by Thomas G. Long. Louisville: WJKP, 2005. ISBN 0-664-22943-3. Pb., 267 pp., $24.95.
In the preface to this Second Edition, Tom Long writes that when he first wrote The Witness of Preaching in the late 1980s, he was attempting to do two things. First, he sought to provide a basic textbook on preaching that would be both accessible to new preachers and yet still helpful to experienced pastors. Second, he hoped “to create a textbook that was in direct conversation with other voices and opinions in the field of preaching” (p. ix).
It is easy to see that Long delivered on his first promise. The textbook immediately found its way into introductory preaching courses in divinity schools and seminaries of all types, and countless experienced preachers found renewed passion for their preaching after reading The Witness of Preaching. What made the original particularly helpful was its rich theology of proclamation that clearly gave life to the nuts and bolts of sermon crafting that Long espoused.
And Long’s second aim was also fulfilled. The book invited conversation with other voices in preaching, and soon the new voices in the field of homiletics began to speak. In the preface to this Second Edition, Long offers this rationale for its existence: “This second edition is an attempt to catch up with the field, to address some of these new forces and factors, to reflect the current state of the homiletical conversation, and to introduce not only the best methods for preaching, but also the theological thinking needed to do good preaching” (p. x). These new voices can be heard throughout Long’s second edition.
That said, his hope for this volume is more than simply hearing new voices. In essence, he hopes that this book will not only help preachers prepare more faithful sermons, but that it “will encourage preachers to think critically and theologically about the very ministry of preaching” (p. xi).
Not long ago, the Confirmation Class in the congregation in which I serve was discussing what the church does when we gather for worship. We had a wonderful time rejoicing that God calls us together, and we gained a far deeper appreciation for God’s grace that we experience so richly in the assurance of pardon. Things were moving along so smoothly as we ticked off the elements of worship, in fact, that I actually started thinking to myself that this Confirmation Class, unlike some others I have known, held each element of our worship with high regard. I held onto that thought right up to the minute where we hit the word “sermon” in the bulletin. Their joyful responses from earlier in our session now gave way to rebuking questions about why sermons are so long and whether or not preachers just liked to hear themselves talk and what sort of material should be included in a sermon, and what should not.
Though they used different language, at the heart of their questions was a deeper question: What does it mean to preach? This is the question with which Long opens his text, but he finds an answer by considering another question: Who is the preacher?
Delving into the homiletical tradition, Long explores the strengths and limitations of three common images of the preacher: the herald, the pastor, and the storyteller/poet. Long shows how each image has helped the preacher in his or her task of faithful proclamation, but he also argues that each image finally comes up short. He then offers a new image that gives shape to his theology of proclamation that informs everything else that follows.
The image is that of witness. Drawing on the work of Paul Ricoeur, Long explains that the image of the preacher as witness is helpful on several fronts. As a witness, the preacher’s authority comes not from rank or power but by what the witness has seen and heard. Long takes great care to show that it is the congregation who sends the preacher into the world of the Scripture to listen for a word from God.
Second, the witness goes to Scripture not only to get a set of facts, but also to encounter a Presence. The preacher takes the questions and needs of the church and the world to the scriptures, thereby bringing those questions and needs to God. Once the preacher has seen and heard from God in the scriptures, he or she goes back to those who are waiting to hear what the witness has seen.
Third, the image of the preacher as witness helps the preacher give form to the sermon. The task of a witness is to find the words needed to convey the event the witness has seen and heard. The shape of the sermon will be informed by the character of the testimony.
Fourth, the witness is not a neutral observer. The place where the preacher as witness stands is within a particular community of faith that is struggling to be faithful to the gospel. This image reminds the preacher of needing to hear a particular word for this particular day.
Finally, the image of witness emphasizes the ecclesiastical and liturgical setting of preaching. The church gathers in worship to hear the testimony of Christ to the truth, and our testimony is authentic only as it conforms to the witness of Christ.
On this theological foundation of the preacher as witness, Long begins to show preachers how they can craft sermons that are faithful to the scriptures and their contexts. Each chapter builds upon the next, and every point that Long makes is fleshed out with multiple examples from sermons. Long moves the reader from a faithful encounter with the biblical text to the crafting of a completed sermon. In doing so, he offers a sound exegetical model as well as a helpful suggestion regarding the focus and function of each sermon. New and old preachers alike will be helped by this volume.
John P. Leggett is pastor of Massanutten Church in Penn Laird, Va.