Max Lucado is one of America’s best-known Christian pastors and authors, with more than 90 million copies of his books in print. He continues to serve in ministry at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas, along with copastor Randy Frazee. Max’s 31st book is called Before Amen: The Power of a Simple Prayer (Thomas Nelson). He was interviewed by Preaching Executive Editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: Before Amen is a book about prayer. What role has prayer played in your life and ministry?
Lucado: I’m a confessed prayer wimp. In fact, I start the book off by making that confession, and I wrote this book for other people who struggle with prayer. It’s really a book on prayer for those who struggle to pray. Prayer has been for me, at once, the most difficult and yet the most dynamic part of my ministry. I’ve struggled to maintain a disciplined prayer life, I’ve struggled to understand the role of prayer in ministry, and yet whenever I have been able to tap into the power of prayer, our church has seen remarkable results, and personally I’ve experienced a new level of fruitfulness and happiness. So while I sure don’t consider myself an authority on prayer, I do consider myself a student of prayer for all these years I’ve been in ministry.
Preaching: When you talk about struggling with prayer, it strikes me that there are many believers who are right there. Why do you think that is?
Lucado: I think there are several reasons. I think the big reason is the devil. I think the devil just wants to do anything possible to keep us from praying, because he knows something happens when we have an honest conversation with God. If I can be so honest to say, today I’ve struggled to pray. I got in at 1 a.m. this morning because of a delayed flight. I was supposed to get in at about 11, so it was two hours late. I slept in late, then I realized I’d loaned my car to my daughter, and I needed to catch a ride to the office. So any time I had between waking up and the first meeting of the day just got gobbled up. What does that say about me? Here I am doing an interview about prayer on a day when I don’t think I’ve been real prayerful!
Yet the reason I tell that—the reason I think I can be honest about that—is that one of the cases I advance in the book is the power of a simple prayer. Let’s not think prayer is just an act reserved for holy moments, liturgical seasons or people who have a lot of time on their hands. There is power in a simple prayer, for people like me, who fumble and stumble in prayer, who lead somewhat busy lives. I believe there is wonderful discovery of strength and power available just by turning my heart toward heaven and saying, “Father, You are good. Boy, I need help today. I know people who need help today. Would You bless them? Thank You, Lord, for Your goodness. In Jesus’ name, amen,” and learning to trust that the power of prayer is in the One who hears the prayer, not in the one who says it. It’s a great discovery for people (such as myself) who struggle to pray.
Preaching: I know a lot of your writing comes out of your preaching. Were you preaching on prayer before writing this book?
Lucado: I would change the words “a lot” to “all.” I don’t think I’ve ever—except for fiction pieces and children’s books—written anything I haven’t preached. Just about everything I’ve preached I’ve published; one guy accused me of having no unpublished thought!
I took our church through this idea of the power of a simple prayer, and found it to be a very receptive topic among people. The truth is, many people struggle to pray, and they assume somebody has a secret code out there and gets prayer, and they don’t. I think there are some people out there who understand prayer a bit more innately, but most of us could use some help. So taking this idea of prayer and making it accessible to people went over very well at our church.
Preaching: In the years you have preached, how much has prayer been a topic or subject of your preaching?
Lucado: I would say it’s been a big topic. I’ve often told our church (and I think Randy agrees) we want to stay focused on preaching Jesus and encouraging prayer. We want to make sure Jesus is at the heart of our messages and encouraging people to pray. So we have deliberate prayer times, as all churches do. We take some of the prime moments of a church service and dedicate [that time] for people to spend in private prayer or to come forward and pray with someone.
We’ve tried through the years to make prayer the big part of our church. Whenever we have a big decision to make, we always call the church to 40 days of prayer, and we print our prayer cards to remind people of what we’re praying about. Maybe we’re praying about adding a new campus or building a new building or going a different direction, so they are very accustomed to us calling them to seasons of extended prayer.
Preaching: As you have preached about prayer through the years, do you find any particular challenges or difficulties when preaching on the subject?
Lucado: Number one, what I have found is there is a great hunger for learning how to pray, and that learning how to pray is a big point under which there is a subpoint: Do my prayers matter? Number tw Is there a right way or a wrong way to pray? Helping people learn to pray is to teach and assure them prayers do matter, and reminding them that anytime anybody in Scripture came to God with an honest heart, God responded.
While there are guides to prayer, there’s not a real right or wrong way to pray. Helping people see that prayer is really an honest conversation with God gives people great encouragement. I think sometimes our prayers are eloquent, and they take on a certain poetry and a form of worship; other times they are guttural and difficult, and the words don’t come easily. Both [types] of prayer are heard by God.
What people want is strength, hope; they want to believe we’re not all alone here and that there is strength available. Prayer is what equips the church to move forward in difficult times.
Preaching: You mentioned poetry. People often think of you as a poet, wordsmith and storyteller. Words have played a critical role in your ministry as a writer and preacher. Many pastors are struggling to become better communicators. Can you provide any counsel about how they can wield their words more effectively? How can they develop their communication skills?
