Podcast Episode 27 | 14 min
Preaching Jesus at Street Level
Communicating deep theological truths in a way that people can meet the Lord.
Matt Woodley: This is Matt Woodley, with Monday Morning Preacher, where we talk about all facets of preaching and how we can all keep growing as preachers. I’m here today with our very special guest host, Daniel Fusco. Daniel is the lead pastor of Crossroads Community Church which has campuses in Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon. Daniel is married to his wife, Lynn. He has three children, a crazy dog, and lives in southwest Washington. Daniel, it’s great to have you on our podcast today.
Daniel Fusco: Matt, great to be with you, bro.
MW: Daniel’s written a lot for us. He’s also the author of the book, Upward, Inward, and Outward, a new book from NavPress. Daniel, we like to start with our guest host by getting a little bit behind the scenes and talking about their personal life. So when and how did you feel like God called you to be a preacher?
DF: I didn’t grow up in the church at all. I grew up in the northeast, all kind of Italian, a non-Christian Catholic family. I became kind of an agnostic in my early teens. I was pretty much a hedonist. At the end of my college career I went to Rutgers University in New Jersey. Really started to struggle with questions of spirituality, ended up reading the Bible. It was the last spiritual book I wanted and read and got radically saved.
I was pursuing a career in music at the time and as I started reading the Word, I got plugged into a great Bible-teaching church and God really did a work in my life. I really started to sense, what I would call now, a holy dissatisfaction with the journey that my life was on and I felt that God called me into the pastoral ministry. I had a lot of people saying, “Hey, you’re going to make a great pastor.” And I was thinking, What are you talking about, I’m just a bass player. God really invited me into it. I always joke with people that I got in the side door of ministry and then they gave me a key so now they’re stuck with me. I went into the pastoral ministry now in the year 2000, so about 17, almost 18 years ago.
MW: You know, Daniel, you’ve written some articles for us at PreachingToday.com, and I love one of the articles you wrote. You describe your approach to preaching this way: “Bringing the real Jesus at street level.” I love that phrase. Can you give us a quick definition of that phrase?
DF: So the idea of preaching Jesus at street level is that the Bible teaches us that Jesus is real and he lives right where we live. He said, “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. I’ll never leave you nor forsake you.” So whatever street level view is for each person, Jesus exists there and part of my journey is that as a preacher we want to learn and we learn a ton of stuff. I love reading and I love theology. I was preaching deeply theological stuff and what happened for me was I was challenged as a young pastor by a number of situations where the people were saying, “Daniel, I know that Jesus is real but what does it mean for me in my real life right where I live where I’m struggling with getting the laundry done or the bills and all that stuff.” So for me, I want to take really amazing theological deep biblical concepts and I want to put them in a way that the average person, who maybe doesn’t even read their Bible, can understand. So the idea of the real Jesus at street level, it’s like it’s really tactile, very personal, and right where we live every day.
MW: I can so relate to that, coming out of seminary, knowing all my exegesis, knowing homiletics, knowing how to put a sermon together. My first church was in Barna, Minnesota, and it’s like none of the stuff I learned at seminary really applied. Can you remember any particular incident when that clicked for you in your life?
DF: At 24 years old I had stepped out to plant a church in my native state of New Jersey. I got saved at the end of college and didn’t really know a lot of believers at all, so it became a real big passion to go back there. I started reading everything I could read and I was kind of apprentice for ministry from within it. I’m reading about homiletics and exegesis, and so very quickly my sermons became not pastoral for God’s glory and for the people, but it became an exercise in me working out my chops, so to speak, in these areas. In this young church plant there was a woman—I thought that she was a single mom for the first year that she was at the church—but came to realize that she was married, her husband was completely detached, drinking a lot, they were barely making their bills, and I was literally going into the pulpit with a Greek New Testament as I’m trying to work my Greek understanding out, and she’s said, “You know, but you’re talking to me about Greek words, I’m just trying to figure out how do I make I through the next day.” And having not grown up in the church I never wanted to do what I call a ministry of maintenance. The church isn’t reaching the lost at all.
So I would start to talk with nonbelievers and I would try and do evangelism and I realized that most of the stuff that I was talking about in the sermons they couldn’t care less about. Not that I’m saying that stuff should be minimized—it’s super important because it’s biblical—but it wasn’t answering questions that the average person was asking. I was answering questions that theologians and scholars were asking, and I had a whole congregation of people who weren’t those people. I thought, Oh, I’m out of touch a little bit with where people are living and is Jesus out of touch with where people are living. And then I thought, No, he’s intimately acquainted with where people are living. The word became flesh and dwelt among us. “Jesus moved all the way into the neighborhood,” as Eugene Petersen says in The Message. So I really started a journey to preach deep theology in a way that is actually scratching the itches of where people are living. Because if we don’t scratch their itch, they’re going to find somewhere else to get that itch scratched and it won’t be a biblical response most of the time.
MW: That’s great. I know for me it’s tempting to sound learned, like I’m smart, like I’m impressive. And I’ve read your stuff, so I know you are not saying skip on exegesis, I know you’re not saying that. You’re a huge fan of exegesis. You call it “Bible Nerd Land”; get into your Bible nerd land, get geeked-out over the Greek, get all into it. So walk us through. How do you balance the exegesis with this application at street-level that gets really practical?
DF: You said it. I love theology nerd land. I think as pastors we need to live there. But in biblical communication, the Bible is the content. We are the communicators, we are the biblical theology nerds, and we should be. But the people we’re conveying this message to are not. There’s nothing worse than us being theology nerds and none of it lands.
