Few pastors have become more influential in shaping church life today than Rick Warren, founding pastor of Saddleback Community Church in southern California’s Orange County. Under his leadership, the church has grown from the Warren family alone to regular worship attendance of more than 15,000 each weekend. Warren has taken the insights he learned at Saddleback and shared them in the book The Purpose-Driven Church, which has become one of the most popular Christian books of recent years. Warren is now a member of the Board of Contributing Editors of Preaching, and recently the editor visited Warren’s office to talk about the role preaching has played in the life and growth of Saddleback.
Preaching: Rick, we were just looking at some examples of The Purpose Driven Church as it has been translated into different languages. 21 languages, a million copies, it is just an incredible story. How did the concept of the purpose-driven church come to be a part of your ministry?
Warren: It actually started when I was a short term missionary in Japan being sent out by the Baptist Student Union years ago in college. While I was there, I began to say, “What is it in our churches that is cultural, and what is really biblical?” As I looked al the Japanese churches I saw that they were adopting a lot of the things that were not working here so it just got my mind thinking. So I began — while I was in Japan — a lifelong study of what is it that makes a healthy church. Not necessarily a growing church but a healthy church.
I believe health creates growth. I don’t have to tell my kids to grow. If they are healthy, they grow automatically. So the focus is often on the wrong thing — on growth. I began several things: first, I read through the New Testament over and over looking for principles, of what is a transcultural principle. If it is biblical, I believe it will work anywhere. American principles only work in America but if it is biblical I believe it is transcultural. So, I read through the New Testament over and over and over. I’ve read every book in print that I could find on the church or church growth or church structure. At that time it was about 80-something books.
Then I also wrote the 100 largest churches in the United States. I just researched them and personally wrote them a letter and did my own personal research project. I discovered that, of course, it takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people. There is more than one way to grow a church and I say if you are getting the job done I like the way you are doing it. The only wrong way is the one that you think everybody should do it your way.
What I began to see is that God uses all kinds of styles, all kinds of methods, all kinds of formats to reach all kinds of people. But the common denominators were: every church that is going to be healthy has to worship, has to evangelize, has to help Christians grow, discipleship, has to do ministry in the world and has to have fellowship. I began to see these over and over in the New Testament — I really saw them in the great commandment and the great commission.
The great commandment gives us two purposes, the great commission gives us three. The great commandment — Love God with all of your heart — that is worship. Worship is expressing my love to God. Love your neighbor as yourself — that is ministry. So two of the purposes of the church, worship and ministry, come from the great commandment.
Three of the purposes of the church come from the great commission. It says to go make disciples — that’s evangelism. It says to teach them to do everything I have commanded you — that is discipleship. But right in the middle it says to baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Now why did God put baptism between these two great purposes of worship and evangelism? I think because of what it represents. Baptism does not just represent new life in Christ; it represents incorporation into the body.
The Bible says we are baptized into the body of Christ. And so I think that baptism is a symbol for fellowship or incorporation. It says that I am not ashamed to say that I am a believer. I have identified myself as a Christian, and the point is that we are called not to just be believers but belongers.
I finished Southwestern Seminary in December 1979, moved here with no money, no members, no building. All I have every had really was a bunch of ideas and knew I was going to build it on the five purposes. Really nothing more than that. Of course over the years the vision gets clearer.
I have what you call Polaroid vision. That is, you take a picture and you hold it. The longer you look at it the clearer it gets. So when I was 25 years old, all I knew was I wanted to build these five purposes into the church. But over the years I learned that you have to have a strategy and structure and there are certain things that you have to do to make it happen.
If you don’t have a strategy or structure to intentionally balance the five purposes, the church tends to over-emphasize the purpose that the pastor is most passionate about. So, for instance, if I am gifted in teaching I tend to produce a classroom church that has Christians growing but maybe nobody is coming to Christ.
If I have gifts in evangelism, I tend to produce a soul winning church where lots of people come to Christ out there is no depth. I may have gifts in the area of ministry — we’ll have what I call a “family reunion church” with great fellowship, great koinonia but no evangelism, no discipleship. Or you can have gifts in the area of worship and build what I call an “experiencing God” church — God comes down, the Holy Spirit falls, maybe there are signs and wonders. It’s great worship, but no ministry or no fellowship or no evangelism. So, I need a strategy and structure to keep me from killing the church!
