Ralph Douglas West is pastor of the Brookhollow Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, better known as The Church Without Walls. He will be one of the featured speakers at the 2011 National Conference on Preaching, May 9-11 in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He recently visited with Executive Editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: Did you name it The Church Without Walls because you keep busting out of the walls with growth? You started with a church of about 30 people, and now have more than 15,000 families. Is that where that name came from?
West: I thought I was being original initially. The name was born out of a series of sermons from the
I thought I was being original when that came up. I later found out a professor of missiology at Princeton actually had written a little book called The Church Without Walls. Then Jim Peterson in the 90s wrote a missiology piece on the church without walls. So I say they validated my suspicions of the church being without walls.
Beyond the architectural descriptions of the church without walls, it speaks for me of this whole idea of the church not being restricted by geography or location, but reaching into the world of other people. So I think it is an interesting metaphor: “the church without walls” to be able to reach into the lives of other people. It is a church that is open to people to come; I was hoping it would have that kind of ring to people who were in search of a church where they can say they are accepted for who they are.
You know, it’s kind of radical grace to accept people for the way they really are. It has been that radical. Periodically you get some Pharisees who become part of the church who feel as if we need to construct some walls. That becomes a conflict with the whole mission of the church—the evangelistic outreach of saying, “Let’s reach people for Christ and let Jesus do the rest with them after they come here.”
Preaching: It sounds like you were missional before missional was cool.
West: There you go! That’s it.
Preaching: It sounds as if mission is in the DNA of your church—reaching people where they are, that concept of radical grace. How does that impact what you do Sunday by Sunday as you preach?
West: I think it makes you sit down and look at the biblical passage through the eyes of Jesus. You consider the different people He encountered, which is a fascinating devotional study. You pick up these peculiar personalities Jesus encountered along the way. He sat in homes with people described as publicans, then He sat with the pariahs of society. At no time did He spend any energy talking about their externality. He only dealt with that when it came down to the religionists who always were promoting their own personal moral causes. To them He said, “You swallow camels and strain at gnats.” All these other people—such as the woman at the well whose life was completely out of control—He embraced this woman and gave her Himself as living water; and she ran out and told everybody, “I’ve met someone who has told me about myself. He didn’t condemn me about myself, but told me. This must be the Christ.”
I think in preaching we have to understand these people to whom we preach are God’s creation, regardless of who they are. It’s not our responsibility to judge or condemn them, but really to preach lovingly with grace and let Christ call them. One thing I have learned is that when people respond to Jesus, they come under conviction. That’s judgment enough.
I think the real judgment is for me to recognize God loves me, and then I look at what I consist of. God loves me? That becomes real grace. Talk about conviction, talk about judgment, for you to consider God loves me. That’s enough to break your heart. I think in the old church, they used to call it contrition—we weep and cry under that kind of brokenness that the judgment of God has fallen on us. It becomes a sign of God’s grace.
Preaching: As you preach and teach, how do you balance the message of grace with the ethical or behavioral demands of the gospel?
West: Grace becomes the initiator into the relationship with God. It’s through this amazing grace of God that He initiates Himself into our lives. As a response, we have a responsibility to live out Christ’s life. We are to become incarnational, to live out the commands and the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. There are duties, and there are responsibilities.
Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God, but at the same time faith without works is dead—it’s just not going to work. I think that’s the balance. Grace initiates our relationship with God, and then as a result we live that grace out by following the teachings of Jesus Christ.
One of the great commands I’ve been thinking about during the past few months is when Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s a powerful statement. I live with that word, and I think about what it really means to love my neighbor as I love myself.
Preaching: Fully realized, that command virtually would cover all the ethical implications of the gospel, wouldn’t it?
West: Yes, it really does. To love our neighbors the way Christ has called me to love them says to me that I love the totality of the person. You know this is one of the things that happens when we talk about racism in America. Racism boils down t If I can dehumanize any person, then I don’t have to respect that person. What a relationship with Jesus Christ brings to our attention is that we are created in the likeness and image of God—that we’re all God’s creation. The very moment I see you as God’s creation, it changes the way I relate to you. To relate to you any other way than my brother becomes an ethical violation to everything Jesus Christ died for.
Preaching: As a preacher, I know you are an expositor; but it’s not a classical, verse-by-verse exposition. How do you approach a biblical text for preaching?
West: My method of preaching in which I’m most comfortable is expositional narrative—where I can narrate, and the narrative takes the shape of the genre of the passage that I’m preaching. I still allow the biblical passage to feed the content of the sermon, the movements of the sermon.
So when I come to a passage of Scripture, immediately I begin thinking about what genre it is. Is it gospel, is it narrative, is it story? Is it poetry, prose; is it wisdom? I like for the genre to help shape how that sermon is going to be communicated. Then I allow the text to start shaping that sermon.
