(Originally printed in the November-December, 1988 issue of Preaching)
Though Atlanta is a city of churches, Wieuca Road Baptist Church is an enduring phenomenon. Once the magnet church for a generation of southern suburbanites, Wieuca Road is now surrounded by bustling Buckhead, Atlanta’s most intriguing urban landscape. It is a strange blending of southern mansions and glassurban canyons of reflective glass.
Wieuca Road stands as a symbol of ministry in the New South – and of the New America. For over twenty years William L. Self has stood in the elegant pulpit at Wieuca Road, bridging the transition in the community as the minister to that multi-thousand-member congregation.
One of the most popular pulpit communicators in America, Self is witty, incisive, and often controversial. He is never at a loss for words. He will be a keynote speaker during the National Conference on Preaching February 21-23, 1989, in Tampa, Florida.
Dr. Self was interviewed in Louisville, Kentucky by Preaching Associate Editor R. Albert Mohler Jr.
Preaching: You have established a much deserved reputation for effective preaching. Through your ministry at Wieuca Road you represent a unique model of biblical preaching. As a good starting point for our discussion, how would you define biblical preaching?
Self: Biblical preaching is touching the needs of people with the message of the Bible – a message which is ultimately nothing other than Jesus Christ. That is biblical preaching. It starts with the need and comes back to the Bible, rather than starting with the Bible and going to the need.
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.
For most secular Americans, and it is to the secular mind that I target my preaching, the Bible is just another book. That is not what I believe about the Bible; it is a frank recognition that to the secular mind there may not be any great difference between the Bible, the Koran, Kahlil Gibran, or Rudyard Kipling, It falls to the preacher to demonstrate that it is the Bible which ultimately answers the great issues of life, and meets the deepest human needs.
Preaching: In recent years preaching theorists have drawn attention to the assumptions underlying different models of biblical preaching by indicating where in each model the authority of the Word is basic. Is the Word located in the text, in the preaching event, or at the ear of the hearer? Is it not important to recognize the authority of the Word as primary in all three?
Self: Yes, the word of God is found in all those places: the text, the sermon, and the ear. It is most ultimately in the biblical text. Biblical preaching is that mysterious arcing between the written text and the human need. It is a lively Word -an explosive Word – and it is a larger issue than we can fathom. We do not give this enough thought.
Preaching: What are the basics of preaching to the secular mind? Where do you begin the process?
Self: I begin with the perceived need brought to the preaching event by the person in the pew. I don’t really believe that the man in the pew comes with a burning personal need to know about the prodigal son. I don’t think he or she has been awake at night worrying about what Paul meant by “work out your own salvation.” I have never met a yuppie wrestling with the authorship of Hebrews. They just don’t care about these issues. Most don’t know these are issues.
The people I preach to range from the Atlanta street people to yuppies in their yellow ties and BMW’s. The casual observer would not see much in common between these people, but their commonality is a sense of need. I begin there, address that need, and walk with him into a reservoir of meaning within the Bible. That will feed him at his point of greatest need.
Preaching: What model of preaching do you find most effective? To what extent do you utilize propositional preaching, narrative models, and other preaching paradigms?
Self: I find that narrative preaching fits my understanding of how the biblical message will meet the human need. The great narratives of the Bible – from Samson to the prodigal son – represent deep rivers out of this reservoir of meaning.
I do not find myself doing much propositional preaching. There are congregations where propositional preaching is most appropriate – but that is not Wieuca Road. The secular man or woman is not ready to balance out propositions unrelated to his perceived need.
Preaching: How does the biblical text speak in this process?
Self: The text speaks after the individual’s need and interest has been arrested. The text speaks at all levels, but our task as preachers is to identify the point at which it is best heard. It is heard when the text becomes the solution to the need.
Let me illustrate it this way: The secular individual comes to the pew with deep issues and needs at stake – though he may not really understand that at the time. He comes with a sense of worry or frustration, a basic lack of meaning in his life. She may come with a traumatic existential question: “Why did my fourteen-year-old daughter die last night in an accident?”
In the midst of this kind of basic question the text speaks with authority. A text from Job, Paul, or the wisdom literature will speak to that grieving mother as no secular text can ever speak. When this arcing takes place you cannot confuse the biblical texts for the epigrams of an almanac.
It is not the preacher’s responsibility to make that arc. All I can do is to bring the need to the text – get them juxtaposed – and trust the Holy Spirit and the presence of Christ to perform that mysterious arcing between our need and the Gospel. It is just not possible for the preacher to accomplish this arcing.
I want to underscore this central point: I really do believe that Joe Secular does not see much difference between the Bible and the Farmer’s Almanac or Kahlil Gibran, unless that arcing takes place. You can see the secular mind pick up a folk song and make that their text – a secular text. We had a lot of that in the 60’s and 70’s. Even graffitti can become a text.
