Jim Cymbala is pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City. He became pastor there in the early 1970s when the church numbered less than 20 people. Through God’s grace, the congregation today involves more than 10,000 and has a worldwide outreach through its various missions and ministries. He is author of a new book Spirit Rising: Tapping into the Power of the Holy Spirit (Zondervan). He recently visited with Preaching Executive Editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: Let me start off first by saying that standing up to preach right after the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir sings ought to add a bit of motivation to any sermon, don’t you think?
Cymbala: Yeah, I would say so! D.L. Moody was the first one to utilize gospel music, sacred music, to open the hearts of the people hopefully and get their focus on the things of God. Then when he would come on after that, he would claim their hearts were opened and it was easier to sow the good seed of the Word into their hearts. My wife’s gifting, which transcends mine, is really wonderful because our choir is just rank-and-file people from every background singing for the glory of God. It surely makes preaching easier when you get up after that!
Preaching: Your newest book, published with Zondervan, is called Spirit Rising: Tapping into the Power of the Holy Spirit. What drew you to write about the Holy Spirit?
Cymbala: In my travels around the country and around the world, through decades of experience trying to preach the gospel in the inner city of New York, and in consultation with a lot of great Bible teachers and pastors, I’ve come to the firm conclusion the forgotten Person of the Trinity is the Holy Spirit. We have found ways to run our churches and preach without total dependence on the Holy Spirit, unlike the New Testament model which is clear to us in the Book of Acts and the epistles of the New Testament.
God the Father has been written about, and there are obviously all kinds of tomes about God the Father, Creator, Sustainer, the Faithful One. The Lord Jesus Christ, the Son—more books have been written about Him than anybody who has ever walked upon the planet—but the Holy Spirit, I don’t really think we really believe what Jesus said: “It’s better for you that I go, because unless I go, the Holy Spirit won’t come.” There aren’t too many people, I think, who in their heart of hearts are convinced it is better to have the ethereal, invisible Holy Spirit with us than the physical Jesus walking on water and raising Lazarus from the dead.
As a result, I think our churches have been hurt and our preaching has been diluted. Even though the doctrine might be right, there’s not that pungent, powerful authority that only the Holy Spirit can bring.
Preaching: Why do you think that’s the case, that we don’t teach or preach nearly enough on the Holy Spirit? Why have we made the Spirit the forgotten member of the Trinity?
Cymbala: From my viewpoint, I think in a lot of evangelical circles, the Holy Spirit always has been undervalued. During the Puritan era, there was probably one great book written about the Holy Spirit. Then through the ages—even in the time of Wesley and Whitfield in the 1700s and 1800s—there wasn’t much attention given to the Holy Spirit for whatever reason. So a lot of preachers here, men and women of God, have grown up with a tradition of very little emphasis in their denominations on the Holy Spirit.
Then you add some of excesses of the so-called charismatic movement and you have a perfect recipe for the pendulum effect. On one side, some really wild and woolly manifestations are all blamed on the Holy Spirit, along with weird preaching all based on “God showed me” and “God told me” with no scriptural reference. Then on the other hand, you have people who love God and love His Word going to the other extreme saying, “Please, let’s just have a Bible study and then say amen and go have dinner somewhere with none of this Holy Spirit stuff—this wildfire, emotionalism, subjective stuff.”
In between, in my judgment, is the New Testament model, which is preaching the Word of God—Paul tells Timothy to preach the Word—but Paul boasts (if I may use that word) in
I don’t think there’s one in a hundred preachers who approaches the sermon on Sunday with that in mind.
Preaching: As pastors, don’t you think sometimes we’re afraid of the idea of utter dependence on the Holy Spirit—that it won’t work without our contribution?
