The online Bible teaching ministry of John Brand

Quite possibly, this book takes the prize for the most frustrating book I have read – ever. There is much in it that is good and helpful but its couched in a rather arrogant tone and doesn’t say anything helpful that hasn’t been said in a much better way by someone else.

It is, as they say, a book of two halves. But that is also part of the problem. The first half is in the form of a fictional narrative, written by Lane Jones, of a disillusioned and frustrated preacher who is given communicating coaching by, believe it or not, Willy Graham, a preacher and retired trucker, but the whole concept is so far-fetched and implausible as to get you into the second half of the book in an already deeply sceptical frame of mind.

In the second half, Andy Stanley unpacks Willy Graham’s seven imperatives for effective communication, none of which I would argue with and all of which, in different ways, I have taught in my homiletics classes. However, the problem for me is that Lane conveys them almost as if he has discovered something new and that if only every preacher followed his system, there wouldn’t be a problem with preaching.

There are some underlying flaws in everything Stanley writes. First, there’s a lightness, a weightlessness, in his whole view of preaching. He talks of preachers being “performers”, of the need for turning sermons into storytelling, and there’s a complete absence of the solemn and weighty responsibility that the preacher has in handling the inspired Scriptures. Stanley’s view of preaching is a far cry from the Old Testament prophet or the New Testament herald. His imaginary friend, Willy Graham, gives this advice, “You need to carry on a conversation with your people. You need to pull up a chair and discuss the various topics that you want to cover” (p73) and “I think you ought to get rid of your pulpit and set up a swing on your platform” (p75).

You could take the principles he advocates, and even some of the rationale behind them, and apply them to a stand-up comedian or entertainer and there seems little difference in Stanley’s view of things between the role of these occupation and that of the preacher.

In some respect, the tone for this is set from the very start when, in his introduction, he says that a call is not necessary for a preaching ministry but that it is alright to volunteer, which is what he did.

Secondly, he is intentionally or otherwise, disparaging of those who don’t follow his approach and dismisses the perceived wisdom of some of the greatest preachers down through the year. He sets up unnecessary dichotomies, for example, dismissing and ridiculing the use of clear structure, alliteration and sermon points saying that if we really want to preach to change lives and aid people’s grasp of our message, these things are not helpful.

In another simplistic and false ‘either-or’ tension he says that internalising your message is the same as memorising your message – “…until you can deliver it with no notes, from memory, then it is not your message” (52). Indeed, according to Lane, to use notes while, at the same time, asserting that what you are saying is of great importance, is inconsistent. Mind you, he then goes on to say, that his sermon introductions are so important that he often writes them down, as well as memorising them, and then holds the card up and reads it out!

Thirdly, Stanley’s whole approach to preaching comes over as listener-driven rather than Scripture driven. I appreciate his desire for engagement with and relevance to the various constituents within the congregation, but that is not the same as beginning with the authoritative word of God and then seeing how that applies to his listeners. He mocks, for instance, preachers “…spending months preaching through one of the epistles” and interprets that as “…ignoring what’s happening right in front of us” (p97). He says that he “weave(s) a message about sexual purity or money into just about every series we do.” (p97). That’s fine and good if the biblical text is about those important issues, but absolutely not otherwise.

There is much about this book that is helpful, and that’s why I find it so frustrating. Stanley wants preachers to be focussed, engaging and contemporary, but his arguments are flawed and his foundational premises very unhealthy. He is right to stress the importance of application and it is a much neglected element in many books on preaching, but while his diagnosis is correct, his prescription is dangerous. If you want good, solid, biblical help with application in your preaching then don’t look to Stanley, look to Michael Fabarez’ Preaching that changes lives, or Chris Green’s Cutting to the Heart or Jay Adams’ Preaching with Purpose.

Multnomah Press (1 Jun. 2006) Review written in 2016