(Ed Young is senior pastor of one of America’s largest and fastest-growing congregations, the Second Baptist Church of Houston, Texas. Located on a large, contemporary campus in suburban Houston — featured in a full-page illustration in USA Today — the church offers a model of reaching and involving young and median adults. Young is seen weekly on a nationally-televised program featuring the worship service at Second Baptist.)
Preaching: Your newest book — Been There, Done That, Now What? — deals with the increasing sense of life’s meaninglessness and the lack of value of life that seems so prevalent in American culture today. As you minister to your own congregation, do you find that to be a common attitude, particularly with baby boomers?
Young: Absolutely. With boomers and busters. I think that in different ways everyone is looking for meaning and they try many different channels. In reading the book of Ecclesiastes, I realized this was Solomon also: been there, done that, now what? Solomon wrote three books in the Bible: Song of Solomon — a romantic book, it’s filled with chemistry and love and great words that sizzle of his first love. Then he wrote Proverbs — a middle-aged man, successful. Been there, done that.
Then he reveals his inner heart and soul — perhaps his journal or his spiritual autobiography — and that’s the book of Ecclesiastes. The end result is that he looks back and says, “I have lived a life under the sun.” It was a life of emptiness, a life void of meaning. Solomon — who was the wealthiest person who ever lived and evidently one of the most brilliant individuals who has ever lived — gets to the end of his life, after he’s accomplished all that he’d accomplished, and he says it’s all empty, it’s all futility, it’s all vanity. And he says, “Now what, now what? What’s it all about, what did it mean?” He missed the meaning of life.
Preaching: Why do people feel that way today?
Young: I think they’re trying the same thing Solomon did. Many people are pursuing pleasure; they’re hedonists. A lot of people are pursuing materialism; they’re pursuing wealth. Someone just told me that one who is wealthy has one and only one advantage over those of us who are not wealthy. I asked, “What is it?” He replied, “They know wealth will not bring happiness.” I think people are trying the same things. There’s nothing new under the sun and Solomon lived an under-the-sun lifestyle. In doing so, he cut off the tie with God that he had early in his life.
No one else in history that I know of was told by God, “Name it and you can have it” — was given a blank check. Solomon asked for wisdom and God was so pleased that He gave him wisdom and honor and wealth. That’s the way God does, you know. When God’s pleased He gives us more than we ask for. But somewhere along the way with building the temple, Solomon — who I believe went through all the rituals of worship and all the paths of being a religious man, a God-fearing man — somewhere along the way he sold out to this world’s structure and this world’s system. We’ve seen that sell-out happen in America in our own lifetime.
Preaching: You’re pastor of a major church that has obviously experienced tremendous growth. What part has preaching played in the development of Second Baptist?
Young: I think preaching is vital, I really do. First of all, I think worship is vital and preaching is a part of worship. It’s where the family meets, where they give praise to God, where there is celebration, where there is testimony, where the Word of God is read, and where the Word of God is proclaimed. It’s a vital part of worship. It’s amazing to me how sometimes we can take the Bible and exegete it and teach it and preach it — and make it boring.
To me, good preaching involves a variety of approaches. I think all preaching, by definition, introduces people to Christ and must be biblical; but the approach has to be different so they don’t say “S.O.S.” (Same Old Stuff). The Bible is so relevant, and we can take that relevancy in God’s eternal Word and let the Holy Spirit work with it. Then preaching will be blessed by God, people will come to Christ, and the family will be nurtured.
Preaching: Tell me about your process of preparing to stand in the pulpit.
Young: I am usually around twelve months ahead in planning my preaching menu. I publish its titles and the Scriptures involved and we use them in hand-out brochures to our membership. I just preached through the book of Ecclesiastes after about eight or nine months in Sunday morning worship.
