Editor’s note: With a winsome smile, a contagious chuckle, and practical insights for Christian living, Chuck Swindoll has carved out a place as one of America’s favorite preachers. Pastor of the First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, California, Swindoll is best known for his string of best-selling Christian books and for his popular radio ministry, “Insights for Living.” His latest book, about the work of the Holy Spirit, is entitled Flying Closer to the Flame (Word, 1993). That prompted this discussion about the relationship of the Holy Spirit and the preaching task. The interview was conducted by Michael Duduit, Editor of Preaching.
Preaching: Your most recent book deals with the work of the Holy Spirit. How do you understand the relationship of the Spirit’s work to the ministry of preaching?
Swindoll: I think that the Spirit of God is doing many things He never gets credit for. To start with I think He prompts ideas and prepares the soil of our souls for certain subjects. I felt that was true — definitely true — in my series on grace that led to The Grace Awakening. There were some things that we’d gone through in some growing feelings — churnings within. We all have what I call a “churning place.” That’s not an original thought with me but I have used those words which I got from another. I think He churns us — He prompts us — and in that process I believe He begins to build the steam in our areas of motivation and growing a sense of passion. That’s a word I’ve learned to really appreciate. In fact the subtitle for the book I’m doing is A Passion for the Holy Spirit.
I think in this growing sense of passion we get direction for how we want to build a series of sermons. I haven’t always thought through every message before I get going on it. So a series kind of shapes itself as I’m going along, like some novelists talk about doing a book. I begin with several things in mind I want to do but often it takes a new direction in the middle of the series.
For that reason I don’t really do a full preaching calendar. Some people go on their vacations, or for six weeks away, and while they’re away they do this shaping of the next year. I used to do that only to have it changed by the third or fourth week I was back. I thought, “Well, I don’t need to do that again.” It took me a couple of years to say, “I’m not going to spend all that time if it’s going to be changing anyway.” However, I do believe in planning and thinking things through and I think that’s where the Spirit of God is at work.
And then, of course, in the actual putting together of the message I will look back some time and I will say that only the Spirit of God could have directed me. I don’t know at the time that I’m aware of His working, but in the process of shaping my thoughts — when words flow, ideas track, it’s a wonderful thing to have that happen — I’m able to look back at the end of the week and think, “Why, it’s obviously the work of the Spirit.” I do morning and evening services, and how they tie-in is again an amazing tapestry, the weaving of thoughts together. So I think the Spirit of God is engaged in that.
Then there is the actual delivery. You’ve preached enough, Mike, to know there are times — I don’t want this to sound spooky — but there are times I feel almost outside myself. You have that experience where you say (and even at the time you’re delivering it you’re thinking), “I could not have arranged these thoughts this well.” I use notes when I preach and so I will look down on occasion and I’ll be three pages ahead of my notes — caught up in the movement of the message. And I think the Spirit of God is doing that.
Preaching: That was once known as the “unction” of the Spirit. Today we identify it as the “anointing” of the Holy Spirit. How do you describe the experience?
Swindoll: What is the anointing of the Spirit? I don’t think we can nail it down. It isn’t 2×4 or 6×8. It’s broader; it transcends all those dimensions. I think His prompting, His motivational work — it’s a cheap word but I think it’s true — you’re growing in passion; that’s a better word and I think all of that falls under the umbrella of His anointing. So that when you’ve finished — and I really mean this sincerely — you feel like you don’t deserve credit for it. You didn’t do it. Sure, you used your voice-box and you used your gestures, and maybe the words as you pull this thing to a conclusion, but in many ways He fueled the fire that set the thing off, and you look back and say, “Thank You.”
I’ve driven home many a time thinking, “Thank you, Lord, for doing that.” It sounds terribly simplistic but I really mean it. I don’t mean to say I sit down on Sunday morning and quickly put thoughts together. I’ve been working on it maybe two, three, four weeks. But in the actual delivery it’s like, “My, how wonderful of the Spirit of God to do that for me.”
Preaching: Do you think as your ministry has matured — as you’ve grown older and more experienced — that you have a greater sense of the presence or the work of the Holy Spirit in your life?
