Christianity began—and grew in its earliest centuries—as an urban movement. Today, American cities have become a new missionary outpost for the church. Recently, Preaching Exectuive Editor Michael Duduit sat down with pastors of three pastors in Houston, Texas, one of the nation’s largest cities, to talk about preaching in the city: Steve Wende, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church (and a Preaching contributing editor); Joe Ratliff, senior pastor of Brentwood Baptist Church; and John Morgan, senior pastor of Sagemont Baptist Church.
Steve Wende, First United Methodist Church
Preaching: You are right in the midst of downtown Houston; there must be many challenges a church such as this faces, being in the heart of the city. Of course, Houston as a city has gone through changes and development. What are some of the particular challenges you find in ministry and preaching in one of the largest cities in the country?
Wende: I thought I understood preaching and ministry pretty well, and then I moved to Houston. I moved from a large suburban situation to downtown, and I was humbled fast! So it’s easier for me to maybe point out the challenges and some of the things we’ve learned. We certainly haven’t solved all of the challenges by any standpoint.
Number one is traffic. If you are in a true downtown area, you have to assume the average congregant, if he or she drives, has to drive 30 minutes; and it is a serious drive. If they come during the day, during a weekday, it can turn into a 60- to 90-minute drive. So traffic suddenly becomes a major issue in terms of programming and ministry. Another challenge, of course, is parking.
You have two different congregations. One is downtown workers, and the other is Sunday worshipers. Many of the people who love you and come to weekday events go home on the weekend and don’t want to come back. So how do you connect with those people? If you think children and youth ministries are important, how do you do that? I have many friends who serve in congregations in which they think of themselves as downtown, and I tell them until you’re surrounded by skyscrapers and parking lots, and the traffic is bad enough to scare people, you don’t know what downtown is!
I’ve learned a lot about downtown congregations. I learned and have developed a lot of respect for downtown congregations because the flip side is that most of our denominations and independent churches have left downtown and gone out where the people are. I certainly understand that, but if we believe heaven is a crossroads place where a lot of different tribes, nationalities, ethnic groups and languages come together—and frankly it had better be that kind of place or all of us are preaching the wrong thing—but if we really believe that, theoretically our churches ought to reflect that.
Unless you like sitting in a church with somebody from River Oaks, which is a rich area, and somebody of the streets, unless you’re comfortable sitting next to someone from River Oaks and other people who don’t have a home at all, you’re not going to be comfortable with us. Thank God there are people who are comfortable with us.
Preaching: As you said, a lot of churches have abandoned downtown. Do you think the downtown church is worth fighting for?
Wende: Yes, but it is a fight, and you have to have a call from God. We’ve had several wonderful youth directors who couldn’t last because as hard as they’re working at First Church downtown, they can go to a suburban situation, or close to urban situation, and get four times as many kids for that much work. Most of us who go into ministry go into it to reach people, not to claim geography, so it’s easy to abandon geography for the sake of people.
The flip side, though, is that a downtown church gets a chance to raise high the cross of Christ in a place where a lot of people are influenced, and to send out ripples through a ministry that impacts more non-members than you ever could in a suburban situation.
Preaching: If you look at the first two or three centuries of the Christian church, it was predominantly an urban movement. The pagans were the rural people. Isn’t it interesting now that so many of our evangelical churches and denominations have abandoned that very urban movement where the church started?
Wende: I think there’s a movement back to the cities, and I think it’s long overdue. A lot of us who thought we were pretty good at preaching the gospel, we’ve had to learn new ways of thinking and new ways of being as we try to engage the urban environment. The younger generation is less tolerant of racism, less tolerant of avoidance of problems, and more eager to be a part of urban life; and frankly, less tolerant of traffic. It’s not there yet; we have not hit the tipping point. It’s still primarily deserted in the evening and on weekends, but it’s coming, and they say, “Give us another 10 years, and we’ll hit the tipping point; you’ll start having lots of people living downtown,” which changes a lot of dynamics. Then church becomes a much easier thing to do.
