Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Book Review Preaching that Matters

I enjoy reading a variety of books; fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and memoir. Recently I have been reading some non-fiction books especially some books on Scripture and Preaching. Even though I have been a pastor for nearly fourteen years I always like to improve my skills and be reminded of "the basics" like preaching, teaching, and pastoral care.

I recently came across a great book by Lori J. Carrell called Preaching That Matters: Reflective Practices for Transforming Sermons (Hendon, VA: Alban Publishing, 2013). Carrell is a professor of communication and the director of the Center for the Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Her expertise in communication, rhetoric, and public speaking provides her with the resources and experience to write such a great book. This is more than a book however, it is a resource and workbook which the reader will hopefully return to again and again throughout ones ministry.

Lori must be a wonderful teacher because her sense of humor, honesty, and truth comes out in her writing and surely in the classroom too. Even the chapter titles are creative: Transforming, Not Informing; Exegeting Then Organizing; and Delivering Not Decorating are a few of them.

Preaching That Matters includes wonderful questions for small group discussion and journaling. Actually, Alban Publishing included space to write in the book but I have a handy spiral bound notebook in which I wrote down notes and extended thoughts on each chapter. I will certainly go back again and do a more thorough job reflecting on my own preaching habits (good and bad!!), style, and delivery. Each chapter deals with one of these issues and she provides real anecdotes from participants in her workshops and conferences.

Preaching That Matters is certainly not a theory book or a "how to" book on preaching or merely a collection of stories about preaching but a book that engages the pastor as they engage the Word of God each week. Preparing a weekly sermon that is authentic, inspirational, unique, and Biblical is not an easy task. I vividly remember the several really long dry spells that I had in my own ministry and the difficulty it was to muster the energy to face my congregation each week and proclaim the Good News even though I was spiritually in the dumps so to speak. But preach I did and preach I have been doing for a long time.

One of Lori's main themes which is woven throughout the book is that preaching is for the transformation of people. All too often preaching because like dry dust, a mere exegetical exercise (which maybe appropriate for example in an Adult Bible study context) but not for the pulpit. People come each Sunday to hear the Good News and to be reminded that they are loved by God and that life does matter in a world of darkness, death, and despair. They come to be consoled, comforted, and encouraged on their walk of faith, not to be bombarded with theological jargon and interesting but trite historical minutae from ages ago. They want to hear good Biblical preaching, they want to hear about Jesus and his ministry and how our life can be changed today in the 21st Century Church.

I recommend this book for preachers everywhere who want to improve their homilies. I know that I will return to the questions in each chapter and re-think how I create and deliver my own sermons. There is always room for improvement!

For more information about Preaching That Matters click here 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Book Review Saint Paul and the New Evangelization

I have turned to the writings of St. Paul again and again throughout my years in ministry. Like me St. Paul had to deal with faith, doubt, problems, pains, debate, and conflict. Ask any priest and they'll tell you the same thing; parish ministry aint' easy!

Liturgical Press just published a small but important book on the writings of St. Paul, focusing on the intersection of his writings and ministry and the New Evangelization. The book is called Saint Paul and the New Evangelization (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013). Father Ronald D. Witherup is the author and the supervisor general of the Sulpicians. Don't let the small size of this book deter you from reading it. This book is aimed at priests and lay leaders who want a fresh perspective on evangelization and parish renewal. Winthrup includes not only short passages from St. Paul but also important Vatican documents regarding our life in faith. It also includes a detailed appendix of these documents and what they cover.

Before reading don't think that Fr. Winthrup suggests that we go door to door seeking new catechumens. However, Winthrup does suggest that we take our faith seriously and that when each of us renews our faith in a very personal way then we can be formed and equipped to share our faith with others when the time is right.

Withrup also suggests that we all turn again to the writings of St. Paul as a way to renew this faith but also to see how both he and the early Christians engaged in ministry and evangelization. I envision that this book could be a study guide or at least a resource for parish leadership teams as they continue to work and persevere in the New Evangelization. As Jesus says the fields are ripe for the harvest and he sends his disciples out to reap some of that fruit. He sends us out just like his sent his disciples out as a way to preach the gospel and bring the good news to the world wherever we find ourselves. We don't have to go far either, the fields are right in front of us, we just have to have eyes to see and ears to hear.

For more information about Saint Paul and the New Evangelization click here 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Book Review Choosing Change

Change is not easy. At least most of the time. Change usually brings up a lot of anxiety especially when it involves something new, something different. Major shifts in life; a new job, a new house, a marriage, having children often causes stress, strain, and many emotions! But as humans we have to change, its natural. We age. We grow. The question is not whether or not we're going to change but how we navigate those challenging times in our life.

