The family is at the heart of our society and the heart of our churches, yet families are increasingly under assault. Holding together healthy families seems to be a greater and greater challenge, and that presents a challenge to the church and those called to speak truth to God’s people. Dave Stone is senior minister at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky., one of the largest congregations in America. He’s the author of two new books that are part of the Faithful Family Series from Thomas Nelson. Dave recently visited with Preaching Executive Editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: Dave, you and Beth are parents of three children, so you’ve learned about parenting the hard way. You didn’t just read books—you’ve had some real life experience.
Stone: I’ve been in the trenches. I’ve survived.
Preaching: What are some of the pressures families face today?
Stone: There are a lot of different ones, but one of the first ones to come to mind is just the busyness of our society. We live in a society and culture where speed seems to be rewarded. The more things you can be involved in, the better it seems to be. Yet those are the very things that seem to be suffocating the life of families.
One of the encouragements I’ve had to heed myself with my own workaholic tendencies that I’ve had to crucify again and again is to slow down, to spend that time with the family and to pour into them rather than trying to improve a sermon or make one more hospital call.
Preaching: Your first book in this series is Raising Your Kids to Love the Lord. I love that title. How do folks go about doing that in today’s culture, because today’s culture seems to be taking them in a very different direction?
Stone: Yeah, and I think especially when it comes to preaching and being involved in ministry in whatever phase it might be, there’s constantly a pull at you. If we are not careful, our kids can grow up resenting the church and resenting the Lord.
My experience is that a child will be more likely to follow in the footsteps of his or her parents if those parents have an authentic or genuine faith—not a pretend faith, not a plastic faith, but truly one that shows the ups and downs and the struggles. The more honest and authentic we are in the home, the more likely it will be that our kids will follow in those footsteps.
I spend a lot of time in the early chapters of that book talking about authenticity but also talking about prayer. This is a battle. Satan would love to have our children. Satan would love to have a mark that he could put against your reputation as a minister. We have to realize—as those involved in some type of ministry or Christian service—that at times there is a congregation that is more important than the one we minister to on the weekends. That is our family. I think the sooner we realize that and make them a higher priority than our jobs, the more we’ll have success in passing that baton of faith.
Preaching: It seems as if some of the lessons that are the best ones for me are the ones in which I mess things up and have to go back and figure out what I did wrong. Do you ever have that experience?
Stone: It’s true for me. The books along with my sermons, when I talk about the family, are filled with the mistakes I made. I remember one time when I got a whole lot of mail after a sermon in which I talked about the family. I wondered, “Why did I get so much e-mail? Why did I have so much response to this message?” In the final five minutes, I talked about a time when I lost my temper in front of my kids and got angry. I shared that story.
I think the more we share our weakness and our mistakes, not only do we learn from them but people also realize, “I think I could listen to this guy. I think I could learn from him because he makes as many mistakes as I do.” Somehow that’s reassuring. It also makes you more approachable because they think, “This guy lives in the same world I live in. He has the same goals I have.”
Preaching: The second book is called Building Family Ties with Faith, Love and Laughter—another great title. This book is packed with all kinds of tips for families. What are some of your favorites?
Stone: What we tried to do is pick the brains of a lot of Christian families, as well as think of some of the things we’ve done. The premise of that book is what Jesus says in
Dinnertime is really important, so we have a whole chapter committed to that. We have what a lot of surveys and statistics have shown as far as individuals and it all comes back to mealtimes. We talk about things you can do at dinnertime together, whether it’s question and answer time with one another or role play scenarios and situations that kids might be facing as a temptation in school.
We talk about the crazy things our own family does. We have a campout in my office every year when March Madness begins. We’re basketball groupies. We pick brackets. We have hide-and-seek parties at church on the kid’s birthdays; they can bring several friends, and we divide into teams and play in the dark. There are so many things. The challenge and key is to look for those things, to be spontaneous, to be creative.
When the kids were younger, we’d tell them right after they went to bed to put their shoes on because we were going to Krispy Kreme, and they’d all pile in the car. The more things we can come up with that allow us to spend time together where we are face to face, the better it will be for the life and joy of our families.
Preaching: Is there any one thing you can look back on and say is the best thing you learned as a parent?
Stone: My mind immediately goes to something that was said to me when we were ready to have our first child. A respected man in ministry said, “The best way to be a great father is to be a great husband.” I’ve failed plenty of times in that area, but there is so much truth in that.
If I can love my wife and treat her and honor her above myself and if she can feel loved by me, then that is the healthiest thing I can do for my kids and, in turn, for my family. The repercussions and positive implications come from that—from making certain you’re treating your spouse right. It has a ripple effect on the entire family.
Preaching: We’ve been talking to you with your parent hat on, but let’s put the preacher hat on. What are some words you would share with other preachers about dealing with this issue in the pulpit?