I work at titles a great deal. I think a title is so important. It has to be relevant and it has to be alive, but it also has to say what the subject really is. For example, I preached a miniseries on parenting from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day — a natural series for seven weeks. On Father’s Day I preached the last sermon. I preached on the father of the boy who was born blind and I talked about exceptional children — those who are handicapped. I went through the whole range of different kinds of handicaps that people have. I called them “Exceptional People in the Family.” The response was overwhelming.
I realized then that, when I had preached the Bible before I had talked about “here’s someone born blind, here’s someone who’s deaf, lame or whatever” and I jumped to the miracle. But we have to talk about those who live without a miracle. I dealt with that fact: that exceptional people living without a miracle are no less a miracle. I talked about different categories of exceptional people. I had the people stand and we prayed for those families. We thanked God for those exceptional people. It was a high moment of worship — a little different, but a high moment of worship.
I try to go through a book of the Bible verse by verse, and then I’ll drop back and do a series like the one on parenting. I’m looking at a series on marriage in the autumn. In the very near future, I’ll probably preach through Daniel, verse by verse.
I try to prepare well in advance. I get a bibliography — I’m book poor. Someone taught me a long time ago that you should spend as much money on books as you do on automobiles. In the first thirty years of my marriage I spent a lot on old automobiles — so I’ve spent a lot on books! I really try to work at what I do. I’m old-fashioned. I write out a manuscript for what I do; I don’t memorize it. I write it so it’s mine. When it comes time to publish a book, I can just take my manuscripts and let someone clean up the poor English and the repetitions and it’s ready to go, because I really work at that craft.
I preach without notes. If somebody asks, “What happens when you forget?” I say, “You keep talking until you remember — anybody knows that.”
Preaching: How do you prepare for that moment in the pulpit after you’ve written the manuscript?
Young: I used to practice some, though I rarely do that anymore; sometimes I will go over something. I get my outline and then I work on the transitional phrases. I spend a long time on the introduction and I spend a good while on the conclusion, then I begin to fill in the gaps. I’m now on Compuserve (a computer service), which is a wonderful help. I can find so many periodicals, modern speeches or press conferences, TV or radio programs which commented on any one particular area I’m dealing with. I’m wired into various libraries from which I can get bibliographical information or a thesis that was written. This has been a recent thing for me, and it’s opened up just a whole new world of information. The key to the process is discernment, plus taking all that information and saying it in a simple way.
For example, I think preaching needs to be void of much of the old religious terminology in order to meet those busters and those boomers. Instead of talking about salvation, I might use the word salvaged. When you salvage something, you restore it for the purpose for which it was made — that’s what salvaging is. That’s also what salvation is. The boomer understands that. We have geared the pulpit in our church to those who are not yet there. We feed and minister to our flock through Bible study and through other kinds of worship experiences, but primarily we have pitched the ministry of our church to the secular mind.
Therefore, Ecclesiastes is right over the plate. We’ve had more adults come to Christ — more people who’ve come from being agnostics and atheists — just because of the book of Ecclesiastes. It asks the question that the rest of the Bible answers. If you’re going to teach the Bible, begin with Ecclesiastes.
I worked all last summer just on titles before I began in September. Then I worked on my outlines. I had my bibliography. I got people who had really struggled with Ecclesiastes ahead of me, which has always been helpful. Then I sit down with the Scriptures. First of all, I try to do my own work: “What does this scripture say to me? Are there any pregnant words there?” Find those pregnant words and do a little word-study. Then I try to let the Scripture outline itself if that’s possible. God works in creative ways and different ways in preaching.
My process of preparation: I get my sermon, my title, a sense of God’s direction, then I write out manuscripts of that sermon and I preach without notes. I can just have an open Bible because I’ve crafted that through writing. I dictate it before I preach. My sermon’s typed before I preach, it’s typed after I preach, so I’ve got double manuscripts for anything that I’ve done. It helps us to edit for television as well. I’ll spend twenty hours a week on every sermon.
