Book Review: The Power of Multi-Sensory Preaching and Teaching

The Power of Multisensory Preaching and Teaching

Rick Blackwood, The Power of Multi-Sensory Preaching and Teaching: Increase Attention, Comprehension, and Retention (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 207 pages.

Review by Pastor Nathan, October 2013

Preaching is my passion. I’m always interested in reading a book about preaching. Blackwood’s book, based on his research for an EdD from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, begins with a big promise:

Do you consider yourself a good communicator or a great communicator? If you consider yourself a good communicator, would you like to elevate to great? If you are already a great communicator, would you like to raise the bar to phenomenal? You can! And relax! – it’s not going to complicate your life. (13)

And therein lays the first problem of the book. Blackwood assumes a preacher is essentially a communicator. The basic thesis of the book is that greater effectiveness in attention, comprehension, and retention can be reached if we engage more senses than just the ears (i.e. object lessons, special effects, costumes, video, hands-on interaction, etc…). Many of the insights and suggestions in this book would prove very helpful for leaders of organizations or elementary education majors or even Sunday School teachers. But are preachers the same as communicators?

What is the goal of preaching? Blackwood assumes that the objective of a preacher on a Sunday morning is to produce “doers of the Word.” “They predetermine what a particular text calls the audience to do, and they are obsessed with getting them to do it” (41). I appreciate Blackwood’s desire to keep sermons ‘expository’ in nature; that is, to try to explain and apply a particular text of the Bible. But his version of expository preaching, held by many in conservative evangelical circles, fails to apply a gospel-centered hermeneutic. Though keeping a high view of Scripture he fails to see Christ as the unifying theme and instead focuses on law. It’s just called ‘Life Application.” If the end is activity, the means of multi-sensory communication is justified, as shown in this schema that is found throughout the book:

Verbal clarity + Visual aides + Interaction = Maximum Learning
OR
Hearing + Seeing + Interacting = Increased Learning = Increased Doing

However, the goal of preaching is not learning for doing. The goal of preaching is to produce worshippers. Preaching is different than simply teaching. So instead of people walking away with a new list of things they need to do, they should ultimately walk away with a new appreciation of what Christ has done. The right kind of doing will flow out of that. Preaching is essentially heralding the gospel, which is a report of something that has been accomplished by Christ that can’t be pantomimed. It must be proclaimed… from every text of Scripture.

One of the most influential insights for my theology of preaching came from Tim Keller’s address at the inaugural Gospel Coalition conference in 2007. You can listen to it here. Around 12 minutes in he says this:

Declarative preaching… is irreplaceably central to gospel ministry. Why? If basically we were sending people How To… if we were saying, “Here’s how to live in the right way…” if that’s the primary message, I’m not sure words are always necessarily the best thing to send. You want to send a model. If I was… teaching an advanced seminar on preaching I would make everybody read C.S. Lewis’ Studies in Words… The last chapter is called “At the Fringe of Language.” And he says language can’t do everything. And one of the things he says is that language cannot actually describe complex operations. He says, for example, don’t ask somebody, “Please tell me how to tie a tie.” No, you just show them… If you listen to somebody describe how to tie a tie you’ll be totally lost. On the other hand… to explain to somebody that Joshua Chamberlain, without ammunition, charged down Little Round Top in an incredible, risky adventure at the height of the Battle of Gettysburg and as a result changed the course of history. You don’t show people that necessarily, you tell them that. This is something that happened. You describe it… If you’re going to give them How Tos, very often what you want is modeling and dialogue and action and reflection and so forth. Therefore, if you believe that the gospel is Good News, preaching – declarative preaching, verbally proclaiming – will always be irreplaceably central to what we do. And if you really think that basically the gospel is good advice on how to live a life that sort of changes people… dialogue would be alright or stories and reflection and modeling. That’s more important.

Because our message is the gospel, our method is preaching! And preaching is one-directional, verbal, proclamation based upon the authority of God’s Word. This doesn’t have to be boring. We should seek to communicate with earnestness and vividness and passion, but finally the “boost” to God’s Word, to use Blackwood’s term (83), is not multisensory communication, but the Holy Spirit through prayer, what used to be called ‘unction’.

