As an author, innovator and pastor of one of the largest and fastest growing churches in America, Rick Warren has become one of the most significant influencers in the evangelical community and in the broader culture. He recently visited with Preaching Executive Editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: Let me start by saying that in addition to the many other activities in which you are involved, we have been blessed to count you among our Contributing Editors for Preaching magazine for many years.
Warren: Absolutely! I believe in Preaching magazine; and I encourage people to get the print edition, as well as listen to the podcast. I think I’ve got every issue since I’ve subscribed. I’ve filed them all and keep them close by.
Preaching: We appreciate that. Rick, you have a new project called 40 Days in the Word. The campaign most of us know best was 40 Days of Purpose program, in which more than 30,000 churches participated. It’s hard to believe that was more than a decade ago.
Warren: Yeah, it went by fast. This is actually the first major campaign we’ve offered to other churches in 10 years. We do a spiritual growth campaign (at Saddleback) once a year. In fact, the way I learned to do this is by reading a book years ago called Dedication and Leadership by Douglass Hyde.
He was the leader of the Communist party in England. He converted to Christianity and became a Catholic, and he wrote a book in 1963, printed by Notre Dame Press, about what the church can learn from a Communist. It was an interesting book. It’s not about doctrine obviously, but it’s about how the Communists tried to communicate their message in a free country where they didn’t control all the media.
In one chapter, he talks about the power of the short campaign. He says what the Communists would do is get an emphasis and push it hard for about six or eight weeks, then they would back off. Then they would get one and push it real hard, and then they would back off. That’s just instinctive; growing up in a pastor’s home I knew you couldn’t push people all the time, because we don’t grow that way. We grow in spurts, like spring, summer, fall and winter. No plant grows constantly. There’s a growth spurt, then there’s stabilization, then a consolidation phase; and then there’s another growth spurt.
So beginning 30 years ago, we started doing one major growth spurt a year. We do two actually, one in the fall and one in the spring. The one in the fall is a campaign where we take an emphasis. We clear the calendar, and everybody and everything focuses on a particular thing. Sometimes it’s a book of the Bible—we’ve done the Book of James; we’ve done the Book of Philippians; or as a theme we’ve done
It’s no surprise to any pastor that we now have a generation that knows absolutely nothing about Scripture. My parents’ generation knew a significant amount. The Baby Boomers knew a little bit less because they were raised by people who did know the Word. The next generation, the Baby Busters, knew even less; and the Millennial Generation knows nothing. They know more about Lady GaGa and the current trends on television and the Internet; but they don’t know who the apostles are; they don’t know the books of the Bible.
They don’t know basic Bible stories. If you mention the Book of Job, the story of Job or the story of Noah, there are honestly a lot of people in America who don’t know who Noah is. They certainly don’t know the Scripture; and we’ve gotten away from the habit of Scripture memorization, which I believe is the most important spiritual discipline for a Christian. In my own life I have memorized thousands and thousands of verses that God is able to bring to mind when I need them—in counseling, in witnessing, in temptation, in everyday life.
I’m a fourth generation pastor. My father, my grandfather…My great-grandfather was led to Christ by Charles Spurgeon, then sent to America as a circuit-riding preacher—pastored a church, planted a number of churches. Growing up in my dad’s home, I figured out pretty quick you could go to church your entire life and still be carnal, cranky, grumpy and not Christ-like at all. I couldn’t figure out why people could sit under good Bible teaching for 30 years, and they’re still as mean as all get out—they’re judgmental, they don’t witness, they don’t live godly lives. How is that possible?
An influential statistic that really grabbed me early on in ministry was on a United States Air Force study. It showed the average person forgets 90 to 95 percent of everything we hear unless we write it down—we forget everything we hear in less than 72 hours unless we write it down. Now, if you want a statistic to depress the average pastor, that’s it. I work hard all week to prepare all these spiritual gems, and by Wednesday they will have forgotten all but 5 percent of it unless they’ve written something down. By the way, that’s why I make a strong case for giving a handout outline. I’ve actually taught my people to take notes so they will retain more like 80 to 85 percent, and the stuff they wrote down they can go back to review.
That meant a guy could sit in church for 20 years, hear good preaching, and it doesn’t change the bedrock of his personality. So I came to the frank evaluation that preaching is not enough to make disciples. Obviously I’m a preacher; I believe in preaching the Word of God; but it is not sufficient because it only goes through the ear gate, and people learn different ways. Some people learn through the eye gate—they like to read; some through the mouth gate—they like to discuss; some people learn through the hand gate—they’re kinetic learners. We now know there are multiple learning styles.
