As president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, David Allen Hubbard is involved in the training of hundreds of evangelical preachers. He is himself a popular preacher and lecturer, and is author of a large number of books and articles. Along with many other places of leadership within the evangelical world, Dr. Hubbard also serves as a Contributing Editor of Preaching. This interview was conducted by the editor of Preaching.
Preaching: As President at Fuller Seminary, you’re involved in training future ministers. How do you think today’s seminarian views preaching as part of their ministerial role?
Hubbard: I think that preaching is as crucial in the minds of today’s seminarians as it has been anytime during my ministry. I first started thinking about preaching seriously in college, so there is 40 years of looking at the situation, knowing something about students.
I look back at my own student days, and then I look back at what the feelings were when I first came to Fuller as president in 1963, where there was a lot more uncertainty about preaching and the role of the local church and whether we should be in dialogue and whether the sermon was central to the worship and nurture of the church as tradition had made it.
I would say that for the past five years, probably, the students at Fuller at least have more than returned to where we were in the early days, with a strong emphasis on preaching, and are much more deeply into it themselves than would have been true of our students in the sixties.
Preaching: In the sixties there was a move toward social activism. Do you see more of a balance or do you see simply a shift away from an emphasis on social activism?
Hubbard: I think balance is probably the right word. I do see this as a balanced generation. I think the balance between learning and piety and the balance between preaching and other forms of ministry, the balance between evangelism on the one hand and social action on the other is a very healthy balance. I don’t think there is any day in the life of any institution that I have been a part of that was any better balanced than today’s student is.
I think there is a lot of concern for scripture, a lot of concern for preaching of scripture–how you do it–but also a lot of concern for the artistry, the impact of it.
In our situation, part of the renewal of this has been brought by our women students. For the past two or three years, I would say they have probably drawn down the lion’s share of the prizes. I mean, we have some very remarkable women preachers. We have a scholarship program that a friend of the seminary has set up that enables our top graduates in preaching to spend a year overseas. It’s like a $9,000 prize, and I think that more than half of them in the last three years have been women.
Preaching: What do you think is the future of women students once they leave the seminary setting and try and move into the churches? What kind of response are they going to have?
Hubbard: It will depend on where the church tradition is that they are a part of. If they are Roman Catholic, they are going to be very articulate nuns, at least probably for our lifetime. In the denominations that have been very open in the last twenty-five years–United Church of Christ, United Presbyterian, American Baptist, of course a number of the pentecostal denominations–I think they will do very well at the preaching level.
Where they will have more difficulty–they will be well accepted in preaching and teaching–and have had is in being pastors of multiple-staff churches. I think it is true, still, that in the whole United Presbyterian church, which has literally hundreds and hundreds of ordained women, there is not one of them holding a position as senior pastor in a multiple-staff church. So it will be at the point of the running of a large organization.
Now those large churches will very often have as an associate pastor a very effective woman who will lead in worship and who will preach regularly. I know numbers of women in those churches that just are marvelous in public presence and lead worship with joy. A congregation is just lifted by the way they lead the congregation in worship. If they are called to preach as they are maybe once a month, or maybe while the senior pastor is on vacation, they do extraordinarily well. But on the managerial side, the full leadership of working with a session, and all of that, it is just as you have lots of women in the school systems who are assistant superintendents for curriculum and for teacher training. You don’t have many school districts in the nation where the superintendent of schools, working with the board directly, is a woman. I was on the state board of education in California about a dozen years ago. There were only about two or three women out of about a thousand school districts and you know how many bright assistant superintendents there were. But the school board wasn’t ready to trust the entire governance of the district to a woman.
I think in that administrative leadership that it is going to take a little while longer, but I do think that many churches that have not been used to hearing women preach will get used to that and understand how effective a communicator a woman can be.
So it is taking time, but I would say in Methodist churches where bishops have the power to make things happen a little more, and in Presbyterian churches where they have worked hard to bring in women, that women are being very well received. I could take you to some places where our graduates preach and just do incredibly well. You just don’t want to be second speaker on the program after them. They are marvelous communicators.
Preaching: What place do you think preaching should have within a seminary curriculum?
