The Preaching Life

An Interview with Dan Betzer, Saturnino Gonzalez, and Bryan Jarrett

People are hungry for the greatness of God. In your preaching, how do you make sure your people are being feed spiritually?

JARRETT: A wise pastor advised me to spend as much time preparing for the altar response or the application as I did the message. When the Holy Spirit directs me to a passage or a topic, I begin with the end in mind. I ask myself, What does this look like if it is effective in the lives of God’s people? Then I backtrack on how to accomplish that task.

It does not matter how eloquently you preach; if listeners are not hungry to apply it, it has limited impact.

I preached a message on hunger for God. In the middle of the message, I had helpers frying bacon by the ductwork of our building. I did not mention what was happening until I saw people talking among themselves. Some studies show that the sense of smell is the greatest recall mechanism in the human brain. Of all the messages I have preached, people remember more of that message. I used that illustration to equate hunger for food with hunger for God.

One thing we do is resource people. We let people know that the church or pastors are not the primary disciplers of the family. They are responsible. The church can provide the water, but the family has to be the soil where deep, abiding roots grow.

I am in a series on the family. We have created a kiosk called “Homeplace.” Each week when I speak on a different family element, we fill the kiosk with resources for further study of the Word of God where people can go deeper in their devotions as a family. We attempt to teach people their responsibility for spiritual development between Sundays.

GONZALEZ: When I was a student at Central Bible College, I read an article on preaching — “The Sweet Torture of Sunday Morning” — by Garner C. Taylor, a well-known black preacher from New York City. Preaching has always been an intense moment. I don’t take it lightly. As a preacher I represent a divine moment in the lives of people who come from different backgrounds, having had different moments in their lives during the week. They come to hear the Word of God. I speak a lot on the Holy Spirit, winning the lost, finances, the family, the Second Coming, and how to live the gospel. My illustrations are applications around relationship, finance, workplace, and the Christian life.

BETZER: The Word feeds people and the Word changes people. Sometimes I hear of carnal congregations, but the Word can change that. It is important that we not preach just sermonettes; we must give people a steady diet of healthy food from the Word. The Word should quicken our hearts.

My favorite time of the week is Wednesday night Bible study. It takes me a long time to get ready for this service. It’s not unusual for 2,000 adults to gather to hear the teaching of the Word. The results? We are seeing changed lives and marriages. What could be more pleasing to a preacher than that?

How do preachers abuse authority when their sermons are not authentic? How can we bring our preaching and our lives closer together?

JARRETT: I am a Gen Xer. We call those who come after this generation Millennials. Millennials are skeptical of authority, anything institutional — this includes the government and church — because of failures they have seen.

Listeners in our pews can smell a fake a mile off. The younger they are the quicker they can point one out. I grew up in an era where you did not want anybody to see the kinks in your armor. This was almost a perceived perfectionism or a prerequisite for being a leader worth following. Today’s younger generation will write you off immediately. As pastors, be willing to be vulnerable and transparent about your own issues, struggles, hurts, and pains without crossing the line of being too transparent and too vulnerable. But we need to let our guard down. The gospel is still working on us. As preachers we are still people in process. Walking as a pilgrim on the journey and teaching what we are learning should never come from the perspective that we have already arrived. Both have a way of inviting people in by being vulnerable and authentic.

Pastoring has saved my life because living in Christian community reveals the real you. The one thing that gives what I say credibility is the fact the story of God’s miracles are being lived out and tested in a community of faith. God did not send me to pastor because I had something great to give my people. He sent me to pastor because I needed them in my life, so my heart would stay humble.

The community of faith provides checks and balances. Pride, arrogance, or relying on my own giftedness would be the end of me if it were not for the daily accountability to people and having to daily walk the talk. The community reveals who you really are. I enjoyed being the evangelist, but I needed to pastor to keep me from becoming unauthentic, closed in, and selfish.

