Since 2008, HB Charles Jr. has served as the pastor and teacher at the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida. Before he moved to Florida, he served for 18 years at the Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist church in Los Angeles, where he succeeded his late father as pastor at the age of 17, while he was still a senior in high school. Charles has a popular podcast and speaks nationally at churches and conferences, and he’s the author of On Preaching (Moody Press). He also will be the host pastor for the 2015 National Conference on Preaching, May 12-14, 2015. He recently visited with Preaching Editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: First of all, how was it to become a pastor at the age of 17?
Charles: When I started pastoring at the age of 17, my question to them was, “You mean to tell me you’re going to pay me to preach every week?” That’s as far as I understood the work. I knew that definitely there was a call to preach on my life; by that time, youth meetings and the like, I was preaching pretty much every week. My father had made quite a few friends around Los Angeles, and they thought a way to pay him back was to give his son an opportunity to preach every week. It was just a remarkable privilege. It wasn’t until I got knee deep in it that I quickly realized it was much more than that in ministry.
Preaching: Being a pastor is a lot more than preaching, isn’t it! What are some things you learned while you were a young preacher?
Charles: I learned early on that the spiritual disciplines are vital for pastoral ministry and faithful ministry. More than just getting sermons ready, for you to do this faithfully, regularly, you have to make sure you’re having your own time with God and feeding yourself in the Word and that prayer is a spiritual discipline to which you are committed.
Negatively, I had to learn the hard way that pastoral ministry and preaching are not just about public work on Sunday mornings. It means to love, care for and shepherd the people you serve. As the idiom says, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. It took me awhile to learn that as a young preacher who just wanted to preach. I had to learn how to be a shepherd, and the problem was it takes pain and disappointment and those kinds of things to teach us that.
Preaching: You’re the author of an excellent book called On Preaching. What prompted you to develop the book?
Charles: Every year, I go through what I call a preaching crisis. It’s just a period at some point in the year when I feel I really need to work on my preaching—to grow as a preacher and sharpen my preaching. I started responding to it by reading a lot on preaching, which I typically do. Then I’d write about areas of preaching that I was thinking about. I was trying to sharpen my own preaching in those areas, and at a certain point when I looked back, I had written 17 articles for the little blog that I write. By the time I passed those on to my editor, thinking I may have something, they agreed and the book was formed from regular articles I was writing.
Preaching: The book consists of a number of short chapters because it emerged from your blog, which means it’s a very easy book for pastors to pick up and read a bit here and there. Do you have one or two favorite topics or themes you deal with in the book?
Charles: I like the topic of writing sermon manuscripts. The book as a whole is meant to be hands-on, not a theoretical book. This is not for the academic. This is for the pastor in the trenches. One challenge I have is I enjoy studying the Bible. The challenge is taking exegetical work and transitioning it for the pulpit. Just thinking about the element of writing sermon manuscripts was a big thing to me that I found very helpful, thinking about that and writing about that.
Then introductions and conclusions…Of course, as it is said, the accidents happen on takeoff and landing! Those are areas I don’t feel that I am very strong on, so reading about those areas and thinking about them struck a chord with me personally.
Preaching: Do you develop a full manuscript for each sermon?
Charles: I call myself a manuscript preacher who cheats. It is my goal every week to write a completed sermon manuscript, word for word, but to have it internalized enough so that by the time I get to the pulpit, I only need to take my Bible. My goal is not to memorize everything in it, but to have enough of the content and the flow so I can have the Bible in front of me, or maybe an index card of notes, and work through the sermon so I am engaged with the congregation and not be a slave to the manuscript.
Preaching: That’s a good way to do it. There is an important discipline in hammering out the sermon and thinking about the words you’re going to say. I tell my students the time to think about how to explain a challenging theological idea is not at 11:30 on Sunday morning standing in front of the congregation.
