Fifteen years ago (Nov-Dec 1988), Preaching featured an interview with William L. Self, then pastor of Atlanta’s Wieuca Road Baptist Church. (It was the third interview we ever published, following earlier interviews with David Allen Hubbard and Fred Craddock. In the 1988 interview, Self talked about “preaching to Joe Secular.” Before many preachers had heard the phrase “felt needs,” Self was observing, “I really don’t think that the man in the pew — the secular man — is hungry to know ‘what the Bible says.’ He is hungry for control of his life, hungry to get his life straightened out, hungry to ‘get his itches scratched.’ Biblical preaching is taking that point of need and leading the needy to the source of help — the Bible.”

In the years since, Bill Self left the “high steeple” Buckhead church and led a traditional Atlanta congregation in a move to the booming north Atlanta suburbs of Alpharetta in 1993. That church (First Baptist of Chamblee), which was running about 200 attenders each Sunday, is now John’s Creek Baptist Church, with weekly attendance of more than 2,000. And Bill Self — at a time when most pastors are already taking Social Security — is planning the third phase of a building program and still preaching to Joe Secular each Sunday. We visited with Bill recently to see what’s changed — and what hasn’t.

Preaching: You’ve been preaching to Joe Secular for 15 years since our first interview with you. How has Joe changed and how has your preaching changed?

Self: Joe’s still pretty secular. He’s still culturally-driven but he’s hungrier than he was then. Candidly he can tell false stuff — he can smell out baloney, shallowness. He won’t put up with any tricks or games. He wants to know, “Can I live by this stuff? Do you live by it and is it authentic?” That’s the thing I sense of Joe. I don’t remember exactly what I said in that first interview but the target has not changed much since then. He’s still there and he doesn’t really like religious language too much. But he’s ready to learn the meaning of religious language more so than he was then. He doesn’t like to be just jammed with all these big religious words down his throat but he will pause long enough for me to explain what they mean. He’ll say, “Oh, that does mean something — that does have content.”

Preaching: Tell me about that cultural influence on the people to whom we preach.

Self: Oh, it’s horrendous. I preach to a highly culturalized congregation. We have a bedrock of the old Chamblee church, who are the dearest people you could ever meet and understand the faith. Then on top of that we have the corporate migrant, the young adults in this neighborhood here — many of whom have no clue what it’s about. They are highly influenced by the culture. For instance when a three or four-day holiday comes around, they’re out of here. It’s just a given that they’re going to be gone. We’re going to take a hit.

They’re very interested in getting religious services delivered as you would get lawn services or household services. They’re very concerned about “please serve me, what’s in it for me?” and they don’t trust churches. They don’t have the facility to really test out doctrine, and since they don’t know doctrine they don’t trust churches. Then they read stuff in the paper that increases their anxiety. We have had people who have placed their children in our nursery for worship service, then get up and go back to the nursery to check on the child two or three times during the service because they don’t know if the worker is going to take care of the child. One of them went to the worker the second visit back to the nursery and said, “Can you tell me which child is mine?” I mean they don’t understand a thing about churches.

Also they’re very immediate. There is no patience with their processing of the gospel or processing of ideas. It’s “say it and understand it or I won’t use it because it’s not immediately usable.” They know more about movies, television, and the general media than they know about the gospel.

They know every movie that’s out there. Most of them have three car garages full of adult toys. They have boats, all kinds of bicycles, skateboards. You can drive through our neighborhood and see that third garage over there full of all these toys they’ve bought. That’s a secular influence. They wouldn’t dare be caught with out the latest indulgence, fad, toy or whatever. Their children are the same way.

They’re into suburban soccer, basketball, that sort of thing. Our basketball program here at the church: only 40% of the children go to our church; the rest of them don’t go anywhere. Same with soccer. Some of them want to know why they can’t have their soccer matches on Sunday morning out on the soccer field. I had a neighbor who informed me they did not go to church except when they needed it. They didn’t go the whole time we lived next to each other. But every Sunday morning at seven o’clock she got up and took her son to a soccer match. The high school here has play practice, senior play practice at ten o’clock on Sunday mornings. The local swim club takes them off to swim matches on Sunday. Cheerleading is a big thing; it is for girls what football is for boys. They practice on Sunday. So the culture just blows in our face.

