Stuart Briscoe was born in England and worked in student ministry there. He married Jill and came to the United States, where he became pastor at Elmbrook Church in suburban Milwaukee, which grew to more than 5,000 members during his tenure. He served as senior pastor for 30 years. Since 2000, Stuart and Jill have served as ministers at large, preaching and teaching around the world. Their son, Pete, was born in England and came to the United States at age 7, with his parents. In 1992, he became senior pastor of the Bent Tree Bible Fellowship, in suburban Dallas. Together, Stuart and Pete serve as the teaching team for Telling The Truth Ministries. Preaching Executive Editor Michael Duduit recently visited with the Briscoes.
Preaching: What’s it like doing a radio program together as dad, mom and son?
Stuart Briscoe: We don’t do it together in the sense that we sit down in the studio at the same time, but working together on it, through the wonders of modern technology, we are able to take some material from Dallas, Milwaukee and traveling material from all over the place and send it off into cyberspace, where it lands in somebody’s Dropbox. So the actual fact is, physically there isn’t working together on it. As far as the union of the different ministries, we are all familiar with what the other one is saying, and I was late tuning into this particular interview because I was listening to Pete on his streaming message from Sunday. That’s what we do. We stay in touch and find great encouragement from each other in this.
Pete Briscoe: It’s such a joy for me to be able to serve with Mom and Dad. It was 22 years ago when Libby and I left Milwaukee, also leaving the only church we ever knew to come to Dallas. Part of that was leaving my parents’ ministry for both of us, and through TTT, we have gotten to reconnect, and there is great joy in that. Everywhere I go, I meet people. They hear my voice, they ask if I’m related to my parents. Then I hear some story of how God used Mom and Dad to touch them in a real way. I get to do that more and more because we do that together.
Preaching: That’s great! Isn’t it amazing how technology makes it possible for you to do a program together, and for us to be able to have this conversation though we are in three different parts of the country?! Tell me, Stuart, you’ve been preaching for a good many years. How has preaching changed through the years?
Stuart: How long is this podcast going to go? That’s a pretty expansive subject. I first got into preaching as a teenager at 17, 67 years ago. When I look back over 67 years, there are obvious changes. One of the most obvious is that 67 years ago, you almost could assume people would have some kind of rudimentary—probably beyond rudimentary—knowledge of Scripture. You could draw an analogy from an OT character, and people immediately would tune into to what you are talking about.
Now, we come up against chronic biblical illiteracy and have to start from the back in many ways. Instead of saying, “You’ll remember that when Joseph was lowered into the pit by his brothers…”—you can’t assume they’ve got that picture—so that’s one way that preaching has changed.
Another way is that we live now in a consumer society, in many instances our churches have bought into the consumer culture. We spend a lot of time now looking at what our consumers want to consume, and we are addressing things that are of prime interest to them, whereas when I started preaching, we never thought about that. We thought about teaching the Word of God systematically and building precepts upon precepts. The problem with the consumer approach is the consumer is not going to press very much to hear certain fundamental truths they desperately need to hear. So, those two things are the ones that immediately come to mind.
Preaching: Pete, you grew up as a preacher’s kid in the industrial Midwest. Now, you are pastoring a church in the Dallas metroplex. How is that different as far as the preaching environment and approach?
Pete: The essence of preaching, we learned in seminary, is there are two exegetical processes. You exegete the text, and then you exegete your audience. You have to know who you are preaching to, and that will dictate how you get into and come out of the text. The text you are going to preach is the same. For me—especially the audience here—Dallas is full of a lot of people who have a maverick mindset. They are willing to try anything once, twice or three times; many of them have done very well. Many of them have done very well, then lost everything, then done very well again, and then lost it all again.
So there’s this kind of dynamic atmosphere that is pretty tough on families. It’s tough on marriages. So as I exegete my audience, I know who I am preaching to and am aware that my application, introduction and the tension I attempt to create before I get into the text is going to speak to the specific struggles my people have. If I were preaching in Milwaukee, I probably would come at it with a different angle. If I were in San Francisco or Miami, I’d come at it from another different angle. Once you get into the text, you generally are preaching the same thing regardless of the context.
