Randy Frazee is the senior minister at Oak Hill’s Church in San Antonio, Texas, where he serves alongside Max Lucado. A pastor for 25 years, he is the author of several books, including his most recent volume, The Heart of the Story. He recently visited with Executive Editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: Your new book, The Heart of the Story, guides readers through the Bible as a grand narrative. This book grew out of a sermon series, didn’t it?
Frazee: It sure did. The very beginning was a product Zondervan introduced to me in 2005. They wanted to show me some of the new products they had, and one of them was this bridge chronology of the Bible called The Story. I had been looking for something for the congregation in Fort Worth that I was serving at the time.
Essentially, I knew people were deeply, deeply struggling in understanding even the basic flow of the story, let alone what the story was all about. I tried numerous things, and I finally got to the point where I just said, “I’m going to get everyone in my congregation to read through an unabridged chronology of the Bible.” You know, it was still too overwhelming.
So, when The Story came along, I knew this was going to be big. I initially took it with me to Willow Creek, where I served as a teaching pastor. In 2008, I was finally able to introduce the congregation there to The Story in a sermon series; and it caught on like wildfire. It spoke the love language of everybody in the congregation, from the seeker to the mature believer, from the child to the senior citizen.
So when I came to Oak Hills in 2008, that was the very first thing Max and I did. It has proven to be an incredible experience for people in the Bible.
Preaching: Most contemporary believers don’t know the Bible very well. Why do you think that’s the case?
Frazee: First of all, it’s absolutely true that we’re living in a pandemic of biblical illiteracy, which is kind of odd. We’re at the 400th anniversary of the Authorized Version. I think of the painstaking work Wycliffe, Luther and others did to bring us the Bible in the first Reformation; and here we are 400 years later…
While the average family has four Bibles in its home, 41 percent confess to never reading it. You know, back in the 1500s and 1600s the problem was illiteracy; people couldn’t read, and they didn’t have a Bible for themselves. Today, the opposite is true; but biblical literacy may be at the same level. It’s time for a second reformation. So you hit the nail right on the head, we do have a problem.
I think one of the problems has to do with the way in which the Bible is organized. You know, it’s organized topically, not to read like a story, not to read like a novel. So most people don’t ever get a chance to see the one chronological story, let alone understand what it means.
I think problem number two is we don’t present to our people today the story as a story. Rather, we do more individual portraits or sound bytes; and I think in time, that has greatly hurt our folks.
Preaching: At the university where I serve, at the beginning of the introduction to the Bible class, one professor asked the students—and these are students who have grown up in the church for the most part—”What is the Bible? Is it a book of rules, or is it a story?” He said 98 percent of them said it was a book of rules. They just don’t realize there is a great story in the Scripture.
Frazee: Absolutely. The Heart of the Story is basically my commentary to the story, which seeks to connect the dots of all the individual stories to the one story. I use this analogy in the opening chapter: Look at it as the difference between going to The Louvre, in France where you’re looking at all these masterful, individual portraits, and compare that to going into the Sistine Chapel in Rome and looking at beautiful individual portraits that are all painted together to make a mural on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
The Bible was meant to be seen as a mural like in the Sistine Chapel. All the characters coming together to tell one, overarching story, versus all these individual portraits. What’s happened is it has left our people with a portion of the gospel, a portion of the story. Most believers today couldn’t tell you the chronological flow of the story. Granted that’s just knowledge, maybe for the sake of knowledge; but because they can’t do that, they aren’t able to understand the 39 books of the Old Testament are a beautiful story of God’s love in pursuit of us, pointing to the first coming of Christ. They really miss the unbelievable extent to which God has gone to get us back.
Preaching: How do you use preaching as a way to get people into the story, to get them more involved reading in learning Scripture?
Frazee: Preaching needs to be integrated with people’s personal learning and journey. What I love about The Story and then The Heart of the Story is that they seek to combine a person’s personal experience with the Bible and connect them together. I think it hits two birds with one stone, if you will.