We have to struggle on Wednesday night. We have a good group here, a very good group. But we are fighting soccer and tennis — tennis is a religion, it’s not a sport it’s a religion — and all the other activities that are like that that are scheduled on Wednesday night. So it’s harder to do our work.

Preaching: Describe the worldview of that person in the pews.

Self: Their world view is “me.” Their worldview starts at their navel, and they can’t make sense of it. Their worldview can be very selfish. If the Bible helps me fine, but show me where it helps me. Why do I need it?

They have no history. Absolutely no history. Anything that happened before 1985 they are not aware of. Before 1985 the world is flat and everybody is just sort of jumbled up out there. You can’t refer to “as Spurgeon said” — if I use a quote from Spurgeon and give him credit for it, I have to explain with two sentences who Charles Spurgeon was. If I quote any piece of literature that was written before 1985 or wasn’t on their college reading list I have to put in a sentence or two about who that was. Any biblical reference I have to do that. They have no history and no understanding about it. I maybe overstating but that’s what’s going on. That I see.

So I assume that they don’t bring anything to the pews because their biblical knowledge is zilch — except what they’ve heard from some television evangelist. They’re very concerned about when the world’s going to end because they’ve read all the Left Behind books. When I preached through the book of Revelations they went with me but they didn’t like it because I was trying to tell them what the book said and it didn’t match what the Left Behind books said.

Preaching: Given that whole picture, how do you address these people as you preach?

Self: I have a sign in my study which is a take-off on the slogan from the first Clinton campaign for presidency. It says, “It’s Communication Stupid.” That stays over the door of my study. I see if from my desk and when I start to do anything in preparation, that’s there. The number one thing is communication. I need to get into things quickly.

The second thing is there was a day that you could just assume that your contituency would be in church and would take whatever you’re giving. Not now. I have to let them know for a month or six weeks ahead what I’m going to be saying — the sermon title and maybe a two-sentence digest of it. When they walk in the front door we have a little stand there with a title of this morning’s sermon. I’ve had them say, “I don’t care much about that and I won’t come.” They pick a sermon or a worship service just like you and I pick a movie. Same thing with Sunday School. Sunday School has a little tighter tie because they do have a sense of community and their worship doesn’t. It’s a stadium event as far as they are concerned.

I have to realize that they give me about 30 seconds. We used to say the first 3 minutes — now I have about 30 seconds and if they haven’t connected by then they will turn me off. Now some of them are polite enough to stay if they, though I have had some say, “I don’t care anything about this,” and get up and leave. Or some come in and say, “I heard that you have something I need to hear today.” They can because we have two services. I just have some mental images in my mind of these people, and as I’m putting these sermons together I ask myself who is my audience? I listen to them a lot and I hear where their hearts are. They are panicked over their children, so give me something for my children. They are panicked over their relationships, because all of their friends are getting divorces. So give me something that will hold my marriage together. What I try to do is get them quickly to the Bible after I get their attention on their issues.

Preaching: Are there some keys that you find help in communicating with these listeners?

Self: Yes, narratives. For years my wife urged me — she’s been very supportive about preaching — she would say, “Bill just tell them a Bible story.” I would say, “No, I’ve got to do more than that. They need to know all this rich and deep theology that I learned in seminary.” Several years ago I read about Helmut Thielicke. In World War II they wanted to get him away from the Nazis so they hid him in a little parish in a Bavarian house and gave him a preaching assignment there, hoping the Nazis wouldn’t find him. He had always been a professor. He said my dilemma was: how do I preach to these Bavarian paupers who haven’t been through the academic programs? So he went to the narrative parts of the Old and New Testaments and preached the narratives. He went on and developed the idea that he learned to preach by preaching the narratives.

