O.S. Hawkins is pastor of the largest congregation in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. Since 1993 he has been pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas — a congregation known not only as the flagship church of Southern Baptists but also known for its most famous member: Billy Graham. Hawkins came to Dallas from the First Baptist Church of Fort Louderdale, Florida, where he became widely known for his effective preaching that featured an expository model with a distinctively contemporary flavor. He was recently interviewed by Preaching editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: You came to First Baptist, Dallas — a historic church in the buckle of the Bible belt — from Fort Lauderdale, much more of a resort community. Now you find yourself in a downtown church, with skyscrapers all around you. How has that affected your preaching? What kind of adjustments have you had to make in changing contexts?
Hawkins: We were downtown in Fort Lauderdale, too, in the middle of the city. But there’s a world of difference between Fort Lauderdale and Dallas. Fort Lauderdale is virtually a new city. Money magazine recently said it was in one of the most transient counties in America. A third of the population moves in and out every year. Very few people move there from the Bible Belt. Everybody’s from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania — they’re mostly from the Northeast. Many of them — if they’ve had any church background at all — have been from a liturgical background. And so much of what we did at First Baptist was refreshing to them because they had never heard it. I pastored there 15 years and we never had the same Sunday schedule more than 18 months at a time. We would constantly change because we could do that.
Here, it’s a much more traditional part of the world — we’re in more of the Bible Belt here. We have a tremendous pulpit heritage here for 100 years and the church is full of Biblically literate laymen and women. So the challenge is to reach, as Stott would say, “between two worlds.”
I’ve always been an expository preacher, but I’ve always fancied being expository in a contemporary way. It’s been a good discipline for me to be here because I cannot wing-it here like you can get away winging-it at some other places. I’ve not noticed a tremendous difference in my own technique or style.
I think if anything it’s helped me to come back to some real basics of preaching. There’s a subtle danger out there among young conservative preachers; they’re hearing it in some of the conferences or it’s being interpreted as such. They’re very subtly being told to avoid four things. They are being told to avoid context — there’s almost a pride among some of not preaching expository sermons. I heard one large church Southern Baptist pastor say he never preaches an expository sermon as though that were a badge of honor. So they are being told to avoid context almost; to market the church in such a way to find out what people want and then seek to meet their need. And if they can find a text to tag to it, fine.
Second, they’re being told to avoid confessions or doctrinal truth. Young preachers are being told that people don’t want to hear about doctrine, and there is a tremendous dearth of doctrinal truth being preached in the pulpit today. In my opinion, this is part of our problem with impacting the whole culture. We never hear words like repentence anymore. We had a couple join some time ago; they came to me and said, “You know, we have been members of another church for several years, and we cannot remember when we ever heard the blood of Christ mentioned from the pulpit.” So there is this subtle thing that people are being told to avoid any type of doctrinal preaching. Third, I think they’re being told to avoid controversy. Don’t deal with controversial issues. Consequently, we don’t. We don’t take pulpit stands anymore on matters of righteousness. Many people don’t deal with current issues that are prevalent in their cities, whether it be homosexuality or the abortion issue or whatever it might be. It’s absent in many, many pulpits. There’s not a certain sound coming because people are told to avoid all those types of controversies if you want to reach people. I think we’ve gone overboard in doing that.
Finally it seems as though they are even told to avoid confrontation. Avoid confronting people with any type of decision. I’m not necessarily just talking about the public invitation although I’m an advocate of it. There are a lot of people who confront people with the gospel without giving a public invitation. My friend Jim Kennedy, who I pastored with in Fort Lauderdale for 15 years, doesn’t give a public invitation but he always confronts people with the claims of the Gospel. So I’m not just speaking about a public invitation. I am talking about bringing a person into confrontation with the gospel of Christ.
Preaching: You spoke of expository preaching in a contemporary way. How do you approach merging those two?
Hawkins: This is an ecotonic world in which we’re living. An ecotone is that place where two ecosystems come together. I pastored down in Fort Lauderdale where that salt water from the ocean comes into the intercoastal waterway and meets the fresh water from the river. Where they blend together and merge together is called an ecotone and it’s a place of tremendous possibility. Fish lay their eggs there. It’s also a place of trememdous danger because certain things happen environmentally there.
That’s the world we’re called to preach to. We have an incredible opportunity. We are meshing and blending right now our modern world with a postmodern world. The world I was educated in, the world you were educated in, most everybody reading this article were educated in is history — it’s over. I just read the other day that all the accumulated knowledge in world history is going to double in the next five years. We are already in a postmodern world, and it’s a time of great possibility for those of us who can translate the gospel in a contemporary way. It’s a time of horrible problems for those who are still locked in a time warp in the 1950’s or 60’s, trying to translate the Gospel in that manner.
