Erwin Lutzer has served since 1980 as pastor of the historic Moody Church in Chicago. A native of Canada, he taught Bible and theology at Moody Bible Institute before assuming his present pastorate. He is featured speaker on “The Moody Church Hour” and “Songs in the Night,” and is author of several books.
Preaching: As pastor of the Moody Church, you serve right in the middle of a major urban area. What are some of the particular dynamics or issues that are involved in preaching in that kind of urban context?
Lutzer: I think there are a number of things that are very important when you preach in the city. You need to be able to preach to broken people. I just came back from a seminar last week at which I spoke for Exodus International, which works with homosexuals and gays, and I gave a report to the congregation on Sunday. I told them how we saw people who have given their sexuality to God and I explained what happened at this meeting. It’s interesting the number of people who came up later and thanked me because that’s where they are at.
Whenever you are dealing with the city you need to be able to preach to people on a number of different levels. First of all, you think of brokenness, with broken families, sexuality, problems in terms of where people are at. Secondly though, you are also speaking to a business community. So, you have issues of ethics, witnessing in the work place, how to really live out your life on Monday morning. I believe that if a revival ever comes to the United States of America it is going to have to come with a revival of the lay people. The reason for that is because we as preachers are heard only by a very small segment of the community, mostly people who agree with us. The life lived in banks and hospitals and factories and so forth — and the integrity of the life lived in those contexts — is the way in which I believe that the gospel is able to spread in the city. So, there are two areas in which I think preaching in the city has its challenges.
But there also is the need for reconciliation. There are things that we can do as pastors to help people see that the church is bigger than our local congregation — to see the bigger picture of the body. Last year, for example, I switched pulpits for one Sunday with Raleigh Washington, who is pastor of a black church in the neighborhood. He came to Moody Church and I went to his. There are things that I think can be done to help people to see that if you were to think of circles — and each circle is a local congregation — God’s work in the city encompasses all of those circles of evangelical churches that preach the gospel. Those are the special challenges of the city.
Beyond that, when you think about human need, whenever I prepare a message, I usually have one or two people in mind to whom I’m preaching. Because this helps me be realistic, this helps me to think in terms of the person in the pew rather than just the content on the desk. Human need is so universal that if you are ministering to people where they are and showing the relevance of doctrine, then preaching in the city is not that different than preaching anywhere else.
Preaching: You mentioned the renewal of the laity and helping them to live out their faith in the workplace. In many situations, clergy seem so distant from the life issues of many lay persons. How do you find yourself as a preacher and as a pastor getting in touch with those laity issues, the kind of needs that they have?
Lutzer: One of the things that has helped me to be in touch with the laity is we have a Moody business club — Moody Business Network we call it. Every month we bring in a speaker from the workplace and have them share their testimony; they explain their faith and how they live out Christ wherever they are. What that does is, it helps me to be reminded as to the kind of issues which the laity face which I do not face. You know, at the church I work with Christians. Therefore some of the ethical dilemmas lay people face are not really at all what I face.
The second thing is, even though I am the pastor of a large church, I still do some counseling. I think this is so important because you are off on your own rounds and doing your own things and suddenly there is somebody there and you’re confronted with a reality of human need. It has a way of bringing you down to earth and reminding you that life for many, many people is difficult. And interpreting the scriptures and trying to minister to them in their need is a tremendous challenge.
One of the things that I’ve always said to preachers is that if you want to be able to minister effectively you have to know yourself well. Rembrandt painted nearly one quarter of the pictures that he painted of himself. He was not a very good-looking person and he did not flatter himself, he did not try to touch himself up to make himself look good. People said to him, “Why is it that you paint yourself so often?” And he said, “Unless I can really paint myself the way I am, I can’t paint others the way they are.” So, I think that one has to know oneself really well. The struggles of my soul are the same struggles of the congregation. But there have to be those points of contact where we intersect, and I must be constantly reminded of what is happening out in the pew.
Preaching: One of the issues preachers discuss today is a hunger for application of scripture in preaching. There is a growing interest in application of preaching to the real-life needs of lay people. How have you tried to deal with that in your own preaching?