Swindoll: No doubt, no doubt. I think early on, when we preachers are getting underway, we’re a little overly-concerned about those things that aren’t that essential. As you get older — and I’m fifty-nine — I think you realize there is really no one to fear but God himself. I asked Loren Sandy of the Navigators when he turned sixty, “What’s the difference?” He had a wonderful answer: “I’m not afraid of anyone but I’m more than ever afraid of God, fearful of this awesome God I serve.” Age brings an awareness of the presence of God, the dependence upon Him — not just for every heartbeat and every breath in your lungs but for the shaping of a ministry (I’ve used that word several times already but I really believe it takes the shape that’s brought on by His presence). I think He warns us, I think He moves us in another direction.
At the same time, you’ve got to be right in your heart. I think it was Clarence McCartney who talks about sin in the life of the pastor in his book Preaching Without Notes. He says when there is that wrong in one’s life it haunts you all the way up the pulpit stairs. When there’s been purity, there’s a freedom where you can step into the pulpit and you’re freed from the filth of the flesh. So I think that sense of the awareness of God’s presence is all from the Spirit.
Preaching: The anointing of the Spirit in the life of the preacher is a difficult thing to describe.
Swindoll: It is. It’s not like a ruler, exactly twelve inches long. This makes half the ruler and this makes the other half — it’s just not like that. And I’ve got to tell you, too, there are times when there is a barrenness of soul where it is like pick-axing your way through granite, and you wonder, “Where is the Lord in this?” This book I wrote on the Holy Spirit is the hardest thing I’ve ever written. I can’t really figure out why, because I loved the study that led to it. I loved the way the chapters were beginning to fall together, but putting those words down so that they were fair and yet interesting — and here again I had a hard time. So I worked over titles of chapters and the way the chapters flow together. I would take a half a chapter and throw it away — and I don’t usually do that — and I’d start all over. Sometimes I’d stare at a blank page for two hours, and I rarely if ever in my life have done that. But this book seemed not to want to be written.
Preaching: Did this book come out of a series of sermons?
Swindoll: I was in a series. I called it “The Intimate Spirit” — that was my series title. And out of the blue in a conversation with Byron Williamson, my friend at Word, he said, “We’re thinking about your doing something on the Holy Spirit.” I said, “Isn’t that interesting. I’m doing something on the intimate Spirit. He said, “Tell me about that.” Then he began to tell me, “You know, that’s too good, write me.” In fact, I quote part of his letter in my fifth or sixth message — in the fifth or sixth chapter which I call, “Draw Me Nearer, Nearer.” That’s where we got the idea of Flying Closer to the Flame. So yes, it grew out of a series but the series was underway before I thought about a book, and I like that.
I didn’t approach it from the perspective “I need to do a book; why don’t I preach a series.” I don’t believe I’ve ever done that. In fact, the whole idea of the book Grace Awakening came from a series I did on “Amazing Grace.” Simple Faith was another book — I did a series on the Sermon on the Mount which grew into that book. This is a helpful way to do it because you’ve done a lot of your tool work. Once again, I think the Spirit of God is involved in that.
There’s a great, intriguing section in Corinthians about the Spirit of God. No man knows the thoughts of a man but the spirit of man which is within him; even so, no one knows the thoughts of God but the Spirit of God. And the analogy is great. You know thoughts that you’re having right now that I can’t possibly know. Even if I sat with you for a week, I couldn’t know the thoughts. So the Spirit of God knows the thoughts of God and is able to delve in the bathos, the depths of God. And I think we get our best thoughts when the Spirit of God dips into the well of the mind of God and brings it up like a bucket and pours it upon us — and we get some of those thoughts. They are so magnificent, and for us life-changing. As we communicate them they become life-changing living water for other people who are thirsty. That sounds terribly pious, doesn’t it Mike, but I really believe that’s the way it works!
Preaching: It may be pious but it’s also biblical.
Swindoll: I think so, too. And I like it that I can’t specify it any more than that so that I find myself surprised. I think that is my most common reaction in ministry: surprise. I’m surprised at what I see. I was flying here, working on my messages for next Sunday — aren’t we always! “Sunday’s always three days away” we say on our staff. I got insights into that passage of Scripture out of Luke 12 that were terrific. I’ve never seen them before; isn’t that amazing? I think that’s the Spirit’s work.
I’ve said to Cynthia many times, “If I ever lose this, I’m finished.” If I’m ever to the place where I don’t get those fresh thoughts, I’ve got to hang it up.
Preaching: And you can’t teach that in a classroom.