Preaching: By the way, what got you to Dallas?
Pete: Jesus? He made it absolutely clear. I am mentoring some young couples now who are heading into senior pastorate work, and they are starting to talk to churches about whether they should go serve them. I’ve been very clear with them that they’re not looking for jobs. They’re looking for a flock that God has asked them shepherd. That is what got us to Dallas. It is a long story…Libby and I found ourselves—we came down for candidating practice to learn how to do it—and within a half an hour learned I was falling in love with the people. By the time we left, I couldn’t imagine not being their shepherd. God made it obvious this is where He wanted us.
Preaching: Stuart, you and Jill now are ministering around the globe in lots of different cultural settings. Are there some things you’ve learned about preaching when you’re speaking in different cultures?
Stuart: What’s it like going around the world? Tiring! Challenging, exciting, fascinating—all these words apply. What we’ve learned and continued to learn the older we get is the more we have the opportunity to travel around the world, the more we realize how much we don’t know. So, we feel we’re on a steep learning curve all the time. As we get more and more into life, and going to different cultures, we have seen human beings struggling with this challenge of life, and we recognize they need the Creator, the Redeemer, the Lover of their souls. We see Him reveal Himself to them in many different ways.
It’s as if He’s exegeting His audience and expressing Himself to them. So we go places and get excited about what we are learning about the people and their culture, and we get excited about how God is revealing Himself to them. We get excited about what is happening in the different manifestations of the community of faith and the church that is being planted over there. More often than not, when we get on the plane to fly home or to our next assignment—we have said this a hundred times—we look at each other and say, “Why are we leaving this place? There is so much to do, and this is an exciting, fascinating, interesting place.”
Preaching: You spend a lot of time in the developing world with churches and church leaders. What are some of the greatest needs for those churches in areas where Christian faith has a distinct ministry?
Stuart: I think in many places, they don’t really need evangelists. We’re talking now about where there is a church that’s been established. The obvious people who are most likely to be effective in evangelizing in a culture are the people who belong to that culture. That doesn’t mean other people can’t do it, but they can’t do it as well, and it will take them much longer.
We know the church has done a good job of evangelizing, and many people have made some kind of response to the gospel. Yet in many instances, they are not being taken any deeper or farther. The greatest need—and the leaders of churches in the devoting world would tell you this—the greatest need is people who will teach Scripture, who will teach the Word, who will get hold of the people who have come to faith or have made a profession that may or may not be genuine, and pick them up from there and take them deeper into Christ. That’s the biggest need in the church in developing world.
Preaching: Pete, you pastor a dynamic, growing church in Dallas. Tell me about your approach to preaching. If we were to come hear you on Sunday, what might we expect to hear?
Pete: I can’t remember which of my professors said this years ago, but it stuck with me. He said, “Good teachers teach content. Great teachers teach students.” I thought when he said it, of all my different professors, there were some who really connected with me and others who only conveyed content. The ones who connected were distinguished by truly caring whether I got the message. They truly cared that I understood the essence of what they were communicating. They wanted to see it played out in my ministry.
My philosophy would be along those lines. My heart is to see lives changed. That’s the end goal. It’s not that people think it was a good sermon, that they have accumulated content, or learned something new. The goal is that when they walk out of the place, they think, “Wow! My life will be different because Christ is going to do this thing.” So my sermon actually is designed around the hope of seeing lives changed.
I learned a lot from Andy Stanley. Andy has written a book, Communicating for Change, in which he talks about creating tension before the message, that every good story has tension at the beginning, and then the tension is resolved. Andy would argue that the preaching portion of the sermon, the biblical part the exposition of the text, is really where you’re resolving the conflict you’re creating in the introduction. So I hope I create some tension or raise a question the text is going to answer.
