Since 1989, Jack Graham has served as the senior pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in suburban Dallas, which has grown to more than 35,000 members during that time. He’s a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, a contributing editor of Preaching, and most recently the author of Unseen: Angels, Satan, Heaven, Hell and Winning the Battle for Eternity, published by Bethany House. He visited recently with Executive Editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: In your book Unseen, you’re dealing with issues of the supernatural that are not often discussed. What drew you to that topic?
Graham: There’s so much myth, legend and folklore regarding the supernatural, including today, when you would think there is a move away from anything supernatural with the elitism and intellectualism of culture and so on. Yet we see, as you know, this incredible interest from media and culture itself in the supernatural, from movies and books about vampires to movies about Satan. I’ve just begun to notice some of the darkness of the media presentations of the supernatural world. It’s there, and it’s a lot of superstition, and that superstition bleeds into the church. You’ve got people who believe in heaven, you know, from the 4-year-old boy who visited heaven, and other near-death and after-death experiences from various persons.
All of my books flow out of my preaching ministry. I wanted to address the subject of the supernatural in the church and separate the supernatural from the superstitious. In a culture and context of a culture that is widely interested in the subject, I wanted to take the Bible and teach and speak as to what the Bible says. We took that and we produced the book, and there’s been an incredible amount of interest in it. We took on a lot of subjects, from the supernatural world, the dark side, the dark angel—Satan himself—and spiritual warfare and those kinds of subjects to angels.
Ultimately, I wanted to address the subject of hell. We’ve had the whole thing with Rob Bell and the issue of [whether there’s a hell]. I wanted to address that subject, and then what [heaven is really like and how we know] what heaven is like, not from experience but from the clear testimony of Scripture.
So we covered all of that and tried to do it in a practical way. On a personal level, when I was young preacher—a college student actually—my father was brutally murdered. For the first time in our happy little family, we faced the evil that resulted in suffering, grief and the terror of our family being victim to a violent crime. At that time, I was 20, and it created in me an interest in not cursing the darkness, but in spending the rest of my life lighting the light, as Paul said in Romans, “to overcome evil with good.”
I realized at that time—I’d heard of the devil of course, growing up as a Baptist boy in church—but I never had seen the face of evil and the power of evil that we experienced as a family. So I tell the story in the opening pages of the book and what happened to me in that time, which really set a course in my life to ignite the message of the gospel with light and truth. So the book is really a compilation of my experience, but more than my experience, my study of Scripture as to what the supernatural world is really like and how to combat it. The subtitle of the book is Winning the Battle for Eternity, because that’s really the focus: that as believers in and followers of Christ, we win.
Preaching: In the modern era…there [has been] this emphasis on rationality, science and the rejection of the supernatural; but it seems…in the postmodern era there is a new openness to, awareness of and some exploration of some of these issues of the supernatural.
Graham: Exactly, and as a pastor, I was getting numerous questions regarding the afterlife and the life beyond; so I thought, “OK, we’re going to answer these questions, and we’re going to do it in a way that’s not fringe and bizarre.” Frankly, just in my compilation of Christian books on these subjects, there’s a lot of fringe material out there, and a lot of it is driven by experience, not by Scripture. So what I tried to do was separate the strange from the real and talk about the reality of the supernatural—and to do it in a way that is applicable and reasonable but at the same time biblical.
Preaching: As you were digging into this topic, were there some surprising things you came across or learned, or things that struck you as particularly urgent?
Graham: Actually it’s been interesting that in interviews [surrounding] the book, the subject of angels has been of great interest to people. There have been a lot of questions about the reality of angels and the ministry of angels, and I cover that in one chapter of the book. In fact, my publisher has seen so much interest in this that I’m working on a book this summer on angels. There hasn’t been a major book out on angels since (I guess) Billy Graham did one in . So I’m actually doing one on the subject.
When I was asked to consider it, I thought, “No, that’s too small a slice of Christian living, and I’m not sure I want to be the guy who writes an angel book, because, boy, you talk about some interesting stuff out there, all experiential. I don’t want to get into that.” Then I got really challenged on it, as I was reading Scripture, just seeing how many references there are to angels. Obviously angels were present with God before we got here and will be in heaven forever, so I was surprised by the interest in the subject and just in my own study, really the engagement of angels in our lives.
I say angels are witnesses, messengers, warriors. They’re not little cuddly cherubs that you put on a shelf; they’re mighty, powerful warriors, the army of angels, the host of the Lord. Angels are worshipers; in all these things, angels prompt us to worship. They motivate us to carry the message. They fight on our behalf, guide us and guard us in ways we don’t know.