GONZALEZ: In Jesus’ discourse to His disciples, He promised to give them the Holy Spirit who would be with them forever (John 14:16). The Holy Spirit is the best witness if the preacher is living or not living what he or she preaches. Preaching is the business of the pastor. The pastor could have other gifts, but speaking the Word with the authority of Christ is basic to the preacher’s calling.

The church is a spiritual entity. People know when there is dysfunction between what we preach and how we live. Preaching is much different from a motivational speech or political discourse. Because preaching is spiritual, the Holy Spirit must be part of the process. Unity must be present in our public ministry (preaching) and our private lives. When these two are in sync, there will be supernatural authority in the pulpit. Miracles will take place, and the Word will change and transform lives.

BETZER: A real pastor would rather die than bring reproach on the gospel, his or her family, or on the congregation. Therefore, a pastor must have a deep, true love for the people he or she is pastoring. People are so beaten up out in the world. They do not need me to pound on them when they come to church. I care for the people in my church. None of us is perfect. We have moments when we probably drop the ball, but not in a way that is going to cause disruption in homes and families.

The fact Darlene and I have been married for over 56 years is also a witness to that message. People in the congregation watch how a pastor treats his wife, how he talks about his wife. I do not make jokes about my wife. She is precious to me. My preaching becomes more authentic when people see that I treat my wife with love and respect.

For years we have been on television 7 days a week. Being on television means that people know what you look like. People will come to our table at a restaurant or up to us in a mall to talk. So, I had better be living what I am preaching because people are watching what I do.

One of the best things a preacher can do is to find a great evangelical theologian or a preacher and immerse himself or herself in that person’s writings and life. Who has been that person to you and how have you been challenged to be a better preacher and a better person?

GONZALEZ: Two pastors impacted my life — David Wilkerson and Tommy Barnett. Wilkerson’s messages and books on holiness, God’s presence, and integrity have tremendously marked my life. I have interviewed him. I saw his prayer life. I watched his priorities, his testimony, his life, and what God did through his ministry all over the world.

Barnett has been an inspiration to me as well, especially when he helps me dream big and see preaching in new, creative ways.

BETZER: The author who has most influenced my life has been Leonard Ravenhill. He was like a father to me. I often spent time in his home in Texas. He wrote such classics: Why Revival Tarries, and Meat for Men. He challenged me to live and preach the eternities. He demanded a lot from all of us who sat at his feet. He was not easy, but he really changed my life, especially in the area of discipline.

The other author who greatly influenced me was Oswald J. Smith of the Peoples Church in Toronto, Canada. When he died a number of years ago, Billy Graham preached his funeral and said of him, “We are here to honor the greatest missionary mind of the 20th century.” When I was pastoring a little church in Ohio, Smith invested a week of his life in me. He instilled in me a raging fire for missions that has never gone out.

JARRETT: Early in my ministry, I almost began to mimic and model one person. I was so enamored by him that I began to be unintentionally compared to him. I did not want to be a carbon copy of somebody else, so I chose not to immerse myself in one person, but to try to find the best in multiple people and sources. A smorgasbord of people have spoken into my life from the way I study, to my delivery.

Black preachers heavily influenced me because of where I grew up. There is a specific art and style to delivering a sermon in the African-American context. The late S.M. Lockridge is a black Baptist pastor who was phenomenal in the art of black preaching, as is T.D. Jakes.

Maurice Lednicky was president of Central Bible College when I attended. Lednicky always gave me substance. He had 56 Scripture references in one sermon. I questioned him about it. He said, “If I put a lot of Word in my sermon, I will know that I said at least something that was anointed.” I have never forgotten that. Now, the Word of God drives all of my messages.

Father Henry Nouwen is a Catholic priest, but he had more influence among evangelicals. I do not agree with Nouwen’s theology, but he coined the phrase, “wounded healer.” He taught me about the brokenness of the spiritual leader.

