Smith teaches preaching at Beeson Divinity School and has been a featured preacher
at past sessions of the National Conference on Preaching. He will be part of
the 2005 conference in Nashville, which will use the theme “Preaching With
Passion.” Preaching editor Michael Duduit recently talked to Robert
about the place of passion in preaching.
Whenever you preach I sense an enormous amount of passion in your preaching.
Tell me a little bit about what you see as the place of passion in your preaching
specifically and then generally with preaching.
My passion does not come simply become I’m outgoing. Really I’m very introverted.
But my passion comes as a result of my being engaged with the text. When God
has revealed to me through my studies the meaning of something that is so revelatory
and relevant and the text literally comes to life, then my passion is ignited.
I feel a relationship with Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 29 he said: “I said I
was not going to speak in His name anymore but his word was in my heart like
fire shut up in my bones, and I couldn’t hold my peace. Because His word was
in my heart then it was like fire. Ignited my emotions, and I had to speak it.”
kinds of passages help me to understand the role of passion in preaching, which
is directed by an engagement with the text so that exegetically one comes to
understand what that text is saying to Gods people. In the passage as they are
leaving Jerusalem on the way to Emmaus, they said, “Did not our hearts
burn within us while he talked with us by the way and opened to us the scripture.”
Hear what they said: Eyes were opened. Opened to us the scripture. There’s burning,
and a desire to go back to Jerusalem to tell the eleven that the Lord is risen.
Most people would tend to think of passion as being emotionally-driven but you
talk about it being textually-driven.
Exactly, because all of us are emotional. Maybe some are more subdued than others.
Real passion comes from listening to God’s Word and being engaged in a conversation
with the text. Passion is not simply feeling in the pulpit, to scream and holler.
A preacher may stand still, never bobs and moves and does nothing emotional,
that individual can still have passion because of the Holy Spirit.
What is the role of the Holy Spirit in passion and preaching?
The Spirit is the catalyst, the energizer. He is the one who gives unction.
This is how I picture it. I think of preaching and passion in terms of the role
of the Spirit in Genesis 2, Ezekiel 37. Adam had everything he needed to be
considered a human being except breath. He had all the bones he needed, he had
skin, organs. The only thing God did was to breathe into his nostrils that breath
same think in Ezekiel. There are dry bones, then they take on flesh – there’s
everything but they’re still lying down. They need the breath. I think preaching
can’t really stand until the Holy Spirit takes our message and breathes upon
it, because He knows – He’s omniscient. He knows what Robert Smith needs. He
can take something that I’ve prepared – I have no idea what you need or what
the congregation needs – and He takes that and distributes it in diversified
ways. And that’s exciting.
we’re not aware of it until after the service is over and people come up to
us and ask, “How did you know?” with tears in their eyes, and the
Holy Spirit has been moving. Sometimes what we’ve said has not necessarily been
said well in terms of articulation and presentation but the Spirit takes what
we consider an aside and applies it to the people. I see the Holy Spirit as
the omniscient one who is fitting us for being in the pulpit. He’s with us in
the study preparing. He is the preacher doing the sermon and He’s the after-preacher,
because after the sermon is over the Spirit is still preaching all week long
applying the message to people. Most of the time we never see our product and
we won’t know how our preaching hits some people until we get to Heaven.
Tell me what you see is the place of prayer in all of this.
Prayer is my recognition that everything I’ve done by way of preparation is
in vain in my own strength. It brings me to the point that I know I’m inadequate,
I’m insufficient. When I open myself up to God to use my weakness and my wayward
thoughts and disorganized ideas – and sometimes to watch Him do that in the
pulpit is almost like having an out-of-body experience and saying, “This
is not me.” So prayer, for me, is opening the door so that God can come
in and take what I’ve done and use it beyond my fondest dreams. Its like Fred
Craddock saying, after he’s prepared his message and is on his way to the pulpit
from the study, “God, I have nothing. Let’s see what you’re going to do
with nothing today.” Just opening yourself up to be used.
go to the pulpit depending totally upon your preparation instead of the Holy
Spirit makes you a double fool, because then you don’t open yourself in terms
of praying and saying, “God, even though this is well-designed and well-manicured,
if you don’t use it I’m going to flop.”
There are many churches today where there doesn’t seem to be a lot of power.