Preaching: Where does preaching fit into that whole matrix?
Warren: The bigger the church gets the more important the pulpit becomes because it is the rudder of the ship. Where else do you get an hour of undivided attention with all these people on a weekly basis? Most pastors do not understand the power of preaching. But even more important than that is they don’t understand the purpose of preaching.
I probably have the largest library of books on preaching in America. I’ve read over 500 books on preaching. Maybe some seminary might come close to that but I am sure that no pastor comes close to 500 books on preaching. And as I’ve read them, the vast majority do not really understand that preaching is about transformation, not information.
So to understand the purpose of preaching first you have to go back and look at a few things. First, what is the purpose of God for man, and second what is the purpose of God for the Bible? Because once you understand those two things, your purpose for preaching becomes very clear.
What is the purpose of God for man? Well, the Bible tells us in Romans 8:29, “For those he foreknew he did predestine to become conformed to the image of his Son.” God’s purpose from the very beginning of time has been to make us like Jesus. It has been from the very beginning. In fact, in Genesis He says to let us make man in our image. That has always been God’s purpose — to make man in His image. Not to make gods but to make us godly. To have the character of His son, to be conformed into the image of Christ. So He wanted to make us like Himself.
In Genesis there was the fall — Jesus came to restore what was there before. So the goal of all preaching has to be to produce Christ-likeness in an individual. Is that person becoming more and more like Jesus?
Now, what is the purpose of the Bible? It says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be thoroughly furnished unto every good work.”
People misread that verse most of the time. The purpose of the Bible is not for doctrine, not for reproof, correction, instruction in righteousness. Those are all “for this” in the Greek. For this, for this, for this, in order that. The purpose is in order that. So doctrine in itself is not the purpose of the Bible. Reproof in itself is not the purpose; correction, training are not the purpose. The bottom line is to change lives. “That the man of God may be thoroughly furnished unto every good work.” So every message must be preaching for life change.
I hear people talk about well life application as being a genre or type of preaching. If you are not having life application, you are not preaching. It may be a lecture, it may be a study, it may be a commentary but it is not preaching. To me preaching is for life change.
My goal is not to inform; I came to transform. Unless you understand that, your messages tend to be based on the traditional style of teaching. I say interpretation without application is abortion.
Preaching: How do you think through this whole issue of application as you are dealing with the text or the biblical theme? Walk me through that process as you think through how this applies to the lives of people.
Warren: The big thing is building a bridge between then and now. You have interpretation on one side, you have personalization on the other side, and in the middle you have the implication. The key is always finding the implication of the text. The interpretation — commentators tend to live in that world. Personalization — communicators tend to live in this world. It’s a fine line and you can fall off on either side. It is easy to be biblical without being contemporary or relevant. It is easy to be relevant without being biblical. The test is right in the middle, walking that fine line.
We don’t have to make the Bible relevant — it is — but we have to show its relevance. What is irrelevant, in my opinion, is our style of communicating it. We tend to still use the style from 50 years back that doesn’t match who we’re trying to reach today.
When I start with an application, I first start with personal application. Nearly 20 years ago, I wrote a book on Bible study methods, on how to apply the Bible. In it I talk about a dozen different ways to apply scripture so you start with your own life and you make applications there. A lot of it is just simple stuff like: is there a sin to confess, a promise to claim, an attitude to change, a command to obey, an example to follow, a prayer to pray, an error to avoid, the truth to believe. Is there something to praise God for? So I start looking at it like that.
I also go back to the paradigm of 2 Timothy 3:16: doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness. Basically these four things: what do I need to believe as a result of this text? What do I not need to believe as a result of this text? What do I need to do as a result of this text? What do I need to not do as a result of this text? That is doctrine for reproof, for correction and instruction of righteousness. So I use that format. Start with personal application, then you go for the implication — what people need in their lives.
The biggest thing that I would say about application is that every pastor eventually gets to application. I’m just saying he needs to start with it, not end with it. A lot of guys need to start where they end their sermon. They will do about 80 to 90% explanation and interpretation in background study, and then at the end there is a little 10 minute application. That is OK if you have a highly motivated group of people who just love Bible knowledge. But the Bible says there are a couple of problems with Bible knowledge.