Lucado: What a great question; I think you’re nailing it. We really do want to communicate better, and one thing that has helped me through the years is [realizing I should be able to summarize] every sermon in a single sentence. This past weekend, for example, I finished a 17-week study through the Book of Joshua; in the final sermon, I really struggled [to answer]: What is the central message of the Book of Joshua?
I came across this little nugget of truth: One of the most common words in the Book of Joshua is inheritance, and it’s all about inheriting your inheritance. I thought, “Well, there it is!” So that became the theme of my message, and really all I did for 30 minutes was talk about what it means to be an heir of God, coheir with Christ, what life is like when you inherit something you don’t work for. You know what I’m saying? I built everything around that one phrase, and my prayer is that if you caught somebody in the afternoon and asked, “What did Max talk about today?” he or she would have been able to say, “He talked about inheritance, and I’d never thought of it that way before.”
That’s a big thing preachers, communicators, can d Make it our aim to summarize our sermon in a single sentence. Once you have that sentence, then back away and develop that. Rather than having five great points, have one outstanding point and really focus on it.
Preaching: Andy Stanley commented that most sermons he hears could have been sermon series.
Lucado: Well, it’s hard isn’t it? You study and you say, “Oh, that’s a good point. That’s a good point. That’s a good point,” and you end up stacking a bunch of points. However, there is always the danger of making three points poorly instead of one point well.
Preaching: I often tell my students one of the biggest challenges of preaching is not writing, but purging.
Lucado: You’re right. Right now, I’m editing a book, and I looked over the suggested edits from my editor last night, and she’s got four or five stories in the book where she says, “I think you can cut this.” Then I say, “I don’t want to cut it! I like it!” But she’s right: Less is more.
Preaching: I know you share preaching responsibilities with Randy Frazee these days. How often are you preaching?
Lucado: We try to split it 50/50. We have found we both like to preach for an extended period of time. I know some people who have preaching teams so every second, third or fourth week someone will preach; or someone might preach for a month and then two months later preach for another month. Randy and I both like doing five-month seasons.
I began the first weekend in February with a series on the Book of Joshua, but I finished it at the end of June, so that’s about five months. I like that because I get into the rhythm of preparing the message each week; then when I’m not preaching, I can turn my attention to something else and go at it hard for three or four months. I’ll always turn my attention to a book I’m writing, maybe some extended travel, or maybe a fiction book. This past year, I took time to work on a fiction book; we both like it that way.
Randy always does the first month of the year. I preach from February to the end of June. July we usually have guest speakers. Then Randy picks it up again in August and preaches until the end of November, and I pick up in December. I end up picking up about five or six months, and he ends up picking up about five or six months.
Preaching: What do you find to be the most challenging thing in preaching these days?
Lucado: This is a personal challenge that I have; I don’t think it’s a challenge everybody has. My challenge has been practicality. I don’t find it difficult to preach inspirational sermons; I find it difficult to put the dance steps to the music. I can get people inspired and affirm them that they are valuable in God’s sight; but practically, tomorrow, how can you carry this into your work or your home?
Sometimes I struggle personally with bringing the thoughts out of the clouds and putting hands and feet on them. I think Randy does an exceptional job of this, and I’ve tried to pick up some pointers from him, but that’s a challenge for me. I’m more of an inspirational teacher, and I try to balance that and make the message more practical.
Preaching: I think that’s one of the most common areas of struggles for pastors: application. We aren’t taught how to do that in school. We’re taught to exegete the passage, but we don’t receive good training in application.
Lucado: I’ve always thought Rick Warren does that really well. When I listen to Rick’s sermons, I think, “He’s not only telling me this to have my spirits lifted; he’s telling me to memorize this passage or find other people who are happy and hang out with them.” He would give me something practical to do, so that’s what I’m trying to do—give people something practical.
Preaching: What do you enjoy most about preaching?
Lucado: Oh, I love preaching. I really do. I often say, “If God told me to choose between breathing and preaching, I would suffocate.” I love to preach. I love thinking up what the next sermon series is going to be about, how long it should take, trying to develop a main theme…
I guess what I really love the most is this crazy thought that several thousand people will give up 30 minutes a week to come sit and let me tell them something. That’s the most unbelievable thing, and that they really think what I’m saying was born in heaven. Sometimes when I drive to church on weekends, I get a little timid, and think, “Who am I to have this privilege?” It is every bit the privilege for me 30 years into it that it was on the first day. So it’s just the privilege of talking to people.
People so want to be encouraged. They just want to be encouraged. For them to hear somebody encourage them and tell them God loves them, cares about them, that’s a great privilege.
Preaching: Max, if God visited you tonight and said, “You’ve got one sermon left to preach,” what would it be?
Lucado: It would have to be on
You can go anywhere along that verse, stop, park and unpack it; so I am very confident that if I had just one message to give, it would be about God’s love for us and Him giving His one and only Son.