Saving Eutychus: How to Preach God’s Word and Keep People Awake, by Gary Millar and Phil Campbell. Kingsford, Australia: Matthias Media, 2013, 171 pages, $16.99, paper.
“Preaching is hard work” (7). We who preach know the truth of this sentence all too well. Preaching in a way that is both faithful and fresh, week after week, is an exercise that requires our diligence in applying all of God’s resources. While many of us reading this review are likely faithfully preaching sound doctrine, we can probably all agree that preaching in a way that is fresh or interesting is arduous and sometimes daunting. It is here that the book is most challenging and most helpful.
As the name intimates, Presbyterian co-authors Gary Millar and Phil Campbell want to save Eutychus. That is, they don’t want any more people to fall asleep during sermons, and they certainly don’t want those people to fall out of windows and die. While some of us in the Reformed community may be tempted to tune out the book at this point, we all should listen closely to what the authors have to say. These men have not produced another book in a long line of publications describing pragmatic techniques and methods for entertaining and satisfying itching ears. These men are committed to a biblical and Reformed theology of homiletics but have a belief that “preaching should never bore people to death” (8). Furthermore, instead of blaming the culture or the sinful disposition of our listeners, they are “convinced that when attention wanders and eyes droop, it’s more often our fault than our listeners’ ” (14). This is a challenging word to those of us who are preachers.
At 171 pages, and written in a conversational style, the book is a quick read. The different perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences of two authors blend well and complement one another. Millar and Campbell hit topics that are essential for good preaching and are covered well in many other preaching books: prayer, preaching with purpose, structuring the sermon around a central idea, historical-grammatical and redemptive-historical hermeneutics, good delivery practices, and sermon construction steps. Here, the book is a good summary of sermon basics, and reviewing these principles is a helpful exercise for any preacher. Most notable, and possibly most helpful for those of us in the Reformed community, though, are chapters three and seven. These chapters are a homiletical gold mine. It is here that the book addresses issues that are not as well handled in Christian preaching literature. If each of us committed to implementing the ideas found in these two chapters, many of our current weaknesses as preachers would be strengthened.
Chapter three addresses the question of how we can be less boring and more interesting. Their answer: be clear. Crystal clear. As the authors point out, we have good biblical precedent for desiring to be clear in our preaching. The remainder of the chapter covers ten practices for enhancing clarity. Understanding and employing them will likely be a lifetime struggle for most of us. Instead of pitching them as ten tips for growing your church or making people like our sermons more, the authors remind us that growing in our skill of being clear is growing in faithfulness and stewardship of the gift and opportunity that God has given to us.
Chapter seven emphasizes the importance of seeking out educated, constructive, and honest critique. Many of us would agree with Gary as he writes, “Getting feedback on my preaching is just about the worst thing there is. It’s about as desirable as having pins stuck in my eyes” (111). He goes on to say, “And yet there is probably nothing more important for anyone who teaches the Bible than loving, godly, perceptive criticism” (111). He insightfully diagnoses the motive behind preachers’ resistance to feedback: sin. The remainder of the chapter lays out ideas for gathering helpful feedback both before and after sermons. Here, ruling and teaching elders need to pay special attention. Ruling elders have the duty of guarding the teaching of Scripture in the visible church as well as the privilege of encouraging and helping the teaching elder become a more effective preacher. If each session carefully and humbly implemented chapter seven in a quarterly or yearly session meeting, much godly fruit could result. Those of us who are preachers need to admit, though, that it is up to us to ask for the feedback on a regular basis from people we trust. We would do well to create a system of loving, honest feedback to spur us on to better preaching.
There are a few weaknesses to the book, including an uncritical use of video clips and slides. Here, the authors would be well advised to consult the wise warnings of others with a background in Christian media ecology. Thankfully, they never promote these practices as means of making a sermon more interesting. Some may disagree with their insistence on shorter sermons (in the twenty five minute range), but we would do well to at least consider their point.
Overall, the book is a humble, informed, biblical, and straightforward preaching tune-up book. I plan to read it at least once a year for the foreseeable future. It’s that good. I highly recommend it to teaching elders, ruling elders, elders’ wives, and any Christian who is interested in being a better listener to sermons and more educated and effective encourager of preachers.
Mark Debowski is an ordained minister and a member of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church in Manchester, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant Online September-October 2014.