Roger E. Van Harn. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992.162 pages. $14.95 (hardcover).
The sermon is a most amazing and curious entity says author Van Harn, one that preachers and laypeople alike tend to have strong ideas about. But many of our perceptions of the sermon are unbib-lical and off target.
Preachers, Van Harn notes, often think that if they prepare a sermon based on careful study and exegesis of the text, the congregation will gladly welcome their words. But they need to do more. Central to the author's premise is Paul's statement: "Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:12 NIV). Van Harn asserts that the pulpit was made for the pew and not the reverse. Therefore, those who are entrusted with the preaching task must listen before speaking.
These foundational principles give birth to twelve "pew rights" that any sermon listener should be able to expect. Among them are the following: the preacher is first a listener; the Word is addressed to our deepest needs; we can realize the connectedness of any given text to God's story; we should be able to interpret life through the lens of God's story; the Scripture speaks through and about our cultural setting; and the faith of the church is alive and able to speak to us today about life in our world.
The author passionately insists upon a partnership between pulpit and pew. Sermons should not be spoken to a congregation; rather, they should be heard together with the people of God. Van Harn writes: 'A sermon is not the possession or product of an elite few; it is the responsibility and privilege of the whole church" (p. 142).
While the book is written for those who hear, recognized primarily as the parishioner, it is equally valid for preachers. In fact, this book should be required reading for all who seek to communicate the Scriptures, whether through preaching or teaching. This work would find a welcome place in both adult classes and preacher's lectionary study groups.
The strength of this practical book is that Van Harn, the pastor of a Christian Reformed Church, is himself a regular preacher. He understands the importance of listening and has created a fresh and highly readable work. While there are numerous gems interspersed throughout, one of the constructive suggestions is a plan for sermon evaluation. His approach would prove beneficial to both preachers and listeners.
I believe the constructive concepts of this book could have been strengthened by an awareness of and interaction with Eugene Peterson's discussion of Scripture in his book Working the Angles. There he unfolds the principles of contemplative exegesis that mirror the earlier wisdom of Ignatian meditation as a means of listening to the Word. Indeed there are a number of very beneficial parallels between Peterson and Van Harn.
But that is not to diminish the quality of this commendable book. Pew Rights will certainly inspire and challenge preachers and encourage parishioners to engage in a greater dialogical relationship with the sermons they hear each week.