Harry R. Jackson, Jr. is senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Bowie, Maryland. This growing church of over 2000 attendees represents over 22 nationalities and/or cultural groups from throughout the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. A Harvard MBA with a background in sales and marketing management, he recently founded the High Impact Leadership Coalition, an organization with a goal of educating and empowering Christian, community and government leaders regarding biblical, moral value issues in America. Bishop is co-author with George Barna of a recent book called High Impact African American Churches, and his most recent book is called The Black Contract with America on Moral Values. Preaching Editor Michael Duduit recently visited with him about preaching on moral issues.

Preaching: You have written and spoken extensively about moral issues, especially in the African-American church. Why is that a particular concern for the church today?

Jackson: I believe that it has to do with the application of faith. One of the real problems I find we have in 21st century Christianity is that the younger generations aren’t taking us very seriously because they think we are all word with no works. That’s really the cutting edge of having our faith in action; I think that is why I’m concerned about it.

My oldest daughter worked with Habitat for Humanity quite a bit on the weekends when she was in college and helped to build houses for the poor and this kind of thing. I see that in that age group there’s this social involvement aspect that they are very, very keen on. If we are going to reach subsequent, successive generations, we are going to need to be more involved in what I’m going to call real life and real world. So we need to come from the Word to the world, from words to work.

I was just having a discussion with someone, and they were talking about the immorality that has slipped into some of the churches. And I think that also is an issue: we have all these lofty things we preach, but the bottom line is many people have problems interpreting or translating those words into action. Specifically, let me talk about the breakdown of the black family. You’ve got nearly 50% of the African American adults are church goers and — by George Barna’s definition are born again — and then somehow we’ve got this amazing family decline among people who say that they are born again. The problem is there is a disconnect between the words and a clear cut plan of action.

So on the individual level that’s a real problem, on the church level it’s a problem, and corporately I believe our affecting the culture is a problem of our being unable to apply the Word.

Preaching: As you talk with other pastors and in your own ministry, how do you deal with these issues?

Jackson: I think there has to be a standard of preaching truth from the pulpit based on the Bible, and then you can call people to accountability around truth that’s been preached and accepted. Let me deal with the issue of marriage, for example. Sunday I preached a message that is third in the series called “Family Matters.” Then the title of this message was “Healing the Father Wound.” In that message I sought to do three things: One, to define the role of a father, not just as a husband but as a father in a family; what should the father do? Two, expose areas in which the culture has blinded us to the biblical role of father. And three, highlight to individuals how to begin a plan of renewing their minds so they can be the fathers God has ordained them to be.

I did that around the story of Jacob and Esau and how that laid hands on his son and blessed his son even though the son had lied to get in the position of Jacob. We talked about the need for us to reconnect with our fathers so that we’ll receive a father’s blessing. We tied that in with the New Testament scripture Ephesians 6:3-4, which talks about, “Fathers do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” In an African-American community we deal a lot with concerns of young males, especially anger. We talked about the fact that fatherlessness, being an absentee father, or inappropriately harsh fathering techniques will create an atmosphere where anger is part of the byproduct. That anger is played out in our communities in violence, in promiscuity, in crime. But it’s a family problem that we haven’t addressed as a family problem. We’re trying to address it socially only, when it’s a family problem.

So I try to offer that kind of preaching, where you give a visual aid through a story and you give a clear New Testament foundation: here’s what you should do. And then we define those words – like the word nurture and the word admonition, what they mean and what do they look like in the 21st century?

Preaching: Are there some moral issues within the African-American church that are particularly important to deal with?

Jackson: I’m on a hobby horse, so forgive me, but I think the marriage issue is really critical. The polls say that we as African-Americans are more conservative than any other sub-segment of American society. But wait a minute, we’ve got more out of wedlock births, we’ve got all these divorces, all these permanently single people. I believe the vision for marriage and the fact that God’s grace stands behind the family has got to be preached and preached and preached. It’s not the only thing, but you’ve got to start with a vision. I think that is a major moral issue that we can’t get rid of.