Stone: Well, first I would say to do it frequently. Lots of times people say they don’t want to offend the single people or those who cannot have children. There are lots of reasons we say, “Oh, I don’t want to preach about that.” We say, “Oh, I’m struggling in this area,” or “One of my kids is struggling,” or “One of them is wayward now.” Hey, there are a whole lot of people you are preaching to who are in the same situation. Don’t avoid the topic. Dive into those opportunities.
Second, I would say be honest. It’s really telling that in the Bible there is not one example of a family that had it all together. Right now, I’m preaching through the Old Testament; I’m telling you, every family seems to be screwed up and dysfunctional. I derive incredible hope from that!
When it comes to my parenting, God is not concerned with my perfection as much as He is my direction. So I want people to know I’m on this journey alongside them. We’re in this together. Yes, there will be ups and downs. Be honest about that. Let them know you’re trying to do the work and trying to be the husband, father, wife or mother, whatever your case may be.
When you pull back that veil and allow people to have a peek into your family’s life, make certain you have the permission of your spouse or your children if you share personal stories. Those are the ones to whom others relate. We’ll be at a restaurant and people will come up and say, “I’ll bet this is Savannah, Sadie and Sam.” They’ll know my kids although they’ve never met them because they’ve heard me preach for a long time. There’s a sense of ownership they have.
The other side of that is your children are in an aquarium, and they are being watched in this fishbowl by a lot of people. So we raised our children with this thought: The decisions you make and expectations we have are not because you’re the preacher’s kid. It’s because you’re a Christ-follower. So you make your decision because of the fact you’re a Christian, not because your dad happens to have pastor in front of his name. We’ve been very blessed and fortunate that all three of our kids are walking with the Lord and are great examples, which is a true testimony to God’s grace and of God answering prayers in our home.
Preaching: That is good advice not to put your kids on display. How many times have we heard sermons in which the pastor told a funny story, but it was embarrassing to his or her children? You wonder how those kids must cringe, wondering what’s coming next.
Stone: I got turned down one time. I always ask beforehand; I got turned down by my daughter, and it was a story of her learning how to drive and how jerky she was and some different things with that. She said, “No, you cannot use that.” That’s the only time I ever got turned down. About six months later, she said, “Hey, you can tell that now if you want.”
I actually pay my kids for illustrations. It’s terrible, but the rationale behind it is if they’re going to put their lives out there and allow me to tell stories about them, they should get something for it. So they got a dollar out of every service that I told a story about them. That helped me because if I had a great story I was dying to use, then they now are more likely to allow it because they get four or five bucks out of it!
Preaching: That’s a great motivation there!
Stone: Well, it has caused some confusion because my kids were quite excited when we went to multi-site locations and they started adding up all of the different services!
Preaching: They probably wanted to know the formula for mentioning them on video.
Stone: Yeah, now I don’t talk about them as much. It’s getting too expensive.
Preaching: What do you enjoy most about preaching?
Stone: I think it’s that moment when you sense that it’s God speaking, and it’s not you. We can prepare. We can do all of our research. We can craft our messages, which is fun to do when it’s flowing; it’s not always fun when it’s dragging. Then you get up there and start sharing, and there are those moments when you’ve read that manuscript out loud several times and something didn’t hit you; then you say it in front of people. You’re looking into the eyes of someone, and you know what they’re going through; or see someone who is on the verge of making a decision for Christ, and your heart is about to leap out of your chest.
It’s those moments that make me say, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” I said that at 19, and that hasn’t changed.
Preaching: What do you find to be your greatest challenge as a preacher?
Stone: I think probably my greatest challenge is being what the people think that I am. I think lots of times as a preacher, we can start to believe our own headlines. People always see us at the top of our game. They see you when you are in front of people, and you are doing what you typically do best, and that’s part of why you are in this profession or why you stayed in it—because it feels comfortable and is a good fit.
To me, the downside is there are a lot of people out there who—try as hard as you might—they still put you on a pedestal. I feel that in my particular setting. I wish people could understand I’m a guy who has a gift for preaching, but I am no different from them except we have a different gift set. I’m on the same spiritual journey they’re on; I’m ready to grow in my walk with Christ; I’m trying to be the authentic Christian I appear to be when people hear me preach.
To me, that’s one of the biggest challenges. Yes, people are tough. There’s always a goofball who writes you a nasty email or an anonymous note. All of those things are not pleasurable in our roles; but in the big scheme of things, for me my biggest problem is me. It’s not the yay-hoo who writes me a letter. It’s the fact that I continue to make the same mistakes as a parent, employer, neighbor or spouse that I did last year. I’m still struggling.
Preaching: As you get ready to preach, as you walk through your week, can you give us an idea of how that process looks?
Stone: I typically don’t have a whole lot done on a message weeks out. There are some of these people who say, “Right now I’m working on Christmas.” Oh, really? They’re working six months ahead? That’s not me. I’m usually six hours or six days ahead. That’s my M.O.
