Kyle Idleman is a preaching minister at Southeast Christian Church in Lousiville, Ky., and author of a new book, AHA.: The God Moment that Changes Everything. Preaching Executive Editor Michael Duduit recently visited with him.
Preaching: Your new book is titled AHA. What is that about?
Idleman: Most of us are familiar with the idea of an “Aha!” moment. As I was studying The Parable of the Prodigal Son for a sermon series, I came across some different elements of that story. For example, there’s this awakening moment when he came to his senses, and then there’s a moment of honesty when he tells himself the truth about himself. Then there’s the action where he gets up and goes back to his father. There’s this awakening, this honesty and this action. As I have listened to hundreds of testimonies through the years in church, I have discovered that in almost all of us in our stories of spiritual transformation, we have those three ingredients. We have an awakening (God opens our eyes to something); there’s honesty (repentance and confession where we tell ourselves some hard truth about ourselves and our situation); and then there’s action (where we get up, go home and turn to God).
I was talking about the awakening, honesty and action, and as I was looking at my sermon, I could see the acronym there and realized, “That’s AHA!” There’s this awakening moment, this brutal honesty, this immediate action that takes place. Traditionally, we’ve used language such as conviction, repentance and obedience; but as you look at the story of the prodigal son—and, of course, most of us can relate to this in our own spiritual journeys—you see God using those three elements coming together, bringing about a true Aha—something that is not humanistic, but supernatural.
Preaching: As pastors, we deal with these kinds of well-known passages. Do you have counsel for pastors as they approach such passages for preaching? How do we go about making sure there’s some freshness to the way we approach them?
Idleman: I think there is an inherent danger in feeling as if it needs too much help from us. You know, as in, “Well, that story’s been told so many times I think God’s Word needs some creativity on my part.” So I think we want to approach it, understanding there’s a reason it’s been taught so many times, and the simplicity of the message is nothing to be ashamed of; that’s in some ways the beauty of it.
On the other hand, I think we continually need to find a bridge for people to cross over to it that might look a little different for them. For example, when I was preaching this parable, we spent a lot more time in church focusing on the older brother in the story. When I preached this message last week in a prison, I spent a lot more time on the younger brother; of course, what every congregation and audience have in common is the need for grace from our loving Father.
I think the beauty of the parable is consistent with any audience, but the bridge we build to it can depend on who we are speaking to. I’m getting ready to preach this message at a seminary next week. Again, the focus probably will have a stronger emphasis on the Pharisees who were in the audience and the older brother.
Preaching: You mentioned this book emerged from a sermon series, and I’m guessing most of your books grow out of your preaching ministry. How do you go about the process of adapting from the preached message to the written book?
Idleman: I find that in my sermon series I’m not always a good predictor of what God is going to use most dynamically. In fact, I’ve been dead wrong many times, so there’s nothing [comparable to] being able, through preaching, to see how God uses His Word in some unpredictable or unexpected ways to connect to people’s lives. That’s such a benefit as a writer. I know because I’ve already seen what God does with a message. I’ve already witnessed how the Spirit connects this to people’s lives.
When I sit down to write, it’s not just something that evolves from the sermon; I’m now writing from the perspective of having seen the power of it. That gives me so many more illustrations and examples—real-life stories from preaching to include in the book: Here’s how this impacted the person in my church, and so on. I think by preaching it first, you get it into your heart; then it inspires you because you start to see how God uses it in people’s lives.
Preaching: You and Dave Stone are basically a preaching team at Southeast Christian Church, but that’s a unique situation compared to most churches. How do you go about planning your preaching together?
Idleman: It is a little bit different. We each preach about half the time. We do our own series. He might do a three or four-week series, I might do a three or four-week series. Sometimes we do a series together, but we’ve been doing this together for a little while, so we have a sense—if I’m putting together a series that we’re both going to be included on, I know what he’s going to be most passionate to preach about, and he knows what I’m going to be most passionate to preach about—so we’ll divide it up based on areas we’re especially passionate about.
Honestly, more often than not, we lay out the calendar and say, “OK, here’s who’s preaching when.” Then we put the series together, and whatever text or topic you land on is what you get. I think that’s healthy. It’s been good for the church in so many ways. It keeps the church from being personality-driven. It allows it to have a different voice. One of the beautiful things is that we’re very different, and people don’t compare what’s different, but what is similar; so it tends to be very unifying. It is unique, and it’s good to be a part of that here.
Preaching: Tell me about your preparation process as you move toward Sunday—how does it look as you prepare a message?
Idleman: For me, this has transitioned through the years. I used to spend a long time writing my sermons, and now I don’t spend too long writing. I spend maybe three or four hours writing one. I spend a lot more time studying, praying it through, letting it marinate; then I try to sit down in an afternoon, typically on Thursday, and lay out the whole thing.
I’ve learned through the years, if I can really meditate on it and study without feeling the pressure to start writing, it’s much more of a joy when it comes out of the overflow of my heart. I don’t know who first talked about this, but just the idea that what God does through you, He does in you first. That rings so true for me as a preacher—that if I really will be intentional to let God’s Word in my heart and let Him work some things in me—then what He does through me is much more impactful.
I could point to sermons and series in which I’ve tried to let God do something through me when I haven’t first surrendered something in me, and it doesn’t work. It’s exhausting, frustrating, and I don’t think it has the same impact. So I try to spend a lot more time these days in the meditation of Scripture and praying through it before writing. I’ve also found the mind-mapping apps (as a preacher) to be useful, to think about a sermon more organically instead of in a linear fashion. So I’ve tried to utilize some of those tools to keep it fresh.
Preaching: When you actually go in to preach, do you use notes or go without notes?
Idleman: I used to go without notes completely, and then a couple years ago I started preaching from an iPad. I’m not messing with paper, but I can keep quotes or a certain transition I want to make sure I get right. I can keep that stuff there in front of me, but I don’t feel as if I have to keep track of “OK, which page am I on?” because I’m not looking at it frequently. I typically preach from an iPad and reference it from time to time.
Preaching: What do you enjoy most about preaching?
Idleman: I guess some of it depends on what I’m preaching through, because sometimes the study is such a discovery journey and I love the preparation. Other times, I feel as if I know it well. It’s been something God’s really taught me through the years, and it doesn’t really require a lot of preparation. Nothing is better than being able to see how it impacts others’ lives the way God has used it to impact my own life.
However, I have to say my favorite part is being able to listen to stories after a sermon or series, whether it’s reading letters through social media or talking to a person and just seeing how God uses His Word to collide with somebody’s life at just the right time. I love that! You realize how little it has to do with you as the preacher, because God brings people in and He sets the table for them to be able to receive His Word at just the right time in their lives—then it’s this Aha! thing. That’s what gets me out of bed and what gets me excited.
Preaching: What do you find to be your greatest challenge as a preacher?
Idleman: I would say the continual challenge of approaching preaching not as my job or profession—or even as an art—but as the whole idea of a beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. I think the more you do that, the more routine you can find yourself in and then saying, “OK, this is how you do it. This is how you approach it.” For me, I think it’s continuing to make sure my heart is right.
Preaching: One last question, Kyle: If God appeared to you and said, “This Sunday is your last sermon,” what do you think you’d preach about?
Idleman: That’s a good question! I think most preachers can relate to this—whatever you’re preaching right now feels [as if it’s the favorite]…and often might be. We’re going verse-by-verse through