I want people to leave my introduction begging me to read the text because they are about the find the answer to the tension. Then coming out, we speak specifically to what difference this should make in someone’s life today and tomorrow. So there is a very clear application. My daddy taught me well! He said there are three parts to every sermon. There’s the what, the so what and the now what. The what is the content, the so what is, “What does this mean? Why does it matter?” The now what is, “What are we going to do with it?” It will be the essence of what we try to do on Sundays.
Preaching: Do you mostly preach through biblical books? Do you do themes?
Pete: Yeah, I generally do expositional series. I just started a series in Hebrews. I do a four-week marriage series every year. I do a couple vision Sundays. We do thematic short four-week series to break up the long series. I know a lot of people don’t do the really long ones anymore, but I tend to do that because the books I am trying to preach are pretty long.
Preaching: What is an average length for a series?
Pete: For me, the topical series would be four to five weeks max, and the expositional series would be half a year to three quarters of a year. If it’s Romans, it’s a year and a half.
Preaching: Do you break up those expositional series with more topical series?
Pete: Yeah, we’ll always take a break for Christmas and Palm Sunday and Good Friday/Easter; we take a break in the summer. I’ll be out of the pulpit for the month of July every year. My teaching team comes in, and we put together a summer series that is topical. So it’s broken up quite a bit.
Preaching: How do you go about planning the series you’re going to be doing. How far out do you know what you’re doing?
Pete: I will take a study-leave week in the summer. During that July period, I take one or two weeks to plan the next expositional series that starts in fall and goes until the next summer. So when I get back from my July break, I sit down with my worship team, communications team, and my kids’ ministry team, and I walk through the series. They have the plan from September through June after that break in July.
Preaching: Stuart, when you were pastoring, did you primarily teach in series, also?
Stuart: Yes, I did, and I’m very interested listening to what Pete was saying and particularly intrigued that he still would do a long series because that is not the conventional wisdom now in preaching. I used to preach long series; as a kid, I remember preaching through Genesis, and I started out by saying I would do one chapter a week until we are through. I would not spend longer than one week on any one chapter, and I wouldn’t skip a chapter. That was a 50-week series! As time went on, I found that people tended to phase out if the series got longer than they wanted.
So, I am glad Pete would do that. What I found was that I needed to keep bringing changes. If I did a long series on Genesis, the next needed to be a short series of the New Testament. If I did a long sermon on Romans, the next one would be a short series from one of the Minor Prophets. There was always an alternating between the Old and New Testament.
One thing I did was give everybody a piece of paper on which was written, “I would like to hear a sermon on ____ no longer than ____ minutes.” It was fascinating to see the requests I got. One of my favorites was, “I would like to hear a sermon on God, on what the Bible says about God in about 10 minutes.” Another guy’s said, “I would like to hear a sermon about what the Bible says about Martin Luther in about as long as it takes.”
We got some helpful feedback, as well; I used to enjoy those things. I think I did that about once every decade…It was interesting to see the topics didn’t change very much.
Pete: I want to encourage pastors to think about doing longer series, and I think what my dad said is really true. People can phase out, which is why it’s good to take little breaks; but one thing we lose when we don’t preach an entire book is that the author is making a coherent argument that requires working through the entire text.
In the Book of Hebrews, in the first two-thirds of the book, the author is showing us in different ways that Jesus is better than everything else. He speaks specifically to the fact that Jesus is better than things that are very valuable. The last one-third of the book is about the new and living way, the new covenant; and that can be useful, too. In order to really do a deep dive into the new and living way and the last one-third, you have to work through the first two-thirds and take the time.
It feels redundant, and you tell your people there’s a reason the author keeps going over this. In Galatians, I did five sermons in a row that felt as if they were the same sermon. The fifth time in a row, you say Paul is saying the same thing five different ways in order for us to get it. If we skip around too much, we miss the power of the arguments the authors obviously were very thoughtful about.
Stuart: Can I just add to that? I think the realistic way we look at the epistles is that the first part of is solidly doctrinal, and the latter part is practical application. If you only did the application without the doctrine or the application without the doctrine, you’re not doing justice to the text. It’s not what God’s Spirit inspired.
Preaching: Stuart, who have been your influencers as a preacher?
