PreachingToday.com: Based on your knowledge of preaching in the church today, what are two or three big ideas that you'd like to share with our community of preachers?
Hershael York: A couple of things come to my mind. First, I'm passionate about an approach to preaching that marries solid exegesis with passionate delivery. Frankly, I see preachers today erring in one of two directions and rarely finding the balance. That is, some preachers are grounded in the world of the Bible and committed to the text, but when they preach they're dull and lifeless. They put their people to sleep. On the other hand, there are other preachers who are very creative and passionate and effective communicators, but they are not rooted in the biblical text. I'm seeing both of these extremes. We need to have preachers who marry these two things—a commitment to the biblical text and a commitment to passionate, creative delivery.
Unfortunately, I see a lot of students who are almost afraid of any kind of sermon delivery practices. They don't even want to think about how to deliver the sermon in a creative way. They're leery of the human means of a sermon. But that's what God uses in preaching. God uses human means.
At the end of Peter's sermon in Acts 2 they said, "What shall we do?" Today, on Sunday mornings when preachers are through, people just say, "Where shall we eat?"
But there are also preachers who are so enamored with their creative delivery that they act more like Paul's opponents in 1 Corinthians: they're caught up in everything but the message of the cross. The message of the gospel, the message of the cross, becomes secondary to the communication experience.
So there's got to be a marriage between text and delivery. Of course the text is primary, but, frankly, no matter how well you know the text, if you're putting people to sleep, they're not hearing it anyway. I'm passionate about seeing both things done well.
When you talk about sermon delivery does that include how we use illustrations?
Yes. I take like Nathan as a model. When Nathan went to David, Nathan could have just delivered the message. He could have said, "David, you're a sinner. Repent." But he didn't do that. Instead, he figured out a way to deliver the message so he got David emotionally committed first. Nathan spoke to David's mind by addressing his heart. So notice how he captures David's heart and gets him committed. David responded to Nathan's parable about the man who steals that poor family's only little lamb by saying, "Man, this guy ought to die. He's got to pay back fourfold." Now David is emotionally involved in the message. Then Nathan gives him the message: "David, you're that man."
You see that approach in the New Testament too. Paul does it. In Acts 7, Stephen does it as he recounts the incredible history of redemption in Old Testament. Stephen uses those stories to get people emotionally committed to his message. They're so involved that at the end they kill him!
That's right. There's no middle ground. And there's no misunderstanding what they're saying. But here's my fear for preachers today: they won't get people to repent nor will they get targeted for a stoning. At the end of Peter's sermon in Acts 2 they said, "What shall we do?" Today, on Sunday mornings when preachers are through, people just say, "Where shall we eat?"
That's a powerful line. Is there anything else that you'd like preachers to know about preaching?
I'd also challenge pastors to allocate the time necessary to preach. I fear that we're spending the bulk of our time doing the things that minister to the smallest number of our people instead of investing our time in the one thing that ministers to the majority of our folks—preaching the Word. Pastors have to show the discipline to sit at their desk and study the Word, saturating their souls, preparing their hearts so they will have a word from the Lord when they do preach. But if we're squeezing our sermon prep time into Saturday night because we've been involved in everything in our church because we want the pat on our back for the people saying, Man, the pastor's always there for me, then we're going to starve them on Sunday mornings.
But don't you think there's a balance between preparing sermons and being with people? How do you find that balance?
Yes, of course. Both things are necessary. You cannot have an ivory tower ministry. I think it's wrong to say, "All I do is preach." We're shepherds too, and as shepherds we walk through life with our people. But part of our shepherding role involves the discipline we need to prepare sermons in order to feed our people. I think it's probably the hardest balance to strike in our ministries—with the possible exception of ministry and family.
But, honestly, I've had to come to the place where I admitted a very difficult truth: there's no conflict in doing the will of God. If God has called me to be a husband and he's called me to be a pastor, then any conflict between those two things is simply my desire to be perceived a certain way. It's not really in the calling itself because God wouldn't call me with a contradictory call. If being a husband works against being a good pastor or vice versa, then certainly God wouldn't call me to do both of those things.
