Ron Mehl is pastor of the Beaverton Foursquare Church in Beaverton, Oregon — a church which has grown from eleven people to more than 5,000 during his 21-year pastorate. Ten years ago, Ron was diagnosed with leukemia. Rather than allow that diagnosis to end his ministry, he has found that it has brought new depth and purpose to his pastoral ministry, and particularly to his preaching. As he points out, “no one can live life to the fullest until they’ve dealt with their mortality.”
Preaching: Your church has experienced remarkable growth over the past two decades. Are there some particular reasons for that growth?
Mehl: When I came to Beaverton twenty years ago and had eleven or twelve people for Sunday worship, it was a real humbling time. As I walked out of there I thought it was such a horrible service. I had been in the ministry for nine years, but had never been a pastor — I’ve only pastored one church and that’s Beaverton. That first Sunday I realized why for nine years God didn’t trust me with a church, and then when He did give me a church it was one of eleven or twelve people — I couldn’t screw things up too badly!
Since then, it’s been a truly overwhelming experience. I don’t think I have ever experienced such grace in my life. I’m one of those who is very humbled by what the Lord has done. I think it’s His sovereign act, that’s what it is. You know, people love to explain away why something happened. I work hard — I don’t think there’s a pastor I know who spends as much time as I do — but ultimately it’s just been an incredible, amazing work of God. I feel privileged to be a part of it.
Someone once asked me, “Do you ever get proud of what’s happened at the church?” I said, “As a pastor, I’ve learned never to take any credit for what has happened at the church, but I’m not going to take the heat if it falls apart either, cause God doesn’t get it both ways.” I think my heart is right, so I feel like I get to do what I do — study and love people — and I leave the rest to Him. It’s just been a truly miraculous thing to watch. It’s overwhelming.
You know, it’s not me. I offer my two cents like everybody else, but there is a chemistry. There is sovereignty and human responsibility, so it’s been really a privilege.
Preaching: For at least a decade, you have faced a battle with leukemia. How has that influenced and shaped your preaching?
Mehl: In every way. I believe that until a pastor comes to the realization of his own mortality, and until a man realizes he’s not going to live forever, I doubt that he will live with purpose or priorities. You must come to the realization that you are dying — and I’m not trying to be morbid about it. Because I realize how critical every day is, I’ve become so serious about it that my life has become more tender, not only for my touch in the life of the church, but in my family. I literally got to the place where, when our boys entered their high school days, I marked off on the calendar the number of days that I would have to touch their lives: 874 days, 873 days, 872 days; I realized that I’m not going to touch their lives forever.
I think I’ve always been tender and sensitive, but the bout with leukemia has made me realize that the redemption of time is so critical. I hope it’s made me much more caring and much more tender and sensitive in terms of people’s needs. That’s the point. Until you face your mortality, I doubt that you will live life with a whole lot of purpose. Some people have disciplines, but I’m not talking about discipline. I’m talking about the realization that every day, every moment of life, is critical. So my experience has been good, even though it hasn’t always been enjoyable.
Preaching: What are some ways in which that sense of tenderness, that sensitivity, impacts specifically in your preaching ministry?
Mehl: When it comes to preaching, I do several things. I am just now going through a series of things as a pastor about what I know; and I discovered an interesting thing. Wherever you read in the Scriptures about trials, troubles and tribulations, you discover the word “know” there. For example, Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that all things work together for good” — it’s clearly “we know.” It’s knowledge without doubt. It’s not “we sure think.” And what I know in the midst of my trials is going to affect my preaching.
Secondly, James 1 says, “Count it all joy when you fall into diverse temptations, knowing this ….” It’s real interesting when you see in the Scriptures people facing difficulties, that the thing which really keeps you is the thing you know. So, I’m going through a series of sermons right now on what I know about God. I’ve done about seventeen of them, all the way from “I Know That He Cares” to “What I Know About Heaven.” I’ve done “I Know How to Overcome Anxiety.” My tribulation has affected my preaching because I’ve wanted to communicate to people in the times they’re going through, whether it be difficult or struggling times.
I’m the happiest guy in the world; I’m not some negative preacher. Those who hear me preach laugh through the sermon. I am a storyteller as well. But this series has been good for me and the church because I have confronted them on, “What do you know? What do you know about God?” It’s in these difficult times that your knowledge of God is what’s going to keep you. Those moorings are going to keep you in a place of stability and security.
It’s greatly affected my preaching. I think those who have waded through any deep waters or faced any speed bumps understand that they slow you down and cause you to look at what you’re doing, at what you’re preaching, at being responsible.