I’ve found that narratives work with these people. I’m overstating this a little bit but I could almost preach the narratives for the rest of my ministry, with some application of course — some tie back — and keep their attention. I love to do narrative preaching. They love to hear narratives because they think they are learning the Bible — and they are. The Bible is narrative. As I’ve gotten over my feeling is that maybe narrative preaching is not working hard enough. It is working real hard.

So I’d say that the primary answer to that is to that is to narrate. I tell some stories that are not biblical stories, some illustrative stories. They will go to those stories pretty quick. I’ve found that — done with discretion and done with taste — they want to know about me and about my family. I will let them know that my heart has been broken, my life has had some bumps in it, and I can feel them resonating. Then they need a “thus saith the Lord.” They will listen to a “thus saith the Lord” after I’ve been through this.

Preaching: How do you go about application in this context?

Self: That’s tough. First of all I’ve been here long enough now, and I believe in the long pastorate — 26 years at the last church, 11 years here. I believe in long pastorates because then they develop a trust.

Now when I begin to apply I can be very specific. We’ve had a rash of divorces in the church. I speak pretty clearly about that and to some of the generalized issues that were behind those divorces. I think the sermon has to have a tie down. You have to have a tie down that grabs. It’s like a tent — you have to have tie downs. I come in for the application the last half of the sermon — a lot of application. I do it by illustration. Last week I preached on David and Bathsheba. They’ve all heard sermons about David and Bathsheba. They’ve seen Gregory Peck in the movie. I related that.

See, they want to know what’s wrong with adultery. Our culture has not accepted that the seventh commandment isn’t an option. I talked about one flesh marriages — leave and cleave and the two shall become one flesh. I show how that is done at the marriage altar. It’s sealed there. Adultery is breaking that seal. They’ll accept that, but I took them one more step. I said that when we become Christians — Christ in us the hope of glory, the man being in Christ — I said the Old Testament and New Testament relate the breaking of that and going after other gods to spiritual adultery. They all work together. They listened to that and for the first time it made sense to some of them. And you know the Bible is clear enough that when you go whoring after other gods, when you break the first commandment it’s spiritual adultery. Even my young adults understood that.

Preaching: How does your use of illustrations and your application changed over the last say 20 or 30 years?

Self: I don’t use as many literary illustrations as I used to. I hate to do this but I will illustrate from some of the movies that they’re into and they see. I don’t illustrate much from television because there isn’t much on there to illustrate from. In the early days you’d find some classic piece of literature and illustrate from it, Les Miserables or something. I don’t do that now. You can’t illustrate much from reading material because this is not a culture that reads. It’s a visual culture, electronic. So I try to go there as much as I can.

If I do any illustration of anything older than 1985, I have to spend as much time explaining the documents as I do using the illustrations. Of course you wouldn’t illustrate from some of the classics because they don’t read classics. I used to illustrate a lot from Pilgrim’s Progress. That was a book that they were supposed to read in high school and got Cliff Notes. Now you can’t go to that kind of literature.

One thing I used to before we had basketball going on Saturday. I used to go to the sanctuary on Saturday and sit in the pew and listen to an imaginary Bill Self preaching that sermon. A lot of preachers will go and preach those sermons in the sanctuary when it’s empty. I go and listen to Bill Self preaching it, imagine it. As I hear the sermon in my head I’ll think, “I don’t care about that.” I’ll tell them a story and I’ll say, “That story’s not any good.”

I think that preaching should explode inside the preacher — the text comes in and explodes in the preacher. Preach about David and Bathsheba so they are alive to the congregation. If you’re preaching about the disciples of Jesus, bring them alive in there. I try to think of ways to make these people live, not with artistry, but I think there is a mystical dimension where they get loose and live among the congregation during that time. You preach about Jesus and it’s more than just describing Jesus on the cross. That happens in there — it’s not because the preacher has the words to make it happen but somehow they come alive. Sometimes in my prayer I ask God to let that happen, to let that living event happen when I’m preaching and it gets beyond me and beyond them and it just happens to us. It’s a mystical thing. To over-analyze it is to destroy the mystery because you can’t really put handles on some things that happen. Then sometimes they don’t come alive, sometimes it doesn’t happen and it’s the hardest work for you. But when it does you would die for it. When it happens, when you’ve finished and you hear the applause of nail-scarred hands — I’ll put up with all the stuff that I’ve put up with to get there. It’s a mystery.

