Suburban Minneapolis is not known as a hot-bed of radicalism — religious or otherwise. But Leith Anderson, whose very name evokes a memory of the area’s northern European heritage, says that the church is literally Dying For Change. That is, in fact, the title of his recent book (Bethany House, 1990) and a prominent theme of his ministry. Anderson is senior pastor of Wooddale Church, a church which has a proven track-record in reaching “baby boomers” and the unchurched. Under Anderson’s leadership, the church has grown to 1,400 members and over 3,000 in weekly attendance.
A popular preacher, seminar leader, and educator, Anderson understands the challenge of reaching “baby boomers” and other largely unchurched groups in modern America. His thoughts on preaching are provocative and penetrating. He was interviewed in Orlando, Florida by Preaching associate editor R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
Preaching: Your ministry demonstrates that you take preaching seriously. How do you define the preaching task?
Anderson: I like Phillip Brooks’ definition of preaching as “truth mediated through personality.” All truth is God’s truth — especially as revealed by the Word of God, but the preacher has an essential part in mediating that truth in the context of the preaching event.
Preaching: You have served Wooddale Church for over a decade, preaching to the same (but ever-growing) congregation. How has your understanding of the preaching task changed over the years?
Anderson: I really don’t think that it has changed very significantly. The primary model of preaching I envision does reflect the fact that the world is more complex — so that model is more complex. For example, if you watch reruns of the television show M*A*S*H, you know that the plot runs with parallel story lines. Those parallel lines run throughout the program. One story line may be a conflict between two characters, another line will look at a moral crisis faced by one of the surgeons, and still another will revolve around a practical joke involving some of the same characters, perhaps with others. But the stories run independently of one another. Some persons watching the show will be drawn to certain story lines, and others will focus elsewhere, according to their interests. I think you will see sermons following the same kind of parallel development.
When I look out over my congregation each service, I see some people with Ph.D. degrees, and others who are struggling through life on welfare. There are young people present, along with the old. They have different levels of understanding and education, and they have different needs and concerns. I must be faithful to the biblical text — that is primary –but I must also communicate.
I must include stories, humor, and application. The crafting of a sermon is like the weaving of these threads — just like the screenwriter works these parallel lines into the script.
Preaching: What kind of form does this approach to preaching take? What does your congregation expect when you step into the pulpit?
Anderson: Let me say this up front: A sermon must be biblical, but the preacher must present the biblical material in an interesting way. Baby Boomers do not like to be bored. If they are bored, they will tune you out, and stay tuned out. The sermon must be perceived by Baby Boomers as relevant, so that they hear the biblical text and say, “That’s my story — it has something to do with my life.”
With that in mind, when I step into the pulpit I may do any number of things. I may use a first-person monologue. I might take a rather academic approach if the text and the issue demands it. I may use any combination of models to fit both the audience and the message.
Preaching: With that kind of intentionality behind the sermon, how do you prepare your sermons?
Anderson: The topic is usually determined already by the text. I usually preach through books of the Bible, so the text is already in place. When preaching through a book, I start well in advance to collect books and materials on the biblical book. I buy every commentary I can find. When I start on a new series, I may have from a dozen to twenty commentaries on my desk. By the fourth or fifth sermon, I have usually reduced that stack down to a half-dozen or less that I have found to be of genuine value.
Early on, certain decisions have to be made — ranging from exegetical matters, theme, approach, etc. Once those decisions are made, they are carried throughout the series, so preaching through a book or series is going to be much easier as it goes along.
I am convinced, by the way, that this generation is not reached by the older style of historical illustrations. References to the Battle of Waterloo or Alexander the Great are really not appreciated or understood. The preacher must find and use illustrations which relate to life as it is experienced by members of the congregation.
Preaching: Your book, Dying For Change has caught the attention of many preachers, but you do not deal with the preaching event in any detailed focus within that book. To what extent are those issues of change and adaptation relevant to the pulpit?
Anderson: The sermon itself is a powerful agent of change. If the sermon is truth mediated through personality, the truth is understood to be unchanging, but it should focus on the change which must take place in my life and in the life of the community. The truth does not change, but the audience does, and so my presentation of the sermon must also change.
People are looking for a communicator who is much more conversational than the traditional styles allowed. The preacher must be more relational if communication is really to take place. And add this: It must be intellectually credible as well as emotionally vibrant.
In many churches, the intellectual credibility has been at stake, and the problem was addressed. I think the relational aspect is now the most pressing issue in the communication of the sermon. The times have changed.
Preaching: How do you trace those changes?
Anderson: I think we can see a recent period in which American churches shifted from a largely non-intellectual approach to a very structured, rationalistic, exegetical, and intellectual program. In more recent years, we are shifting from that approach to a more “seeker-sensitive” model which puts the pressure on being relevant to those outside the traditional church context.
Put bluntly, the shift in recent years has been from Dallas Seminary to Bill Hybels as models. My hope is that we can create an amalgam which can unite the strengths of those approaches. Non-Christians should come to church to find out what the Bible has to say about their deepest problems the same way they go to a physician to determine their medical problem. We should offer no apologies for communicating biblical truth — but we just do so in a way which is truly relevant, and that is what I am struggling toward. We need a new synthesis.
Preaching: In the larger context of ministry, how do you envision your pastoral role?
Anderson: The church — our church — needs to be an effective instrument for reaching our community and individual lives for Jesus Christ. We need to have a view of the church large enough to recognize that some people who are reached by this church never hear me preach. It’s intimidating to come to a worship service, especially a large church. I really don’t think that great churches are built on great preaching alone. I think that day is past. I don’t think you can build a great church without great preaching but you can’t build a great church without credible ministries beyond the pulpit, either.
We must see the congregation in light of the fact that these people have been beat up for six days and they come to church with the hope that here they can find a bit of genuinely good news. They really want to know that the gospel is good news. That understanding must permeate the life of the church — and not just the sermon.

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