Lutzer: My philosophy of preaching is this: I intend to use God’s Word to change people forever. That’s my intention. Now we’ve both preached our share of forgettable messages, but that’s the goal to which I aim. I actually pray and ask God that there will be some people that will hear this message who will never, ever be the same again. Because that, I think, is the goal of preaching. It is to bring about permanent, total transformation.
In terms of application the other thing I do is this: when I prepare to preach, I usually think of someone in the congregation — someone whom I know well who I believe is committed to Christ but maybe not as committed as I’d like to see him to be. I always ask myself why would this message change him forever. That gives me a sense of realism. It reminds me of the fact that the theology that I’m preaching here has to be explosive — it has to explode in the life of the listener in such a way that if it were ignited by the power of the Word and the Spirit it would change him.
Therefore, as you think in terms of application, I believe that application should happen throughout the message and not just at the end. I do need to confess that often the last five or ten minutes is where I really do think in terms of the nitty gritty. That’s where you think in terms of illustration, where you think in terms of actually recreating situations which people face. Because here’s what I have discovered. We as preachers sometimes think that if I give somebody the general truth, they will fill in the details and apply it. That’s not true. You have to give them the general truth, then you have to apply it for them. Then if you missed their particular area of application, I think they will actually fill in the details for themselves once they see it in concrete life. But application is very, very important. In fact, without it a message somehow stays in the study as an academic exercise.
Preaching: You’ve done some writing in the area of evangelism. And obviously in the urban setting you’ve been describing, evangelistic outreach is a critical concern. What do you see as the relationship between preaching and evangelism?
Lutzer: At Moody Church, because of the diversity of our congregation, visitors coming in from the neighborhood and so forth, I would like to think that every Sunday the gospel is preached. That does not mean that I preach from John 3:16 every Sunday. In fact, last Sunday’s message was on David and Goliath because I’m preaching a series on David. Nevertheless, as I got to the end of the message I talked about all of the various giants that we think are unscalable; even the greatness of our sin could be a giant. And I explained how through Christ these kinds of giants can be dealt with within our heart. We usually think of giants outside of us. I talked about the fact that the giants that are within our hearts are sometimes greater than the ones that are thrown across our paths. So even there I’ve preached the gospel.
But here is the thing: I am not as anxious to see decisions in a particular meeting as some people think I should be. There are two reasons for this. One of them is invitations. After the message we give opportunity for people to come forward to meet a prayer partner if they so desire. So we get converted people and unconverted people together. What I often do is ask people to go home and to seek God — actually to call on God to be saved. And therefore, they do not need to come forward to be saved. That’s one of the problems I have with some invitations, where there is an identification of coming forward to be saved. And actually that is not necessary.
Number one, I think that every message should contain the gospel because we should be giving people hope and pointing the way. Number two, I think we have to understand that the Holy Spirit of God sometimes takes time to work in an individual to bring him to saving faith; therefore, I think it is important not to get the chicken ahead of the egg. And number three, I think it is true that a majority of people still come to know Christ not because they heard a sermon, as important as that is, but because they saw a life. It’s that personal relationship that often times makes the connection.
Preaching: Let’s carry on the issue of the public invitation. What are some of your convictions on that topic?
Lutzer: When I was growing up I was very shy. We used to go services where there were long invitations — singing Just as I Am many, many times. And I remember saying to myself, “If I have to go forward to be saved, I’m just going to have to go to Hell.” Because the idea of walking forward in the presence of so many people, including my parents, their relatives, their friends and all of my friends, was just an obstacle to me. Ever since that time — since I was then converted in my home at the age of 13 and was delighted to know that it isn’t necessary to go forward — I have thought about the area of invitations and this is what I’ve concluded. I believe that it is a mistake to make an identification with coming forward and being saved for two reasons. Number one, you are talking to shy people just like I was. To think if I have to go forward, I can’t be saved. So, that is the first mistake.
