Preaching: Your book is Jesus Is_____. Do you think a lot of people in our culture today don’t know how to fill in that blank correctly?
Judah Smith: For sure. At times I’m probably that guy, but I think often our experiences that are somehow correlated or connected with Jesus end up shaping our perspective or paradigm of Him. Obviously Scripture is there really to give us a much more accurate and clear description and picture of who Jesus is and ultimately of who God is, but I’m sure sometimes His representatives maybe have inaccurately filled in the blank of who, in fact, He really is.
Preaching: How do you fill in that blank? If you were to have a moment with somebody to explain who Jesus is, what would you tell the person?
Smith: Well, I would have to start with God. That kind of shapes everything about what I believe about Jesus—that He is, in fact, God—God incarnate and God on display. Going on from there, He is love. Jesus is love. Jesus is grace. These are things that often are misunderstood about Jesus. We know Jesus was kind and Jesus was nice. Some say He was a prophet—and He was—but the essence of who Jesus is…John 1 teaches us He was full of grace and truth.
He was the personification and the embodiment of grace and truth; and it says from His fullness, His essence, from the center of the core of who He is, we receive grace upon grace, in the Greek language. It’s grace without end—unending, unconditional, illogical grace. He doesn’t just give it. He is it. He is the personification—and grace is much more than a principle—grace is a Person and His name is Jesus.
Preaching: Your book obviously puts a really strong emphasis on the grace of God and the need to center our thoughts on Jesus. One of the comments you make is, “The point isn’t to quit thinking about sin; it’s to quit thinking about self and think about Jesus.” Why do you think so many people, including believers, really struggle with that issue of letting go of their own actions and trusting in His grace?
Smith: Well, because I think it’s counterintuitive to our human nature. I think it’s illogical, as well. Logic teaches us that to address something you’ve got to hit it head-on; and of course, you know, that is part of our default. We want to deal with what we see of something rather than the root of the issue. The grace of God and the good news of the gospel deal with the root issue. Sin is the result, but the root issue is self.
The root issue is that we, within ourselves, are in error. We don’t need improvement. We don’t need to be remodeled or renovated. We need to die and be resurrected and completely transformed. We need a total and complete transformation. That is why the gospel that is Christianity, the message of Christ, is unique and is unlike any other belief system in the world. We don’t preach self-improvement. Our message is not one of addition or accessory; it’s one of total death to self and resurrection and new life through the power of the grace of God and the love of God, and the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. So it’s unique that way.
Of course, it’s difficult; we accept that and then we go about living it out. We go about living it out in self-improvement and bettering ourselves. For instance, we go at self-control. We think, “I need to be more self-controlled, so I’m going to focus on self-control; I’m going to obsess about self-control; I’m going to think on self-control, read about self-control,” when the reason we have no self-control is because we’re not like Jesus. We haven’t allowed the power of Jesus to transform us, and the key to being self-controlled is not focusing on being self-controlled, but focusing on the personification of self-control, which is Jesus.
The Bible teaches the fruits of the Spirit, but they’re not called the fruits of discipline or the fruits of devotion. They’re called the fruits of the Spirit. It’s the Spirit of Jesus, the power of Jesus, the Person of Jesus that enables us to look, live and be like Jesus.
Preaching: Did this book grow out of a sermon series, or did you do a sermon series related to it?
Smith: A little bit of both. It really grew out of this desire for our local church and local community to get Jesus on the minds of Seattleites. Seattle is still one of the more unchurched regions in our country, and we really wanted to get Seattleites thinking about Jesus. So I had this brilliant idea: Let’s do this campaign called “Jesus Loves Seattle.” A couple of our creative team members were like, “Nah. What if we left a blank to start a conversation?” And I was like, “That’s genius!”
So it started off very simple, very organic. No master plan. Let’s do some bumper [stickers] and maybe get crazy and do a couple of billboards with this blank just to engage people. Originally there was no signage about what church it was affiliated with; it was just this website where we wanted to start a conversation. It started to pick up momentum, and I started to preach [about] it at our church, just filling in the blank from Scripture, and it took on a life of its own. Before we knew it, it was, “Maybe we should put this in writing and really give people a shot at reading the written page.” It’s certainly helped more people than I could have imagined.
Preaching: Do you primarily preach in series?
Smith: Yeah, I do. I will admit some of them are spontaneous series. A few weeks ago, I did a little message on enjoying God and then I was like, “You know? I’m going to do that again next week. Enjoying God Part 2 and Part 3,” and we just finished a four-part series on enjoying God that I hadn’t really master-planned or architected. It’s just kind of how I felt the Lord was directing me.
Preaching: If we were to visit a service at City Church, what could we expect to see? What would it be like?
Smith: Pretty basic. I think nobody there would be impressed, that’s for sure. It’s pretty simple. I’m not sure what basic and simple mean anymore. There [are] so many different styles and expressions, which is so exciting, but you probably would notice the definitive awareness of people who don’t know church and don’t know Christian language and don’t know the concepts of the Bible. That’s pretty indicative of where we’ve been called to be missionaries, which is Seattle.
You’re dealing with a very post-Christian era and culture, and so we’re very careful. I talked about the Covenant this weekend—old Covenant, new Covenant—and I talk about Covenant as a way of relating. The old Covenant, I talked about how there’s an Old Testament and a New Testament, just not assuming people understand.
I don’t get up and say, “You all know
I’ll get up and say, “For the next 35 minutes, I’m going to talk from the Bible. It should be reasonably painless. We believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. We’re a Christian community,” and so on. The whole thing is, “Hey, in 35 minutes, whether I agree with this guy…or hate this…it’s not going to be a never-ending sermon.” I think it puts people at ease, and their defenses drop; hopefully it makes it a little bit easier to hear the good news about Jesus.
