Through his best-selling books, Max Lucado has become one of the nation’s most widely-known ministers and teachers. In his newest book, 3:16 (Thomas Nelson), Lucado explores that great passage we know as John 3:16. He recently visited with Preaching editor Michael Duduit about the sermon series that led to the book, then discussed his own approach to preaching.
Preaching: Your new book is about John 3:16. What is it about that verse that has made it so beloved for so long?
Lucado: I think it’s simple hope. We need hope. There’s nothing worse than to live a life of despair. For a person to have no hope just sucks the blue out of every sky. John 3:16 is a passage that articulates that hope real simply – the book of Romans articulates the hope, the story of Abraham articulates the hope. If you just want one sentence, a simple description: God loves, God gave, we believe, we live. There it is.
It’s one of those verses that anybody can memorize. You can write it on a napkin in a restaurant. It’s hip-pocket size. I think that’s why it’s endured as it has – it’s simple hope.
Preaching: Do you think that this passage has a particular resonance today, given the culture in which we live and some of the issues we face?
Lucado: I really do. I think the passage is precious to us because it draws us back to the heart of what we’re to be about. It’s not a passage that stirs up social controversy or doctrinal division. A Catholic, Evangelical, Pentecostal, we can agree – we can find common ground there. And I love it because it draws us back in to what we were meant to be about. It’s like a big magnet. I call it the “Hope Diamond” of the Bible. It really is the sparkling jewel of the Bible.
We preachers, people entrust us with their time week after week. I’m still stunned that people will let me talk to them for thirty minutes about anything I want to. It’s a wonderful treasure that we are to steward. So I feel good going back to passages like John 3:16, because it is what we want to tell people every week.
What struck me, if I can add a layer to this, is the paucity of books written on 3:16. I’m still waiting for an e-mail to correct me on this, but I could only find about two books in the last sixty years that have been written solely on John 3:16. I’d have thought there’d have been a shelf-full. Of course, there have been countless sermons preached on it, but as far as books dedicated to that verse – I’m not sure how it slipped through the radar screen, but it’s not one that’s been given a lot of attention when it comes to writing. So it makes me feel good to add a voice to the work.
Preaching: Did the book come out of a sermon series?
Lucado: All of my books do that. I’m a preacher first and a writer second, although my role is changing a bit at the church. I’m going to bring on a co-teacher, but I’ll still be a pastor and a writer. But I don’t think I’ll be going to budget meetings, so I’m excited about that!
You know what? Our church loved studying John 3:16. I think one of the reasons they did is it’s familiar. We can make the assumption that people don’t want to hear the familiar, but they really do – they love to be reacquainted with the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer. Bring me that old friend into the room, let’s sit back and talk about it, and take me just a little bit deeper on it. When you teach on a familiar text, you’re capitalizing on common knowledge. When you teach on an unfamiliar text, you’re having to build a bridge of understanding, and we need to do that as well. But the wonder of this familiar text is the listener says, “Oh, I know this verse. I’ve been there before. Tell me something new about it.”
Preaching: What are your favorite passages for preaching?
Lucado: My favorite in all history is the 23rd Psalm. I just love standing in front of a crowd and say, “I’m going to start a verse and you finish it. The Lord is my . . .” and you can just hear people say, “shepherd.” Everybody’s heard that, so I love teaching out of the 23rd Psalm. But again it’s the same reason, that familiarity, then taking people a little deeper – giving them some nuggets that they haven’t thought of.
Now it’s John 3:16. I guess I’ll preach on John 3:16 the rest of my life. Billy Graham is famous for the statement he’s spent his whole life trying to preach from John 3:16; that’s his life passage. What better verse to dedicate your life to?
Preaching: As you were doing the series, were there some particular new insights for you? Sometimes as we read a familiar passage, there are some new things that jump out at us and surprise us. Any of those kinds of insights for you?
