?James Emery White is the founding pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., one of the nation’s fastest-growing congregations. Author of several books and former president of Gordon-Conwell Seminary, Jim is also one of the newest members of the Preaching Board of Contributing Editors. He recently visited with executive editor Michael Duduit.
?Preaching: Jim, you write a newsletter called “Serious Times,” and that was also the title of one of your earliest books. Are we in serious times?
White: I think that we are in the sense that the church across the global landscape is in retreat, in isolation or is being persecuted. I also think that just contending for the gospel-contending for Christian truth right now in our culture-is finding hard going, and it’s going to take more innovation, more creativity. It’s going to take more boldness. It’s going to take an awful lot for us to be a voice that’s heard, not marginalized.
So I think these are very, very serious times. The most fundamental dynamics of the Christian message are bumping up against so many things at war against it in the culture that will seek to isolate it, persecute it, marginalize it or just trivialize it.
Preaching: Faith and culture is a topic you do a lot of thinking and writing about. How do you view the relationship of preaching
White: First I think it helps to define culture. The simplest definition I know of is: “Culture is the world into which you were born and the world that was born in you.” It is our matrix. It is the air we breathe. It is television, music, drama, what’s on AOL-everything that’s swimming around us; and it is largely self-created. It is that which we have made.
Now when you consider that culture is essentially our context, then you realize that preaching should always be addressing
culture. So I don’t think it’s a unique sermon series. I don’t think there should ever be a talk-there can’t be a talk that’s effective-that’s going to ignore the context of the listener, the world of that listener. So you can start isolating certain aspects of culture-a popular song, a book Oprah produces or highlights, a hot film, a Supreme Court, a newly elected candidate-you can talk about aspects and focus in on them. But in many ways, that could force you to miss the larger currents that are present in the lives of the people you’re talking to, regardless of your topic.
So I think there are two dynamics here for a communicator. One, you need to be in tune with the large currents of our culture that are present in everybody’s life and thinking. There are certain things that I know are present in the people I talk to. They don’t believe in truth. They’re pretty dubious about the Scripture. Tolerance is the ultimate virtue. Science reigns supreme for factual truth. And everything I just said is true of Christians, too. This first set of things I have to be mindful of no matter what I’m talking about. It’s just our playing field.
Then I also have culture-specific events that demand that I speak to directly-specific things that I may stop the presses and speak to directly that are happening in our culture. We talked about the recent elections. Oprah’s promotion of Eckhart Tolle, particularly with her online school that made it even more influential. Maybe Tom Cruise and Scientology when that got to be hot. There are certain things that happen within culture that you say, “OK, we’ve got to talk about this.” Sometimes it’s just events, like, how do you have faith in a financial meltdown?
Karl Barth is the one who said the effective communicator is someone who has the Bible in one hand and today’s newspaper in the other. And that’s true. You can’t walk up there and talk and ignore the world that these people have experienced the last six days, 24 hours a day, or else you’re going to be seen as wildly irrelevant-even worse, the gospel will be irrelevant.
Well, the message of the Bible is not irrelevant. It’s only irrelevant if we make it so. And so I think that one of the tasks of a communicator is bringing that to bear on the culture in which we live and the events of that culture. That’s not it solely, but you’ve got to have that be keenly felt as you are thinking through your menu of things you are seeking and asking the Holy Spirit to help you put together 52 weeks a year.
Preaching: Some pastors have the sense that being culturally relevant means doing a series of sermons based around pop song lyrics or that kind of thing. But it’s really more translating the Scripture into culturally relevant terms.
White: The most culturally relevant series you can do is the Ten Commandments. The most culturally relevant series you can do is walking verse-by-verse through the Sermon on the Mount. Cultural relevance is bringing Scripture to bear in all of its fullness on people’s lives.