In the first place it says that knowledge puffs up but love builds up, and the Bible says that increased knowledge without application leads to pride. Some of the most cantankerous Christians that I know are veritable storehouses of Bible knowledge but they have not applied it. They can give you facts and quotes and they can argue doctrine. But they’re angry, they are very ugly people. The Bible says that knowledge without application increases judgement. To him that knows to do good and does it not, it is sin. So, really, to give people knowledge and not get the application is a very dangerous thing.
Here is an interesting thing: if you start taking the books of the New Testament and find out how much of the Bible is application. It will really change the way that you preach. For instance, I once preached through the book of Romans for two-and-a-half years, verse-by-verse. I do both verse-with-verse exposition — which I call topical exposition — and I do verse-by-verse exposition, which is book by book. Two kinds of teaching for two different targets and two different purposes, and they are both needed for a healthy church.
You already know that you have got to apply in people’s lives; you have just got to do more of it.
Preaching: How much of the sermon should be application versus explanation of the text.
Warren: I personally believe 50 percent. I know Bruce Wilkinson once did a study of great preachers. He went back and studied Spurgeon and Moody, Calvin and Finney, both Calvinists and Arminians. Then he studied contemporaries like Charles Stanley and Chuck Swindoll. He discovered that those guys were anywhere from 50 to 60 percent, some at 70 percent application.
What we normally do in a structure of a message is that we do interpretation and then application of a point, then the next interpretation and the next application, the next interpretation and the next application. I am suggesting that if you want to reach pagans you actually just reverse that procedure. You still get both — it’s just the way you do it. So instead of going through a long background on the Sermon on the Mount passage on worry and explaining, I stand up and say, “Isn’t it a fact of life that we all deal with worry? Well, today we’re going to look at six reasons why Jesus said that we shouldn’t worry.” Then you make your application the points of your message.
People don’t remember much. If you’re motivated you remember about seven bits of information; if you’re not motivated you remember about two. So if they are only going to remember something what do I want them to remember? I want them to remember the application, the lessons, not a cute outline of text. The alliterated outline is not going to change their lives. So I say make your applications your points because the points are all they are going to remember.
It is more important to be clear than it is to be cute. So I’ll say, “Here are the three things that you have learned.” Here is the contemporary application and underneath it you go back and cover the background. Here is the point and you go back and cover the background. It is the exact same thing — it is just the order — and what that does is it increases retention and it increases interest.
As I go through these things, first I sit down and I start praying. I say, “Who is going to be there?” I start to think of one person. When a church gets as large as Saddleback, numbers really are irrelevant. There is no statistical difference between 15,000 on a weekend and 16,000 on a weekend — it’s just a big crowd! So what motivates me is not the number; what motivates me is the individual changed life.
I start thinking about people that I know that are going to be there. People that I have invited, like my back doctor who was an atheist Jew who came for Easter. I start thinking: “Now what is going to help this guy know about Christ?”
I use an average of 16 verses per message. We write the verses out, we put them on an outline. I do that for several reasons. First place, non-believers don’t bring their Bibles to church. Second place, even if they did they wouldn’t know how to find it. Third place, it saves time. I once timed a guy and he took about 8 or 9 minutes saying, “now turn to this and turn to this.” I don’t have that time. I want all of the time for preaching. I preach on an average of 50 to 55 minutes. Most people would think, well he is preaching sermonettes for Christianettes — you know, that kind of stuff. I typically preach 50 to 55 minutes. You can do that if you can understand features.
I use about 14 to 16 different verses. I will use different translations. That is another reason I will use an outline because I use different translations. Sometimes the New American Standard says it better. Sometimes The New Living Translation says it better. Sometimes the NIV says it better. So I use that. It also allows me to have retention because you can have people read it aloud together. We actually read scripture aloud together. I say, “Now, let’s all read this together.” I’ll say circle that word, underline that, star that. Then they can take it home with them and put it up on the refrigerator, pass it on to friends, teach a Bible study on it. I’m a firm believer in actually writing out the message, outlined with scriptures written out. If you are in it for life change it just makes it a whole lot easier for people to use.
Preaching: Are there some particular insights you’ve gained over the years that help you preach for life change?
Warren: There are ten things that really form how I figure life can change. The first one is that all behavior is based on belief. If you ask why do I do what I do, it’s because you believe something behind it. If somebody gets a divorce it is because they have a belief behind that which is causing them to get a divorce — I think I’ll be happier divorced than I will not or whatever. If you have sex outside of marriage it’s because you have a belief behind it.