I’d always wondered about this because we have the Holy Spirit to minister to us, God’s Presence in us. Do angels really have a role in the life of the believer today? If so, what is that role? How is it different from the role of the Holy Spirit? I’m studying that, digging in and have found that to be surprising: first, by how much interest there is in this; and second, by how intrigued I am myself on this whole subject.
Preaching: Did this book grow out of a sermon series, or did it result in a sermon series?
Graham: It grew out of a sermon series. I called it “Invisible: There’s More to Life than what You See,” but the publisher liked the idea of Unseen a little better for some reason. All of my writing flows out of my preaching. I did the series two or three years ago, and then I was able to take those transcripts and my notes to write the book.
However, the angels book is going to be different because I’ve never done an angels series. I don’t think I necessarily would in a pulpit, so I’m sitting down with my trusty old legal pad and writing this one. Most of my books flow out of my sermonic material.
Preaching: You preach mostly in series, don’t you?
Graham: Correct—almost always in series.
Preaching: How long is a typical series for you?
Graham: Usually 10 to 12 weeks, although we did the Gospel of Luke a couple years ago, and it took 15 months.
Preaching: Did you do that consecutively, or did you break that up along the way?
Graham: We broke it up into subsets in the series. For example, when we got to the calling of the disciples, we did a disciple series, taking the biographical information of the disciples. Then we did the birth [during] the Christmas season, and we were able to organize and outline it so we ended up at the resurrection on Easter. So we did subsets in the series because I think keeping people’s attention with a long, long series is a challenge. We were able to keep people engaged by breaking it down a little bit.
Preaching: As you move forward on a theme or a section of Scripture, how does it look as you plan for a series?
Graham: I’m generally two or three months out in terms of getting ready for the next series. For example, this summer I’m just trying to get my head wrapped around the fall series. I know it’s going to be a series to the church, helping church members engage in ministry, community, spiritual gifts and witness; but primarily almost a Body Life Series. So right now, I’m outlining that and coming up with 12 messages that will take us nearly all the way to Christmas. This one’s going to be a bit more thematic [rather than] a Bible book series. Typically, I’m in a book study of some kind, but…when I do a subject such as spiritual gifts, I’ll take the Romans passage and do that. I’m researching, reading, trying to get ahead now so I’ll be able to come back ready to go in the fall.
Preaching: You serve a church with about 37,000 members, three campuses, seven weekend services, four mid-week services, all these outreach ministries…I get tired just thinking about all of this! How does your weekly schedule look as you move toward next Sunday’s message?
Graham: Monday is a day for me to reflect on what happened during the weekend. I think sometimes in the pastoral role, we’re already closing the books, shutting down—we’re like the lepers who don’t even say thank You. So I try to take Monday as a day of gratitude and reflecting on what happened. Then I do things at the office on Monday, but it’s the brain-dead kind of stuff that I can do. I want to stay away from any conflict on Monday just because typically [I’m] a little emptier on Monday after giving it [my] all on the weekend…I will have staff meetings that deal with reflection on the previous day, maybe a little bit of clean-up.
So Monday I’m in the office. I’ve said through the years, I don’t understand pastors who take off Monday; I don’t want to feel that bad on my own time! So on Monday, I just get things done: emails, office work and that sort of thing, a time of restoring, a time of reflecting. Because I already know where I’m headed with my preaching in the series, I’ll do some light reading on Mondays regarding the message.
Tuesday is pretty much a staff day. We have our major staff meeting on Tuesday, so it’s dedicated to that. By Wednesday morning, I’m full into sermon prep, and that means my books are out, my pen is out and I am taking notes. I’m doing my exegesis, my biblical work. The way I prepare a message—certainly there’s desk time when I discipline myself to sit down and do the hard work of sermon prep—but for me, it’s always a gestation process.
I’m always thinking about the message. As I’m driving to the office, I’m thinking, “OK, that point means I’m going to need an illustration about such and such.” I started preaching when I was 19, and I’ve been doing this a long time and have kept a great filing system. I always advise pastors to start out with a great filing system, because the actual preparation in terms of exegesis and the interpreting of the text, understanding the text—that’s the easiest part of sermon prep. It’s the application and the invitation of the message that’s the most important. That has to stay fresh and vital. I can put together an exegesis in several hours, but [the main thing is] the process of letting God speak to you throughout the week and getting that message in your heart before getting it in your head.
Preaching: You mentioned you’ve been preaching since you were 19. How has your preaching changed during the past four decades?
