Adam Hamilton is founding pastor of the Church of the Resurrection in suburban Kansas City, a United Methodist church that has grown from four people in 1990 to more than 12,000 members today. His congregation was cited as the most influential mainline church in America in a 2005 survey of pastors. He recently published his 10th book, Why? Making Sense of God’s Will. He recently visited with Preaching Executive Editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: Your newest book deals with issues of suffering and tragedy. What led you to take on that challenging topic?
Hamilton: As a pastor, this is the number one question that I receive from people who are non-religious, and we have a real focus on trying to reach those folks at Church of the Resurrection. Their number one objection to the faith is: My sister died, how could a good and loving God do this? Or the people who died in the earthquake? All of us go through times of tragedy. We experience tragedy in other people’s lives, and that seems to fly in the face of the Christian gospel of a God who is loving, just and kind; a God who in His mercy and love sent Jesus Christ; a God who is actively involved in our lives.
An atheist won’t find the book attractive because he or she quickly will tear apart everything in it. An agnostic, somebody who’s open to the possibility that there’s a God, or someone who once was a believer but because of something painful ended up losing his or her faith—I think this book could be very helpful for that person. In fact, I’ve already heard it has been for many.
I also wrote it for Christians, because every Christian I find talks about this. I help people think through how we understand God and suffering and reconcile those two ideas, but then suffering happens again and they kind of forget. We fall back to some default ideas that aren’t always very helpful for us. So I have found in the church that I have to preach on this topic probably four times a year, at least one sermon four times a year, or somehow mentioning this in a sermon four or five times a year, just to help our people remember, “Oh, yeah, that’s how it works and that’s why God is not to blame for the terrible things I see on the evening news.”
Preaching: Did this particular book come out of a sermon series or out of some of your own preaching?
Hamilton: Yes, it did. I have twice focused on this as an entire sermon series. Once in a series called “Where Was God When..?” The subtitle was, “The Problem of Evil and the Providence of God.” Last fall, I did a sermon series titled “Why? Making Sense of God’s Will.” So, the sermon manuscripts became the book. I added to each one of them and tweaked them to become better reading material. Then I added a fourth chapter to the three sermons that I preached before. One of the things I’ve found is when you’re preaching on this topic, three sermons, maybe four, that’s the outside that you want to preach because after a while it’s just too heavy to deal with suffering week after week.
Preaching: Tell me about your approach as you were moving toward doing this series. What were some of the issues you were dealing with?
Hamilton: The first sermon in the series was “Why Do the Innocent Suffer?” We hit this head-on, and gave examples of the innocent suffering, so that by the time one is finished with the introduction everybody in the congregation is shaking [his or her] head and saying, “Yes, why does that happen?” I mean even long-time believers understand the problem. It’s so easy to lay it out there, then they all want to know, “How do I answer that? How do I answer that when my friend who’s a non-believer says, ‘Where’s your God now when this thing happened?'” So that’s where we started. In the midst of that, when we got toward the end of that sermon, I also addressed the question frequently asked: Why do we give God praise for the good things but not blame God for the bad things? How can you justify doing one but not the other?
After that, I knew in the next sermon I wanted to address the second frequently asked why question: “Why do my prayers go unanswered? We had a prayer chain for my child, all of my friends were praying for my child to get better; and instead, she died. Why did God not answer that prayer? Why did God not answer the prayer for my child to live, when I watched the NFL and the wide receivers point to heaven and cross themselves after making a catch as though God did answer their prayers for catching a football?”
The last sermon in the series was “Why Is It So Hard to Figure Out What God’s Will Is?” “I pray and pray, ‘God, Thy will be done,’ and, ‘Show me Your way,’ and yet, here I am two years into being unemployed, and I can’t figure out why I’m still unemployed. Am I doing something wrong? Why hasn’t God shown me the job to take? We say of God when He closes a door He opens a window, but I can’t find any of the windows.”
When I wrote the book, each of those sermons ended with a note of victory, but I felt I needed to bring it on home. So when the book was written, it included the best of some of the Easter sermons I’ve preached. The final chapter is, “Why God’s Love Ultimately Prevails.”