I think one of the goals of preaching, even when you read the Bible or read The Story as a bridged chronology of the Bible is to put in what we call a novel experience for the beginner, as well as the mature believer—they get the reading, but preaching helps connect the dots. It raises them above all of the lower story kinds of lessons one can learn and gives them an opportunity to look on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and really give them a glimpse of what God is trying to teach us through the story.
For example, take the story of Noah. When you look at the story of Noah, most kids introduced to it in Sunday School were taught it in sermons and often were given a lower story look at this man—a crazy man named Noah heard God speak to him to build an ark in the middle of the desert. When you read the story, you get the idea that there is this God who is ticked at mankind and going to get us back by wiping us out and saving one good family. Then at the end, He kind of relents and creates a rainbow and says, “I’ll never do that again.” So you can look at this unbelievable story of faith or this unbelievable story of the power of this God to regret He ever made man.
When you look at it in the scheme of the whole, you realize Michelangelo really got it more right than wrong when on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, his 11th painting was Noah in his disgrace. Really the point of the story of Noah—when it’s connected to the whole—is not the faith of Noah, but rather God saying, “I want to get you back into the garden. I want to restore what was lost.” Plan A: Take the best person you have, the most righteous person you have—Noah—and see if we can start over with his offspring, see if that doesn’t fix the problem.
The point of the story of Noah is that soon after they get out of the ark, sin crept up into the family’s life again when Noah’s son looked upon him in his disgrace. That’s how Michelangelo painted him. I think this is the point of the story of Noah: The solution to getting us back into a relationship with God will not come from us—not even the best of us. Time for plan B, for God to introduce us (or to begin to introduce us) through the starting of Israel, to the coming of the One coming from another, who ultimately will bring us back into a relationship with God.
Preaching: You made a reference to the lower story there. You’ve got this concept in the book about this upper story and the lower story. Explain what that is.
Frazee: For the listener, this is one of the biggest ideas behind The Heart of the Story. It’s basically saying to the reader that when you’re reading the Bible, there are two stories going on simultaneously at all times. Many times what we see is the lower story—life from a 6-foot perspective and under. This is how we see the story unfolding, sort of from a horizontal perspective.
At the same time, God is using the events of this lower story. You know, sort of getting up each day, paying the bills, pass the mashed potatoes, How do I get through this day? He’s using that unfolding story, and an upper story is all connected together to accomplish His plan. A good example would be Cain and Abel. Immediately after Adam and Eve were escorted from the garden, Cain offered a sacrifice that wasn’t pleasing to God and Abel’s was. Cain murdered his brother out of jealousy.
In the lower story, we could teach that story as sibling rivalry gone completely bad, completely wrong, out of control. In the lower story, we could say that’s why you need to treat your brother nicely; you need to celebrate your brother’s success. In the upper story, God is demonstrating to us that what happened to Adam and Eve in the garden has been transmitted to their offspring. You are an offspring of Adam; therefore, the sin nature that has escorted Adam and Eve out of the garden has been deposited in you at birth. So there are two stories going on at the same time.
What we try to do in The Heart of the Story is not only tell the lower story, but introduce the reader to how this lower story fits into the overall upper story God is telling. It is His one story, His one plan to get us back.
Preaching: Do you use that kind of upper story, lower story motif at any point when you preach or teach?
Frazee: I do. I used it all throughout The Story when I preached it. We still use it today in our preaching. Other churches who have gone through The Story Campaign experience have told me the same thing. I just talked to a guy last night in Orlando and he said, “Our church went through The Story, and we still use this upper and lower story language in our congregation.” I think it’s extremely valuable.
It’s interesting, Michael, I had the concept of the upper and lower story particularly at the story of Joseph. In the most powerful way, we are introduced to the idea: How could Joseph (in the lower story) forgive what his brothers did to him? He said the words to his brothers when he revealed his identity: “What you meant for evil” (in the lower story), “God meant for good” (in the upper story). (In other words) “What you did out of jealousy to me—out of the relationship I had with my dad—what you did in the lower story, God was using to put me in Egypt just in time, to raise me up so I would be in the position I’m in to save Israel from a famine that would have wiped out (everyone), and therefore would have dismissed the promise of God to bring the Messiah through it.”
