.
Fourth, vary the sermon. Murray lists a number of different kinds of sermons, ranging from doctrinal to apologetic to political. His main point is a good one: those who preach regularly should be careful not to tire their congregation by preaching sermons that are too similar in style and substance. Nonetheless, he acknowledges that variation is better achieved by varying the books we preach from and the type of application we include in each message.
Fifth, begin the sermon. The section on what not to do when preparing introductions is excellent. Murray is aware of the dangers as he counsels preachers, “Don’t be too long,” “Don’t be too showy,” “Don’t be too ambitious,” and “Don’t be too personal,” to name just a few.
Sixth, organize the sermon. Murray devotes two chapters to arguing that a well-structured sermon is crucial, does not demand a complicated outline, and will flow from one clear idea. For those who are brand new to coming up with sermon outlines, Murray offers an exhaustive list of possibilities.
Seventh, apply the sermon. These two chapters impress upon the reader the necessity of rooting clear and personal application in the text. While I found the second chapter on types of application overwhelming (he lists twenty examples), the principles he offers are helpful.
Eighth, preach a sermon. Delivery matters. The purity of the preacher, the prayer he puts into the message, his personality, posture, passion, and even his pronunciation all play a role. (The alliteration is Murray’s.)
MAY PROVOKE SOME STIMULATING CONVERSATIONS
Thus, Murray successfully gives a quick synopsis of the nuts and bolts of sermon prep. It is a good read, especially for pastors who are looking to raise up some men from within the church who are apt to preach but don’t know where to begin. A few comments sprinkled throughout Murray’s book may even raise some stimulating conversation. Here are just three:
Is the Preacher Different from the Hearer?
First, Murray asserts that the preacher is different from the hearer. Not better, just different. Murray’s point is that a preacher must be holy since a lack of integrity will undermine his preaching. Certainly a preacher must be godly, and an elder is different from other church members in that the Bible demands he meet certain biblical qualifications. Still, I wonder if we should really say the preacher is all that different from the hearer. I think such differences are too often overstressed. After all, the hearer should be holy, too.
Certainly it’s possible to belittle the office of pastor by failing to emphasize the holiness the position demands and the authority the pastor exercises. However, if we overemphasize the difference between preacher and hearer, we can create a chasm between pulpit and pew that is not found in the Bible. And, as a result, the average church member may see the pastor more as a sanctified superhero than a sinner saved by grace.
Where Should One Look for a Sermon Text?
Second, where should one look for a sermon text? I know Murray is open to a preaching calendar set months in advance, but I walked away from his chapter on selecting a text thinking Murray was pointing me everywhere but the table of contents of my Bible, to places like a sermon suggestion box or the nightly news.
Certainly the Lord can lay a particular text upon a preacher’s heart. I want to be sensitive to God’s leading (29). But I’m not sure Spurgeon, who cried out for a text the night before he preached, is the most reliable guide for the average pastor.
Is it Most “Authentic” Not to Use Notes?
Third, is it true that the preachers deemed most “authentic” shy away from sermon notes? I don’t think so. Yet Murray warns preachers not to use exhaustive manuscripts since “this age prefers to be spoken to personally and relationally. There is nothing more authentic than a man preaching eyeball to eyeball, heart to heart, without anything intervening” (149).
This is a small point and it’s hardly crucial to Murray’s task. Still, it is a point I hear regularly, and I’m not sure it is accurate. Authenticity in preaching does not stem from the use or lack of notes, but from a preacher so engaged in the Word, so convinced of its relevance for today, so gripped himself by the power of the gospel, that his conviction is powerfully and spiritually evident—notes or no notes.
SLENDER, PROVOCATIVE, AND USEFUL
How Sermon’s Work is slender enough to be used by the untrained and provocative enough to stimulate healthy discussion among more experienced preachers. In all, it’s a useful and accessible introduction to sermon preparation.