Having said that, it’s been helpful for me to remember the Bible starts in a garden and ends in a city. God’s ultimate vision for the end of creation is not the garden, but the new city of Jerusalem.
Preaching: You mentioned having such a diverse attendance in the church. What kinds of challenges does that create for you as a preacher, trying to communicate the gospel?
Wende: A lot. We meet with new members—my wife and I do—as I’m sure most pastors do; and we like to do little ice-breakers. We had a whole group of Vietnamese people join the church—wonderful people, very smart. I lost count of the Ph.D.s in the group. Our ice-breaker was, “Imagine you’re going to come back as an animal. What animal would you be and why?” I’ve done this with people for years. I never have offended as many people as deeply as I did in that one moment. They all just looked at me.
Now these are all strong Christians but the native Vietnamese religions, the pagan religions of the Vietnamese people, when you live a terrible life, as a way of cursing you, you come back as an animal. So to even mention that somebody might be an animal is an insult, and if they’re Christian, it’s insulting not only them, but you’re saying that you don’t really think they are Christian. I’m not quite sure about all the permutations, but all I know is, I shouldn’t have done it. So there you go!
You have to pick your situations. Some downtown churches are primarily missions, and we support some downtown missions, where most of your people are in healing or coming through addiction groups or things like that. We have some of those. The core of our church is educated. This is still a church with a good deal of life, a good deal of health, strength, and partly because of the preachers it’s had, it attracts a more educated congregation than you would think, and a more churched congregation, across racial lines. But there is an educational similarity. The difficulty for me is, as we attract more and more people who are working class and who do not have the education, how do you wrap it all together?
More to the point, there is the issue of trying to renew an older church. This was a much older congregation. When I came in, we didn’t have a cry room, we didn’t have much to do with the nursery. I mean it looked like snow out there, broken only by baldness on Sunday morning. I understood that, and they wanted young people to come in. The problem is, you’re going to do a sermon series on the family and you know 90 percent of your listeners have grandchildren who are grown. How do you preach to the young when you’ve got a primarily older congregation? So I think you have to find some ways to wrap it around.
The one thing I would say about urban congregations is that when I was in San Antonio, I preached longer and I played with them more, had more fun, and I would speak to different demographics in the congregation. Here, I still try to do that, but I don’t play much.
Actually, your magazine helped me with this. Years ago, when I first came, you did an interview with somebody who was bringing back a large downtown church somewhere in the South, and he said he’d discovered two things. One was they liked exegetical sermons, for whatever reason, so start with the Bible. Two, you don’t waste a minute of worship, because they have fought traffic, they’ve driven to get down there. Whether they realize it, they want you to use every minute of their time, because it’s not as if they drove down the street. So my sermons tend to be tighter and more compact than they were before.
Preaching: Tell me about your own approach to preaching. If we were to come on a typical Sunday morning, what might we hear?
Wende: I tend to do series, and I tend to balance exegetical preaching with topical. My own instinct is topical. I just love to take a subject and tear into it. Since I’ve been here, I’ve learned to do more and more exegetical.
In September, we’ll kick off a seven-part sermon series on the family, using some resources our staff has put together. In July, this is a worship series; we’ve worked on the worship services, we’ve worked on the sermons, and it’s going well. In the fall, it will be a true church series. Every class we’ll be studying, we’ll give them resources. We’ll give them resources at home, provide apps for people, do some things to strengthen marriages…So for seven or eight weeks, we’re going to do family. I mentioned all the snow hair in the church—we discovered we can make this work if we talk about grandchildren, and so we talk about getting resources to help your children with their children. Then we’ll shift and so something that has nothing to do with family, but has to do with singles.
Preaching: How far out do you plan? Do you have a process by which you plan for the year, or how does your planning process look?
Wende: I used to plan six months at a time, but as First Church got into renewal mode, we have gotten so busy that I would go more like a month to six weeks at a time, which I do not defend at all. That’s not good, because for most of us, it’s harder to plan what we’re going to preach than it is to preach on it. Tell me to preach on why Methodists don’t believe in infant damnation? I can do it. Give me a topic, and I think I and anyone listening to this can tear into it. If you give us a day, we can come up with something. However, I get amazingly insecure and ambivalent about what I should talk about; if I can think it through over a longer period of time, it’s much better.
