Book Review: How Sermons Work by David Murray

how-sermons-workA number of years ago, I was listening to a really great preacher on my iPod and I remembered thinking, “How did he do that?”

That fascination led me to start trying to figure out how to preach and a big part of that (along with reading some terrific books) was getting help from a good friend who mentored me in this area for about 2 years.

But not every budding or wanna-be preacher has that opportunity. That’s where David Murray’s recently released book, How Sermons Work, is so helpful. In this short book, Murray offers a practical explanation of the mechanics of preparing and preaching a sermon.

Right out of the gate, Murray aims to properly position the work of preaching in the minds of readers.

“Some people seem to think that pastors ‘receive’ their messages direct from God. They imagine some mysterious process by which the pastor just ‘gets’ a sermon. That is too high a view of preaching. It views preachers more like angels than ordinary mortals,” he writes. “Others think that a pastor just spends the week relaxing, gets up on a Sunday, and says the first thing that comes into his mind with little or no forethought or planning. That is too low a view of preaching. Anyone with a bit of verbal fluency could do it. . . . Like all pastoral labour, it involves head, heart and hand.”

This is something that many of us really need to be reminded of, regardless of our experience in (or affinity for) preaching. Preaching is hard work and it’s heart work. And the two are inseparable. This is perhaps where the books really shines. Murray is unrelenting in reminding the reader of the work it takes to preach well and to the glory of God. Preaching is not standing up and sharing whatever insights come to mind and tying them back to a series of scattered verses, nor is it explaining what a text means without also explaining what to do with it.

Preaching is hard work and Murray believes much of the reason that there’s so much bad preaching today is sheer laziness. Citing Jay Adams:

My point is that good preaching demands hard work. From listening to sermons and talking to hundreds of preachers about preaching, I am convinced that the basic reason for poor preaching is the failure to spend adequate time and energy in preparation. Many preachers — perhaps most — simply don’t work long enough on their sermons.

Adams’ assessment should rightly convict and challenge all of us who preach and desire to. Who among us hasn’t been tempted to cut corners in preparing a message? How many have been tempted to put in a minimal amount of effort because certain aspects of preparation come naturally to them?

On this point, among the most challenging chapters of this book for me were those on application. Because the “so what” doesn’t always come naturally to me (in the same way that introductions don’t), it’s sometimes tempting for me to either look for a lazy application or to draw something out that might be there, but only if you’re reaching. But, Murray writes, “Preachers must not draw applications from the accidental, incidental, or coincidental parts of a passage, but from its essentials alone.”

My big takeaway on this point? Spend far more time prayerfully considering how the text can be applied from what is plainly there. Don’t reach beyond what exists in the text or spend more time than I ought on an incidental; just apply what’s there for all to see.

For someone like me who has a tendency to fixate on little details, this is really important. I still remember one of the worst sermons I preached was one on a passage in Colossians where I kept trying to bring out and apply basically EVERYTHING from the text instead of focusing on one key point. What could have been a good message ended up being a bit of a mess, feeling more like a lecture than a sermon.

Structurally, some readers will enjoy How Sermons Work more than others; those looking for a thorough treatment of the discipline of preaching will probably be a bit frustrated as there is much ground left uncovered (for example, to the best of my recollection, there’s no explicit definition of what preaching is; it’s left assumed). There are other books for that, which handle the subject tremendously well (such as Preach by Dever and Gilbert, and Preaching and Preachers by Lloyd-Jones, among others). But, as the title suggests, Murray’s book isn’t about the 30,000 foot view of proclamational ministry—it’s about the work to be done in the trenches. And in that regard, this book stands head and shoulders above many.

This book ought to be required reading for every young man in your church who expresses a desire to preach. If you’re someone at all interested in preaching, let Murray’s eminently practical advice equip you to do this important work well, to God’s glory and to His people’s joy.


Title: How Sermons Work
Author: David Murray
Publisher: EP Publishing (2011)