Craig Groeschel is the founding pastor of LifeChurch.tv, a multi-campus church based in Edmond, Okla., but with sites in 17 cities and more to come. LifeChurch is well-known as the mother of YouVersion, a well-known Bible app that’s used by millions of people. Craig is the author of a new book, Fight: Winning the Battles that Matter Most, published by Zondervan Press.
Preaching: The book Fight deals with the issue of masculinity, with the biblical idea of what it means to be a man. What drew you to that topic?
Groeschel: You know, I love preaching and teaching to the men of our church. A lot of times when we do this, people say, “Well, aren’t the ladies going to get upset that they’re being left out?” I always argue, “No, they actually love it because they love for their men to become more passionate about Christ.” It’s a subject I think we should preach on often, and when I actually dove into the character of Samson, I was originally going to teach it just as kind of a character study. The more I looked at it, the more it screamed out to me how this guy is like so many men. To me, it almost was inspired by God to be taught to men.
So I became really excited and broke it down into a four-week teaching series at our church and was blown away by how much it resonated with people. I really had hoped to do a book for men for years, so we ended up creating a book out of it designed specifically for men with short chapters, so you feel as if you’re making progress. Hopefully it’s going to be helpful to a lot of guys.
Preaching: You mentioned that Samson is the key character here. At first blush, somebody might say, “Well, Samson’s not the godliest character in the Bible.”
Groeschel: No, he’s not, and the reality is that most of us aren’t nearly as godly as we would like to be either. When I look at this guy, he’s this incredibly strong man with a dangerously weak will. I think that one little phrase describes so many of us. We’ve got so much God-given, divine potential, and then we just so often do silly things, stupid things, that are self-destructive. I see myself in that, so I don’t hold him up as the “Hey, here’s the way to do it” model so much as “Hey, this is how not to do it.”
There actually are some redeeming qualities in his story if you dig into it. His whole life wasn’t just a big mistake. He made a lot of them, but he did a few things right in there, and the encouraging thing is that even at the end, God’s grace was still evident, and he was able to do what he was created to do, although it cost him everything. There’s still a really interesting story of grace and redemption amid all the failures.
Preaching: Do you do a lot of series around Bible characters?
Groeschel: Yeah. I love [teaching about] Bible characters…because you get into the text, and the stories are so rich. It’s so easy for so many of us to relate to the characters, so I try to do one or two characters every year. I probably should do more. You know how people are today. So many people don’t even know the stories we grew up thinking everybody knew, so it’s a good way to educate people about the stories and pull out stories that are helpful.
Preaching: That’s true. Isn’t it interesting that today you almost could have a preaching ministry consist of telling Bible stories that people don’t know?
Groeschel: Yeah, you could with just the classics and the basics because they are still so new to so many people, which is honestly one reason we created the YouVersion Bible app. We saw this is a generation that simply does not know the Bible, and we felt it was the right opportunity with the technology that’s available. Our goal is to take what may be the most disengaged generation with the Bible, and we actually believe—I believe this with all my heart—this can become the most engaged generation in history in reading God’s Word.
Preaching: In Fight, you talk about the warrior spirit. What do you mean by that, and what does the warrior spirit mean to a man in the 21st century?
Groeschel: Well, when you look at Jesus, it’s easy to look at a portion of who He was. He’s obviously our Savior and the greatest example who ever lived, so we focus in on the fact that He was loving, full of grace and mercy, safe for kids and carried sheep around; but sometimes we don’t spend as much time thinking about the fact that He’d stand the Pharisees down and call them a brood of vipers or snakes, and He’d overturn a table when His Father’s house of worship was turned into a place of profit.
So Jesus was full of love and mercy, [but] He would stand up for what was true and right. I believe that as men, created in the image of God—He’s even called a warrior in the Old Testament—there’s something in us that loves to stand up for what’s right, that loves to fight. Not necessarily throw a physical punch, but we live in a culture today that says men should be more passive. I think God is calling us to be leaders, to draw a line in the sand and stand up. So I think through that theme, along with the character of Samson who ended up fighting a lot of the battles the wrong way, we hope to inspire men to fight some battles that really do matter in their lives.
Preaching: You mentioned this came from a sermon series. I’m assuming you preach mostly in series.
Groeschel: I do, yes.
Preaching: How long is a typical series for you, and how far out do you plan where you’re going with your series?
Groeschel: A series for us generally will be three to five weeks. I will plan one series ahead, maybe two at the most. The reason is…I don’t know three or four months out what I’m going to be studying, what I’m going to be passionate about, what’s going to be bubbling up in me. So, rather than being real organized and planning out the future, I would rather have a little shorter planning cycle and make sure what I’m doing is the hottest thing in my heart at the moment.
So I’m thankful for a team that works around me and doesn’t say, “I need to know today what you’re teaching next March,” but instead can be creative and write curriculum about it quickly and make sure what I’m teaching in March is what I’m most excited about in March.
Preaching: What’s your process for planning a series, and how do you decide what series you’re going to do?
Groeschel: I have a list I keep in a file of probably 100 to 120 different ideas that I’ll write down. They’ll generally come when I’m reading through Scripture—I read through the Bible every year just as a personal devotion—and there might be a text, idea or word that comes up again and again that I’ll think, “I’d like to teach on that one day,” so I’ll put it on the list. Then when I’m actually sitting down to make a prayerful decision about what series is coming up, maybe in six or eight weeks, I’ll pull out the list and read through it with a prayerful mind and think, “What are the things I’d be real excited to talk about right now?”