Hubbard: Preaching ought to be on everybody’s mind in a seminary curriculum. I think that those of us who teach in biblical studies, in historical studies, dogmatics, so forth, need to have at least half an eye on the ministry of the local church and on the preaching ministry as we teach.
On the other hand, the crew in preaching needs to be a quality crew, needs to know how to reach back into those other disciplines and bridge. Integration unto preaching, I suppose, would be the catch-phrase that I would use for that.
One model that is probably a bit of caricature, but that has existed in certain seminaries, is that the biblical and theological people do their stuff and hand it to the student and then the homiletics people do their stuff in terms of techniques of sermon preparation and all of that, and they hand their stuff to the student and the student has been forced to do the integrating. Now we are at the point where we all integrate. In whatever we do in the curriculum, we are looking at the ministry of the church as we do it, and particularly, I would say, at preaching and worship.
It’s a labor-intensive task. It’s like coaching quarterbacks or tight ends or anything like that. You can’t do it by the hundreds, you can only do it by the few. It takes a lot of people to do it.
The whole seminary has to be-believe that preaching is central. As I teach Old Testament, how to interpret the text, I have to give them some help as to how I get to the sermon from the text, and not just teach them the text. At least do some modelling as to the application of that text in pastoral ministry and counseling and administration and so forth, but particularly how I go from text to sermon.
Preaching: How do you help the pastor who is out on the field now without that kind of training? What would you suggest for someone like that?
Hubbard: I think maybe two or three things there. One would be the use of tapes and very conscious analysis of what some of the people that he would most admire or that have proven most effective are doing on tapes. I think he needs to listen. I think that listening to sermons probably is a little more authentic way to catch the spirit of it than reading sermons, even though we want to read sermons. But a sermon always has to have that other dimension. We don’t stand up in the pulpit and hand out the text and have twenty-five minutes of silence while everybody reads it.
He can also establish a relationship with a preacher that he admires; being vulnerable enough, weak enough and open enough to say to the person, “I would be very interested in any help that you feel you could give me if I could meet with you occasionally. Would you, for instance, be willing to talk with me a little about how you do it? Would you be willing to share with me the two or three books that have helped you most?” So you establish a tutorial relationship or mentoring relationship with someone.
I know people that have formed groups to work together on things, covenant groups that work together to help each other. Eugene Peterson is at Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. One of the things that he has done every week for many years is to hold a Bible study with a number of his fellow pastors and do the exegesis with them that would provide some of the background for preaching. That’s a little more formal set-up where many of them preach from the lectionary, which would be a little different from what we as Baptists usually do.
He will swat up the lectionary passage or passages every week and then I think the Episcopal guy, the Lutheran guy, and some friends meet with him and they have a fellowship of it, sharing, they talk about their preaching, but Gene leads them in a Bible study and helps them with their exegesis. It is a great gift to the community when you think that in all those churches that they have gone a little more deeply into the scripture under his leadership than they would without that.
I am sure that there would also be, in a community, the possibility of getting four or five pastors in a kind of covenant commitment who, again, willing to be vulnerable, would be willing on a rotating basis, (maybe one each month) to bring a sermon and they listen to the sermon, say, together and then talk about what they like, what they thought was strong, and so forth. There can be a lot of that peer coaching and sharing if people will give that some priority.
Preaching: Is it really possible to teach a person to preach?
Hubbard: Sure. Teaching the person to study well and to know what to look for in the text and how to handle the text is a key.
I think there is a natural fluency that some people have that others don’t. But I think there are a lot of ways to compensate for lack of fluency, like giving a person practice in being a good manuscript preacher or a good preacher from extensive notes, where there is a good bit of help there and the person doesn’t have to ad lib.
I think ideally a journeyman preacher needs to be able to ad lib, needs to be able to preach from memory, needs to be able to preach from notes, and needs to be able to preach well from a manuscript. I personally have disciplined myself through the years to do all of those and combinations of them intentionally, because I have not wanted to be locked into any one style of preaching. But people who don’t have a natural gift of gab, by very thoughtful preparation, choosing their illustrations well, planning and carefully outlining, knowing how to build to a climax, knowing when to quit, they could do that.
