Steve Brown is one of the most compelling communicators within the evangelical community. He sports a mischievous smile and a resonant bass voice — which must have come in handy in his radio disk jockey days. In 1990 Steve resigned the pastorate of Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church in Key Biscayne, Florida, to devote full time to his growing ministry through radio (as speaker for KeyLife Ministries), conferences, and as a professor of homiletics at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando.
Preaching Editor Michael Duduit caught up with Steve at the 1992 Christian Booksellers Association meeting in Dallas, where this interview was conducted.
Preaching: Your most recent book is entitled If Jesus Has Come: Thoughts on the Incarnation for Skeptics. I was intrigued by the idea of preacher as former skeptic. Do you think your experience as an adult unbeliever causes you to preach differently? As I recall, you came to a real faith encounter with Christ after you were in the pastorate. How do you think that makes your preaching different than it might be otherwise?
Steve: I think there are a couple of things. I went into the far country — I was in commercial broadcasting. In that trek, I learned to think as a pagan and talk like a pagan and to understand where the buttons of pagans need to be pushed. I learned the places where their hearts are broken and what keeps them awake at night. And so I learned a pagan mindset in those days. I learned where their doubts were coming from, and often said if I ever get answers to these honest questions, I’m to provide some answers for other people who are asking honest questions. I’d go around and say, “How do you believe?” and people would say, “Well, you’ve just got to believe.” That’s like saying to a drowning man, “If you would swim then you wouldn’t drown,” and he knows that.
There are churches that are seeker-driven and churches that are seeker-sensitive. It makes me not seeker-driven but certainly seeker-sensitive in terms of what the average person is thinking. The interesting thing is that most Christians don’t think much differently than pagans. We have this tendency to say that our flock is so much different than the world, but sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
Preaching: What do you think are some of those questions that pagans are dealing with that perhaps preaching avoids or ignores?
Steve: Whatever you think about the recovery movement, somebody has developed a marketing miracle in the sense that they have found out where the needs are. This recovery thing — the Twelve-Step program — is absolutely spreading across the country. I teach a seminar with seven steps — it’s sort of an economy size! I also have a 99% tithe and that sort of thing.
I think we need to see the recovery movement in terms of some of the basic needs for which the Scriptures provide answers, because it’s the owner’s manual. I think sometimes we have developed a mindset where we really think it’s important whether or not the Graf-Wellhausen documentary hopothesis is true — it is important to us — or whether anybody cares about the five points of Calvinism or whether anybody even knows what strict subscriptionism is or what the regulative principle is. That isn’t where people are. We’re fighting those battles that were fought long ago — and I doubt whether a whole lot of people cared then — instead of watching and saying, “There are people who are oppressed, who are dying, who show abuse, who feel so guilty they can hardly breathe,” and we bring answers to people like that.
I think we as Christians provide legitimate, balanced answers for the questions that are being asked by people in the recovery movement. One of the dangerous things about the recovery movement is people become addicted to that and it becomes another area of control — even another area of abuse. We as Christians can say, “Look, you’re asking the right questions because God gave you the questions, but we have some answers.” And I think preachers who are wise will listen to those questions and then see if our material meets those needs — and it does, by the way.
I don’t think we change our material. We’re not market-driven in the sense that we find out whatever they need and we provide it. I think that’s from the pit of hell and smells like smoke. But I do think that we listen to the pain of the world and then we go to God’s Word and we say, “Does this speak to this pain?” and it does, it just does, it really does.
Preaching: One of the things that I’ve always been struck with in your preaching is the strength of your illustrations. Other pastors who have listened to you say the same thing. I’ve wondered how much of that particular use of illustration you have comes out of that pagan perspective.
