For more than a quarter-century, Adrian Rogers has been pastor of the historic Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. A church that had become a major force in the Southern Baptist Convention, the congregation had been in decline for two decades before Rogers’ arrival. Today it is one of the largest churches in the nation, and its pastor is heard daily on radio and television around the world. Preaching Editor Michael Duduit recently sat with Dr. Rogers’ in his study and talked about the role preaching plays in building a great church.
Preaching: Obviously God has blessed this church in an incredible way. It was a great church when you came here, but what an amazing growth it has had in reaching thousands of people. What do you see as the place of preaching in the process of growing a great church?
Rogers: I think it is central, and not because I happen to be the preacher. I believe the message, preaching, is the stackpole around which everything else is built. My psychology is always: If I develop the message, God develops the ministry. All that we see here, all that has happened here, I think is a response to a message. I’m not necessarily talking about homiletical structure or oratory, but truth and conviction. I believe your zeal is never any greater than your conviction over a long period of time. I think conviction comes out of truth and the pastor and the pulpit articulate that truth.
Preaching: You’ve been here now 27 years. Has your preaching changed?
Rogers: Hopefully it has gotten better! I look back at some of my sermons that I preached prior to coming here and some in my early days here. The structure was simpler. That may have been better as I analyze it, but the structure was simpler. I think my messages today are a little more packed with illustrations and information than they were in the earlier days.
Somebody asked me the other day if preaching has gotten easier though the years. If anything, it is a little harder because I take sermon preparation a little more seriously. I have not changed in doctrine. I build upon my basic theological presuppositions and underpinnings, but I have not changed in doctrine since I began preaching as a 19-year-old boy. I have strengthened some beliefs, understood some things; but there have been no radical changes or paradigm shifts, so I have been on a steady continuum there.
I really have not changed the style of preaching much. I hope my preaching has been enriched but not necessarily changed. I am a prepositional preacher, and I preach a pretty structured message. I use an old-fashioned alliterative form a lot. That is the way I started preaching, and I don’t think I’ll change in these days; but I have not changed structure that much from the old thing of having a proposition to begin with—I may not state the proposition in the beginning of the message, but I may. I have a proposition, I take a passage of scripture, analyze it, organize it, illustrate it, apply it and preach it, driving toward a conclusion that implies a decision. I have done it for so long I wouldn’t know how to do anything else.
Preaching: One of the things that characterizes your preaching is it is focused on decision, on response. How do you see the interplay or relationship of preaching with evangelism, with reaching people?
Rogers: Well, I think that everything I do is evangelism. I don’t think there is any preaching that is not evangelism. I don’t think there is anything that I do—if I am walking in the Spirit—that is not evangelism. So many times people have the idea that evangelism is getting lost people saved. In a large sense it is, but if you took the worst sinner who ever lived and put him on one side of a continuum, and the best saint that ever lived and put him on the other side, you and I and everybody else that we meet would be in between those two book ends. If we drew a line right in the center between the very worst and the very best and call that point salvation, when that man leaves the realm of darkness and steps over into the realm of light, just before he steps over that line, he is an almost Christian. When he steps over that line he is a baby Christian.
Now go to the far negative side where he is steeped in sin and God hating, the worst sinner that ever lived. If I meet a man there, I want to move him up that line just a little bit toward that center line. If I can move him a millimeter fine; if I can move him a mile, fine. But I want to move him toward coming to know Jesus Christ. Someone, myself or someone else, may bring him over that line into the kingdom by the grace of God. At that moment I still want to keep moving him because he is an unfinished product. Now I am moving him toward that ultimate sainthood.
So everything is evangelism—every person that I meet I’m just moving up that line if I am doing it correctly, whether he be saved or lost. I may be the one who brings him across that line or somebody else may, but even after he crosses that line and I am helping him to be a better Christian, that is also evangelism because I am teaching him to go back and move somebody else up that line.
So all preaching is evangelistic preaching if it’s good preaching. If it is not evangelistic, there is something desperately, inherently wrong with it. So it is not just preaching hell hot, heaven sweet, sin black, judgement sure, Jesus saves. If I have a saint and I am making him a better saint, that is evangelism because he becomes an evangelizer; I am teaching him to observe all things whatsoever Jesus commanded, which is evangelism. Yes, I am preaching for a decision but I am not always preaching for a conversion in the immediate sense.
