Preaching: Beyond this issue of attention span and the lack of consistency, what do you find to be the most challenging thing about preaching today for you?
West: Preaching biblically. I started my journey preaching 40 years ago, and though in the church that I grew up in the pastor was not a seminarian, the people had been baptized in the scriptures. You could sit down and talk about Othniel, and these people that taught Sunday School and went to Sunday School, they knew that you were talking about some judge. You could mention somebody like Epaphroditus, and they knew that this was one of the co-laborers with the Apostle Paul. You could tell the story of David and Goliath, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Today, they don’t even who those people were. It’s kind of a standard a joke, but it’s true—you ask who were the epistles, and somebody says they’re the wives of the apostles. It really rings true now. In fact, here’s how true that stands: 15 or 20 years ago if you said that, people would chuckle. Today they say, what are you laughing about?
The biggest challenge for me is to preach biblically, and what I mean by that is you’re preaching to a biblical passage. You only have 30 minutes, maybe 35 minutes, so you have to condense. You need to do background in a way that people who’ve never heard it can get on board the way you’re trying to go. That’s what I mean in that.
The other side of it is that it gives you a great opportunity because people who come, they come hungry for the living bread, and so the mention of a word or a study of a text interests them, because they’ve never heard this before.
So it’s twofold: On the one hand, there’s the challenge of trying to bring people up to the point of what these biblical passages mean, what is the context. And then, on the other hand, it’s exciting because these people know almost nothing about what you’re talking about.
Then the final challenge is that I have to always remember, I’m not the only preacher they’re listening to. It used to be that I knew I was their pastor. Now, I’m one of their many pastors, and if some pastor other than me is somebody who’s not faithful to biblical exegesis, then everything is topical, it’s just emotional, or it’s sensational. Chances are, like a child, they’re going to enjoy the candy over a balanced meal.
Dr. Taylor used to say candy every now and then is good. Only problem is, you eat too much and it’ll rot your teeth out, so you can’t eat anything solid.
There are some great hurdles, homiletical hurdles that you’re jumping every week when you’re standing up to preach now.
Preaching: What do you enjoy most about preaching?
West: What I enjoy the most about preaching on a personal level is to get into a biblical passage, one that I have been wanting to preach or one I have preached, and I start reading it anew and studying through it, and the light comes on and I see something nuanced in it that I hadn’t paid attention to, something that got away from me before.
The other day, I was reading through the conversion of the Apostle Paul. I’ve been reading that for 40 years, and I’m just reading through this, and all of a sudden it hits me, a light shines, he hears a voice, he sees a face, he’s knocked down, and then these reluctant witnesses come along and take him home, and then they preach to him, and then he begins preaching.
All that he knew was to preach Jesus Christ—just Jesus Christ, Son of God, that’s all. Witness about what you know, and if all you know is that, that’s enough. What more do you have to tell than Jesus Christ the living God, something on that level?
I love reading biblical passages, familiar and unfamiliar, and coming across some nuance that turns on a light, and then, as Dr. James Earl Massey says, it’s a joyful burden to preach. Here you are, ingesting that Word, and it’s growing and developing and you’re carrying the burden of that through the week; then you stand up on Sunday morning, and God allows you to open your mouth on His behalf as the herald. That Word gives life to the people that hear, and then you see somebody that makes a decision, whether it’s coming down the aisle, or you see it in the seat, their eyes just widen, and truth arrests them.
That’s the joy of preaching, man! It’s the joy of preaching! Sometimes I have to watch myself because I know where I’m going, and I almost give it away too soon, because it’s exciting. I think that’s the real joy, on a personal level, the study.
Then there’s the crafting of the sermon—how do you take this passage, shape it in a way that, when people hear it, they say “tell me more”? The joy far outweighs the challenges. It far outweighs the challenges.
Then I have to remember, in the delivery of a sermon, that preaching belongs to God, and in the face of all of the cultural challenges, and all the alterations in the community and the milieu of the world, I have to believe that God knows about that. You still can take His Word and let good seed fall on good soil. He can do that, you know.
Preaching: One last question. If an angel showed up on your doorstep tonight, and he told you that you had one more sermon to preach, what would it be?
West: You must be born again. I believe that would be the assignment I would preach. You must be born again. If I didn’t preach that one, it would have to be the next word, and that would be: What must I do to be saved? At the heart of preaching, I hear that evangelical note just keep pulsating in me, especially when I look at the world and see how many people are lost, and then just say, you must be born again. You can’t see the kingdom, you can’t hear nothing else, until you’ve been born again. I think that would be the sermon that I’d preach.