The second thing, behind every sin is a lie of unbelieving. This has profound implications for preaching. When you sin, at that moment you think you are doing what is best for you. You think you are doing the right thing but you have been deceived. When your kids do something dumb, at that moment they think what they are doing is smart but it’s dumb. The Bible tells us that Satan deceives us.
The third thing — change always starts in the mind. This principle is taught all the way through the New Testament. Romans 12:2, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” The Bible teaches real clearly that the way we think affects the way we feel and the way we feel affects the way we act. Since change starts in the mind, and sin starts with a lie, and behavior starts with belief, number four: to help people change you have to change their beliefs first. You don’t work on their behavior; you work on their beliefs because it always starts in their mind. That is why Jesus says you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.
Number five, trying to change people’s behavior without changing their beliefs is a waste of time. The illustration I use is it’s like a boat on auto pilot. I have got a boat and it is in a lake and it is on auto pilot and it is headed north. If I want it to head south — I want to do a 180 degree turn — I want to do a “repentance” on that boat. I have two options: one I could physically grab the steering wheel of the boat and physically force it to turn around and it would turn around. But the whole time it is turned around, I am under tension because I am forcing it to go against its auto pilot. Pretty soon I get tired and I let go of the wheel — I go back to smoking, I go off of the diet, I stop doing whatever, I go back to my habitual ways of stress relief. So, the better way is to change the auto pilot. The way you change auto pilot is by changing the way they think. Now, that brings up repentance.
The sixth thing that I believe is that the biblical word for changing your mind is repentance, metanoia. Now most people think of the word of repentance they think of sandwich signs, turn or burn, or they think repentance means stopping all my bad actions. That is not what repentance is. There is not a lexicon in the world that will tell you that repentance means stop your bad action. Repentance, metanoia, simply means changing your mind. And we are in the mind changing business. Preaching is about mind changing. Society’s word for repentance, by the way, is “paradigm shift.” Repentance is the ultimate paradigm shift, where I go from darkness to light, from guilt to forgiveness, from no hope to hope, from no purpose to purpose, from living for myself to living for Christ. It’s the ultimate paradigm shift. And repentance is changing your mind at the deepest level of beliefs and values.
Number seven is you don’t change people’s minds, God’s word does. So we bring people into contact with God’s Word. I can’t force people to change their mind. I like I Cor. 2:13; in the New Living version it says, “We speak words given to us by the Spirit using the Spirit’s word to explain spiritual truth.” There is both a Word and a Spirit element in preaching, and often we leave out the Spirit element. A lot of preaching today has the Word element but it doesn’t have the Spirit element.
We talk about spiritual warfare. I don’t think spiritual warfare is like demons. I think the Bible says spiritual warfare is tearing down mental strongholds. Our weapons have power — pulling down every argument, every pretension — that passage in 2 Cor. 10. By the way, that’s why you’re exhausted after preaching. If you are trying to pull down strongholds, you’re in a mental and spiritual battle that is going to leave you exhausted. After I do five services every weekend I’m a puddle — there’s nothing left!
Number eight, changing the way I act is the result or fruit of repentance. Changing the way I act is the fruit of repentance. Technically, repentance is not a behavioral change; it results in behavioral change. Repentance is what happens in your mind. So it doesn’t mean forsaking your sin. That is why John the Baptist says produce fruit in keeping with repentance. Why would you need to produce fruit? Because the fruit is the action. The fruit is the behavior. Paul says in Act 26:20, “I preach that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.” OK, so deeds are not repentance. But is that going to change your mind?
I believe, number nine, that the deepest kind of preaching, bar none, is preaching for repentance. The deepest kind of preaching. Life application, on the contrary, instead of being shallow preaching, I believe is the deepest kind of preaching. Shallow preaching, to me, is doctrinal application or interpretation with no application — biblical background with no application. For 21 years now; the secret of Saddleback is every week I get up and I try to take the Word and apply it so that it changes the way that they think about life, about God, about the devil, about the future, about the past, about themselves, about their mission in life.
If you go through the New Testament you will find that repentance is the central theme in the New Testament. When I teach a seminar, I read them all these verses: Matthew 3:2, John the Baptist, “repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Jesus, “Jesus began to preach repent Matthew 4:17. The disciples went out and preached that people should repent. Peter, “repent and be baptized every one of you.” Paul, “now he commands all men to repent everywhere.” John in Revelation, “repent.”