I tend to think seasons. In the summer, my mind can work the fall through New Year’s, and then I start running out of gas. We’ve got a wonderful group of creative staff members, and they are committed to taking this church to the next level. So, I have committed to them to let them push me, and we planned out the fall. In September, [we met] for two days to plan out 2014; the plan can change, but we’ve got a plan. We are now moving into a new world with publicity, graphics, screens and all his stuff. I’m finding that if I can tell them what I’m going to do, they can make it shine. A preacher can burn the midnight oil every night, but if you want the service to reflect what you’re doing, it has to be much further out.
Preaching: If God sent an angel to you and said, “This Sunday is your last sermon,” what would you preach?
Wende: Thanks for the memories. These songwriters were tasked with coming up with a song, and it had to be a love song sung by Bob Hope to a woman, without ever mentioning the word love. So they came up with the song “Thanks for the Memory.” If you listen to the words, it’s a love song. That’s why he ended all his performances with it. He’d sing it to his audiences, singing his love to the people.
I have a plan for what I’d want to do this Sunday. We’re preaching from Revelation, and I might stay with that layout; but somewhere in there, I would say thank You to Jesus for His love for me; thank you to these people for their love and for putting up with this; and issue a plea to them to live in the security of that thanksgiving.
Joe Ratliff, Brentwood Baptist Church
Preaching: You are the pastor of a church in one of the largest cities in America, a city that’s had some explosive growth. I’m sure there are unique challenges to the whole environment. What are some things you have learned about preaching in a large city such as this?
Ratliff: I think it begins with three decades of watching this city grow. Diversity has become one of the glaring issues we have to deal with. The demography of the area we serve was predominantly an Anglo neighborhood. It changed in the ‘60s to a black neighborhood. Now more than 40 or 50 percent of the neighborhood—we’re talking about a 3-mile radius—is Hispanic. Suddenly, here we sit; our church has become a regional congregation. People come from all over. I doubt we have 200 people within a 5-mile radius who belong to this church.
So the community becomes a mission field. They show up here for all the programs, ministries and outreach, but not necessarily for worship. That’s one of the big challenges—how stuff is always in flux. So, we are in constant strategy planning, doing strategic stuff, trying to keep up, trying to be relevant.
The other issue is socio-economic class. Brentwood, when I first came here, was a very class-conscious church. There were about 500 people, more than half of whom were college-trained and skilled workers, that sort of thing, a real strong base. Now it’s much more of a mass church than a class church. I think demographics will defeat a preacher who does not recognize where he is, and that’s always changing. There’s nothing worse than preaching about something the people sitting there are not affected by, and therefore aren’t really interested in hearing.
Preaching: That’s an interesting issue—going from a church with primarily one socio-economic group to a church that cuts across multiple demographic groups. How does that complicate your preaching?
Ratliff: Well, it forces you to be conscious of the fact that everybody’s not at the same level. Though you may tend to approach things from a certain academic level, for the majority of the congregation you spend time trying to elaborate or elucidate and find yourself trying to explain more. I used to make a statement and keep going; now I’m a little more deliberate. So when you ask—and you have a lot of call-and-response in the black church—so when you ask, “Did you get that?” you have some of them looking at you like, “No, I didn’t get that,” You can tell by the looks on their faces, so you’re like, “OK, let me rewind, and let’s try it this way.”
We saw a lot of influx of people from New Orleans during the (Hurricane) Katrina period. At first, we were treating and dealing with them in terms of missions and outreach; but when they joined the church, it became a very interesting dynamic because we had some who were well-off in the church and some in the crowd who were ill-prepared, sometimes illiterate. So we ended up having to do an oral Sunday School class because there were people who couldn’t read. They were embarrassed. They didn’t come to Sunday School because they were afraid they were going to be asked to read.
