“Preaching With Relevance Without Dumbing Down” by Keith Willhite (A Book Review)

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e41145.jpgWillhite, Keith. Preaching With Relevance Without Dumbing Down (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001. 141 pp. $11.99.

Introduction

“At the core of expository preaching are two questions for the preacher: (1) What does the text mean? (2) How do I communicate the relevance of the text’s meaning to my listeners?” (16). This is the crux of Dr. Keith Willhite’s work Preaching With Relevance Without Dumbing Down. Willhite teaches preaching and serves as chair and professor of Pastoral Ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary. He also serves as the founder and president of Strategenuity, a ministry consulting firm.

In this book, Willhite develops ten strategies that will help the preacher find the balance between being grounded in the biblical text and applying the biblical text in a relevant way. This book seeks to answer the second question given above to help the preacher understand the perspective of the parishioner in the pew. He notes:

This book is not about preaching for itching ears. It’s about preaching substantive biblical truth in a way that people can discern its relevance for their lives as they seek to walk with God. I am convinced that we do not have to sacrifice biblical content to speak to our culture (19).


Chapter Summary

In Chapter One, entitled “Look from the Pew’s Perspective,” Willhite helps the preacher embrace a receiver-oriented perspective by understanding the people to whom we are preaching as well as providing helpful tools to help the preacher get to know his people. In Chapter Two, entitled “Get Into a Good Argument,” Willhite assists the preacher in moving from the audience’s worldview into the content of the biblical passage which will support the central theme of the message. Chapter Three, entitled “Whet an Appetite for God’s Word,” delves into the process of crafting the sermon’s introduction in order to establish the relevancy of the sermon.

Chapter Four addresses the usage of applicational wording that moves the sermon from exegesis to theology to homiletics. With this outline, the focus of the wording is for the people to absorb and apply. In Chapter Five, entitled “Bundle a Packaged Deal,” Willhite puts forth four tools to unify a sermon that will further aid the listener in comprehending the message. In Chapter Six, entitled “Unite People, Purpose, and Proposition,” Willhite gives the preacher tools in uniting the audience’s understanding, the study of the text, and the single theme for the development of the sermon.

Chapter Seven, entitled “Adjust the Questions,” addresses the value of adjusting the questions in order to maintain the interest of the listener who longs for a relevant answer. In Chapter Eight (“Tell ‘n Show”), Willhite helps the preacher “discern the value of ‘picturing’ application for our listeners” (95). Chapter Nine deals with illustrating according to three specific purposes illustrations usually accomplish. Chapter Ten addresses the necessity of clarity in preaching, as well as the tools by which the preacher may be clear.

Soundbites

  • “From a communication perspective… listeners determine whether a sermon is relevant” (21-22).
  • “Every sermon is an argument that seeks to advance a claim through supporting evidence” (36).
  • “Introductions must tell listeners what’s at stake for them in the sermon, that is, how this sermon will speak to a particular need in their lives” (48).
  • “Many listeners need the sermon’s application pronounced in no uncertain terms, so state the desired application clearly and boldly” (72).
  • “In Jeopardy! an answer is given, and the contestant must respond with a question to fit the given answer. The preacher, just as in Jeopardy, must shape the focus question to fit the text’s given answer” (88).
  • “Clear sermons grow out of a clear sense of the big idea or homiletical proposition. In other words, communication originates in the mind, not in the mouth” (123).

Critical Summary

The expository preacher will take great solace in Willhite’s understanding of Scripture. “Our communication perspective … serves as a means to convey the theological perspective. We are not making God’s Word relevant, for it already is relevant. … We seek to demonstrate that God’s Word is relevant” (18). Given the wide array of preaching books and philosophies that promote how a preacher must artistically and creatively make the Bible relevant to 21st century people, Willhite takes much of the pressure and strain off the preacher who serves merely to show the relevance already in the text.