I’ll preach twice every Sunday morning to two different congregations. We have Sunday School at 8:30, 9:40, and 11:00. I’ve got back-to-back worship services in the middle, at 9:40 and 11:00. Then we have the Sunday evening service at 6:00. So I’ll preach generally twice a week. I’d like to preach once a week but our Sunday evening worship has been so strong that it’s hard to just do it once.
Preaching: You mentioned using different sermon styles. For example, when you preach Daniel you’ll take a verse-by-verse approach. What styles do you tend to use most frequently?
Young: The exegetical study is what I really enjoy but I think you have to use plenty of illustrations and stories, you have to use application.
There’s one problem I think many pastors have; I certainly have to grapple with it. I come from a rural Mississippi background, basically from a small town, and therefore I tend to tell stories about a cow or a horse or a field — old-fashioned stories that really don’t relate to this generation. So I’ve gotten into the computer-crunching mode. You have to work on your vocabulary and stay up-to-date. I know a lot of great preachers who have dated themselves by their application or lack of application. I try to take something that is contemporary — for example, in my Ecclesiastes series I did a thing on “What would Jesus say to me now?” What would Jesus say to Michael Jordan? What would Jesus say to whomever? People listen to that. We have to stay up on it.
Preaching: What particular challenges do you think preaching is facing in the 90’s?
Young: I think apologetic preaching has to be the mode if we’re going to get serious about reaching the secular person. I can stand up and say I believe this is what the Bible says — I believe it’s the inerrant, authoritative Word of God — but by the same token, there’ll be thousands of people out there in my congregation who don’t automatically share that view. For example, on any given Sunday we’ll have over a thousand people in one of our three worship services who are not Christians and not members of our church — that many will be there every Sunday. Now if these people are going to hear and are going to listen, a lot of them would say, “You know, I don’t know if I believe in God or not. I don’t know if the Bible is really true.” The purpose of preaching is to nurture and train the family of God — whose who are already Christians — but I think relevant preaching that is evangelistic is going to have to be apologetic. About 25 or 30 percent of the preaching I do in my pulpit is apologetic — for those who don’t believe.
You approach that in an entirely different way. For example, I’d say, “Do you believe there is evil in the world.” Here’s someone having trouble with God, for example. And they’d say, “Yeah, there’s evil in the world.”
I’d say, “Well, logically if there’s evil in the world, there’s also good. So you believe that there’s evil and there’s good?”
“Well, yes.”
“So, you believe there’s moral law in the world?”
“Yeah, if there’s good and evil, there’s moral law.”
“Well, do you believe there’s a moral law giver? Here’s an effect, it has to have a cause.”
“Yeah, there’s a moral law giver.”
All of a sudden they’ve bumped head-on into God! Particularly on great days like Christmas and Easter, when you have so many people who just come with family and friends, I take an apologetic approach. This approach is going to be relevant and alive and reaching people in the twenty-first century.
We have a marketplace ministry. We have a lot of support groups in my church for those who are HIV-positive. We call them the “Positive Christians.” Our support groups are for those who have AIDS, those who are cancer victims, those who’ve lost children, those who have terminal illnesses. We have twenty-five to thirty support groups in our church. You can come from any part of Houston and, when you walk in, there will be somebody who’ll say, “I’m ready to listen to you; I’m ready to love you.” We listen and help.
We’ve forgotten several things about the characteristics of Jesus. Get in an average church and ask, “Name all the characteristics of Jesus.” They’ll say He was lovely, He was kind. One thing they’ll often forget is He was a friend of sinners. We’ve forgotten that: how to be a friend to sinners. If you minister to people where they hurt, you don’t have to worry about a chance to introduce them to Christ; they’re going to ask you about coming to know Christ. They’ll want to go to church with you. But you can’t befriend them in some superficial way and “hang a scalp” on your wall. So, I think the church needs to be there to minister, to love and nurture, and when people come in they find what the world’s looking for: life!
