Featured Reviews

Samuel Wells – How to Preach [Feature Review]

How to PreachA Wellspring for the Working Preacher

A Feature Review of

How to Preach: Times, Seasons, Texts and Contexts
Samuel Wells

Paperback: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2023

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Reviewed by Joel Wentz

I am a preacher who loves the act of preaching. Though at times it feels like a grueling treadmill, I continue to love the rhythm of immersing myself in a text, studying its context and artistry within the biblical canon, learning about the culture in which it was composed, connecting its wisdom to our current cultural setting, and preparing to deliver some sort of proclamation about God and salvation to a community of people that I share life with, week after week. While I believe the centrality of the sermon can be a bit over-played in certain ecclesial settings (particularly the low-church evangelicalism with which I am most familiar), I also know that my own journey of faith and discipleship has been indelibly impacted by specific sermons that God used to awaken me to a new awareness of grace, love, compassion, or to provoke me to genuine repentance and greater desire to more faithfully follow Christ. 

So I’ve personally come to believe that the sermon as a work can be placed somewhere, mysteriously, between the poles of “art” and “craft–” that evaluating a sermon as “good” or “bad” is notoriously difficult (On the grounds of technique? Or style? Or theological comprehensiveness? Or creativity? Or relevance? etc.)– but nevertheless, thoughtful, well-constructed, faithful and confident sermons play a vital role in the life of a community of disciples.

All that to say, my relationship with so-called “homiletics” books is quite complicated. Having gone through seminary instruction, even as someone who absolutely loves to read and study, working through books about the act of preaching simply have not benefited my own ability to preach nearly as much as, well, preaching. There’s nothing that can replace the experience of standing in front of a community of people you know and love, delivering a prepared message, wrestling together with the implications of it, receiving feedback from those who heard it, and getting up again to do it the next week, for honing and improving your preaching ability. So it is for these reasons that I tend to approach books on preaching with a bit of a judgmental squint (if I approach these books at all). Yet, my general respect for Samuel Wells, and the compelling way in which his new book, aptly titled How to Preach, was constructed, intrigued me enough to read through it.


Thankfully, How to Preach, is unlike any other book on the subject I’ve read.

First, this is not a book primarily about technique. Nor is it a systematic approach. Rather than being constructed as a step-by-step handbook, logically walking the reader through methods of exegesis and homiletical construction, Wells has compiled dozens of actual sermons delivered over the course of his career, grouped them under certain chapter topics, and interspersed between them bits of advice and reflections from a lifetime of preaching.

The unit headings range from “times” (cultural phenomena like “politics” or “war”); “seasons” (from each section of the traditional church calendar: Advent, Lent, Pentecost, etc.); “texts” (biblical genres like Old Testament poetry, parables, Paul); or “contexts” (specific settings like funerals, weddings or baptisms). Within each specific chapter, Wells frames up the theme at hand, provides an example of a sermon he actually delivered in a specific time and place (usually with a few relevant comments on that setting), offers a numbered list of discrete pieces of advice for preaching as it relates to the chapter’s theme, and finally gives another sermon or two to flesh out the advice provided. It’s a no-nonsense, completely clear way to build a book about preaching, and shockingly, unlike anything I’ve read on the subject.

The result is a bit like having hours of conversation with someone who can pull on a wealth of career experience in the field. Nothing is overly academic or inscrutable, and given the repeated use of actual delivered sermons, always returns to practical takeaways and pointers for the aspiring preacher. Some may find this approach too workmanlike, or wish it dove more deeply into the nuances of theological pedagogy, or the philosophy of sermon-giving, but for many, perhaps most, working preachers the more-practical tone and easy-to-reference structure will be more than helpful.

It is also worth noting in this review that Well’s skill with language is striking, both in the sermons themselves, but also in his sparking pieces of advice (occasionally laced with a delightful barb or humor or sarcasm). For example, “There’s a quasi-holy approach in some styles of preaching that seems to believe that lament for the follies and complexities of our current age is a form of faithfulness to the Gospel” (18). Or more seriously, “Every sermon . . . has to redefine freedom away from the assumptions made by those who believe its definition belongs to them” (30, emphasis added). The reader will also stumble upon poignant phrases and paragraphs, such as the following description of heaven from the middle of an Advent sermon,

“If we want to imagine heaven, we don’t need to picture clouds and harps and wings. We must simply envision what it would be like if all in history that has been wasted, ruined, lost or excluded were brought back into the story and allowed to flourish. Jesus’ ministry embodied and inaugurated the kingdom of God because it did both of these things: it depicted and modelled heavenly relationships and it reintegrated those who were rejected and lost” (84, emphasis added).

Preachers reading such passages will be struck both by joy, at the stirring reminder of how sermonic language can call forth beauty, and also jealousy, at wishing they themselves had put these words together in these ways. But Wells’s service to preachers is in compiling so much hard-won wisdom and experience into one readable and easily-referenceable volume. This book is a true gift for the working preacher.

It feels fitting to conclude this review with my favorite passage of Wells’s advice to preachers today,

“You don’t have to shout, you don’t have to exaggerate, become sentimental or manipulative; you simply have to stay with an insight until it turns into revelation. You don’t have to do all the work: the listeners will be more satisfied, and will remember more deeply, if you let them do some of the work themselves. But you do have to trust the process and, often, perhaps every time, allow the Holy Spirit to turn your faltering ‘Who am I?’ into a resolute ‘Send me’ ” (68).

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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