Lucado: If you had asked me that question when I began the study, which word in 3:16 was my favorite, it would not have been the one that’s now my favorite. My favorite word now is whoever. “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” I just love that thought – whoever, the wide gates to heaven. Every person is a whoever; who’s not a whoever? So to tell every person: whoever you are, however you land – that’s such great news.
Preaching: When you preached John 3:16 in the series in your own church, did you think of yourself as preaching with an evangelistic thrust or a pastoral emphasis? What was your approach to these sermons?
Lucado: What I thought I would do in that series is talk to the unbeliever who is interested – interested enough to come to church but not interested enough to cross over. I targeted the unbeliever. I talked about the change that happens if you believe God loves you. I talked about the power of the phrase “one and only Son” – what separates Jesus from anyone else? You know, the passage is at once devotional and apologetic. It’s devotional because it talks about the love of God, but it’s apologetic because it talks about what separates Jesus from anyone else.
That phrase “one and only.” In a sense we’re all children of God – Jesus is called the one and only Son. Monogeneo is the word, God’s only “genetic” child. He bears the very essence of God. What we say about God we say about Jesus. So the promise rises and falls on the identity of Jesus.
“Shall not perish.” You could spend a year speaking on the phrase. “In Him.” Not in them, not in yourself – believe in Him. Then that dualistic outcome of history, “shall not perish.” So I spent some time talking about: Is there a hell? If so, what is hell? “Eternal life.”
Every preacher needs to preach a series on John 3:16 – not just because I wrote a book on it! Honestly, in our time as ministers, we’ve got to acquaint our churches with John 3:16.
Preaching: What kind of response did you get to the series?
Lucado: Phenomenal. It wasn’t any accident that we had 50 percent more baptisms last year than we’d ever had. It jumped up. It’s a large church – these days 5,000 is not as large as it used to be! – but we’re about a 5,500 member church. We had 500 baptisms during the course of the year, and I think it’s just acquainting people with the gospel. It was a wonderful response.
Preaching: It is one of those passages that people think they know, but they haven’t really gotten below the surface.
Lucado: I think you’re right. The verb “gave” – what does it mean that God gave His Son? It’s an opportunity to talk about the substitutionary atonement of Christ. It assumes there is a God – you start right there with the word “God.” So every word is worthy of our focus.
Preaching: Every word has dynamite in it.
Lucado: That’s a great way to say it.
Preaching: You preach mostly in series. How do you go about selecting the series that you preach?
Lucado: I haven’t run out of ideas for series, but I haven’t had time to teach all the series! I keep in the back of my Bible a running list of sermon ideas, sermon series. When I’m about two or three months out from the end of a series, at a leadership meeting with our staff and our elders I’ll run the ideas past them, and I’ll ask them to spend a week thinking and praying about it and get back to me, let me know what they think the church needs to hear. John 3:16 came out of that meeting; I was actually going to do something else, but our elders said, “It’s been awhile since we really studied something from the lips of Jesus, the life of Jesus.” So I took the nod from them and went that direction.
Preaching: So you start planning a series about two or three months out?
Lucado: I do; I try to figure it out. Ideally I’ll try to get away and spend about a week reading and praying, but I’m not always able to make the calendar work on that. Like I say, I’m about to start sharing my teaching time – we’re going to bring on a new senior minister – and I’m looking forward to having more study time, more preparation time.
Preaching: What does your preparation week look like as you’re moving toward Sunday?
Lucado: First of all, my messages are done a week in advance, for the sake of our worship team and tech team. But I do try to prepare one a week. Monday is in for meetings. Tuesday and Thursday are study days. Wednesday afternoon I try to leave open for study time or for publishing-related events or needs, like working on a manuscript or cleaning up something or even interviews. So Tuesday and Thursday are my primary study times. Usually if I can get two days in on a sermon I can get a good first draft. I’ll try to sneak in some extra time on it, and of course by the time it makes its way into a book I’ve really spent more time on it.
Preaching: How many hours would you say you invest in a typical sermon?
Lucado: I would guess sixteen. That might be on the low end – twenty would not be uncommon. There’ve been some days I’ve had to clear Friday off, not take a day off – I know that’s not good, but if I’m not getting it I have to take the time.
