One of the most prolific writers among evangelicals, Warren Wiersbe’s books are eagerly awaited by preachers as well as laypersons who admire his insightful interpretation and useful application of scripture.
Born in the Chicago area and raised in the industrial area of northern Indiana, Wiersbe made his commitment to Christ at a Youth for Christ rally where Billy Graham was the speaker. He attended Northern Baptist Seminary, then joined the Youth for Christ staff. After two pastorates — including the Moody Church in Chicago (1971-1978) — Wiersbe became featured speaker for the Back to the Bible radio broadcast, which he continued until 1989.
Today Wiersbe continues his ministry of writing and teaching from his home in Lincoln, Nebraska. Editor Michael Duduit interviewed him for Preaching during a recent speaking engagement in Birmingham, Alabama.
Preaching: You have spoken a good deal about the importance of doctrinal preaching. That’s an area that increasingly seems to be overlooked. Tell me what you mean by doctrinal preaching and why you think it is such an important need within the church.
Wiersbe: Of course all preaching ought to be doctrinal. Any preaching that’s not based on Bible doctrine is questionable. The doctrinal sermon is one that focuses primarily on the explanation and application of a specific doctrine — justification by faith, adoption, the virgin birth, whatever it may be.
It’s important because our faith is based on doctrine. Our faith is based on historical fact. 2 Timothy 3:16, the classic passage, says that scripture is profitable for teaching or doctrine. It’s good to know what you believe and why you believe it — that’s what people need today.
Preaching: How would you compare or contrast doctrinal preaching with a typical expository sermon?
Wiersbe: There need not be contrast. You could take a key passage and develop a doctrine. You could develop the theme of justification by faith from Romans 4, and it could be expository; or you could develop the theme of regeneration from John 3. But often doctrinal sermons are more on the topical side because you could go on for a long time on justification by faith! But you should take one aspect of a theme from the text, and the sermon need not be topical. It could be expository.
Preaching: When you were in the pastorate, what was the nature of your own preaching ministry? Did you preach in series or otherwise plan your preaching schedule?
Wiersbe: In the first church I pastored (when I was a seminary student and pastor at the same time), I had no system. I should have had one, but no one told me exactly how to do it. When I was at Calvary Baptist in Covington, Kentucky, I always preached a series of sermons. I would work my way through a book. The mistake I made at Calvary was to let the series run too long. This was the thing you were supposed to do — to be able to say to your pastor friends, “I just finished two years in Philippians!” Spurgeon talked about the man who spent eight years in Hebrews. The preacher got to the closing chapter where it says “suffer this word of exhortation,” and Spurgeon said, “They suffered.” That’s what I am afraid I was doing.
While I was at Moody Church, I learned that the attention span in the big city is not quite that long. So I limited a series to perhaps three months and then a break. When I did Acts, for example, I preached from Acts for three months, then took a break. Without telling people, I often followed the Christian church calendar. I recommend this. I didn’t announce it; it would have scared some of them! But I watched the calendar so that I was always ready for a break in my series at the Lenton season. I wanted to have the church prepared for Good Friday and Easter. I would prepare for the advent season in the same way.
Preaching: How did you know what you ought to be preaching? In selecting a series, how did you go about evaluating that?
Wiersbe: In planning a series, I would try to say to myself, “What is it that excites me?”, because I can do my best with that which excites me. Where is the state of the church? Do we need the outreach emphasis with Acts? Do we need the faith emphasis of Hebrews 11? What does this church need at this point? This is where pastoral work comes in. We must know our people. We should also listen to the people. When I was at the Moody Church, I came to a point one year where I was stymied. I didn’t know what to plan for the fall messages, and I always tried to plan six months in advance so that the staff knew where we were going. At an elders meeting, I confessed my perplexity. I said, “Brethren, I’ve been here several years now — I don’t know what to do.” One of the elders spoke up and said, “Have you ever considered doing a series on suffering?” I said, “No, but I know that a lot of our people are going through difficulty.” He said, “Pray about it.” So I did and the Lord gave me seven messages on suffering which were greatly used by God to help both the church and the pastor. The series eventually developed into my book, Why Us? When Bad Things Happen to God’s People. In that situation, the series idea grew out of the eldership.
I’ve always tried to balance the series. If I’m doing the Old Testament in the morning, I want to do something from the New Testament at night. I always felt that the evening service should not be a duplication of the morning service. We always had more music, more participation and a different kind of a message.