Steve: I think it does. As you know I teach at Reformed Theological Seminary. I teach the TULIP of Communication. The “I” of the tulip is illustrate, illustrate, illustrate. I say to the students, if you can’t illustrate it, it’s not true. See, we forget that doctrine isn’t for doctrine’s sake and theological propositions are not for theological propositions’ sake. Those are ways whereby we communicate the reality that we’ve discovered and that reality’s a time-space thing and if you can’t illustrate it, it’s not true. If you can’t illustrate it, then don’t teach it, cause it doesn’t make any difference. So my mentor early in my ministry — and I don’t have a particular gift at that, I think it’s a learned kind of thing — John Stanton, who’s in heaven now, talked to me a lot. He said, “You have two problems with your preaching. The first is you use words that nobody understands.” He said, “They’re good sermons but you use words that nobody understands and you don’t tell them how to make it work by illustrating it. If you’ll fix that, God can use you.”
He taught me how to illustrate. He taught me — he used to quote Barnhouse, who I quote now — that all of life illustrates Bible doctrine. I carry a notebook with me and there isn’t a conversation I can’t get an illustration from — including this one. When we started talking the tape came unraveled, and you had a spare. I can get an illustration out of that; I can teach biblical truth with that — the way you had a spare. There are so many things that we can teach through something like that and what you do is say, “God make me sensitive to real life so that I can illustrate your truth.”
And then you buy a lot of illustration books, too. I tell you — they tell you at seminary, your homiletics professor said, “It is beneath a man of God to use an illustration book” — he’s lying, folks, he’s lying through his teeth. If you get one good illustration out of an illustration book, it’s worth every dime you paid for it. Read, always read. Don’t stop reading and you’ll get illustrations and God always uses them. If we don’t illustrate, we ought not teach.
Preaching: Describe for me the process that you use in actually preparing your sermons.
Steve: It’s not esoteric, it’s pretty standard. There is a supernatural step that I kind of sense happens. I teach through the books of the Bible — have when I was a pastor — I’m doing more subject-oriented stuff now, but it’s still biblical teaching. It’s built around a certain track. Always in the pulpit as a pastor, I would go through books of the Bible and I didn’t break that except on Christmas Sunday and Easter Sunday. I didn’t do the Lenten series and I didn’t do Mother’s Day — I would pray for those things. The teaching of the Bible was, where we stopped last week we’re going to start this week.
I’ve always had a very extensive library in the area where I was teaching because I always bought the books to meet that. So I read everything I could get on a particular text, took notes on it, and then I wrote down things that would make a difference in people’s lives because they would make a difference in my life — truths that I’d learned. Then I would fill up three or four pages of legal-pad paper with those kinds of notes and I made it a point to ask, “Is there any question that could be asked about this text by the people I teach that I couldn’t answer?” And if there was any question that came to mind that I didn’t have an answer for, I kept searching until I had it all. If I had time, I did a word study. I used Kittel. I did all the stuff everybody does. Then I put it aside. I’d say, “God, the gasoline’s in the engine. Now if you want this car to go, you hit the starter and I’ll do whatever you want me to do with it.”
I don’t want to sound super-spiritual but it has more often than not been like a light — it’s almost like a knowing — and you say, “Yeah, that’s the way I’m going to deal with that.” Then I would build an outline from that. Once the outline was settled, then I hung meat on it. That’s pretty pedestrian, that’s pretty much the way most preachers deal with it.
Preaching: How far in advance was this process going on before you actually stood in the pulpit?
Steve: At least an hour! I am not a good model. I get intimidated by guys who say, “I golf in the summer and plan my preaching for the next year.” Good Lord, I don’t know what I’m going to say next Sunday and I certainly don’t remember what I said last Sunday! Generally I made sure that I had a day for each presentation, and that day might end up being five hours — and then God gave me an extra two or three hours that I could have fun in, go to a movie or be with my family. But sometimes that day would start at four in the morning and it would be three in the morning before I finished, but I left that day open without any interruptions.
Generally, Saturday — early in the morning through whenever I finished — was for Sunday, and Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday night. Usually I preached on Wednesday night and Sunday morning and I left a full day for those. The good thing for me in terms of going through books of the Bible is that I always knew what the next one was going to be because I just did the next paragraph — that is not to be emulated, it’s wrong. I always teach the students how to do it and say, “Look, don’t follow me because I’m lost sometimes.”
