Steve Gaines has been the senior pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, since 2005. He has pastored multiple churches in Texas, Tennessee and Alabama over the last 30 years. In June 2016 he was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Editor Michael Duduit recently visited with him.
Preaching: Steve, you’re known as an expository preacher. Could you tell me how you understand exposition, and why are you drawn to expository preaching?
Gaines: I love expository preaching because I love the Scriptures. When I fell in love with the Lord at the age of 18, I immediately immersed myself in the Bible. I had never really read the Bible for myself. George Guthrie was a good friend of mine I played high school football with, and George and I found a little thing called the topical memory system put out by the Navigators, and we started memorizing Scripture as well. Just that Bible intake changed both of our lives.
When I started preaching, I didn’t know anything else but to preach the Bible. I’d had a great role model when I was growing up at First Baptist Dyersburg, Dr. Bob Orr. He was a good Bible preacher. Then I had heard other Bible preachers along the way, and that’s just what I knew.
As I went to seminary, I learned that you could take take a section of Scripture, find out the main theme that was in it, and then get some bullet points out of that, and then under each point do explanation, illustration, application. That’s been my go-to for 35 years.
I explain the Scripture, what it meant. I illustrate it to illumine, or give some light to it; not to distract, not to draw attention to the illustration itself, but to let the illustration reflect the truth of the Scripture. Then in application, I show how the Scripture and what it is saying applies to the person. That’s been a great way to preach, and that has served me well for many years in my ministry.
Preaching: Has your preaching style changed at all through the years?
Gaines: When people ask me for, instance, how long it took me to prepare a sermon, I say all my life. Every experience I’ve had, every previous sermon I’ve preached, all the books I’ve read, all the seminary classes, then all of the funerals and all the weddings and all the interactions you have with people—I think that all of that goes into your preaching. At least, it does if a preacher is preaching his own sermons, which I firmly believe is the will of God; I don’t think you should preach other people’s sermons. I think if you’re doing your own work, you should be getting better as the years go by.
I’ve been preaching now since I was 18, and I’m 58, so that’s pretty easy math. That’s 40 years. I love preaching. I get just as excited today to preach the Word of God as I did when I was a young man. I love preaching and I enjoy preaching the Bible.
Preaching: What do you find to be the most challenging thing in your preaching ministry these days?
Gaines: I think there are several things. First of all, there’s the preparation for it. You have to really block out some time. You’ve got to make it a priority. In any church, it is very easy to get involved in committee meetings, ministry to individuals, and nowadays with all of the social media, you can stay on social media if you’re not careful, and then the emails, and all of that. But you have to take time to study to show yourself approved unto God. You have to spend time studying for the sermon. That’s been one of the challenges.
I think the other thing is that we’re not preaching to the same culture that I was preaching to 40 years ago. The culture today is not nearly as biblically literate. You can’t assume that people even know who the Apostle Paul is. You can’t say “Paul said.”
I was talking to some preachers recently. I said, “Paul said . . . . “ and somebody said, “Who’s Paul?” You have to give more background for the Scripture itself, because people just don’t know the Bible in our culture as well as they did a few decades ago.
Then, also, you have to answer why. People nowadays don’t take for granted that something is true just because it’s in the Bible. You have to tell them why this is the way it should be. When you say marriage is between one man and one woman, somebody’s going to say, “Well, why?” And you say, “Because God said . . .” and then you go back to Genesis, and “Jesus said . . .” to go to Matthew chapter 19, and you share with them that this is why it has to be this way. You have to explain more “why” nowadays. That’s okay. I like that apologetic element that I think is so necessary for our preaching today—defending the faith but also realizing that ultimately people have to receive Christ by faith.
Those are just some of the challenges that you have. Also, the home has been splintered in so many different ways. You’re preaching to a lot of families that are not families with a dad and a mom that have been married for years, and you have children and all that. There are just so many different types of families nowadays—you might have a single mom, a single dad, people who’ve been divorced, people who’ve gone through tough times.
The breakdown of the family has really affected the church, so you have to be constantly aware of the fact that you’re preaching to a lot of broken people with a lot of issues, and you have to give mercy. At the same time, you have to preach the truth.
Preaching: You’ve just been elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention. As you look around the convention today, how would you describe the state of Southern Baptist preaching today?
Gaines: Because I’m so engaged where I am, I don’t hear all of the preaching, obviously. I think that whenever there is a real movement of God, one of the things you can almost be guaranteed of is that there is strong preaching, and we are not in a strong movement of God across America or even in the Southern Baptist Convention. Yes, we’ve got some great preachers, but I don’t really know that we’ve got a real revival in preaching. I think that a revival in preaching will result in revival in the church, because I believe that preaching is one of God’s primary methods of sending His Spirit into the Body and enhancing the whole church.
I think that we’re not where we need to be, and I’ll put myself there. I’m not where I need to be. I need to study more. I need to pray more. I need to concentrate more on preaching. I still say that the number one thing that a pastor ought to do is to pray and then to preach. I believe that we should talk to God before we try to talk for God, and I think that if we’ll pray, that God will help us in our study and in our delivery.
I don’t want to be critical, but I don’t see as many strong preachers as I would like to see in our day. I also am very concerned about how few people give an invitation after they preach. I don’t think you have to come forward to be saved, but I feel like if you don’t give people the gospel … if you don’t tell them what Jesus did to save them and give them a chance to be saved right then, you may talk about the gospel, mention the gospel, but you’re not preaching the gospel until you invite people to receive Christ as Lord and Savior by repenting of their sins and believing savingly in Jesus—that He died for their sins, rose from the dead—right then and there. If you don’t give them the chance to get saved right then and there, in my opinion, you have not preached the gospel.