There is a tremendous amount that can be learned. I have seen some of my colleagues that were good preachers ten years ago who have really become great preachers by working hard at it. They have just disciplined themselves to work hard at it. In the long run, it can be a bit of a disadvantage to be a natural preacher, because I think the people who are natural preachers, especially in our low church and free church tradition, rest on that. I know people that you can hear once and you could hear them ten years later and they wouldn’t sound any different. A natural preacher, unless he really works at it, is going to be as good at the beginning as he is at the end, because you’ve got those gifts.
It’s like a person who can play the piano well by ear in the key of F. They transpose everything into the key of F and ten years later they’re still playing in the key of F and they’re still doing the same kind of stuff. They haven’t studied it; they haven’t worked at it.
One of the advantages that comes from not being a naturally fluent or articulate preacher is that you keep forcing yourself to grow. You maintain a self-criticism that says to yourself every time after you make a presentation, “How could I have done that better?”
If you can get that natural talent really disciplined by someone who will work their tails off to be good communicators, then you’ve got the stuff of which greatness is made.
Preaching: What part does preaching play in your own personal ministry?
Hubbard: It has played different parts in different eras in my life. When I was a college teacher I did a lot of conference ministry, young people’s conferences, campus missions, and things like that. Preaching was a key part of that. For a period of time when I was a college teacher, I preached regularly in a church that I helped to found until they were able to get large enough to afford a full-time minister; it was an Evangelical Covenant church in Santa Barbara where my son-in-law and daughter attend. I preached three times a week for a couple of years in that situation.
Two things give me the greatest delight in a preaching ministry. One is to preach to our own students, as I try to do about four or five times a year in chapel. Usually the first chapel of each term I preach and then occasionally in between. I really enjoy preaching to preachers.
I really enjoy talking about preaching. I think if I didn’t hold a chair in Old Testament I would love to have a chair in homiletics, because I really enjoy teaching preaching.
In the years that I was on the radio, virtually every week from 1969 to 1980, I had almost a dozen years on “The Joyful Sound” radio broadcast, which carried on the Old-Fashioned Revival Hour ministry under a different name. That was a great time for me. Very difficult, very demanding, because I was preparing forty-some new sermons a year, just as a working clergyperson does, and still carrying on all the administrative and teaching responsibilities at the seminary. That was a high-demand time.
It was very rewarding and very challenging to be into the Word every week like that with your new ideas and your thoughts and then the responsibility of how do I make it clear? How can I make it sing? How can I make it live? That kind of exercise in my life was a very important time and a very formative time for me.
Preaching: What kind of process do you go through yourself when you are preparing a sermon?
Hubbard: Unless it’s a special event, like a funeral, I try to plan what I do in series. I would try to plan a whole year’s preaching a year ahead; my friends that I think do the best in preaching do that. I have friends that take a whole month in the summer as part of their study leave. They take vacation, that’s one thing, but then they take a month away from the church and do the basic planning, plotting, outlining, thinking, praying about what the emphasis in their preaching and in the congregation needs to be.
I do think that if there is any fault that we fall into as pastors and preachers it’s letting the ball play us–reacting to what is going on, and therefore getting caught with short lead time. I know some people that never work more than about a month ahead of time. I suppose there are some people that work only about a week or two ahead of time. I have to say that’s hard work. I also feel that it is a waste of energy because nobody can live that way without some anxiety, and any energy that goes into anxiety ought to go into planning.
I would start by planning long in advance, and maybe that’s like four quarterly series, with maybe a Thanksgiving sermon, and you’ve got a short series for Christmas, maybe a short series for Lent leading up to Easter, so that you can have different length series. I’m not talking about preaching on the same thing all year, although I have friends who just about do that. They’ll take a biblical book and stay in that biblical book all year. I would plan a series, by that I mean setting up the topics, choosing the texts, the individual sermons.
I would try in that planning sequence, then, to prepare a summary, of each of those. What do I want to say from that text, basically? And that’s like one paragaph, two typed inches. Do that months ahead. That has several advantages: First, your choir director can look at anthems and solos.
You can publicize what’s coming up as a way of getting the congregation involved; they are anticipating it. The series you are giving for this three months may be more specialized, and some people don’t feel that they are as touched or helped by that. So you tell them that the next thing coming is going to be on family life or prayer or how to relate your Christian faith to your work or whatever it is. They will plug in; they will say, “Hey, I can hardly wait for that. I will be glad when he’s going to be on that.” So there is anticipation that has developed. So you can prepare better for worship and integrate music and liturgy.