Preaching: Good. As you preach a message on these kinds of tough issues, what do you find to be the most helpful material in preaching: the explanation of the theological ideas or maybe the illustrations, the stories?
Hamilton: The stories are obviously very compelling—the stories of suffering—when you tell these real life stories. Obviously you need to get permission from the people whose stories you’re telling, or use stories that are outside of your congregation that are broad enough that you couldn’t identify the people. Those stories obviously are compelling because everybody can identify with them. Everybody has a story of some unjust suffering or some innocent who suffered, and it’s difficult to reconcile with the love of God. The stories of people coming out on the other side are terribly important—to be able to describe the person whose child died five years ago, but where they are today and what God has done in his or her life and how he or she personally has felt God’s grace and God’s strength through that, and how he or she has understood it.
One of the things I’ve done is send a pastor’s email every Friday to the entire congregation. When I’m preaching on this, I’ll ask them: “Some of you have experienced tremendous loss in the past, yet you didn’t turn away from God. How did you find your faith helped you? Can you write me and tell me where you are today so I might share your story with other people.” So one of the stories I had on the suffering side—in the book and in the sermon series—was a young woman whose child died at 6 or 8 months old, and her friends were saying it must have been the will of God. She left her faith because of that, saying, “If that’s what God is like, He takes 8-month-old babies from their mommies, I’m not interested.” So I shared that story, which came right out of somebody in our congregation who responded to my query. She came back to faith at Church of the Resurrection as a result of a previous sermon.
One of the stories I received that is not in the book was of a man who was sexually abused as a child by his pastor—how he left the faith as a result, then how he processed that later and came back to faith in Christ. You share those kinds of stories, and it’s not just theory you’re sharing; it’s how it really worked in people’s lives. However, you have to have the theology to link those two together. You have to do some serious thought on the problem of theodicy, the problem of suffering; and none of us has all the answers to that.
I say in the introduction of the book that it does not have all the answers because I’m not smart enough to have all the answers, but it is incumbent upon us as pastors and preachers to do some serious thought on this issue and to debunk some of the common answers that people give. The theology is critical to connect point A to point B, but the illustrations are what drive it home.
Preaching: As you deal with these issues as a preacher, what’s the toughest area for you to communicate in this whole issue of suffering? What’s the most challenging?
Hamilton: I think in terms of specific situations, suffering of children is probably the hardest. When people have a loved one who dies in his or her 80s, most of us were sad; but we understand they lived a long, full life. When you have a 12-year-old or 16-year-old who dies, that’s a much harder situation.
I got called to the hospital one night. The daughter of a family that had been worshiping with us had been raped and murdered. They prayed everyday for their children. They had just started going to church when this happened. Those are situations are really hard. They’re not hard for me to address, but they are hard situations in which thoughtful answers are important.
Leslie Weatherhead wrote a similar book called The Will of God right after World War II. He led his congregation through the fire-bombing of London, people dying in their homes and just terrible things happening. He said the worst time to help someone figure out an adequate theology of suffering or an adequate doctrine of providence and theodicy is when he or she is going through suffering. You want people to have thought through how they understand how God’s will and God’s work intersects with suffering in the world before you get there rather than while you’re in the middle of it. Because when you’re in the middle of it, you’re not thinking very clearly; and you need something that’s helpful to you.
Preaching: You mentioned this is a theme you try to hit several times a year. Are there other topics or issues that you try to include in your preaching ministry every year?
Hamilton: Well, this is the most important one. Beyond that, I would say at least once a month I incorporate some element of our church’s mission and purpose. Our purpose is to build a Christian community in which non-religious and nominally religious people are becoming deeply committed Christians. So at least monthly there’s going to be some illustration in a sermon, some point that takes me to the purpose statement that says this is our purpose at the Church of the Resurrection. I find that’s essential for keeping people focused on why this church exists. This is why we do this kind of thing, because it connects with non-religious people, or this is where we’re trying to take you.
So preaching on our purpose is really important. That may not be an entire sermon; it may just be an illustration and one final point in a sermon. Usually once a year, there’ll be a couple of sermons connected together that are preaching to our purpose.