As a matter of fact, probably nothing will ultimately kill a church more than raw evangelistic preaching in the classic sense, Sunday after Sunday, because you get shallow saints, your preaching is predictable, the saints get tired of it, and the sinners won’t come. So that is not the way to grow a church!
The way to grow a church is to grow Christians. That is not to say that a wise preacher should not, whatever he does, at the close of his message give an invitation for people to come to Christ. I believe in calling for a decision. If I preach on tithing, I would say at the end of the message: “When I am talking about tithing and God blessing stewardship, I am talking to a child of God. If you are not a child of God, that is where you need to start today, by giving your heart to Christ.” I will transition right into an invitation. If I am preaching on heaven to the saints, I say at the close, “In order to go to heaven, you’ve got to give your heart to Christ.”
There is no competition there. I think every message ultimately ought to have an evangelistic appeal—but the evangelistic appeal is only part of it. The message ought to have another purpose, whatever it is: if I preach on tithing, the purpose is to get people to tithe. If I am preaching on prayer, it is to get them to pray. If I am preaching on faith, it is to get them to have faith. If I am preaching on love, I want them to love. I am not just filling a bucket, I am lighting a torch. I am trying to get them to do something, whatever it is.
That is the difference, in my mind, between preaching and teaching. In teaching you may be disseminating truth. In preaching you are moving hearts. You have got to have truth in it but you are moving hearts. So yes, my preaching is decisional. Yes, it is evangelistic in a broad sense, though not just in preaching how to be saved in every service. But in every service, somewhere, somehow, sometime, I am going to tell people how to be saved.
Almost in every service somewhere, you are going to bring the gospel in. I have found out that a lot of people who call themselves gospel preachers are not gospel preachers. They believe and preach about the love of God and stand up and say, “Come to Christ.” But that is not the gospel. The gospel is that Christ died for our sins, that He was buried and rose again. And when I lead people, for example at the close of the service in a prayer, I say if you want to be saved, pray this prayer if you can: “God, I know that You love me and that You want to save me. I confess that I am a sinner and my sin deserves judgement and I need to be saved. You promised to save me. Jesus, You died to save me and promised to save me if I would trust You. I do trust You. I believe You are the Son of God. I believe that You paid for my sin with Your blood on the cross. I believe that God raised You from the dead and I now, by faith, receive You as my Lord and Savior once and for all, now and forever. Come into my heart, forgive my sin and save me.” So if nothing else, I have given the gospel as the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I didn’t just preach a sermon and then say come to Jesus.
I think that has a very strong evangelistic appeal also. If you and I and ten other people are sitting around a table, and the table is loaded and groaning with food, and we are not eating that food—we are just sitting there singing songs—and a stranger comes into the door and we say, “Come on in friend, sit down and eat. You need this food, it is good, it is wonderful. This is what you need.” If none around that table is eating, he is going to say, “There is something strange here.” But if we are sitting there feasting and we say, “come and sit down and join up,” that is inviting to him. I think that God’s people ought to be feasting on the Word every Sunday and then say to the man that comes in, “Hey, come on and join us,” rather than saying, “Hey, we are all here to tell you that you need something though we are not enjoying it ourselves.”
Preaching: When you were called as pastor of Bellevue, you came to a church that had a tradition of outstanding preaching. Certainly, R.G. Lee was one of the best-known preachers in America during this century. As pastor of such a church, how did you handle that sense of tradition?
Rogers: This is a wonderful church. When I came I was handed this legacy. I had a group of people: (A) Who love one another; (B) Who believe the Bible is the Word of God; (C) Who believe that the pastor is God’s appointed and anointed leader. What more could a man ask? Now Bellevue had been in decline for 20 years. From 1952 to 1972, every year attendance had been less than the prior year. For 20 straight years. It had gone from an average attendance in Sunday School of 2700 in 1952—which was the apex, the highest year—down to less than 1300 in Sunday School in 1972. So they were ready for God to do something.