Another thing that happens when we plan ahead is that our unconscious starts to work on those areas. We make connections between things we read or stories we hear, television programs we watch, a movie we see, whatever it is, and we begin to think about illustrations. If we have a system where we can clip out a page from Time magazine because it’s got an article that relates to that or we write a note about a story that we’ve read, or we xerox a page in a book that’s going to relate to that and stick that xeroxed page in a folder.
I keep a folder. When I know what I’m going to preach on for a series, I have a folder in a cabinet in my desk, and anything that I hit that relates to anything that’s coming up gets stuck in there. I don’t have to have tricky filing systems and I don’t try to collect illustrations in a vacuum. I collect illustrations related to what I know I am going to have to do. But if I know that six months in advance, a year in advance, I’ve got a lot of time to start to put that together.
One of the hardest things that you have when you preach is to come down to the preparation of the sermon and say, “how do I illustrate that?” and you find you’re making up illustrations or stealing or cheating or using old illustrations again. But if you’ve thought about it a long time, your mind will signal to you that that’s a good illustration.
Another thing that preparing that far ahead in time does is that you don’t have to think at all about what topic you are going to speak on. You’ve decided that earlier. You don’t argue with yourself and thumb through the New Testament and look at four or five areas, and say, “Well, which is better for the congregation for two weeks from today? Is it better to do this or that?” All of that is avoided.
What you do is execute. You have already laid the plan, and now you execute the plan. You have no energy that goes into indecisiveness. If you’re indecisive you can sit there for a couple of hours and just waste those two hours. During those two hours you could have outlined half the sermon. So you’ve got the topic settled well in advance and you’ve got a summary of what you think you want to say. That summary becomes the start of your outline and you waste no time in planning.
Once I have decided on those topics way ahead, prepared those short summaries, there comes the time when I have to execute. Then I will spend a lot of time in the text itself. I will look at the Greek. I will look at the technical commentaries. Usually I will do that after I have done a good bit of spade work on the text myself, because I really want to bring my own judgment to it and then check that judgment and fill it out by my reading. So I would go to the text first, get as good a grasp of it as I can and then backfill that. You want to be fair to the text and the state of our understanding of the text.
Take one sheet for each sermon. On that sheet list the topic, text, theme (the one thing that I want to try to say that I think the text is teaching us), introduction, conclusion. I have a kind of standardized xerox sheet for this. Have space for the introduction. Have space for the conclusion. It has four Roman numerals for the points. I almost will always preach between two and four. I try not to get into the fifth. Five points is a lot to carry forward.
Then that page is divided into three columns vertically. On the left hand side of the page, the outline of the sermon where those points are, I, II, III, IV. In the middle of the page, a heading that I call “seed thoughts.” In the right hand column, the right two inches of that page would be for illustrations. I do that because I want the layout of the sermon before me where I can look at the whole thing at once; you do not prepare a sermon systematically, the way you might prepare an outline for an essay. Your mind doesn’t work one, two, three. Your mind jumps and it flashes you a signal.
Sometimes you will get the closing line of the sermon before you get anything else. If you get that closing line, write it down. I don’t try to remember it, because I may get interrupted, and the older you get the harder your recall.
Then I keep looking at that text, working up and down through that text, trying to break it down. What are its natural points? What is he trying to say? What does that text unpack? I put my jottings in the column that I call seed thoughts. Sometimes they come out balanced expressions or summaries of those points and you can go almost from there right to the outline. Sometimes it is just thoughts and ideas that you think that the writer is dealing with.
Then I would go from there, after the seed thoughts, to try to shape the outline. I just take my first jottings from that section called seed thoughts, while you are doing that you may get an illustration from point II. Or you may think of the lead line for the introduction. You write it down, because you’ve got the space for it.
So when I’ve got that sheet about filled with seed thoughts, some ideas of illustrations for each point, the basic points and subpoints (you have to go with points and sub-points–you can’t go subpoints of your subpoints very well). My typical form would be I, II, III, [a three-point sermon] with subpoints A and B, maybe A, B, C, but probably not more than that under each of those points. So I am carrying through somewhere between six and nine points: three main points and not more than three subpoints under each of those.