I introduced that upper and lower story language when I was teaching this at new community at Willow Creek, and the people came unglued with the idea. That’s why I decided when I came to Oak Hills to teach it with Max. I was going to introduce the whole language of upper and lower story from the very beginning to the very end.
Preaching: As you preached the series that resulted in The Heart of the Story, were there parts of the Bible that you found more difficult than others to try to communicate in this way?
Frazee: Absolutely. In preaching to an American audience, I think a problem is that repetition drives people crazy. When you’re going through the Old Testament, many of the messages of the Old Testament are the same song, second verse. I sometimes found it difficult to teach it just by virtue of saying the same thing again; but I think God was going over and over again, etching this message in place.
I think where it was one of the more difficult places—but turned out to be really a great opportunity—was when you get into the issue of the conquest of the land. I think that is really a struggle for folks—or the divided kingdom or the Babylonian captivity. Where most people are struggling in their biblical literacy or chronology to begin with, now you have the burden of asking: What could the Babylonian captivity or the captivity of the northern kingdom of Israel possibly have to do with the unfolding of God’s story?
First of all when preaching it, you have to introduce people to the chronological flow of the concept of the divided kingdom or the captivities. They didn’t really know about it or understand how it fits into history. Then you have to introduce them to why. What could taking the southern kingdom of Judah to Babylon possibly have to do with the unfolding of this upper story? So there we had to do a little bit more work.
That little 25-minute allotment I have on Sunday mornings sometimes was a real challenge; but at the end of the day, it was such a rich teaching that I think new believers were introduced to the story appropriately for the first time. For mature believers, light bulbs were going off, and they were saying, “I’ve never seen this before.”
Preaching: How do you decide which series to preach? How do you and Max arrange your preaching schedules?
Frazee: Max and I have a very wonderful and interesting relationship. We actually teach long series together.
I’ll give the flow of our teaching schedule. I teach the month of August. It’s a vision series for the church. Because I’m the senior minister, I do a four-week series in which we call the families of the Oak Hills Church together and say: We’re going to talk about how our congregation is seeking to accomplish the mission God has given us. So it’s kind of a family series. September up through Thanksgiving, I teach a series that would be predominantly one series. Right now, I’m doing a series called “Think, Act and Be Like Jesus.”
Then Max takes over teaching Advent; the next year I would do Advent. Then Max picks up preaching from January to Easter; I will do Easter Sunday. In the summer, we have individual series. Because of people’s travel, we do individual stand-alone weeks. So that’s kind of our schedule.
We’re now entering into our fourth year. It’s interesting to see the strategy Max and I have come up with for the congregation as we’ve begun this new journey together. In our first year, we took the congregation through God’s story, which is actually the story of the Bible—The Story, The Heart of the Story and that experience.
In the second year, we went through our story and took the congregation through the Book of Acts. Last year, we took them through my story, which is a journey through the Book of Romans.
So what we try to teach the congregation is: Let’s begin with God and what He’s up to, the story. His story. Then let’s take a look at the church and what our mission is in light of God’s story and align our lives to His story. Finally, let’s take a look at our individual lives and journeys in Christ and align them to where the church is. The Book of Romans does a great job with that.
So we’re not only doing these series and doing them in a particular pattern, but we’re also looking at where we are trying to take the congregation. That’s what we’ve done our first three years together.
Preaching: Tell me a little about your preaching style. If we were to visit Oak Hills some Sunday, what would we see?
Frazee: I think Max and I are very conversational. We don’t use a podium. We dress casually, and we’re really trying to create a conversation with the congregation. My style is really designed to include humor, because I really believe people are able to learn best when they’re able to relax and laugh. So that’s a natural part of my teaching style.
I’m also seeking to use less Scripture passages than some of the average teachers. I like people to have their Bibles open and to look into them and get a feel for it themselves. So I’m not as likely to move around to multiple texts as maybe some other teachers are.