To produce lasting emotional life change, you have to enlighten the mind, you have to engage the emotions, and you have to challenge the will. Those three things have to be present in life application of preaching. There is a knowing element, there is a feeling element, and there is a doing element. This takes a lot of just being sensitive to the people because sometimes they have to be comforted and sometimes they’ve got to be challenged. I can often get that wrong, you know.
This is one of the big weaknesses in our preaching. I think one of the greatest weaknesses is people who are unwilling to humbly stand before people and challenge their will. A lot of guys are great at interpretation. They are pretty good at application but they are not really willing to stand there and call for repentance. Now I preach on repentance on every single Sunday without using the word because the word is misused today, it is misunderstood. So I talk about changing your mind and I talk about paradigm shift. But really, every message comes down to two words: will you? Will you change from this to this in the way that you are thinking?
Our culture is falling apart. If you are not preaching repentance in your message you’re not preaching. No matter what we cover it has got to come back to change your mind, because your mind controls your life.
Preaching: What you are describing is preaching strategically. A strategic approach requires planning. How do you plan that strategy in terms of what you are going to do in preaching?
Warren: I have a preaching team that I meet with. When you start a church you literally do everything. I set it up, I took it down, I stored all the stuff in my garage. From the beginning of the church it has been my goal to work myself out of a job. And so as the church grew, I began to give the ministry away to more and more different people — to lay people and to staff and on and on. About ten years ago I realized that I had finally given up everything that I was doing except two things, the feeding and the leading. I was still doing that myself and so I began to start building a staff of other leaders and other feeders. I now have a preaching team of six pastors who share the pastoral teaching and preaching.
This year, for the first time, I will be preaching 26 of the 52 weeks at Saddleback. Now why is that? Well, several reasons. Number one, most people have never done five weekend services and they don’t know what a toll it takes on your body and I want to live a long time. Since we are doing five we will probably go to six. I will preach in one month what some guys will preach in a year just because of multiple services. So, to protect my own health I did that.
But more than that I believe you need to hear God’s word from more than just one personality. I think that is healthy. I think a lot of people, you hear a guy for about six or seven years and he has shot his wad. You’ve heard what he has got to say and you either have to start hearing the same stuff over again or move to a different church. Well, I want people to stay at Saddleback for thirty or forty years, so I’ve built a team of different preachers with different personalities — I do believe preaching is truth through personality, like Brooks said.
It doesn’t bother me at all if somebody likes another pastor’s preaching better. “Well, I like his style.” That’s fine. I think that is good. They hear it and they stay here, and as long as they are growing and happy and are being built on the purposes of moving them out into ministry and mission I am happy about it.
I take that team and we do planning. I am a collector of ideas, collecting future sermon series and ideas. There are some series that I’ve been collecting on for twenty years that I still haven’t preached on. For instance, I did a series through Psalm 23 a couple of years ago. I had collected material for over twenty years. I just knew that one day I was going to preach on Psalm 23. So when I get a quiet time insight, when I hear a good sermon and I hear a quote, I throw it in that file.
When I get ready to plan a series I’m not starting from scratch. I have what I call my bucket file. My bucket file is not real organized. It is just stuff tossed in there. Once you get enough to start making a series — you go, “I want to do this series on the family or I want to do this series on I Peter or I want to do this series on the second coming” — you start the file. Right now I have maybe fifty series in the hopper.
Then as it gets toward the end of the year, I will pick about a dozen of those that I think, “This is where God wants the church to go in the next year,” and we prayerfully go away on a retreat. We pray and say, “What direction does God want the church to go? What needs to be done?”
I’ll tell you one of the ways you can know what needs to be done: name the five biggest sins in your church. If divorce is a big sin in your church, guess what you’re not preaching on. If materialism is a big sin in your church, guess what you’re not preaching on. So looking at just the sins of the people in your church and in your area you can come up with a lot of pretty good wisdom. I will get a dozen or so messages.
I happen to believe that the audience determines God’s will for what you are supposed to preach on. In other words, do I believe in the sovereignty of God? Absolutely. Do I believe in the foreknowledge of God? Absolutely. That means God already knows who is coming next Sunday before I do, and God is already planning on bringing those people next Sunday for you. Why would God the sovereign give me a message totally irrelevant to the person He is planning on bringing? He wouldn’t.
