Stuart Briscoe began a career in banking in his native England, but at age 29 he and his wife Jill began working with a ministry to young people that took him around the globe. In 1970 he was called to serve as Senior Pastor of
Preaching: Stuart, you have been preaching a few years now. How has your preaching changed over the years, and how has preaching in general changed over the years you have been in ministry?
Briscoe: I think what would be the most obvious change in my preaching has been in the area of application. My wife-who is a wonderful critic and a good communicator herself-used to tell me, repeatedly, “you need to make more specific application.” And I used to tell her that I really didn’t want to insult people’s intelligence. Surely they would know what to do about the things I was trying to teach. She said, “You are certainly not insulting their intelligence, but I think that you are leaving them floundering at times.”
Things came to a head one day when a lady came to me at the end of a series on the fruit of the spirit. I thought it was a reasonable series on each aspect, and it went on for a number of weeks. At the end she said, “When are you going to say something relevant?” I had to bite my tongue because I could think of something very relevant to say! Of course, I remembered just in the nick of time that I was a pastor.
I said, “Well, what did you have in mind?” She said, “I come here on Sunday morning, and I am hoping I am going to get some help.”
I said “Do you have problems in your family?”
She said, “Yes.”
“Is there a lack of love there?”
She said, “Sure.”
I said, “Has your joy run out?”
She said, “Yep.”
“Would you give anything for an ounce of peace?”
She said, “sure.”
“Is your patience frayed on the edges?”
She said, “right.”
I went through every aspect of the fruit of the spirit, and there was absolutely no connect there. That was a real eye-opener for me. I thought, Jill was right. So I now much more consciously try to make specific application without insulting people’s intelligence.
Preaching: Why do you think that application seems so much more important now than it was a generation ago?
Stuart: Well, I don’t know if it is necessarily the case, but I think you are probably right. I think of the story of the two little ladies who loved the new preacher they got and would come up to him every week and say, “I love my preacher!” Until one day he started making application, and then they came to him and said, “You’ve quit preaching and took to meddling.” I think we obviously have a sensitivity in that regard.
Another thing, of course, is that we are dealing with chronic biblical illiteracy. That probably speaks to a great lack of the stuff that needs to be applied. Since that lady helped me, the simple formula I have adopted is the well-known formula: What? So what? and Now what? There must be careful exegesis and the solid exposition of the eternal truth-which as I see as our prime job-but if we don’t get past the What? and get over the So what? hump, then it really is just an exercise in cramming our cranium with data.
So we have got to get over the So what? Hump; but there is even more to that in application, and that is the Now what? What is the take away? I think one of the problems we have in preaching is that people become sermon tasters. They go away deciding if that was a good sermon, a bad sermon, or a mediocre sermon, or if he is a good preacher or a poor preacher; instead of the Word of God and the power of the Spirit resonating in people’s hearts so that they go away saying, “I’ve got to do something.”
I had an interesting experience many years ago when they asked me to team teach down in Trinity Seminary in Illinois with an Old Testament professor. We were going to prepare sermons based on the psalms. He took the first hour of the class doing an exegesis. He said, “I will be in the kitchen preparing the various courses; I want you to put it on the table and make it look appetizing.” It was a very interesting exercise.
About halfway through the class-there were about 25 students-I said, “When do you all graduate?” To my amazement they said that they had all graduated. So I said, “Well, why are you here?” They said, “We graduated long enough-we have been in classes long enough-that we know how to do the exegesis, but we don’t know how to do illustration and application.” They said, “They don’t teach us that.”
That is not a reflection on Trinity because I talked to Howie Hendricks about this, and to my surprise he said, “I don’t think you can teach illustration and application.” With all due respect to Dr. Hendricks, I think you can give them some pointers! Apparently they were all struggling with this as well.
Preaching: I find pastors usually say the hardest thing for them in preaching is application. Are there some things that you do to work through the application process?
Stuart: It is really initially asking the question “so what?” So I have done it to all this information. I have just been teaching, not in a preaching situation but in a Bible school situation; I have been teaching 2 Corinthians. It is absolutely fascinating, and there is so much we can learn about Paul, so much we can learn about the early days of church, so much we can learn about the enormous problems.
I was thinking about them last night. It took me almost 17 hours to get from Milwaukee to San Diego-stuck on airports and in lines, and all this stuff, couldn’t land. I was thinking about it and refused to feel sorry for myself because I was thinking about Paul. So there was an unconscious application for myself; but I think there is a danger in teaching something like 2 Corinthians and being fascinated with Paul, very intrigued with the sort of stuff he put up with-shaking our heads and tut-tutting and and thinking, I could never have done that. But that is not doing the trick. We have to put ourselves in his sandals; and I think we have to ask ourselves: How would I have reacted to that? What similar situations-certainly not identical, certainly not in the same league-but what situations do I get myself in? That certainly is helpful.
Preaching: You preach more outside the United States than in the United States. How does application change when you preach in other cultures?