Get those out. Make sure they are stylistically balanced. And when I’ve got that, depending on what I’m going to do with it, I will either write notes on half sheets of paper or on 3×6 cards. I use cards like this quite often to preach from–stiff enough so that they won’t blow a lot or fold on me. If I am going to do it on the radio, or if it’s something that later I want to do as a book, then I will sit down and write out the whole thing. Once I have that basic outline, then I can do an average sermon in between three and four hours.
I have thought about it a lot. I have spent most of my adult life doing biblical exegesis. I have had a lot of preparation. I have had that topic on my mind maybe for a year. So there is a lot of inner preparation. You cannot do that in that time if you start cold. But one of the advantages of giving yourself a long lead time is your unconscious works, preparing you to deliver that sermon literally for months.
The other advantage of doing all of that is what I hinted at when I said if you are going to publish it. If you preach in series and you organize yourself that well, and the amount of time it takes to write that, as over against really to prepare it well is very little difference. Then you can end up with a manuscript that can be a chapter in a book.
You have just opened up the possibility of a much wider audience, even if all you do is just circulate that in your congregation. So that they say, “Oh, that really moved me.” You say, “Okay, next Sunday in the narthex there will be typed copies of the sermon I gave the week before.” People can take them home, mark them, share them with friends. You can probably triple or quadruple very easily the distribution and effectiveness. Once you are doing that much homework, to be able to put that little in it to make it available is key.
Preaching: Do you see any changes coming in preaching in the next few years? How will media affect it?
Hubbard: I do think the media will affect preaching by challenging us all to be better communicators.
If I am going to talk about personal problems and application of Christian faith and they’re all going to go off to the other church and see Swindoll on tape, that is a challenge to me to do better because there is more available to committed Christians.
Ruth and I watch Lloyd Ogilvie most of the time on Sunday morning at 8:00, and we go off to our First Baptist Church; I would hope that my pal and pastor would be very well aware that one of America’s great preachers is available to us while we are sipping our second cup of coffee in the morning. That’s just got to mean that we have to take preaching in the congregation more seriously, because the best people in the land are instantly available to us.
I do think media will make available a wider dissemination of our own ministries. I mean, for years people have taken audio tapes off to the shut-ins and so forth. There’s no reason now why any congregation can’t take video-tapes. Video-tape the service. Let the people in the convalescent home, the shut-in, hear the choir, see the sermon. The people who feel cut off from the church can see it and experience it in their own rooms and nursing homes or whatever in a way that was not available before.
In congregational life the media will stimulate us to have a more lively experience of fellowship in worship. That is the thing we can offer most in contrast to the media, where you are there in isolation and you are just watching a performance.
If congregational life, if a Sunday morning service is another example of sitting there in isolation because you don’t sense any community, and you’re not really into the service, you are a spectator. I do think that a lot of our Sunday services are performance-oriented, not participation-oriented. What I would like to see is a combination of Baptist preaching and Episcopal liturgy–getting the congregation going in prayer and responses and scripture readings and all of that kind of thing.
We talk in our free-church tradition, particularly as Baptists, we talk of the priesthood of believers, and we non-priest every believer in church. They don’t go there as priests. They go there as spectators. The pastor and the choir do the whole thing, and then we say, “Now, you are priests.” We don’t give them very much opportunity to offer their sacrifices of praise to God at all. If you look at the average service, there may be a responsive reading, the singing of a couple of hymns, but that congregation is pretty passive except for listening. I think we are denying our own theology by the way we conduct our worship.
I do think that with alternative sermons and first-class music available at home, that unless something goes on in the life of the congregation, we end up just whipping people by guilt into coming to church. They’re not coming because they really feel like this is an indispensable experience for them. They don’t get the sense of joy, of giving to God their worship and praise.
And they don’t always have the sense of experiencing the unity of the body of Christ and the role of the gifts of the other members of the congregation, helping nurture them. They get that out of Bible study groups some, and they get that out of some Sunday School groups and so forth. I would say it’s not just in the area of preaching, but it’s in the area of the total experience of worship and fellowship that we need to do the most improving and in a sense, media represent the greatest threat to us.

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