I think that sometimes we actually trivialize what it means to be culturally relevant-and end up trivializing Scripture to boot-by making cultural relevance nothing more than just finding nice pop angles, playing off of a television series name or lyrics of a song or the hottest movies. I think there’s a place for that; I’ve certainly done some of that. But to make that what it means to be culturally relevant-and you feel like that’s got to be the steady diet-is, to me, an extremely truncated, superficial and almost juvenile understanding of what it means to understand culture and speak into it.
So when I look back at some of the series that have connected most, it might be an eight-week series just exploring the character of God. Or it could be a series on what it means to live with your sin in relation to God, which is perplexing to people. Is there a place for a series on the five hottest summer films and then you chase their spiritual themes, weave Scripture in there, and help people apply it to their lives? Sure. But if you think that’s all that it means, you’re really missing what’s going to bring ultimate life change for these people.
Which brings up something else. When you’re planning your preaching menu, you need to have a combination of what I call “vertical and horizontal series.” A horizontal series is one that’s meeting felt needs-relationships, parenting, that kind of thing. A vertical series might be on the atonement, the identity of Jesus, the character of God. What I have found is that you can hook people with the horizontal series, but they get saved on the vertical. And you’ve got to have a steady diet of both and know when to do them and have that sense of: “OK, we’ve done a couple of horizontal. We really need a vertical.” Or, “We’ve been doing a lot of vertical. We might need to do a horizontal.”
When I’ve talked about that with other pastors at various conferences, I just see light bulbs go off. It makes sense to them, and it helps them look at their menu and plot it accordingly. And I think that what tends to work the best is when you can pull them both off simultaneously. I think that’s when you’re really reading culture-when you are able to bring about the horizontal and the vertical together in a single series and in a single way of exploring a topic. That’s transformational.
Preaching: Obviously yours is what people would call a “contemporary church.”
White: Off the charts and on steroids! (laughter) It’s true.
Preaching: One of the caricatures of contemporary churches is the misconception that such churches aren’t biblical in their preaching.
White: I know. And they don’t do discipleship. If you’re evangelistic you can’t be doing discipleship. Or if you’re contemporary you’re obviously throwing out orthodoxy in order to get warm bodies or you’re not being biblical in your preaching or, you know, you’re not doing exposition. And on and on it goes. I’ve heard it all, and it just ticks me off.
Actually some of the best topical series are indeed biblical exposition. Just because it’s topical doesn’t mean you’re not doing the Bible. You’re just packaging what the Bible has to say on that particular topic. There’s a word for that. It’s called theology. And so if you’re really doing it right, you’re pulling together everything there is on this particular subject and presenting the full counsel of God.
I think you can do verse-by-verse through Romans for 25 weeks and be superficial and not be biblical, either because you didn’t do the exegesis right or you didn’t help people apply it or whatever. It’s a question of: are you indeed helping people understand the Scriptures, understand what God would have to say to them about their lives and in a way that they’re applying it, in a way that they’re becoming more like Jesus? The goal is not head knowledge.
You and I right now could never crack another book, never read, never have another scriptural study and spend the rest of our lives trying to act on what we already know and not achieve it. The goal is helping people take knowledge, new or old, and then let it be transformational in their lives. Don’t tell me one more thing about what I need to know. Tell me how I can become more like Jesus.
That’s one of the things hurting the evangelical church today. I’m certainly not the first to say it, but it’s that pivotal question: Are people more like Jesus now than they were a year ago? Well, if they’re not then something’s wrong. Being biblical at its best in both message, content and church means people becoming more like Jesus.
Preaching: I remember Rick Warren commenting on the idea of preaching being to give people Bible knowledge. He said, “Some of the people I know who are the meanest cusses around know the most about the Bible! But somehow it doesn’t change their lives.”
White: Let’s go ahead and say a few names here. I think I know that person!
Preaching: It’s been 15 years since you founded this church, and you’ve learned a lot about leadership over the years. How do you see preaching as a tool of leadership?
White: The most powerful tool in a church leader’s arsenal is the podium, the pulpit. We say: “Here’s your preaching class,” then, “Here’s your leadership class.” Wait a minute. They ought to be the same in some ways because that’s the way you lead a church most effectively-largely through teaching and through vision casting, through upholding values.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s a management level to that. And there’s an administrative dynamic to that. And there’s a leadership level one on one with staff and so forth. But when I am able to most optimally and most influentially lead this church is when I get up there and address the church, when I speak to it.