The town, the demographics of the city had changed. The building was run down. Parking was woefully inadequate, but that was not all together bad from the perspective of building and growing a church. These people just welcomed me from day one with open arms.
God gave me the hearts of the people. They didn’t love me for who I was; they did not know me. I was the recipient of God’s grace. They loved me and accepted me, and I never tried to be Dr. Lee. Nobody could or should. Number one, his preaching was for a different day. He was an orator. Oratory is not the order of the day. People say, “How are you going to fill his shoes?” I said I’m not trying to fill his shoes; I am going to stand on his shoulders and thank God for the legacy. But he preached differently than I do. Dr. (Ramsey) Pollard, who was my immediate predecessor, preached differently. Pollard was more of a topical preacher and Dr. Lee was more of a orator. I am kind of a teacher-preacher doing more exposition.
Preaching: Your life had intersected with Dr. Lee’s prior to coming to Bellevue.
Rogers: Yes, he was a great friend, and I did his funeral. He had a warm sense of humor, a great heart of love. One time I said to him when he was ill, “Dr. Lee before you go to heaven, couldn’t we take your brain and put it into my head?” He said, “My boy, that would be like putting a grand piano in a closet.” He had a twinkle in his eyes, but I’m not sure if he was serious or not! He was a great man and I loved Dr. Lee. I did both his and Dr. Pollard’s funerals. They were both members of this church at the same time. I had a warm relationship with both of them. They were both supporters and prayer warriors.
Preaching: You tend to preach in series most of the time. How do you go about the process of planning your preaching calendar?
Rogers: Not as well as I ought. A lot of my preaching is reactionary as I see a need out in the congregation. For example, I am doing a little four Sunday series on building the body. Last Sunday, I preached on everybody is somebody in His body—finding the right place in His body. This Sunday, I am going to talk about unwrapping your spiritual gift and finding out what your part in the body is. Next Sunday I am going to speak on loyalty to the body—not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together. The next Sunday, I’m going to speak on spiritual maturity, how to grow up, to learn how to develop your spiritual gifts.
Sometimes I will just fall in love with a book in the Bible that I am reading and I will say, “Man, this is good stuff, I believe I am going to preach through this.” For no reason at all except that I just enjoy this book of the Bible, it’s blessed me and I want to bless the people.
Preaching: How much of your preaching would you say is in book series?
Rogers: Probably 50 percent. Fifty percent would be book series, 25 percent would be biblical but topical series—a biblical approach to a topic such as stewardship… Then maybe 25 percent would be a potpourri—stand alone sermons, no series at all. I don’t have a real scientific way of planning preaching here. I just don’t; I am not confident that I have enough of whatever it takes to project that far out in the future as to the needs of the people. I want to be able to react more quickly to the tenor of the times.
For example just before the new year, I preached a series on eternity, because everybody was thinking about eternity with Y2K. I preached a series “On the Edge of Eternity.” We are always living on the edge of eternity. It is not like eternity is out there like the Grand Canyon, a thousand miles from here and we are heading toward it. No, we are already there, walking along the edge. It’s always the last days. From the time of the apostles we are on the edge of eternity—not that some event has to happen. So I preached a series and it was biblical but it was not just taken from one book of the Bible.
Preaching: How far out would you typically say that you know the direction of a series?
Rogers: That meanders until I get locked in! Recently I decided to start preaching through Romans—only God knows how far out I am to getting finished! As to when I might start the book of Romans, that all depends. I already know for example that I am going to do this series on building the body then I know we are going to do three Sundays on world missions.
Then, contrary to my former statement about preaching raw evangelism, I have decided to preach seven sermons in a row on Sunday on pure, raw, “Come to Jesus” evangelism. I’m calling it the Seven Salvation Sundays. I’m going to preach the themes that I have found through the years that reap more than other themes. And there are themes that reap more than others.
For example, hell is not a good evangelistic subject. I preach on hell, I think we ought to preach on hell more than we do because that is almost a forgotten note in the modern church; but don’t expect a lot of decisions for Christ when you preach on hell, not immediately. A sermon on hell has a delayed detonation. It’s a negative thing when you are preaching and most negative things don’t receive a positive response, although sometimes it may. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t preach on hell.