How do you evaluate it? I guess the general growth and development of the church. You preach by faith. Somebody described preaching — radio preaching in particular — as a doctor standing at the top of the Empire State Building with an eye-dropper in his hand trying to get medicine into somebody’s eye down there on the street. It’s hard to know what is being accomplished. But people say to you, “The messages in this series are helping me.” That encourages you.
Preaching: Talking about radio preaching it strikes me that it would be very different from preaching to a local congregation — preaching Sunday by Sunday to a very different kind of audience.
Wiersbe: At Back to the Bible, it was studio preaching; there was no visible audience. I wanted them to change. One of my early suggestions was’ “Let’s change and do what Chuck Swindoll is doing and others are doing, let’s tape it from a live situation.” This has a number of advantages: first, it’s much easier to preach to a live congregation than it is in a studio. Secondly, you can use humor — you can’t do that in the studio, they don’t know you’re being funny, they take you seriously. But if they hear the laughter coming from the congregation they say, “Hey, it was funny!” But the board preferred not to change; they said, “Ours is a studio ministry.” So the difficulty of the studio ministry is you must be very careful what you say and how you say it. The listeners cannot see your face. They don’t know what your expression is. You’ve got to imagine one person listening, not a big congregation.
Actually when you preach to a congregation, you don’t preach to a congregation but to an assembly of individuals. When I preach publicly, I preach to one person because the Word is for individuals. The radio preacher who talks about “people out in radioland” invites everybody to turn the radio off, because there are no “people” — only individuals — it’s a woman ironing clothes, or a truck driver on the road; and you’re talking to an individual. You should do that, I think, in pulpit ministry rather than talk to a crowd. How do you preach to a crowd? Crowds don’t do anything; individuals do. I like Phillips Brooks’ definition of preaching: “the communication of divine truth through human personality.” We preach as individuals to individuals.
Preaching: Through your books and your radio ministry, you have been a favorite of many preachers. Many have drawn encouragement and ideas from you. Who were the folks you drew encouragement from or who you enjoyed listening to or reading?
Wiersbe: I have two sets of homiletical heroes: the dead and the living. Among the dead, Campbell Morgan is a hero — his sermons and books have been a great encouragement to me and, of course Spurgeon, but for a different reason. I read Spurgeon, not as a preacher or a homiletician, but as a sinner just needing God’s grace. Many times I will come home from church on Sunday morning and while my wife is getting dinner ready, I’ll just sit down and read one of Spurgeon’s sermons. It does my soul good. A relatively neglected preacher, George Morrison, had a great influence on me. He pastored the University Presbyterian Church in Glasgow. An hour before the service, the line of people in front of the church would reach around the block. He published many books of sermons — they’re out of print, as many good books are — but he had a poetic gift in his preaching.
You must know this about me: my early preaching ministry was very analytical, very content centered; and in these recent years, I have moved away from the emphasis on content to intent. I did not agree with his theology but Harry Emerson Fosdick was right when he said, “The purpose of preaching is not to explain a subject, but to achieve an object.” So I’ve moved more into that, plus I use more imagination. For several years I’ve been working on a book on imagination in preaching — not how to think up illustrations and how to have clever titles, but the theology and psychology of imagination. You read the Bible and it’s a picture-book. It’s not a book of doctrine, or even a theology book — it’s a picture-book, but we don’t preach that way. There’s a lot of material available on imagination. The secular philosophers and semanticists have been doing a great deal of study on metaphor. You read Isaiah and see what a master he was of the imaginative. I was reading Hosea the other day in the NIV, and there must be thirty or forty similes and metaphors in that one book. So when I prepare a sermon, the first question I ask is, “What does the text say?” Then I ask, “How does it say it?” I used to skip that. Is my text a poem, a proverb, a narrative, a story, a parable? What kind of literature is it — and why did the writer use this approach? Bible preachers preached in that mode; why don’t we? We analyze everything to death.
Preaching: The whole contemporary movement emphasizes narrative in preaching — how do you react to that?
Wiersbe: Narrative preaching must not be simply retelling an old story in modern dress. Preaching is not just story, it’s image. Paul in his epistles used dozens of images of the church. Peter did the same thing. Instead of giving a long speech about separation, Peter says, “You are pilgrims and aliens in this world.” Symbolism has a way of growing. You take an image: it applies to my age, it applied to the age Peter wrote to, it will apply to the church fifty years from now. So imagery has a way of giving truth prominence of expression, but freedom to expand.
