Randy Pope is the senior pastor of Perimeter Church in Duluth, Georgia. He is Chairman of the Board of Perimeter Ministries International, an organization he founded to plant churches and provide urban ministry to the under-resourced of Atlanta. Randy is a frequent speaker for Campus Outreach and Campus Crusade for Christ conferences, and served for ten years as chaplain for players on the ATP Tennis Tour. Preaching editor Michael Duduit recently visited with Randy.
Preaching: Your book, The Prevailing Church (Moody Press), has become an influential church growth resource for pastors and church leaders. Describe for me what a prevailing church is.
Pope: I use the term to speak to the cautious church. I grew up always afraid to take risks – call up ten people to make sure you know (what to do). Prevailing means it is a church that is actually winning. The prevailing team is a winning team – not just in the battle for winning souls but in the battle of changing the culture of the community where that church is placed – the church that is making a difference in that community whether it be in the social side of the community, the educational, the political.
The prevailing church is one in which you see the characteristics of a whole confession of Christ as being the son of the living God; they literally live out that confession in the shadows of the gates of Hades. The prevailing church is one that’s moving outward and then going beyond, taking on the battles for the souls of lost people. They’re doing what’s it take to get to you. And then ultimately they win the battle. That’s the prevailing church.
Preaching: You talk about the need for the church to be oriented externally vs. an internal orientation. Talk about where the focus of the church ought to be.
Pope: I think the church’s focus internally is very, very important but only to prepare us to be external. When we start thinking in terms of internal and not external focus, we become a very dangerous organization; it does more damage to the culture than it does good. Our goal is not to build communities in a church; we build missional communities. We’re here for each other but in order that we might reach out – to the needs of hurting people, of hungry people, seriously thirsting people – whatever the needs are.
Preaching: How do you lead a congregation toward that kind of focus on lost people as opposed to the situation in many churches – completely being focused on making sure my needs are met?
Pope: I haven’t found a pastor who’s honest who doesn’t have people who say that. I haven’t seen a church where everybody says “Oh, yeah. Lets go out.” They may say let’s go out – but by the way, don’t take away from my needs being met. It’s like the man who called me and said, “I’m shopping for churches. I live in another state and I want to live near my church when I go to Atlanta.” He goes, “Tell me a little bit about you’re church. I’ve understand your church is very committed to reaching lost people.” I said: I’m thrilled to hear that is reputation. We are. We’re very committed to that
He said, “I’m very glad to hear that but” – I knew that word was coming – “but will any of my needs or my family’s needs perhaps be neglected in the effort to reach lost people? Which was saying: I’m more concerned about me than I am about the lost. That is the nature of sinful man and outside a spiritual reorientation they’re not going to have that.
So one thing I do is stress that this is the passion of the church, and if you’re not willing to get on board with that passion then this is not a good place for you. As much as you like what we’re offering it really isn’t because you won’t like it at all. It will make you feel uncomfortable, Lord willing, that you would be sitting here for yourself instead of for others.
Preaching: Let’s talk about preaching in the prevailing church. What do you find is the role of your preaching ministry in bringing about and then nurturing that kind of missional atmosphere?
Pope: We talk about finding the most important elements of taking people through change. We use a little acronym – TEAMS – to help us understand it: Truth, Equipping, Accountability, Missions, Supplication. And preaching is very important part of the ‘T’ – it does a lot with truth and it lays the foundation weekly as God’s method to do that. God ordained the preaching of the Word. That’s the highest priority we have in terms of the truth element. There are lots of different ways that people want to gain truth besides just hearing preaching but they need to be under the exehortation and the teaching of God’s word on a regular basis.
I call equipping massaging the truth until it becomes understandable and usable. And so people hear preaching and they understand it. They hear it with preaching and it doesn’t mean they can use it. They’ve got to be equipped. They’ve got to be held accountable – an appropriate term. And then they’ve got to start using it before they really own it. With that environment and prayer you’ve got change.
It’s not preaching alone. As good as preaching is and the way God uses it, it is not to be a stand-alone. I think that’s why Paul said: I gave to you not only the Gospel but also my own life. And there had better be a life to life factor.
Preaching: How do you strategically preach in order to further the vision and mission of your church?
Pope: I personally think there are different ways to go about stylistically preaching; we’ve been in debates I remember since the 70’s about which is the right, best, and appropriate kind. I don’t buy into: this is the only way, that this person doesn’t do it right. because he didn’t work through books of the Bible, or whatever. I like to think there is expository preaching and there’s topical preaching and there really is a middle between those two. I call it topical exposition. And I often use the analogy of going to a graduate school or theological seminary. Half of your instruction is given in Biblical theology and half of it is systematic. I see that expository preaching is just biblical theology but in preaching form, and I see topical preaching is systematical theology but in a preaching form. Frankly, I think people ought to look at their gifts and see what they’re best at. I think, typically, somebody who’s stronger at exhortation will find that it fits them better to be more topical in their approach. People who are more teaching-oriented probably will lean more toward biblical theology and will prefer exposition.