Preaching: How do you plan your preaching here?

Self: In the summer I go off and I take two suitcases full of books. I’ll walk in the woods and pray and do all those things — and I’m not negating that. I’ll go through all of that spiritual preparation. Then I will sit down and set out my sermons. I try to do it for nine months but candidly I can only get to about Christmas. Then I will do the same thing again in the fall. I did the book of Philippians last year. I have done the seven churches, the Ten Commandments. I’m doing the “Bad Boys and Girls of the Bible,” with apologies to Liz Curtis Higgs — her title, my sermons.

Then I print those ahead — a little digest of them — and then people have the security that they know where I’m going. I’m amazed at what this kind of series does in congregations, instead of just something you pull out of the air here and there that are not connected. They have more of an understanding of the flow of the Bible. The way I come to those decisions: you pray a lot, you read a lot, and all of the sudden things begin to form in your mind. You have some ah-ha moments. I have a notebook — I developed this system before there were computers — and I have a page for each sermon, and I jot down notes into this notebook. I pen some illustrations in there, if I’ve found them in a newspaper or something. Then on Monday morning — sometimes Sunday night because we don’t have Sunday night service — I start looking at next week and reading those notes. I’ll do my writing on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

I was taught in seminary that the morning is spent executing Greek verbs and reading deep theologians and then in the afternoon you visit hospitals and you usually do church work or different things. But that didn’t last for me after seminary. From Sunday mornings until Wednesday night I’m a public person. I jam all my public stuff up on those days. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday I’m a quiet person. Now if I take any time off I try to do it Thursday, Friday, and Saturday — I don’t take every Thursday or Friday off because nobody dies on schedule and church schedules are so hectic, so I move it up and down those three days.

By Friday night I have pretty well done my sermon. Saturday I make a handwritten — I cannot do this by machine — I handwrite my sermon. I will not take Saturday off — the only thing I will do on Saturday is watch my grandchildren play basketball. I will not go out Saturday night — I’ve had some people not understand that. My wife understands this; she says that I go into a zone sometime around Friday night or Saturday. I will write out an expanded outline by dinner time on Saturday night. I’ve studied all week long. Then I start preaching it. I’ve done it some Saturday but I will preach it out in my study Saturday night, two or three times. Then at 8:30 or 9:30 I go to bed. I get up at five o’clock Sunday morning, go down to my study and I spend the time preaching that sermon and praying. Sometimes it’s preaching, sometimes it’s praying — occasionally I have to rewrite it. I’ll think, “Why was I going to say that?” or God says, “Do it this way.”

I come to the church at 8:30. I’ve preached it three or four times before I get over here. I have a 15-minute meeting with my staff at 8:30 to check up. Then I come to my study and I preach it again, usually twice. I do this every week. Fifty years in fact. Then I preach it in before real people twice. Candidly, between the two services I’ve made some decisions. Last Sunday I had a story down in the middle of the sermon and I shouldn’t go there, so I pulled it up in front after I got to the church — I changed the order.

It’s an oral manuscript. They tape record it and then my secretary types it out. I have the oral record tape recorded for another Sunday.

Preaching: Do you mostly preach in series?

Self: Now I do. I don’t call them series, though; I call them a set of sermons. I don’t know why except that each sermon has to stand alone. It helps me in my study.

Preaching: How long is a typical sermon?