So I start saying, “God, who is coming?” If I’m dealing with teenagers that is one kind of message. If I’m dealing with seekers, then that is another kind of message. If I am dealing with mature believers, that is another kind of message. If I am dealing with people who need to be mobilized for ministry … We look at that and we pray and then we do a tentative outline of the series for the year.
We try to balance it in several ways. I try to give purpose, balance. I will always do a series, somehow, dealing with worship, a series on evangelism, a series on discipleship, a series on ministry, and a series on fellowship. I will cover those five things every year because that is the purpose of the church in some way.
I can do that with a book series, I can do it with a biographical series, I can do it with a topical, thematic approach. It doesn’t matter the style, but I will balance the purposes. I will balance the difference between comfort and challenge — afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I like to balance Old Testament and New Testament. I like to balance a little biographical, a little didactic, a little doctrinal.
Now what I love to do is to teach theology to non-believers without ever telling them it is theology and without ever using theology terms. For instance, I once did an eight-week series on sanctification and never used the term. I did a four-week series on the incarnation and never used the term. I did a twelve-week series on the attributes of God — the omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence — and never used the terms. I just called it “Getting to Know God.” I love to teach theology to non-believers without them knowing what it is; I find that a challenge. So it’s a good balance.
We lay it out, then we never stick to it! If I know that I’m going to cover these ten to twelve themes or books in the year — that is where we are going in the year — I finish a series and then say, “Which one, Lord, do you want to do next?” We will pick it out, we will do it next, then we will go, “Which one, Lord, do you want us to do next?” So there is kind of planning and kind of spontaneity at the same time. It allows for God to move us in the middle of the year.
Preaching: How long is a typical series?
Warren: I think the ideal series is four to six weeks. I have often stretched it to ten weeks. Obviously the ten commandments are 10 weeks. I did a 10-week series on the Doctrine of Grace. Ten weeks on it. But really, if you go more than four or six weeks on a series, people start wondering, “Does he know anything else?” There is a fatigue factor. One lady said, “My pastor has been in Daniel seventy weeks longer than Daniel!” So I think the best series would be a month series of four, twelve a year would be idea. We almost never do that because you get into it and you want to go another two weeks because there is still more material.
Preaching: The last time I was in a Saddleback worship service you did a “tag team” sermon with one of your preaching team members. That’s an example of what you call “features” in preaching. Tell me about that idea.
Warren: We now live in a society where the attention span is dramatically reduced. Yet I don’t think you can really change a life in a 25-minute message. I think it takes a more significant amount of time. If you’re moving a person — trying to change the way they think — you have to lead them through a process that takes more than 10 or 15 or 25 minutes. But in order to hold their attention, what we do is add in what we call features.
The most common one is the personal testimony. A lot of churches use drama; we honestly don’t use that much drama because most of it isn’t that good — it looks more like a camp skit. What I found is: why would I use a dramatic fictional story when I have the real-life story of the changed life sitting there in the chair? We actually fit them into the message. So this week when I’m preaching on “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” I’m looking at a series of testimonies right now. One of them is a woman who came out of prostitution, was saved here at Saddleback Church, and she talks about how she learned that “I was not God, my life was a mess and I had to give it all up.” I’ll fit that five to seven-minute testimony right into the point. Rather than tell an illustration I’ll say, “Now I want you to hear this.” That’s one feature — that breaks it up.
Another feature is what we call “tag team preaching.” We developed that simply because we’re doing five services, and it’s pretty tiring to carry that long a message five times. Five times 55 minutes is a long time! But what we found is that a different voice will often help keep the attention. I will write the message but then I will assign a point to one of my teaching pastors. That really adds a dimension of freshness that helps keep the people listening longer.
We have used film clips, we have used some dramas, we have used some object lessons. One of my favorite is called “point and play,” which is separate the points by music. We always at Easter and Christmas Eve do a “point and play” message. For example, with my Easter sermon, I took every point and we divided it up into five sections, and we had a song that went with each point. So there is an emotional punch as well as an intellectual punch at the same time. We layer it: tension/release, tension/release.