I think also the issue of poverty and lifting people out of cyclical patterns of poverty is critical. But studies are showing that fatherlessness and poverty are tied together. So it still comes back to the family, doesn’t it?

Preaching: That is the foundational issue that spreads into these other moral issues.

Jackson: That’s exactly right. So unless we deal with it and take it beyond teaching to discipleship . . .

This Wednesday I will have a class that will take a whole service and have the men break up into groups, share some of their concerns. Then there will be some teaching and some homework assignments for application, in a men-only environment. I want to talk about the concept of fathering and what these guys stumble over. I’ve got to get down to that level and give people some opportunities to get coaching as opposed to counseling.

Preaching: The church you pastor now is multi-racial, and you’ve pastored at least one other church that is multi-racial; in fact, it was a majority white congregation. What are the differences you find in preaching to a predominantly African-American congregation versus a predominantly white congregation? How does that impact your preaching?

Jackson: I think white teaching and preaching, in terms of culture, is often more left-brained — more logical, more systematic. Black preaching tends to tell a story and bring people into the emotion of living the experience; as a take away you do get information, but you reach the heart first and then the brain. I would say most white preaching reverses that — the notable exception would be probably some of your best Southern Baptist preachers who literally in the south blend the two; they take the best of black preaching and white. When I was in upstate New York (at a majority white church), my congregants would say, “Why are you shouting at us?” Well, I didn’t think it was shouting at all; I call this preaching. I found that I needed to be less impassioned and clearer with the take-aways and specific points for my white congregation. In upstate New York I had a blend of professionals and people who were basically out of the welfare world even though they were white. Now I’ve got the same mix in D.C. although they are black, but the cultural dynamic is totally different in terms of the right brain versus left brain.

Preaching: You have said that the church needs to deal with both righteousness and justice. I suspect that in most of our preaching we deal a lot more with righteousness than with justice. What do you suggest to pastors as to how they integrate those justice issues into their preaching? Why is that important?

Jackson: I think it is important because the application gives us a way of changing society. In Matthew 5, Jesus says we are the salt of the earth, and if salt has lost its flavor, it is fit for nothing but to be trodden under foot. My concern is that unless we bring things back to the culture and sift it through personal reality, corporate reality, and cultural context, then we stop short of helping people really find out how to change our world, reform our society. The first great awakening and the second great awakening both had social justice items to them. I think that is so critical. We should be able to take the Bible and the newspaper and preach the Bible in such a way that we bring biblical answers to the problems we face in the newspaper. That is my goal on the justice issue.

Preaching: What are some of the specific justice issues that you think the evangelical church needs to address?

Jackson: We’ve come up with a something called the Black Contract with American Moral Values. The first major item is family reconstruction or the whole marriage protection amendment. We have got to protect marriage. If not we will wind up with total disaster — more crime, more everything. So I think the first and probably most important issue is marriage.

Second is poverty if you take seriously the poverty exhortations Jesus gives. Matthew 25 says we are to visit the sick, we are to visit the prisoner, and we are to care for the poor. I think the poverty issues are very, very critical, meaning that there are some things we should legislate politically to help alleviate the poverty. The Great Society programs didn’t do what they were designed to do. We need some creativity there. I tie into poverty issues like education reform. There is no reason why we can’t have school choice or charter schools that really empower minority youth and others to get an opportunity to change their lives. I think education in America is a great cultural “class pass,” if you will. Because of my Ivy League education, I got to go places that my grandfather — who went to second grade — never was able to get to.

Another major moral issue is health care. Jesus said you visited me when I was sick. The fact that there are so many Americans — 20% of all Americans, black, white or whatever — that don’t have health care. Suffice it to say if I hadn’t had health care with my own personal problems I wouldn’t be here today. I believe the Lord has called us to make a difference. So those are the top ones on my list.

Preaching: If someone wanted information on that Black Contract for America where would they find it?

Jackson: You’d find it at www.hilc.net — that stands for High Impact Leadership Coalition. That’s the easiest way to find it.

Preaching: Switching gears a bit, if I were to come to your church on a Sunday morning, tell me about what I would hear and experience. Describe your approach to preaching, the kind of messages that you preach in your own congregation on Sundays.