Monday is heavy-duty meetings. I have meetings almost all day long with staff, so I hardly get anything done on Monday. On Tuesday, I try to have a block of around three hours when I really start to get out of the gate and toy with what I’ll use as an outline or how the flow might look. One of the meetings on Monday is with the worship team and a couple of the other preaching guys, and we bounce ideas off each other.
Wednesday is a heavier writing day when I’ll spend another three to four hours writing. Thursday, about half of that day is more writing. I pass it around on Thursday afternoon for about four people to review by e-mail. They make some suggestions and say, “This is OK. You already made this point. You spend too much time on that.” Usually, I need help cutting. Friday is my day off, and I’m pretty good about taking my day off; but I still end up squeezing one or two hours early in the morning before my wife gets up to work on the message.
We have a 5 p.m. service on Saturday, so from noon on that’s the time to finish the message. My poor wife hears me say every Saturday as we get ready to head to church, “I’ve got too much stuff. I’ve got to cut it down. I’ve got too much material.” Then I preach it at 5. I’ve got to be ready then because I’ve got a whole lot of people on Saturday night, and then a lot of people who will hear it at our satellite campuses the next day. So I can’t view that as a trial run because I’ve got more than 9,000 people who will hear that message—it’s not a run-through; it’s got to be the real deal.
You know how preaching works. Someone described it as giving birth on Sunday, then waking up Monday and realizing you’re pregnant again. Years ago, I would have said I never could do that long term; but you get in a rhythm, and God shows up when you put Him first.
Whether it’s a funeral or something else unexpected that pops up and robs us of our time, if we are being diligent, praying and preparing, God makes up the difference for us.
Preaching: You have preaching team, don’t you?
Stone: Yeah, Kyle Idleman. It’s a very unique setup, because I don’t know of a guy who preaches as much as he does. He’s our teaching minister and my right hand. Basically, I preach 60 percent of the time; he preaches 40 percent of the time. He preached at Easter at our main campus this year. We rotate. I give him Christmas Eve and Easter every other year.
The guy can flat knock it out of the park every time he preaches. I am very blessed to have a guy right beside me who loves the art of preaching and crafting sermons. He’s as good as they come. I learn from him. I am challenged by him. I couldn’t ask for a more loyal fellow preacher in the pulpit with me.
A couple of times a year, we will team teach together. It’s one of the more enjoyable messages. Content-wise, it’s not the best. In fact, it’s probably one of the worst. It’s more disjointed. We’re going back and forth. It’s hard to get a flow, but our congregation will tell you those are their favorite sermons of the year.
We finally figured out why from the comments everyone was making. They would say, “You guys really like other. It’s so much fun seeing you guys up there together.” Michael, we rip on each other. We enjoy the ad-libs each hour trying to sting the other person and seeing how fast we can think on our feet. We’ll pull out pictures we don’t know the other one has—all sorts of things.
People love that, and they walk away saying, “Our preachers really do care about each other.” I know that might not make sense when you rip on each other, but they do realize we have fun with each other. We enjoy each other’s company, and they sense we would take a bullet for one another.
Preaching: Do you all plan together?
Stone: Not as much as we used to; I’d say now the biggest help we are to each other is reading each other’s manuscripts. Also, when we hear the person live after the first time, we still may give some ideas or suggestions. Of course, it’s up to the other person to make those adjustments.
We don’t write together. We both are very different in our preparation routine. Yet the one thing that is helpful to both of us on a Friday—or Thursday afternoon, if it’s a good week—we’re sending that to each other. That’s when we can help sharpen or tweak the other guy’s material and turn it up a notch.
Preaching: Earlier you mentioned some great counsel you received as a parent. As you remember your years as a preacher, what’s the best advice you ever got as a preacher?
Stone: For preachers, there’s always something else they can be doing. There is always something that can rob your time, your preparation, your practice routine, your time with your family. It’s really a business principle that applies so well to those who are in ministry: Only do what only you can do. By that I mean there are different people in your church who can serve in this capacity, or you can get a volunteer to do that. Maybe there’s a counselor or retired preacher or pastor who can help in this area. You play to your strengths and do what you can do. Only do what only you can do.
Focus on those areas that are the ones expected of us. The way you grow a church is by preaching God’s Word and being prepared when you step into that pulpit. There’s something that happens when you preach. Paul said in 1 Corinthians, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” Man, that’s a powerful verse in my life, because I sense that calling. That’s what God has wired me to do.
It’d be really easy for me to get into all these other things in the church and wear all these other hats; but get your elders or deacons to say, “We want you to focus on preaching. We’ll take some other things off your plate so that’s where your emphasis can be.” I saw it in the life of Bob Russell who I followed at Southeast. When you make preaching a priority, it’s a great way to help people grow spiritually and a great way to grow a church.