Some pastors lecture. Other pastors preach. I can safely say that Steven Lawson falls into the latter category.
Faithfully preaching Scripture throughout 29 years of pastoral ministry, Dr Lawson possesses that rare combination of ‘light’ and ‘heat’ in his expository style. Its an immense pleasure to put our 10 Questions for Expositors to Steven Lawson today.
1. Pastor Lawson, where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
I would place the preaching of the Word of God at the very center of the life of the church. It is biblical preaching that sets in motion and leads to everything that is good in the church—transcendent worship, godly living, loving fellowship, energetic service, and Christ-centered evangelism. We cannot worship God until we know who He is and what He has done for us. Expository preaching enhances such worship. We cannot live holy lives until our sins are exposed and the path of godliness is made known to us. Again, it is biblical preaching that leads to this. There is no true fellowship in Christ at a meaningful level apart from biblical preaching. Neither can we serve the Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit, nor carryout authentic evangelism, without being challenged by the truth in preaching.
A study of the life of Christ and the early church shows this to be true. Jesus Christ Himself launched His public ministry by preaching (Mk. 1:15-16). The first activity of the church in the book of Acts was preaching (Acts 2:14-40). One fourth of the book of Acts is the record of either a sermon or a defense of Christ. The early church was marked by powerful gospel preaching. No church will rise any higher than its pulpit. Strong churches are the result of strong preaching.
2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
I discovered my gift in preaching in several ways. One, God gave me an overwhelming desire to proclaim His Word. The more I preached, the more I wanted to preach. God put such a strong desire in my heart (1 Timothy 3:1). Two, as I preached, I began to see people come to faith in Christ and believers were being encouraged in their faith. People began to give me positive feedback to my preaching, which was a needed confirmation. Three, I was providentially thrown into preaching. In circumstances beyond my control and through events that I would have never pursued, I suddenly found myself thrust into the arena of preaching. I could only assume that the invisible hand of God was moving me in this direction. Four, I had positive examples of biblical preaching placed before me. The more I heard true preaching, the more there was a fire ignited in my bones to do it.
3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
The real answer on how it takes to prepare a sermon is all my life. In reality, the preparation of a sermon pulls forward all the years of one’s personal study of Scripture, as well as all one’s life experiences, including trials. God must make the preacher before the preacher can make the sermon. More specifically, it once took me about twenty to twenty-five hours to prepare an expository sermon. I can now do it in less than half that time, depending upon the ease or difficulty of the text and the occasion in which I am speaking.
4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallise it?
It is certainly critical that a sermon contain one dominant idea. If you try to say twelve things, you will say nothing. But if you try to say one thing, you will say it well. There should be a straight-line of thought that runs throughout the entirety of the sermon, from the introduction to the conclusion. The preacher cannot be like the man who jumped onto his horse and rode out in every direction. He cannot head in every direction when he stands to preach. Rather he must have a clearly-marked path before him and stay on track, not veering to the right or to the left. Finding the central thrust of a text is a matter of capturing the thunder of that passage. It is finding what is dominant and what is driving the main thrust of the passage.
5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
The most important aspect of a preacher’s style is clarity. If he is not crystal-clear in what he is saying, it matters not how passionate he is or how compelling he presents his material. In other words, he must be insightful and speak in a manner in which he is understood. There is an old saying, “Just because a river is muddy does not mean it is deep.” Too often, people assume that a preacher, who is hard to understand, or who speaks over their heads, must be brilliant. The fact is, any speaker can be hard to understand with very little effort. The preacher who has truly mastered his subject is able to communicate it in such a way that others grasp what he is saying. Therefore, the preacher must be coherent and logical, then be fervent and passionate. We must not be like one preacher who wrote in the margin of his bible, “Weak point—yell here.” He must be clearly understood by the common man.
6. What notes, if any, do you use?
I carry a full-written manuscript into the pulpit, although I do not read from it verbatim. I stay fairly attached to it in the introduction, as I do not want to ramble as I come out of the starting blocks. I have written out my homiletical headings, transitions, explanation of the text, word studies, historical background, cross-references, geographical background, authorial intent, building argument of the book, implications of the text, application for the listener, and illustrations. I write the entire manuscript in full sentence form. However, I try to use these notes as little as possible. For the conclusion, I am usually in the overflow of the moment and in such a preaching mode that I am not using my notes.
7. What are the greatest perils that preacher must avoid?
The greatest perils that preachers must avoid: one, pride; two, lack of study; three, prayerlessness; four, withholding the full counsel of God; five, fear of man; six, lack of living the message; seven, a failure to “own” the manuscript; eight, being negative, rather than positive; nine, manipulating people; ten, a lack of compassion.
8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (e.g. pastoral care, leadership responsibilities)?
There is no simple answer to this question. The temperament and personality of each pastor is different. The passions and strengths of each man differ. The pastoring demands of each church vary. The needs and age of each congregation differ as well. Each pastor is helped by different kinds of men around him. Each pastor must balance these competing demands, depending upon how he is wired by God and where he serves.
9. What books on preaching, or exemplars of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
The best books on preaching are those books which contain great sermons from great preachers. I have learned how to preach, primarily, not by reading books on how to preach, but by reading the sermons of powerful preachers like Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and John MacArthur. Great preaching is more caught than it is taught. Most who teach preaching are not the best preachers. And most of the great preachers are not writing books on how to preach. There are, of course, exceptions. The best book on preaching that I have ever read is Preaching and Preachers by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, himself a prince of preachers.
10. Finally Steven, what steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
In order to nurture future preachers, I do several things. One, I host an annual conference on expository preaching called the Expositors’ Conference (www.expositorsconference.org). In this conference, I invite a noted expositor to join with me in preaching on the distinctives of expository preaching, as well as modeling it. Two, I preach in numerous pastors’ conferences and bible conferences around America and in other parts of the world. These venues allow me to excite and encourage young preachers and model for them biblical preaching. Three, I have written several books and articles on expository preaching, which have been used by the Lord with positive effect upon future preachers. Four, I maintain correspondence with young preachers who write and seek guidance. Five, my sermons are posted on the webpage and become an example, of sorts, for young pastors. Six, I visit with pastors at conferences before and after I speak. Seven, I teach expository preaching in the Doctor of Ministry programs at various seminaries, such as Ligonier Academy in Orlando, Florida and The Master’s Seminary in Los Angeles, California. Eight, I teach the Expositor’s Institute with John MacArthur in which we work with fifteen to twenty men in a small group setting regarding biblical preaching.