Preaching: What’s your approach to preaching week by week?
West: After being here in this pulpit for almost 30 years, I approach it almost the same. I ask where are we, and what do we need to hear? I’ll take a week or two in summer to sit down and just try to nail down where my preaching calendar’s going to go for the fall. I know what I’m preaching on New Year’s Day 2017. I know the assignment for that morning. I’m aware. I know what I’m doing for December. I’m not clear on November and October right now. I’m thinking about preaching through a book in the Bible. I just finished 1 Peter. I’m thinking about maybe looking at Philippians.
As we’re approaching next year, the 500th anniversary celebration of the Reformation, I’m thinking about a series of messages around the place of Reformation and New Reformation. That may be something you and I need to sit down and talk about in a few days!
I’m trying to pay attention to what’s happening in the world, what’s happening in the world of the church, what’s taking place in the life of the people of my congregation, on a very personal level, and then a communal and global level. I’m also thinking about those times where I have to preach something supportive. I work ethical issues in; they’re so broad right now. They’re really big.
This is one of the questions that came up in one of our staff meetings: How do we preach the gospel about a never-changing God in an ever-changing culture? This is posing real problems for our people. My approach is to try to make an assessment of what’s taking place on the personal, the local, the communal, the global scene. I can’t preach all of it, but I am going to preach something out of this.
Heading for the next several weeks, I’m going to preach through a book of the Bible, which always seems to touch every life issue when you preach through these books. I hadn’t preached through books of the Bible in years, but now I’ve stumbled up on 1 Peter earlier this year, and I just had a great time walking through it—not every verse, but some of the more prominent passages from the Good Fisherman.
I’ll start connecting my exegetical materials so I can read during my vacation time, and read slow, meticulously, and I can make notes in the margin, and then start generating illustrations, and really give attention to answer one question: What does this passage mean to us today, and how do we package that? That’s a line I’m trying to incorporate in my preaching more and more, in a culture where people want to know the relevance of the scripture. Everyone’s crying for relevance, and I’m saying, if you exegete the biblical passage, if you interpret it the right way, that’s where relevance comes from, and so I try to draw the attention of the audience to that one question: What does this passage have to say to you and to me on this day? It says this to us. They can walk away and say this gospel is portable, or this epistle or this prophetic speech is portable to my life.
I’m still going about it the same way, of trying to ask the question: What is God saying? What is God saying to me, to us, how do I apply what God is saying to my life, and how do I live that gospel that He’s given to us? The pews have become more educated, and if they’re not educated, they’ve at least got TGIF in front of them: Twitter, Google, Instagram and Facebook. They’re always looking at everything you’re doing. So just try to be faithful to the biblical text; just try to be faithful to the gospel story.
Preaching: When you’re not preaching through a book, do you normally preach in series? And how long would a typical series be for you?
West: Ninety-five percent of my preaching is attached to a series. Years ago, and this is many years ago, I would try to just preach a series until I couldn’t preach it anymore. Now the typical length of my sermon series is four to six weeks and, if it’s really, really good, eight weeks, but probably never longer than that. It’s just because of attention span.
One issue is attention span; another one is church attendance. Now if you come to church once a month or once a quarter, that’s called faithful church attendance. People talk about the size of my congregation, and I laugh about it and say “divide it by four.” That’s about what you’re getting on a Sunday morning. They say 24,000 families, divide it by four. The consistency of church attendance has changed even the way that you preach in series. Sometimes I just have fun and ask the question, “You were here last week?” and I know half of them that I say that to weren’t here last week. I’m just having fun with it.
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