Preaching: Do you write a manuscript?
Lucado: I do. All my sermons are pretty much written out word-for-word. I don’t really read the manuscript, but I have it up on the pulpit with me.
Preaching: Bob Russell also prepares a manuscript, and he says he preaches the message through about five times before he preaches it for a congregation. Do you have any kind of similar approach to preparation?
Lucado: I don’t do it five times! I always thought Bob was a good preacher; that’s why! Since I put it in manuscript form, I wrote the whole sermon out by hand, then I give it to my assistant. She enters it in the computer, then prints it out and I go over it with a pen. She enters all the corrections, then I go back over it again. So usually by the time I’m going to preach it I’m pretty familiar with it. But I will, two or three hours prior to the service, go over it audibly in a low voice, but I don’t do it as many times as that.
We have five services right now. We’re going to go to four; our Saturday services, we really don’t need two. So by the time I get to the fifth one I know it pretty well!
Preaching: As preachers look at your books, one of the things they love is the illustrative material – the stories you share. Where do those come from? To what extent do you develop those stories yourself, as opposed to finding them from other places?
Lucado: I think stories are so essential in a good message because they give the audience a chance to kind of relax their thinking slightly. You never lose people when you say the phrase, “Let me tell you a story.” People remember the story. They’ll see you in four or five days and they won’t remember the main point but they’ll say, “That was a funny story you told,” and hopefully that story conveys a truth.
I would say about 50 percent of my stories come out of personal experience – just trying to observe life. I’m in a series on heaven, and this Sunday I start off the lesson off by telling about the day our dog died. It was a sad moment, a poignant moment, and I tell about when we went into the vet – they’re about to put our dog to sleep – how we walked in, he heard us and his tail started wagging. All of his legs are paralyzed; he was about 15 years old.
And I said to myself, “You know, death is just part of life.” And then I said, “No, it’s not. It never was. That’s why it hurts so much.” So there’s a picture of something, and the whole purpose of the sermon is to talk about victory over death. So about 50 percent of my illustrations come out of personal experiences, but I own a lot of sermon illustration books, and I love a good story I read somewhere.
Preaching: What’s your favorite thing about preaching?
Lucado: Pastoring the flock with words. I love that. We always have a prayer time in the middle of our service. We take about eight or ten minutes before I preach, after we’ve sung, and invite people to come forward for prayer. That’s a tender moment to me. I don’t preach much in that, but I like to speak to the people. I tell them, “Don’t be anxious about anything. With prayer and thanksgiving let your needs be known unto God.” The people come so hungry to be prayed for; so hungry just to come up and leave their burdens somewhere. It never fails. I can just say, “We’re going to have a few moments of prayer. If you’d like to be prayed for, just come to the front.” We’ve done it so many years now that people just know that this is a wonderful chance and they come. Often at the end of that prayer time I’ll say to myself, “We could go home now. I don’t need to preach. God has done a work.” I think that’s a missing part in many services today – giving people those quiet moments to come forward for prayer. It’s not an evangelistic appeal; it’s a matter of saying, “Let’s pray about your burden.” I offer a pastoral prayer.
Gordon MacDonald wrote a whole article once on the power of a pastoral prayer. He talked about crafting those words – your intercession is so important to a church. Let them know you really care about them.
Preaching is worth it. It’s really worth the investment in putting good words together, in doing the study. People really do remember the sermons. They really are listening. Going that extra bit with the sermon is worth it.
You might just make a casual comment – you think of it as a minor point – but the Holy Spirit uses it to touch someone’s life. It’s a great privilege to think that all these people are coming and letting me talk to them for thirty minutes. They don’t let anybody else do that. I don’t think even schoolteachers get quite that opportunity, because they are told what to teach.
I think it’s important to preach like there’s a broken heart on every pew. That’s always been a phrase that stuck with me. Not everybody is having a tough time, but you can bet your buck that there’s a good tenth of your church that’s going through a hard season. There really is a broken heart on every pew.