The Challenge of PreachingBy John Stott and Greg Scharf (Eerdmans, 2015)

The Challenge of Preaching (Paperback)
by John Stott

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John Stott (1921–2011) was rector emeritus of All Souls Church, in London, and the founder of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. His Between Two Worlds (Eerdmans, 1982) was a classic that now gets a timely reworking as The Challenge of Preaching. Kudos to Greg Scharf, professor of pastoral theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a friend of Stott, for doing the hard work of reducing 123,000 words to about 45,000 (my rough calculation) without significant loss.

Apart from making biblical references more precise, adding weblinks for several quotes from church fathers, making gendered pronouns more appropriate, providing dates for historical figures, omitting some dated references, illustrations, and quotes, Scharf has not not made major structural changes to Stott’s original and beloved version. There are a few (mostly necessary) additions here and there of a paragraph or two that respect the spirit of Stott, like, for e.g., on the electronic age (7–8). But an inexplicable addition was a block quote from a book that in turn cited an unpublished dissertation (26–27), that begins: “Interpreting the Bible is like safecracking.” Interesting metaphor, but was it really necessary? Other changes: A historical sketch of preaching with which Stott opened his book has been relegated to an appendix, and Scharf has also taken the liberty of adding McCheyne’s Bible Reading Plan into another appendix (116–25). Freely available on the internet, its omission could have saved another ten pages.

Stott’s first sentence (by “Stott” I refer to the original version, and by “Scharf,” to this abridged volume) was “Preaching is indispensable to Christianity.” Arresting and bold. Scharf has turned it into a compound sentence: “Preaching is indispensable to Christianity because …” (1). Stott had: “Word and worship belong indissolubly together. … Therefore acceptable worship is impossible without preaching. … The two cannot be divorced.” Nice. Scharf has a consolidation: “Preaching and worship cannot be divorced” (9). I don’t know, but I feel a sense of loss with the attenuation of what I can only label as Stott’s “poetic prose.” Here is another example: “Their exposition of the central biblical doctrines is impeccable,” said Stott. “They are faithful to Scripture, lucid in explanation, felicitous in language, and contemporary in application. Yet … [n]o note of urgency is ever heard in their voice and no suspicion of a tear is ever seen in their eyes.” Lovely. But Scharf has: “They explain the central biblical doctrines precisely. They are faithful to the content of Scripture. They explain it clearly and apply the lessons to today’s world. Yet … [t]here is no urgency in their voice, and no tear is ever seen in their eyes.” That’s somewhat deflating!

Both Stott and Scharf agree that “all true Christian preaching” is/should be “expository,” i.e., it should bring out what is in a text. Both subscribe to “text” being “a word, a verse, or a sentence,” or “a paragraph or two” or “a whole chapter or book” (25–26). But I still disagree with Stott and Scharf: I think a preaching text should be a sense unit, a pericope: a word or a verse or a sentence can hardly qualify for a sense unit in which an author does something with what he says.

Stott’s metaphor “preaching as bridge-building,” perhaps the crux of his book, and a concept that has spawned a large number of preaching paradigms, papers, and postulates over the last three decades, is retained almost in its entirety in a chapter by that title (30). I was also glad Scharf retained Stott’s recommendation for pastors to find “a quiet day at least once a month,” to reflect, pray, think, and read (47). In these days of busyness and frenetic activity, this is sound advice.

I spotted one wrong attribution of a quote (59), and I wondered why “humor” was spelled “humour” (84)—retaining Stott’s original (British) spelling—but such bibliographic and typographical errors were few and far between. On the whole, Scharf’s condensation is a job well done, making Stott’s classic more accessible, more contemporary, and an easier read.

Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 16.2 (2016): 66–68

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