The fact that the biblical texts are found in a black book with gold edges does not impress the secular mind. What reaches even the most secular, however, is when the Word of God authenticates itself in that life at the point of need. Then the authenticity is unmistakable.
Preaching: How do you determine the needs of your hearers?
Self: You do a lot of listening. There are periods of time that I plunge into people like I would plunge into a swimming pool, walking among them. I spend a lot of time in the secular community. I may not spend enough time in the stained-glass community as I should.
I invest my time in those events in the community which are not religious – civic clubs, professional meetings, business groups – and I do a lot of listening there. I get the pulse of where they are. Just by listening and observing these groups you get a sense of what those needs are.
You can also find it in the literature the secular mind is reading. Graham Greene speaks to those needs. Actually, most novelists speak to the secular mind and those needs. The religious community is often guilty of answering questions the secular mind isn’t asking. If they do tackle some of these issues they must do so in a way which will please the religious community.
Novelists like Graham Greene and John Updike may talk more about life than many of us are preaching. That is an indictment of the church. If we preach to the stained-glass ghetto we must not suffer under the comfortable illusion that we are reaching the secular culture.
Preaching: How has your preaching changed? You have been at Wieuca Road for over twenty years. Have the church and its community changed? You have said elsewhere that it is a different church from that of twenty years ago.
Self: That is so right. When I went to Wieuca Road it was a burgeoning suburban church. As I look back on it, it was a cakewalk. Twenty years ago people were moving into this community by the thousands. Atlanta was moving north – right in our direction. Anyone with his head screwed on straight could have built that church. But America changed. Wieuca Road changed.
Somewhere along the line the suburban station-wagon set moved on out and we started finding the broken urban man in his sports car and second or third marriage. Our part of Atlanta is a different community. Yuppies, singles, street people and mid-life persons moved in – but many are not in the community for long.
We had to deal with all this. My preaching has changed as I have focused on a different set of needs. Furthermore, I think I now have a better idea of how to address this.
I did go through a period when I bowed to Baal and tried to stay in the traditional models – three points and a poem. I would explain to the congregation the distance from Jerusalem to Jericho. In the last eight to ten years I have discovered this other approach. I am more certain of it than ever, because I have seen it meet the real needs of real people.
Preaching: How else has your preaching changed? Would those who have sat in those pews for the past twenty years discern the changes?
Self: I really think my preaching is better now, to be honest. I know it is more carefully targeted. I am more certain about what I am after when I step into the pulpit. I know where I am headed and what I hope will be accomplished. The entire service is more need oriented.
That does not mean that I do all life-situation preaching, but, whatever style of sermon I preach, it must ask first the question: “what are the listener’s needs?” I want to begin with the “hook” represented by his need.
As I prepare messages I think of the guy in the pew. I keep a photograph of the church filled with people before me as I prepare. I look at that photograph and ask, “How does this fit John or Mary?,” and so forth. Occasionally I will sit by myself in the sanctuary and through my imagination listen to myself preach the sermon. As I do this I ask myself, “Where is Joe Secular connecting with this?”
I also think my preaching is now more biblical. I think that the relationship between the biblical text and my sermon is more authentic now than it was twenty years ago. It is better researched.
Beyond that, I think the text and the message now “fit” better. A text is used because it speaks genuinely to the issue – and not because it sounds good to a religious audience.
Preaching: What tangible suggestions would you offer to your fellow preachers? Speak to the thousands of preachers who must, in Fred Craddock’s words, “get up a sermon every Sunday.”
Self: I have just converted to something every veteran preacher knows. I am a late convert here – I did it kicking and screaming – but it has given the biggest release I have ever had. I now plan a year’s pulpit work ahead, or at least nine months ahead. I really don’t plan the three summer months.
I go away into the mountains and force myself to do it, to plan those nine months of preaching. After the agony comes the release. It is really the most relaxing experience of my life. There is now a sense of wholeness about my preaching ministry – in contrast to the shotgun approach of my earlier ministry. I grieve over the wasted years when I did not do this.
Preaching: What about your reading? What do you find yourself reading as you think about the secular mind and the task of preaching?
Self: That is my other tangible suggestion: Read as widely as you possibly can. Subscribe to magazines and journals most folk wouldn’t read. Get The New York Times and read the book review section and the magazine section.
Take a sabbath to read. No one has any more time than anyone else. We all suffer under the same time pressure. Take a short sabbath every week to read. Let it percolate in your head until you can focus it out, then preach it out – to paraphrase Karl Barth, take the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. You must bridge the two.
Preaching: You have the opportunity in these pages to speak to several thousand preaching colleagues. What is the one thing you would want to say to them?
Self: Preaching is worth the effort. It is the greatest thing in the world if you are called to do it. It is a divine madness, but, speaking as one who has done it all his life, I would do it all again. I would pay for this privilege.
Furthermore, the church is worth it – it really is. Don’t despair over the church or give up on it. Every preacher is tempted to do that at one time or another. But the church is where the action is. If God is going to do anything in this world, he is going to do it through His church.