So when I started Saddleback, I started thinking: “Could we come up with a way in which once a year we would take a theme, book or text and do multiple reinforcement so we could go through all of the gates at once to try to really reinforce?”
For instance, if we were going to teach on worship for six weeks, could they hear six messages on it? Could they read something about it every day? Could they discuss it in small groups? Could they memorize six verses? Could they do six projects? In other words, can we reinforce the truth rather than simply sit still while I instill?
The first time we did this, I was absolutely blown away by the spiritual growth in our people and how much faster they grew because of multiple reinforcement than through a preaching series alone. So we’ve taken major themes, and the theme that I seem most desperate about right now is this biblical illiteracy.
We’re coming up on the heels of the Queen celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. We’ve had the Bible in the King James Version in English now for 400 years, and yet we’re moving in the wrong direction in biblical literacy.
So, we’ve put together a program as we’ve done in all the other campaigns, 40 Days in the Word. There will be six messages that deal with the reliability of Scripture and the authority of Scripture—how we know we can trust Scripture and an overview of Scripture. Those will be six messages I will teach. I’ve asked some others such as Andy Stanley, Tim Keller and some others to do messages along with me on this. They can share their messages, too.
So they hear it on the weekend, and I have taped six small group studies. We are strong believers in small group interaction. We now have more than 5,000 small groups at Saddleback. We’re in 196 cities in Southern California. Every city in Southern California has at least one Saddleback small group in it. Most people don’t know this, but we actually have about 10,000 to 12,000 more people in Bible study every week than we have in the weekend service. Typically we’ll have 20,000 in service, but we have 30,000 to 32,000 people in Bible study every week in our 5,000-plus small groups. So that’s really the heartbeat of Saddleback. The weekend is just the funnel. The heartbeat is in the groups.
One things I’ve been concerned about is that you can go to church your entire life and never know how to feed yourself. You have to be fed by others. Hebrews says, “by now you ought to be teachers and yet you have to be taught again.” The first book I ever wrote (about 35 years ago, in college) was a book on Bible study methods. It’s still in print and in about 17 languages. It’s called Rick Warren’s Bible Study Methods.
What was funny was that I wrote it out of my own desperation. All my life I’d heard people say, “You gotta study the Bible,” but nobody actually taught me the practical steps: Here are eight steps to a thematic study; here’s now you do a chapter analysis; here’s how you do a book synthesis; here’s how you do a word study; here’s how you do a character study; here’s how you do character quality study; here’s how you do a devotional study.
So I went out and bought every book I could find on Bible study methods. I think it was about 30 or 40 books at the time, and I read every one of them. About 90 percent of them said you really need to study the Bible. It was all exhortation. The other 10 percent were so difficult you had to have a Ph.D. in hermeneutics to understand them. I really was desperate for my own youth group that I was with at the time. So I wrote a book on Bible study methods, and I have taught that for 30 years.
So I have taken that very first method, the devotional method, and we teach people how to study the Bible for themselves in their small groups.
Preaching: Isn’t that interesting how you’ve come back around to where you started—leading people into studying the Bible?
Warren: It really is, you know. The fact is you never get away from it. People still need to know: How do I feed myself? There are actually several parts to the campaign, the first part is six weekend messages that pastors can adapt and use with their own resources to prepare the messages they want to teach. Then there are the six small group Bible studies. The small groups will do their six memory verses. There are projects on deepening the Word, being doers of the Word.
Well we haven’t even really announced it yet—we haven’t put out one piece of advertisement—and I was told yesterday we already have 2,500 churches saying, “I’m in.” So, it’s going to be a lot of fun.
I’m asking three other well-known Bible teachers to start the campaign two weeks early with me. I have multiple people teaching it so that when folks are getting ready to prepare their own messages, they aren’t just looking at my message; they’re getting some messages from other guys, too, to help enrich their study to prepare those six weeks.
By the way, I’m always asked why 40 days, because we always do 40 days. You pick up any psychology book and it will tell you it takes six weeks to develop a good habit. For anything to become habitual in your life, you need to repeat it every day for six weeks. It takes about three weeks to get comfortable with something and another three weeks to ingrain it, brand it into your mind and your psyche. The reason most of us are not consistent with daily quiet time is we’ve actually never gone six weeks without missing—never six weeks in a row.