Swindoll: You can’t, that’s what amazes me. You guys that are teaching on preaching — I don’t know how you do it. I don’t know how I’d get a set of notes together. In fact, I did some teaching for Trinity Seminary on their D.Min. program — there’s an extension work going on out on the West Coast and I taught on preaching two separate times. And in the midst of it I said, “You know what, folks? When it’s all said and done, if the Spirit doesn’t ignite this it’s no more than water in your gas tank — it’s just liquid and it won’t burn. But when He ignites it, it becomes fuel.”
I’m reminded of the words of Amy Carmichael when she concludes that poem and she talks about, “Help me not to be a clod, make me thy fuel, flame of God.” In fact, I could have quoted her in my book. I just come to think of it but that’s it — “Make me thy fuel, flame of God.” And when He does I think everybody stands in awe, not of the preacher but of the spoken delivered word that came from the mountain.
Preaching: You can do all the study, all the spade work, and do the best preparation, but unless the Spirit anoints it ….
Swindoll: It is what I call flatland: there’s no scenery, no change in temperature, no color, there’s no snow or seasons, no sunshine or rain. It’s flatland — you’re just driving over flatland and we’ve all done that. The longest hour of my life — the longest week of my life — is the message that is being delivered, and it’s not that you’re doing it in the flesh, it’s just that for some reason the Spirit of God is lifted from it. Boy, I wish I knew those times, I’d sure take my vacation — I’d stay away!
Preaching: I think every pastor has had those times when it’s just a dry season. What do you do in those dry seasons?
Swindoll: One thing is I remind myself I’m still called, I’m still God’s man for this. It’s not necessarily the time for me to be moving on somewhere else because I’ll take that with me. That’s one warning I would say as I speak of my calling. I go back and I say, I remember — I didn’t hear a voice but it was clear to me I need to do this and nothing else and I’m still called.
I also remind myself it happened to other men greater than I. As I read Spurgeon, he’d fall into these depressions. He said in his Lectures to My Students, “I would see myself going to some village in America.” I said don’t bother, it’s going to happen here, too! It’s not going to be any different than it was in London. It happens to other great men and women and it will happen to us. I remind myself of that.
The third thing I would say is I have a good team of people around me on our staff. I tell them, “I am going to be in a below-water spot,” and interestingly I will usually find a like-hearted fellow who will say, “Me, too. I’m kind of encouraged to know that you go through those times, too.” Happily they do not happen over long periods and they don’t necessarily come as one would lexpect. They come at surprising times. Spurgeon says, “I never did anything great that wasn’t preceded by a time of depression.” So he speaks of encouragement in it, knowing that it’s going to lead to something. You know what, I’m not in his camp but I’ve had that experience. Not always. I think his experience was that this usually happened. I can’t say usually. But I’ve had it happen that when I pull out of it there’ll be a new vista. Like you pay the price for the mountains by going through the desert leading to them — then once you’re up there you think, “Oh, I’m so glad I stayed on the road and didn’t pull over and stop too soon.”
Fourth, that is where we sharpen our sights for people in the real world who often live in those dry seasons. So in the depths, in the barren times, the Spirit of God hasn’t necessarily lifted from us. And I think He resides within us, so thankfully we have His presence. I think he’s quiet for whatever reasons and He reminds us, without Me you can do nothing as Christ said in John 15. I think He really means nothing.
So I just try to stay faithful and do my work. I usually get quieter. Life isn’t as rosy and pretty and fun and I say so. But I think that when I do come through it I’m able to draw on it and say, “it is past.”
The three crucial points of my preaching are Accuracy, Clarity, and Practicality. I want to be accurate with the text, clearly presented and practical so that people have something that they can live with and go on — which is where the illustrations and applications play a part. A lady mentioned to me, “You should mention one more: add Vulnerability.” She said, “Your ministry is vulnerable.” And I said, “Boy, is she perceptive! I’m going to remember that.” When you’re being vulnerable you are able to go back and say, “If you only knew the barren days that led to this momentary or brief period of fruitfulness.” I say so. What do I do? I say, “This is a tough time.” Sometimes I’m not out of it by Sunday and I say to the folks, “It’s been a tough week. I’m coming to you as a fellow struggler, needing healing and encouragement.” And I find people have room for that.
Preaching: Perhaps many welcome it.
Swindoll: Yes. I think they get the idea we are Wonder Woman or Superman and we never have those times. I find it not infrequent that I will talk about some struggle that I went through, and those comments often become the catalyst or the crucible where something grows out of it — some deep ministry in someone’s life.
