Calvin Miller is one of the most well-known preachers in America today, but many of those who hear his message are unaware that he is a pulpit minister. His books sell in the thousands, and reach far beyond the walls of Westside Church in Omaha, Nebraska.
Yet Westside is where Miller has preached and ministered for almost twenty-four years. Though his writings have won awards, wide acclaim, and literary respect, they are tied to his pulpit ministry and to the Westside congregation. A Preaching contributing editor, Miller delivered the prestigious Mullins Lectures on Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1988. His thoughts on preaching found expression in those lectures, and in his recent book Spirit, Word, and Story: A Philosophy of Preaching. Preaching Associate Editor R. Albert Mohler recently interviewed Calvin Miller and found him, as usual, ready to write and eager to preach.
Preaching: I am taken with the description you gave of preaching at the onset of Spirit, Word, and Story. You described preaching as “glory made wise with compassion.” How did you arrive at this memorable and vexing phrase?
Miller: Well, I started with Paul’s definition of preaching as “foolishness.” The older I get, the more I respect the sermons of those who have been in the ministry for a long time, have struggled with their churches, have struggled as students and scholars preparing sermons each week, and who, as they struggle — physically, spiritually, and intellectually — really gain a “second sight.”
I was with Ray Stedman recently, and he has been at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto for almost thirty-five years. He preaches in a Bible church, with all that mystique. He really is what I would be lobbying for, a great illustrator with a balance between precept and story. He talks about what the years in the pulpit have taught him. I enjoy John Killinger for much the same reason. Something happens when preaching grows wise. That takes some time, but it does add glory to preaching.
Preaching: As you say this, you have been at Westside Church for almost twenty-four years. That is a remarkable fact in this day of short-term pastorates. Has this brought a tinge of glory to your own ministry?
Miller: Well, you can always brag about being in one place for twenty-four years, but if you get confessional, there are many times when you would have left, due to the pain that can come in twenty-four years. The ministry is always somewhat like a roller-coaster. There are peaks and valleys, seasons of pain and great seasons of celebration. A twenty-four year perspective reveals more seasons than daily changes. But in all of these seasons you go on preaching, studying, struggling; and you go on to preach. I admire younger preachers, but there is something about the wisdom of the years.
Preaching: Time is obviously very important to you. You speak very reverently of the preacher’s gift of time.
Miller: We have to number our days. We must take the time to plan our preaching. I look after the Christmas season and all of the pageants and see a couple of weeks and an opportunity for planning my preaching so that it fits the needs of the congregation. There is a time to plan and a time to preach, but reflection allows me to use the time when time will get short. And time will get short. That must always be on the preacher’s mind.
Preaching: Yet, you also speak in a different light of the gift that the congregation makes in worship; a gift of time as well. That gift is not to the preacher, but to God, and yet the preacher stands as the steward of that gift.
Miller: I think this is one of the greatest dangers of the pulpit — to waste the hearers’ time. If you waste thirty minutes of one thousand persons’ time, you have wasted five hundred human hours. That is a sin. We must be good stewards of this gift of time. This is one reason I always stress preparation — and even some attention to a manuscript as a part of preparation. There is no use for wax in the pulpit. A preacher who preaches for forty-five minutes or more may well have a good bit of wax in his sermon.
Preaching: You are an advocate of one element which is often missing from evangelical discussions on preaching: mystery. You go so far as to speak of “the imperative mystery of preaching.” How did you discover this imperative element?
Miller: You know, Urban Holmes helped to open my eyes to this in The Future Shape of Ministry, and he introduced me to Theodore Roszak’s definition of the preacher as shaman, that liminal figure through which strange powers seem in play. Worship requires mystery, whether it starts in a trumpet solo or in a prayer. The Spirit of God can bring about these graced moments, which can only be explained in terms of mystery, and not logic. The sermon is dropped down into that mystery.
Preaching: You organized your “philosophy of preaching” around the three elements of Spirit, Word, and Story. How did you arrive at this structure?
Miller: Well, as I began to write the book I saw it as a textbook on preaching, but the more I thought about it, what I was really dealing with was a philosophy of preaching. Other writers give attention to this, but the elements of Spirit, Word, and Story became my concern. Too little attention has been given the synergy between these elements. The older I get the more I see preaching in terms of worship. Worship will be the great word in the 1990s. This requires a real synergy in worship between Spirit, Word, and Story. When that synergy happens there is more there than the sum of those parts.
Preaching: The Holy Spirit has been described as “the neglected member of the Trinity,” yet you began with the Spirit as your first consideration.
Miller: I don’t know how to explain this fully, but I find that my own walk with Christ, when I know myself best, what I talk about as “the table of inwardness,” that it is an experience with the Spirit. I am nourished by the mystical devotional literature. I don’t find many evangelicals talking about this, but something happens when we read this wonderful literature and discover a new walk with Christ. They know something of what I mean about the preacher as shaman — and yet a human. People want you to be human, but there is something about the preacher enriched by sharing this mystical experience — something more than the didactic.
Preaching: What about the contemporary focus on power and the pulpit? You speak of power as the preacher’s nemesis. Just how dangerous and necessary is the component of power in preaching?
