Learning from Giants
Learning from Giants
An interview with Kevin A. Miller
PreachingToday.com: Whenever I hear great preaching, part of me wants to imitate what I hear, because it's good and it affects me deeply. But then people say the only way you're going to be the preacher you were meant to be is to be yourself. So there's this tension. How do we learn from outstanding preachers and still be ourselves?
Kevin Miller: That question is one I've wrestled with over the years, and I've come up with some principles that have been helpful to me.
The first principle is counterintuitive, and that is, don't apply what you first notice in a great preacher. That is because what you first notice in a great preacher is his strongest gift.
For example, when I listen to John Ortberg, I am awed by his sense of comic timing. The guy has an ability to deliver the punch line at just the right moment. Or I listen to Haddon Robinson. Haddon has these incredible hands. He uses his hands better than anybody I've seen in preaching. They're perfectly timed and apt. Or Tim Keller. He's got these subtle, nuanced, intellectual distinctions, and when I hear him I think, I want to preach like that.
We all have these kinds of responses to great preaching, but you don't want to apply that first thing you notice about the great preacher. You don't want to look at their greatest gift, because you don't have a gift that great — at least I don't in those three cases I gave — so I want to look not at their charisma but at their craftsmanship.
Something that you can duplicate.
Right. I don't want to ask, What is their amazing gift? because I may not have that. I want to look at their craftsmanship: How do they achieve a good effect?
I'll give you an illustration. Over the years I've listened to many sermons by Bill Hybels, and one of the first things I notice is his great passion. He's a jet-fuel drinking, high octane, intense person, which comes through in his preaching to great effect. That is Bill's charisma. That's one of the gifts he brings as a preacher, but I don't have that same kind of temperament. I'm intense, but not to that level of intensity, so I can't apply that to me. But here's what I can apply. One craftsmanship technique Bill does well is that in the first five minutes or so of the sermon he will convince you why you absolutely must listen to this sermon. This topic is of such importance that you cannot afford to ignore it. This is for you and will affect your life. So he spends a lot of time at the beginning of a message setting up the importance of the topic.
Which leads to passion both on his part and our part.
Anybody can do that.
I could do that, even though I don't have the same level of intensity in my temperament as Bill does. For example, recently I taught on forgiveness. And rather than launching into the subject and assuming people knew how important it is, I said:
Forgiveness is one of the most important topics in the Christian life. If you do not learn how to forgive, you will become a bitter person. You will become swallowed by anger. You will become self-absorbed. You will damage your relationship with God. But if you learn how to forgive and you courageously make the choice to forgive, you will become a more gracious person. You will become a person of life and joy. You will become the kind of person other people long to be around, and you will become the kind of person God can use. Would you like to learn how to forgive this morning?
I essentially said: " This is such a critical topic, you must listen to it. You cannot afford not to listen to it. " All of a sudden I have added passion to my message, I've added a level of intensity, and I learned that from Bill Hybels. I can't imitate his charisma, but I can learn from his craftsmanship.
So the first thing is, don't apply what first jumps out at you as their great strength.
Right, because you'll try to apply their unique charisma, which is rarely achievable.
What's the second way we can profit from great preachers?
Rather than borrow everything they do or reject everything they do, you want to ask, How much could I adopt certain approaches to preaching from them? The way you know how much you can adopt is to ask yourself one question: If I do this, will I feel good about it and will my people feel good about it?
Not long ago on Preaching Today audio we had a wonderful sermon by E. K. Bailey in which he took on the role of the prophet Hosea. And he went into a burst of rhetorical fireworks that was absolutely amazing. It went something like this:
What concord hath the prophet and the prostitute? What unity can there be between the sacred and the secular? What intercourse can there be between purity and profanity?
And he was just getting warmed up. He went on from there to have at least three more of these alliterative contrasts between the holy and the unholy. I was moved. I could feel the impact of that. I loved it, and there was something inside me that said, Oh, if only I could preach like that.