A.W. Tozer is one of my favorite writers. And Timothy Keller keeps me coming back to the gospel and shows me what it means to live it out. It always comes back to the Cross.

The next generation is learning more through parabolic delivery like stories. Through David Jeremiah and Chuck Swindoll I have learned the power and the art of telling a story.

Three Pentecostal preachers who have shaped my preaching are: John Hagee, for his use of manuscript in his delivery; Dan Sheaffer, for his passion and unpredictability, and Maurice Lednicky, who I previously mentioned, for his Word-centric content.

Preaching takes place in an over-communicated society. How can today’s Pentecostal preacher make sure his or her message is being heard above all others?

JARRETT: At the end of the year I ask God, “How do You want me to present the gospel to this congregation in the coming year?” I come up with a tentative preaching calendar and give it to our team. I also base my sermons on needs that have come to the surface and the Word that is stirring in my heart. Ultimately, the Spirit of God has the right at any moment to interrupt our plans. Slick marketing and series packaging sicken a segment of people walking through the doors of our church. When we do this, some people are skeptical. Some younger ones respond to that old-fashioned moment where we throw the agenda out the door and go back to the way my grandfather did it almost every week. In those moments, I tell the creative geniuses, “I know you have spent a lot of time getting the graphics and the videos ready. I apologize. The Lord woke me up in the middle of the night and this is the Word for the people today.” This element is available through the Spirit and power of a Pentecostal preacher. If we are so locked into our planning that we cannot take advantage of that revelation, we are limiting ourselves.

BETZER: To make the message heard, the sermon has to be interesting. I spend a great part of my preparation on not only what the Lord has laid on my heart, but how I am going to present it. But the Word itself is incredibly powerful. I must present it in a way that relates to people. It is surprising how many times in the Word you find the word, reasonable. How can a person have faith in something that is not reasonable? The gospel is reasonable. It came from the heart of the Creator of reason. So, I am not going to get in the pulpit and say things that are crazy or try to make predictions that Jesus is coming this year. The message has to be interesting and reasonable.

Crafting sermons that effectively communicate the Word of God is an immensely important task. How do you stay emotionally and spiritually on top of your preaching week after week?

JARRETT: A statement I heard early in the ministry helped me: A preacher cannot live off of the aroma of the bread he serves to other people. Years ago I did not have any “me” time. Everything I was looking at was for the people. I was trying to live off the aroma of the bread I was serving. It shifted for me when I realized I needed ways where the Word of God fed me and where prayer time was for intimacy with God, and not to get a sermon.

There have been times when I was spiritually low. What I had defined as success was not happening as quickly as I wanted it to. I took the blame. I preached because I had to. I was walking under this cloud of self-defeat. So I had to learn the John 15 principle that my fruitfulness comes only from abiding in the Vine. Success was ultimately going to come by staying connected to the Source. And as I returned to the basics of prayer and the Word, life came back into me because ministry stopped being something I did and became an overflow of who I was. I regained my vitality by understanding that principle.

BETZER: I have an insatiable curiosity. I am dealing with people every day from all walks of life. If you have a tremendous amount of input into your life, there has to be an output. If you do not have input, then there cannot be output. I devour books. I try to read a biography, autobiography, and a history book every week. And there is just so much coming in, that I do not have time to get it all out.

GONZALEZ: Almost 3 years into my pastoral ministry one of my ushers lost his life in a very serious situation. I was not prepared for this. For months it was hard for me to come back into the flow of ministry. It was like the kingdom of darkness showed up in every service, laughing in my face. I needed help. My staff, pastors, and key leaders rallied around me in prayer and fasting, and I was able to come out of that.

What Bryan just said about prayer and the Word is so true. I had to get back to the basics of prayer and being in the Word and waiting on God. These are the things that help me stay emotionally and spiritually strong.

Our culture resists any affirmation of absolute truth. How do you engage the culture in meaningful ways with the gospel?

