One of the Presbyterian Church’s outstanding contemporary preachers is John A. Huffman, Jr., now pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, as a young minister Huffman served on the staff of Marble Collegiate Church with Norman Vincent Peale. He served as associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, then moved to the pastorate of Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church in Key Biscayne, Florida. Huffman became pastor of the historic First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, prior to coming to Newport Beach.
Active as a leader in a variety of evangelical causes, Huffman is also a Contributing Editor of Preaching. We visited with him earlier this year in his office.
Preaching: You have served churches coast to coast in a variety of settings, from Key Biscayne to the industrial city of Pittsburgh, and now Newport Beach, which seems like something of a resort setting.
Huffman: I am in what looks like a resort area but isn’t. It is a hard working community. This is really a residential, work-type atmosphere. The community of Key Biscayne had a pleasure ethic, while Pittsburgh was what I call a work ethic. I am now in a work ethic/pleasure ethic environment, because it may look like a resort but to the people who live here it isn’t.
You can’t live here without really working hard. They come from all over and move very fast, but it’s not a resort like Florida was.
Preaching: As you’ve moved from one type or kind of community to another, how would you say your preaching has changed?
Huffman: I am not sure that my style or content has really changed. What has changed is my reading of the culture and the kind of language I speak. In each situation I have had to go native fast and learn to understand the local dialect.
Each time I’ve moved to a new area I’ve had to do two things: first — being sure that nothing is lost in terms of the gospel — compromise like crazy to try to speak the local language, to try to understand the culture and speak the language the people speak, and then to speak to that culture in terms of the prophetic word.
For example, I followed Ben Haden in Key Biscayne, and I felt they wanted me to be very evangelistic. I formalized the style, put a robe on, put the pulpit back in the sanctuary. I felt that there were northerners coming down who were visiting and may be turned off by the informal type of environment. We built a very strong attendance from visitors from the north in a resort and I preached evangelistically but in a more formal, non-verbal style of worship setting. By that I don’t mean high church — I just mean it looked less like a Southern Baptist church than it had with Ben’s style. In the process I probably lost some of the Southern Baptist-type people because of my image, but we very carefully targeted.
When I moved to Pittsburgh I went into a very evangelical preaching style. At First Presbyterian I followed Robert Lamont and the congregation was very well trained in cognitive thought theology, biblical-type preaching. I tried to learn the language of that ministry, and I think I adapted myself to their environment. What I did then was to introduce relational preaching. My style is what I call biblical life situation preaching. I am not just a relational preacher and I’m not just an expository preacher — I try to combine both elements. In that environment I felt they needed a lot of preaching on relationships.
In Pittsburgh, I did a series for eight weeks on family relationships that became somewhat controversial in the church because they had not had that kind of preaching before. Our printed sermon list grew from 300 to 3,000 in eight weeks, yet our attendance in church dropped about 15 percent during that time. I had not quite understood the dynamics of singleness in that congregation. To the people who were not married — especially the older singles — all the talk about the wife and children was alienating.
Then I came here into an environment where it is not distinctly labeled. It was not labeled an evangelical church — where the previous churches I had served were — and here there was a love for relational preaching. I felt I was called to preach from the book of Romans, and I spent some forty weeks in the book of Romans early-on in my ministry. It almost broke my back and almost broke the back of the people but it was what really made the ministry here in the early years. That’s because I was not just learning the local environment — I was trying to get a doctrinal base.
It’s not that I didn’t preach the same kind of sermons in both places. I did but the emphasis in this one was to swim against the stream a little bit. Don’t just do what comes naturally — you need to be able to bring a new dimension to that environment.
Preaching: You talked about going native in each area — dealing with the particular culture in that church without sacrificing the message. Would you say that involved primarily the particular way you use language? What other elements could be involved?
Huffman: Well, it involves everything. It involves the total being of a pastor. This was driven home when Anne and I were with some Bible translators in the Solomon Islands. We were brought there to spend ten days with these twenty-five translators who were ministering in an area equivalent to L.A. to Phoenix to San Francisco and back to Denver — that big an area to service — with some seventy languages.
Now I am not a good language student for some reason. I was not gifted with that. My grandfather was a translator and a scholar but that does not come natural for me. I have always felt somewhat intimidated by translators, and there I was doing Bible teaching in the morning while my wife — who is a psychotherapist — was doing some relational things in the afternoon.