Stuart: Well obviously, in the very early days the first influence was my father, who was a lay preacher. Then growing up in England, attending the great convention, I had the opportunity to hear many of the very well-known British preachers such as Steven Alford, Allen Redpath, Tom Reed and many other people. As a young man, I had the incredible privilege of being invited by John Stout to be on his team to be part of a mission at Manchester University. That was where I was introduced to John.
I remember being greatly influenced by an American preacher named Donald Barnhouse. He preached a message when I was a rebellious youth, sitting in the meeting I didn’t want to attend. He got up to speak, and I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t realize the preacher had started, and oh, this voice bellowed over the speaker system, and I thought, “Who is this?” He got my attention, and he preached a sermon on the epistles about how if we exalt ourselves, God will debase us. The way to up is down; the way down is up…Donald Grey Barnhouse…Ray Stedman was a very dear friend, and lots of other folks on this side of the Atlantic.
Preaching: Pete, what about you? Who have been the major influences?
Pete: Well obviously, my mom and dad. They both are fabulous preachers, and they both preach very differently. I actually learned both sides of my brain as far as preaching by observing my parents. My dad is very bright and comes at it from an intellectual perspective. That’s not to say there is a lack of passion, but my dad taught me how to think through a text and how to communicate to people’s minds. Mom is an artist, and she is able to draw things out of text with words in a way that is magnificent. She taught me how to feel through a text.
I’ve heard it described as if preaching was allowing a text to affect our heads through our minds, and speaking it forth through to someone’s mind to their heart. My parents taught me how to do both those things. So, growing up at Elmbrook, I was fortunate to have so many people come through and share the pulpit, and I grew up listening to great preachers.
I’ve been surrounded by great preaching my whole life. While I was in seminary, learning how to preach, I remember—and I won’t use his name—a TV preacher whose theology I almost always disagreed with, but I was mesmerized by the way he communicated and the way he grabbed people’s attention. I remember I learned that many times, communication is a skill to be learned, not just a gift that’s granted as we fan into flame the gifts God has given us. We can learn from different folks regardless of whether we agree with them.
Preaching: If an angel showed up on your doorstep tonight and said you have one sermon left to preach, what would it be?
Stuart: The one I’ve been working on all week! That’s a question they ask a man who’s going to the moon! The crew was very nervous about taking off to the moon again, and the interviewer asked, “What would happen if you couldn’t get the engine to start to fire the thing off, to get you off the moon, and you only had an hour of oxygen—what would you do?” They said, “Get the engine working!”
Pete: I would go directly to Galatians 2:20. I would point people to what Paul called the mystery of the gospel; in Colossians, he defined it as Christ. So the Person of Christ, His finished work, His ongoing work by His spirit. He defined it as Christ within us, the hope of glory. So I would preach the indwelling Christ and His work. He defines the mystery that Christ brings Jew and Gentile and draws us together in the body of Christ. I would passionately preach the church, and I would go on a long, long time, because at the end of Ephesians 6, Paul said, “Pray for me that every time I open my mouth, I would fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel.” I pray that constantly, and if I knew I only had one more sermon to preach, it would be the mystery of the gospel.
Stuart: That’s what I meant to say!
Pete: Let me make one last comment—this is a father-son thing. I was driving down the road recently, and my dad texted me something that made me laugh. It made me realize that when we are together, we spend time laughing. I realized how we get so little time together. We live a long way away, and we are both busy. So it was the Spirit-led idea that I call my dad and ask him to come down and hang with me and just go play.
So my dad came down, I got my friend’s condo, and we went away together. I came up with 20 or 25 questions that I’ve always wanted to ask my dad, and it was one of the richest times I possibly could have imagined. We learned a lot about each other. I mentioned that to a number of my friends, and all their eyes lit up; so now today, four or five reached out to their dads and spent some time with them. I want to encourage guys my age—if their dads are still around—to take them away and ask them everything you want to ask them. I know it will be really rich.
Stuart: Pete’s absolutely right. It was wonderful, and I was so extremely grateful that he thought to do it—and consumed with guilt that I hadn’t thought to do it.