Preaching To Move A Church: An Interview With H. Beecher Hicks Michael Duduit November 1, 2005 Dr. H. Beecher Hicks, Jr., has served since 1977 as Senior Pastor of the 6,000-member historic Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Just the fifth senior minister in the congregation’s 141-year history, Hicks has led the church through an era of growth which includes a school and more than 60 ministries. He is author of several books, and Ebony magazine has identified him as one of the nation’s “Fifteen Greatest African-American Preachers.” He is also a member of the Board of Contributing Editors of Preaching magazine. Since 2000 he has guided the church through a process of preparation and planning which will result in the congregation’s move to a new 34-acre site in Largo, Maryland. In a recent visit with editor Michael Duduit, Dr. Hicks talked about the role preaching has played in preparing the historic congregation to make this significant move. Preaching: What do you see as the role of vision in your work as a pastor and specifically as a preacher? Beecher: I think that for both pastor and preacher vision is not only critical – it is vital to the integrity of the ministry. I think that if there is a purpose-driven life then there is also the purpose-driven pastorate and purpose-driven preaching. Every pastor/preacher, beyond the generic understanding of the “call,” must ask the question: what is it that God is leading me to, and how then shall I lead God’s people? If the pastor is the visionary within the local church – within the body of Christ – and has no vision, then the church itself is leaderless and in a very real sense the pastor has nothing to preach about. He is preaching generically, wandering aimlessly from text to text without any real sense of divine urgency on himself or upon his or her charge. Preaching: In your most recent book – On Jordan’s Stormy Banks – you talk about using vision to lead a church through a process of change. Tell me about the experience that contributed towards your thinking on that issue. Beecher: All ministry is contextual – we are constantly obliged to ask the questions: where are we, what is happening around us and how do we respond to the events and circumstances which impact our ministry? If we don’t ask those questions, we are pawns in a capricious chess game. If we don’t ask those kinds of questions, we become victims of our own failure to be introspective and thoughtful regarding the real purpose and focus of our ministry. In my setting, the Washington, DC to which I came in 1977 was radically different from the Washington, DC that I experience now. The population has shifted, the demographics are no longer the same, and the political landscape is dramatically altered. In 1977, the political landscape was charged with civil rights and social justice concerns. The political landscape at the beginning of the new century is clearly tending toward economic growth and development. Unfortunately, this economic empowerment has not included the poor or underprivileged. In the area surrounding the Metropolitan Church the most dramatic shift we have witnessed has been the process of gentrification, with African-Americans moving away from the center of the District and persons of other cultures, predominately Caucasian but also including Hispanics and Asians, gravitating toward the inner city. It’s important to understand that Metropolitan as a congregation has been in its current location for over a century. The organization of the church dates back to the Civil War, 1864. In fact, the organization of Metropolitan Church predates many of the larger institutions in Washington D.C. For example, it is older than Howard University. Metropolitan has been a part of the inner Washington community for a long time. Its constituency, the constituency that grew up around the church, has now moved away from the church geographically. In an increasingly secular culture, the importance and the role of the church has shifted. As inner city neighborhoods are evolving across the American landscape, the communities that are spawned have different values. Their level of interest in the community church is weakened and in some instances hostile. In my view, if a church is to remain relevant and purposeful, it must find a way to “reinvent” itself so that it is capable of addressing a different set of needs and motivations which people bring to the church – a different set of cultural criteria which seek to define what the church is and what the church should become. In some cases, churches have to face the challenging decision of relocation. The whole issue of the shifting of the culture, gentrification, and the geographical shifting of the membership – all those issues combined placed us in the position where we had to reevaluate the nature of our ministry in this particular urban setting. Whenever a pastor seeks to guide a congregation in a move from one location to the next – even if it is a move across the street – the decision bears within it the seed of great discussion at the least, and the potential for great division within the body of Christ itself. As you know, people become attached to location, to structure, to position and prestige within a community. The roots of history are very significant, particularly within African American culture. As a people we become very attached to our own sense of tradition and history. And to speak of moving away from the locus of that history and tradition is to shake the church at its very core. So then I was engaged – and continue to be engaged – in a process of speaking vision to our congregation, of sharing how and where I discern God is leading us, even as God progressively speaks to me and through me. Such thought and speech is truly audacious. Yet, as God speaks through the very structures, strategies and circumstances which arise from the culture it tends toward a redefinition of the church. Understand that the process of casting this vision, sharing it with the congregation, and seeking to have them come to a level of acceptance has not been without difficulty and challenge. It has not been a fractious difficulty but there has been a current of concern as to whether or not this is what we should do, whether or not this is truly the way God is leading us, or whether or not this will lead us to a place where we can honor our history and continue the work