McDill, Wayne. The 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1994. 290 pp.
With a desire to provide a “skills development approach” for training in the art and science of preaching, Dr. Wayne McDill pens a volume that aims to “identify and strengthen the specific skills needed for more effective sermon preparation” (ix). McDill serves as professor of preaching at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He has over forty years of experience as a pastor, denominational leader, and a teacher of homiletics and is the author of numerous books, including Evangelism in a Tangled World, Becoming Who You Are, Making Friends for Christ, and The Message.
McDill contends that there are twelve essential skills to help preachers provide more and better content in their sermons. While he observes that God calls and His preachers, we have the responsibility to develop these specific skills through “discipline, hard work, and a commitment to clear thinking and Bible-based sermons” (15). He notes that:
This book is designed with a self-improvement format, a do-it-yourself approach which will let you concentrate on your own skills, at your own pace, and in the areas you see need to be strengthened (7).
McDill presents the first skill for great preaching in that the preacher must “get the text in view” by way of observation (17). With this skill, he desires to “recogniz[e] and not[e] details in the wording of the text and their significance for its meaning” through the means of structural diagramming via inductive Bible study (43). The second skill is “seeing what is there [through] recognizing and noting details in the wording of the text and their significance in the meaning (42).
The next skill is in “asking the right questions … for the best research to interpret the writer’s meaning” — also known as hermeneutics (59, 61). The challenge here lies in trying to know what someone’s intentions are when they are so far removed by historical, literary, and theological distance (63-64). One these questions are answered, the preacher moves to the next step which is “naming the textual idea” (80). Here, the preacher discovers “the writer’s idea in the text and designat[es] it with precise terminology” (83). Once accomplished, the next step is to touch human needs by “tracing from theological concepts in the text to corresponding needs in contemporary hearers” (102).
After this step is executed in the interpretation stages, the time comes to bridge from text to sermon (121) followed by the writing of the sermon divisions which “clearly state the teachings of the text on its subject” (139). Next is the step of planning the sermon design which determines “the arrangement of sermon materials for the most effective communication” (159) followed by the development of sermon ideas which will aid in the “understanding, acceptance, and response of the hearer” (182). The next step in this area of understanding and acceptance is in “exploring natural analogies … for illustrating sermon ideas” for, as McDill notes, “a concept does not impact our thinking unless we can see it” (203). Along this line of thinking, the next skill deals with “drawing pictures, telling stories” in an imaginative and creative way to bring biblical and contemporary stories to life in the mind of the listener (223).
Finally, the culminates all the steps thus far into this final step which aims to “[conform] every aspect of sermon design to the aim of a faith response in the hearer” (244) for it is the “only appropriate response to God and His Word” (258).
As stated earlier, McDill’s purpose in writing this book consists of “identify[ing] and strengthen[ing] the specific skills needed for more effective sermon preparation” (ix). By focusing on the content of the sermon, he succeeds for the most part in making a user-friendly volume that deserves a place on every pastor’s bookshelf.
What immediately strikes the reader’s cursory glance of this work is the layout. McDill deserves praise for achieving his goal of presenting a “self-improvement format [and] a do-it-yourself approach” (7). Each chapter contains a sentence that clearly and succinctly tells the “skill [McDill hopes] to develop with this exercise” (83). Each chapter also contains easily identifiable headings and subheadings, a box or boxes containing key definitions, guidelines for each exercise, a chapter summary, study questions, and examples of how to implement each exercise. He helps the preacher in his studies who is pressed for time. McDill’s layout allows the preacher a quick reference guide as needed.
Another appealing aspect of this work is its practical nature. This is not a theoretical book on homiletical philosophy but a basic ‘how-to’ manual for preachers to work their own pace (11). He notes that “just because you think you understand something doesn’t mean you can do it. Practice is the only way to master a skill, even in sermon preparation” (4). McDill takes the preacher step-by-step through each of the skills he presents. As mentioned just previously, each chapter contains a segment guiding the reader through an exercise for each skill (32, 52, 73, 90, 114, 131, 146, 171, 193, 215, 235, 257). In these segments, the author certainly practices what he preaches in that not only does he tell the reader what each skill entails, he also helps the reader apply it step-by-step from the ground up . This portion is so helpful for the young preacher finding himself overwhelmed with the thought of sermon preparation. McDill figuratively takes the young preacher by the hand and guides him carefully through each process.
A highly commended chapter ib this work is Chapter Ten, “Exploring Natural Analogies” (201). A ‘natural analogy’ takes a “relationship, circumstance, event, or other factor” in the natural realm and parallels it with a theological concept (207). McDill notes that an “incarnational (in human form) principle must guide us today as se seek, through preaching, to be channels of God’s ongoing revelation” (203-204). He rightly notes that we must “look for analogies that will help your hearer understand the idea” (211) and are grounded in our respective “arenas of life” (216). This skill is vital in connecting with our contemporary audiences and is the same style of preaching that Jesus often used with the common people with His use of parables, which took a common situation, event, or person’s position and used it to instill a heavenly truth.
Two weaknesses are found in this work. The most noticeable is the title. This reviewer finds the title a bit presumptuous, as if acquiring and applying these twelve skills will automatically make one’s preaching ‘great.’ For McDill, great content equals great preaching and clearly his focus is on fleshing out the content of the Scriptures in “the skills necessary to sermon preparation” (10). The title implies this would be a more comprehensive approach to sermon preparation and delivery in the whole realm of preaching. Instead, he minimizes the effect of delivery in favor of content alone.
The delivery style is not the critical factor in what we recognize as great preaching. Great delivery without effective content is often only “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” On the other hand, striking content is of real interest to the hearer, even if the delivery is weak. (10).
Yet again, the title of the book implies preaching and delivery is part of the preaching process. Plus, the Scriptural accounts of the preachers and prophets indicate that the content and the way they communicated that content was part of the message. The Apostle Paul notes that:
My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:4-5, ESV).
The point here that Paul makes is that content alone does not a message make, but it is how the message crafts the speaker’s heart and thus persuades passionately through the Spirit. McDill seems to miss this point completely. A better title would be “The 12 Essential Skills for Great Sermon Preparation.”
After reading this work in its entirety, I would highly recommend this work to someone looking for a manual on sermon preparation. Even though the title is misleading, once the preacher enters into the contents of the book and sees the helpful way McDill fleshes out these various skills, he will be thankful for having such a wonderful volume in his hands.
I would recommend using this volume as a tune-up to specific areas of your preaching preparation that need work rather than trying to work from the beginning to the end of this book, for that would take a large amount of time. Absorbing this book little-by-little, however, will certainly transform your sermon preparation and your congregation will thank you all the more for this transformation.