Willhite’s book serves as a helpful contribution to the field of homiletics. The preaching philosophy known as The New Homiletic influences pastors to react against the science of deductive, propositional preaching of past generations in favor of a more artistic style of preaching which is more inductive and narrative in nature. Yet, the advocates of the New Homiletic have given away far too much ground. The problem is not that deductive preaching is bad, but that bad deductive preaching is bad, and a more balanced approach is needed. The themes of the Scriptures must serve as the themes for the preachers’ sermons. Yet, even though a preacher may choose this style of preaching does not automatically make the sermon irrelevant. One may preach from the themes of Scripture and still use helpful tools to show the relevance of Scripture in contemporary life. Willhite accomplishes this task admirably.

One of the great strengths of this book is the exercises found at the end of each chapter that help apply the principles taught in the chapter itself. Especially helpful are the “You Try It!” sections. Whereas many homiletical texts only give the principles for preaching, Willhite’s work gives practical insights and exercises on how to apply these insights. For example, from chapters four through seven, Willhite challenges the reader to use the same text of Scripture (James 1:2-11) in putting an outline together using applicational words, developing a theme and then uniting that theme to the issues of the people. With this understanding, Willhite not only lauds the necessity for application in preaching, he models that necessity by using application in the lessons that the chapter puts forth.

Chapter Five will surprise many students and experienced expository preachers. For centuries, rhetoricians have consistently held to the notion that speeches should consist of one main theme. Willhite believes otherwise:

“Messages gain unity, however, through more than sticking to a single thesis. And tools exist that help us to maintain that unity by presenting the message as a neat package” (73).

Willhite helps the expositor by showing the validity of illustrations. For those who hold to the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures, many believe the use of illustrations take away from the centrality of the Word of God in preaching. He rightly notes that the preacher must not simply use illustrations for illustrations’ sake.

“An illustration that doesn’t shed light upon something is just an isolated story, statistic, or example. The illustration must connect to the subject in order to shed light on the subject” (115).

Preachers may connect more effectively by making sure the illustration stays in its rightful place: emphasizing, not overshadowing, the sermon’s main idea.

One weakness in this particular chapter is in the You Try It! portion of the illustrations chapter. Willhite urges the preacher to look over the past five sermon manuscripts to evaluate the illustrations he used. Then he encourages the preacher to do the following exercises:

1. Explain the game of baseball to a four-year-old.
2. Convince a four-year-old that he or she will like the game of baseball.
3. Show a four-year-old how to catch a ground ball.
4. Listen to a sermon by a preacher whom you respect. Evaluate his illustrations. Did they serve their purpose? How might you have illustrated the same points? (119).

While exercise four is a worthwhile exercise, the first three exercises are cause for concern. While Willhite rightly notes how illustrations should not be beyond the grasp of the average layperson, illustrations should neither be too far below the comprehension level of the average layperson. Otherwise, the preacher risks talking beneath his parishioners, which he should continually avoid.

Especially helpful is Willhite’s insights on introductions. In Chapter Three where he helps the preacher whet an appetite for God’s Word, he shows the necessity for developing an interest in the upcoming sermon. Whereas Eugene Lowry in his book The Homiletical Plot advocates developing interest that will lead to a narrative, inductive sermon that shies away from propositional truth, Willhite offers the proper balance. Like Lowry, he recommends starting with the people and evoking a particular image which connects to the main theme of the sermon. He recommends shaping the introduction into one of the following:

• A question to be answered
• An issue to be explored
• A problem to be solved
• A situation to be resolved

Sadly, Willhite fails to give specific treatment in the area of conclusions, a difficult area for beginning expositors. If Kregel Publications chooses to publish another edition of this book, the inclusion of a section on the execution of conclusions would be beneficial.

Conclusion

I would heartily recommend this book to all pastors, along with Using Illustrations to Preach with Power by Bryan Chapell and Preaching to a Postmodern World by Graham Johnston. These three books would greatly offset the problematic preaching philosophy of the New Homiletic advocated by the likes of Fred B. Craddock. A balanced philosophy of Scripture-based, relevant preaching is needed in this postmodern culture. Willhite’s work helps provide just such a balance.

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