Preaching: Is 35 minutes a pretty typical sermon length for you?
Smith: I must admit I think I probably lie half the time. This week was 37 minutes, and that’s a modern miracle because we usually end up being about 44 to 46 minutes.
Preaching: Do you have a particular approach to preaching—a style or philosophy?
Smith: A lot of trial and error. I preached my first week of revival meetings—I’m obviously from kind of a Pentecostal Charismatic background, maybe a BaptiCostal, because I definitely was raised with a strong emphasis on Scripture and all that—but I preached my first week of revival meetings at 16 years old. I’m not sure what I said for six, seven nights in a row. I’m sure it was horrible. So my roots are Pentecostal Charismatic.
I recently was speaking at Saddleback Church, and a sweet lady was greeting people afterward, and she said, “I didn’t know why you were yelling at us the whole time.” I said, “I’m so sorry,” and she was like, “No, it was good. I enjoyed it. I’d just never seen anybody yell like that.” So my style is a little bit more like that.
I have eight steps that I follow in every sermon. For me, preaching is kind of this emotional journey that I take people on. I try not to have any notes. I’ll take notes with me, but I’ll try not to reference them so I’ve prepared myself to a point where I don’t need them. For me, looking down at my notes is a lot like a director saying, “Cut!” in the middle of a movie. I just lose a thought. I get easily distracted. So chalk it up to 12 years of youth ministry, but I really want to take people on a journey and walk them through a forest. For me, these eight steps are like markers, these little ribbons you’d hang on trees to ensure once you get into the forest you also can get out.
I think classically, with my style of preaching—more emotional, I kind of get really pumped about what I’m talking about—I can get people into this forest, this minutiae, and not know how to get out. That’s the weakness, I think, of my style of preaching: You get pumped, but you lose track, “OK, where are we going? What’s going on here? What was the point again?” So I have eight steps to every sermon, so when I get in the forest I can lead people out of the forest and kind of to a take-home, to a conclusion, and to a clear thesis and a message—one big idea.
I start off with a greeting, as simple as that may sound. It’s really basic, but a greeting is my chance to tell the audience that I’m a normal person. I’ll talk about the local sports or something that’s going on…I’m-just-normal-average-just-like-you greeting. It’s pretty important to me, connecting with people.
Then the reading: Call it tradition or whatever, but my dad always taught me—I’m a seventh generation preacher—he always taught me, “Son, just read the Bible first so that even if whatever you say after that is terrible, at least you read God’s Word.” So I’ll go straight away to reading the Scripture we’re going to be studying that particular weekend.
From there I’ll pray after the reading. Hopefully, I’ve already prayed before I got into the pulpit, but just acknowledging to the people that this is not a show. This is not just me sharing my knowledge; this is an interaction with God. This is His Word; His Holy Spirit is active and among us, and He’s going to help us encounter and experience Jesus.
So we’ll pray, and then I’ll go right into an introduction. I’m one of those guys, after 12 years in youth ministry, it’s [as if] I’ve got a short time to engage my audience or in many cases I’ll lose them. So it’s usually a personal illustration. Something kind of funny and humorous, and we’ll have fun with it.
From my introduction, I have a transition. A transition, I think, is one of the key ingredients in effective communication. OK, you have this great story; we’re all laughing. What in the world does that have to do with anything? Transitioning and connecting it to the big idea of the portion of Scripture that we’ve just read—that’s the transition.
I usually will write out word for word my introduction and transition—it’s that important to me to engage. Even if all of my content—the text and the theology, the essence, the thesis of the message is pithy, powerful and amazing—if I don’t give them the why or the engagement to get to that point, then it’s really pointless in a sense. I’m really careful about my introduction and transition to be clear in my heart.
Then I move into the text and really start unpacking what God wants to say in His Word and through His Word. Then from the text I have the conclusion, [which] is, obviously as has been said, “You say what you said.” If you can’t say your sermon in one sentence, you probably need to wait on it until you can. So just say what you’ve said.
Then the call is, “Here’s what we’re being called to, and here’s the call to action, the call to take home.” So I think those would be the eight steps I use.
Preaching: One last question: What is something you’ve learned about preaching that you’d love to be able to share with a young pastor who’s just starting?
Smith: When I started out early, I liked preaching more than I liked people. I think that was a scary place to be, and I’m embarrassed to admit that. I think as I’ve journeyed, I’ve fallen in love with people far more than preaching. I feel [as if] a man or a woman who has a gift to articulate God’s Word but coupled with that loves people even more than the gift to preach and communicate, is someone whom I think is going to be effective. Even if [he or she is] not effective instantaneously or immediately, it’s someone who will have longevity and sustainability because the people are on [his or her] heart.
You know, the picture of the Old Testament priests with the 12 tribes and the stones on their chest? What a great picture! A pastor or a preacher should be someone who always has the people on [his] heart! I think for me it’s like: Will people remember all of my illustrations or sermons? No, but I hope they remember the love of God, and I hope the message that was shared was shared from a heart of real care, concern and love for people. Maybe they won’t remember all the details, but hopefully they’ll remember there was a real sense of care, concern and compassion, a real sense of God’s love while the message was being communicated.
Through a process of time—and maybe at times hard seasons and difficult things—I’ve learned…I think trying to be as honest as I possibly can, I can honestly say I love people more than I love preaching. I really enjoy preaching; don’t get me wrong! There isn’t anything wrong with that. I really love doing it. It’s such a thrill, such an honor and such a privilege; but at the end of the day, I really love people.
I think it also keeps us preachers honest. It keeps us preaching messages that matter. We’re not answering questions that no one’s asking, because we’re about the people; we love the people; and we do life with real people. Our messages, they exist to help, serve and show people the beauty and majesty of Jesus.