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Dying to Preach

Dying to Preach: Embracing the Cross in the Pulpit is one of the most uncomfortable books on preaching I’ve read. It is also one of the best, especially for those who have been preaching for only a few years.

Don’t read this book if you are just looking for a few tweaks and tips for next Sunday morning. Read it only if you want your view of preaching to be turned upside down and inside out. If you still dare to buy it, be warned: you are going to be ruffled, stung, provoked and offended. At times you will react with, “No way!” and, “That’s going too far!” But as the author’s biblical arguments work on your conscience, you will gradually submit, slowly agree, and pick up the book again.

The author is Steven Smith, assistant professor of preaching, and the James T. Draper Jr. Chair of Pastoral Ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His basic thesis is that the nature of our message should affect the way we present and communicate our message. Those who preach a crucified Christ should preach in a crucified style. And even though it is more about style than substance, the whole book is an argument for an absence of style, or a crucified style.

In the preface Smith asks:

If the cross is God’s chosen means of salvation, why is it not also our means of communication? If God saved through the cross, can we not preach through the cross? If the cross was God’s means, why is it not ours? . . . If God will save through the abject humility of crucifixion, will He sanctify with messages from preachers who don’t imitate the abject humility of crucifixion? Must not a message of death to life be communicated from a preacher who dies so that others might live? (13)

Or, more succinctly: “A cross from the pulpit logically means a cross in the pulpit. So every preacher dying to preach must die to preach” (13). I Iike the way Johnny Hunt put it in his blurb: “The preacher will see little life in the pews until he sees much death in the pulpit.”

That concept is so alien to Western preachers today that it may take you a few chapters and maybe even a few re-readings until you grasp what Smith is getting at. However, it is certainly worth persevering with.

He begins with two chapters on the cross in Paul’s pulpit ministry. In page after page of insightful commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians, Smith argues that Paul’s principal understanding of ministry to the Corinthians was “dying for others,” a claim he supports with 20 verses from the Corinthian letters.

He then draws four implications of the cross in the pulpit:

  • Ignite: Preaching the Cross of Christ.
  • Invite: Sharing the Sufferings of Christ.
  • Identify: Bearing the Reproach of Christ.
  • Imitate: Communicating the Example of Christ.

Smith highlights three results when a preacher begins to die so that others may live. He surrenders to the text by precise, humble, long-term study that produces clear, cliché-free communication.

He surrenders to the audience. This does not mean caving in to the sheep’s demands but feeling the sheep’s pain. “Passion for the text must be accompanied by compassion for the people. . . . Shepherds smell like sheep, and surrendered communicators have a ‘feel’ for people who are in the dark.”

Last, he surrenders to the task of great preaching. Arguing for a crucified style, Smith recognizes the tension of this final point and asks, “Is it biblical to want to preach good sermons?” He answers:

We must become better in our preaching because God uses good preaching. With all the liabilities we have mentioned, with all of the red flags about style over substance, with all the warnings about a self-centered pulpit, we must commit ourselves to becoming good preachers. So with eight chapters of warning against letting the good of decent preaching rob people of the best of seeing Christ in the text, let me stop and scream, “Strive for good preaching” (156).

And what motivates us to work hard on improving our preaching? Smith returns to the cross: “Christ expended everything on the cross, because leaving anything undone would not have accomplished God’s will” (157).

I was intrigued and encouraged by Smith’s support from a return to more extemporaneous preaching, something I also passionately endorse. And to support his point, he turns to Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Citing research, Smith says that under the influence of George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards was convicted of the power of extemporaneous preaching and shifted his sermon delivery accordingly.

I did disagree with Smith’s exposition of Colossians 1:24 on pages 80–81. I know this is one of the most difficult verses in the New Testament. However, I’m concerned that Smith’s choice of vocabulary here unwittingly undermines the perfection of Christ’s finished work on the cross.

With that reservation, I highly commend this book to young preachers. What about students and others just beginning to preach? I’m not saying no. In some ways this would be a great foundational book, and would perhaps save some from getting off on the wrong foot and heading in the wrong direction. However, I would advise students to read a few of the classic homiletics texts first to get the basics of “How to preach” and then read this one. This is more about the preaching mindset than the mechanics. It would be difficult to understand what Smith is getting at without some experience of preparing and preaching sermons.

Let me clinch your purchase with an appetizer of the many quotables in this book:

The death to self that is demanded of the preacher works life in his people. In this way, the preacher becomes like Christ, who died so that we might live. If we do not die, they do not live. (18)

An obsession with style will actually be counterproductive to the Gospel message. (52)

For a preacher to die, he must die to his right to be thought of as a great preacher. (53)

Paul is suggesting a horrific, criminal irony: the means of preaching displaces the message of preaching. (74)

Preaching ourselves, even in small inconsequential ways, can be the few small lumens that keep people from the true satisfying glorious light of Christ (74). Death is in the pew because few are willing to die in the pulpit. (88)

We are redeemed rebels who are calling other rebels to be redeemed. We are no longer managing our image. No. We have thrown off our robes and are taking the long walk outside the city. We are looking up at the thrashed corpse and taking a stand-this is who we are! We are cross bearers because we are cross lovers. (98)

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