It's the same way in my roles as a pastor. The different facets of my ministry should work in concert. But sometimes we fall into a trap when we worry about pleasing people. Jesus is a perfect example about how to stay focused on what's important. In Mark 1 we see Jesus spend an entire day busily engaged in healing people. But then early the next morning he goes up on the mountainside to pray. When the disciples wake up they can't find him, so they go looking for him. And they say, "Master, there are a lot of sick people down there waiting for you." But Jesus simply says, "No, we're going onto the next town." Jesus is willing to leave sick people who are not healed yet. But Jesus is simply obeying what God has led him to do in spite of anyone's perception of him.
That's hard for pastors to do. We like to please people. We like the pat on the back that says, "Wow, pastor, you're always there for me." Our flesh, this craving to please people, is so strong. Adrian Rogers used to say, "If the devil can't get you to do bad in the flesh he'll get you to do good in the flesh." But the Bible is clear that that which is flesh cannot please God. And I think a lot of times that's what we're doing—we're trying to do good things in our own flesh.
Is there anything else on your heart for our community of preachers at PreachingToday.com?
Yes, I would add one other thing: the personal holiness of the preacher.
The longer I live the more I see the need for personal holiness, and by that I don't mean a false, legalistic striving to keep set of rules and regulations list on your refrigerator door. I'm talking about a genuine walk with God in brokenness over my sin, a loathing of my own sinful inclination, and at the same time a resting in Christ that his finished work really is satisfactory to God the Father.
When we live with both of those realities—loathing our sin and resting in Christ—we find true holiness. But God just will not use filthy vessels. And it's easy to be blind to certain things. You know I teach here at Southern Baptist Seminary and part of our history involves overt racism. Now I'm glad that we as a denomination have publicly repented of that and asked forgiveness from the Lord and our African-American brothers and sisters. But it teaches me that some of the people with the greatest intentions and godly desires can still have massive blind spots. That frightens me. We can be so blind to certain sins in our lives. That should cause us to live with humility as we constantly pray, "Lord, I need you to expose my sin to me and cause me to desire you, to be like you and to preach from a place of total rest and dependence on Christ." That's a great need in my life, and I'm assuming that I'm not that different from other preachers.
Let's assume that one of your students or a colleague is struggling with some kind of besetting sin. And let's assume that this preacher isn't trying to sweep it under the rug, but he's still preaching on a regular basis. If that person approached you and shared his struggles with this besetting sin, what would you say?
Well, the truth is every time I step in the pulpit I step in it as a sinner with active sin in my life. The sin might be pride or whatever. So I don't think that all sin would require me to step away from the pulpit. But here's the key issue: Am I struggling against the sin? Am I walking in repentance for the sin? Or am I embracing the sin? From my experience, people rarely come to you and talk about their sin if they're embracing it. If students or other pastors come and talk to me about they're sin, it's usually because they're sick of it. They hate it and they want it to end.
It really depends on the nature of the sin. Of course all sin is repugnant in the eyes of God, but some sins have greater consequences here on earth. So it depends on the consequences here on earth. That would determine if I would advise them to step away from their preaching so they can work on their sin issues. But the one thing that is universal is that they have to repent. We can't go on preaching in the pulpit while we're embracing our sin. It's just repugnant in the eyes of God. It demeans our message of the gospel and cheapens it, and we have to live repentant lifestyles. Repentance isn't an event nearly as much as it is a way of life.
So I would ask preachers this question: "Are you really genuinely broken of your sin?" It's always a good indication if someone comes and seeks help not because he got caught but because he hates his sin. That's usually a sign of true repentance. Unfortunately a lot of times I'm dealing with a preacher who got exposed. At that point it's harder to determine if he's sorry because of the consequences, or if he's genuinely broken that this sin breaks the heart of God.
In other words, if a preacher is honest enough to come to you and confess his sin, it might provide an opportunity for you to say, "Maybe it's time for you to work on this issue, even if that means backing away from preaching for awhile." Is that what I hear you saying?
Yes. You know, I don't know John Piper well, but a few years ago he stepped away from preaching for a season so he could work on a particular issue in his life. That's a great example for all of us. By his words and actions Piper was saying that there are issues that I need to work on. And because of my sin issues I don't want to continue with ministry as usual. I need to step back and allow the Lord to change me first. Every preacher should at least be willing to follow that same pattern.
Hershael York is pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, as well as professor of Christian Preaching and dean of Southern Seminary's School of Theology in Louisville, Kentucky.