that we are doing in a different location or under a different paradigm. This is not an easy task; in fact, the first casting of this vision began as early as 1990, which means we are in about our 15th year of trying to bring this to fruition. Perhaps the first lesson that one learns about vision is that visions that are easily cast are quickly forgotten, and visions that are going to have any lasting impact upon church or community must be hammered out with patience on the anvil of time. That way, whatever God is doing and seeks to do is fully absorbed into the mind and the spirit of the congregation God has called to this great work. Fifteen years later, we are just reaching the point where we are preparing to begin the construction of a new church. Still, by no means do I discount or undervalue this interim time. What we’ve been doing in these fifteen years has not been about the business of preparing physically to build; we have been preparing spiritually to realize God’s vision for us as a community of faith. It’s what we have called at Metropolitan, “building the church from the inside out.” Preaching: Tell me about the relocation of the church. Hicks: We are relocating the primary facility of the church to a 34-acre campus in Largo, Maryland. In actuality, we are only moving 10 or 12 miles from where I sit right now, so the physical distance is not great. The distance physically is minor but the distance spiritually and emotionally is major. Preaching: For many people, that is sacred space you are leaving. Hicks: Absolutely. As a part of our strategy, we’ve maintained a portion of the property that the church currently owns so that we will at all times still be able to come back to this street and feel as though there is some connection with our history. In addition to that we have an elementary school in the northeastern section of town and we will retain that school. So in effect we are maintaining Metropolitan Church in multiple locations, which is consistent with the trend of multi-site ministries that is gaining in popularity among churches today. Preaching: As you’ve spent 15 years casting that vision – and in more recent years moving the church toward a specific relocation – are there some strategies you’ve used in your preaching to help the church be positioned for change? Hicks: The whole notion of the book is to find a way to express vision. How can you function within the parameters of scripture to show that which God has said in days past is still relevant in this day and for this generation? And so I took something that was rather archaic – the des-cription of the tabernacle that you’ll find in Exodus and Leviticus and other parts of the Bible. As you know the scripture speaks in very clear detail about what the Tabernacle should look like, how it should be designed, what cloth and materials would be used, what instruments should be used in the Tabernacle. In many ways, the Tabernacle that Moses and the children of Israel built in the wilderness bears the same messages about the tabernacle that we are seeking to build today. On Jordan’s Stormy Banks walks you through what my encounter has been with our current situation, our current context, our current community and holds that experience in tension and juxtaposition with the truths of scripture – with how the Word of God speaks to these issues and how we were able to seize the Bible as a living tool for the transmission of vision from one generation to the next. Preaching: How has your preaching changed over your 28 years as pastor of Metropolitan? Hicks: I think that my preaching has become more direct, more purposeful. I think that my preaching tends to address problems or speak to issues or concerns within the community as I’ve come to understand them. I think my preaching has become far more instructive for the purpose of shaping the mind of the congregation. Bear in mind that preaching in the District of Columbia is far different from most other cities. Washington is the Capitol of the World. Our worship is always joined by persons of different cultures from across the globe. Washington is the center of our government. On any given Sunday our pews will be visited by persons who work in City Hall, in congress and the White House. It truly is a “bully pulpit.” That is why preaching in this context bears such urgency. I am required, in the words of the Apostle Paul, to give the sound of a “certain trumpet.” In this pulpit, a flute will not suffice. One of the things that has happened most recently is that in our effort to communicate this vision to the congregation, we began to deal with the concept of the Kingdom. The Kingdom as we find it in scripture is pivotal to an understanding of what Jesus was about and what I believe the church was intended to be. So our dialogue has not been about building the Kingdom – because whatever we build is subject to decay and corruption. We talk, rather, about becoming the Kingdom. We are trying to get the congregation to accept the concept that we are not here to build something, we’re not here to buy something or pay for something; we are here to become something that is central to our growth and development, something that is larger than ourselves. It is something that moves us toward what God intended for us to be and what God intended for us to do. The building becomes secondary, an aid toward the fulfillment of ministry and not an end in itself. So that’s what we’ve been teaching and preaching, and singing. The whole congregation has been caught up – even in our Sunday school classes – with the notion of what it means to become the Kingdom. We are not only moving physically, we are moving spiritually in order that we can become something greater than we are. The concepts related to becoming the Kingdom have also shaped my preaching as I have been led to explore what it means to become disciples, to become a community of faith. These are matters that may not put any money into the building fund but they make a deposit into the minds, the hearts and the spirit of the congregation in ways that sometimes are imperceptible. In the long run I believe this kind of teaching and growing has great value. Preaching: Tell me about your preaching style. Hicks: I would like to think that I am pretty eclectic – that if you come to hear me preach Sunday after Sunday, you will encounter something different with each experience. My sermons