The second mistake is the impression that just because you come forward you’re saved. You have all these people to say, “I’ve made my profession because I went forward in a Billy Graham meeting” or “I went forward in a church and I made my profession.” That doesn’t mean you’re converted. So, the way I give an invitation at Moody Church is this: I give an invitation for those who have questions and those who are in various degrees of spiritual questioning, those who are in need. When you give an invitation like that you have Christians coming forward with non-Christians because you are not making that tight identification. And you realize that you are there to help people no matter what level of spiritual development they are at, whether they are saved or unsaved. It is a general invitation for spiritual need.
Number two, I believe in the sovereignty of God. The Bible says while Jesus was preaching many believed. So I actually conclude the message oftentimes with a prayer for those who are sitting, sitting in their seats to receive Christ right there. And we have people doing that. Then later we encourage them to tell us about the fact that you have accepted Christ as Savior. So in doing this you see what we are saying to people is: you don’t have to come forward to be saved. And also we are not making the mistake of saying now that you have come forward, you are a Christian. Assurance will be granted to you by the Holy Spirit and through teaching rather than us telling you that you are saved now that you’ve prayed.
You really have to trust the Holy Spirit to be faithful to do His work and to give Him opportunities to bring people to closure. I do not call people to the altar or to the platform but I call them to Christ. That is important.
Preaching: You said you have the invitation for spiritual questioning and needs. Is there a point at which you have an opportunity for people to make any kind of public declaration or identify themselves with Christ?
Lutzer: About three weeks ago in a staff meeting we talked about a time like that and I think we are going to do that a couple times a year. We have people being saved through Evangelism Explosion and visitation in the homes, and we should give these people the opportunity to make a public disclosure. However, many of these people do make a public disclosure in other ways: among their friends, their family, and so forth. But I think the idea of bringing them to the front and saying these are the number of people, these are people that have accepted Christ in the last six months is a marvelous idea.
Preaching: How do people join Moody Church?
Lutzer: When they join Moody Church they have to attend a one day seminar. That is held about three times a year on a Saturday. They come on a Saturday morning and I teach them for an hour and half; other members of the staff come and teach them. We have lunch together with them and then we have other teachings until later in the day. Late Saturday afternoon they are interviewed by an elder or a deacon and then their fitness to join the church is assessed.
One of the things, of course, that we always seek for is whether or not they are born again of the Spirit. If they are, that basically is the only requirement, unless they’re living in some kind of sin that we would discipline them for if they were church members. Then we wouldn’t have them join.
There are some people who attend all the time who don’t join; it may be their decision, it may be ours. That’s the way you join the church, and then two or three weeks after that we have a special induction ceremony in the morning service.
Preaching: Let’s shift gears a bit and talk about the process of preparing to preach. Tell me about how many times a week you preach and discuss your process of preparation.
Lutzer: I preach every Sunday morning and probably half the time Sunday evening. Sunday evening we have other things — concerts, other ministers that sometimes preach, and so forth.
When I’m in a series like I am now in the life of David, what I’m going to preach on is pretty well mapped out because I have his life mapped out. In fact, many, many years ago I preached through his life. But I know that no one will remember that because it was so long ago, so this gives me a chance to rework it. So the basic structure of content is already there.
What I do then is, of course, read the passage; you meditate in the passage, and as you do that what you are looking for is that one explosive idea that you hope people will remember. Long ago I think that we as pastors have given up on the idea that people are going to remember our sermon because we have three nice alliterated points. I do still preach propositionally with an outline, which I think is very important. My outline is very clear. It is not necessary alliterated but it is parallel. We can talk about the technicalities some other time. But what you are looking for is the one idea.
Let me give you an example. Recently, I preached on David and Goliath. My one idea was this: the thing that separated David from everyone else is that he had a God-sized imagination. I got that line from Eugene Peterson and I credited him. It helped encapsulize it, and as an outgrowth, the real idea led to the statement I wanted them to remember: The size of your giant is determined by the size of your God. Big God, small giant. Small God, big giant. That was my bottom line.
When I came across that, you are faced with the issue of preaching on a topic that has two problems. I mentioned this to the congregation in my introduction. Number one, it’s so familiar. People who have never picked up the Bible have heard of David and Goliath. So people say, “Ah, David and Goliath, I know this.”