I learned this when I was a consultant on the DreamWorks movie, “The Prince of Egypt,” to help keep it biblically correct. One day I was in the hall at DreamWorks, and I noticed something on the wall called an “Emotional Beat Chart.” They actually monitor the emotional highs and lows of a movie. I counted up and there were nine peaks and nine valleys in this 90-minute movie — about every ten minutes there’s tension/release, tension/release. Well, you can do that in a message: you can do it with humor, you can do it with an illustration, or you can do it with a feature, but it allows us to keep people’s attention longer in order to give them more material.
Preaching: You mentioned earlier the distinction between topical exposition and verse-by-verse. How do you see the difference between those models?
Warren: Let me talk to you about the futility of preaching labels. We often hear modifiers used for preaching. We say there is topical and there is textual and there is life situational and there is expository. Frankly I think that’s a big waste of time, and I have kind of given up on trying to label other guys’ sermons, much less my own. The reason why I discovered it is because everybody has their own definition. They are meaningless. I have got over 500 books on preaching in my library and I have learned that everyone has their own definition. I started a hobby a few years ago of collecting definitions of the term “expository preaching.” Right now I have over 30 definitions of the term, many of them contradictory. In fact, at one well-known seminary I got three definitions of expository that were contradictory by three preaching professors in the same seminary!
Here is my definition of expository preaching and I think that it’s about as valid as anybody else’s: “When the message is centered around explaining and applying the text of the Bible for life change.” That definition says nothing about the amount of text used and it says nothing about the location of the verses, because I think those are man-made issues. I read frequently we need to get back to the New Testament pattern of verse-by-verse preaching. Well, there is one problem there. There is not a single example in the New Testament of it. You can take one verse where “Jesus starting with Moses …” The fact is Jesus always taught in parables.
What do Finney, Wesley, Calvin, Spurgeon, Moody, Billy Graham, Jesus, Peter, and Paul all have in common? None of them were verse-by-verse, through the book teachers. Not one of them. Now the issue becomes: how much of the text is a text? That is really the issue. How much text is a text? It depends on who you are talking to. If you talk to G. Campbell Morgan he often uses an entire book of the Bible. If you talk to Alexander Maclaren he would usually preach on a paragraph. If you talk to Calvin, Calvin’s general rule was to use two to four verses almost always — two to four verses. Spurgeon usually chose an isolated phrase — not even an entire verse, an isolated phrase. Of course, Martyn Lloyd-Jones would often preach on just one word. He has a famous sermon “But God.”
Preaching: What is the biggest mistake that you have made in preaching?
Warren: We have done more things that didn’t work at Saddleback than did. We are just not afraid to fail.
I think the biggest mistake that I made in the first couple of years of my preaching here at Saddleback: I didn’t realize the importance of drawing the net. I didn’t know as much as I do now. Forsyth says that what the world needs today is the authoritative Word of God preached through a humble personality. I think that a combination of confidence and humility goes together. I have learned that the secret of spiritual power is integrity and humility.
It is not vision. A lot of people talk about vision being a big thing to grow a church. Vision is a dime a dozen. A lot of people are visionaries who are not growing churches. What God blesses is first integrity, walking with integrity. Walking blameless. That we are exactly what we appear to be. The other is humility. Now humility is not denying your strengths; it is being honest about your weaknesses. We’re all a bundle of strengths and weaknesses. We all have strengths. We all have weaknesses. Paul could be very obvious about his strengths. He would say, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” Because he was also very honest about his weaknesses: “I am chief among sinners.”
I used to look at Paul and go, “Man, I could never say that.” Follow Rick Warren as Rick Warren follows Christ? It seems so arrogant. But then I realized that people learn best by models. At least I am making the effort. I am not perfect but you know what? I’d rather have people follow me than follow a rock star! I am at least making the effort and they know what my weaknesses are because I’m honest, I’m authentic with the people.
It is interesting that I have a thorn in the flesh that makes preaching extremely painful for me. I was born with a brain disorder and I took epilepsy medicine through high school. Although I did not have epilepsy, they gave it to me because they didn’t know how to deal with it. I would faint; I would be walking down the street and just fall over and faint. It is a very complex thing. I have been to the best doctors in the nation. I have a very rare disease that less than two dozen people have — that’s what Mayo Clinic told me. What it does is, my brain does not assimilate adrenaline correctly. So adrenaline — when it hits my brain — it will tend to blind me, will tend to create headaches, dizziness and confusion and all kinds of things.