To what extent do you see that as a lack of what we’ve been talking about in
terms of dependence on the Spirit, the role of prayer, the place of passion?
There is a detachment between head and heart so that some will enter the pulpit
– the congregations are well-trained, very educated, that’s wonderful – and
they preach from the neck up because that’s what people want. They want to hear,
to learn, to take notes, that’s it. “Give me information.”
there are those who preach to people from the neck down. They want to be set
afire in the heart. They don’t necessarily want to be informed. They want to
feel good. They want to shout.
think we have to come to the place where we preach to people holistically. We
want to inform them but we want to inspire them as well. To preach to some congregations,
in order to get to them you have to start with the heart. Inspire them. And
others you have to start wit the head; after you earn the right to be heard
because they understand you can be intellectual enough – there’s credibility
in what you say – then they’ll open themselves up and be inspired. But for other
people, if you start there that’s too sophisticated, too educated, too high
for me. They won’t hear you but if you can start with the heart, then you can
teach them something. I just think we have to cover the whole canvas. There’s
a detachment between the head and heart, the cardiological and the cranium.
There’s a detachment between what I consider anthropological and ontological.
need to know that there are people who come here who need proclamation in terms
of the gospel to be saved. I want to cater to their salvation but there are
some who have been Christians for a long time and they need to be taught, so
I want to instruct them so that they can mature in the faith and not keep drinking
milk, get ready for the meat. But then I want to inspire in terms of therapy
because there are some who are strong in faith but they’ve been beat up on.
Bad diagnosis, trouble in the family, joblessness, death, etc. They need to
be encouraged and inspired. I think what we’ve done is to dichotomize our preaching
to the point where we just shoot for the head or the heart. Instead we need
to seek a wholeness, an engagement the way Jesus did.
You come out of an African-American tradition as a pastor for a number of years
but you’ve now taught in two schools where the majority of your students are
not African-American. Tell me what insights you try to draw out of your own
preaching tradition that students outside of that need to learn from. What are
things that pastors, preachers who are not African-American can learn from those
First of all I don’t consider myself a black preacher. You didn’t say that,
but I consider myself a preacher black. I say that because I want my preacherliness
to define me and not my race. I’m a preacher that just happens to be black so
I don’t want to be defined, confined and categorized by my ethnicity, which
I don’t deny. It’s to enable me to be true to who I am but to be able to move
out of who I am so that I can adapt to any audience because truth is not ethnic.
I need to be able to relate to any congregation I preach in – the idioms in
those congregations, the time schedules in terms of their worship – don’t decry
them, don’t think that there is a superiority in African-American preaching
over any other preaching. But to say that God has given all of us something
and we need to learn from each other and inform each other so we can be more
effective. My students hear that all the time. So that’s one of the things that’s
been helpful for me.
course black preaching is not monolithic. There are congregations that participate
in call and response and other black congregations where if you held a gun to
their head they wouldn’t smile or do anything!
want to be myself to a point that I’m kind of like Michael Jordan. He was asked,
“What do you think about when you have 10 seconds left in a game and the
score is tied and you’re one point behind? Are you going to make a hook-shot?
Are you going to dunk, drive or you going to shoot a 20-footer, a fade-away?”
He says, “I take what the defense gives me. If there’s an opening down
the lane I take it. If someone backs off and I can fade, take a shot, I’ll do
the way I am with preaching. I take what the congregation gives me. If the congregation
is open to me swinging, I’ll swing. If it’s open to me lecturing more or whatever
. . . I want to, at the same time, still be myself and perhaps take them further
than they are used to going. And that can never be done unless there has been
an engagement of the text all the way through. Otherwise it is just emotionalism.
had the privilege for 38 years of probably doing 60 percent of my preaching
in a white context. I’m a product of white seminaries and white Bible colleges.
One of my African-American Ph.D. students asked me one time why I was doing
a dissertation on a white German theologian. Why not a black person that I could
write about and leave a legacy for our church? I informed him that this person,
Helmut Thielicke, was an individual that for me transcended colors – that he
could be linked to suffering of all people. Intellectually as a churchman he
kept his foot in the church and the academy. I wanted to present someone who
could bless more than the white church but could bless the entire church. That’s
why I chose to write on him – and he has informed me ever since. He just happened
to be a preacher who was white. That’s all.