BETZER: A pastor can remain dogmatic in his or her Christian beliefs and not be nasty or repulsive. Our culture changes constantly, and unfortunately it changes downward. But the preacher can stay positive, relevant, and strong in the midst of cultural change.

I have many friends outside the Christian community. We have a strong Jewish community in southwest Florida, and I am very involved with them. I have spoken in all the synagogues. The rabbis are my friends. The local Muslim imam is a friend. These people know where I stand. Yet, I have seen many people, particularly in the Jewish community, who have made Christ their Messiah and Lord. They have done so not because I embraced them or took issue with them, but because of my love for Christ and the love I have for them. I have never backed down from our 16 statements of faith. I do not water down the Bible. I can believe and be persuaded of Scripture’s validity without being ornery or mean or a religious troll under a theological bridge.

GONZALEZ: The biggest challenge I face is the immigration issue. This has challenged me to read the Bible from that perspective and look at how God has used the movement of people from Genesis to Revelation to fulfill His purpose. I always try to contextualize the Scriptures into that challenge. Whether people are in this country officially or undocumented, I must preach the gospel, which always brings hope.

JARRETT: To me, tone makes the difference. Scripture tells us to speak the truth in love. Many pastors hear “speak the truth” but have forgotten the “in love” part of it. Attitude makes the difference. Pre-Christians or nonbelievers walk in our building every Sunday. I speak the truth, but I do it in a tone of grace and love. It is easy if you have no relationship with those outside the church to preach dogma and doctrine and do it with an arrogant tone. It almost comes across as hate to those who do not agree with us, if you do not know them. But, when those same people are your friends, and you care about them and have dinner with them like Jesus did, you speak truth in a different tone. So, relationship is the key to engaging the culture in a meaningful way.

Tell of a time when you were preaching and the Holy Spirit designed a text to arrive at the same moment as the need in a person’s life?

BETZER: I remember one Sunday morning I deviated from what I had prepared and preached on God’s lavish grace. During the altar service, one of the altar workers summoned me. I knelt beside one of the toughest-looking men I had ever seen. He asked, “Do you really believe God can forgive anything I’ve ever done?”

I said, “Yes, of course, the Bible says so.”

He reached inside his jacket, pulled out a pistol, and laid it on the altar. Then he reached into his pocket and took out the bullets. He said, “I come from a very large city in the Northeast. I’m an enforcer for the mob. I’ve used this gun in ways that I don’t even want to talk about. Can God forgive me?”

As we began to pray, he cried out to God to forgive him. I am confident that God did. And after we prayed, I advised him what his responsibilities to society were, and he promised he would follow through. I still have those bullets on a shelf near where I prepare my messages. When I meet people, and it looks like an impossible situation, I look at those bullets and remember the gunman who came to our altar in response to God’s incredible grace.

JARRETT: We are studying the writings of the apostle Paul, and what they say to us about godly relationships, specifically as it pertains to the family, marriage, and parenting. Last week I had a gentlemen come to me in tears. He and his family had come for two Sundays — the first times they had been to our church. Their marriage was about to fall apart. I had given them tools to help their marriage in those 2 weeks. We had planned this preaching series in October 2011. We were nearly 6 months past that. God orchestrated the message I delivered to intersect with them. They were not believers, but He used the need in their life and the application of the text to bring them to cry out to Jesus as Savior.

What are some topics preachers need to address but seem afraid to?

JARRETT: I teach financial stewardship. Preachers are afraid they will get backlash when they bring up money. There is no greater quantifiable way to determine where people’s hearts are than where they place their treasure. The way they manage their credit card and their checkbook determines a lot about the depth of their spiritual maturity.

Even the unchurched know it takes money to run a business. Most of the people who have issue with you talking about finances are churched people who are walking in disobedience to God. Pastors need to be talking about biblical money management and what that looks like when we make our life the offering. Tithing, missions, other issues of giving become a nonissue when as the hymn asks, “Is your all on the altar of sacrifice laid?” Pastors can deal with a lot of spiritual maturity issues in that one topic.