Graham: In many ways, it hasn’t changed. I still consider myself a gospel preacher. My theme always has been the message of Christ and salvation. My focus always is to exalt Christ and preach the gospel, regardless of what kind of text or theme I’m speaking about. That hasn’t changed, and I pray it never will. I see more power in the gospel than ever today as the darkness increases. There’s just such incredible power in the gospel and in the name of Jesus.
What has changed the most would be that in the early days when I was preaching, I was influenced in a good way by some of the great British preachers who were outliners, such as the Stephen Olfords of the world. Of course there was a generation here in America patterned after Adrian Rogers and others. Adrian was a mentor to me; so early, my preaching was very similar to those styles in terms of outlines and structure.
I would say now I am far less structured. I’ve got points, and I deliver points. I think points of action and teaching points are still appropriate but are far less visible in my preaching today. My preaching today is probably a lot more conversational and less dependent on my outline, my study, my preparation, and more dependent on the free-flow of the Spirit speaking through me. I’m prepared. I know exactly what I’m going to say typically, but there’s less organization in the sense of my actual delivery.
Preaching: Do you develop a manuscript? What do you carry up to the pulpit with you on Sunday as you preach?
Graham: I carry what we used to call a sentence outline. It’s not a manuscript, but it’s enough, and I actually carry my handwritten notes into the pulpit. I wish I had paid more attention in typing class in high school so I could type better. I’m a hunt-and-peck guy. Old habits are hard to break. I can write my notes in hieroglyphics and symbols a lot faster than I type! Maybe I’m not too old to start, but at this point I’m still taking handwritten notes. It’s typically 10 to 12 pages of handwritten notes, which get typed later. Typically there’s enough there that I can go back five years later and pretty much preach the same message, and it would pretty much have the same content.
So there’s enough there—all my quotes and Scripture [verses] are there—but I’ve always tried to stay spontaneous in my delivery. I admire guys who are able, such as the Chuck Swindolls and other guys, who are so perfect in their delivery of a manuscript. I just find it difficult for me. I’ve got to be a little more freeflowing in my style and more spontaneous. For me, it helps me be more conversational and connective with the congregation. So I take in these notes that are hard to read for anyone but me, but it works for me.
Preaching: What do you find to be the greatest challenge in preaching today, and what do you find to be the greatest joy?
Graham: The greatest challenge has to be the increasing brokenness of people. Since I started, the problems people face, the results, the consequences of sin behavior, breakdowns in homes and families in a church such as ours—really any church—people from all walks of life and backgrounds are coming. At our church on any given Sunday, people from many nations are immigrating here, so all the opportunities we have with people here at various levels of brokenness in their lives, it’s overwhelming sometimes when you realize people are facing such extreme pain and suffering. A lot of it focuses on pain, brokenness and relational brokenness. So that’s much, much greater than ever before, in my view. As a pastor in pastoral counseling, I’m dealing with more kinds of different, bizarre problems that people face. I could go on and on about that.
The greatest joy is seeing the power of God’s Word and the testimony of Jesus in the gospel transform those lives, to see the Word of God is truly life-changing, to see people’s brokenness and their lives put back together—their families and their marriages. The Word of God is so awesome, and the power of Jesus to change people’s lives…I never get over that. I give a public invitation every time I preach, and we always see people making decisions for Christ openly at the altars. The place of decision is filled with people coming to Christ, and that’s what keeps me going, keeps me fired up and is the joy of being a pastor.
Preaching: Based on what you know now, if you could go back and talk to young Pastor Jack Graham in 1970 and give him a piece of advice, what would it be?
Graham: Maybe it’s my age and experience, but people ask me that question a lot! It’s a good question, and I have thought about that. I would say to a young Jack Graham—and therefore to any young minister—take time to smell the coffee and enjoy the ride. I think as a young pastor, when you’re up-and-coming and trying to grow your church, you tend to blow past your life and sometimes people. I’m grateful our family is intact and we’ve had a great experience, so I’m not going to sit here and say I wish I could have been a better dad or husband. I’m sure I could have been, but more than anything I really wish I would have enjoyed the victories more and the experiences along the way because truly—I recently turned 64—life is so lightning-fast.
Older pastors would tell me that when I was in my 20s, and I thought, “Yeah, yeah. Sure, sure,” but it truly is a blur. The 25 years at Prestonwood have been a blur. I’ve had great experiences, great joy along the way, but as a young pastor in my 20s and 30s down in West Palm Beach—and in Oklahoma when I first started—I wish I had enjoyed the ride a little more.