So in these campaigns when we’re trying to teach people the habits for spiritual discipline in a quiet time—the spiritual discipline of prayer, the spiritual discipline of memorizing a Bible verse, the spiritual discipline of witnessing—we want to get them in habits such as being in a small group. If they can get into a small group for six weeks, the likelihood is most of them will stay.
Preaching: The sermons you mentioned by Andy Stanley, Tim Keller and others—how are those going to be made available for others to look at?
Warren: They’ll all be free. They’re just a part of the packet that will be online. We have a 40 Days in the Word site; or you can go to SaddlebackResources.com. Either of those places will point you to the place.
Something that makes this campaign a little bit different is that I didn’t write a daily devotional for it, but I’m going to have other pastors doing video devotionals. When we did 40 Days of Purpose, I wrote a devotional book called The Purpose Driven Life. A lot of people think I developed a campaign for the book, but it was vice versa. I actually was working on a campaign and said, “Oh, I need a devotional for this. So I wrote the book as the manual for the campaign for my own people. I didn’t write it primarily as a book. In fact, when I took it to the publishers, they said nobody is going to read a book with 40 chapters.
Preaching: Who knew?
Warren: Yeah, who knew? Well, I’ve said a lot of dumb stuff, too. Everybody should be given a 10 percent grace factor for dumb stuff we say. So this time, instead of me writing a devotional book as I have in the past on 40 Days in the Word, I’m asking 40 different pastors to help. I’m getting all ages—some older guys who have been in ministry 30 to 40 years, some guys 20 years and some new guys. Each takes a passage of Scripture. We’re going to do video and audio devotionals, and those will be posted free online and on iTunes and stuff like that. So the people will be listening daily to a devotional on the Word during the 40 Days in the Word.
Preaching: As you said, you’ve got multiple ways to get people into this topic. What roles do you see preaching playing in helping to lead people into the Word on their own?
Warren: The larger the church gets, the more the pulpit becomes the rudder of the church. There’s no doubt about it. It’s only an hour a week—and I’m talking about my sermon, because I regularly preach close to an hour—it still has the power as the rudder of the ship to set the direction, set the pace and give a clear trumpet sound.
One of the values at Saddleback is what we call behavioral preaching, or application-oriented preaching. As we say, interpretation without application is abortion. What we mean is the purpose of Scripture is to change our lives, not to increase our knowledge.
This past week, I was preaching about what we call at Saddleback “do-able faith.” The Bible says, “Be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, so deceiving yourselves.” A lot of churches…we’re guilty of being hearers of the Word. We create great messages that are quite interesting, and we learn a lot of Bible background. We learn a lot of theology. We learn a lot of Scripture. We learn a lot of word terminology; but the key is at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Now if you put this into practice, if you do it, now you build your house upon the rock. But if you just listen to it, you’ve built your house on sand.”
All the way through Scripture the Bible says, “Go into all the world and make disciples. Teach them to do everything I’ve commanded you”—not to know, but teach them to do everything I’ve commanded you. So when it comes to preaching, one thing we say is that you only believe the parts of the Bible that you actually do—that we must be doers of the Word, not hearers only.
The difference between preaching and teaching is that teaching can be simply content. Teaching can be: Let me take you through the Book of Hosea; and let me explain the historical background, the literary background, the grammatical background. Let me give you the theological themes. Let me give you the major insights, the points and the divisions; let me explain to you who Hosea was, then make an application for today.
When you come to preaching—preaching as opposed to teaching is all about persuasion. It’s about asking people for a commitment, asking people to act, asking people to do something and step across the line.
How many times did Jesus say when He finished His sermon: “Now, go and do likewise”? He didn’t say go home and think about it. He didn’t say go home and discuss it. He said, “Go home and do it.” The doing part is missing in so many sermons. It’s actually quite easy to correct. The easiest way to correct it—to turn yourself into a doer-of-the-Word-preacher, or a doable faith, or what I call application preaching—is simply reverse the order of the way you were taught to make an outline in seminary.
In seminary, we were taught that you first do the observation, then you make the interpretation, then you add the application. So often in a sermon, the sermon points end up being signposts of the text. See Jonah running; see Jonah repenting; see Jonah returning; see Jonah ranting and raving—you know, the four chapters of Jonah. Is that really what you want people to remember? It’s a cute little alliteration of the life of Jonah. No not at all! I want their lives to be changed by the Book of Jonah.