We’ve seen almost 2,000 people a year, from all walks of life, make their way up the aisles of our church. Part of the genius of that is my church family, not me — I’m the teacher/pastor and we’ve got a wonderful team. Preaching is a part of that, but worship is where we begin. Look at all these ministries out there that are non-threatening. I hope we are always there with a cup of cold water or an activity that will make a difference.
A young Jewish lawyer in the largest law firm in Houston came to our electric light parade with his four-year-old son. We had a float, and the guy waved at him and the boy said, “Daddy, who’s that?” He said, “I think that’s Joseph.” “Who’s Joseph?” “I think he’s the father of Jesus.” “Who’s Jesus, Daddy?”
The little boy kept urging, “Daddy, let’s go back there where Joseph waved at me during that parade. Let’s go back there.” A parade, of all things! This young man and his wife have come to Christ and been saved in the last few months. It all started at Christmas when their little boy said “Joseph waved at me” and he began to ask questions.
Too many churches spend all their time, I’m afraid, looking at their own navels — high steeple, few people churches. In our church, our people minister to one another because we seek to call forth their spiritual gifts. I’m just exercising my gift to get out of the way and let God do what He wants to do.
Preaching: If you had the chance to counsel young preachers, what kind of counsel would you offer?
Young: When I was in college and God called me, an older pastor said, “If you ever decide to be a great preacher, all you have to do is walk on your knees.” That’s the best counsel I ever got. The highest calling is to be a Christian; and to those whom God singles out for a Christian vocation, I’d say, “Walk on your knees.” It’s the hardest work you do. You pray in secret but there’s no secret when you pray. You spend time with Him, and time with His Word.
My devotional time is sort of different. I was taught, “Keep your devotional life separate from your preaching life” — I do the very opposite. I want my devotional life to be directly tied to my preaching life so that when I stand up to exegete, to proclaim the truth, it’s already ministered to me.
Another thing I would advise a young preacher — besides daily quiet time — would be to spend time in genuine study. A lot of people with natural gifts can stand up and preach several good sermons, but you must read widely. It’s very important that you study exhaustively. I don’t believe you can name a set of commentaries I do not own. I’m not a scholar by any stretch of the imagination but when I deal with a text — to the extent of my ability with the tools that I have gotten from seminary — I exhaust that text. When you do that it lives; it comes alive for me, it is preached to me.
Remember, we’re in the people business. When God’s Word is honored, taught, proclaimed, then the Holy Spirit gives life — and people go where there’s life. I say that churches should be fun, churches should be exciting. I’m the least likely person on the planet to be in the ministry because as a young person church just bored me. I went through the motions. When I realized that God was working in my life and I answered His call on the campus of the University of Alabama, I said, “Lord, doing business with you is really exciting. Don’t ever let me get bored or let me get boring, or let it be routine.” And I’ve worked hard for that.
A final word of counsel: many great preachers have preached with notes and read them. Fosdick was a great communicator; John MacArthur, Chuck Swindoll are basically manuscript prachers. I contend that if you would take those same individuals and break them away from their notes and manuscripts, they would be so, so much better.
Also, I think you preach with your whole body; I think you preach with your eyes. I tell people to get away from the pulpit, except as a place to put your Bible. You need to be totally free. All three of my boys are basketball players. “To shoot free-shots,” I tell them, “you begin with the bottom of your feet.” Every good shooter shoots from the bottom of their feet. You also preach from the bottom of your feet; you don’t preach flat-footed. I think you have to have your whole body in it and you communicate with your body. It’s got to be natural or it can’t be effective.
Two of my sons are in the ministry; my younger son is probably on his way there — he’s still in college. When they took classes in speech, I said, “Don’t let them mess with your style, with who you are, with your pronunciation. Just be yourselves.” They’re very quiet speakers. I heard James Smart at Southern Seminary; when he spoke he would raise his voice into this little high-pitched thing so you listened to him. When I was in seminary at Southeastern, I heard George Buttrick speak, and Buttrick would pull on his earlobe; he did a lot of crazy things. Be yourself; that’s what I would say.

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About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

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