Self: The older I get the longer it gets! I asked my minister of music our minister of music to give it to me no later than 30 minutes into the service. I get the last half and I’ll preach for 20 or 25 usually. I ought to come in for a landing a little early to give the invitation but I’ll give about five minutes at the end for invitation. We have to be very time conscious here because we only have 15 minutes between services and I have to get them in and out. One Sunday we had many additions, I was a little long winded and things were working, and we were way over for the first service and like dominoes it messed up the Sunday School. I don’t like that kind of rigidity because it puts boundaries on the work of the Holy Sprit. I long for those old days when we just had one service and you could just preach your heart out and sing 48 verses of Just As I Am.

Preaching: You’ve been preaching 50 years now. If you could go back and talk to yourself as a young pastor, are there two or three pieces of advice that you would give yourself?

Self: I’d say study more, don’t do as much denominational work, speak less. You know there was a day where when two or three were gathered together I was in the midst of them speaking! I loved it. It was part ego, part financial. I’d say speak less.

I would say that your family is worth the effort. I missed a lot of things with my boys that I should have been there for because I was so committed to the church. I spoke to a lot of secular speaking and that gets to be a rat race. I would cut out a lot of that. When it’s all said and done it’s only your church and your family that you have to invest in.

Then I’d study more. I’ve always studied a lot, but I never had the feeling that I had studied that last bit that I need to study. I tell you what I’d do, too: every preacher worries that his task is not respectable. You know everybody loves doctors, teachers, business leaders. Preachers are just kind of talkers, and so we do things that legitimize ourselves. I wouldn’t worry about that at all.

You know my boys are up and grown. I miss those years and the time I missed with them. We do have one great blessing — our youngest son is a deacon in this church, and he sits on the front row with his wife and our oldest grandson. I realize as I look down at that little boy now, listening to his granddaddy preach, how that has impacted him and I realize the responsibility.

You know, there’s a lot of debate about the role of the pastor. I’ve got that one down: the pastor is the father. I’m the father of the church. What does the father do? He just fathers. I’ve been to Africa and I’ve met a tribal chief. You know, you don’t define what a tribal chief does — you just do it. Sometimes it’s making sure the toilets work. Sometimes it’s making big decisions.

Preaching: We had a conversation once about this growing church and how some younger pastors have told you you need to retire and have a younger pastor come in here!

Self: In fact, I was sixty years old when this church called me to pastor, which surprised me. When we relocated out here they said, “We want an old pro that knows his way around the block and won’t be intimidated — by us or by other people — so we figured you would have that going for you.”

The other thing is I’m more secure and they’re more secure with me. I’ve had young adults out there that say, “It’s like you’re our daddy.” People will join and they’ll say, “Now how long are you going to be here?” I tell them I’m going to be here ’til I drop dead if everything stays right. If you had a younger pastor, he’s looking for the next church. I’m where I want to be and I’m very secure. That’s giving them a sense of security and they like having daddy preach to them. They trust me.

I get less advice now than I ever have. You know, every pastor gives a lot of advice. “Well if you just weren;t so loud!” or “You shouldn’t tell so many jokes!” I don’t get that. It’s a different way they connect to me because they trust me and they figure I’ve been around the block.

I think this idea of a young pastor is wonderful. But you can keep yourself alive and vital. I’m 71. Every morning I get up about 6 or 6:30, go right downstairs and get on the treadmill. I hate that treadmill, but it does keep me going. I have it in my study and so sometimes after I study I’ll get on the treadmill.

Preaching is worth the effort. I want young preachers to know this. It’s worth the effort. You don’t have to be trendy. You don’t have to worry about whether you sing the choruses or have the projection booth. If you’re preaching the word of God and the Holy Spirit calls you, it doesn’t make a difference what you wear. It doesn’t make a difference if you wear a golf shirt or tennis shoes. Get past the gimmicks and into the message. It’s worth the effort. If you’re preaching because you’re glib or to get attention you’ll get over that quick and get out of there quick. There comes a time when you have to see the religious significance of what we do — you are touching people at a profound level. If it were a job I would have quit preaching. That’s the crazy thing about it. I can’t let it go — or it won’t let me go.

Preaching is worth the effort.

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