Charles: This past week was my wedding anniversary, so I spent a couple of days with my wife. I wasn’t where I needed to be, so I played catch up, and Sunday I preached from an extended outline I prepared rather than the preparation of that full manuscript. I could tell the difference in my preaching, where I was searching for words. I knew I could have said that more clearly if I had taken the time to write it out. I think that’s the goal in preaching, not only with faithfulness to the text but clarity in presentation. Writing it yourself, clearly, is key to that.
Preaching: In the book, you have a section where you talk about the process of preparing to preach. Tell me about your process. How does your week look as you move from Monday to Sunday in the pulpit?
Charles: Because I am a local pastor who has some wider teaching-speaking ministry, I have to be able to study wherever I am. The resources I need usually are copied for me and placed in the file I am leaving church with on Sunday, so I am starting slowly on Sunday when I take a break. I think about the text and look over the notes and the Scripture a little bit. I am doing a little more of that on Mondays, where I am doing observations and translations and word studies.
At some point, I have to turn to give my attention on Wednesday, when I also have to teach. So it’s really not until Thursday when I get to the heavy lifting of the exegetical work. I kind of want to know my way around that by the end of Thursday as best I can, so I am writing on Friday and tightening up on Saturday.
Now you don’t need me to tell you that most weeks it doesn’t work out that clean! So going into the weekend, I am still working on it and tightening it up and writing. I don’t feel as if it’s complete until I stand up to preach; I’m still tweaking it along the way.
Preaching: You have a pretty substantial turnout on Wednesday nights. That’s something some pastors don’t have anymore, but some do. What do you do on Wednesday nights?
Charles: The tradition I inherited at the church was a full mid-week service, where I also preach a full expositional sermon. I started my work here preaching on Wednesday nights two months before I started on Sunday mornings, so I built up a crowd, and they were coming expecting me to bring my A-game. That killed me! I was really spending Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, preparing for Wednesdays; and Thursday, Friday, Saturday, preparing for Sunday; there was really no room for breaks in there.
Now, six years in, I’m in more of a rhythm where I am doing more Bible study lessons on Wednesday rather than full expositions. Preparing an outline that they fill in as I teach is a lot less work that doing the full sermon manuscript. So it’s given me a little more time to be working toward Sunday now.
Preaching: What about your preaching schedule—how far out do you plan what you’re going to do? Do you preach mostly in series? What’s your planning process?
Charles: I picked up the practice some years ago of trying to plan my preaching a year in advance. My goal is at the first half of the year, I am going to start some book that I’m going to preach through. So the divvying up of that book and determining when I am going to start is the key part of starting that plan, along with weeks I am not preaching, weeks when I want to focus on the special subjects. I’m really going from Old Testament to a theme to New Testament to a theme, in that kind of cycle.
We started a second location in January, as I was in the middle of Ephesians 4, and my plan was to pull out and do some shorter series to help get in the rhythm at the second location, where I’ll also be preaching. However, the pastors here prevailed on me to keep working through Ephesians. So I’m kind of working my way through that until I get to the end, and I’m going slowly through it. My goal at this point is to pick up another book when I finish Ephesians.
Preaching: How long is a typical series for you?
Charles: I’ve done the epistles, so those are between 20 and 30 pieces for me. I try to make sure each message stands on its own and that the context I’m introducing is relevant to the present text, not trying to drag everyone forward. The Old Testament has been shorter. I’ve preached in Ruth and Jonah, which don’t take as long. I take breaks. If something comes up, I may spend three or four weeks on something else to break the monotony, to keep the congregation’s attention.
Preaching: What do you find to be the greatest challenge to you in preaching? Where do you struggle the most?
Charles: When someone asks me how they can pray for me, one of the first things I say is time management. I’m a pastor, and I’m rooted into the congregational life of the church I serve. There is no pressure on me to do anything other than study, but my preaching would be weakened if I were not doing counseling, visitation, weddings and such. I’m engaged in that. I’m married with three children, so the time factor is always such a challenge. Of all the things I do in the course of a week that may be beneficial in the life of the church, the best stewardship of my opportunity is the preaching moments. Managing that is the challenge.