There was nowhere else to go so we sat through all of their sessions. These people get together once every two years — they deal with their translation problems, with what’s going on in their computers, and they talk to you about what you do in a culture where you are trying to translate Jesus as the good shepherd and there are no sheep! They got into this and I began realizing that that is the way it is in Newport Beach!
The reality is that I am a translator. I could take you over to Calvary Chapel, or one of the small churches in the area, and every one of these people speaks a little bit different language. Chuck Smith — whom I love very much — he speaks a language of the working class, primarily blue collar. He is sort of a father figure to the whole generation who came up in the tough time of the late 60s. In the Newport Beach area, I see all the way from the yuppie couple to the yuppie fast moving single, so the language I speak is of the element that is primarily in the thirty-eight to seventy-five age bracket — people who are well established and are at a mature point of their lives. I have to speak the language they can relate to. That means immersing myself in what they read, do and think, yet trying to bring to it a prophetic edge.
Preaching: As you try to immerse yourself in the culture of your people, how does that affect your reading program? Are there some particular kinds of literature that you try to read, or publications?
Huffman: I take the concept that my preaching has to be done with the Bible in one hand and The New York Times in the other, although in this culture it’s the L.A. Times and Time Magazine. I do get the Sunday New York Times — I am a news junkie, and this is an information environment here, so I really try to stay on top of what is going on in the world. Our people travel all over the place and are very much alert to what goes on, so I really stay on top of the newsjournals. I also stay on top of publications such as Christianity Today and Christian Century so that I know what is going on in the world of thought and what is happening in the religious world.
In addition to that, my real interest is in history and biography. On vacation I normally take two or three biographies with me. I find a lot about life through biography, so that’s basically my reading. I don’t watch as much television as I should watch and I don’t go to movies as much as I should. I find myself not particularly caring about television, yet I have to really discipline myself periodically to watch just to know what my people are exposed to. My kids keep me up on those things.
Preaching: Are there particular people in the area of homiletics who have influenced you?
Huffman: I don’t approach homiletics in a formal textbook approach per se. But early on in my ministry — when I realized that I was going into the ministry — I set some goals. If I could have some of the power and heart for the Lord in terms of evangelism like Billy Graham, some of the academic responsibility in terms of my study and preparation of someone like Harold Ockenga, the down-to-earth quality of Norman Vincent Peale. Phillips Brooks is another example — I used his Yale Lectures on Preaching as a basis for my doctoral thesis.
Preaching: One of the major ways many ministers have come to know your ministry is through your sermons as they are published and distributed in booklet form. How many of these are mailed?
Huffman: There are about 5,000 sent each week, to fifty states and three foreign countries. There is no charge for them — they are free, though if a person wants to give a donation that is fine.
Preaching: As I receive those sermons regularly and follow your preaching, it seems you do a lot of sermon series. How much of your preaching schedule is filled by series?
Huffman: When I started out my ministry in Florida, I don’t think I did any series that I can remember. What I did preach was out of my devotional life. I would read through the Bible, and — as I read — every time I would hit a verse that spoke to me I would take out a sheet of paper and I would write down the topic and what it meant to me. I must have squirreled away 400 or 500 of those sheets still untouched but my preaching emerged out of that. Then I realized the danger of that approach was that I was preaching only on the things that were hitting me, and that was purely topical preaching.
I did some short series on the family when I got to Pittsburgh, and realized that I wanted to deepen in terms of some word studies occasionally. In this church, I am probably half of the time in series, maybe a little bit more than that. A series can be anything from a three-to five-week series up to a better part of the year. Last spring I asked our people what topics they would like their pastor to address — abortion, authority, money, evolution, suffering — and I did a series on them in the fall: what the Bible says and doesn’t say about these topics.
The thing I want to be sure of is that I don’t just jump around in topics. I have preached eighteen messages about Joshua. The people are very helpful to me in planning for a series.
Preaching: Do you find particular benefits that make you enjoy doing series preaching?
Huffman: I think what I get out of a series is the opportunity to take people a little bit deeper in Scripture. If I had only six more weeks to preach, I would not do a series — I would preach on the Resurrection and other definitive topics of biblical faith. If you preach topically for fifty years, the danger is that you will lose some of the richness and depth that are possible in a series.
Preaching: Tell us a bit about the process you use in planning your own preaching.
Huffman: I try to get away in the summer and plan my preaching for the year. Some may actually set up their topics for a year, though I think few of us get as much done in the summer as we would like people to think we do. In the summer I at least try to see my way through the advent season as to where I am going; then I basically try to stay about three months ahead in terms of my topics, so that I know where I am going.