Preaching: Beyond preaching, it sounds as if you’ve had to adapt some of your service models and some of the things you do as a church in service to the community.
Ratliff: Oh my goodness, yeah. We’ve always been a social justice-type church. That’s been our big deal. We joke about it: “Because we wouldn’t go into all the world, the Lord has brought the world to us.” We’re not talking about foreign missions; we’re talking about a domestic level. It has forced us to do that.
When I came here 33 years ago, I was young, and so were the folks who joined with me and stayed with me. Now we’re all old. There weren’t 30 people in this whole congregation older than 60 in 1980.Now that number has increased; so the Senior Ministry is one of our go-to groups. They’ve retired, got their money, and they’re doing their thing.
Then with the economic programming, we do a lot. We have a credit union teaching people how to save; it has no checking component. We’ve got a million dollars in assets out there right now, but we’re just trying to teach children and adults how to save and invest. We use the Dave Ramsey classes. We use all these different economic programs to teach people. For us, that seems to be the last frontier, the economic maturity of the congregation. So we can preach tithing all day, but 10 percent of nothing is nothing. So you want folks to begin to understand what stewardship is, but also what money management means.
Preaching: Tell me a little bit about your own approach to preaching. If we were to come on a typical Sunday, what might we find?
Ratliff: I take very seriously text-driven sermons. I think there’s nothing worse than a preacher not treating that text. Sometimes preachers treat the text as if it has AIDS or something. I mean they read it, announce it, and then you hear no more about anything. I’m very critical of that, so I’m always a lot more committed to that text. What is that text saying to us today on whatever the subject is? So I promise that, at least in that part, it’s definitely going to be text-driven, always.
Preaching: How does your week look as you move toward Sunday morning in terms of your preparation process?
Ratliff: First, I pick the subject and text, and then I begin to let it marinate. I study it. I love looking at all the different translations of that particular text. I love trying to find nuances and different things you can hold onto. Then by Wednesday, I start outlining it and putting it in some sort of form that would make sense for me to be able to translate to the people. By Thursday, I leave it alone and revisit it again by Friday. So Saturday’s just, “Let’s pray about it and be ready to stand on Sunday morning.”
Preaching: You came to this particular church in 1980, and it was a church of 500. It’s now about 7,000, so you’ve seen a lot of change. The church has changed. The community has changed. How has your preaching changed during those 33 years?
Ratliff: I expect it’s probably much more emotive now than it was in my very early years. I came here from Morehouse College. I taught at Morehouse for five years, so I came with the academic approach. The congregation, at the time, that was what they were looking for. They narrowed it down to two candidates, and one of the requirements they had was a doctorate. They never really did find out whether I was saved or had done this sort of preaching before, but I had a doctorate so I beat out the other guy.
So for sure, it’s probably much more emotive, much more personal, and probably more transparent in terms of sharing whatever that illustration is than it was in my early years here.
Preaching: As you look back on that moment, 40 years ago, when you first started preaching, if you could go back and talk to young Joe Ratliff when he was just starting out and tell him something you’ve learned through the years about preaching, what would you say?
Ratliff: I think I would say to myself that people really don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I was much more likely to approach kind of mechanically. I would tell that Joe not just to love preaching and pastoring, but love people. That fuels you’re preaching in my thinking now as I look back.
John Morgan, Sagemont Baptist Church
Preaching: In the 47 years you’ve been pastoring this church in the city of Houston, how has the city changed around you, and how has your ministry to this city changed through those years?
Morgan: I was born in Pasadena, Texas (a Houston suburb), and there was not a black person who lived in the city of Pasadena—and very few Hispanics. I graduated from a high school class of 500 students, and there was one Hispanic. Now, the Pasadena school I graduated from is 90 to 92 percent Hispanic, and in this part of Houston we are fortunate enough to have people here from all over the world.
Where we’re sitting right now, on this big freeway, was a rice field in 1966. I used to come out here and go duck hunting, goose hunting; nobody lived out here but ducks and geese. God has brought the world to Houston; the world has come to our doorstep.