are always biblically grounded but nevertheless they also contain something of social significance. The gospel as I understand it addresses people where they are, at the point of their need, while at the same time teaching them something of the old message, the old story and of the saving grace of Jesus Christ. One week it may be thematic, another week it may be very textual. I am completely open to preach in whatever way I believe the Spirit is leading me at that particular moment. So I am not an automaton that simply produces the same thing in the same way week after week. I’m seeking at all times to be both meaningful and relevant to the worshipping community. Preaching: Do you ever preach in series? Hicks: I do use series preaching. In fact, the book On Jordan’s Stormy Banks is based upon a preaching series. It is a complete series of sermons on the tabernacle. I have also done a series of sermons on Becoming the Kingdom. As this theme has caught hold in our church, we have identified seven concepts of the Kingdom and these have become the focal point of our ministry programmatically. They set the priorities and goals for the church going forward. While I have completed the series of sermons on becoming the Kingdom, the sermons continue as the congregation now picks up the themes and begins to use them as devotional points of departure for their ministries. They use it as information for their Sunday school classes, and there is always information on our website about one of the principles at any point in time. Our minister of music has even composed a song inspired by the series. We continue to use it as we go along. Preaching: How long is a typical sermon for you? Hicks: (laughing) Depends on who you ask. I’m usually somewhere between 40 and 50 minutes. In the last two or three months I’m starting to cut them down to 35. Preaching: Why is that? Hicks: Well, the older I get the less wind I’ve got, I suppose. Preaching: Do you find that a shortening attention span is a factor today? Hicks: I think that compared to twenty years ago, we have new ways of learning and new ways of transmitting information. Our children learn not by sitting at a table with back erect to read See Jack Run; they learn by what they see on television and the multiple images that are flashed before them in a second’s time. So those persons who now come to the church come with a mind that really is energized by multimedia and by multiple images. I think the challenge before the church is not necessarily in the fact that there is a shortened attention span but that there is a new thirst for something that will teach and instruct – something that is beyond the old didactic method of student and teacher: you sit and I talk. That kind of modality has shifted and I think that’s what we’re experiencing more than anything else. Preaching: Have you tried adapting to those changes in your own preaching? Hicks: Probably not as much as I should. We do use power point. We do use projection on a large jumbo screen. We are also experimental and innovative with different kinds of music, liturgical dance and dramatic presentations of various sorts. What we don’t do on Sundays we do through our website. We try to find various means of reaching out to people. Preaching: How many people attend a service? How many services do you do on Sunday and how many people do you have there? Hicks: We have two services. The sanctuary will hold approximately 1400 persons and usually both services are filled. I’ll see somewhere between 2500 and 3000 on any given Sunday. The new sanctuary will be approximately 3200 seats. Preaching: What are the concerns that you have about the next generation of preachers coming along? Hicks: I think that God will not be left without a witness. There will always be someone who will preach the gospel with integrity and with power. Having said that, I have a real concern about the solid biblical base of the coming generation. In my formative years I learned most of my Bible in Sunday School. I went to seminary to have some skills honed, but the Bible, the doctrine, the fundamentals of the faith were taught to us in Sunday School. There was within the church an insistence that we understand the scriptures. In this generation, however, what I see are those who are attracted to the glamour of the church and not necessarily the gospel of the church. I am not sure that our seminaries are training up a generation of biblically strong preachers. They may in fact be training up a generation of theologians or social workers who have a spiritual bent. Whether or not we are actually raising up a generation of persons who are thoroughly and completely biblically grounded I have some question. That gives me pause. I talk with my congregation quite a bit about the value of the hymnal and the fact that contemporary music within the church has almost entirely walked away from the hymnal in our interest of creating new songs. We have created new songs but I’m not sure we have created hymns – those melodies that bear serious theological meaning, hymns which over a long period of time will carry the solace, the comfort, as well as the instruction that the worshiper needs. Preaching: What would you like to say about preaching that I haven’t asked you yet? Hicks: This will be my 40th year in the pastorate, so I look back now upon four decades of preaching the gospel. I recall a conversation with myself early in my journey inquiring: What is it that you really want to do? What is it that you want to be? When it’s all said and over and done, what would you like to have said? I thought then and I think now that the only thing I would want to be known is that somebody might say, “He really was a preacher of the gospel.” If by any means or stretch I have been faithful to that calling and I have kept that faith, in spite of my faults and failures, I shall be pleased and I hope that God’s benediction will rest upon it. I’ve never sought political office. I’ve only sought to fulfill the requirements of this Office and of the holy imperative upon my life to proclaim the unsearchable riches of our Christ. That’s all I ever wanted to be. That’s all I ever hope to be. And I hope that there will be others behind me who, when I have finished my course, shall pick up that mantle and start all over again. Leave a Reply Cancel Reply Your email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email.