Who are the preachers that have influenced you?
My father in the ministry was Elijah Lee Alexander from Little Rock Arkansas.
Crude, rough-hewn, baptized me, made me a junior deacon at seven, ordained me,
all that. He was the kind of individual who shaped the way I think and the way
I preach. When I was probably about 10 years old I had to know the church covenant
word for word. No excuse. I had to know the 24 articles of faith. I had to know
that. My mother and father gave him permission to literally whip me – I know
it sounds mean – for being lazy in thought. I had to know that. I was forced
to teach adult Sunday school at 14. I had home Bible study, correspondence course
for adults in that neighborhood when I was 12, 13. All those kind of things
came as a result of him. So he shaped the way I think.
I was getting ready to preach at his church as a young teenage preacher. I had
50 pages of a manuscript that I was going to preach at Shiloh Baptist church
in Newark, Ohio, and about an hour before the service he said, “Bobby,
is this your’s son?” I said, “Yes, sir.” I had taken all these
notes on the Pulpit Commentary and all that.
tore up every one of those pages and threw it into the trash can. He said, “Now
if you need all of that to preach from, if you can’t remember anything you’ve
read, how do you expect the people to remember? Now,” he said, “You
go on and preach.”
was mad – of course, I wouldn’t let him know that – but it shaped me. I’m
for any way of communicating the Word of God but it has to be internalized.
He forced me to internalize my thought, organize it and to present it. So he
person is George Q. Brown, who was pastor at New Mission Baptist Church for
18 years, and I was there with him for ten years. I succeeded him. I used to
carry his luggage. I learned so much about preaching just incidentally, almost
accidentally. His delivery was always a delivery that focused on Jesus – there
was always a Christ element. It’s not preaching unless you talk about Jesus
and his death. So he influenced me.
then since 1992, James Earl Massey has really influenced my life, particularly
when it comes to being scholarly and documenting everything. He’s walked with
me through some moments, like in the hospital. He was the external reader for
my dissertation and is now serving as a conversation partner in a book that
I’m working on during sabbatical. So those are the three individuals in terms
of preachers, E.L. Alexander, George Q. Brown and James Earl Massey, who had
the greatest impact on my preaching.
Who are the preachers that you like to listen to today?
I love to listen to James Earl Massey. I love to listen to Charles Swindoll
because of his communication skills. He knows how to communicate. I love to
listen by tape to E.K. Bailey, because E.K. Bailey served as a model of how
to be yourself in any audience, bring the gospel, to be graphic, to make the
text live; I still like to go back and listen to him. I like to listen to John
Piper because Piper reminds me of the seriousness and the gravity of our task
of preaching. No nonsense. His emphasis on the sovereignty of God is moving
and significant for me. I love to listen to how he can let the gospel be as
radical as it is. No compromise.
African-American preachers – E.K. Bailey, Tony Evans. I like to listen to him
because of his exegesis. He’s biblical. He has passion. Obviously again these
persons are speaking not only to African-American audiences but white audiences.
A. Lewis Patterson, Jr., who pastors the Mount Corian Baptist church in Houston.
I like to listen to him for his love of language. Biblical language. He’s a
word molder. Very alliterative.
the last one, of course, is the dean of preachers. That’s what Tom Long calls
him. He didn’t call him the dean of black preachers, the dean of preachers:
Gardner Calvin Taylor. I’ve been listening to him preach for 30-something years.
The way that he engages you and can take one word and just continue to stretch
it until you can see what he’s saying not just hear what he’s saying.
You’ve been at this for a long time now as a pastor, associate pastor and now
as a teacher. What are some things you’ve learned about preaching that you wish
you’d known when you started out preaching?
Scottish theologian Donald Baillie said, “Theology exists to make preaching
as hard as it needs to be.” Earlier in my ministry I wish I would have
spent more time reading theology, because theology for me today is serving as
a reservoir for my preaching. Theology represents the iron rods that hold my
preaching together. – like the iron rods that hold the concrete together on
the highway. So I wish I would have know that.
read so many preaching books, wonderful books, but I wish I would have read
more theology. I wish I would have at an early point read Barth’s Church
Dogmatics. I’m finding myself now at 55 years of age devouring theological
compendiums. That’s a major thing I wish I would have known then.