New Providence, New Jersey is a long way from Irvine, California — and not just in terms of geography. Ben Patterson recently made that move and shifted the focus of his preaching ministry from Southern California to the New York City metroplex. A popular preacher and author, Patterson was the founding pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, in one of California’s fast-growing planned communities. After a fourteen year pastorate in Irvine he moved to the east coast, and became pastor of The Presbyterian Church of New Providence.
Ben Patterson is an effective and faithful preacher, who extends his preaching ministry through books such as The Grand Essentials and Waiting. He also serves as a contributing editor for Christianity Today and Leadership.
Preaching: What kind of congregation do you see as you preach?
Patterson: It has shifted over the years. The kind of person who joined us in Irvine when we were a new church was very committed and already had some church leadership experience in another church. We had some who were seminary trained workers in parachurch organizations in the area. They were pioneers and workers. But that has really shifted as the church has developed. We now have many who would be described as ‘nominal Christians’. I started out preaching to a very biblically literate congregation, but that has changed. Many current members are parents bringing their children ‘to get values’. When I was preaching to the very biblically literate congregation I could preach differently — more challenging. I cannot assume as much now.
Preaching: How do you define biblical preaching?
Patterson: Well, at the most basic and least imaginative level, biblical preaching is setting forth the meaning of the biblical text. The twin tasks are of taking a trip from the first century to the twentieth and back again. If the meaning is left stuck at either extreme, it isn’t genuinely biblical. Biblical preaching is really setting forth the text in terms of what it meant and what it means.
Preaching: Has your understanding of biblical preaching changed over the course of your ministry?
Patterson: Well, I don’t think my understanding of biblical preaching has changed in substance, but it has changed in practice. When I preached to a more biblically literate congregation I was much more willing to read a biblical text and take off from there, and everything I would say would flow out of the text. I could assume that most of the people sitting in the congregation were familiar with the passage, and I did not have to show them how the sermon fit the text. They were bright people, they had their Bibles open before them, and they knew what the text said.
Now I am taking greater pains, and am in a sense more conservative, in that I sound more like a verse-by-verse expositor. I sense that since the congregation is not biblically literate, they do not assume that a statement is biblical just because I said it in the course of a sermon. I want them to have the experience of having encountered the text through the sermon while they are hearing it preached. I now say “open your Bibles and look at this,” as I refer to the text.
Preaching: The shift from a biblically literate culture to a congregation comprised of those who know very little about the Bible at all, is a challenge to almost every preacher in America. In light of that, some preachers have recommitted themselves to more structured models of biblical preaching, such as expositional sermons. Others seem to have given up on the task and preach sermons which have very little biblical content at all.
Patterson: That is an interesting development. You know, the congregation plays a part in that. During the first years of my ministry in Irvine I took a cue from Browne Barr (a former professor of preaching at Yale Divinity School) and formed what he called a “sermon workshop.” I would sit down with a group of church members and critique the sermon in terms of the text, with criteria I supplied them. That really got me plugged into what people were thinking and what issues they were dealing with. I also built up a clientele in the church who understood what I was doing in the pulpit. I later drifted away from that for a time, feeling that I had come to understand the congregation. That was probably an unfounded assumption, and I am now back at the process again. I dialogue with the group about the text, what it is about and what I am going to do.
Preaching: How did the context of preaching in Southern California shape your understanding and practice of the preaching task?
Patterson: People are always in a hurry. I tend to get a bit reactionary to that, I hope in a healthy way. When I looked out on my congregation in Irvine I saw a group of people on their way to somewhere else — usually some kind of recreational activity which they would pursue with grim determination. Recreation is seen as a right and an “ought” in their lives. The holiness of the day is gone; there is no concept of a sabbath. These people are rushed and tired from both working and recreating. They don’t even really recreate, they work at play. These people would desperately like the preacher to get the sermon done. I have reacted against that. My sermons have gotten longer and our worship services have gotten longer — and hopefully meaningfully so. We need to say “this is one thing we are not going to rush through this week.”
There are certain issues they are dealing with all the time that I find difficult to address. Many of those revolve around addiction. These people are obsessive-compulsive folks. Either we are in reality an addictive society, or else that is the new jargon to explain our spiritual problems. I am not sure, but addictive behavior seems to be foremost in their minds. They have high family values, but they are not mentors themselves and do not seem to have mentors like other generations have had. They are very concerned about their marriages and are confused. They feel isolated and frightened in raising their children. They do not have the institutional supports other generations had, and they so look to the church. They are looking for a parent. These concerns are behind what I see as the preaching task.
