When I was in elementary school and just beginning to read my favorite books typically related to sports. In those early years I gravitated towards books listing the top 10 shortstops, hitters in baseball, NFL rushers, hoop stars, etc. I liked these books because they would assist my 4’3 fifth grade frame become a professional athlete. Now some 20 years later I have long given up my dreams of filling stadiums for the sole purpose of marveling at my athletic prowess. But could God ever use this preacher to fill an athletic stadium and provide the opportunity for gospel preaching? And would I be assisted by a book listing the top 12 (plus the obligatory Jesus chapter) preachers of our day?
Simon Vibert’s Excellence in Preaching is written with the hopes that looking at these twelve men will help
“preachers and their listening congregations have a better sense of why it is that some preachers connect hearers with God, inspiring, encouraging and motivating them to authentic Christian living, and enabling them to leave with a sense that through the preaching they have indeed met with the living Lord.” (13)
Vibert looks at the preaching ministry of Jesus and then twelve contemporary preachers: Tim Keller, John Piper, Vaughan Roberts, Simon Ponsonby, J. John, David Cook, John Ortberg, Nicky Gumbel, Rico Tice, Alistair Begg, Mark Driscoll, and Mark Dever. In each chapter Vibert looks at a couple of sermons and tries to discover “What makes ______ a good communicator”. He then closes up every chapter with a few bulleted points of application for preachers.
There is a positive and helpful aspect to this book and also one that could be relatively dangerous and unhelpful. We will consider the dangerous first.
The dangerous aspect is not one that would catch Vibert off-guard as he seems to acknowledge this danger in a few places throughout the work. With books like this there is always a danger of starting a “guru mentality or a cult following” (13). John Piper (one of the subjects in the book) has written an entire book decrying the professionalism of ministry, entitled Brothers We Are Not Professionals. Vibert’s book toes towards the pitfall of exalting superstar pastors at the expense of the “ordinary week-in, week-out preaching of the local church”. (10)
It has been pointed out before that many preachers that got their start in the 50’s and 60’s are cookie-cutter pastors. The cookie-cutter that seems to be used for these pastors is the Reverend Billy Graham. Some have even commented that these pastors hold their Bible like Rev. Billy and even though said pastor may have never been East of the Mississippi he speaks with a North Carolina accent just like Graham. The danger then in a book like Vibert’s is that young pastors will take a shortcut by merely parroting the skills of successful pastors and thereby undercutting the work of the Spirit and neglecting the labor of honing their own unique giftedness. If used in that way then this book is dangerous and unhelpful.
Having said that I believe that Vibert does an adequate job of lifting up these succesful preachers and humbly considering the things that we can learn. Yes, I wish that an entire chapter was given to dispelling the potential for this danger, but as a whole this book could be very beneficial to young pastors just beginning to preach.
One of the things that Vibert does is list the specific sermon(s) that he analyzed for each chapter. Given the media benefits of our day these sermons are readily accessible. Thus a seasoned pastor could easily use this book as a guide for helping a younger pastor get his feet wet in preaching. They could together listen to the sermons and then come up with their own bullet points and things to learn from the pastor under consideration. Then the two could use Vibert’s chapter as a helpful launching pad for further discussion.
Any pastor (new or seasoned) could benefit from this book, however. I have been preaching for a little over ten years (hardly a veteran) and there was a great deal that I took away from this book. Some things were reminders but there were some things that I had never really considered before that I think can make me a more effective communicator.
Should You Buy It?
If you take to heart the danger inherent in the work then it could be vastly helpful. It is not a theological treatise on preaching nor is it the only preaching manual that you should have in your library. It is, though, widely beneficial. It may even introduce you to the preaching ministry of some men that you have never heard of before. I would suggest it as a helpful addition to any pastor’s library.