Forgiveness is another issue. Last year I had an entire sermon series on forgiveness. Again I solicited information from our congregation: What are the issues for which you find difficult to forgive in other people? What are the issues you find difficult to accept forgiveness for yourself? We sort of unpack this. On some regular basis, there’ll be some moment of dealing with God’s grace for our own lives. That’s a frequent topic.
I conduct a survey once a year inviting our congregation to tell me what they need from the sermons. What are the topics they wish I would cover? What Scripture or theological issues are they wrestling with? As I search through that list, I’ll get probably 45 years worth of sermon series ideas from that, but every year the forgiveness issue shows up. People struggle with bitterness. They struggle with their hurt from other people. How do they forgive their parents? How do they forgive their children? How do they forgive their co-worker or their neighbor? They know they should, and they pray it when they pray The Lord’s Prayer; but they can’t quite figure out how to do it, so that’s a regular topic.
Death. You don’t want to overdo death to the point of preaching on it every week. I know one pastor years ago—his congregation behind his back called him Dr. Death because every Sunday there was a sermon with an illustration of somebody dying. That turns into manipulation, or it’s a one-note preacher. Clearly addressing that from time to time—the issue of hope, death, resurrection and the comfort that comes from our faith—that is a topic we’ll talk about; not just at Easter, but at other times, as well.
Preaching: How do you go about planning what you’re going to do for the year? How far out do you plan?
Hamilton: I actually have a two-year preaching plan. If somebody told me when I started preaching that I would plan ut two years, I would have said they were ridiculous; that just can’t happen. The first few years at Resurrection, I preached using the lectionary. I would wake up Monday morning, read the four lectionary texts, pray over them, pick one of them, whichever one seemed to spark something in my heart; and I would choose that one. Then I would develop my sermon.
In time, I began to realize I needed to be planning further in advance, that each week then was kind of a stand-alone shot of whichever Scripture verses from the lectionary spoke to me. I realized it really would be helpful for me to think about what I was trying to accomplish at the church and that the preaching is one of the most important elements to accomplish the church’s purpose, mission and vision. In three years, where do I hope these people in the church will be spiritually? Missionally? What do I hope this congregation will have done in this community? What do I hope the members know? What do I hope they feel and experience in their relationship with Christ and other people? What do I hope they’re actually doing to live out their faith?
As I set those goals I thought, “What kind of sermons would I have to preach to take them there?” and I began to lay out the types of sermons I’d have to preach. In my book Unleashing the Word, which is a book on preaching, I lay out five types of sermons. One type is what we call fishing expeditions. Those are advanced sermons that are really aimed at drawing in the nominally religious and non-religious. We announce those on Christmas and Easter, that the next sermon series is going to be dealing with some questions or issues or everyday practical kinds of things that non-religious people would say, “Wow, we’ve got to go back to hear that.”
The second type is discipleship sermons. Those are four-, five- or six-week sermon series that are aimed at taking people deeper in their relationships with God, in their own discipleship cognitively, as well as in the heart.
Then we have sermon series that are pastoral care sermon series aimed at addressing the hurts and the wounds of people in the congregation or their practical pastoral needs. They may be depression, maybe issues of dealing with aging parents or raising children—a whole host of things. Marriage is a big one.
Then we have sermons that are on equipping and sending the saints. Paul tells us the role of the pastor/teacher is to equip God’s people to do the work of the ministry, so how do I equip them for that? How do I equip them to do Christian ethics? How do I equip them to share their faith with other people? How do I equip them to go into the world and live in their world missionally in the workplace, at home and at school?
Then the final sermons I preach I used to call “institutional development.” They are sermons to strengthen the church. They’re more inwardly focused on the church, but what it means to do life together in Christ. They’re sermons that cast a vision, and it’s a chance for me to share the strategic objectives for our congregation each year. There are sermons that are fundraising sermons, which are really discipleship sermons; but there may be capital campaign sermons, those kinds of things.
Then I lay out when those fit in the year. I send an email to the congregation asking, “If I were to preach a series of sermons that would make it easy for you to invite an un-churched friend, what might the topic be? What are the theological issues you’re wrestling with that you really wish I would preach a sermon about? What are the struggles you’re having in your personal life—family, work, whatever—that I might address in a sermon? What are the areas of the Christian life in which you would love to grow deeper?” I ask these questions to the congregation.