Peter Coutts' new book Choosing Change: How to Motivate Churches to Face the Future (Hendon, VA: Alban Publishing, 2013) is a book for pastors and lay leaders who are dealing with change. Coutts has over twenty years experience in congregational life and has taught in the Dmin. program at McCormick Seminary in Chicago. His many years of parish life combined with his teaching ability gives Coutts the credibility to write this book. This is no ordinary book either, it reads as if the author is right there with you, leading you by the hand through the numerous thickets and briars of change.

No one likes change, well at least most folks. Parishioners generally don't like change either. In one vignette in this book Coutts talks about just the small change when he moved the pulpit on Sunday morning caused a ruckus in the congregation. I read that and smiled, been there, done that. Most communities like status quo and stability. Change comes hard. After all Jesus' main message in the gospel is "repent" a word which means change, not many folks wanted to follow. Thankfully some did!

Choosing Change is divided into two major sections:

Introduction to Motivation Theory 

Practice of Motivational Leadership 

While I understand some theory was important for this book I found part one to be less satisfying than part two.

What I really enjoyed about the book however was that Coutts offers many real life examples from his own life as well as stories from other parishes which he weaves throughout his narrative. I also liked that fact that he pauses at times and provides some easy to read bullet points for later re-reading and reference.

Coutts reminds clergy especially that change brings up a lot of anxiety and worry in people. Change is and often can be scary. A long time pastor leaves parish ministry, a parish closes, a parish is aging. All these things can bring up bad feelings in people. Change can also be good too. A small mission parish grows. A parish begins a building program. A young new pastor begins ministry. Change can be exhilarating at times too. Yet Coutts shows us that there are key factors in how communities and individuals change.

Choosing Change is a must read for any newly ordained pastor or parish council/vestry leader.

For more information about Choosing Change click on this link 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Book Review Praying and Believing in Early Christianity

A few years ago I came across a very interesting book by the well known liturgical theologian Robert Taft, SJ. In this book Taft explores the various intersections of early Christian society, culture, and liturgy. He looks for example at the numerous sermons from this period and what they can tell us about the liturgy during that time. I found his work fascinating since it pushed the boundaries of liturgical studies, exploring the other documents that shed light on liturgical development during this period.

So when I saw Prof. Johnson's new book Praying and Believing in Early Christianity (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013) I knew that I had to review it. Johnson is a professor of liturgy at the University of Notre Dame and a pastor in the Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

Praying and Believing is aimed primarily at graduate students in liturgical theology or pastors like me who are interested in the intersection and connection between liturgy and what the liturgy means for the Church today. The book is organized around five major chapters:

Liturgical Praying and the Priority of Grace

Doxology and the Trinity 

Christ and Mary 

Worship and Praxis 

Praying and Believing Together 

Johnson reminds us that our present liturgy did not just fall from the sky but developed over time, layers upon layers of additions, shifts, and changes, yet the important things like the role of the Holy Spirit in our salvation as well as the two natures of Christ and the development of the creedal formulae found their way into the liturgy. Anyone who has attended and participated in an Eastern Orthodox liturgy for example is well aware of the emphasis on the Trinitarian formula Father, Son, and Spirit which is repeated over and over again in the Liturgy. He also draws our attention to the the role of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos in the life of faith. Popular devotion to her began before the time of the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE which was the council that finally affirmed her as "Theotokos" or "God-bearer." Popular devotion to her also inspired the creation of feast days in her honor (her birth, her entrance into the Temple, and her death) found their way into the Church year as well.

Prayer and belief, liturgy and life, they go together. In this fascinating book Johnson shows us exactly how belief and faith, liturgy and life play together in our Sunday worship. Don't let the small size of this book fool you either, while small it deals with large issues which are not just interesting for historical purposes but are necessary for our life of faith.

For more information about Praying and Believing in Early Christianity click here 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Interview about Church and World

If anyone is interested my good friend and a contributor to Church and World interviewed me on his blog Eastern Christian Books. Feel free to click on the link below to read the interview. Thank you Adam for doing this!

To read the interview click here 

To order a copy of Church and World click here 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

New Book Published

Wanted to share the good news about a new essay collection that I recently edited a longtime friend and colleague Father Michael Plekon, a professor of Sociology and Orthodox priest. The essays included reflect Michael's interests such as ecumenism, pastoral ministry, liturgy, and holiness.

Click here to order a copy of Church and World