So how far out do I plan? It is like preparing a sermon. Somebody says, “Well, how long did it take to prepare that sermon?” I might say, 30 years. Or I might say some sermons I can do in several hours, some I might take a couple days. I don’t have a scientific way to say what I am going to determine as a series. A lot of that is observation, where my mind is going at a particular time, in a particular book.
Preaching: Take a typical kind of week in your ministry as you are preparing a message. What does your week look like as you move toward Sunday?
Rogers: Monday, I begin to think and pull out materials. Monday afternoon, I generally come to church and work on my desk Monday afternoon, from after lunch to maybe 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon. Tuesday, almost all day I am in staff; I do very little studying other than my personal devotion time. Wednesday, I will be at my desk—my study is at home—preparing for Wednesday night and also preparing for Sunday morning and Sunday night. Thursday I’ll be home studying; Thursday afternoon I’ll be here at the church for appointments and counseling. Friday, I’ll be pretty much at my desk all day long and try to have everything racked up on Friday. Saturday is family time. Sunday I’m in the pulpit.
I preach a lot. I preach far more than the average pastor. I preach twice Sunday morning. I preach again Sunday night. I preach again on Wednesday. I preach again on Thursday for a business luncheon. All are separate, individual sermons except for Sunday morning, when I preach the same thing twice.
I have no pretense of any sermon being a literary gem. Every sermon is picked before it is ripe. You know if you are going to preach, you have to get off of the runway before you hit the pine trees. Here I come, ready or not. In my preaching I am more of a mechanic than an artist. I am just building it, over and over again. I don’t think that any of my sermons are jewels; I think of them more as nails and boards. The main thing that you are trying to do is not mesmerize people, but to help them. That’s what I try to do.
Preaching: When you step into the pulpit, apart from your Bible, how much do you take with you in terms of notes?
Rogers: I take a very full set of notes, but I don’t need them. When I do my notes, I will outline a message, and I believe in a strong outline. The strong outline is helpful both to me and to my hearers, but I want my outline to follow the scripture as much as possible. I will write out a full introduction. I will have all of my points and even subpoints, illustrations.
For example, last Sunday I used an illustration about a family that had a dog that they loved very much because that dog had been the pet of their son and their son died. They promised their son they would take care of the dog. So they loved the dog because the son loved the dog. The point was I love the church because Jesus loves it. Well, in my notes, I would not put down “dog” or “little boy’s dog.” I would write that out fully, so I could pick it up ten years from now and know what I’d said then. It is that full. If you put connectives and transitional sentences into my notes, you would turn them into manuscripts.
The reason I do it that way is to save my research, to keep me from being repetitive, to see what I preached when I preached the last time on this particular text. Also I can take a sermon that I preached 10 years ago, put it in a microwave and preach it again by looking at my notes; by a 10 minutes cursory glance I can know pretty much what I preached before. So when I go into the pulpit, I have a good memory. I could preach without notes—it would take more effort. As many times as I preach, I have concluded that the value gained is not commensurate with the work done, because I can preach with notes so the average person may not even know I use notes.
Also, I can take the fuller notes that I preach and reduce them to a skeleton outline but, I see no need to do that. Nobody looks at it but me. What I do is I take my notes and with a pencil I draw a circle around one word, another word, and another word. When I see that one word, that whole thought explodes in my mind. I know what that one word is symbolic of or what it engenders. So I might just circle a word dog. But that whole story then is in my mind. So I’ve got my outline there just by glancing at those little circles as I go down through the thing. I certainly admire people that can memorize it all, but in my own preaching I have not felt that there is enough value gained for me personally because I feel so much freedom the way I use my notes. I never feel tied to my notes.
Preaching: You mentioned that you do a lot more now in terms of illustration than you once did. As you are preparing a message, do you have an illustration file that you keep for yourself? Where do you find the best illustrations?