Preaching: How has that impacted your church through the years? You started as a mission, if I recall, from First Baptist Pasadena and now have more than 18,000 members. On your website, you tell the Sagemont story, which is a wonderful way to introduce the church. What kinds of changes have you seen through the years as the church has developed and responded to a changing city?
Morgan: You’re very fortunate when you start your own church because you can make your own mistakes. A lot of times when you move to a new church, you inherit the mistakes that were made before you got there, and sometimes it takes years to overcome them.
When we began, we said several things are going to be basic. Number one, the Bible is the Word of God. It’s not up for a debate. It is inspired, inerrant, infallible, whatever word you want to use. God says it, that settles it. One time I said, “If God says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” I learned that whether I believe it, that settles it. If I believe it, good things can happen. However, we said God’s Word would be our sole source of authority.
Number two, we said we will move in one accord. This church never has had an ugly word spoken, in any forum, since its inception. Not a deacon’s meeting, not a church conference. We move in one accord; we trust each other. That’s what we said. If I give you the authority to do something, you’ve got the authority.
We’re sitting here in this beautiful building, and nine people who sat on the visionary team made every decision as to how this building was constructed, how it was designed, change orders, everything. Because we feel that if we all have the same information, we’ll come to the same conclusion. What happens in church is people are guilty of partial information: “Well somebody told me…” “Well that’s your problem, but here’s the truth.”
So as we grew, we stayed in one accord. We believed the Bible. We stayed in one accord, and one of our core values is: Everybody matters. When you’re together in the Word of God, and everybody’s doing something, and everybody matters, and leadership is going to be given the freedom to lead, and the pastor’s not going to override every decision they make, good things start happening.
Preaching: I can only imagine as pastors across America are listening to this right now, they’re thinking, “No fights? Can I come? Can I be a part of that?” One of the distinguishing elements of this church is its strong emphasis on evangelism. What are some of the things you do in terms of reaching people?
Morgan: First, our mission statement is: “We’re to be living proof of a loving God to a watching world.” Everybody’s heard all the different kinds of preachers, all the different kinds of music; but they’re not sure if they’ve ever seen a Christian. If so, how does a Christ look? So we have tried to be living proof of a loving God because the world is watching. So we’re out in the streets.
For instance, the third ward in Houston is the roughest part of our city. The drugs flow; everyone knows that, including the people who live there. Our young people, three years ago, instead of going skiing or to the beach for their summer camp, made a decision to go to the third ward and spend a week there with those people and love on them. Houston Baptist University let us use its dormitories to stay, and we’d have worship services at night and bring some of the people they were meeting in the third ward to those worship services.
The next year, the students voted unanimously to go back there again. The people in the third ward said, “We’ve never had anybody come back here twice.” This year, they voted for the third time to go back to the third ward. The people in the third ward cannot believe it, and that’s one reason Houston honored us with a Business of the Year Award. The point is to try and get out where the people are, give a word, a look and a touch, and see what God does with that.
So once there is that contact and they come in, then it’s, “What is the message going to be?” I do not try to be a theologian in the pulpit. I have gone through all my training, the seminary, Southwestern graduate, all of that, but I try to keep the congregation in mind. My congregation—they don’t know what seraphim or cherubim are or Shadrach, Meshach or No Shack—you know? All they know is they’re about to self-destruct. Jesus always seemed to speak so people could understand, and He never tried to impress them with His oratorical ability. He impressed them with the fact that, “He knows what I’m thinking. He knows what I’m doing…but He still loves me. He knows I’m a prostitute, but He has a message for me. He knows I’m a tax collector, but He’s going to come home with me.” So in trying to get the message out of evangelism, that’s the whole heart of our church. Everything we do, we want to ask the Lord, “Is anyone going to come to the Lord because we did this?”
Preaching: What might we see if we were to come and visit on a typical Sunday?
Morgan: When it comes to the preaching, I try to communicate. There’s a teaching ministry, and there’s preaching or proclamation. What I want to do is communicate a message. I can be totally accurate, theologically sound and articulately a scholar, but they’re walking out thinking, “I don’t know what he said. It’s one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard, but if you ask me on Tuesday what he said, I won’t know.”