I at least tell people that if you’re in a church where a pastor is gifted and runs best in one versus the other, balance your personal time in the Word or your Bible studies that you’re into and get some of the other approach. Don’t be just as systematic theologian or a biblical theologian or vice versa. Be balanced.
I preach in series. And I feel today we’re a more mobile society so good faithful church people who used to take one vacation a year now may be out 8, 10, 12 weeks. So good people are even there less as a result of that. I think today you’re seeing that linear thinking is being replaced more by circular thinking. Linear thinking was where we used to say: open your Bible to this book, and there are 12 points here and we’re going to walk through these 12 points. Well, a point should never be made without putting it in its context. You can still make a point without having to hit every point before and after.
My view is that you hit a truth of God’s word and you circle it with another truth and it circles the same truth and we move on to a few truths and you circle it with an illustration, you circle it with an explanation point of some sort that restores it, and that makes your point. Even now I think we have to tell that again the next week. It’s got to connect. I like to think of an eight-week series as one sermon. If I had 4.5 to 5 hours that I could preach a sermon, this would be my sermon. But I’ve got to make sure that if you weren’t here last week you’re not lost. I’ve got to make sure that you’re hearing the same sermon and it’s just adding and adding.
I find that people in first week of a series are going, “Yeah this is going to be helpful.” But by the end of the series you’re seeing God’s power come to life. You go: this is gripping, this had changed me. And I say, “What if I hadn’t given that first week? This wouldn’t have happened.” But week after week I‘ve got to say it over and over and over, and somewhere in that eight-week period they get it. They’ve just got to hear it over and over and in different ways and in appropriate ways. And I think God’s Word makes that easy to do because there are so many ways different authors of scripture have shown the same principle of God’s truth in many ways.
Preaching: How far out do you plan?
Pope: I try to get the overview for a year. But that’s flexible to change as I sense a need for whatever reason. I think now you’re seeing more churches like ours that find that there’s a great circular sense of worship, when your music is supporting what you’re teaching, that your liturgy is supporting what you’re teaching. Well, for people to do a good job in preparing they need to know in advance. I can’t prepare a sermon but I at least have the bigger picture early enough that they can come together.
Preaching: What does your week look like in terms of planning an individual message as you prepare for the coming Sunday?
Pope: I work in the mornings on my messages; I usually have more than one message that I’m working on because I’m speaking in different places. But my first priority is my weekly message and Monday will be a time to kind of focus in on where I’m going, to kind of get the big picture. I try by Thursday to have it detailed enough that it’s just about there. I may look at it a little bit on Friday but I take my day off and just look at it a little bit. Then Saturday – I hit it hard on Saturday morning. Polish it, getting ready, thinking through it because we have a service on Saturday night. I like to build every morning.
Preaching: How has you’re preaching changed during your 28 years at Perimeter Church?
Pope: Well, the major changes that I’ve seen over the years are basically knowledge overtaking ignorance. I started out preaching thinking that good preaching was telling people about God’s Word. And I did that for a long time. I got great positive responses. Lots of people coming up saying, “Oh, I love what I’m hearing”, “Never heard that before”, “That’s interesting”, “Wow, where did you get that? I didn’t know that.” So I got a lot of that stuff.
Then it came to me that preaching was not talking to people about the Bible; it was talking to people about themselves from the Bible. It’s no less truth. It’s what the apostle Paul went through when he wrote a different message to the Thessalonians than he did to the Ephesians. He was addressing people in a different situation with particular needs and truths and understanding. It has to be given to these people from God’s truths. And when that started happening I began to hear responses like: “Can I tell you what God’s doing in my life?” “You need to know that I called my brother who I haven’t talked to in 12 years and I asked forgiveness.” I’d much rather hear that.
Preaching: What do you see as the great challenge facing preaching today?
Pope: I’ve been the pastor and I’ve been in the same church for almost 28 years. If there’s anything that’s changing that scares me to death is that there’s a growing chasm between want and need. It used to be the wants and needs were pretty close. In fact I could preach to church people and I didn’t really break open the Word well. You’d hit the Word hard and you’d have people come and say, “That was very interesting” or “Let me tell you: I want the Word. Give me more of the Word.” Today you don’t have to give a lot of the Word if your preaching is enjoyable, entertaining, enough story line that they keep intrigued. I see a lot of preaching moving toward more of an entertainment than it is a real telling of the truth.
One thing that I’ve seen is that pastors have to work very, very hard to be communicators. We don’t want to become irrelevant to the message so that no one will come but at the same time we don’t need to preach a message that is not aiding the need so much as the want. And if you go back to tickling the ear with scripture . . . Today biblical, Bible-believing preachers can get away with almost being applauded and rewarded for not going to the truth of God’s Word. Our listeners go out the ceiling when we hit certain felt needs that are in the Word of God, but when I turn to truth that is not as much felt needs, people don’t feel that need for that particular truth as much. I can see why so many preachers are just preaching felt needs all the time – because that’s what they want, that’s what they applaud. I think the great preacher is the one who says: I know what I don’t have to popular in order to be successful.