Rogers: A living, breathing, thinking person is drowning in illustrations if he will just open his eyes. In this morning’s paper is a picture of a church, and the title underneath it is “Cathedral of Ice.” It was a church, a beautiful gothic structure that caught on fire in sub-zero weather and the firemen had come and put out the fire; now it is sheathed in ice. You know, what an illustration is there! Some people look at that and never see it.
I think the secret of good illustrations is knowing ahead of time what you are going to preach. Somebody said it like having a wire stretched across a stream. If you have a wire stretched across the stream, it will catch little bits of grass and before long there will be a wad of grass on that wire. If there is no wire there, all of that grass goes on down the stream. Knowing what you are going to preach ahead of time is that wire. It is stretched across the stream and those illustrations collect on that wire. So I’ll be sitting there listening to whatever and I will say, “Man, that is what I’m going to preach on Sunday.” I will whip out a pen and I will write it down, or I will read and rip magazines and papers, everything. Read widely, think, listen—I think good illustrations come from just being alive, being interested.
I do have extensive files. I’ve had a filing system since I was a kid preacher and I have filing cabinets crammed with stuff. I don’t even know what all is in there but I have material filed by text and I have material filed by topic. I can go to a text file and find material and I can go to a topic file and find material. By a combination of being alive today and having material filed by topic and having material filed by text, that all comes together.
Preaching: How long is a typical sermon for you?
Rogers: A typical sermon on Sunday morning would be 35 minutes. Sunday night would be 40 minutes. People may argue with you about that! They think that by the time you finish the invitation you are still preaching.
Preaching: At least for Sunday morning, isn’t that a little shorter than you used to preach?
Rogers: Yes. We are on a forced march around here on Sunday morning because we are on television. I have to get finished in order to get one congregation out and get another congregation in. Also we are on some 700 radio stations daily. The radio message has to be only 27 minutes or less—probably more like 25 minutes. I have to be careful that I don’t preach too long and preaching too long is counterproductive.
In today’s world we live by sound bites. There are times if you are teaching or if you are in a Bible conference that obviously people have no where to go; you can go longer. I used to preach longer and I think that probably allowed for more extended illustrations.
On Sunday morning here, we try to appear relaxed and at ease but everything is pretty well programmed down to the minute. We know how long this song is going to take and that song, how long for the welcome period, when the song service is to be ended and when I start preaching, when we move into the invitation. It is a shame, but that is the world we live in.
Preaching: Apart from timing, do you see ways in which television and radio have flavored your preaching?
Rogers: Absolutely. Preaching is a miracle that you ever really do anything with such a diverse audience. You can say on Sunday mornings, “I’m preaching to young and old. I’m preaching to saved and lost. I’m preaching to educated and illiterate. I’m preaching to spiritual and to carnal.” All at the same time. Trying to connect with all those people, it is a wonder that you really connect at all.
Now take that and enlarge it by the television audience. Right now it is a frightening thing. When I preach on Sunday morning out there, that message that I preach this Sunday morning will literally go around the world. The sun on Sunday will never set on “Love Worth Finding” ministries. We are on satellite, covering Europe, Asia, Africa, South America; it goes all around the globe in different languages. You say, “How can that connect with all of those people?” Two things prove the inspiration of the Scripture to me: One is that it has stood up under so much shoddy preaching! The other is that the Word of God connects and when you are really preaching in the Spirit, you are saying more than you are saying. The Holy Spirit of God will take that Word and all those different ethnic backgrounds and sociological backgrounds and bring it home to human hearts.
With that in mind, I want to be politically sensitive. I don’t want to say anything derogatory about a nation or country. I want to be ethnically sensitive. I don’t want to have a shade of anything that sounds like any kind of racism. I want to be legally sensitive. For example, some movie star may have been married many times, but I have no right to call her a harlot. You have to be very careful about what you say about someone. I might use a particular athlete for an illustration. I would not want to say anything about him if he should happen to tune into the service and by chance it would cause him not to come to Christ. There are a lot of people out there and you don’t know who is listening.
It is a thrill. We get letters from Israel, from Italy, from whomever, wherever. This is the marvel of this day and age, that the sermon I am preparing for this week will go to all these places. Dale Evans Rogers was given an award at a meeting I was at. I walked out and said, “Dale, I just want to tell you we love you.”
