Brandon Smith Interviews Tony Merida and Me

Back in 2011, Cedarville University's Brandon Smith, formerly of Lifeway and The CSB, interviewed Pastor Tony Merida and myself on the nature and practice of expository preaching. Below is the slightly edited transcript of our conversation.

BRANDON: In light of the many aspects of church life (i.e. Bible studies, small groups, age-specific classes/ministries, evangelism, worship through music, etc.), is preaching to the group-at-large from the stage/pulpit the most important? Why or why not?

JARED: I’d certainly classify it as indispensable, necessary, and vitally important. The Bible prescribes and we need the Scriptures proclamationally delivered — with authority, with exposition, with prophetic strength. This can be done one-on-one or in smaller group settings, of course, but we see both under the old covenant and the new covenant the people of God gathered to hear the word of God. Think of Moses’ addressing of the people after hearing from God all the way through to Ezra preaching to those gathered in Nehemiah to Jesus’ sermons and the addresses of the apostles in the church’s court-gatherings. The pattern is not either/or in terms of how the word of God is delivered to believers but both/and, and we have plenty of Scriptural examples of proclamational preaching from one person to a large group, enough to see it as biblically normative and therefore contemporarily necessary.

We have always needed the word of God delivered to us this way, but I think culturally speaking today we need in a peculiar way a pastoral voice under the mantle of God’s authority delivering “thus saith the Lord” to us. We are very much drenched in a “did God really say?” society, and some of the ways churches today downplay preaching or turn it into conversational sharing or what-have-you lose the gospel-shape of preaching, which is proclamational and one-directional.

TONY: I agree with Jared. We should work to do both “the air war” and “ground war” well. It seems that some (extreme) groups pay little attention to one of these two.

For some, preaching has no place in church life. They think the church should just have dialogue, or groups, or meet in a bar and talk theology. I want to see more emphasis on public proclamation, practicing 1 Tim. 4:13. Public proclamation is patterned for us in Scripture, and public proclamation has the “life-changing-on-the-spot” potential because God saves people through the preaching of the gospel.

On the other hand, there is a group that has such a high view of preaching that they give very little thought to how to do the ground war: how to disciple, train elders, plant churches, reach unreached people groups, care for orphans and widows, etc. Ideally, the church is led from the pulpit with faithful exposition and application of biblical texts, and then ministries are developed and deployed to live out these truths. To do both, public proclamation and practical ministry well, serious attention must be given to both.

BRANDON: Over the course of your ministry, what has been your most consistent focus in regards to how you prepare and ultimately preach a sermon?

TONY: My main focus is that that I want to take the listeners for a swim in the text. I want us to immerse ourselves in Scripture, and my desire is particularly to exalt Jesus as the hero of the Bible – and by extension as the hero of every sermon. I want people to walk away every week and say, “What a great Savior” not “What a great sermon.”

To do this, I use a five step method for preparation that is articulated in my book Faithful Preaching: (1) study the text, (2) unify the redemptive theme, (3) construct an outline that supports the theme, (4) add the functional elements within each point (explanation, application, illustration), and (5) add an introduction and response.

In terms of mechanics, I want to make sure every sermon is a coherent whole, built around one dominant (redemptive) idea, and then drive that idea through the body of the sermon, pointing people to Jesus.

JARED: I find this very helpful. I think you’re right on the money. In particular, I think what is often missing in a lot of preaching and missing in a lot of instruction or shepherding of preaching is the ability to “feel” Scripture. So I like your words on immersion and swimming.

Preaching ought to be exultational, an act of worship on the preacher’s part. Many preachers have already discovered that their congregations don’t get excited about what their preacher tells them to get excited about but instead about what their preacher is evidently and obviously himself excited about. Our people will start to see how God’s proclamational initiative in saving us through Jesus Christ provokes doxological astonishment.

BRANDON: Tony, you are in a unique position in that you teach on preaching in the academic arena. Are there significant benefits to studying preaching academically, or is more of a “born with it or not” gift?

TONY: I begin the first day of Bible Exposition class (the basic preaching class) with a brief talk on “The Making of a Preacher.” I tell them that there seem to be about seven things that shape guys into effective preachers. Most of them involve the work of God and human responsibility, but there are a few important things to learn in an “academic setting.”

1. Love for Scripture. I think the Word should drive us to the pulpit, instead of the pulpit driving us to the Word. Good preaching is overflow … an overflow of love for God’s Gospel. Hopefully, in class I can stir up a love for Scripture by the way I handle the Word and speak of the Word, but ultimately, this is a personal dynamic between the student and God.

2. Gifts. Obviously, “I can’t put in what God has left out!” Not everyone is gifted to preach. That’s okay; we need guys who are gifted in other areas as well in more priestly and kingly positions.

3. Experience. I can’t give students this either, with the exception of a few reps in preaching class. Guys need to be preaching a lot to be effective. Driscoll says in Vintage Church that a guy needs 200-300 sermons before he’s a decent preacher.

4. Mentor. I can’t do this either, with the exception of the nine or ten guys that I try to mentor in our elder training program. For some students, these mentors may be from a distance, and for some, they may be a “dead mentor” (ala John Piper and Jonathan Edwards). Preferably, in my opinion, you have all three: life on life mentor, a mentor from a distance, and a dead mentor.