Any pastor knows that adrenaline is your best friend. If you don’t have adrenaline, you are boring. You need adrenaline for passion. Yet the very thing that I need to speak to 5,000 people at one time is the very thing that harms my body. So it’s quite painful for me to preach. I just think it is in God’s sense of humor that the guy He chose to speak to Saddleback is a guy who is really quite weak. In my weakness, He is strong.
Sometimes people would think, “Warren do you ever get full of pride knowing you preach to 32,000 or 33,000 people last week?” I want to say, “If you only knew.” When I am up speaking, that is the last thing on my mind — “Oh, how great this is.” My thing is, “Oh God, just get me through this.” The reason I do it is because I am addicted to changed lives. That is what motivates me. I love it. People say I love to preach. I don’t love to preach — it is painful for me to preach. But I love the results of preaching. I love the changed lives.
When I get up to speak I have 30-second prayer that I pray at every service. As I get up before the crowd and I look out there, I go, “God, I love these people and they love me. I love you and you love me and you love these people and many of these people love you. There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out all fear. This is not an audience to be feared; this is a family to be loved. So love these people through me.” That is the last thing that I think before I get up to speak before every service. It just kind of gives you the pastor’s heart.
Preaching: In your preparation, do you develop any kind of manuscript?
Warren: No, I don’t do a manuscript, partly because I don’t want it to sound like a manuscript. It’s an oral presentation. Having been both a writer of many books and a preacher, those are two totally different skills. The guy who thinks he can take his sermon and just put it into a book, forget it. It is not going to be that good of a book. Because the things that make good oral communication — like repetition, redundancy, coming back to the point — just sound goofy in a book. So I don’t want to sound like a book.
What I will do is to sit at the computer and talk it out as I type. I am very concerned about how it will sound. This is a big key to a lot of guys who have good content but they don’t know how to turn a phrase. They don’t know the power of timing. You know, all over America, baseball pictures stand the same distance from home plate, throw the same ball, to the same plate. The difference between pros and amateurs is delivery.
The difference between a good sermon and an outstanding sermon is delivery. I know this because I preach the same material to five services every week and get different results depending on the delivery. The first message of the weekend is never the best time. You are not as comfortable with the material. You are going to become more and more comfortable. As you say it repeatedly you are going to become passionate about it and so you learn timing, you learn delays, you learn delivery.
Preaching: If you had just one or two words to encourage or recommend to other pastors, what would they be?
Warren: One of them is never stop learning. All leaders are learners. The moment you stop learning you stop leading. Growing churches require growing pastors. The moment you stop growing your church stops growing. I don’t worry about the growth of the church. I never have. In fact, it probably it will surprise most people that in 21 years we have only set two growth goals — and they were both the first year of the church! What I focus on is keeping myself growing and motivated. If I am on fire other people will catch it.
I also am a firm believer in let’s share our material. I know some guys say you have got to be original or nothing — Vance Havner said he was both! Plagiarism is borrowing from one person, research is borrowing from five, and borrowing from ten or more is sheer creativity! Creativity is the art of concealing your source! It is forgetting where you got it.
I would say we are all on the same team. Nobody can be brilliant every week, so we need to share. If you get a good idea, man, send it to me! I’m not proud — I’ll use it. I learned a long time ago I didn’t have to think everything up for it to change a life. In fact a person who thinks he has to think it all up himself really has a pride problem. The Bible says God gives grace to the humble but resists the proud. Why? Because the proud are unteachable. “I didn’t invent it here then I can’t use it”? That’s silly.
So I want to use outlines, illustrations, quotes, ideas from different people. We are all on the same team when we get to heaven. When we get to heaven we’ll rejoice for the souls that have been saved. I don’t copyright anything that I do, nothing. I tell pastors, “If God has given me a way to outline and you want to take that outline and put your meat on it, your bones, go right ahead.”
I got a call the other day from a guy in Canada and he says, “Pastor Rick, I need to apologize. I preached through one of your series.” I said, “Buddy, that’s the point!”
If some guys are “C” preachers and by using my material or somebody else we could make a “B”, that’s a good thing. They may be an “A” at counseling or an “A” at administrating but they’re just not good at outlining. So let’s help each other.
All 21 years of Rick Warren’s sermons at Saddleback are available at: www.pastors.com
Also you can sign up for a free subscription to Rick Warren’s Ministry Toolbox, a free weekly email newsletter of tips, quotes and articles, which is sent to over 50,000 pastors around the world.

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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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