Preaching: You mentioned the use of humor. How do you use that in your ministry?
Mehl: I tend to use humor to communicate something of deep truth. Jesus is the classic model. I feel I am following His style of not only communicating truth and being responsible from the Scripture, but then doing it while telling stories that somehow keep people’s attention. I love what someone once taught me about preaching. He said there are basically three elements in a great sermon: one is a memorable outline; second is occasional humor; and third is good illustrations. All three of those are critical. When you are done, your audience should be able to remember basically what you taught in your outline.
The congregation will probably remember the illustrated story better than they’ll remember anything else. I’ve found that’s a critical thing for me. In fact, when I don’t have a great illustration, I feel like I’m probably going to bore everyone to death. If you’re just a sheer, outright theologian, then you’d better get in the classroom and teach. If you’re a pastor, you must communicate theological truth, but you’d better do it in a way that people will listen. You know, eating the whole elephant at once is tough, so cutting it up into little pieces is important.
Preaching: Finding good, contemporary illustrations is a most difficult task. How do you go about it?
Mehl: Any pastor who’s worth his salt, anywhere he goes, he’d better listen close to anything he hears. I feel like my calling is to communicate the Word to people, so I’ll beg, borrow and steal any illustration I ever hear. Preachers shouldn’t be too proud to hear something and then use it, though they’ll certainly want to give credit for it. That’s why everywhere I go, and anywhere I go, I listen close.
Look at the great preachers today, they’re great illustrators. They illustrate what they say. If a preacher actually thinks he’s so scholarly and awesome that he’s going to keep people with him for forty-five minutes of abstract language, he probably needs to re-think that thought. I find myself looking for illustrations all the time. It’s really been a great concern to me as I communicate the Word, because that’s what the Lord has called me to do.
Preaching: Would you tell me about your preparation process?
Mehl: On Sundays I’m committed to preaching through the Scriptures, and I’ll go through books — Joshua, Philippians, books like that. Our mid-week service is the greatest service of the week, and that is where I will do some serious things. We’ll have 1,500 to 1,700 people come to prayer meeting on Thursday night, and I’ll deal with prayer. I’ll deal with spiritual warfare. I deal with all of those things, whether it’s sin, or worship, or submission, or the enemy, or whatever it may be. There are basically twenty things that I feel I must cover regularly — for the sake of what Paul said, that “I have not shunned to declare unto you the whole counsel of God” — so I’ve chosen to make sure that I’m covering all that.
If you do expository preaching, which I do, then you’re going to go through the Word, you’re going to cover it all. But at times I want to supplement that — what do you do when you go through the book of Leviticus?
Along with that, I’ll have a time of preaching that is very practical. I go through my list of twenty things that I try to cover each year to be certain the church is well-rounded and that we’re not stuck on any certain subject, or that I don’t have any hobby horses. I try to be both expository and practical.
In my study, first I do my word study work, which is very important for me. I identify what I want to emphasize, because I certainly don’t emphasize every word. Usually I spend about ten to twelve hours on a sermon. I will write down all the things I want to do and say. Once I get a feel for the passage and the structure of it, then I will start to fill in what I want to say with the outline.
I start by asking myself, “Does this minister?” It’s one thing to say, “I’m covering the word and covering the scriptures,” which you have to do. But how do I say this in such a way that I can touch somebody’s heart, too? If it doesn’t minister, I’ll take it out — my part, not the heart, too! I end up throwing a lot of stuff away that may be OK, but as a pastor I don’t have the luxury of simply educating people on some theological issue. Ultimately my greatest concern is: have I ministered to the flock? Have I spoken something they can hear and understand? That’s my greatest concern.
Preaching: If you were going to counsel young preachers, what advice would you give them?
Mehl: I would first make sure they realize how critical is their first six months or first year of preaching. What you decide to preach on in that first year is really critical to the foundations of your life, to the foundations of the congregation, to what God probably is going to do through you. I believe God does respond to what we do, to our obedience, to our sensitivity to Him and to His Word and the Spirit. I know I would not want young preachers to go beyond the first six months or a year without having a severe case of love being taught and preached, love and forgiveness. That’s really the whole message of the gospel, that He came to keep and to save us, to love us, and then to forgive us — which is really the foundation for ministry.
One other thing: I remember saying to my mom, “Momma, I want to be a blessing.” And she said, “Then be blessable.” I really think when it comes to being preachers — with all of the skill and all of the gifts and all of the talent and all of the education — you really have to ask yourself, “would God want to bless me?” Am I the kind of person He can trust? If He did bless my life, did bless my ministry, what would I do with it?

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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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