Preachers who want doctrinal substance in their sermons must pore over God’s Word with intensity, Robert Smith Jr. writes in his new book, Doctrine that Dances: Bringing Doctrinal Preaching and Teaching to Life.
Doctrine that Dances, named by Preaching magazine as its “Book of the Year,” is published by from B&H Publishing Group of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“Doctrine exists to make preaching as hard as it needs to be,” said Smith, professor of Christian preaching at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.
“Ministers can be guilty of spending much of their time preparing messages that will impact others, but not enough time allowing the text of Scripture to impact themselves,” Smith writes.
“Ministers who dare to preach doctrinally must always remember that they not only participate in rightly dividing or ‘cutting straight’ the Word of truth before their congregations, but that they are also divided by that same Word.”
For those who fear a congregation will nod off before the first point is completed, no worries, said Smith, a popular preacher at pastors’ and evangelism conferences.
“There is a misconception that doctrinal preaching is dull, boring and that it drags,” he said. “But I contend that it dances. It doesn’t drag. It is a blessing, not a burden. It is vivacious … and living.
“If doctrinal preaching doesn’t dance, then the escort [the preacher] is out of rhythm with the music [the text],” he said. “I’m not talking about clowning. I’m talking about approaching the text as alive and full of redemptive life rather than in a dull, lifeless manner that is just cranial and not cardiological.”
It takes knowledge from the head and emotions from the heart for the sermon to dance, Smith noted. “If there is only a head engagement, then the sermon is dull. If only the heart is used, then it is blind. But with both, it dances.”
Smith’s focus on doctrinal preaching came naturally for him as a young pastor in Cincinnati in 1976, but it wasn’t until 1990 that he captured the concept of what was happening. Having entered the Ph.D. program at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., his major in preaching and minor in theology entailed plenty of preaching seminars.
Through his studies, Smith recounted, “It all made sense. As a pastor, I had lived it since 1976, but I didn’t know how I did what I did. I just helped to mature my people to move from the nursery to an army so that I would become unnecessary.”
After completing his doctorate, Smith joined Southern Seminary’s faculty as the Carl E. Bates Associate Professor of Christian Preaching and remained there until joining the Beeson Divinity School in 1997.
Timothy George, Beeson’s founding dean, complimented Smith’s teaching ability but emphasized his broader impact.
“He is a pastor to our community,” George said. “He interfaces with our students at a heart level. He is willing to spend time with them. He is a world-class preacher, but he is always with students. He’s just that kind of person.”
As to Smith’s book, George noted, “I’ve told him over the years that he is such a great preacher, but he needs to put this in writing so that others who don’t have the opportunity to hear him and study with him can benefit from his wisdom.”
Smith’s book will be “one of the premier textbooks on preaching in the field,” George predicted, noting that Smith’s pastoral work and creativity are woven together with a “deep commitment to theological and biblical truth.”
“It is just part of who I am,” Smith said. Doctrinal preaching, he said, “is the heart of Robert Smith. This is my DNA.”
To properly communicate the message, “You have to know it, internalize it, not memorize it,” Smith said. “Before the doctrine gets to the people, it has to go through you.”
Smith suggests reading the sermon passage 50 times before doing any research, and not all at the same time. “We tend to read the Bible too quickly,” he said. “Live in the text so long that you start looking like the text.
“All five senses must be engaged and awakened. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you taste? What do you smell? What do you feel?
“The Bible is not a magical book,” Smith noted. “It needs someone to interpret it. The Bible is living and is ready to dance. This is not bringing the doctrines to life but the communication of them to people’s lives.”