Some of Blackwood’s examples were helpful and I may even use some of his illustrations in my preaching, while leaving out the props (his comparison of Muhammad Ali fighting George Foreman to Jesus and Satan was actually more powerful on the page than when I went and watched the fight on YouTube). But one of his examples ironically illustrates my concern.

Let me give you an image of what we are doing at Christ Fellowship this weekend. We are teaching through the gospel of Matthew in our weekend services, and tonight we launch a new series called: “WAR: Defeating Temptation.” The series will be a four-part exposition of Matthew 4:1-11, which chronicles the temptations of Christ by Satan. Just a casual glance at this narrative, and you immediately know that this was an all-out war.
The war, however, is not restricted to Satan and God; it is also between Satan and us. Whether we like it or not, Satan has declared war against God’s people, and we are locked into a struggle against him. His goal is to drag us down into sin, destroy our lives, and destroy our testimony. To accomplish his objectives, he deploys a formidable arsenal of temptations.

Our single-minded goal throughout this series is to get people to realize they are at war. Christians must have a “war mindset” when it comes to fighting temptation or they will lose the battles. To etch that reality into their mind, the church campus has been transformed into a war zone. Christ Fellowship has the appearance of a theater of military operations.

Tonight, greeters and ushers will be dressed in military fatigues. Peppered throughout the campus are objects and images of warfare. The stage has been transformed to resemble a war zone. There are military tents and military weapons, and even a military MASH unit…

The sermons will launch with war videos as well as with a cleaned-up version of the 1960s song, “War: What Is It Good For?” To further drive home the truth, Eric Geiger and I will be teaching in military garb. The effect will be instant. People will be drawn into the sermon as soon as they walk onto the campus. The whole campus screams WAR! (92-93)

If he would give the text more than just a casual glance, he would see it in its historical redemptive context and realize that the whole thing screams that Jesus has won the war for us! Jesus is recapitulating Israel and succeeding where they failed! I won’t get into the financial cost of such a production. Nor will I resort to calling such antics silly (although I think they are and I think many others would find them shallow too).

I appreciate Blackwood’s heart for the lost and desire to connect people to the life-changing power of God’s Word. I wish, though, that he would have interacted more with insights from media ecology (i.e. Postman and McLuhan). The move to an image based culture is not necessarily a good or neutral development that the church must go along with. Christians are people of the Word. Images have a checkered biblical history. The medium and the message are not easily separated.

Michael Horton has also been helpful for me. He points out:

[P]roclamation is not meant to be merely a form of intellectual enrichment [it is a powerful means of grace]. Another objection that is sometimes heard is that preaching is too static. We need more visual movement and imagery, dance and drama, video clips, and the like. You may have heard some or even all of these criticisms of the centrality of preaching in the church. And minus the video clips, you would have heard a lot of the same arguments in the medieval church where the mass was theater, with stage, lighting, dramatic exits and entrances, and all the props to dazzle the senses. Yet there was a famine of hearing the words of God – especially the gospel of free justification in Christ alone. The invention of new strategies (“mission creep”) eventually led to the marginalization, perversion, and finally denial of that message that Jesus told us to proclaim to the world. [The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 167-68]

Whenever there has been a genuine revival it has been accompanied by an emphasis on “the right preaching of the Word of God.” Blackwood didn’t really interact with thoughtful philosophical or historical arguments like these that challenge his approach.

The book’s much-hyped final Epilogue seems to say, “If it works, then don’t knock it.” This reflects the pragmatism that reigns in our culture. While a case could be made that it doesn’t really work (after all, we can eventually become numb to anything and need even more stimulation), the positive alternative argument is that we must stick to God’s appointed means, trusting him to work through them. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). As Horton has said elsewhere, “Everything that we possess right now of our salvation has come to us through the ear, not the eye.” We are not called to compete with Disney or MTV. We are called to the simple, counterintuitive task of preaching. I pray that pastors will stick with it amidst the many pressures to get fancy.

“For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1Cor. 1:21).

“My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1Cor. 2:4-5).

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