Preaching: In your books and sermons you demonstrate an ability to translate biblical concerns to people who do not know the stories and have not heard the texts. How do you develop the themes and issues of your sermons?
Patterson: That, in keeping with the rest of my approach, has shifted somewhat. I came into the pulpit in the mid-1970s and plowed through books of the Bible. That method was most popular in the Southern California churches which were really growing. I later became more topical — not in the older method of topical preaching but in the sense that I have selected texts according to the topics I felt needed to be addressed. I have done this almost to a fault. But lately I have moved back to more systematic methods, sometimes using the lectionary and sometimes preaching again through a book of the Bible.
Preaching: Is that because of your concern for the biblical content?
Patterson: Well, it goes back to the issue of biblical literacy. There are limits in looking at Sunday morning as an opportunity to teach something. But I want the sermon to do at least a bit of that. If nothing more, I want to get the congregation in the habit of handling the Scripture; in the joy of opening the Bible and letting it speak for itself. So I am disciplining myself away from topical preaching back to other methods. I have to say, however, that topical preaching is more popular and even my own church members would probably wish that I did more of that. They come with questions and issues and they want those answered right away.
Preaching: The dynamic between human need and the demand of the text challenges every preacher who takes the task seriously. Another challenge is moving from the text to the sermon. How do you make this transition?
Patterson: That question needs to be answered at two levels: the ideal and the real. What I want to do with every sermon does not always happen. I select the texts well in advance, usually three to four months ahead. I read them devotionally first, and then move to exegesis and the critical apparatus. I always do a great deal of devotional reading. Lately I have benefited greatly from praying through the text. I intercede for the church on the basis of what I see in the text. Nine times out of ten an outline will emerge from that process. My use of commentaries and other resources is more as a check on my reading of the text. That protects my interpretation from being off the wall.
I also use my wordprocessor and throw information into the machine, move it around, print it out, and then go to my files for illustrations and other material. One technique I have used is to get out of the church. I take all that material and go out to the park, to a restaurant, or to a shopping mall. I sit there and muse over the text. That can be remarkably helpful. All kinds of connections and anecdotes and stories come to me. Just a change of environment does that.
Preaching: Your method of moving from your study to the community takes you from isolation with the text into the crowd?
Patterson: Public places jog my mind. In public places I find myself making connections I had missed before. I watch people, listen, and then think about the manuscript.
Preaching: How do you develop and use your sermon manuscript?
Patterson: I always write a full manuscript and put a great deal of time and effort into that process. I rarely carry it into the pulpit. I take an outline based on the manuscript into the pulpit and preach from that. I am best when I walk into the pulpit having written a full manuscript, but with an outline in hand. I then walk into the pulpit with a combination of prepared and extemporaneous preaching. More often than not, what is on the paper I take to the pulpit is a “bare-bones” outline with some notes added. I go from that “blue sky” material on the text, through the manuscript, to the sermon outline. The manuscript is necessary to make that transition. It cleans up my thinking and focuses me on the text.
Preaching: How do you connect your preaching ministry with your writing? Does your vocation as a writer assist you in your preaching?
Patterson: It really does. I started out as a preacher speaking out of an outline without having prepared a manuscript. When I listened to the tapes I sounded unfocused and sloppy. If I write it out, my thinking is cleaner and I will come up with better illustrations and connections. This depends on the congregation as well. My congregations have been very well educated and they appreciate the fact that I am a writer. I don’t think the church I grew up in would have appreciated a pastor who was a writer, so it depends a great deal on the congregation. There are times I think that being a writer and a preacher can put me at cross purposes, because I can be so enamoured with some phrase I have put together that I should just put it away and not think about it. That is the risk.
Preaching: What would be your message to preachers as they are about the tasks of ministry?
Patterson: Without hesitation I would say: “Learn to pray.” I think it was D. L. Moody who reminded us that Jesus taught His people how to pray, not how to preach. I guess I would rather learn how to pray than how to preach. I have a great distrust of my abilities. God has given me some abilities to communicate, and I think those gifts are, taken alone, what I think will thwart my effectiveness in the kingdom of God. Prayer allows me to relinquish my hold on preaching and cast myself on the mercy of God. That’s when God can use me.

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