Generally there are three, four or five ideas that rise to the top. I put them up on a board, stare at them for a while, and wait until I become really excited about one of them. Then I’ll outline what I might want to do in the series. If it’s a text study or several chapters of the Bible, I’ll try to organize it and see if this is three, four or five weeks. How many weeks will it take me to deal with it? I try to get a rough outline.
Then I bring people in and bounce ideas off of them. I don’t let them help me write the content at this level, though some guys do that. I like to know, “Of these ideas, which ones resonate with you and are you most excited about hearing?” Then I’ll make a commitment to the series, but it’s nowhere close to being finished; sometimes it evolves as I’m writing it from week to week.
Preaching: Are there particular series that are your favorites?
Groeschel: You know, this past year, there were a few that stood out to me. At the beginning of the year, I did a series called “My Story.” Basically the decisions you make today will determine the story you tell tomorrow. I thought it was a really effective New Year’s message series. We talked about making four decisions: Start, Stop, Stay, Go. That was four weeks. Start: a discipline that can change the course of my destiny. Stop: a bad habit that could be destructive in my life. Stay: where God calls me to stay when I’d rather quit. Go: you take a step of faith when it would be easier to stay. I really enjoyed that.
The second one I felt was surprisingly and deeply helpful was four weeks on friendships. Once I [started] doing some research, I learned that 25 years ago the average American had six close friends; today the average American has two close friends, and a full 25 percent of Americans would say they have no close friends at all. I really started studying outside of Scripture just how the use of technology is impacting relationships positively and negatively. I took some of those ideas and incorporated them in Scripture and found a church full of people crowded with social media who actually were longing for deep spiritual intimacy and connections in relationships they didn’t have.
That came to light in ways I never could have expected. People are craving the
Preaching: Speaking of social media, Life Church developed the YouVersion, which a lot of us carry around on our iPhones, iPads, tablets and all the rest. How did that happen, and what kind of influence does that have within your congregation?
Groeschel: That’s at the top of the list of things our church is excited about. This is not what drove us to start it, but this is part of the story: I came to Christ in college after someone from the Gideons gave me a free New Testament. I started reading in Matthew; then in
Fast forward many years later, Bobby Gruenewald, who is on our team and is one of the most brilliant men alive, had an idea basically to start a website to try and help engage people in the Bible. It would kind of be a cross between Facebook, YouTube and the Bible where we wanted to try and engage people in a community that revolved around the Bible. Well, the website didn’t really work very well and we were considering shutting it down. Literally days before we were going to call it quits, Bobby came in and said, “Hey, Apple’s coming out with apps, I wonder what would happen if we tried to turn this into an app?”
So we hired a part-time, 19-year-old to do what he could to build an app, and we thought it would be amazing if we could have several thousand people download the app. I think the first weekend, there were 88,000 people downloading the app. We were like, “Oh my goodness, we’re really onto something special.”
We put a ton of our resources behind it, had people outside the church believe in it and invest in it, and we’re putting in everything we can to make it as good as possible with reading plans, languages, translations and updates. We’ve had 113 million downloads as of today. We’ll see 4 million downloads this month, and right now, as a team, we’re saying behind the scenes, “We’re going to believe God that we’re going to be able to give away a billion Bible apps around the world.” We think it’s possible, and we pray God will empower us to do it.
Preaching: That’s an incredible story and a great ministry for the church. On behalf of all those millions of people who have downloaded the app, thank you.
Groeschel: Ah, we’re so thankful we get to do it. I’m thankful you enjoy it.
Preaching: Craig, who are the preachers who have influenced you?
Groeschel: My pastor, Nick Harris, was what you might call an evangelical United Methodist pastor. He was one of the best expository teachers around. I wish I could teach more like him. He’s a phenomenal communicator.
As of today, I listen every week because they’re my friends, but I love the way Andy Stanley thinks. When he preaches, I have to tell myself, “Don’t copy what he says,” because I don’t want to copy him, but it really speaks to me. Pastor Steven Furtick, I love the way he can take God’s Word and emotionally move a crowd. People criticize emotion in preaching, but emotion will move people to action; he’s almost got an old-school, charismatic bent to him. I like the way he moves a crowd toward something.
I really was moved in my early years by Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and their preaching because they made the Bible practical to me. I’d always thought it was something that just didn’t really apply to your life Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday; they made it apply to my life during the week. I thought that was really powerful.
Preaching: You’re the pastor of LifeChurch, which you founded in 1996. I’m sure you’ve learned a few things through the years as a pastor. If you could go back and revisit yourself as a young pastor and share something you have learned about preaching, about ministry in the years since, what would you like to be able to go back and share?
Groeschel: That’s a great question, and I’ll answer it on different levels. About preaching, I would tell myself, “Don’t worry about being so creative or funny. Just trust the power of God’s Word,” because there were times I thought I had to be more entertaining. I still think, as preachers, a sermon that engages and is fun to listen to is more exciting to hear than a dead sermon. I don’t make any apology for that because it’s true. Being engaging is better, but I tell myself, “Don’t work so hard to be clever, funny, creative. Just trust the power of God’s Word.”
Also, if I said some things that were inappropriate because I thought they were funny, I would tell myself, “Grow up. Don’t do that. It’s not worth it.” I would have tried to raise my standards.
As a leader, I think I would tell myself to enjoy the ride more, to enjoy the blessings of God, stop more often and be thankful. I would tell myself I should have taken more time off—I think I do a better job of that now than I did in the early days. I would try to remind myself ministry is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to do it at a pace that is sustainable.
I would have told myself earlier not to be so critical of others because God’s got a really big kingdom. I would have been more for others and really embraced a broader kingdom. I was young and thought I knew it all; I actually didn’t know it all.