I first met Dr. James Earl Massey while working on the Doctor of Ministry degree at the Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. I was struck by Dr. Massey’s wisdom, his godly character, and his pulpit acumen, all of which have endeared Dr. Massey to his colleagues and many students throughout his storied ministry. I recently had the opportunity to return to Dr. Massey’s ministry when I was asked to lead a preaching cohort for some Arkansas Baptist church plants. When asked to choose a text I immediately thought of Dr. Massey’s wonderful volume, Stewards of the Story: The Task of Preaching, comprised of lectures Massey delivered in 2004 at Beeson for their William E. Conger Jr. Lectures on Biblical Preaching. I remember listening to these lectures when first delivered but being able to revisit them and to read them carefully has been a true blessing indeed. The volume is comprised of five chapters on the task of preaching and six chapters consisting of Dr. Massey’s sermons.
This is a slender volume but it presents the reader with a cogent, compelling, biblical, and powerfully articulated philosophy of preaching. The overriding image is that of “steward,” which Massey defines as “someone who oversees, administers, [and] manages, under a commissioning trust that authorizes them to do so” (1). That of which the preacher is a steward is “the story,” by which Massey means the gospel. Massey argues that the stewardship to which we have been called and commissioned makes certain demands on our lives.
Since this commissioning trust was committed not only to Paul and successive generations of Christian preachers but also to us, our concern should be to live and labor honorably as “good stewards”…Being called a “steward” is not enough; one must be a steward. It is not enough to be called a preacher; one must be a preacher. And the true preacher, Paul tells us, honors the commission from God to handle and herald the divine “mysteries,” the startling, saving, sustaining truths of the gospel. Stewards are highly privileged persons. (7)
Massey next turns to the stewardship of reciting, which Massey defines as “a mode of address that engages hearers through telling about something, calling attention to some event, and interpreting that event so that the telling influences the hearer’s belief and action.” (12) This act of reciting involves how we present the story and Massey says that this presentation “can be as varied and multiform as the Scriptures themselves.” (15) Massey interestingly argues that Protestant preaching has become particularly enslaved to logical propositions in its presentations. Such does not honor the various genres and styles one finds in the Bible itself. The content of our recital must be the content of scriptures, but particularly the cross of Christ: “The center of our recital is the event of the cross dying on a cross.” (20)
Massey turns next to the issue of rhetoric. Even here, Massey’s primary concern is not with style per se but with radical fidelity to the text of scripture. One might say that the thread that runs throughout Massey’s book is faithfulness to scripture leading to a clear presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet presentation matters. “The biblical word is given to us,” writes Massey, “but we must structure the sermon by which the textual message can be stated and applied to the lives of those who hear us.” (14)
Chapter 4 is entitled “The Steward and Ritual.” By “ritual,” a word that has primarily negative connotations among Evangelicals, Massey points to the following:
- “preaching is an authorized activity”
- preaching and “sacred texts”
- preaching and architectural spaces (i.e., sanctuaries) that have “ritualistic import” (35-37)
These are undeniable aspects of preaching, and the ritualistic dynamic of these components needs to be considered, but Massey hastens to add that while “preaching involves ritual” it involves “something more than ritual.” (38) It involves the power of the story of which we are stewards, a power that must transform the life of the preacher who actually believes it is true and who yields himself to the full implications of its contents.
My favorite chapter was the last, “The Steward and Reality,” in which Massey drives home once again the fact that the preacher must believe the story is real and must reach people in their reality. Preaching, that is, must be real proclamation of a real story by a real preacher to real people in the midst of real life. In stressing this, Massey undercuts preaching as mere show or mere rhetoric. We must preach about God in the exact same way that Jesus did, that is, as “the first of all facts.” (42) I think I appreciated this chapter so much and found it so very convicting because there is so much posturing in modern ministry and there is a powerful temptation facing all ministers to do so: to pretend to be more than what we are, to be fake, to be inauthentic. Massey’s stress on reality is sorely need in our day of ministry in which image is threatening to eclipse content and character.
This is a powerful book. It is not a meat-and-potatoes “how to” manual. It is better than that. It is a book that will leave the reader with a high sense of the great importance of preaching and will remind all who read it that our’s is a sacred stewardship indeed.