The second problem is misapplication. I believe that story has been mis-applied because people leave saying, “Well, what I want to do is find my Goliath. You know my Goliath is the boss in my own life. And I’m going to go to him tomorrow in the name of the Lord and watch God slay him.” And what we do is we choose all of these giants. The fact is, this (Goliath) is the only problem that David had that was so easily taken care of. Later on he’s going to be hounded by Saul for ten long years and God is not going to take that giant out of his life. So I have to help people with the story or else you are going to just have people go off on all kinds of things.
We have a woman at the church who has cancer and she is dying. She won’t go to the doctor because she believes that God has healed, is healing her — and maybe He still will. The point is, people will identify all of their giants and they will say, “God, now you are obligated to take care of my giant.” So I need it to help people with that.
The bottom line was, how do I preach this? So I agonized over it. And then the idea came to me. Why not talk about the God-sized imagination and the one idea that I hoped people left with. If you shook hands at the door and asked, “what in the world did I say,” I would like them to have said, “You told us that the size of our God determines the size of our giant.” Then at the end I’ve helped them to identify their right giant and not misapply this.
Preaching: How far ahead of time do you map out a series like this? Do you preach primarily in series?
Lutzer: Primarily in series, but not always in an expository series on a book. I do a lot of theological series. For example, I just did a series of six messages on the judgement seat of Christ. When you are doing that, you are preaching on a variety of different passages. I preached a series (now published in a book) entitled “One Minute After You Die.” So we talk about heaven and hell, hades and the whole bit. Again, what you are doing is selecting passages that have to do with that particular issue.
Most series can be either six, ten messages, twelve. I always prepare a series of messages in advance so that before I begin the series, I know exactly where I am going. I don’t necessarily know the details but I know where I’m going. I would hate to be embarrassed to say I’m going to preach eight messages on this and then only have material for seven. Sometimes I’ve had the opposite happen; I’ve said this is going to be seven messages and I’ve regretted it because it was too short.
I usually work about two or three months in advance. I do this not only for my benefit but also for the benefit of the music minister who is interested in coordinating music that far ahead of time. He needs to anticipate.
Let me give you a specific example. In a few months I am preaching a series of messages entitled, “Seven reasons why I believe the Bible is God’s Word.” Actually the series is going to be eight sermons because there is going to be an introductory message. This past Saturday, I spent about four or five hours on the first message of the series, as to why I believe the Bible is God’s Word. And I got that message to the point where it’s kind of under control. I know now that’s where I am going, I know the lay of the land. I have an idea of how this message is going to be developed. And it is there in my computer so that when I come to it I’m not just beginning from scratch.
Now I’m going to go on to message number two, and number three and number four, all the way through because once I have done the essence of the study to know where I am going then I’m OK. When I come to the series in the fall, week by week I’m going to be able to fill in the details because there is no mystery as to where I am going. And I have about maybe six or seven or eight pages on my computer that could be the essence of the message already.
Preaching: What happens when you reach the week when that message is to be preached? Walk us through that process.
Lutzer: First of all I prepare all of my messages now on a computer. That helps greatly; what it does also is help in writing books later, if those are edited. I prepare a message on the computer. Thursday is my day of study when I’m at home. So that message has to get down pretty well. Maybe not totally, but it has got to be pretty good by Thursday. Saturday, is when I put the finishing touches on; that’s when I take the computerized message and turn it into some notes so that I can take the notes to the pulpit. They are just handwritten notes. I always take handwritten notes to the pulpit.
Monday morning I come back and I take the message that is in the computer and I rework it. Why? Because in the lived event, you often have new ideas that come to you. You have a new way of saying things. There is a whole new dynamic once you’ve preached it. So you go through and you edit it as best you can and you put it into better shape and you add the material. If it doesn’t become a book someday then it is used some other way. Because we have three radio programs, it’s a constant recycling of material.
If I have a series that has been mapped out and I know where I am going in this message, then that week before I can sit down and I can prepare the message on Thursday — usually Thursday and Saturday.