But the truth is that if I got up on Sunday in my congregation and started saying, " What unity is there between the prophet and the prostitute? Between the sacred and the secular? " people would look at me and scratch their heads. They'd say, " What's wrong with him today? Is he trying to show off? " because they know that's not part of my usual style. So even though it works brilliantly for E. K., I couldn't do it and have my people feel comfortable. They'd start to focus more on the technique than on the message. Now — and this is the point — rather than reject that out of hand and say, I could never use anything from that, I ask, What amount of this could I adopt and still feel good about it and have my people feel good about it?
I'll tell you how much in my particular example I could adopt. I'm preaching this Sunday on the parable of the persistent widow from Luke 18. I want to adopt from E. K. Bailey a certain amount of the power of alliteration, so I'm going to use in that sermon the phrase " the power of persistence. " I could go on from there and say something like " the potency of perseverance. " I'm not going to do that, because that wouldn't feel natural to me, but I will use that one alliterative phrase, " the power of persistence. " In addition, I'm going to use a triplet of phrases about the persistent widow in which I will say, " She won't give up. She won't back up. She won't shut up. " I feel comfortable with that amount of rhetoric, and it will work for my people. If I tried to push it beyond that, it wouldn't work.
So we want to have a level of adaptation of approaches that is measured by what feels comfortable to you and is acceptable to your people.
What's the third way we can learn from great preachers?
The third principle deals with knowing how much content you can adapt from great preachers. What kind of content could I borrow or adapt and it would work for me? So my third principle is that you have to know who you are before you can know what content you can adapt.
I have to accept the fact that there are certain types of illustrations I will be able to use effectively, but there are other types of illustrations I will not be able to use effectively. I used to think any preacher could use any type of illustration and it would work. I have since realized that, no, there are certain categories of illustrations I can use with great effectiveness and others I can't.
For example, I cannot tell in an effective way what I call " Johnny stories, " which are these homespun, country stories that involve young boys, dogs, grandpas, moms.
Running around on the farm.
Yes. Now Bob Russell has a warm, folksy approach when he preaches, and he can tell stories like that powerfully. They have this elemental power, this mythic quality to them, and I love it when Bob does it. When I try to do it, it sounds cheesy. It doesn't work for me.
Now I'll tell you types of illustrations that do work well for me. I can use stories out of business well. I can use stories from current events well. So I need to know what illustration types work for me and not try to go far beyond that in adapting or borrowing content from other messages.
Let me give you one more area where this is critical. That is, I need to ask, What kind of tone does this content have as presented by this preacher, and is that consistent with my tone?
Let me give you an illustration of this. I love the way James MacDonald preaches, because he burns with a prophetic flame. He just says it. I remember one sermon he did on repentance that was on Preaching Today audio. He said, " You say to me, 'But, pastor, I've repented over and over, and I haven't changed. How come?' " And MacDonald says, " Because you haven't really repented. If you had truly repented, you'd be different. " He just says it. He gets in your face, and he wins people through this bold, prophetic challenge.
I loved it when I heard him do that, and I thought, I wish I could get up and say it like that, just let it fly. But you know what? If I did that, it would be out of character with my tone. And people would say, " Kevin's a little angry today, " because I have a different tone. I have more of a mercy tone, so I win people less through bold, prophetic challenge and more through an encouraging tone that says, " You can have a lasting change in your temperament and behavior and attitude, and let me show you how. " It's a different approach.
So I've learned from James MacDonald to challenge people and, when you do challenge them, to be bold. But I cannot wholesale adopt his tone; I need to challenge people in a way that fits my tone. So it's challenge with a flavor of mercy. It's challenge infused with practical strategies. So I cannot adopt things without understanding what my tone is.
What's another takeaway from great preachers?
You need to make sure you apply what you want to learn. I will never incorporate another person's craftsmanship or content into my sermon or into my life unless I make it part of my sermon preparation process, because I'll listen to a great tape, I'll think about it, and then I'll forget about it. So I've created a file on my computer that has a preaching checklist. I write in there ideas or strategies I have learned from other preachers. And before I get up and preach, I'll look down that checklist and say, Am I including one clear, simple big idea in this message, or am I trying to do too much? And then I go to the next thing: Am I telling people in the first five minutes of this message why it's important that they listen to this?And I'll include all these different things I've learned from other great preachers. I don't slavishly do everything on my checklist every Sunday, but it's a refresher and a reminder that is now part of my sermon preparation process.