Stuart: It is dependent on your knowledge of the culture or certainly some degree of sympathy, if possible empathy if you’ve got time to get that deep into the people’s lives. We preachers are very good at talking; it’s the listening where we fall down very often. I find that it is important just to begin to get a feel for where they are living, get some degree of understanding of what they are up against. The problems that we run up against in our pastorates here are often not even on the radar screen in other cultures.
Take divorce for instance. I used to say divorce was the biggest headache for a pastor. You will earn more sleepless nights dealing with that than anything else. Yet it is not even on the radar screen for a lot of these [third-world] people. What they are dealing with is that they have no medical care; and because the missionaries in many instances are not too sure what they believe about healing, they go to the witch doctors. That is a very different situation. I doubt if there are many people in the congregations I served who go to a witch doctor on a regular basis.
Preaching: When you are preaching in another culture that you are not as familiar with, do you find yourself doing more exegetical work and less application? Do you modify your style in anyway?
Stuart: No, I don’t think so. I think what I do is that instead of making an assertion in application I would often phrase it as a question. Often that opens up an area of discussion. They love to instruct you. They are thrilled that you would ask them a question because you don’t know. That doesn’t really fit into the normal style of preaching I suppose. It is not exactly an authoritative declaration. It is more a fascinating dialogue.
I just say, “In this particular situation in the western world…” then I would perhaps share something. Then I’d say, “That isn’t really relevant to your situation here. Help me here: What is a similar situation?”
Preaching: It does seem as if-given the necessity of application and the increasing hunger for that-it becomes increasingly important for the preacher to become a student of culture as well a student of Scripture.
Stuart: That’s one of the first things I was told when I went to Elmbrook. I was a Brit. I had traveled in America for a number of years, but I had never lived here. At first every gaffe or every time I put my foot in my mouth, they would shake their heads wisely and say, “He’s British, you know.”
But then as time went on, I remember someone came to me and said, “Stuart, our understanding is you should study the Scriptures and find out what God is saying, then study the culture so you can relate what God is saying to where we are living.”
I said, “That’s right.”
They said, “We think you’re much better at the former than the latter. So we have taken the liberty of enrolling you in some magazines, etc.”
I was very grateful. That is a practice that I have continued ever since. Of course, as I am traveling, I can take the magazines with me since I can’t always keep up with the talking heads of television.
Sometimes when I am overseas, there are international programs that give fascinating insights that you don’t get here. I remember in the early days of the Iraq situation, listening to a roundtable discussion. There wasn’t an American in the conversation-it was all Europeans-and they were coming from all over the map, not only geographically, but philosophically and politically. That is a wonderful learning experience.
Preaching: As you travel and preach all over the world, are there some places that are the most enjoyable places to preach?
Briscoe: Well, there are different kinds of enjoyment. I think of a church in Manila in the Philippines. It is one of the most remarkable churches I have ever seen. It is so alive; it is so buzzing. They have no property whatsoever, but they have thousands of people attending all the time. When you go there it is like being in church with a live wire.
I was just in Cairo in Egypt speaking in the largest evangelical church; there were at least 7,000 people attending. It was absolutely remarkable. They have an auditorium that seats about a thousand, so the only way they have 7,000 people attend regularly is by having the congregation divided up into different segments; and they have a particular time that they come. Thursday night is student night. I spoke to a thousand university students that night. Friday morning I spoke to young couples. So clearly just to see a very live, growing, thriving church . . .
But I don’t want to give the impression that I only enjoy it if there is a large crowd there because some of the most enjoyable times are spent out in the boonies with a relatively small handful of people. We go to some of the Southeast Asian countries that still have communist governments, and there are definite restrictions on these people-I don’t want to go into details on that-but very small groups of wonderful saints of God. I always feel too big, too clumsy, and too shallow when I am with those brothers and sisters.
It’s a wonderful joy to preach to people who keep interrupting you to say, “Could you please go over that again?” In actual fact, they are trying to write everything down. They want you to go from morning to night. I always quit before they do! There is such a hunger.
We translated one of my books into one of those languages. I will never forget the incredible joy that these people had just receiving this simple book. There are not that many people here that experienced that-that is why it went out of print so quickly!
You can see why I go there.
Preaching: What are some things you have learned about preaching along the way?
Briscoe: The man who pushed me into preaching, the first time he said, “Stuart, there is really nothing terribly difficult about it. You study your Bible and then you stand up and you tell people what it says.”
I said, “Is that it?”
He said, “Yeah, basically that is it.” Well maybe I could figure it out.
I was delighted one day in John Wesley’s house in south London to see in a little alcove of his simple bedroom a little desk in a window overlooking London. There was a saying on it that said, “I rise up early, I study God’s Word, and I go and tell people.”
I think I got more sophisticated as time went along. I learned from John Scott that all preaching should be some form of exposition of Scripture in its context. That has been a fundamental belief and principal of operation. You can build on that-there are many different ways of doing it.