Preaching: You are in what is obviously a historic congregation. How do you deal with that history — the heritage that you are a part of? Does that play a role in your preaching?
Lutzer: When I first came to Moody Church — because of its fame and because this is the church of Harry Ironside — Warren Wiersbe and I often joked. [Wiersbe preceded Lutzer as pastor.] He said, “You know, there are still people in this day that expect the ghost of Harry Ironside to come out of the basement.” I think I didn’t admit this at first because I honestly didn’t think this was true. But in retrospect I think it did somewhat intimidate me, and therefore I don’t think I felt as free in preaching as I do today. Now when I look at some of my sermons from the past I can see this, because as I listen to them they are all very prim and proper. But I was limited in off handed remarks and dramatic expression of ideas. So, I think it has affected me.
Now that I’ve been there eighteen years, I’m much more relaxed. I’m much less hampered by the fact that this is the Moody Church. So I feel a great debt and a wonderful honor to be the pastor there. The other thing that you need to remember too is that it hasn’t been as difficult as you might think is because most of the people who remember Harry Ironside and those days, they have gone on to glory. We have a tremendous amount of turnaround at the Moody Church and because of that most of our people are a generation who knew not its past. Therefore, I don’t feel like there is something there that I need necessarily to live up to, although I want to do my best for the glory of God.
Preaching: Are the majority of your sermons expository in style?
Lutzer: Yes, the majority are expository. But they are what I would call topical expositions. When you have a topic that is the best kind of preaching, because it zeroes in like a laser beam to a certain topic. I do not do exposition in the older sense of the word, where you take the passage and kind of make comments all the way through and then you say, “Oh, it’s time to quit, we’ll pick up here next time.” Every one of my sermons is an independent unit. It will stand alone so that if it is played over the Moody Church Hour (radio program), while I may refer to a previous message — because there is a connection and a context — they each stand alone.
The best kind of preaching, it seems to me, is topical exposition. Topical exposition means you take a passage, you find its topic, and then once you find its topic you leave out everything that doesn’t contribute to it. Since it’s fresh in my mind yesterday, let’s use David and Goliath as an example. My idea was that the size of your God determines the size of your giant. There is so much of the story that I had to leave out. I just strictly summarized it. Just brought the people up to the issue, painted the picture, told the story. Zeroed in on the verse that David said you know, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty.” Got my idea across, told how it ended then I summarized it. So that this was not exposition in the usual sense. I didn’t feel I have to begin in verse one, to expound and comment on all of the verses. No, you summarize; you do all that you can to get the idea across and that is all you can do.
Preaching: What makes some preaching soar while other sermons sink?
Lutzer: The thing I would like to talk about is heart. You may ask the question, “Why is one minister effective in preaching a sermon which may be very poor homiletically, and yet is very, very motivating and life changing?” And here you have somebody else who is a great homiletician. He has got it all down and it is really nicely done, yet it doesn’t go anywhere. What is the difference between the two? I think it has to do with passion. I believe that when we stand behind the pulpit, we should believe very, very deeply in this and we should wait on God until we sense the absolute importance of what we are saying. We must not be casual in it. Now there are some people who teach in a very casual way; in fact, I do too, and those can be very effective. But I think that when it comes to preaching there has to be a sense of urgency. Who was it that said, “Preachers must feel deeply, think clearly, and enable their congregations to do the same.” And I believe that, that’s the thing that motivates people.
I’m going to be teaching a class in homiletics in Trinity Evangelical Divinity School this fall. And I am excited about it because I feel that even apart from the techniques which I hope I can share with the students, I would like to convey to them some of the passion that I have for preaching. We are living in a day and age when preaching often times is not highly valued. We went through a period of time, I think, where small group were the thing. You know, everybody’s in small groups. Now I think there is a greater emphasis on preaching. I still think that at the end of the day — with all the technology and everything — there is no substitute for a man of God, saturated with the word of God and filled with the spirit of God, conveying his soul and his mind and his heart to the congregation. So I would like to affirm the primacy of preaching even in a very confusing technological age.

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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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