So what I do is make my points application statements and put interpretation statements underneath them. Rather than making your points with your interpretation and application underneath, you reverse it. If people write down anything, they’re only going to write down the points, so the points better be action steps so they can be doers of the Word, not hearers only.
Really, you’re doing the same thing, it’s just the order in which you’re doing it—you do the point as the application and underneath it you give the interpretation and show how the Scripture backs up this application. The other key thing to do 80 percent of the time: Look at any sermon coming out of Saddleback: It’s got a verb in every point. There’s a verb, because of “Be doers of the Word,” all these doing verses. So that’s the importance of preaching.
The Bible is incredibly relevant. What’s irrelevant sometimes is the way we deliver it. We can take the most exciting book in the world and bore people to tears with it. The problem with that is when I bore people with the Bible, they don’t think I’m boring, they think God’s boring; and a lot of people think the Bible is a closed book simply because it’s been delivered in an irrelevant way.
Preaching: The approach of having every point of your outline being a statement of application has been helpful. It’s amazing how it helps focus a message.
Warren: You know, one of my mentors recently died, John Stott. John was a dear, dear friend and a mentor of mine for almost 30 years. In fact, before he died, I flew to London to see him and just sit by his bedside. He had been such an influence on me, and I just thought he needed encouragement. So I just went to be with my mentor in his final days.
John wrote a terrific book in which he talked about preaching really building a bridge between two worlds. You know that whole concept: On one side there’s the then, and on this side there’s the now. How do you get from then to now? The then is the interpretation. The now is the application. The bridge is the implication. The implication is the timeless principal.
For instance, if you’re studying the passage in Acts where they go down to the Jerusalem counsel and they say, “Yeah, you can be a Christian without becoming a Jew. However, don’t eat meat offered to idols.” OK, now how am I going to interpret that and make an application of that today—because obviously nobody is eating meat to idols. So what’s the problem here? The problem is finding the implication. You know what the interpretation is; then you know what the implication is; then you find out the application.
Every text only has one interpretation—there’s only one—but there are multiple applications; and they can be applied in my personal life, in my business life, in my family life, in my church life, which by the way is something a lot of pastors miss in growing their churches. I literally have listened to thousands and thousands of sermons because I’ve been mentoring guys for 30 years. Some guys are really good at making a personal application from Scripture; they can see it and can make the bridge from then to now. Then they forget that secondary application which is the corporate application. That is: What should the church do about this?” So as a result, while they’re helping individuals grow, they’re not doing the “we” part also. There’s always a “we” application, too.
That’s why I call it purpose-driven preaching—you’re moving the church forward, not just individuals forward in Christlikeness.
Preaching: This area of application is the hardest part of the preaching craft for many pastors. It does not tend to be the thing we are taught to do.
Warren: Your philosophy on preaching is going to be determined by your understanding of Scripture, and I believe the purpose of preaching must match the purpose of Scripture. So, what is the purpose of Scripture? The purpose of Scripture is not simply to give us a history of Israel or even to teach us theology. That’s in there, but that’s not the primary purpose.
In other words, the purpose of the Bible is that those are the four means to the end. The purpose of the Bible is life change—to change our character and our conduct so we are fully equipped and qualified. Until I’ve got to the character and conduct, I haven’t got to the place God wants me to get with Scripture. Of course that influences your preaching.
One of the key things that I would say in understanding how to make application is really to understand this principal. This was life-changing for me when I discovered it many years ago. Behind every sin is a lie that I’m believing. All behavior is based on belief. In other words, people say, “Why do I act the way I do?” You act the way you do because you believe in something. If you get a divorce, you’re acting as if you’d be happier if you disobeyed God. If you have sex outside of marriage, you actually believe you’ll be happier if you disobey God. So behind every sin is a lie that is being believed.
As a pastor, my job is to expose that lie.
We’ve got to help people change; we’ve got to change their beliefs. If you try to change their behavior without changing their beliefs, that’s a waste of time. That ends up being legalism. So really what I’m always doing is every single Sunday, I’m preaching repentance. I never use the word or rarely, but because I preach repentance every week; I’m trying to change their minds. Pastors are in the mind-changing business; we’re in the repentance business.
