Between Two Worlds: Thought’s on John Stott’s Book

Stott, John R. W.  Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.

Having wanted to read this book for quite some time, I’m glad I was finally able to take a few weeks to work through this monograph and consider what Stott had to say.  Many preachers have recommended this book, and given some of Stott’s points, I can see why.  John Stott, an Anglican clergyman, was the longtime rector of All Souls Church in London.  He was the author of numerous books and commentaries, including The Cross of Christ and Basic Christianity.  He died on July 27th, 2011.

Although no identifiable thesis statement can be found in the book, Stott’s main purpose seems to be to provide preachers with a somewhat comprehensive introduction to the history, theology, and art of preaching.  He covers the gamut, touching on everything from sermon preparation, reading, study habits, and sincerity and earnestness in the pulpit.  Stott begins the book with a “historical sketch,” demonstrating that “Preaching is indispensable to Christianity” (15).  This is due to the fact that “Christianity is, in its very essence, a religion of the Word of God” (15).  Thus, because God is a talking God, we, as preachers, must communicate God’s message with words.  In truth, this is what prophets were commissioned to do in the OT[1]; this is what Jesus did, and so did his apostles.  Stott follows this up by showcasing the “Glory of Preaching,” wherein he gives a brief survey of the history of preaching, highlighting some of the church’s stellar examples of biblical faithfulness (18-47).

Following this historical sketch, Stott deals with contemporary objections to preaching.  He notes that we live in an anti-authoritarian age, which has been a part of our culture since the Enlightenment (53).  Furthermore, as the years have gone by, the situation has only been exacerbated by postmodernism.  Stott does more than simply lament, however.  He lists a number of ways in which preachers can confront the deleterious effects of anti-authoritarianism (86-88).  Most notably (and most importantly, I might add) is prayer.  “[W]e need to pray more persistently and expectantly,” Stott writes, “for grace from the Holy Spirit of truth” (88).  He concludes this section by drawing attention to the sovereignty of God relative to man’s salvation: “[U]ltimately only God can convince us about God” (88).  To that statement I reply, “Amen and amen.”

Building upon what has been said thus far, Stott proceeds to discuss the theological foundations of preaching.  Strong preaching requires strong convictions, not necessarily mastering certain techniques like voice inflection and facial expressions.  As Stott poignantly notes, “Technique can only make us orators; if we want to be preachers, theology is what we need” (92).  Moreover, Stott forcefully adds, “The kind of God we believe in determines the kind of sermons we preach” (93).  Specifically, preachers must have strong convictions about God’s nature, God’s Word, the church, and the pastorate.  With respect to the pastorate, Stott observes that pastors must see themselves (as Scripture does) as teachers (Eph. 4:11).  Simply put, “The pastor is essentially the teacher” (118).  Given this great responsibility, pastors are to devote the majority of their time to preaching and teaching.  That being said, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring attention to the fact that the apostles said preachers are to devote themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4, emphasis added).  Remembering that prayer is part of our calling is singularly important for, as Piper reminds us, “without prayer the God of our studies will be the unfrightening and uninspiring God of insipid academic gamesmanship.”[2]

Stott follows in this line of preachers who insist upon expository preaching.  This can be seen when he writes, “It is my contention that all true Christian preaching is expository preaching” (125).  He favors biblical exposition because, like the prophets of old, a preacher “is not an entirely free man” (126).  He is a man who has been commissioned by God.  Hence, just as the prophets were not to invent their own messages, preachers are not to invent their own either.  Although preachers are to confine themselves to the biblical text, they must also apply their messages to their contemporary audiences.  For this reason, Stott prefers to speak of preaching as “bridge building” (137).  To do this effectively involves incarnation (entering one world from another) and translation (exchanging one language for another [150]).

What is evident at this point is that preaching requires hard work.  Study and preparation take up a significant amount of time for preachers.  This means a lot of time is spent reading.  Indeed, at Stott observes, “Books are the preacher’s stock-in-trade” (188).  In this vein, Stott adds that preachers should not confine themselves to simply reading the Bible or books of theology; rather, they should read as widely as possible (194-200).  For this reason, I will be picking up and reading Cornelius Plantinga’s new book Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists.  While all of this may lead pastors to feel overwhelmed, what helps us is to gain a fresh vision of Christ and his glory, immensity, and all-sufficiency.

Stott does deal with sermon preparation (211ff.), but nothing new is added when compared with what other homiletics books cover: study the passage, isolate the main idea, contemporize it, structure it, and preach it!  That being said, Stott’s chapter on sincerity and earnestness was probably the most beneficial for me.  He notes that sincerity is to mean what we say; earnestness is to feel what we say (273).  Simply put, we must believe what we preach; we must be personally affected by the things we’re saying.  Wayne McDill’s words ring true: “Who you are as a person is as important as what you preach. . . .   [A preacher] is not an attorney arguing points of law.  He is not a salesman pitching his merchandise.  He is a messenger and a witness, whose persuasion is his own experience, whose appeal is his own commitment, whose teaching is his own practice.”[3]

Of course, students of preaching long to know how we might incorporate this kind of sincerity and earnestness into our own lives and ministries.  No shortcut can be found and no easy answers exist.  In my view, Stott correctly notes that more often than not, these qualities come into a preacher’s life through pain and heartache, suffering and internal bouts with depression—indeed, an overwhelming sense of our own inadequacies (2 Cor. 2:16).  Stott quotes the words of Colin Morris:

It is not from a pulpit but a cross that power-filled words are spoken.  Sermons need to be seen as well as heard to be effectual.  Eloquence, homiletical skill, biblical knowledge are not enough.  Anguish, pain, engagement, sweat and blood punctuate the stated truths to which men will listen (271).

In addition to sincerity and earnestness, preachers also need humility and courage.  Courage is needed because we cannot be afraid of offending people.  The moment we refuse to say something in the pulpit because we don’t want to offend people—at that moment we have ceased to be a servant of the Lord and are guilty of the worst kind of professionalism.  When that happens we have started finding our identity in what others say of us, rather than in what God thinks of us.  At the same time, we must be humble.  I love Stott’s words: we must “revel” in our weakness (330).

For the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed Stott’s book.  Although not everything he said was equally captivating, most of what he wrote was necessary.  I would recommend this book to other pastors or those interested in learning more about preaching.  The three takeaways for me are that preaching requires study, boldness, and earnestness.  The more I preach, the more I come to learn that it’s less about technique and more about being personally affected by what we read in Scripture.

[1] For a great little essay on the prophets, see John L. Mackay, “Spokesmen for God,” Tabletalk 37:11 (October 2013): 18-19.

[2]  John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 63.

 [3] Wayne V. McDill, The Moment of Truth: A Guide to Effective Sermon Delivery (Nashville: B&H , 1999), 24, 27.


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