I think we all have one thing in common and that’s pain. Joseph Parker used to tell young preachers, “Preach to broken hearts and you’ll never lack for a congregation. There’s one in every pew.” I tell that to young ministers who I’m mentoring — to our interns: you preach to broken hearts, you won’t miss. I think we have to have a broader ministry than just brokenness but I think we’ve got to remember that. So I think the barren times break us and bring us back to the foundation: you call; God is good; His Word is true; be faithful.
He commands us to be faithful; He doesn’t command us to be fruitful. Fruit happens, you know; rosebuds don’t scream saying, “I’m blooming, I’m blooming.” The old bush stays there and every once and a while you’ll be surprised with this brilliant flower that grows. My mother used to say that the roots grow deep when the winds are strong. So I think in the windy times your roots grow deep. I think the Spirit of God is at work there, too. It just isn’t a fruitful time. Those are hard for us, especially we who like to produce.
Preaching: As Spurgeon observed, times of greatest success often come after those barren times. Perhaps because those barren times drive us back to the utter dependence on God, He is able then to use us more.
Swindoll: Can we use the word recycle? We go back and we recycle; what goes around comes around. And having come through that we realize anew, “Lord, without you I can’t pull this off.” There was a time when I preached five times every Sunday: three every morning and two every night — four years of that, and it wasn’t all peaches and cream. I remember leaning against the wall when the music minister and I were getting ready for the fifth and last service that Sunday. He said, “What have we done? What have we created?” I said, “Let’s just stay at it, Mark; don’t analyze, just do it.” He did and we did it together. Then you drag yourself home at night, thinking “Can I do this again?” You do. You’re up for it again. I read Wesley and those guys who prepared on horseback and I think, “Oh man, my deal is this — I’ve got it made!”
Preaching: Let me shift directions. You mentioned preaching in series and how your books often emerge from these series. How much difference is there when you’re going from a sermon series to a book? Do you use the sermons as the basis for chapters or do you essentially start over?
Swindoll: Those are two different questions. I’ll answer the second one first. Yes, they become the basis of the chapter — a sermon becomes a chapter. How much difference? Contrary to what one may read in many books, with me there’s a lot of difference. People do not read like they hear. Sermons that become books become boring books because the ear is very forgiving; the eye is much more exacting and demanding. I’ve really got convictions about this and so a book becomes much more of an exacting task. Sir Francis Bacon said, “Speaking maketh a ready man, reading a broad man, writing an exact man.” I love that quote and it’s true. When I sit down to write I have to rethink the precise wording and often it will be far afield from the introduction I used for the sermon.
You and I have read sermons. We’re not all as colorful as Spurgeon. I suppose his stuff could go right into books and would hold us right in his hands. However, most of us are not that colorful. Though I do like to use word pictures and I do like analogies, I think when we go to doing a book, we must realize eyes will be reading it.
I may be able to review and repeat in a series — and I think we should, because again the ear is very forgiving and forgetful. So we need to remind people where we have been, especially if we’re out of that series for a Sunday or two — for Mother’s Day, seasons of the year, whatever. To come back into the series we need to review, whereas the beginning of a chapter is not necessarily a good time to review where we’ve been in the previous chapters — occasionally it is. I usually do a little review toward the end of a book.
I also find that times change, and at the time I’m writing other things are passionate to me and big on my list of important things, so I will do some fresh work. I may also see that it doesn’t look as good on paper as it did in a sermon and I will change some points in there. I will rearrange so if you were to read the transcript of the sermon or hear it over the radio — which is the actual delivery of what I do in Fullerton at the pulpit there — then read the book, you will say it isn’t quite the same. It’s deliberately not the same because I have a passion for writing well which requires that I do it with my own hands. I don’t use a computer; I write long-hand — I have a knot on my finger to prove it! I will actually script in on a tablet. I give my secretary fifteen to eighteen pages of what I’ve done for the chapter and it will mostly be brand new writing. But the homework will have been done, the spade work will have been done in the sermon.
Preaching: You mentioned that you do use some notes when you preach. What kind of notes do you carry into the pulpit?
