Preaching is speaking the truth about the word of God. In the Second Edition of McDill’s now classic text, The 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching, the author revises the original text to make it relevant to the next generation of preachers and to the general public interested in the fundamentals of delivering the good news. Just as scripture itself needs to be continually revisited to remain relevant to contemporary believers, so too do Christian commentaries and guides like The 12 Essential Skills. McDill’s primary audience is would-be and aspiring preachers, but anyone, Christian or not, can gain essential wisdom from this text. The 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching is divided into four sections, plus the two prefaces (that of the original edition plus a new preface to the second edition), introduction, conclusion, and appendices. In its entirety, the book is only 300 words, offering a concise overview of the core skills McDill offers as keys to great preaching practice. Conveniently, McDill also sub-divides the book into the titular twelve skills, which are pragmatic and practical rather than philosophical or theological. It is therefore presumed the reader is already engaged in critical analyses, exegeses, and Biblical correspondences to develop the core material for sermons or Bible studies.
A cogent introduction opens the text brilliantly, mentioning basketball great Michael Jordon as well as legendary conductor Itzak Perlman. Anchoring The 12 Essential Skills to popular culture, McDill lays the groundwork for the tone and theme of the text. This is a text geared not for an academic or scholarly audience but for the general public of believers. Mentioning exceptionally talented individuals like Perlman and Jordan means that McDill is going to distinguish between those who are born with innate gifts but who still do need to work hard and practice to perfect their skills. It is on this note that McDill presents the core material of The 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching. Great preaching does start with a calling and perhaps even a gift, but to truly raise the material and elevate the congregation, one needs to hone and develop skills through hard work. Also in the introduction, McDill provides an outline or general overview of what the book contains, as well how to read and get the most from it. McDill points out that he will focus on the well-established key word method of developing sermons, which both Hamilton (1992) and Stockhouse & Crisp (2014) explicate in their similar texts on how to ideally present the New Testament to diverse congregations. McDill also discusses the keynotes of rhetoric in the introduction to The 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching, and notes that the objective in preaching should always be maximizing audience appeal. Finally, McDill tells the reader straight out that the book is about how to prepare an expository (as opposed to narrative or inductive) sermon, and is not about sermons in a sociological or historical sense.
Expository sermons are sermons that communicate the meaning of the primary source, by discovering what the original writers meant and the theological underpinnings of the passage. The text speaks for itself, as the word of God. However, the preacher essentially translates the spiritual essence of each passage for a modern listener. Launching straight away into the twelve essential skills of great preaching, McDill explains the reason why each skill is important, how to cultivate it through systematic practice and hands-on experience, and also how to model sermon delivery after experts. Preaching is a calling, as McDill points out, and it does require skill, but not every preacher has the same delivery. McDill claims, “we are all gifted and can develop the skills appropriate to those gifts,” (p. 6). On that note, the author discusses text analysis in Section One of The 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching, including separate chapters on Diagramming the Text Structure, Noting the Text Details, and Asking Research Questions.
In “Diagramming the Text Structure,” McDill discusses the first essential skill in great preaching, which involves deliberately creating conceptual and mind maps that will be helpful in organizing one’s ideas by visualizing the relationships between various Biblical concepts, themes, motifs, or key words. The author’s approach includes offering stories or anecdotes that deftly illustrate what he means by text diagramming and the problems when preachers omit this essential skill. One requires observational skills throughout the entire process of textual analysis, as well as inductive and deductive reasoning. Expository sermon preparation hinges on the preacher’s ability to carefully analyze, pick apart, scrutinize, digest, and then relate the text. According to McDill, most modern preachers focus too much on deductive reasoning, looking first at the general truths and only thereafter focusing on the particulars. To exercise inductive reasoning and thinking, McDill advises readers to start with the details first and move on from there. By starting with the details, the preacher uses the same type of reasoning that a scientist would (p. 13). Too much deductive reasoning can cause a preacher to overlook critical details that render a text more meaningful. The author concludes this important first chapter with seven reasons why inductive reasoning is an essential skill.
The second essential skill for great preaching is “Noting the Text Details,” which involves a more diligent analysis of the details that might otherwise be ignored or overlooked with a more cursory reading of scripture. Noting the text details follows logically from Chapter One, in which McDill laid the foundation for inductive reasoning methods of textual analysis. McDill points out that noting the details entails practicing the art of deep reading, taking into account inter-textual and contextual variables. This stage is also where the preacher might delve a little into history and culture to show how each detail in the text can pertain as much to the current times as to Biblical times. Instead of basing a sermon on bias or “what we already think we know,” the preacher approaches the text with renewed vigor, fresh eyes, and an open mind (McDill, 2006, p. 14). Noting the text details helps preachers actively avoid biases in their work.
Linked with cultivating the essential skill of noting details is the third skill: “Asking Research Questions.” Like scholars, preachers need to be researchers. They need to spend far more time preparing the sermon than delivering it. The most important aspect of expository sermon preparation is research, which grounds the sermon content in factual evidence from the primary source texts. Whenever possible, the preacher should read numerous theological correspondences and commentaries to see what other authors have said about the passages in question. Through a systematic analysis of the language and historical context, it is more likely the preacher will transform a simply good sermon into a great one. This is also the stage at which the preacher should be conducting serious scholarly research whenever possible, using libraries and online databases to learn about the geography, culture, historical figures, and anything else relevant to the text.
Section Two of The 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching comprises three chapters including skills four, five, and six. Skill four, or chapter four, is “Naming the Text Idea.” Chapter five or skill five is “Bridging from Text to Sermon.” Skill six is “Writing Sermon Divisions.” Taken together, skills four through six are covered under the sectional rubric of Theological Interpretation, Part Two of McDill’s text. One does not need to be a theologian to be a great preacher, but one does need to develop a theological mindset in order to prepare and deliver a proper expository sermon. Theological interpretation begins with the essential skill of naming the text idea. In “Naming the Text Idea,” McDill means searching for the core theme of each text or passage. Doing so requires poring over the text and meditation on its meaning. Only when the meaning has been “unlocked” is it possible to proceed with the rest of sermon development.
Skill five is “Bridging from Text to Sermon.” McDill notes this is one of the pivotal skills because it involves the process of transmitting what has been written in scripture in a way that is unique and meaningful for the congregation. Bridging is what makes no two sermons alike, even when they are about the same themes or passages. Just as there can be multiple bridges across the same river, there are also a potentially infinite variety of bridges between text and sermon. Therefore, McDill offers some methods for how to correctly build an “interpretive bridge,” depending on the content of the text and the intended theme or mood of the sermon. To bridge means carrying the original text’s meaning from one side to another, linking the source text and its contextual variables with the variables that are familiar to the modern hearer.
“Writing Sermon Divisions” is chapter/skill six. Division statements are transitional words and phrases that guide both the source text and the sermon. Just as an effective expository essay contains transitional words and phrases…