By the way, the modern term for repentance is paradigm shift. You can tell people, “You need a paradigm shift.” What’s that mean? You’ve got to turn from darkness to light, from guilt to forgiveness, from self to Jesus. Now, we don’t change people’s minds; the Word of God changes people’s minds. We speak the words of the Spirit. You know, using spiritual words to explain spiritual truth; but when I change the way I think, that’s the root; then it’s going to change the fruit in my life.
So the deepest kind of preaching is really life application preaching. I know people say, “Well that’s shallow preaching.” Actually it’s much deeper. It’s quite easy simply to do an exposition of a book. I’ve done it. I once preached through the Book of Romans; it took me two and a half years. I preached through many of the books of the Bible verse by verse. That’s actually the easiest kind of preaching there is. I pull some commentaries off the shelf. I look at the text; I explain the text; I apply the text; and that’s it; but when you’re actually trying to change a life…
Life application preaching is not shallow; otherwise the Sermon on the Mount is the shallowest sermon ever done, because it’s 100 percent life application preaching. Jesus started out by saying: Let Me tell you eight ways to be happy. Blessed are you if you do this; blessed are you if you do this. He says: Let Me give you six reasons to not worry; and He goes into the six reasons to not worry. Then He says: Let Me tell you about divorce: Don’t do it. Let Me tell you about anger: Don’t do it. One life application after another. Then He gets to the end and says: If you do this, you’re smart and you’re wise. If you don’t, you’re dumb.
A lot of preachers secretly think Paul was deeper than Jesus, but he wasn’t. Jesus was the deepest preacher of all, and every single message of Jesus is aimed for action.
Preaching: What word of counsel would you offer to young preachers today?
Warren: I’d say, two or three things: One, realize God blesses and uses every style of preaching. There is no one single style or one single method God honors above all. Any person who says there is really only one method God uses—well, that’s called idolatry. You are idolizing a method; and it means, you really don’t know church history, because if you read 2,000 years of church history, you will find most of the preachers were not your style. No matter what style you are, most of the preachers were not your style. For me to say there is only one right, anointed, biblical method—of course it’s always going to be the one I do! You know if I say it, it’ll be the one I use. That’s really idolatry. God uses all kinds of personalities; He uses all kinds of styles; He uses all kinds of methods.
The fact is even Jesus, Peter, Paul and John preached differently. They’re all different, so don’t get yourself put into a box that says there is only one way to do it. There are all kinds of preaching to reach all kinds of people. God loves variety; He’s created all different kinds of personalities. Preaching is truth through a personality. That’s an important thing.
The second thing I would say is to learn from everybody. You can learn from every preacher. If you only listen to the style of preaching you particularly like, you are limiting your growth as a communicator. You’ll never become a master communicator, because you’re not learning from other styles and other methods.
I’ve got more than 1,200 books on the subject of preaching. I started preaching at 17, and I had done more than 120 revivals before I was 20. I just said, “I’m going to make a life-long goal of becoming a master communicator. I’m not there yet, and I’ve got a long way to go; so I’m always studying. I’m always learning. You can learn from anybody if you know the right questions.
So, realize God uses all kinds of styles. Learn from everybody; and by the way, don’t just read preachers, listen to them. You know a lot of guys want to get my transcripts, read them, and come up with their own stuff. You need to listen because a lot of guys don’t know how to turn a phrase. They don’t know how to make a dramatic pause, and the difference between a fastball and a foul ball is delivery. It’s the same ball, the same pitcher’s mound, same distance away; but it’s all in the way you deliver it.
Having preached six services a week on weekends for the past eight years, believe me I know the difference delivery makes. You know one message could be a homerun, and the next you’re saying, “Man, I didn’t even get to first base.” It’s the same material, but the delivery is different. So you learn good wording by reading; but you learn good delivery by listening. Listen to all different kinds of preachers.
The third thing I would say, you’d better have a biblical basis for your style of preaching. My biblical hermeneutic for preaching is
In Ecclesiastes 12, it says about Solomon or the writer of Ecclesiastes: The preacher taught people knowledge, and he pondered and searched out and arranged many proverbs. He sought to find delightful words—that’s the third thing you do. Write the words of truth correctly—that’s the fourth thing you do. He says the words of wise men are like well-driven nails.
One of the modern translations says he collected and classified, then he taught the plain truth in an interesting way. He did it in a way that spurred the students to action.