Swindoll: Fairly extensive. Within my Bible I would put sheets of paper smaller than it is. When I open my Bible to the section I want to speak from, I’ll just pull those notes out to the side and use them. I will use four or five sheets that size, single-spaced, and I type them myself. That I do on a typewriter, though if I’m traveling a lot it will be handwritten like the books are. I would say that’s fairly extensive — extensive enough for me to dip into them.
If I go to a conference and they’ve asked me to speak on grace or they want me to speak on the joy of Christ and in relation to Laugh Again, they often want me to do something out of Philippians. Then I will pull those messages from my sermons that I preached and I will have enough material there — with the reference works I’ve pulled them from — to preach a thirty to forty minute review. The notes prepare my mind for that; sometimes more or even less than others, depending on familiarity and how long ago I did it.
Preaching: In your process of preparing the sermon itself do you go to notes or how much do you do any of actually writing it out?
Swindoll: Manuscripting sermons? If I’m in a tough spot I will manuscript it because, again, writing makes an exact man. I think: if it doesn’t make sense on paper, it’s not going to make sense verbally. The discipline of writing it down will help disentangle your thoughts. I learned a little piece years ago: “Thoughts disentangle themselves over the lips and through the fingertips.” Sometimes I will go down the hall to one of my friends on the staff and go into his study and say, “Can I have a few minutes? I want to talk this thing out. I want you to pick at the pieces or I want you to disagree with me. I want you to listen to this as if you were not a believer, you’re not a follower, tell me your reaction.” That’s always a good discipline; in fact, I don’t think I do that enough.
When we write messages out, when we prepare messages, we need to have the guy in mind who’s not in our camp. I’m going to say something Sunday that’s going to be a little startling so I want you to be startled right now. Tell me what your reaction is — it’ll be good, it’s a good exercise. Sometimes you’ll say, “Man, I don’t buy that for anything.” If I said it more, would you buy it? “No.” Well, would you listen? “Yeah, I’d listen but you’d leave me disagreeing.” I said that’s okay. It’s alright to disagree. Is it true to what it seems like the Scripture is teaching? “Yeah, but I’m not even sure I could agree with that right now.” And I’ll say, that’s good — just so I’m not far afield from what the Scripture is saying.
I’ll tell you where I get nervous on things like this: when I’m out of my field. My field is the Scriptures and theology, and when I get into medicine or when I get into the world of sewing, when I get into fields like psychology, when I get into realms where I’m disagreeing or picking at them, I need to have my homework very carefully done or I need to tread softly. I need to do a disclaimer on the front end. I’m not a medical doctor but as I understand the body, this is the way it functions. I did that when I was in a series on the church and we were doing analogies — the shepherd and the sheep, the vine and the branch, the body, the head and the body — those word pictures. I got into the realm of the body and I realized I’m getting pretty deep here into cells and muscles and blood and organs. I needed to make sure so I talked about it with a medical doctor friend of mine. That helped. I would have made a couple of mistakes that would have been embarrassing. Legal things is another area where I need to be careful; financial things is another — I need to be careful that I’ve really thought it through. That’s a matter of accuracy; you need to be accurate with information.
Preaching: In addition to your pastorate in Fullerton, you will soon assume the presidency of Dallas Seminary. You will have some real influence on the training of young preachers in that role.
Swindoll: I hope so. That’s what excites me.
Preaching: What would you hope most for them, and how would you try to encourage them?
Swindoll: I would hope most that they would be able to connect with the real world and not preach to fellow theologians. I think it is easy for a graduate school that does good academic work to crank out academic, scholarly students of the Scriptures rather than realistic, practical-minded pastors. My hope is that the school will continue to train Bible-thinking men and women who do good work in the text; however, I hope to add a dimension of realism because my world is the real world — real people, real needs. I want to help those people who are studying hard to stay in touch with the world that’s really there, not the world that’s in the cloistered halls of the school.
I realize it’s not a little Bible college and I don’t mean that to sound condescending; it is a graduate school of theology and I want it to remain that. I’m not excited by what percentage is going to Cambridge to get Ph.D.’s because I think that’s what the world is full of, and I would include in that even the academic world. I remember the genius of Peter Marshall who got his training, did his seminary work, but when he was through he still connected with the John Doe’s who were to meet their Master. I think that’s what I want to do. I believe I’m able to make a contribution in that realm because that’s the world I plan to stay in. I will remain in the pulpit and — because the seminary has a provost who is an academician and has credibility and respect — I think both sides will work in the best interest of the students. I hope to be able to do that; time will tell.

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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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