Preaching: Henry Ward Beecher would work all through the week. He would get up Sunday morning after breakfast and prepare his sermon for that Sunday morning. He would have been collecting material and he’d get up Sunday morning and that’s when his preparation process began. But he would say at that point, Sunday morning, it was a matter of deciding what he wasn’t going to talk about, because he’d already been mulling it over and dealing with it during the week.
Steve: And he had a tremendous mind. I think that’s one of the things we have to be careful about; I’m an ordinary guy who works hard. I work really hard. Guys think that because my preaching is rather laid-back that my preparation is rather laid-back, and it’s not. It’s a studied laid-backness and I work my tail off to make that happen. You get a guy like Beecher who says that’s how he preaches, but you have to remember that they don’t come along but once in a generation. We’re in dangerous territory when we look to impossible models as preachers.
Guys, you gotta work, you gotta put your fanny in the chair, and you gotta work your tail off, then you gotta put your knees on the floor and you cry up to God for help. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t.
Preaching: Even though you’re not pastor of a local church — you’re teaching preaching, you’re carrying on KeyLife — you’re still preaching a lot. How do you find that your preaching is changing as compared to when you were doing it for the same congregation?
Steve: It’s more focused and I don’t have a lot of assumptions about the people to whom I talk. You know, when you’ve been a pastor of a church for eighteen years, they really groove with you; you can almost give the number of the joke and they laugh, because we’d been together so long. I know where the hot spots are and they know the basics — they know that I’m a Calvinist, that I’m quite reformed in my teaching. I don’t have to say, “This is the reason I’m saying this.”
By and large, now I spend my time on the road teaching and preaching and speaking. I recognize that I can’t make those assumptions of other people so I start more from scratch. I’m far more focused subject-wise than I would be in the church, because I know I’m gonna get one shot. So if I’m going to say something important, I’ve gotta say it now because I won’t be able to do it next Sunday.
Preaching: Has the nature of your sermons themselves changed a good bit? You had a traditional pattern: you’d have some preliminary thoughts that didn’t actually fit into the outline, but some of the best stuff was in that section; then you’d have your biblical outline. Have you changed that style?
Steve: Not a whole lot. I still will take a text that deals with the subject and still feel guilty because there’s stuff sticking out of the suitcase that I feel like I ought to say something about. So that form is pretty much the form in which I still teach. I’m doing two-day seminars, or will be next year all over the country. Now, they won’t be like that. That will be teaching very defined, cognitive material over a two-day period.
Preaching: If you were going to pass along some suggestions to young preachers about their preaching ministry, what thoughts would you pass along to them?
Steve: What happens when you start teaching homiletics is that your mind gets so filled with so much stuff that needs to be said that it’s hard to focus on something. I would say: be the personification of what you preach. When I say that, I don’t mean in the old sense of model holiness. I’m talking about the kind of vulnerability and honesty that you appreciate in others — be that in the pulpit. The pulpit grants us a place to pontificate, to play games, and to look down arrogant noses at the poor peasants in the pew.
In the church that I served, I came from the congregation to preach. I had a petition put on my desk by a number of people in the church who wanted me to sit up front behind the pulpit the way one always did. I tore it up because I realized the reason they wanted me to sit there said something really bad about them and about preachers. So I would sit in the congregation and when it was my time to teach the Bible, I walked up to the pulpit — well, we didn’t have a pulpit. I usually sat on a bar stool and taught. It was a statement: “Guys, as I teach you this stuff, you need to know that I’m placing myself under the authority of God’s Word, too. I’ve worked through some of this, I’ll be honest when I’m not living it. I’ll tell you where I am living it. I’ll tell you what’s helped me and made the difference. But above all, this is revealed propositional truth and we don’t have the freedom to change it.”
That’s the kind of modelling that I think is good for a pastor. I think there were days in the past when pastors and preachers could pontificate — Beecher was one of those, I think Harold John Ockenga was one of those, Fosdick was one. I think our day and age has forced us to take the armor off, and the preacher who doesn’t will die.

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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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