I get 60 to 200 emails with answers to these questions. So not a huge percentage because I’ve got about 16,000 on the email list, but there’s enough to get a pretty good sense. I look for trends in those, and I spend a day praying over them, reading them, looking at which ones speak to me and where they might fit in a year’s worth of preaching. Then I go to our staff on the front lines of ministry with people and ask them the same questions. We have a two-hour staff time when we discuss what the people need to hear in the next year, and we spend time praying about it.
I take that information from the staff and do the same thing with our leaders. Then I go on a day-long retreat in which I’m reading and praying over all of this material, and I begin to outline some possibilities. Actually it’s not a day-long retreat, that’s what I do on day one. Our church gives me a week of time away that is not vacation. They know I’m going to work 70 hours that week, somewhere where I can just listen for God’s voice and pray. I look over the prayer request cards that have been turned in for the past month to see what the people are struggling with. I look at future trends.
By the end of the week, I have outlined probably four years worth of sermon series ideas—a topic, theme or sermon series title; two paragraphs that summarize where the sermon series might go and what five or six possible sermons might look like. I bring that back to our worship planning team and our leadership team, and I say: “Tell me how these feel to you as somebody who’s in leadership at this church,” and we usually narrow it down to two years.
So I lay out that two-year preaching plan. Our team knows then—the video team, music team—everybody knows this. Our children’s ministry team can plan Vacation Bible School around next year’s summer sermon series. Then throughout the year, we update that. From time to time, we’ll yank a sermon series that no longer seems applicable, or maybe there’s a new one that needs to go in. Sometimes even a month before the sermon series we’ll say: “Hey, this needs to be tweaked some,” or we’ll have a brainstorming session around it. So that’s kind of how it works.
I’ve got a two-year plan. The sermons for the next 12 months, there’s about a 75 percent likelihood we’re going to preach those sermons. There’s a 25 percent chance we’ll pull one of those series. The second year out, it’s maybe a 50 percent chance of preaching those sermons; but at least they’re a placeholder and a place to start when we plan for the next year’s sermon series.
Preaching: As you look back over your life and ministry as a preacher, are there some things you’ve learned, some things you know now that you wish you could go back and tell yourself as a young preacher starting out?
Hamilton: I would like to think my preaching has improved every year, but my preaching style also has changed. When I was a young preacher, I didn’t have as much life experience and pastoral experience to draw from. I was preaching the lectionary, which is probably what I needed to do for those first six years in the ministry. I had 20 minutes to preach each week, and I was in charge of everything; so I probably had eight to 10 hours to prepare a sermon.
I would say there are a couple of things I’ve learned that I think are important. One is inviting the involvement of the congregation in your preaching. Today, I do that by Facebook. So every week, I’ll throw out, “Here’s the topic I’m preaching on,” or, “Here’s the question I have for you,” or “Here’s the…” whatever. I’ll get anywhere from 10 to 100 responses on Facebook of people sharing resources, ideas or their own personal stories. Involving the people in the preaching process and making it a collaborative event is huge. It’s a huge opportunity.
The second is—and I probably go too far on this—my aim is to prepare every sermon series as though it were a college-level course on whatever I’m preaching. So I’m going to do 10 or 15 hours of research on each sermon, and we have no excuse for today’s sermons not being the best-researched sermons of any generation in the history of the Christian faith because we have access to such amazing information on the Internet. In those early years, I did less in the way of research. Today it’s probably overkill, but I know that by the time I’m done I have something of substance to share.
One last thing I’ve done in each sermon that I didn’t think about earlier—part of our vision for our congregation members is that we are going to speak to their intellect, their heart and their hands, kind of like three of the four Hs of the 4-H club—head, heart and hand. So every week, somewhere in there you’re going to learn something you didn’t know before. You’re going to be inspired or moved in your heart in some way. Your heart will be touched somewhere. You’re going to be called to action. Every sermon there’s going to be a “So what?” Every sermon has a challenge: This is now what we’re going to ask you to do in response to the Word.