On my end of things, I do very stringent biblical exegesis. I start all of my prep times with the text, outlining it, breaking it open. What’s the big idea, what’s the subordinate understanding, map the whole thing out. Then I get all the way into theology nerd land where I am doing word searches and I’m reading commentaries and I’m reading supplemental stuff. I go totally crazy because I love that and that’s my job. Then I need to take these very deep, sometimes convoluted things, and I need to think, Now, how does an 85-year-old factory worker who’s retired and comes to Crossroads, how does he hear this and what does this mean for his life? And what does it mean for a mom who literally is just trying to make it through every day because she’s got three little kids at home. How does this also minister to somebody who is a nonbeliever who we’re going to give an altar call at church, we want them to get saved. And how does it also minister to our founding pastor, Dr. Bill Ritchie, who’s got a Ph.D., who founded Crossroads 40 years ago, has been in ministry for over 50 years. I have all these different kind of groups of people who I’m trying to minister to, so I try and take time in the sermons for some of you have been walking with Jesus for a long time, and this is what they may need to get out of this. For some of you who don’t even believe in Jesus, and you don’t like the fact these five things I just said, but let me explain to you why. I do apologetics for that group of people.
I always use the analogy that as pastors, not only are we chefs preparing a fine meal, but we’re also waiters who placed the meal before people and in some ways we’re caretakers, where our job is to give them bites. The prime rib of what I do in my prep time for a lot of people, they’re going to choke on that. So I need to be a pastor and I need to love the people enough until I want everyone to get something. My job is not just to give them steak, my job is actually to feed them the steak and to feed them bites. Still deep, still nutritious, but we need to distill these things down so that the common person who heard Jesus gladly in this generation can hear gladly.
MW: John Wesley, one of my heroes of the preaching realm, talked about plain truth for plain people. I know you’re not saying to dumb it down. But the best writers, some of my favorite writers, whether it’s science, psychology, or theology, have a gift for taking really complex stuff and making it really accessible. So it sounds like you are saying do your exegetical work in your study, but then do your application in the coffee shop. Do you literally go to a coffee shop, or is that a metaphor? What do you mean by that?
DF: So the idea is to do your exegesis and your Book work in your study because it’s Book work, and you need quiet and you need to hear the still, small voice of God. You need to parse all that stuff out. If you think about it, doctors don’t do surgery in a public place. They do it in an operating room with only the most necessary people there. So we need to do that, because if we do the Book work wrong then we’re really going to mess people up.
So the idea of doing your application in the coffee shop, for me a coffee shop is a classic third place in our communities. A cross-section of your community goes there. So what I’ll do is whether I go there physically, and I still do but I don’t really get a lot of work done when I do it. But it reminds me of what are people like. Like, when somebody walks in—maybe I watch a dad and their teenager come on in and get frappucinos or whatever. I start thinking to myself, So what does this text mean to the teenager. You get somebody who is maybe retired and they’re sitting there reading the paper. I begin to think, What does this text mean to that person. And what it does is it takes me out of my own head and the great cloud of witnesses that I’ve been studying, and it makes me think about the text. For me I want to make sure that I’m applying the text to them in a way that makes sense to them; taking deep biblical and theological truths and expressing them in a way that people can meet with the Lord in a powerful way. But it does take a lot of work because I have to get outside of myself. But it’s a necessary challenge that we have to take to bring glory to the Lord in the work of ministry.
MW: You know, Daniel, as you’re talking to me I think it’s really about loving your people and letting that filter into your preaching. It’s not a technique, it’s how you live, it’s your affection as a pastor.
DF: Absolutely! I think what happens is when we learn the academics of preaching we want to bring the academics academically into the local congregation. Where, actually, the academics is a means to the end of being pastors. Every time the Bible is opened at Crossroads, I want people to be shepherded by the Good Shepherd, and if I’m doing a good job as an under shepherd of Jesus then I’m helping them apply these things to their relationship with God, as outlined in my book Upward, Inward and Outward. Wanting to apply it to their relationship with God, returning to God his love. I want them to apply it to the way they view themselves through the lens of the Cross, and then I want them to apply it to the way they live out into the world as they love other people. I don’t just want to be a teacher and I don’t want to just be a teacher of teachers. I really want to help Jesus in shepherding his flock. So it’s deeply pastoral for me.
MW: Upward, Inward, and Outward, title of your book and maybe a theme for a podcast. Okay, Daniel, I’ve got one more question for you. What is your biggest struggle as a preacher?
DF: Unequivocally, I am my biggest struggle as a preacher. It’s me personally. I mean, God’s Word is perfect. It’s awesome. It has everything we need for life and godliness. It’s infallible, it’s got no issues, it’s perfect. And God is amazing and he’s perfect, and I am a total train wreck. So I always feel like I’m at the beginning. There’s not a sermon that I’ve preached that I feel think, Yeah, I actually did the text justice, I did the glory of God justice. I feel like I could study my whole life for one sermon and not even crack the surface of what that passage is saying. So trying to let Jesus lead me, to get out of my own head, and really let Jesus dictate. So getting over myself is hands-down my biggest struggle.
MW: Thanks for your honesty. I like what Haddon Robinson used to say: “There are no great preachers, there’s just a great Savior.” So that’s a great way to end. Well, Daniel, thanks so much for being with us. I really enjoyed talking to you and you’ve been a blessing to other preachers so thanks for being here.
DF: And Matt, thank you to you and Andrew and everyone at Preaching Today. Super blessed by it, growing through it, and happy to be a small part of it.
MW: Well, thank you. So the new book, Upward, Inward, Outward by NavPress. Pick it up. This is Matt Woodley with Monday Morning Preacher at PreachingToday.com.
Daniel Fusco is the Lead Pastor of Crossroads Community Church in Vancouver, WA.