GONZALEZ: We need to preach more compassion in a contextual way. Another topic I do not hear preached on is proper nutrition. We have people coming for prayer, but sometimes part of their sickness is the result of bad habits and wrong ways of eating.

BETZER: Many pastors are afraid to address missions because they think people will give money to missions instead of the general fund. Just the opposite is true. Every miracle of God’s provision I have seen at First Assembly, I can attribute directly or indirectly to missions. The more we give and the more missionaries we undergird, the more God blesses our church.

What advice do you have for helping other preachers be more effective storytellers?

BETZER: Read Mark 4:34. Jesus used stories to reach people. I use a lot of stories when I speak.

Watch great storytellers. When I was at Missouri State College (now University), I watched the actor Hal Holbrook in his role as Mark Twain. Every preacher needs to watch the way that man told stories. You have to become the person. You can’t be afraid to emote.

I told stories to children for years with my puppet, Louie. It changed the lives of so many children. Preachers need to learn how to tell stories because Jesus told stories and He’s our master. Outlines do not touch people’s lives a whole lot. But stories, real-life stories, really impact them.

Is it ever acceptable to preach another person’s sermon or get your sermons online?

JARRETT: On three occasions in my 21 years of ministry I have gone to the pulpit with a manuscript from another person’s sermon. One sermon was from S.M. Lockridge, the great black Baptist preacher. One was from A.W. Tozer and one from Leonard Ravenhill entitled, “Between the Porch and the Altar.” I told the people that I had been so bothered in my spirit and troubled in conviction from these sermons that I wanted to preach through the manuscript of another man’s sermon. I announced prior to the beginning of the message whose sermon it was and what it had done in my life.

As I read through the manuscript in my own personality, I prayed that the Holy Spirit would somehow let that happen in them. In every occasion, it was effective. But, I never tried to spin it off as if it was my own.

GONZALEZ: I have checked online to see who has preached my topics. I sometimes think no one has thought about this topic or this way to interpret this verse and I’ll be the first one. And then I find others have pretty much said the same thing. If I look at Christian history, I find somebody years ago preached what I was preaching today.

BETZER: It’s probably better to preach somebody’s great sermon than your own poor one.

I was in a service as a visitor. I knew the sermon the pastor was preaching and who wrote it. I had read it. He was reading it and obviously had not prepared ahead of time. He came to a certain point, and he stopped abruptly. He looked at the congregation, and said, “Well, I don’t believe that.”

C.M. Ward, my predecessor at Revivaltime, said he preached for 25 years on Revivaltime and never scratched the surface of the Bible. He preached 25 sermons on the Prodigal Son and never repeated a thought. There is so much original material in the Bible if we dig it out. I do not know why we would want to preach somebody else’s sermon.

Share a closing thought or challenge.

GONZALEZ: My purpose in preaching is to bring a person closer to God, to a commitment with God, to a commitment with Christ, to accept Jesus. If I can do that, I feel I have fulfilled my duty as a preacher. And, of course, many factors play into that — the life of the preacher and the anointing of the Spirit.

JARRETT: Incarnation trumps proclamation. It does not matter how eloquently we deliver the message on Sunday, if we are not putting flesh on that message daily, then we lose credibility and authority. More people will be transformed by our incarnational living of the gospel daily, than eloquent delivery. And my eloquent delivery on Sundays should work toward helping people live the gospel incarnate in their daily lives.

BETZER: Years ago Lou Gehrig, the great Yankees first baseman, stood at home plate and said to the massive crowd, “Today, I consider myself to be the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

For some reason, known only to God, he called me to be a preacher of the gospel. I am so grateful. I consider myself the most fortunate, blessed person in the world. What greater joy can preachers have than follow the call of God on their lives? I thank the Lord every day for it.