We have little children who are growing up — before they even get to school –with three-dimensional computer graphics and they’re going into some Sunday School classes with flannelgraphs! So we’re not connecting with them there.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. I generally preach thematic series — mostly through books but I do them thematically. For example, I preached through Philemon recently. As I looked at each paragraph in Philemon, the whole book was about relationships. Relationships are so important. What I saw in Philemon is five paragraphs that had everything to do with relationships.
It talks in the first paragraph about the importance of affirmation. Paul said, “Your love has given me great hope and encouragement, you have refreshed the hearts of the saints.” And so I preached that paragraph on the importance of affirming one another in the home right where you are; it has a dynamic effect. And he deals with the win-win principle and says, “Formerly he was useless to you and now is useful to me and to you.” In relationships we can both win.
Paul deals with forgiveness, he deals with commitment, he deals with accountability. He closes the book by saying, “Oh by the way, get the guestroom ready for me I’m coming back” and this guy knows Paul’s coming and he’s going to hold him accountable. I took that as an issue that was prevalent out there in the world.
Everybody is looking for relationships, and I boiled it down in that book to the fact that there are only three relationships in life: the outward experience with each other, the inward experience with ourselves and the upward experience with God. We’re never properly related to each other until we’re properly related to ourselves, and we’re never properly related to ourselves until we’re properly related to God. I developed the whole book like that.
Recently, I wanted to address this subject of the generations that are lost to the church. I have a program in my computer called “Magazine Database Plus” and it has 400,000 articles updated every month or so from all over the world. I typed in “Generation X” and pulled up about 85 articles out of it. I started narrowing the search; I wanted to narrow it down to some characteristics of Generation X and these other generations lost to the church — what are they thinking and why they’re outside the church. After I’d narrowed it several times, I got down to about 15 articles and I pulled them all out. I read them and came up with five basic characteristics of this lost generation to the church.
The first one is this: they’re searching for meaningful relationships in life; most of them have never known one. They’re looking for a home they never had. They’ve been the product of massive divorce, they are afraid of commitment and the number one characteristic of this generation is the search for meaningful relationships in life. The second characteristic was they want immediate gratification; they don’t want to wait for anything. They don’t invest in mutual funds because they want it and want it right now.
Third, they want it for nothing. In Him we have redemption through They say give it to me but without cost or condition; they don’t want to work for it. Fourth, they want guilt-free living. They have been raised in homes without any moral absolutes; 81 percent of them don’t even believe there’s absolute truth, but they are searching for guilt-free living. It’s a real confusion and conflict within their hearts and minds. The final thing they’re searching for is prosperity, yet they know they don’t have much hope of attaining it. They’re the first generation that will live in homes not as nice as the homes they were raised in.
So I took those five characteristics and God gave me a verse. I used my Bible almost as a computer and started narrowing the search. I found we have the answer to what they’re looking for; it’s in the Bible and that’s not just preacher talk. You can narrow it all down to one verse in the Bible, Ephesians 1:7: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.”
The number one characteristic they’re looking for is meaningful relationships in life. Paul said, “In Him we have redemption through His blood.” It’s in a relationship we have something to offer them. They’re never going to have a relationship with others until they really come into a relationship with God — that’s what they’re really searching for. And we have a generation out there that does not know Christ, not because of the public schools, it’s not because of legislation; it’s because we’ve not made Him known. So what we are looking for is relationship. We have it there in Him.
Second, they want immediate gratification. In Him we have redemption — present, active, indicative, occurring in actual time. We don’t have to wait for it. What they’re looking for we have to offer them right now; they can have it.
Third, they want it for nothing. In Him we have redemption through His blood; it’s already purchased for them. They just don’t know that; we’ve not translated it to them. They want guilt-free living. The next phrase in our verse says we can have “the forgiveness of sins.”
Finally, they are looking for prosperity. Their parents were raised in a generation of economic boom; they came out of college and went into high entry level jobs and progressed through corporations. This generation got graduate degrees and are flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s. But Paul says, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins according to the riches of His grace.” We’ve not preached much grace and they just don’t know that He who was rich for our sakes became poor that we through His poverty might become rich.
So I try to take what the world is trying to do out there, what the world is thinking, and I try to bring it back and center it in the word of God and let a response issue out of the word of God. And at the same time, I want to bring people into a confrontation with their sins.
