Saving Eutychus

Saving_EutychesI should declare my hand on this book. I’ve only met the Irish author, Gary Millar, on one occasion as he and his family sat in front of me at Chappo’s memorial service. I’ve known the Aussie one for over 30 years. Phil and I met at uni, studied theology together, and have partnered together in ministry often over many years. Phil sent me an advanced copy of this book (pdf only – I’m waiting for my published copy!) and invited a review. Here’s a quote from Phil’s email …

If you like it, we’d love a review on macarisms. If you don’t like it, it would be good to just forget you ever saw it 😉

This might sound like a ‘suck up’, but I really did enjoy reading this book! It’s full of wisdom, tried and tested, Biblical, theological and practical. I don’t preach as much these days, but I’m pleased to have been given this book just prior to my next gig. As I prepare this week and next to preach on Matthew 9 and 10, I plan to filter my preparation through the advice of this book.

Saving Eutychus, by Gary Millar and Phil Campbell, grabs it’s title from a popular eclectic blog written by Nathan Campbell. Eutychus was the bloke in Acts 20 who fell asleep, toppled out of the window, and died during a very long sermon by the Apostle Paul. Without criticising Paul, this book is an OH & S workbook to keep sermon listeners alive.

Saving Eutychus doesn’t just mean keeping him awake. It also means doing our best to keep him fresh and alert so he can hear the truth and be saved.  (p15)

The chapter I most needed to read was the opening on prayer. I easily identified with Gary’s temptations to get up and get busy. No time for prayer – there’s too many urgent things to do… like check Facebook, twitter, read the sports results etc. Sad, I know! And I need constant reminding that talking to God about stuff is the most useful thing I could be doing. This chapter encourages us to pray for our preachers. It also encourages preachers to pray that God will work through our words to transform and change people. Even having been struck with cancer, I still have a temptation to self-reliance. I need continual reminding that I might sow, plant, water and weed, but only God gives the growth. These words spoke to my heart:

God doesn’t use people because they are gifted. He uses people (even preachers) because he is gracious. Do we actually believe that? If we do believe it, then we will pray – we will pray before we speak, and we will pray for others before they speak. It’s that simple.  (p21)

The authors want to help us preach faithfully without being boring. This means people being profoundly impacted by what they hear. We should expect to be changed as we hear God’s word preached. In recent times, I’ve heard two words too often when it comes to describing preaching – encouraged and challenged. Now, there’s nothing wrong with these two responses to preaching, but God’s word promises to do so much more. Gary writes: I want to be challenged, humbled, corrected, excited, moved, strengthened, overawed, corrected, shaped, stretched and propelled out into the world a different person. (p27) In short, we want preaching that changes people.

The key to heart-changing preaching is not about tricks of emotional manipulation. It’s about letting God’s message come clearly through the sermon. The Bible is the life-giving, transforming, re-creating word from God. So the preacher can do no better than to let God speak. It’s not up to us to come up with a message. We simply need to put in the hard work to grasp God’s message and then let him speak. Don’t get in the way of what God has to say. This is what expository preaching is all about.

Phil has been banging a drum for a long time now. Clarity, clarity, clarity! It’s so important. If there’s a bushfire approaching your home, then you want the warning to be clear. If you’re taking potent drugs for a serious illness, then you want the labelling to be clear. If you have a message of life for all eternity, then you want the preaching to be clear. It matters! Saving Eutychus gives us a top ten list for making our preaching clearer and it’s good stuff.

  1. The more you say, the less people will remember
  2. Make the ‘big idea’ shape everything you say
  3. Choose the shortest, most ordinary words you can
  4. Use shorter sentences
  5. Forget everything your English teacher taught you
  6. Am I repeating myself?
  7. Translate narratives into present tense
  8. The six-million-dollar secret of illustrating
  9. People love to hear about people
  10. Work towards your key text

Not all these headings are self-explanatory, but together they offer great tips on making things clearer. Many good communicators tend to do these things instinctively. They’re the building blocks of clarity, especially with the spoken word. If you’re starting out as a preacher, or if you suspect that you’re not keeping people’s attention during your talks, then take the time to work through each of these points.

I’d say the big idea of this book is discovering the big idea of the Bible passage. If you don’t understand what the passage is saying, then you’ll simply pass on your confusion and ignorance. Hard work is required. Interrogate the Bible text until you’re clear on the big idea. What does it mean? What’s it saying? What does this have to do with me? If we can’t answer these questions, then we have no right preaching… yet. There’s more work to be done.

big_ideaPhil is a high-tech computer geek, but when it comes to working out the big idea, he goes old school. Strictly pen and paper. Write out the text, work out the logic, create a visual map of the argument, note repetitions, connections, links, and jot down questions to be explored. This takes time, but its rewards are great. You get it in your head to mull over and over during the week. Visual learners are able to see what’s happening. This exercise goes a long way to uncovering the big idea. And once you’ve got that idea, then you can start working out how it applies in the light of the gospel. Application is the goal, but you need to get there via the text, and that takes time.

Both authors are concerned that we produce gospel-shaped sermons. Gary writes: Just about the worst thing that can happen when we finish preaching is that someone will walk out the door of the church buoyed by their own resolve to try harder. (p77) The preacher’s role is to be faithful to the Bible in pointing people to Jesus. This means reading backwards and forwards. Things happened to others in the past that have been recorded for us in the present. I read the Bible as a Gentile not a Jew. This has big implications for how I relate to the Old Testament. I’m also a human being (yes!) and that puts me on common ground with Adam and everyone after him. It’s all about reading the Scriptures with wisdom and care, seeing how things progress towards and climax in Jesus. This book offers some good advice on preaching in a way that is shaped by the big idea of the Bible.

Saving Eutychus also includes practical tips for delivery. Varying pace, volume and pitch helps keep the listeners awake and engaged. How do you know where to put the emphases? Again, the answer is the same. It needs to be shaped by the big idea. If you’re clear on what you want to communicate, then you’re much more likely to communicate clearly!

In the last couple of chapters and the appendix we get to read a couple of sermons by the authors. These are run of the mill Sunday sermons. Phil shares the what and the why of his preparation and we get to see him putting his ideas into practice. Gary and Phil both critique each other, offering helpful insights and feedback at different points. It’s useful to see this modelled and to be offered a framework for providing feedback. They provide a sermon feedback form that can be used to invite feedback on our sermons, or to train others in preaching. When it comes to feedback, I agree with the authors that feedforward is preferable. It’s better to be able to improve the talk before you go live, than to wish you’d changed it afterwards.

So… I want a real copy of this book! I’ll be recommending it to the preachers in our church and networks. I’ll be encouraging those training to give Bible talks to work carefully through this book. I’ll be suggesting they listen to some recordings of the authors to see how they model what they teach. I’ll be critiquing my own preparation and talks in the light of the wisdom here.

But just one question… in a book that says to choose the shortest, most ordinary words you can… what’s with the “illocutionary effect”? Really!!

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