Christopher Ash, The Priority of Preaching (Ross-shire: Focus, 2010). 122 pages.
Christopher Ash is the director of the Cornhill Training Center, an author, and most importantly a preacher. Like his other books (e.g. Teaching Romans and Out of the Storm: Grappling with God in the Book of Job), The Priority of Preaching comes from the overflow of his preaching ministry. In fact, it is a book on preaching that began as three sermons on preaching given at the 2008 Evangelical Ministry Assembly in London. His writing is pithy and prophetic, and like his two books on marriage (Marrige: Sex in the Service of God and Married for God)—which are the two bests book I have read on the subject—The Priority of Preaching is saturated with biblical wisdom about preaching.
Ash addresses his book to ‘discouraged preachers.’ He shares his own experience from a preacher’s conference where the cumulative effect of listening to ‘impressive’ speakers with ‘strategic’ ministries resulted in homiletic malaise—surely not the intention of the conference. Fearing such an effect, he writes, “This little book is for ordinary pastors who preach regularly to ordinary people in ordinary places, who may dream of being world-renowned [i.e. impressive and strategic] but are going to be spared that fate” (12). Consequently, his book takes the focus away from striving as a preacher and puts it on God and his unstoppable word. The result is a compelling book that will motivate preachers with the authority, urgency, and power of God’s “world-mending” word.
In the first chapter, Ash cites Deuteronomy 18:9-22 to develop the authority of God’s word in preaching. In particular, he draws attention to YHWH’s words to Moses about the prophet who is to come. He postulates how “little talkative Christianity” gets a bad rap for being a religion of vain words, and yet he reminds us that God himself speaks in the proclaimed word. He emphasizes the role of the prophet and traces this office from the OT to the NT, making appropriate covenantal shifts—a hermeneutical maneuver which is too often mishandled. He insists that when the preacher opens his mouth, it is not man’s voice that is heard, it is God’s. When Scripture is being rightly divided and richly proclaimed, God’s authority is present in the voice of the preacher. He contrasts preaching with other forms of delivery and argues that preaching is the means by which God’s authority is best manifested among God’s people (p. 35-38). Men and women must learn to sit ‘under’ God’s word. He balances this high view of authority with the humbling truth that the preacher’s authority is borrowed authority, and therefore it prompts assiduous study of God’s word, to rightly convey God’s message.
Appealing to Deuteronomy 30:11-20 in his chapter on the urgency of preaching, Ash argues that preaching should ‘grip’ the preacher and the hearer. Ash considers four themes from Moses’ final sermon: (1) the reality of God, (2) the stubbornness of sin, (3) the urgency of faith, and (4) the wonder of grace. Ash takes a meditative look at each of these elements and makes compelling applications. As Moses preached, the theme of “Today” constantly resurfaced (cf. Deut. 30:15, 16, 18, 19). Ash applies this to mean that there was an urgency in his preaching, and that every time the authoritative word of God is proclaimed, there should be truth and clarity, of course, but also urgency and passion. At the same time, it must leave the hearer with a sense of grace, not just duty. The preached word must point people to Christ, even as Moses did (p. 71).
The third chapter is by far the best. Ash begins by interpreting Israel’s assembly at Sinai as prototypical for all future assemblies; he then develops the relationship between the preached word and the gathering of God’s people. He points out that God is in the business of gathering a people and that in the Old Testament Israel is defined by the assembly, all gathered together at God’s chosen place.Moving to the canonical horizon, Ash canvases the entire Scripture to show how false worship leads to scattering and how God promise to reassemble the world begins with Israel in OT and leads to the church in the NT.
It should be noted that unlike some biblical theologies, Ash does not fall into the trap of making an end run around Jesus. He plants Christ in the middle of this assembly line, a process that necessarily involves the preached word of Christ. Today, the church consists of “scattered gatherings” (p. 89). He explains how the scattering of the church is not a ‘curse,’ but part of God’s design to reassemble the world, because in each local assembly, the preached word draws sinners into the assembly of the redeemed.
In Ash’s view, the assembly is non-negotiable. Preaching is not simply the conveyance of information, something that could be done through books, radio, television, iPods, or the Internet. Instead, the people of God are marked out as those who assemble to hear God’s word. In other words, God’s preached word ‘constructs’ God’s church. This conception of assembly has wide-reaching implications, which is what makes this chapter so powerful. Ash himself applies it to the demographic makeup of churches; it has natural implications for the multi-site phenomenon; and it also indicates how God intends to reconcile all things (Col 1:20). This is how he concludes,
God’s strategy for rebuilding a broken world is to create dispersed assemblies shaped by his word of grace. And those dispersed assemblies, straddling divisions of race, class, and culture, and linked with other assemblies all over the world, will be his instruments to bring forgiveness, healing, and new life under Christ. What you and I do this Sunday, weak and irrelevant thought it may seem, is how a broken world will be reassembled (p. 106).
In the end, The Priority of Preaching is a solid book throughout that finishes with an incredible vision of what preaching is meant to do. It makes the preacher lament with Paul: “Who is sufficient for these things?” But it also holds high the ineffable reality that God uses the foolishness of preaching to accomplish his redemptive purposes.
As for its use, the book would be excellent for young preachers and veteran pulpiteers, especially those “discouraged” saints laboring in the Lord’s vineyard with little observable fruit. For anyone counseling a would-be preacher who is ‘considering the call,’ this little book would be an excellent encouragement. It could also serve pastoral associations by giving them a resource to study that would look less at the homiletic craft, and more at the unstoppable word of Christ. In an age where technology, technique, and other innovative ways to communicate are perceived to be pragmatic saviors for the church, The Priority of Preaching convincingly argues that the world will be won by preaching, and not by anything else. So for that reason, it is a book worthy of preacher’s attention.