5. Models. I really can’t do this in class either, with the exception of showing some sermon videos in class. But I do try to help guide students toward pastoral-theologians that they can learn from.

6. Character. This goes with #1, but is a bit different. Here, I’m talking about having a life that reflects a love for Scripture. People need to see the pastor exemplifying his teaching. I can help cultivate love and holiness by emphasizing spiritual disciplines in class, but once again, students must accept responsibility for pursuing God and exemplifying Christ.

7. Instruction. Here’s where I try to be of most help to aspiring preachers in class. There are things that students need to learn like: how to exegete a passage of Scripture, how to incorporate biblical theology into expository preaching, how to apply the text in a Gospel-centered manner instead of a moralistic manner, how to preach Christ from the Old Testament, how to prepare a sermon manuscript, prepare a series, look for sermon helps, and on and on. While a seminary is not the only place one could learn these things, it is one place.

With this list, it’s evident that one can’t simply take my preaching class and believe that they’ll become a great preacher. Nope. I can’t promise that at all. I work hard at #7, and help with some of the others, but it’s certainly not all about the classroom. Beyond these matters, I also begin with the caveat that a lot in preaching is “mysterious” and that I can’t explain all the spiritual dynamics involved in preaching. But this list is my humble stab at trying to articulate some of the key things that seem to be present in the lives of effective preachers.

JARED: Love the stuff on “mysterious.” We’ve all heard guys who’ve been preaching for multiple decades who sound like they’re reading a toaster manual. So I think giftedness and personal investment in the text play as big a role in preaching as technical and exegetical know-how. Of course, excellent preachers don’t start out excellent and we are all improving over time. But guys with the gift find that muscle getting stronger with use and having better reflexes.

The other side to this, however, is that the power of the gospel that works through the preacher also works in spite of the preacher. And I’m sure we’ve all experienced examples of our weak, foolish, tired sermon being no hindrance to God’s word stirring or changing or convicting or comforting our hearers. We have the privilege of getting better at preaching as we go, but we also have the freedom to know it doesn’t ultimately depend on our ability, rhetorical or otherwise.

BRANDON: With the Internet and media outlets that consume our world today, people have more access than ever before to various worldviews and areas of thought. Should apologetics be a large part of preaching in the 21st century?

JARED: I suppose it depends on what you mean by “large part.” I think apologetics is important, and some preachers/teachers are more gifted in this area than others. For my part, I don’t do a lot of apologetics in my preaching and find it more at home in personal conversations and small group settings. I make some exceptions in sermons — for instance, I preach the resurrection quite often, but when I preach on it at Easter time, I typically include some historical and logical evidences for Jesus’ bodily resurrection, not just to encourage believers in their faith but also because we are more likely to have unbelieving visitors at that time who might find the evidences challenging.

But in general I don’t deal in apologetics in my preaching because — again, speaking *personally* here — I find myself being led by that into a “let me convince you” kind of mode that I don’t find is the primary focus of preaching. I want to proclaim the truth and let the Spirit convince.

But, again, I find apologetics generally helpful and we have used materials from Josh McDowell, Ravi Zacharias, and others in our church and found them helpful. Most recently we had a group studying Tim Keller’s The Reason for God and they found it both helpful toward their conversations with skeptics and critics — who can be quite hostile and tenacious in our neck of the woods — and strengthening of their own faith.

One advantage apologetic work in the sermon has is both anticipating and answering objections to the gospel in your audience — what Jonathan Dodson has called "gospel defeaters" — and also equipping the believers present in how to process and respond to objections and challenges they hear from unbelievers at home or in the workplace.

TONY: I think it is very important for preachers to consider the presence of competing worldviews in the audience as they preach. As Keller says, we tend to answer the questions of the people with whom we are talking. And if we are only talking to believers, our preaching will become “ghettoized,” that is, the preacher will tend to address “insiders” only. Few outsiders will show up. But if people hear that a pastor is addressing the questions of skeptics, doubters, and atheists, then they will come – either because they themselves are interested, or because their believing friends will bring them. Keller has really challenged me on this. It doesn’t mean we can’t preach through books of the Bible, or even that we can’t focus on believers; it simply means we need to address some “outsider questions” weekly in our preaching. This requires reading very widely and also intentionally talking with non-believers. Keller says most sermons prepared by seminary students are not any good because they are aimed at other seminary students. I would agree with this, with the exception of those students who are out in the culture talking with people.

The way this works is basically to ask questions as you are working through your text, “what part of this passage would a non-believer reject?” Perhaps this would include something about the presence of warfare in the OT, the idea of wrath, or the exclusivity of the gospel. I think it is very important to address these issues as they appear in the weekly sermon text. Too many pastors (and I am guilty of this) never stop to ask, “What would [insert the skeptic at the coffee shop] not understand or believe about this passage?” Another tip I would give is to address the skeptic in the introduction of the sermon, and to let them know that you are aware of their objections and questions. Mark Dever does this really well. A final note would be to remember to argue appropriately. If you are going to challenge a worldview, you can’t just throw bombs at it. You need to get inside it, understand it, sympathize with it, and then show how it falls flat, and that the gospel is the only answer. You will not connect with the skeptic by misrepresenting their view and spouting “hater-aid.”

None of these ideas require that you totally re-vamp your preaching to do “apologetic preaching,” as much as it means that you prepare your sermon with competing worldviews in mind every week.