Cymbala: You’re right. It takes great faith. I think even harder than that, it takes a dying to ourselves because we all have a tendency to think we can do it. Emotionalism, screaming or whispering in a mic, putting a tear in a voice—all of those pulpit gimmicks are not the Holy Spirit. Being loud is not the Holy Spirit. Being quiet is not the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit. You have to come to the end of yourself, and that’s what really happened with me.
Here I was without seminary training, Bible school training, put into the inner city, my wife and I. I was a basketball player growing up in high school and college. That’s how I got through school—on scholarship. I played in the NCAA Tournament, so I was more skilled at hitting a jump shot from the top of the key than I was at preaching.
So here I am in the midst of a place where it was a perfect mission field to see the power of the gospel manifested; but I was insecure, not polished, reading and digging—and by the way, I have a vast library to this day as I’m still reading and digging and trying to figure out more and more of God’s Word.
I came to the place where I knew, “God, if You don’t do this in the midst of drugs, alcoholism, prostitutes hanging two blocks away on either side of our building…God, if You don’t come and do whatever has to be done and work in me and work in Carol, what are we going to do? We can’t do this with mirrors and cleverness.”
By the way, I think that’s one of the real detriments now in Christianity. Instead of Holy Spirit-anointed preaching, we have an invasion of clever communicators. It’s being reinforced by publications and conferences where the clever communicator who is organized with just the right illustration or visual or joke at the right time is lauded, but there’s very little sense of a holy, transcendent God. People go home talking more about the preacher than they do about the awesomeness of God.
I was thrust into a situation, and still am every single Sunday, where I have to say: “God if You don’t come and help me, and if Your presence isn’t manifested among the people, how are people going to be set free from the bondages that are squeezing the life out of them?” So you have to die to yourself and get so hungry that you can’t go on without the Holy Spirit coming. If you feel you can manage without Him, He will let you go on—as paltry as the results will be—and that’s a sad way to go through ministry.
Preaching: I heard the comment a few years ago that in most of our churches, 90 percent of what goes on would continue if the Holy Spirit was completely removed.
Cymbala: My friend Warren Wiersbe said he wasn’t sure if A.W. Tozer said it first, but he said, “The Holy Spirit could leave this earth and disappear and most churches wouldn’t notice it.” That’s sad, because the New Testament model is preaching the Word, but in the power of the Spirit. You know the old adage, “If you only emphasize the Word, you dry up. If you only emphasize the Spirit, you blow up; but if you emphasize the Word and the Spirit, you grow up.” That’s the maturity we need to see in the body of Christ.
Preaching: In the book, you tell a remarkable story about an experience you had with a pastor in a church in Pakistan. Can you share that story?
Cymbala: I would love to. I never really met the gentleman, but I was sitting in a little restaurant cafe in Long Island near my home in Queens. I was having lunch and reading The New York Times on my Kindle, minding my own business, just by myself. There was an article that Monday morning about a terrible tragedy in Pakistan.
A false rumor had been spread that Christians had a wedding and had confetti to celebrate the joining of two people together in holy matrimony, and that it was made up of cut up pieces of the Quran. This stirred up people in a town in Pakistan, and they assaulted all of the homes of the Christians and burned them to the ground. I think a number of people died.
As I read, I remembered hearing of Christians being persecuted before, yet know nothing of Pakistan; but the Holy Spirit moved so deeply in my heart that I began to groan inwardly at the loss of life, that people were left with nothing. I thought, “I have children and grandchildren. How must it be for a believer under such attack and assault?”
I couldn’t let it go; the next thing I know, I’m crying. I looked at the wall so no one would see me weeping, and I prayed, “God, comfort these people. I can’t do anything as I’m in Brooklyn, but these are my brothers and sisters in Christ. One false rumor and they’re just killed like cattle.”
It stayed with me for the rest of Monday and Tuesday. I’d never done this before, but I brought my Kindle into the church—we have a prayer meeting attended by lots of people on Tuesday night. I just couldn’t get rid of this thing. I would just groan and cry and pray inside. I would ask God to comfort and help those people.