In more recent times I have been more and more convinced of the obvious validity of narrative preaching, and I have enjoyed that very much. I was with my youngest son Pete-who’s a gifted young preacher himself. This past weekend we did a men’s conference together and he said, “I think you are discovering a gift that you have not used up until now. That is the gift of story telling.”
The reason I haven’t used it that much is I have heard so much narrative preaching, which seemed to me to simply tell a story then leave it wide open for everyone to determine their truth. Narrative preaching, as I was listening to it, appeared to me like postmodern thinking; and I was very leery of that. But when I really looked at Scripture again, it was obvious to me that most of it is narrative and these stories are there for a reason.
As I began traveling more internationally, I learned that everyone loves a story. I remember talking to a veteran Arab one day. He was really quite surprised because he listened to me preaching, actually in Israel. He said at the end, “I haven’t listened to preachers very much. As I was listening to you, I knew a lot of these stories. I didn’t learn them in the church; we didn’t go to church.”
I said “Well, where did you learn them?” He said around the campfire in a Bedouin tent he had learned the narratives. There is no question in that regard that I have learned the value of story.
I think another thing I have learned is there is a legitimate place for humor in preaching. A fellow said to me one day, “I have been to your conference; I have been in all your sessions. I go home at night and take off my shirt and find a knife sticking in my ribs, and I think, ‘How did he get that in there?’ So I decided to come tonight and watch carefully, and I see that more often than not it was with your humor that you were able to make the sharp point in a way that was acceptable. We often weren’t even aware that there was a sharp point until we went away and thought about it and got over the yucks and thought seriously about what the point was.”
I think of another thing: A friend of mine who passed away some time ago, named Dr. Donald English was a great Methodist preacher in the United Kingdom. On one occasion he said to me, “At the end of a worship service I ask myself: Which part of me need I not have brought here today?”
I sort of twisted that a bit and ask myself the question: Which part of me did I not utilize as a channel of communication today? I think the older I got, the more relaxed in the pulpit I became. This could be misunderstood-I don’t mean more casual or more flippant.
Phillips Brooks’ dictum is that preaching is the communication of truth through personality. I know that the truth was unchanging, but I also know that personalities differ widely; therefore there should be an enormous variety of preaching styles just so long as the truth is paramount. I began to recognize that the style should be related to who you are when you are being yourself rather than being a person who is performing in the pulpit.
Another thing I learned: I remember listening to Billy Graham when he first came to England. He was the master of the rhetorical question. He always phrased it the same way: “‘But Billy,’ you say…” We used to laugh about that, in general conversation, just joking around we’d say, “But Billy, you say…” He would phrase it so it really wasn’t a rhetorical question. It was an imaginary question; he was dialoging with the people to whom he was preaching.
Preaching: Do you have any concern about the future of preaching?
Briscoe: I fear in some quarters there is being put out what could be called a failure of nerve in the efficacy of preaching. I think that is a very unwholesome trend. I fully recognize that educational theory reminds us that people learn in different ways-that not everyone will learn through a deductive monological lecture. I firmly believe that the church should be utilizing all the different educational methods that resonate with the different learning styles of people.
But I think it is a very serious mistake to say that because monologues are probably the least effective way of communicating to bring about change in people, then we should dismiss preaching because monologues don’t really work. If we are doing what we are supposed to be doing-which is explaining, unraveling, laying bare, or expositing Scripture-then what we are actually doing is releasing into people’s thinking eternal truth that is alive, which is in itself life transforming.
Secondly, preaching-if it is the releasing of life-transforming truth-is also, hopefully, being proclaimed by someone under the anointing of the Spirit. When the Spirit anoints someone, He not only sets that person apart for a function but in that setting apart there is inherent empowering for this function. You have a living, dynamic Word, you have a spirit-empowered agent of that Word, and you are releasing it-hopefully-into a community of people who are praying people.
Now, look at the three very powerful spiritual dynamics that are at play there. If we don’t realize that or if we ignore that, and say, “Well, preaching doesn’t work anymore….” the question that I would ask is: If preaching isn’t working, whatever that means, is it because it is no longer eternal truth? Is it because a Spirit-anointed person is no longer a force to be reckoned with? Or is it because we have a congregation of people who don’t understand what it means to hold up that preacher in prayer? It could be any of those things.
We should be exploring all those areas of spiritual dynamics much quicker than simply saying we should find other ways of doing this. Because the simple fact of the matter is when Jesus, after 30 years in obscurity, burst on the scene, it said, “He came preaching.” And it was a very powerful message He brought: “The kingdom is at hand; the hour has arrived.” And people sat up and noticed.
It is very obvious that He commissioned His disciples immediately to go preach the Word, to heal and to deal with people where they were; but preaching always had primacy. The next generation, Paul burned himself out preaching the Word, particularly to people where they had never heard it before. His legacy to Timothy is very straightforward: to preach the Word. So what happened? What happened in areas where we seem to be diminishing the primacy of preaching? That is a concern I have.