There’s another thing that we’re being told today: that we should try to avoid any kind of second-person preaching, which by and large I adhere to. But there’s a total dearth and void of it out there. Study the apostolic sermons, study Peter at Pentecost. What did Peter say? He said, “You, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” He brought people to accept their own personal responsibility for their sin, and that is not happening today. At least I don’t see it happening in much of contemporary preaching.
There’s a lost word in our Christian vocabulary out there, and it’s conviction. When Peter preached, their hearts were cut. You go into many modern churches today and you see crowds, you see excitement, you see music, you see dialogue, but you seldom see the convicting power of God that leads people to have their hearts cut, to then say “What must I do?” as they did then.
One of the things in the church growth movement that is alarming to me is the lack of emphasis on the power of God. I’ve been to Ephesus one time and it floored me. You walk through the ruins of the city of Ephesus, which has the most incredibly reconstructed ruins in the world. Walk down that corridor, see that 24,000-seat theatre, go to the library, go to the temples, go to the bathhouses. It is massive! It is incredible and it was such a pagan culture.
And to think that Paul went into that city with just a couple of friends, engaged the culture, and transformed the culture. He didn’t go door-to-door and market and see what people wanted; he didn’t do any of the things we are telling people they have to do today. When you walk through that city and see it, and see how it was engaged and transformed, there’s no explanation for it except the power of God. God did it. That’s something that seems to be not very high on the priority list in our discussions on church growth or preaching. I think church growth is centered in leadership, and I personally think it’s centered in the pulpit.
Preaching: This postmodern era in which we live sems to be one in which we will have to revive the apostolic model of preaching. So many characteristics of this era mirror those of the first century, in which Paul ministered. Perhaps our textbook for preaching in this era needs to be the book of Acts.
Hawkins: You’re singing my song. The very culture in which we’re living is a pagan culture not unlike the one the apostles penetrated. More and more so. For us it may be even more difficult because so much of our culture is gospel-hardened already where theirs wasn’t. Theirs was more like Fort Lauderdale; the gospel was new to many people down there. But in much of where preaching is taking place in America, people think they know it all, though they don’t.
You mentioned apostolic preaching — there’s a common thread running through it. Study Peter’s first recorded sermon, at Pentecost in Acts 2, then study Paul’s first recorded sermon, at Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13, and you’ll find something very common to both. You find what Paul said in 2 Timothy 3:16, that all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and it’s profitable for four things: doctrine, reproof, correction, instruction in righteousness. When you study the apostolic sermons you find a balance in their preaching, and they did those four things: they taught doctrine, they reproved sin, they corrected false paths, they instructed in righteousness.
Look at the Pentecostal sermon — Peter taught doctrine at first; he established a biblical basis for what was happening. He opened the scroll to Joel, illustrated with a couple of Psalms, built a biblical basis and taught about the doctrine of the resurrection. He reproved sin. He said, “You with the help of wicked men have nailed Him to a tree.” He corrected false paths as he called them to repent. And he instructed in righteousness; he gave them instructions as to what to do. Paul did the same thing at Pisidian Antioch.
In Thessalonica in Acts 17 is a real model for our preaching, when it says Paul, as his custom was, went in and reasoned with them. The word means he “spoke through” — he spoke through the scriptures. I think it was an expository message. He took the scriptures; he spoke through it with them from the scriptures, explaining — he laid it out to them — and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. And some of them were persuaded. I think we do have to come back to apostolic preaching.
Some people think in order to do that you have to be archaic, you have to stand behind a big wooden pulpit somewhere and make no expressions, and make no application. We’re just out of balance in our preaching. We’ve gone from one extreme to another. We’ve gone from an expository extreme that was void of any application or relevancy to current issues, and we’ve gone to a totally opposite extreme, where we just want to put everything in that’s practical and how-to and applicable without the scripture. What’s happening, though, is that we’re seeing the pendulum come back a bit to more balance, where it can really be effective.
The apostles were engaging the same kind of culture we are — a godless, pagan culture. That’s what America is. And they weren’t trying to be cute about it. They went in, and the power of God came on them, and the power of God is what brought all of this about. When we return to that and bring back a balance into our preaching, we can see something happen.
Preaching: As you mentioned, you are pastor of a church with many biblically-literate laypeople. At the same time, you’re also trying to reach a culture in which most people have little understanding of scripture and even less sense of its authority. How do you preach to both of those audiences?