I use a lot of illustrations—I try to use real-life illustrations. Last Sunday, I preached about how to reclaim your vision and dreams, and I used
I compared it when this building was built. This building cost $33 million and was paid for before we moved into it. The first gift that was made that impacted what God did was from a little boy. His name is Aiden, and he was 5 years old at the time. We were celebrating our 40th anniversary, and we were down at the George Brown Convention Center, so we could all get in one room at one time. This little boy’s daddy would give him 50 cents in nickels every Saturday night so he could give a nickel to Jesus the next day. The night before, they got down to pray at their bedside, and this little boy prayed, “Daddy, can I give all my nickels to Jesus tomorrow?” That Sunday, he gave all of his nickels.
I heard about it. I brought him up front during Wednesday night service and introduced him to the church and told his story. They applauded him, and I gave him $5 and said, “Aiden, God told you to give. God told me to give you $5. Now this $5 is more than 50 cents, but I want you to have this.” He looked up at his daddy and said, “Can I take this?” He said, “Sure.”
The next day, he told his mama to take him to the dollar store, and he bought some cord to go around your neck, some little crosses and beads and started making jewelry. That little kid sold $50 the next week at $5 a necklace, and the next week he sold $210, and the third week he was out here in the foyer of the church and sold $3,000 worth of necklaces. That little kid gave more than $3,000 to help build this building. He made the first sacrificial gift to help build this building. God took his little heart, and look at what He has done. He spoke to me and everybody here. God had spoken to him the night before. He wasn’t responding to my sermon. So with my preaching, I try to be relevant and real.
I was fortunate enough to know Dr. R.G. Lee when I was a little boy. He stayed in our home twice. I heard him tell my father, “L.D., put your cookies on the bottom shelf where everybody can understand them.” The NASA scientists can understand it if you put it down here, but if you put it up there because you’ve got this new word that you used by going to your thesaurus and you want the intellectuals to know you’ve got a new word in your vocabulary, that may bless you, but it doesn’t bless anybody else. When you can communicate with them, that’s what reaches men. These old bubbas, most of their words are four letters—and most of them aren’t the right kind—but when they can come in and see you can communicate with four-letter words and it not be profanity, they listen.
Preaching: How does your week look as you move from Monday to Sunday? What kind of process do you go through as you’re preparing?
Morgan: Just on the preaching part, I’m thinking all the time about where am I going. By Wednesday, I have it pretty crystallized. Thursday, I try to stay away from the office so I can put the pieces together. By Thursday night, I’m ready to start writing my outlines. I don’t preach from a manuscript, but I preach from an outline with some meat on it. Probably by about 3:30 on Friday afternoon, I really know where I’m going. By Saturday, I either relax, or I continue Friday’s work if I’m not comfortable. Sometimes I’ll go back and tear up some stuff and re-do it, bt I try not to get it in the can too quickly, or else the Word loses its fire in me.
It’s kind of like cooking steaks. If you start your coals too early, sometimes you’ll put the steak on and the fire goes out. I want to stay the course.
Preaching: You’ve been here for 47 years, and you’ve learned a lot. If God were to give you the privilege of having a moment to go back and give some advice to yourself as a beginning pastor, what would you go back and tell yourself?
Morgan: I would tell myself, I think, never, ever forget the greatest ministry you have is with your children and wife. I’m very fortunate my boys love the Lord. My son serves here on the staff for free; he’s a successful businessman. One of them has some very serious medical problems, but he’s very strong in the Lord. My marriage has been good, but I feel many times that I failed always to put them first.
One thing I did right, for years every Thursday was Family Day at Sagemont. Family Day meant we had no meetings at church—no committee meetings, no Bible studies—that day was for family. I would take my kids to school; pick them up when they got out of school; we’d eat where they wanted to eat. They knew it, but to have more quality time with my family and let them know nobody—nobody—is more important than them.