That’s why we have-once or twice a year-what we call “A Vision Night” where it’s 100 percent pure leadership vision casting. But it’s woven through a lot of series and a lot of talks-upholding a value, upholding a particular way of living, addressing a particular issue. It’s leadership all the way through.
A lot of people who are struggling with leading their churches or helping their churches take a kingdom hill-maybe giving is down or serving is down-I’ll say, “Well, tell me what you’re doing in terms of teaching in that area.”
“What do you mean?”
And I say, “Man, if my giving was down, it would be time for a six-week stewardship series, or five weeks on what it means to be a servant if I felt like volunteers were low.”
In other words, the way you address that is through leadership, and the quickest way to address it from a leadership perspective is to teach and communicate and vision cast and speak to it directly.
There’s a whole bunch of stuff that accompanies it. I’ll just use money as an example. We did a six-week series this year in January and February on money. I didn’t do a single talk on tithing, but giving was woven all the way through it as well as a
biblical model-something we called the Ten/Ten/Eighty Plan. So it was talked about, but it was never direct. We talked about
getting out of debt. We talked about saving. We talked about a whole bunch of stuff. Our giving increased by 30 to 40 percent almost instantly just through that one series. So I spent six weeks on it, leading the church through teaching. Now, concurrent with that we had Crown Financial groups started. We had debt seminars on Saturdays. The small groups were going through these things. We led the church to marshal all of its resources that fed off the series.
There are certain series I have to do close to annually as a leader. Stewardship, serving, inviting your unchurched friends-building relationships and inviting your unchurched friends. When I’m doing my annual planning, those three things are non-negotiable because left to ourselves, we won’t do any of those. The natural flow of the depraved church-and every church is depraved-is to turn inward, to be greedy, to isolate yourself from the unchurched and hide out in your holy huddle and your Christian clique, to lose your hunger to take the next Kingdom hill and to grow old. As a leader, I have to be on the warpath through a whole host of things, not the least of which is the language of leadership, to keep the church out of those ditches.
Preaching: What’s the hardest leadership challenge you’ve faced?
White: Self-leadership. Self-leadership is a hard one. The danger of ministry leadership is that people afford you an enormously high level of spirituality that you really didn’t learn. So those of us who are pastors or leaders are often treated like the fourth member of the Trinity. Truth of the matter is, they have no idea if I’ve had a quiet time of any significance in the last six weeks.
They have no idea what my prayer life is like. They have no idea what I’ve downloaded off the Internet in terms of pornography. They have no idea whether I treat my wife with dignity. They have no idea whether I’m in a good relationship or a bad relationship with my children. They have no idea. But I’m awarded this level of spirituality.
The danger of our role is that we could begin to believe our press reports and take other peoples’ perceived assessment of our spirituality as the truth of where we’re at and then begin to feast on it. That’s how so many good men end up in ditches, and everybody says, “Shock!” Well, no, they’ve been going that way a long time. They were like a cut flower. It was just a matter of time. Nobody’s going to own my spiritual life but me. So I have to own that. I‘ve got to be diligent on that. And it’s from that that I have the moral authority to then try to lead others.
Take Paul. I mean, what an audacious statement, but at the same time what a great gut check: “Follow me as I follow Christ.” And there was also a confidence in that. I’m going to be following Christ, which means you can follow me. So I think that’s a really hard one.
Preaching: You plan your preaching menu at least a year out, don’t you?
White: I do. I take an annual study break; and I do as much planning as I can, developing multiple series. Usually that’s good for the first six to seven months. And then it starts to get a little fuzzy and more audibles are called. But I certainly try to.