Hawkins: Hopefully I’m relevant enough and applicable enough and interesting enough to appeal to that person whose eyes can be opened to gospel truth, while at the same time meaty enough and biblical, doctrinal enough to be able to translate to those folks.
Every Sunday I preach to W.A. Criswell, I preach to Charles Ryrie [editor of Ryrie Study Bible] — he never misses a service. I preach to so many professors from Dallas Seminary and our Criswell College, a lot of retired theologues and preachers are in our church. At first I wondered if this might be an intimidating factor, but it is not. It’s the most helpful thing to me, because it causes me to study that much harder. And I talk to these fellows; they’re my biggest asset. If I have a passage that’s complicated, I talk to 3 or 4 of these guys before I preach. Most of those folks know that the future of our church is in translating this message to those who are beyond our walls. We’re trying to make our decisions here at First Baptist on the basis of those who are not here yet.
Preaching’s a challenge wherever you go, not just at this church.
Preaching: Tell me a bit about your own approach to preaching, particularly your planning and preparation process.
Hawkins: There are many factors that are involved in preaching, from my perspective. Not simply the study time and formulation of the sermon. I bring everybody I can into my preaching. For example, we have a large prayer ministry, involving about 700 of our people. We have four people praying every hour, around the clock, seven days a week. Every one of those people pray for me every week.
I ask them to pray for me the prayer of Ephesians 6:19 in relation to the pulpit ministry, where Paul said that he prayed that utterance might be given him that he might open his mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel. So I ask them to pray for me each week that I might have freedom in my preaching, that utterance might be given to me. Unction is a strange phenomenon, isn’t it? We get in that pulpit, and we know when we have it and we know when we don’t have it. I ask them to pray for me also that I might have fearlessness in preaching — that I might open my mouth boldly, that as I stand in that sacred desk to translate this message, that I might be bold in what I do and not shy away or back off from it. It’s a real temptation for pastors.
I ask them to pray for me that I might be faithful in preaching — that I might proclaim the mystery of the gospel. I want to always have the gospel there, the kerygma. So before I ever start my preparation, I have hundreds of people praying for me.
We also have a prayer meeting every Saturday morning in the auditorium. They pray for me at 8:00 each Saturday morning. We kneel at every seat in our auditorium and we pray for the person who’s going to be under the preaching of the Word of God there the next day. We don’t know who they are but God does.
Then when we come into the worship service I ask those people in the prayer ministry to ask God to lead them to someone in that auditorium that they don’t know, and to pray for them during the course of the message. We pray toward the pulling down of strongholds. Some people have strongholds of pride that keep them from a breakthrough. Some are in a stronghold of procrastination; they’re just putting it off. Some are in a stronghold of presumption; they just presume on some decision they made years ago. So during the course of the sermon, I have people praying for those in the auditorium.
You can imagine what that does in a time of invitation, when a certain man — there’s a spiritual battle going on, and people are praying. That man comes forward to that altar, and these people know they’ve had as much a part in that as I have or anyone. This is a very important part of my sermon preparation — having my people pray for me as I prepare.
Before I even get to the message, another important part is my personal visitation and my own personal contact with people in need of the gospel each week. For example, on Saturdays I telephone everybody who visited the Sunday before. Takes me about four hours to do it. Everybody who visits this church gets a personal call from me. What that helps me to do also is to know where people are — where they’re hurting, why they came, what they’re up to. Of course, in my own personal visitation I am able to sense the needs of people. This is very important to me. To be isolated from people affects our preaching ministry. So that’s a big part of my sermon preparation, though it’s not in my study.
Then you come down to the study of the text. I didn’t keep up the languages after seminary, but about 12 years ago, in Fort Lauderdale, it dawned on me that if we have this language that it was written in, it doesn’t make sense for a preacher not to know something about it, not to be able to know how to use it to translate this gospel. So I taught myself a working knowledge of the language. Every year I’ve gone through a different Greek text.
I think of myself as an expository preacher, and that’s a difficult thing to define. For me, it means that I take a passage of scripture, usually a paragraph in the context. I begin by doing a word study. I do a lot with the computer now; I have Logos in there. It parses all the verbs for me and that’s very helpful.
I’ve been fortunate, in that most of my life I’ve been able to think analytically. I look at the passage and ask the pertinent questions: who, what, when, where, why, how. I go through the verse, and I put an inflection on a different word; I live with that verse for a long time, reading it many, many times. If I’m not familiar with it I’ll put it on a card and carry it in my pocket; many times during the day, when I’m waiting on someone to pick up the phone, I’ll pick it up and look at it, reading the verse over and over, each time putting inflection on a different word. It’s amazing once I started doing that, what I began to learn. As I read the words of Christ, I wonder how they really inflected.