Toward the beginning of the prayer meeting, I took the mic after some praise and worship and said, “I gotta read something to you.” Then I read the article from The New York Times. You could feel the reaction of the people in the audience. As we often do, we gathered in groups and someone led prayer for these Christians in a place that we don’t know…but we asked God to comfort them and strengthen their faith. It was a cry that went up from the church to God for these people.
That was the Holy Spirit, too, because you can’t create that burden, and it wasn’t hyped up by me. When we got done praying, I’m in my little group of two or three and the prayer time was ending. After 15 minutes or so, I prayed to the Lord, “What can I do to help this place? I don’t know anyone. I don’t know a missionary. I’m not part of a denomination. God, just help me.” We got done praying and I walk up on the platform; suddenly one of our leaders is running down the aisle as people are being seated saying, “Lady in the back. Lady in the back. Pakistan. Pakistan.”
They bring this lady up on the platform. I put the mic down away from her to find out what’s going on. She said, “I’m visiting today for the first time. I’m from Pakistan. My husband is a pastor, and he and my son are first responders in the town you just prayed for ministering to the people.” I said, “What?” She said, “They are right now in that town trying to help those people.”
When I told the crowd, everyone was aghast. We’re in downtown Brooklyn, and someone is visiting for the first time from Pakistan whose husband is in the town we’re praying about? We collected $10,000 that night, I think, to give to her for that town to make an investment for the Christians there. Our CFO got in touch and found out everything was legitimate; and sure enough, we gave them money.
There’s more to the story, and I don’t know if you want me to tell it, but that night we were amazed to think the Holy Spirit had lined up everything. To go from reading a story in The New York Times to interceding and then make it possible to minister to the town and make an investment in rebuilding the homes of those people…God is just awesome.
Preaching: I know there is more to that story, but we’ll let folks buy the book and learn the rest. It’s a miraculous more-to-the-story everyone will enjoy knowing about.
Cymbala: Yes, it is. As I travel around, I’ve seen so many brothers and sisters whom I love who follow one paradigm after another. They’re going to Willow Creek. They’ll do 40 Days of Purpose, this model and that model; and they end up discouraged. They find out after 18 months that no system works. There is no formula. There’s God. They think that by following some model—and I don’t mean anything negative about anybody—but we have to get before God and find out what He wants us to do.
This is Christianity. This isn’t copying IBM or Apple. We’re supposed to get before the Lord and find out what God wants us to do. Every church is unique. Every pastor is unique, so we can’t make shortcuts and get some model that we copy in some mechanical way to get the same results so we can be more influential or have a church that’s large and all of that. When I see that 1,500 ministers are leaving the church every month, I think much of that is discouragement that comes from, “Oh, that’s the answer. No, wait, this is the answer.”
After six, seven or eight years of that and you’re left with the wreckage in your church of plans that didn’t work out and policies that were not wise—guys just go sell insurance or Toyotas or something. That’s 50 a day. That’s one for every 50 states in America.
The only thing that will stem that tide is a return to preaching the gospel with the power of the Holy Spirit—being open to His influences, to seeing His power manifested—not in some Pentecostal way because cultural Pentecostalism is a dead end—or cultural evangelicalism. It’s asking God, “What do You want? We’re not putting You in a box. The good old days aren’t as good as we thought, and we just want You to come because You’re in charge. God give us fruit.” Otherwise, why continue?
I came to the place early on when I was so discouraged…I said, “God, if You don’t come and help me in this place You’ve put me, I’d rather die. I know You’ll take care of my wife and I’ll live forever in heaven.” The thought of holding the fort for decades with no fruit, with no changed lives, and I’m talking about how great Jesus is and the power of the gospel, yet I’m only talking to the faithful 40, or I’ll steal some from another church. What a recipe for depression! However, if the Holy Spirit is invited, He will come.