I don’t see as much of that anymore and, frankly, I think that’s one of the big contributors to the fact that we’re so lagging in baptisms nowadays … that, and the lack of personal evangelism. I believe that we could do better, but I’m talking to myself. I believe I could do better, and I do want to be a better preacher in the days to come.
Preaching: Tell me about your planning and preparation process. First of all, do you typically preach in series?
Gaines: I do. I’ve preached in a lot of different kinds of series, but in recent days, I’m going back to where I was when I was a younger preacher, preaching through books or preaching through large segments of Scripture. Right after Easter, for instance, I preached through JoshuaJoshua, from chapter 1 through about 10. When we got to the dividing up of the land, I just stopped there! It was time for the Southern Baptist Convention anyway, but I had a great time preaching through Joshua.
Right now I am in the book of Daniel and, to me, it is one of the most appropriate, pertinent books to be preaching in our culture. You’ve got these four Hebrew guys that are living as young men in a culture that was absolutely opposite of all of the beliefs that they had as Jews, yet they lovingly, respectfully took a stand. I really like their attitudes. I don’t think we’re going to be able to be belligerent in our day and have a hearing in America. I think that we’re going to have to be loving and kind in speaking the truth.
For instance, I’m in Daniel 4 this week, and he’s interpreting a dream of Nebuchadnezzar, this guy that is just really full of himself. He’s starting to warm up to the Most High God because he’s seeing some great miracles, obviously, from chapter 3 and all, but he still is very arrogant. You have Daniel saying, when he interprets his dream—it’s a really negative dream against Nebuchadnezzar—he says, “O King, I wish that this was not applicable to you, but it was against your enemies.” You see in that just how polite he was. He liked Nebuchadnezzar, and Nebuchadnezzar liked him.
The Bible says that sinners liked Jesus. I think that we cannot be rude. A Christian never has the luxury, if you will, of being rude. Nowadays, I know people are lambasting others, whether it’s Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or whatever it is. I’ve just got news for you. If we make a stand against somebody, not just against what they believe but against somebody, and we could not share the gospel with them, we have crossed a line that God does not want us to cross.
Those are some of the things that I deal with. I’m preaching through Daniel. I believe it is a pertinent book. I believe that it is so good. Our people are eating it up. I’m eating it up. I’m 58 years old, I’ve been a senior pastor for 33 years, and I’m having more fun preaching today than I’ve ever had. I love studying and I love preaching, and I can’t wait to get in the pulpit.
I’ve been doing it a long time, but I believe if you’ll preach through books, preach through texts of Scripture, it gives people a context. It also gives you the joy of not wondering, “Okay, next Sunday, where am I going to be?” And you preach on issues that you would never touch if you hadn’t preached through a section of Scripture, so that’s one of the main things I do.
Preaching: What does a typical week of sermon preparation look like for you as you move toward Sunday?
Gaines: I try to do some every day. I try to spend 10 or 12 hours a week on my Sunday morning sermon, and then I try to spend three to five hours on my Sunday night sermon. I still preach on Sunday night. That’s two full days. That’s about all a pastor can do and then do all the other responsibilities that go with being the senior pastor.
I’ve heard people say through the years that you ought to spend an hour for every minute you’re in the pulpit. That’s totally unrealistic. I’m not trying to put anybody down, but that’s not the real world. If a pastor can get in the equivalent of a couple of days over a week, spreading that out over five days…. If he can get in 14 or 15 hours for his two sermons, I think that’s about all he can do.
I try to do it as early as possible. I pray. I’ve got a pretty aggressive prayer schedule, and I read the Bible. I’ve got a pretty aggressive Bible reading schedule, but I don’t count that as sermon preparation.
Preaching: How long before Sunday do you try to be ready?
Gaines: I’m one of those guys that never feels like his sermon is quite ready, OK? To be frank with you, I’m down there with my iPad checking the thing out when they’re singing the special music right before I preach! As far as having it fully ready, I turn my sermon outline in by about Wednesday, and then I’ve got most of it done, obviously, by Friday or so, but still on Saturdays I’ll look at it.
One of the things that I do is preach at least one time through my sermon without anybody there except me and the Lord, and it really solidifies it in my heart. When my kids were home, I used to go up to the church and do it, but I do it a lot of times at home now. There have been times I get up early in the morning on Sunday morning and do it in my office. That is one of the most helpful things I’ve ever done so that I’m not as bound to my notes when I get in the pulpit in the actual service.
Preaching: One last question. If an angel showed up at your door today and said, “Steve, this Sunday’s going to be your last sermon,” what message would you want to preach?
Gaines: I do try to preach every sermon as though it were my last one. I also try to preach my sermon thinking that Jesus is on the front row monitoring everything that I say, and I try to preach thinking and knowing that there’s somebody out there that this could be the last time they ever get to hear the gospel, so I need to preach with urgency and love. Then I try to think about that somebody’s out there with a broken heart and needs some encouragement. Those four ideas always go with me into the pulpit: It could be my last time, Jesus is on the front row, there’s somebody out there that is either going to hell or heaven before the next 24 hours, and then somebody’s out there with a broken heart. It really changes the way I preach.
As far as if there was one thing that I could preach, I would preach a sermon that I’ve preached for years called “Jesus is Lord,” out of Philippians 2:5–11. The outline is: Jesus was Lord before He came to this earth, Jesus was Lord while He was on this earth, Jesus was Lord while He was on the cross, and Jesus will be Lord when he comes again. That’s what I’d preach.