Jackson: You would hear a lot of good music, good singing, and a rousing, upbeat, kind of celebratory environment. In my preaching you would hear me typically take a text, a passage of scripture, and even if I talk from a thematic area like anger or family, usually we are going to deal with some exegesis of a passage. But I would treat it more in a story-telling kind of format. I would give biblical background for the context of the passage. If it was an Old Testament text, I always give some New Testament application for the same truths I find there, so people understand that this is one book.

Then I would work on application, application, application of the story — working it through what we’ve already said: personal, church and then culture. We may flip the order depending on the story. For example this Sunday, we are talking about how important fathers are. Some of you guys know people who weren’t raised around their father, but they got certain blessings from their family and they got certain problems from their family. Some of our families have alcohol problems, or down our genealogy or family tree there were certain issues, and I recited stories of people I knew who had not met their dad before. Maybe talked to him two or three times before their dad passed away. But they were so impressed with things they saw in their lives; it reminded them of their dads, meaning the way they dressed, certain attitudes, a certain flare of life. We build a connection with people so that even if you have an absent father or a poor father, somehow there’s this connection. I think that’s very important — the story telling aspect of things and finding a place where the scripture can become real because of the nature of the story.

Preaching: How long is a typical sermon for you?

Jackson: How long? A typical sermon is about 40 minutes. I’m a long winded preacher.

Preaching: Do you preach in series?

Jackson: I preach almost exclusively in series. Right now I’m in a series called “Family Matters.” We’ll be talking about various issues. We started with the role of a man. In a sense I’ve got a mini-series within a series. The man’s role in the house: husband, father, we’re going to talk now about how the man can really renew his mind, and then we’ll go on to the role of mother. Then we’ll deal with some specific areas like finance, child rearing, etc.

Preaching: How do you work to keep your preaching fresh?

Jackson: I think the way we keep it fresh is to use the newspapers or the magazines of the day and ask yourself the question: what is the biblical text that gives the answer to this problem? For example, now we have The Da Vinci Code coming out. Also, the Federal Marriage Amendment is getting ready to happen; how do I share that? How do I deal with the concern that parents have that their kids will be molested, abducted etc., that’s all over the news? There seems to be a rising interest in justice in terms of the media. What I mean by that is all the judge shows, all the Law & Order kind of criminal shows, says that deep within the psyche of Americans there is a need to have closure and a sense of “have I got my due?” What is the appropriate biblical way to look at that?

So you could take a lot of issues of our day and have an amazing hearing. In your preparation think about what is preoccupying the minds of the people we are serving? What are the deep issues they are grappling with? Periodically go out in the community talking to people — not introducing yourself as a preacher — and asking them questions about certain things you want to preach about, but asking them questions about how they see it or frame it. For example, if I’m in a cab I may ask a guy, do you think about spiritual things? Well, what kind of spiritual things? And then they will begin to tell me their worldview. And then just ask questions to try to understand where they are. I think that would help us understand what are land mines to communication.

The people we are talking to have a certain worldview. I came to discover, by the way, the average unchurched person today has his or her own unique theology. Meaning they have their own understanding of how the world fits together; they maybe even put their own sacred texts together. They read a little bit from the Bible, a little bit from Hinduism, a little bit from here, and they have a real clear picture of the things that mean something to them. I never had a clue. That means, though, that I’m going to get a hearing from them. I used to preach in such a way that I would say Mohammed is not the way, Buddha is not the way — yet that’s the quickest way to shut these people down. So by listening to people that I encounter, finding out a little bit about their worldview, it really helps me fashion what I’m saying to meet the changing needs of our culture.

Preaching: What are some of the most valuable insights you’ve learned over your years as a preacher and pastor?

Jackson: I guess the biggest thing I wish I had known as a young pastor is the power of the scriptures themselves and the need for us maybe to restate what would seem to be obvious. I think I didn’t understand that early on. So as I’m trying to communicate or pull nuggets out of a passage, I would often start at a higher place in terms of understanding, beyond the ability of people to apply the Word where they were. I made a mistake of trying to impress people with information instead of impacting people with a call to do something with the information.

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About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

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