“Adrian,” she said, “Roy and I just enjoy your preaching so much, we listen to you every Sunday.” I thought, “Well, good night, there is Roy Rogers listening to me preach!” You know, when you are on television you are going down through the roofs of apartment houses. When you are on the radio, you are coming down through the skin of an automobile right in there to the front seat with an individual. It is a thrill. It is amazing. You have to think, “This is precious. I have to be careful that I don’t mis-speak or just waste time because right now by God’s grace we are on more than 700 radio stations here in the United States every weekday and more than 20,000 cable systems and land-based TV stations on weekends.” It is a stewardship and it is a sobering thought because you don’t want to waste that opportunity.
Preaching: As you look back at your years of ministry in preaching, what would you say are the most important lessons that you have learned, the most important things about preaching?
Rogers: I have learned that you can’t divorce the message from the man. Preaching is just incarnational truth. Young preachers come to me and say, “Get me a word, get me a word.” Like you are walking down a hallway and dispense all of this wisdom! But I am about down to one word, which is integrity. Handle the Word with integrity, live with integrity, pray with integrity. Be real. I’ve learned that lesson, not that I think I am the paragon of anything that I am talking about, but I’ve learned that.
I’ve learned also the power of the Word of God. The Word of God is indeed powerful as the scripture says it is. God says that His Word is like a hammer, it breaks the rock in pieces. You take the hardest rock and keep tapping on it and it breaks. I have seen over the years the incredible power of the Word of God to bring people to Christ, to hold the church together.
This is such a happy church. If we have any problems in this church, I don’t know what they are, and I don’t want to know. I’ve been here for 27 years and we have grown every year, and we are at an all-time high right now, as I speak to you, in Sunday School attendance in baptisms, in giving, in spirit. It is wonderful. I say, “Is that the personality of a man? Is that my organizational genius?” Well, certainly not. What is it?” I think our people truly love the Lord. They love the Lord because they have heard about Him through the Word and the Holy Spirit is going to witness through that. And I think that there is a holy fear.
I think that this church could fragment and come apart if it were not for the glue that holds it together. It isn’t organization, it isn’t purpose. It is a love for God and a fear of God. I think people fear God. On the other hand, I love God too much to cause any problems. So a lot of things are grounded in the river of love that might cause difficulty in the average church. It goes back to what I said earlier, your zeal is no greater than your convictions, and your long-term convictions come out of the Word of God. I have seen the power of the Word of God to be the unifying force in building a church. I don’t believe you can build a church today on preaching alone. But, I don’t believe you build it without that.
I am afraid that we have a generation today that is confusing means and methods and trying to be up to date by jettisoning some biblical methods. I think that the end of that process is tragedy. So we want to do the old things in better ways. I can tell you that I’ve seen this church go from less than 1300 in Sunday School to last Sunday we had 7,840 in Sunday School. No three ring circus, no contemporary music, although we had good music. Nothing except the things that are traditional, but we try to do them with excellence. I don’t know why we should change.
Preaching: Any last thoughts you’d want to share with fellow preachers?
Rogers: There’s a little formula that I worked out early on for myself in preaching—four little phrases: “Hey, You, Look, Do.” This is in my mind to use as a guide in preparing a message. The first word Hey, like you would say to an individual to get their attention. It doesn’t matter what you are saying if you don’t have their attention. So, I would say: “Hey, Open your Bibles today to
If you were to put Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, anybody else out there and let them speak to the same people three times a week for 27 years they would be climbing the walls to get out. I don’t care who you are. The reason I preach the Bible is: first, I’m not smart enough to preach anything else. The Bible is a bottomless well. The other reason is I am smart enough not to preach anything else, because I know that that has the staying power. My people love me today; I don’t want to say boastfully, but I know this is true: they love me, they come. This place is packed; we have run out of room. It is not a testimony to the man but to the Bible. If I stop preaching the Bible, these folks will saturate this place with absence. They come for the Word of God. They want it to be warm, they want it to be understandable and applicable. But I have learned that there is power in the preaching of the Word of God.