So if you've listened to a great preacher and you say, " I love the way they did this, and I would love it if I could do something like this, " then figure out what that is and write it down somewhere. Maybe put a Post-It note on your computer screen, or put something in the front of your Bible that says, " A reminder. Am I doing this? " If you don't do that, you'll be impressed, but you won't apply it. You need some system or strategy or reminder or checklist so that you'll make it part of your routine.
That is a great takeaway.
The last thing I want to talk about is the attitude we have as we listen to great preachers. The phrase I use is, " I want never to be satisfied, but I want always to be secure. "
What I mean by that is when I'm 65, 66, 67 and, Lord willing and he tarries, I am still preaching the gospel, I hope I'm still improving. I'm still adding to my checklist. I'm still trying out new things and trying to become more effective. So I never want to be satisfied with the level of preaching skill I'm currently exercising. But I always want to preach from an attitude of security. I know God has given me this level of gifts, and I'm comfortable with that level of giftedness. I am not trying to be somebody I'm not.
Not many people know this, but almost every time I prepare to preach I hit a dark, difficult emotional point where I think, This sermon stinks. This is not coming together. This message is not going to happen. And then it turns into, I'm not sure I'm a good preacher. I don't even know why I'm doing this. There's this doubt and self-criticism. It's a difficult thing for me, and a few times I've asked my daughter, Anne, to pray for me at those moments. I say, " Dad's struggling with the sermon for Sunday. Will you pray for me? " It's happened enough that Anne calls it " Dad's freak-out moments. " She says, " Oh, Dad, you're just having another freak-out moment. Don't worry. It always goes well. "
So recently I was praying about it. I said, " Why, Lord, do I have these freak-out moments? " And I felt like one of the realizations God gave me is that I was still too focused on what people would think of me. Would they like the sermon? Would they respond enthusiastically? Would they be eager to hear me again? And that is not a basis for security in preaching.
As I prayed and meditated about it, I felt like God showed me there are only two pillars upon which you can be secure as a preacher. One is the pillar of obedience. I am preaching because God called me to preach. He commanded me to preach his Word, so if I don't preach the gospel, woe unto me, says Paul. I have to do it. I'm doing it out of obedience. And whether it goes well or badly, I have to preach God's Word, because I have to obey.
The second pillar is confidence that God's Word has a power beyond my own skill level. In Isaiah 55:11 God says: My word will never go forth and come back empty. It will always accomplish what I send it out to do. It's unfailing. My Word has an inherent power to change, shape, affect things. It will always make an impact.
Honestly, the last time I preached it was not a very good sermon. I got into it and realized it wasn't connecting with the congregation. I quickly tried to scramble and condense a lot, leave a lot out. I went to the closing story, which went over not as well as I had hoped. I finished the sermon. Nobody came up to me and said, " Great sermon. " Nobody said, " Boy, that was a powerful message today. " Normally I would have gone down into an emotional spiral of frustration and doubt and discouragement. Instead I held myself in check and said, Did I preach this sermon out of obedience, because God has called me to preach? Yes. Did I go in with confidence that God's Word will never come back void and that it will accomplish what God sent it out to do? Yes. And you know what? I walked away free. I didn't rehash that message. I didn't beat myself up with recriminations or doubt. I felt a freedom and a lightness in the Spirit. It was a security.
So whenever I look at other great preachers and think , Boy, they preach so wonderfully, and it would be great to preach like that, I never want to lose my security. I never want to be satisfied, I want to grow, but I always want to be secure.
So we compare ourselves with others in a way that is constructive rather than destructive.
Yes. It's liberating to be able to learn from them without the insecurity of, Why don't I preach better? And instead, if I can learn from them from a position of security , then I can learn from these people with a tremendous sense of liberation. I can rejoice in their great giftedness. It's greater than mine. It's probably greater than mine will ever be. But that doesn't mean I can't freely and securely learn from them and grow.
This article is a transcript of the Preaching Today audio workshop #231. To order this Preaching Today audiotape, e-mail your request to store@ChristianityToday.com.