I’m also looking for the congregation to have some sort of opportunity to respond, so at Oak Hills Church, at the end of each service there is about a 20-minute prayer opportunity when prayer ministers are available for people to have an opportunity to soak in the message, to get some counsel, as well as have an opportunity for prayer.
Preaching: Who are the persons who have influenced your preaching the most?
Frazee: In the early years when I was still in Bible college and seminary, there were some of the same folks who really influenced a lot of other people such as Charles Swindoll.
It’s real interesting…I looked back in the late 1980s or early 90s, and some of my Easter messages were influenced greatly by a guy I’m now partnered with, Max Lucado—not so much his preaching style because I’d never heard him preach at that point—but just reading his books about the cross and the resurrection. They just really entered me into the power of storytelling and how to integrate grace; and inspiring people was a real key element.
Preaching: How do you and Max differ in style?
Frazee: It’s interesting. If I had to compare Max and myself—and some have done that—people say that when they finish hearing Max teach, they love God more; when they finish hearing me preach, they want to serve God more. I think the other thing for me is Max just loves preaching and teaching for the sake of preaching and teaching. I also have this leadership gift in me so that when I preach I’m also seeking to mobilize, and I think that’s why the service motif is one of the common things for me.
I don’t primarily see myself as a preacher because I love to preach. I see myself more as a leader who wants to mobilize the congregation into action, and preaching is one of the inspirational ways to pull that off.
Preaching: To what extent do you see preaching as a tool of your leadership?
Frazee: I see it as a tremendous tool. As a matter of fact, as I look back on my three years at Willow Creek, I was one of five teaching pastors. One of the things that didn’t work for me in that experience—that I didn’t really know before—is that I really lead best through inspiring the troops through preaching. So coming to Oak Hills and sharing the teaching with just one other minister has been a much better environment for me to lead.
I lead through motivating and inspiring and instructing, and preaching is really the number one way—hopefully besides modeling and my personal life—it is my best way of leading.
Preaching: You’ve been ministering for some 25 years. What have you learned about preaching that you wish you could go back and tell young Randy when he was starting?
Frazee: I think I have probably multiple answers, but one sticks out because I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
When I got into ministry in the mid ’80s, it was a time when the church was really trying to be more seeker-oriented. It was really trying to attract people in the community; as a consequence we were trying to do more topical, self-need subjects. That was how I was introduced to preaching ministry, to get into that stream.
To a certain extent, it worked in attracting people to the church. I started out in a church of 400 that grew pretty rapidly, then I went to Willow Creek; and Oak Hills is a large church. To some extent, you have that responsibility of speaking to the needs of the people.
What I have discovered particularly going through The Story, is that the people in the congregation are desperate to hear the Word of God. They’re desperate to hear something; and it doesn’t need to be packaged in this slick, topical, cultural relevancy kind of way. I think if I had to do it over again, I would spend less time trying to come up with a snazzy sermon title and spend more time giving our believers access to the Bible.
By that, I don’t mean verse-by-verse teaching. I don’t think that’s a bad idea, but what The Story and The Heart of the Story seek to do—that verse-by-verse teaching can’t do—is seek to lift them up above the malaise of the detail and let them see the beauty of what God is doing. So it’s not just verse-by-verse, but it is giving them more access to Scripture.
I had a conversation with Bill Hybels, who said, “I wonder where Willow Creek would be today if instead of doing topical messages on the weekend for seekers and relegating Bible teaching to smaller workshops, if we flipped that and did Bible on the weekend and relegated the topical things such as marriage and family, relationships and finances and things such as that to workshops?”
I’ve been mesmerized by the idea, because I think in many ways the Willow Creek movement influenced guys such as myself in the early stages. I probably did a lot more snazzy, get a four-color postcard, and send it out to all the residents, but I really think that at the end of the day, the Bible is back. At the end of the day, people want to hear the Word of God, because they know this is a voice of something other than just a man or a woman teaching what he or she thinks.