I really don’t begin preparing a specific sermon until the week before the Sunday I preach. I am not suggesting that is the way to preach but it is a lot better than not starting until Saturday afternoon, which I know many people do! By 6:00 Friday evening, I try to have my sermon complete; if I can’t meet that deadline, then on a few occasions on Saturday morning I finish it and my secretary will come in and type it up. But I don’t use a manuscript at all while I am preaching.
During the week I do sit down with a piece of paper and the Bible and pretend that I am writing a topic for a campus life group. I make a thesis statement based on the scripture passage; J determine what central thrust is there and what comes out of that passage to me. I draw a conclusion — what I would say on the basis of just a very brief encounter with the text — then I put that away and I begin to study. I will begin to scribble notes from my reading; if it involves a word study I will have a sheet or two on studies.
Then I will file all that until Thursday, which is my general review day. I sometimes play golf on Thursday but what I really try to do is to feel no pressure. I have some ideas of what others have said on this passage and thoughts of what I can say on it; then I just shift my mind into neutral and enjoy reading Time Magazine or Psychology Today and let things flow. I may read some church history. I keep books laying around all the time.
Friday morning is the countdown. I make no appointments and I hope to have all of my writing outline done by now. Then I dictate in a machine to be given to my secretary; I find I save myself about 50 percent of the time it would take to sit at a computer or typewriter to do it. With dictation, I also orally color it. Then my secretary types this up.
I don’t look at it through the day Saturday. Late in the day, I sit down and take that manuscript and I do my preaching outline: topic, text, fold it in half and that is what I memorize. Saturday night I spend a little time with the family and I read the sermon over a couple of times trying to memorize the outline.
Sunday morning I get up and read The New York Times and the LA Times, do my devotions, then try to mentally see the outline. It helps in remembering it by writing it down. I read over the manuscript several times and say, “Lord, I have done my homework — now it is up to you.” I eat breakfast, do my exercises, shave and shower, then read over my outline and keep it with me.
Preaching: Do you try to memorize that outline or particular sections of it?
Huffman: No. In the eighth grade I had a course in literature where I had to memorize the “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” I blanked out about a third of the way through, and I vowed then I would never memorize and be dependent on my memory. I decided early-on some people are gifted with word color and I admire them but I need to look my listener right in the eye, not through a manuscript. I take a little bit longer than I would if I was reading or memorizing it but I know that I couldn’t memorize it. I want people to look at me just like I am looking at them: in the eyes. I want that type of contact.
Preaching: How long have you used that method of delivery?
Huffman: Right from the beginning. When I was in New York I watched Peale do this with a formula approach. I am a biblical preacher — my central thrust is on the message, it depends on the text of the Scripture. I like things to be down-to-earth and get it right out there to the people — to just speak directly to them.
Preaching: I know that you serve on the Board of Trustees of Gordon-Conwell Divinity School, and have had a good bit of contact with other colleges and seminaries. How do you think seminaries and colleges are doing in preparing young ministers for the preaching task?
Huffman: I think that we are doing a wonderful job of teaching the content, in terms of theology or church history. I don’t know how well we are doing in terms of training people to preach. In fact, one of the complaints I increasingly hear is that they learn good tools but not necessarily the right practice.
I was blessed to be at Princeton, learning under superb people. They are harder to find today. Most people who are gifted preachers want to preach — they aren’t in the classroom reading student sermons and working with the students. I am talking about denominational and non-denominational schools. It differs from seminary to seminary.
It’s awfully hard to learn to preach at a seminary anyway. But it is very important to young persons going into a preaching ministry to try to write a manuscript a week. Don’t be tied to that manuscript but by writing and putting your words down you have a way to discipline yourself.
Don’t try to do three manuscripts a week. I wouldn’t do more than one a week, yet you will do better on your other preparations during the week if you have done one crisp manuscript a week. I think that brings a point of expectation to yourself and tends to carve your thoughts and preparation process in a way that otherwise isn’t there.
Preaching: Do you have any last thoughts for the preachers now reading your words — any comments or suggestions you would like to make?
Huffman: I would say this: know your people, love your people, let them know you, and share yourself. I would encourage them to trust their people, to let them know your own pain and doubts and frustrations, yet with the positive understanding that God is at work in your life and we are growing together.
Do not be afraid to speak about what you really believe. Trust the Holy Spirit more and just go for broke — be less worried about what people think, a little less concerned about criticism.

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About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

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