An outline begins to emerge. I preach in thematic series, so I already know where I’m at thematically. From that, I then go to my library, go to all the sources I have there. I go to sermonic materials I have filed. On my computer I’ll put in an introduction, the main points of my message, and a conclusion. Then I just begin to fill in underneath those areas — different thoughts and ideas. I’ll do maybe half a dozen pages, print it out, and then I’ll go back through it and arrange it. I still pretty much go with explanation, illustration, and application under each point. Then I live with it for a few more days, and seek to preach it.
Preaching: How do you go about planning a thematic series?
Hawkins: Many times they emerge. In Fort Lauderdale I preached through books of the Bible, but always in a contemporary thematic fashion. In Dallas, I’ve done a few books — I just did Philemon. The most well-received series I’ve done since I’ve been here was called “Moral Earthquakes and Secret Faults.” Earthquakes don’t just happen; they’re preceded by fault-lines that run underneath the surface. And moral earthquakes don’t just happen; they’re preceded by secret faults — little cracks in character that occur sometimes years before. We think they’re not very big things. I preached about eight messages related to that. That wasn’t from a single book; it was arranged thematically. I dealt with temptation, with other issues.
I usually plan my preaching during the summers. For many years I would read Preaching and Preachers by Martyn Lloyd-Jones every summer; another book that really formulated my early preaching ministry was John Stott’s little book, Portrait of a Preacher — especially that chapter on we being stewards of His gospel. I read and then I plan my preaching during the summer.
When I’m preaching through a book, for example, before I preach the first sermon I’ve pretty much outlined the sermons I’m going to do. I’ve determined the titles, the object, the basic theme of each one. I stay in every morning to study; I don’t come in the office until 11 or 11:30. I’ve always done that. I’m an early riser; I get up about 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning and study in my home. I spend every morning studying, then I read at night.
I never get away from it. This is one of the things that’s impossible for people to understand — how a pastor who is serious lives with it every day of his life. It never gets away from us, it hovers over us constantly, it’s a part of us all the time. It’s something that we live with.
Preaching: How long is a typical series for you?
Hawkins: It depends. In Fort Lauderdale I was over two years in James, which is too long. I’ve come back now to a shorter length; many people think you shouldn’t go over six to eight weeks. I think it all depends on how you do it. I’m about to do Daniel here. I’m doing it from the first six chapters within the context of engaging the culture. How do we as a church really engage our culture? How do we not bow down to all the golden images that are around our culture? I’ll probably do that in around ten to twelve weeks. I think my series in the past I have been too long.
Preaching: How long is an average sermon?
Hawkins: Some of my people will probably tell you too long! At 8:15, our early service, I have about 30 minutes; at 11:00 I preach about 35 minutes. Probably ought to be preaching about 25 but I preach 30 to 35 minutes. Sunday night I preach 35 minutes.
Preaching: If you had the opportunity to advise young preachers starting their ministries, is there some particular advice you’d offer about preaching?
Hawkins: My main advice would be to be a servant. I’ve taken as my theme Acts 13:36, there in the Pisidian Antioch sermon, Paul parenthetically mentions King David. He says that David served God’s purpose in his own generation then fell asleep. The advice I give young preachers is be a servant. Of all the things that could be said about David — great administrator, great leader, great motivator — Paul says he was a servant.
When I came here (to Dallas), I got a lot of advice. The church had gone through some heartache, some heartbreak, was pretty wounded. I had people tell me I needed to come in and get it by the throat, get right in their face, slap them down. When the committee came to me and asked me to come, it was like the Spirit of God told me, “You just live in Samuel and Kings and Chronicles.” Devotionally, I just read those six books over and over, and it was incredible how God spoke to me about pastoring and preaching in this church. For example, in 1 Kings 12, Reheboam has become king, and he’s about to go see Jereboam and mend the thing before the kingdom really divides down the middle. He gets two bits of advice. One group says, “You go up there and get in his face and say, ‘If you think my father was tough, his waist is like my little finger.’
The other group said (in 1 Kings 12:7), “If you’ll be a servant to them, serve them and speak good words to them, they’ll be your servants forever.” If you look at my telephone, you’ll see that verse — it’s been on there for two years. And that’s what I’ve sought to do.
So the most important thing I can say to young preachers is be a servant. You’re never more like Christ than when you’re washing other people’s feet.

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About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

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