Preaching: Jim, what do you enjoy most about preaching, and what do you find to be the greatest challenge today in preaching?
Cymbala: What I enjoy most about preaching is the fulfillment that comes in seeing God take His Word and use it to penetrate a heart, whether it’s someone coming to faith for the first time or someone who’s depressed and ready to quit be encouraged. The greatest joy to me is to see God in action through His Word, through preaching. To hear someone tell you, “I was ready to throw in the towel, but I am not. God is faithful. He will help me.” That’s the greatest joy.
The hardest task right now, to me, is to be relevant and address people where they live without being unbiblical. That’s one of the greatest challenges today because a lot of the relating stuff has gone into telling people what they want to hear rather than what the Lord is saying. Of course, the church growth movement has accented that and made it worse, because it becomes more about numbers rather than being faithful to the Lord.
You want to stay relevant and contemporary without compromising God’s truth, which is not just encouraging but warning people, preaching the whole counsel of God. A lot of people just want to hear, “I know the plans I have for you” and they all cheer; but they also live in left field and are not walking with the Lord. No one ever tells them what that really entails.
So the challenge is to go against the tide of “positive thinking, prosperity, God is in heaven and everything is OK” theology to “the Lord is good and faithful and full of love, but we must trust in Him, surrender to Him and walk in a way that’s pleasing to Him if we’re going to live the right kind of Christian life.” That’s a real challenge today.
Preaching: You’ve been at this work for a while now. If you could go back and give a piece of advice to yourself as a young pastor—something you’ve learned through the years—what would your advice be?
Cymbala: Pray. Pray and pray more. Right now, I’m away from home at a place that my parents have made possible, a home in Florida. I’m preparing for a lot of open doors the Lord has given me around the world this year to speak to pastors, but I’m in Florida now because I need to seek the Lord, pray to Him and hear from Him so I have something to say.
Most of us are Type-A personalities, so we want to do; but the first calling of all of us is the calling of Jesus to the 12 apostles. He went up on a mountain and called the 12 by name; He called them that He might be with them, send them out to preach and that they might have power over evil spirits. Still, their first calling was not to preach, cast out devils, build buildings or write books. Their first calling was to be with Him.
I lament the years when I did not give myself more to just being with Him. There is revelation. There is illumination. There is the Word coming open. There is spiritual authority that is somehow by spiritual osmosis put within your heart. There is a tenderness. There is a breaking. There are all kinds of things that happen when we are alone with God and His Word. It’s not even so much talking, because He knows what we need before we say it, even though we need to say it. “You have not because you ask not.” Just be with Him.
I have a new grandson adopted from Ethiopia. My middle daughter Sue and her husband, Brian, who work with me at the Brooklyn Tabernacle, have a 14-year-old and 11-year-old; and they just adopted a little boy from Ethiopia whose mother died of malaria. The father had four other children and couldn’t handle the new one. He went eight hours on a bus, thank God, to an orphanage with which Sue and Bryan were working. They went over with their children to pick up, at that time, their 3-month-old son. My wife and I adore him, and he’s now 2 years old.
Sometimes I babysit him, and we watch SpongeBob or Bubble Guppies together. This is the intellectual enlightenment I’m getting lately! He’ll sit on my lap, and I’ll put my arms around him…I don’t want anything from him. He can’t talk at all, but just holding him is the sweetest thing in the world to me. I don’t want any gift from him. I just want to hold him. One day when I was holding him and thanking God that I could be with him, I felt the Lord saying to me, “That’s how I am with you and with others. I just want to be with you.”
I just wept as I was holding him because the first calling all preachers have is to be with Him. Oh, how we would preach better! How we would pastor better. How we would counsel more effectively if we were just with Him more. That’s what I lament.
I don’t want to use the word prayer because to a lot of people, it’s about petitioning, petitioning, petitioning. We need that, but oh my goodness, just to wait upon the Lord and see our strength renewed. That’s what we need most.