A review by Wayne Geiger.
In October 2019, I was privileged to receive a complementary copy of Dr. Jason Allen’s book, Letters to My Students: On Preaching. Dr. Allen is the president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, an associate professor for preaching and pastoral ministry, and is the author or editor of several books. He regularly posts essays at jasonkallen.com and hosts a weekly podcast, “Preaching and Preachers.”
Dr. Allen, who was greatly influenced by Charles Spurgeon’s, Lectures to My Students, writes in a similar fashion and purpose—to help other preachers. The content for Dr. Allen’s book emerged, not only from decades of research and practice, but also from his interactions with a multitude of pastors and students on a regular basis. Often, pastors and students would ask Dr. Allen questions about preachers and preaching. This book was written to answer those questions.
Allen’s book is divided into three sections: (1) Preparing to be a Preacher, (2) Preparing Your Sermon, and (3) Growing in Your Preaching.
In Section One, Dr. Allen targets the preacher himself. He discusses the critical nature of what it means to be a preacher, called of God, to perform a supernatural task through the power of the Holy Spirit. He provides solid, biblical direction and asks pointed questions of the preacher to validate his calling and ensure his total dependence upon Christ. He also challenges the preacher to construct a sermon that is built upon an expository study of God’s Word and then to faithfully and passionately proclaim the Word.
Notable Quotes from Section One:
A minister can serve the church in a thousand ways, but one responsibility is indispensable and nonnegotiable—to preach and teach the Word of God (8).
Preaching and teaching God’s Word have a way of stripping us all bare; they expose us and put our gifting—or lack therefore—on public display. You can’t finesse your way through a sermon with polished appearance, warm people skills, or seminary credentials alone (19).
Two key ingredients must be present in faithful preaching: the study of the Word and the proclamation of the Word (23).
In Section Two, Dr. Allen’s concentration is focused upon the mechanics of developing the sermon structure. The structure of the sermon must be a mirror of the text. God’s word is holy, timeless, and relevant to all generations. Any outline that does not accurately reflect the text is likely a departure from the text. Therefore, the wise preacher will spend more time in the text than in the Thesaurus. He offers clear, concise, and step-by-step advice on how the preacher can bridge the gap between the text and culture to ensure the faithfulness of Scripture and properly exalt the Christ of Scripture.
Notable Quotes from Section Two:
Interpretation is the preacher’s main work. If the sermon is going to have scriptural power, it must first have scriptural truth (66).
You should desire the introduction to be so compelling that if you were to stop speaking after introducing the sermon, your listeners would insist that you resume it (77).
Aim to inform the mind, impact the heart, and challenge the will (85).
We must settle for nothing less than preaching that which is muscular in biblical content, courageous in delivery, and Christ centered in focus (88).
In Section Three, Dr. Allen focuses his attention on the process of growing as a preacher. Offering time-tested advice, he discusses if and when to engage in cultural concerns, preaching the gospel with conviction and passion, the difference between faithfully proclaiming the text and just ranting, and some helpful and necessary questions that every preacher must continually ask himself before standing in the pulpit and proclaiming the Word. He reminds the seasoned preacher that he is always striving, yet never truly arriving, and must continually and passionately seek to exalt Christ in his life and in his ministry of the Word.
Notable quotes from Section Three:
To preach is to call for a verdict—to press the truth of God onto the lives of your hearers—and it is impossible to do that without using the word you…. a time comes when the sermon must transition from the third-person-plural we to the second-person-plural you. Too much we and us hollows out the sermon, gutting its full force (104, emphasis original).
If you haven’t invited, you haven’t preached. If you haven’t persuaded, you haven’t preached. If you haven’t begged, you haven’t preached. You may have lectured, led an inductive Bible study, or presented an insightful exposition, but to be a preacher is to be a pleader, a persuader, a beggar (130).
For every ounce of passion in the preacher’s voice, there should be a pound of compassion in his soul (137)
Dr. Allen’s book is not meant to be a textbook or handbook on preaching. There are numerous books on the market already. Rather, his book answers questions that pastors and students are asking—oftentimes after reading textbooks on the mechanics of preaching. Dr. Allen’s words are personal, impactful, and adequate for the seasoned preacher or for one considering the pastorate.
Like all preachers, I vividly remember my first sermon. It was in 1988 in a small church in Ocala Florida. I knew God had called me to preach, but I had no theological or rhetorical training and had no one to mentor me. My text was merely a jumping off place for pithy statements that I had picked up over the years from radio preachers and bumper stickers. A simple, straightforward book like this would have been a tremendous help as I prepared my first sermon. I wish I would have read this book before I began my journey and highly recommend it to you and those you know who have been called and entrusted to proclaim the sacred Word of God.