Narrative is good, but some preachers have made the mistake of thinking, “All you do is tell a story,” and you become an evangelical Garrison Keillor, for example. Keillor is a master at telling stories, but I think preaching is much more than that.
Preaching: Tell me about the contemporary models. Are there some contemporary folks that you like?
Wiersbe: Unfortunately I don’t get to hear many preachers. I do read them. He’s dead now but J. Wallace Hamilton was really a creative preacher, and his books are worth reading. I appreciate Chuck Swindoll’s preaching; he has a warm, practical touch. I appreciate David Jeremiah in El Cajon, California. We have been together in conferences and I thoroughly enjoy his messages — biblical, contemporary, up-to-date. The old Youth for Christ slogan, “Geared to the times but anchored to the rock,” sure applies to preaching. I wish I could get to hear more people but I don’t.
Of course we’ve all heard the greats. W. A. Criswell has been a great blessing to so many of us. I remember listening to R. G. Lee and saying, “111 never preach again. There’s no sense my even getting up, I’ll never preach again.” A. W. Tozer was a great blessing to me. I heard him preach many times. Vance Havner — I miss him, I really do. We needed him and I always enjoyed hearing him, but these are very special people. There never will be another W. A. Criswell, there will never be another Vance Havner.
Most of what we know about preaching comes through the printed page rather than the spoken word. I’ve been with Stuart Briscoe in conferences. His ministry always blesses me and I think over the years Stuart’s ministry of the Word has changed. He seems to be moving more toward the practical/imaginative rather than the didactic/ analysis type of sermon.
I think sermons are getting shorter. Bob Cook used to tell us in Youth for Christ that a sermon does not have to be eternal to be immortal. Sermons are getting shorter, preaching is getting more personal, and the preacher has to be more open and more transparent. The day is over when people simply accept the authority of the text; they also need to be assured of the authority of the preacher. We need to be more transparent. When I started my ministry over forty years ago, a preacher would not tell publicly about some dumb thing he did that week, but now many preachers do it. I think preaching is changing for the better if what I read is what people are hearing, and I think there are some fine young preachers coming along. I won’t name them, but I’m grateful for what God is doing in and through them. They’re better trained than I was when I got started, and they have better tools.
Preaching: If you had one word for preachers that you could pass along to them — encouragement or advice or counseling — what would you say?
Wiersbe: The same thing I heard W. A. Criswell say on the radio the other day: give your morning to God. Start your day with the Lord. Ministry is not what we do so much as what we are. Phillips Brooks said that when God wants to make a sermon, He first makes a preacher. The most important part of a preacher’s life is the part that only God sees — the time alone with God, when you’re not sermonizing, when you’re not preparing for public ministry, when you are a sinner worshiping a holy God. “Without me you can do nothing,” said Jesus. He didn’t say, “Without me you are handicapped.” So I would say to every preacher: cultivate your spiritual roots and start each day with the Lord.
Let Him build you. I learned early in my life that I’m not an evangelist. I admire these people who can read John 3:16 and make three or four points and tell two or three stories and people get saved. I can’t do that. That’s not my calling. I’m doing the thing God called me to do; but if I didn’t spend time everyday with the Lord and let Him build into me what He wants, I couldn’t do what He wants. So my word would be that: cultivate your spiritual roots.
Preaching: Pastors have told me this is one of the toughest disciplines for them.
Wiersbe: But it’s a lot tougher if you don’t do it! When we were at the Moody Church in Chicago, I jealously guarded my Saturday evenings. There was a great deal of “evangelical nightlife” in Chicago. We could have gone to a lot of places, enjoying a lot of things; but on Saturday evenings, I would go to my study at home and prepare myself for the Lord’s day. I would think through my message and talk to God. I would make sure there was nothing in the sermon that was not real to me. I would prepare my pulpit prayer. I wouldn’t write it out but I would prepare it so that I wasn’t praying the same thing every week. Because I’m an early riser and I spend time early in the morning with the Lord, we don’t do a lot of late-night fellowshiping. Yes, it’s a price to pay; but I wouldn’t want it any other way. When you make preaching the priority of your ministry, everything else falls into place. You don’t waste time here and there. You can’t go to every meeting.

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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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