Also, I am studying the Word of God because I am a student of Scripture, and I need to learn and grow. So I often don’t know when to turn off the exegetical part. I always want to read another commentary and chase down that subject. I’m learning for myself that I must turn off that part to give my attention to crafting.
That’s the third issue for me: Because all of the things I study this week, you know there are areas in which the congregation is not necessarily interested. They haven’t thought about that text until I started preaching it. So to craft it so there is interest and creativity in the presentation, and a level of depth and doctrine in it but also accessible so mature Christians are learning something and my teenagers on the way home don’t say, “Well, Dad, what were you talking about today?” All of those makes the crafting a sermon a big issue for me.
I don’t think I was as impressed with that part of the process. I felt if I did my study and my outline, I could extemporaneously work my way through. These past years, I am more sensitive to be sure I am not only getting the text right, but I make it as clear as possible. I think clarity is its own style.
Preaching: Those are the challenges. What’s your greatest joy in preaching?
Charles: I just feel the great privilege. There are times in my public prayers before my sermons when I catch myself saying that I’m grateful God would use someone such as myself to do something such as this. I understand we are not only saved by grace, but our ministries also are acts of grace that we do not deserve—the sense of privilege and the sense of serving the Word to the people of God for their spiritual development.
Just this year I really have processed that I think whatever effectiveness there is to my preaching is the fact I am a pastor. I travel a lot to speak in other places, but they’re just getting the fruit of the work I do for my own congregation. The opportunity to shepherd a congregation through the Word is a wonderful privilege that I hope the Lord gives me many years to do.
Preaching: I know your dad was a great influence on you personally and as a preacher. Who are some of the other key influencers in your life who have helped shape your preaching?
Charles: As a young man, Ralph Douglas West in many ways mentored me from afar but also took a personal interest in me. Living in Southern California, I would hang out on Sunday nights at Grace Community listening to John McArthur preach, and he really shaped my commitment to expository preaching. My own pastor, Melvin Wade, preached with a sense of poetry. I think that’s a key part of the tradition of black preaching, and in hearing him through the years, he had an influence on me that I wanted to do exposition; but I didn’t want to be dry and boring. I want there to be a sense of life, creativity and rhythm to the preaching.
John Piper, as I listen to him so regularly on podcasts and such, he seems to say so much in 30 minutes weekly. I never felt he cheated the text in any way, but he didn’t take 55 minutes to do it. The messages may take 25 to 30 minutes, and I feel as if I am learning from that. One major influence in my life for preaching in general was the late Dr. E.K. Bailey, who turned me toward expository preaching. He continues to be a major model to me in terms of how the standards of preaching should look.
Preaching: You are still a relatively young man, but you have been at this preaching task for a number of years. Based on your experience, if you were to counsel a young preacher who is starting out, what would be one or two pieces of advice you would offer?
Charles: I would say, “Don’t do as I did.” I had really good men who challenged me to make my study—formal study—a greater priority early on before life caught up with me…marriage, ministry and all these things. Those preaching opportunities would come, and I got a lot of them very early. I really just followed those opportunities and didn’t take the time early on for formal training. I would say make formal training a priority.
I would say read, read, read. That is the way in which I would say my education was compensated. Charles Spurgeon said, “It is not a sin for a preacher to be without a degree, but it is a sin for a preacher to be uneducated.” Read, read, read.
Take every opportunity to preach and teach. It doesn’t have to be the main service; if you get the opportunity to get a Sunday School class, take that stewardship seriously.
Guard your life. That’s 1 Timothy 4:16. You need to guard your doctrine, but guard your lifestyle to assure your salvation and the salvation of those who hear you.
Even if you’re just a new minister, immerse yourself in the body life of the church so you don’t have a mental disconnect of the task of preaching and teaching from the pastoral work caring for souls and ministering to God’s people.