The stages of it probably would be from idea to sermon to Scripture text, and then the shaping of that text out of my exegetical study. By the way, I really believe that’s probably the greatest weakness in contemporary preaching today: the lack of exegesis.
Preaching: Why do you think that is?
West: Hard work. I think it’s hard work. It takes time to dig into a passage and exegete it. It’s almost as if they skip the exegesis and get right to the application. Beautiful sermons, but the problem is that application not tied to a biblical text makes it flimsy. It’s weak, it just kind of wavers in the wind. It’s the biblical text (as I understand it) that gives gravity to the sermon. It anchors the sermon.
It is God’s Word. I still have a fundamental belief in God’s Word. It’s kind of hard to be a biblical preacher and not fundamentally believe this is God’s Word and that it’s the living Word of God. These don’t become mere phrases for those of us who preach it. This becomes our passion and our motivation. I’m preaching God’s Word.
My method of going at the preaching task is to take God’s Word, shape it in such a way that contemporary ears can hear it, and then make relevant application that’s born out of the images of the text.
Preaching: Application is one of the hardest things that we do as preachers—to make a meaningful application of the text. What are some of the things you do as you’re preparing a message to try to identify what would be an effective application of the passage?
West: I borrow something Haddon Robinson said he does. He says he looks into the faces of what he calls an imaginary circle. I actually start looking through the lives of my church and people. When I look at people, I actually can see how this would apply to them.
I start seeing a couple who just buried their 21-year-old son; or someone who just experienced a divorce, lost a job; their health has gone bad. I start looking at that and ask, “How does this passage apply?” Instead of me using nebulous terms such as “everybody has storms in life,” I will say: “We know something about the storms of difficulty. Whether they are vocational, on our job, relationally with others, theologically with our faith, domestically within our home…We have seen peaceful homes ripped apart by the winds of life. They’ve been ripped apart.” I just start trying to name the storms and really put a face and voice to what people are going through so they say, “Yeah, that’s me.”
Preaching: What do you enjoy most about preaching?
West: What I enjoy most about preaching is preaching. It’s what James Earl Massey calls the “burdensome joy of preaching.” Dr. Gardner Taylor talks about the sweet torture of Sunday morning. There is the whole gestation of preaching—you know, trying to prepare.
Here is my greatest fear of preaching and my greatest joy of preaching: that I don’t want to say anything that would bring embarrassment to God. The joy of it is just to stand up with a Bible in hand—I get happy all by myself! I still enjoy preachers who get happy. It’s not on the crowd. It’s not on the attendance. What I enjoy about preaching the most is the preaching event, as Claypool calls it.
You have to prepare for the week. You really don’t know how this sermon is coming out—and to stand up for those 30 or 35 minutes and know this is not you—you may have brought your best intellect to the interpretation; you have written your best sermon, found illustrations, applied it; but you don’t know how this is going to come out. Then you stand there by God’s power—you stand up and preach.
The old preachers called it the unction of Holy Spirit, and you know at that moment that this is not me. This act is of God. You look into the face of some weary person who you know was doubting and skeptical or disinterested, and their eyes just light up because they’ve had an encounter at that moment with what God has been saying through what you’ve been preaching. It makes all the difference in the world. It makes you want to come back next Sunday morning.
Preaching: There’s no moment in the life of a preacher like that moment when you realize you have just preached beyond yourself—to recognize the hand of God has taken you and done something you never could have done on your own.
West: Yes! I mean, and you know it! People look at you and say nice things, and it becomes the most humbling moment because I know I can’t transcribe what just happened. I never could preach that again. I’ve got the same manuscripts that I’ve written. I’ve committed them to memory or thought, but I can’t preach it again. It’s the power of the Holy Spirit.
Preaching: You’ve been a pastor and preacher for a number of years. As you look back, what have you learned during those years that you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
West: One thing that I wish I knew 20 or 30 years ago as a pastor was to know and respect the history of the churches to which I’d been called. It would have saved me a lot of stress to spend some time really understanding the history and to respect the people who have made contributions.
What I’ve learned in my own church is that every achievement a church makes, it costs that church something. When new pastors come to a church and disregard the history of a church as insignificant, it is enough to anger you. I can say that as a church planter and founder of a church. I look back now, and I can see why people would be angered if you just chose to rip something off the wall, not knowing why it was placed there. That’s one thing I’ve learned.
Another thing I’ve learned that I wish I had known then is to pay more attention and listen more to the friends God has given to me and listen less to enemies. It’s a strange thing that pastors know by name everybody who opposes them and almost never the names of those who support them. I’ve asked the Lord to help me really focus on the people who are there week after week supporting me.
One of the great passages for me to preach is
The third and final thing would have been to spend more of my time in Scripture, more time on my knees praying, more time just loving God. I guess I have time to recover it now, and I’m trying to do it. That has been a constant conviction on me now. Spend more time in Scripture, pray a lot more, and just love God more. I guess that’s just another way of saying to develop a stronger personal devotional life. It really is for your survival.