Miller: For one thing, power very often degenerates into narcissism in the pulpit. This is the one drawback of those we identify as the pulpit “greats.” They often begin to believe in their own accolades and power and to rely on this power to move people emotionally. On the conservative end of the church we have really championed powerful preaching, but the danger is always that it may be the preacher indeed who is powerful. I just don’t know if I would want people to call me a “powerful preacher.” That can set up an expectation for a more powerful sermon next week, and that can be dangerous.
You know, that’s not a reasonable way to live. You cannot be powerful three hundred sixty-five days a year for twenty-four years. You need to go get a sack of popcorn every once in a while. You need to step back and rest. I want to communicate the truth, and I really don’t aspire to be a powerful preacher in that sense.
Preaching: The turn to narrative is one of the great characteristics of our day. You are a champion of story preaching over what you term “precept” preaching, a more didactic style. Most evangelicals were raised with precept preaching and often see it as a norm. How did you come to turn to story preaching?
Miller: You know, I was only tempted to preach precept sermons for about a year. It was when I began here at Westside and I was influenced by some precept preachers and I went in that direction. I had an overhead projector and handed out extensive outlines each Sunday. I finally came to say, “Miller, that’s just not who you are.” There are some who can do it well, and for whom that is a natural style, but it was not me. Your style has to be native to the preacher.
Preaching: Doesn’t the style have to fit the congregation as well? Some congregations can follow narrative more readily than others, and some are more effectively reached by precept.
Miller: I really think that story is the better way to go. I try to intersperse the epigram and the proverb along with the narrative flow. You are right, of course, there are congregations naturally drawn to story preaching and others to precept sermons. There is a natural balance there. At times I may have been too hard on precept, but I see story as the best vehicle.
Preaching: To be fair, you do suggest that story and precept should work hand in hand. Are you careful not to draw an absolute line at narrative?
Miller: David Buttrick’s Homiletic has recently helped me at this point. I think the notion of moves and structures, where the story provides the moves and precepts provide structure, is a good way to see the process. I go through my sermon and want to be sure that I label the key things that I do not want to miss. I want to move the hearer along. I may have twenty different moves along the way: illustrations, points, precepts, whatever, but it is usually carried along by the story.
Preaching: Why is precept preaching so popular among Protestants, and especially perhaps among evangelicals?
Miller: For one thing, precepts don’t take as much work with the sermon as a carefully crafted story. Stories are work, and effective story-telling takes experience, innate gifts, and hard work. The really good story-tellers hone their craft over a lifetime, they are always working on it. Some preachers are not willing to work at this, and others may not believe that they have the gifts. It can be intimidating, and some people probably shouldn’t move into story as a primary method.
Preaching: Does a turn from precept sermons run the danger of losing the doctrinal content of preaching? Is story suitable for preaching on doctrinal issues?
Miller: That is always the argument against story, but I always go back to the fact that the Bible is basically a narrative — many little stories in the context of the story. Here and there the stories crystalize into precepts or precepts may precede the stories, but it is very hard to say that the Ten Commandments are strictly precept. You cannot separate them from divided seas and descending manna, for that is their milieu. That’s how they come to be. This can be a losing game. Both precept and story have their place and the preacher can find a natural balance.
Preaching: You are best known as a masterful writer and story-teller. How do you relate your writing to your preaching?
Miller: My writing is not centered in my sermons. I may publish a few sermons a year, but the greatest part of my writing consists of novels, novelettes, and poetic retellings of biblical stories. What I want to be known for is a style of creative writing, not originality in the pulpit, so in a sense I am working double. Each book is dedicated to the craft of story-telling. That is transferable to the pulpit. The art of storytelling transfers from writing to the pulpit, but very few are really working at this. Walter Wangerin and Fredrick Buechner are others.
Preaching: Who are the major homiletical influences on your preaching ministry? Have there been models and guides along the way?
Miller: We go through different stages in mentoring and modeling. The first time I heard Jess Moody (now pastor of First Baptist Church, Van Nuys, California) preach I realized that I was hearing something different; here was more than three points and a poem. He had a way with adjectives and a writer’s flair about him. That had an impact. Once you find that kind of preaching, you start looking for it elsewhere. Peter Marshall became quite an influence. When I read Preaching I look for the periodic contributions of Maxie Dunnam (pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis). If I see anything by him I know it is worth reading. I don’t let anything by John Killinger or Fredrick Buechner pass by.
Preaching: What about your literary mentors and influences? Given the trajectory of your ministry, those influences must have affected your preaching as well?
Miller: Funny you should ask, for I have just been thinking about this. Ray Bradbury would certainly be an influence in the art of wordsmithing. C. S. Lewis was a very important mentor in my early days. Walt Wangerin is important as a friend and as an influence. His works such as The Book of the Dun Cow are examples of what I look for. Poetry is more important to me than ever before, so not all my influences have been novelists. I read Emily Dickinson and James Cavanaugh — and Judy Viorst, a children’s writer and poet.
Preaching: What is your parting word to the readers of Preaching?
Miller: I guess I would start with Polonius’ words to Laertes, “To thine own self be true.” If you have any gift for storytelling, polish and hone it. If it is something you just think you cannot do, then preach and teach and minister in the way that God has gifted you. There is more than one way to follow God’s calling in the pulpit ministry. I would push my art to the other extreme. If I am a story preacher I should work to make sure that I have given ample attention to precept. Precept preachers should give attention to the power of story to convey those precepts. Find your balance and live out your calling.

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