I look at a combination of vertical and horizontal. First of all, I develop all kinds of ideas and files on these ideas and series. So I might enter study break or use the study break to develop 15, 20, 30 different series, of which I know I can only do 8 or 10. Then I start looking at which ones are the best, and I also start looking at an appropriate menu of vertical and horizontal. And I know that we want regular decision weekends, where we’re inviting people to cross the line to faith and challenging
I also look at what are the kind of the non-negotiable leadership things that I have to address in any given year, whether it’s one stand-alone talk or a series, like money or serving or loving one another in an appropriate way. I also look at what’s happening in our world. Is there anything on the horizon? I mean, obviously when I was doing my planning last year I knew that we were going to be entering into an election like we hadn’t had in four years or eight years. So there are certain things that are like the gorilla in the room-to not talk about it would be scandalous.
So there’s all of that going on: I look at what series are the best? What’s happening in our culture? The vertical versus the
horizontal. The non-negotiable leadership issues that I need to do. And then I also ask, “Where is my church at?” A great discipline that I do is that at least once or twice a year at our midweek service we have what’s called “Dialogue Night.” (Our midweek services are just once a month, and they’re called “First Wednesdays.”) On those nights the entire event is where people can ask any question they want of me. They write their questions on cards. They’re turned in. I don’t see them on the front end. And they can ask any question they want spiritually. Those are some of the most popular services we do.
What’s interesting is that we’ll get hundreds and hundreds of these questions turned in. So we get this huge stack, and maybe we can go through 15 or 20 in the course of the night. The people who are going through the cards are trying to get them into basic topics so they can say, “Well, there are a lot of questions about this.” And they’ll ask me one question that might represent 40 cards or something. But I go back through later, and I read every single one of those. And it’s a goldmine because if I see that 300 people all asked this basic question-OK, I’m a little slow, but I think I can smell a series. I can pick up on that.
We just had one, and it already has definitely given me two series because there was an overwhelming amount of questions on these two topics from our people. And so we’ll do those and probably a third one, too, just because of the number of questions on these two or three topics. If pastors don’t have that kind of pipeline, I’d try to get something like it.
So all of those things I’ve mentioned go into annual planning. But then I always reserve the right to call audibles, and I do all the time because stuff just happens. When the stock market and everything really tanked, we immediately jettisoned everything and did a two-week series called “Faith in a Financial Free-Fall.” The ability to move quickly like that and respond-I always feel the freedom to do that. You’re responding.
Preaching: What are some of those hot-button issues that really concern people in your congregation now?
White: It’s interesting. One of the things that struck me with this last round was how confused and bewildered people are about sin. Can I sin to such a point that God stops forgiving me? What about a sin that I keep doing over and over again after I’ve come to Christ as my leader? What is the “unforgivable sin”? What does it mean when I grieve the Holy Spirit through this? Are there some sins worse than others? And most of it is struggling with post-conversion sin. In fact, this is actually going to be the topic of my next book because I don’t think there’s a lot about it out there. There’s a lot about sin as a topic but not about the spiritual dynamic of being a sinner.
You and I know Christ, and we are attempting to walk with Christ. You and I are also heinous sinners. And we’ve sinned multiple times today. What’s up with that? And what does that do with our relationship with God, and how does He feel about it? And what does it say about sanctification? How does it impact my prayer life and how God views me? Yeah, we all know not to go into cheap grace, but there’s a lot to be explored that’s very gritty. And it’s not often explored because we’re scared to really look our sin in the face. Someone once said, “I don’t know what is in the heart of a rascal, but I know what is in the heart of a good man. And it is a terrible thing to behold.” We don’t talk about that. So there are a lot of questions about that, and we’re going to do a series on that.
Preaching: What’s the thing you enjoy most about preaching?
White: Life change. When you can speak and you see marriages strengthened and families brought together and individuals become Christians, cross the line of faith. When you see light bulbs go off. When you see repentance. When you are able to impact a life-that is what I love most. I honestly can say that when the talk’s over, I just want to get off stage and crawl into a hole somewhere. I’m not one who just loves to sit around and glad-hand. I’m a little bit more of an introvert, but I love the life change. I love the life change.