Review: The Six Deadly Sins of Preaching

April 11th, 2012

Thirteen years after they teamed up for their first book, communications expert Robert Reid and preaching instructor Lucy Lind Hogan once again tackle the subject of preaching and rhetoric. This time, they focus on how to be a responsible witness to the gospel.

Rather than attempt a comprehensive examination of the ethics of preaching, Reid and Hogan frame a more limited argument around things that are accepted across virtually all preaching traditions. They identify the vices that tempt preachers into irresponsible preaching, and the corresponding virtues that lead to responsibility.

The authors develop their list of vices and virtues based on two biblical criteria: reliability and faithfulness. The former is trustworthiness or believability, being true in the eyes of the listeners. The latter is remaining true to the gospel itself.

Reid and Hogan combine these categories with rhetorical standards of ethos (persona/credibility), pathos (emotive appeal), and logos (reason). In order to be responsible transmitters of the gospel, preachers must display virtue in each category in the resulting typology.

All too often, however, preachers fall into one of the deadly sins, many times in ways that are hidden from the preachers themselves. A lack of reliability to the listeners brings about plagiarism, greed, and exploitation. Lack of faithfulness to the gospel leads to self-absorption, trendiness, and self-righteousness. (Read an excerpt from the book on Ministry Matters.)

The first several chapters of The Six Deadly Sins of Preaching expand on the typology set forth in the opening chapter. They offer specific examples of preachers who have fallen into these traps, from unnamed pastors of childhood memory to evangelical icons like Jimmy Swaggart. Rather than simply wag their fingers at these fallen preachers, Reid and Hogan try to present the mistakes—both personal and cultural—that led to their demise.

Each vice, however, also suggests a virtue: authenticity, humility, care-fullness, passion, courtesy, and faithful revelation of God. Each chapter also elucidates one of these virtues, proposing how preachers should practice the virtue and what positive impact it may have on their preaching ministry.

Chapter 8 turns form the mortal to the venial. It identifies common preaching missteps, lesser mistakes in which the preacher gives in to the temptation to do something he knows is amiss. When these missteps are allowed to become habits, however, they can lead to irresponsible preaching. Examples include unnecessarily provoking or confusing the listeners, as well as using illustrations that are out of touch or out of context. 

The Six Deadly Sins of Preaching is only marginally concerned with craft and technique. What matters to the authors is the integrity of the preacher, and how that integrity is reflected in the pulpit. They encourage discipline and self-reflection to go along with the careful nurture of virtue. Preachers at any stage of their careers will find Reid and Hogan’s offering helpful as they reflect on their role as communicators of the gospel.

Robert Reid is Head of the Communications Department at Dubuque University in Iowa, as well as an ordained American Baptist minister. Dr. Lucy Lind Hogan is a long-time preaching and worship professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

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