Podcast Episode 21 | 13 min
The High Calling of Preaching
Elevate your preaching with these lessons from Haddon Robinson.
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Matt Woodley: Welcome to Monday Morning Preacher. Each episode we look at the high call of what it means to proclaim God’s Word. Today, we have a special guest host, Bryan Wilkerson, from Grace Chapel in Boston. Bryan served for 16 years at a church on Long Island, and then for the past 17 years he’s been at Grace Chapel. Bryan, on your bio on your website it says that you have a Doctor of Ministry from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and you are also a frequent contributor to PreachingToday.com. We like to see that on your bio.
Bryan Wilkerson: Happy to be a part of it.
MW: Yeah, thanks for putting that in there. We love your stuff and we really like you as a preacher, and your approach to preaching. So, we wanted to talk to you a little bit today about the high call of preaching, what it means to be a preacher of God’s Word. Bryan, just a little background on you, when did God first capture your heart with the beauty and high calling of preaching?
BW: That’s a great question, Matt. I grew up in a preacher’s home for a few years. When I was young, my father was pastoring a little country church. So I do think those early years of hearing my father preach made an impression on me, even though he didn’t stay in the ministry in that capacity. Later on, I grew up under a wonderful Bible teacher, Dr. Leslie Flynn, but I still don’t think I fully appreciated it. It was really my freshman year at Wheaton College. I went to the closest church I could walk to, Wheaton Bible Church, and I remember sitting way towards the back of that gigantic sanctuary. Pastor Chris Lyons, the Senior Pastor, was way down front. I could hardly see him. Yet, week by week he ministered to me. I remember marveling at the fact that I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me, we had never had a conversation, and yet week by week God was speaking to me through him. I could also sense that he was leading this huge church from that pulpit, and that made an impression on me. I wasn’t planning on being a preacher at that point, but I remember thinking that is a powerful medium.
MW: That’s a great story, Bryan, and I think for a lot of preachers that are listening to this, sometimes we don’t know the impact we are having on people’s lives, so that’s a real encouragement. Both of us have been deeply influenced by a master preacher who has been for decades the mentor and grandfather of PreachingToday.com—Dr. Haddon Robinson. Haddon passed away recently so we’ve been thinking about him and talking about him a lot around the office here and on the site. Bryan, you told me recently that Haddon elevated preaching to what you call an art form. You said that you didn’t just listen to Haddon Robinson’s sermon, you experienced it. What did you mean by that, and what did you learn from that?
BW: Within about 90 seconds of a Haddon Robinson sermon, everything else faded away. You weren’t looking at your watch anymore, you weren’t looking at the people around you, you weren’t daydreaming about what you were going to have for lunch, or anything like that. His words, his facial expression, his body language, the compelling logic, the narrative movement captured your imagination and you were lost in that place, wrestling with or discovering some biblical truth that was finding its way to your soul. When the sermon finished you would look up and think, Well, wait, where am I? It’s like waking up from a dream and realizing that something powerful has happened to you.
MW: Yeah, I first heard Haddon as a new Christian at Edina Baptist Church in Edina, Minnesota. The preacher there was a guy named Dr. Bob Ricker who had a great influence on my call to preaching. Haddon, I had no idea who he was, I had no context for him, but I was captivated. I don’t remember the exact text, but I remember the gravitas of this guy in the pulpit. That sounds really amazing, but it could maybe sound kind of lofty to the average preacher. Let’s talk to those preachers. What steps could these preachers take to elevating preaching to an art form like Haddon did?
BW: The first thing, and one of the things that Haddon impressed upon us was you have to put in the time, and it’s 20 hours a week. It just is. I’ve been doing this for 30 years now, and it still takes me 20 hours a week and I try to give it the best 20 hours of my week and I’ve done that at small, medium, and large churches. It’s as hard as ever to find 20 hours a week, but I think you’ve got to put in the time.
A second thought would be the discipline of manuscripting your sermon. If you’re not in the custom and the habit of that, it can feel stiff and I’m not necessarily saying you have to bring that manuscript into the pulpit if that’s not your style. But the discipline of choosing your words, of crafting a sentence, of moving from one argument to another will sharpen your preaching and make it much more powerful.
A third thought, would be to at least once in a while step out from behind that pulpit, lectern, high top table, or whatever it is you preach from, and walk away from your notes. Look people in the eye, and say what God has put on your heart, and trust yourself to do it. Even if you can’t do it for your whole sermon, do it a few times in the course of a sermon and it’s powerful.
MW: That is great stuff. So you’ve been preaching for 33 years. I would imagine some preachers out there are thinking, It’s going to get easier, I’m going to cut 20 hours to six or seven or eight. But that hasn’t happened for you.
BW: It has not happened. It is just as gut-wrenching and difficult. I don’t panic as much as I did in my early years. Eventually the panic begins to fade most weeks.
MW: So if you’re going to elevate your preaching there are no shortcuts?
BW: There really are not. It’s hard work.
MW: Thanks for the good news! Both of us were schooled on a very simple and clear and I think freeing and revolutionary concept that Haddon had called “The Big Idea” in biblical preaching. We devoted a whole podcast to that because I think it’s so important and it’s helped my preaching so much, and a lot of other preachers I coach. How do you use that concept in your sermon prep every week?
