Mary S. Hulst. A Little Handbook for Preachers: Ten Practical Ways to a Better Sermon by Sunday. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2016. See here to purchase the book.
Mary Hulst is a college chaplain and has been a professor of preaching and a senior pastor. As the title indicates, this book is about how preachers can prepare and preach better sermons.
Hulst discusses how preachers can research for their sermons, in terms of both Bible study and also looking for anecdotes. She talks about the content of sermons: how to encourage people to act in light of God’s work and grace rather than coming across as a nagging parent, and how to organize the sermon so that it makes clear, applicable points that stay in the minds of listeners, without creating information-overload. Hulst supports preaching about what the biblical passage meant in its original context, yet she also wants the sermon to preach Christ. Hulst stresses the importance of pastors getting to know people in their congregation, which is relevant to what content to include in sermons: to know why the people like the TV shows that they like, for example (i.e., what needs or desires are those TV shows meeting?), and to know what questions the people are asking in light of their own experiences. Effective delivery of sermons is another topic in this book, and this includes eye-contact, gestures, and the use of props. Hulst also offers advice on interpersonal issues, such as dealing with feedback, including from one’s spouse. In addition, she deals with thorny issues, such as whether a pastor should ever preach somebody else’s sermon, say, one from the Internet.
There are many positives to this book. It is grace-filled. It is honest, vulnerable, and empathetic, in that Hulst understands why pastors can be sensitive about feedback on their sermons. It has stories, which effectively illustrate the points that Hulst makes. It is highly practical and specific. As one who has preached his share of wandering sermons that have information-overload, I found her reference to Paul Scott Wilson’s Four Pages of the Sermon to be especially helpful: a well-ordered sermon can identify the trouble or need that is discussed in the biblical passage and a similar trouble or need today, then say what God was doing then in response to that trouble or need in the biblical passage, and what God is doing now. Such an approach can help a preacher to focus and organize his or her research about the biblical text, allowing the sermon to make a point rather than becoming aimlessly antiquarian or going on tangents. Hulst provides examples on how to execute this approach, using Psalm 84 and James 1:19-27 as her texts. Hulst’s book also has an annotated bibliography, in which she tells readers the books that she has found helpful and says why she found them helpful.
In terms of critiques, a lot of Hulst’s advice presumes that the pastors reading this book are pastors of small or medium-sized congregations: the types in which the pastor knows a lot of the people there, and they know the pastor. Her advice would be helpful for pastors of such congregations, but she should also have addressed whether, or how, similar principles can be applied by pastors of large churches, or megachurches.
There was an area in which I somewhat agreed with Hulst, and somewhat disagreed with her. Hulst is largely against pastors preaching a lot about themselves. She astutely notes that not everyone in the congregation is in the same place or has the same background as the pastor: some are younger, some are older, some have a different marital status, etc.
On page 167, Hulst discourages pastors from telling personal anecdotes that make themselves look stupid or prone to anger, since people need them to be pastors, “someone who appears to love God and follow him well…” She goes on to say: “If the story is gently self-deprecating, humble and allows you to give testimony to God’s work in your life, you’re probably fine.”
Personally, I prefer sermons in which pastors are honest about their struggles and vulnerabilities, in which they present themselves, not as perfect, but as people on a spiritual path, like many in the congregation. That can comfort people in the congregation that they are not alone. Hulst perhaps should have discussed this further. At the same time, Hulst did well to advise pastors against going too far with this, or doing so in a manner that is counterproductive.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.