Words That Transform: Preaching as a Catalyst for Renewal

By: Timothy Lim Teck Ngern
Monday, June 27th, 2011

James T. Flynn. Words That Transform: Preaching as a Catalyst for Renewal. Lanham; University Press of America, 2010.

Flynn presents a compelling case for transformational preaching as a catalyst for renewal in a way unlike a number of dominant publications. In four of eight chapters, he focuses on the primary importance of the preacher’s inner journey towards personal transformation (chs. 1, 3-5), two chapters are dedicated to sermon preparation and preaching techniques (chs. 6-7), one chapter on the incarnational ministry of Jesus (chs. 2), and a concluding chapter on experiences and anecdotal lessons. In a way, this structure reflects Flynn’s own conviction that the most effective preaching occurs in the preacher’s inner life, and only twenty-five percent of the labor reflects the external work of the preacher. Most homiletic literature devotes the weightiest part to the technicalities of preparing sermons. In fact, one can rarely find a chapter on the preacher’s inner life. Perhaps the closest sources to Flynn’s emphasis on transformational preaching are Barbara Lundblad’s Transforming the Stone (2001) and James Lemler’s Transforming Preaching (2010) albeit not in an overarching manner as Flynn’s Words That Transform.

The book presents a realistic vision of transformational preaching ministry. Flynn emphasizes that effective transformational preaching depends on the pastor’s experience of God’s transformative message in his or her own life . This includes the influence of irritation, pressure, pain and life’s setbacks as God’s way to mature and shape the preacher towards genuine transformation in order that a ready preacher may become a conduit of God’s message. He calls this a bitter-sweet journey of a preacher’s life as the personal price of preaching! Preachers wrestle with God in many ways – they serve even amidst their own sinfulness, they sometimes fear that God does not speak to them about the message for each Sunday and that life circumstances and the rigors of the pastoral ministry stand as obstacles in the way of the preacher’s preparation. But still, Flynn affirms the calling and undertakings of those who aspire to the preaching ministry and suggests that if a preacher will be open to God’s voice, then God will always show-up to guide the preacher as to what he or she ought to be saying.In this way preaching becomes the power to change lives, alter destinies, renew minds, bring hope and encouragement and a legacy for future generations.

In light of his theme, Flynn develops a theory of transformative sermon preparation according to which the preacher learns to be sensitive to God’s transformational message for the preacher in the course of the preacher’s daily life, and especially by attending to God’s open book and “dazzling theatre” – creation. Nature and life experiences are after all “powerful teachers of truth” and powerful metaphors and bridge-builders for communicating God’s word in preaching (p.86). In this manner, Flynn discusses healthy components of a preacher’s life that aid in the construction of transforming message. These components include the cultivation of virtues, forgiving attitude, humility, creativity, imagination, rest and rejuvenation. As a process in the crafting of sermons, Flynn recommends that preachers pay attention to the art and science of shaping sermons, giving priority the eyes (focus), skeleton (structure), heart (emotive), joints (transitions/connectives), flesh (multisensory experience in stories, testimonies and metaphors), and muscles (that introduces and drives home the point of the sermon) of a sermon. Throughout his book, Flynn never fails to capture his readers with well-chosen stories, metaphors, ideas, backed-up by words and historical studies presented in simple-formats so as to drive home his points! These should entice anyone to read Flynn’s work seriously since so much content and ideas are packed in a 200-page publication.

In order to articulate a broad and transformative vision of life as the context in which God speaks,Flynn would find some assistance in St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. The discernment of God is grounded in a healthy distinction of life’s possessions from God including those we love and treasure the most so that everything in life and creation are the context by which God speaks! Nonetheless, I wonder if to some degree Flynn has over-extended the transformational dimension of preaching. Just as we do not remember every good meal we have consumed through the years, it is also unlikely that we can expect transformational preaching to occur each week for every participant (even if I assume that all are walking uncompromisingly and are equally desirous, hungry, and zealous of God). In other words, God’s transformational work can also occur in silence and in ways unknown to the consciousness of the preacher and the receiving audience: sometimes even in the most unlikely settings. Although Flynn shows that God works in mysterious ways, he appears to favor the view that transformational preaching is to be expected. But, can we really expect that God’s transformative work is always manifested in tangible ways ? If not, then the conviction Flynn puts forth needs a slight modification: even messages that appears not to be transformational can be transformational as God would direct in ways unknown to the audience and the preacher. Here we would have to probe more deeply in the dimensions that answer what truly qualifies as transformational. The assumption of what counts as transformational really defines how he frames the preaching ministry. This direction may enlarge Flynn’s own project to the many other facets of the pastoral experience. It is time to expand the Renewal perspective on a pneumatologically-open agenda toward other elements of pastoral ministry.

 

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Timothy Lim Teck Ngern
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