BW: Well, that certainly becomes the driving, guiding force of the sermon, so right from the get-go I’m working on that big idea. Now, I may be working on it and crafting it right up until I step up in front of the people, to try to sharpen it. This focuses on what am I talking about and what am I saying about what I’m talking about. I’ve got to get that into a sentence. I’ll write that sentence at the top of my note pages, I’ll write it at the top of my manuscript and the discipline of thinking, Is everything I’m saying connected to that particular idea or not? If it’s not, it’s got to go.
The other thing that the big idea does, it not only disciplines your thoughts, for me it stimulates my creativity. We tend to think the more wide open we are, the more creative ideas we’ll have, and it’s the opposite. The sharper, the more focused your idea, the better you’re able to think of illustrations, quotes, movie clips, or whatever it is that’s going to bring your sermon to life.
MW: That’s a really good point. A little counterintuitive, but I’ve found that to be absolutely true. This is your sermon day and you’re taking time to talk to us, and you’re preaching this Sunday. Do you have the big idea yet or not?
BW: I’m getting to the big idea, yeah, I’ve pretty much got it. I’ve got a start on it anyway.
MW: Okay. You want to share it with us?
BW: Alright, I’ll do what I’ve got so far. I’m introducing a series on Ecclesiastes so my big idea is, “If under the sun is all there is, it will never be enough. But if God is there, that changes everything.” Now, at this point that’s two sentences, so I’m going to try to condense that into one sentence, but that’s sort of it.
MW: Haddon would be a big fan of one sentence, right?
BW: That’s exactly right.
MW: And you can’t use any conjunctions like “And,” right? So I’ve got mine for this Sunday, or actually a week from Sunday. Because I don’t preach near as much as you do, but I’m preaching on Proverbs, especially the passages about ministering to the poor and speaking out for those who have no voice. So my big idea is, “Seize opportunities to bring God’s shalom into broken places.”
BW: That works.
MW: Yeah, I’m feeling pretty good about that. You know, I’ve talked to a lot of people who sat under Haddon when he was a preaching professor, and they tell some kind of wild stories about Haddon. His bluntness, his sense of humor.
BW: It’s true. He was brutal. He would say anything, he would stop you in the middle and get up from his seat and say, “No, no, no, no, no, stop. Where are you going, where are you taking us, why are you doing that?” It was difficult. What was worse was when you took an advanced preaching class and you did a video review of your sermon. You had to sit in a little booth with him and watch your whole sermon while he critiqued it. It’s hard enough to watch your own sermon, but to watch it with Haddon sitting next to you, it was root canal.
MW: What did you learn from that? Just that level of honesty and obviously growing as a preacher really mattered.
BW: It really mattered. More important than being nice to each other, was that we be excellent. So it kind of drove that value for me and now for the preachers that I coach and mentor. We have to tell ourselves, and each other, the truth about our preaching.
MW: Yeah, we’re really big on the lifelong growth of the preacher. I ardently believe that I can be a better preacher a year from now and anyone who is following Jesus and is called to preach God’s Word can grow a little bit every year as a preacher. So what did Haddon teach you about growing as a preacher?
BW: That simple concept of making it your magnificent obsession, your lifelong pursuit. I had the blessing really of sitting under Haddon a couple of times as a young seminarian, just getting started, and then 25 or so years later doing a D.Min. at Gordon-Conwell, I got to sit under him again. Some of it was very familiar, just as powerful, and yet he had new stuff to bring to me 25 years later.
I also had a wonderful opportunity recently. Haddon actually retired in the same community my parents are at, and I visited him a couple of months ago. He was sitting in a reclining chair, and obviously having a hard time speaking and communicating, but we had a really nice visit. He asked me what I was preaching on. So I said, “Well, I’m doing a series on Colossians.” He says to me, “What’s your angle on Colossians, how are you handling the material?” Now, here he is, 80-something years old and he wants to talk shop with a preacher. That kind of passion, I’ll never outlive that.
MW: That’s a great moving story. Bryan, anything else for our preachers out there? Lessons that you come back to in your sermon prep and your sermon that you learned from Haddon?
BW: One would certainly be the importance of tension. Haddon said once people know what you’re going to say, the sermon is over. So don’t give away the store at the beginning of your sermon, keep some tension there, keep some unresolved questions.
A second little trick he taught us was to imagine someone in the congregation at any point in our sermon standing up and shouting out, “What difference does this make?” That haunts me, that question. Not saving it until the last two minutes of your sermon to get the application, but at any point along the way to imagine someone saying, “Why should I be paying attention right now?” It makes for good preaching, I think.
MW: Oh man, that stirs me. I’m going to think about that next time I preach. That’s great. Bryan, thanks so much for being with us. This has been some great content. We appreciate you, we appreciate your commitment to the craft of preaching.
BW: My pleasure. It’s always fun to talk shop.
MW: Preachers, I encourage you, somewhere along the way find a mentor, find somebody that inspires you in your preaching. Somebody that when you grow up as a preacher you want to be like that person.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.