Editor’s note: Haddon W. Robinson is the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts, United States.
Tom Dombrowski (TD): What’s been your primary goal as a teacher of homiletics and administrator in theological education?
Haddon Robinson (HR): I think the primary goal has been to teach as many people as possible how to communicate God’s Word. In reality, I’ve found the most satisfying things of my life have been to hear people say that I have helped them become effective preachers.
TD: What significant advancements in expository preaching have you seen?
HR: One advancement has been to see the Bible treated as literature. Many people look at it as a source of sermons and, throughout history, they would take a verse and preach on it, whether or not the verse had anything to do with the context of the sermon. But now more people are realizing you can’t treat Genesis like you treat the Psalms, and you can’t treat the Psalms like you treat an epistle anymore than you can treat a novel the same way you would the history of the Revolutionary War. So, when we become aware of this problem, we are less likely to pour the Bible into preconceived molds.
I think we’re also beginning to understand how difficult it is to apply the Bible in such a way that we can say when we’re through, “Thus saith the Lord.” The basic doctrine of the text, the big idea, we can get that. Putting it together into a coherent whole, we can do that as well. But more heresy is committed in the area of application than in any other area of our preaching.
If you go to the Scriptures looking for a sermon, you come off way behind. Go to the Bible, but read it as literature and ask, “What is the Bible writer doing? Why did he write this?” And, if given this truth, “Where might it apply today?”
TD: Why focus on expository preaching?
HR: Expository preaching is not opposed to topical. It is the foundation of preaching. If I don’t preach the Bible, then what else do I preach? Besides, I sometimes wonder if there’s any such thing as preaching that isn’t expository. Then I realize there’s orthodox preaching, which is preaching doctrines. But that’s not you at your best. You have to bring to that your own thinking or the thinking of your group or whatever it is, and that often stands in the way of letting the Bible speak to you first and then to the people.
TD: What’s the biggest challenge you have consistently witnessed when teaching expository preaching?
HR: I’m stunned by the short amount of time the preacher spends in sermon preparation. I realize preachers are busy. I know the tasks they have to do. I don’t want to make light of that, either. But you can’t do good preaching on three to four hours a week preparation. There are some weeks when people die, and they don’t die on schedule, either. If you’re a good expositor, you bring into that experience the things that you know and study. But if everything you do is at the last minute, it won’t work. You can get through it. You can yell at people. You can tell them stories. But pretty soon, they’ll begin to realize this is just chaff and not meat.
TD: How can this be overcome?
HR: You have to prioritize. You can’t be all circumference. You have to have a center. If you haven’t decided that the center of my ministry is to expound the Word of God, then something else will take the center. And it’s easier for something else to take the center because it’s usually more fun than sermon preparation. You can go out, you can visit, you can do all kind of things; but if you don’t make sermon preparation a priority, then you’ll do other things instead.
We all know the temptations: you’re away, you’re studying, you wonder, What in the world am I doing here in the book of Obadiah? And somebody calls and wants you to take them to the doctor’s office, and off you go. Not because you’re that compassionate, but because it’s easier than to deal with Obadiah.
TD: What does a seminary need to do in order to consistently produce effective expository preachers?
HR: You have to take the people that are in the seminary and work with them. The Old Testament people, New Testament people, church history people, and homiletics people have to work together.
TD: As a teacher, what advice would you have for those who teach future preachers?
HR: Teach preachers about preaching. The great question you have to ask is, What kind of thinking do you have to do to prepare to preach? If you simply give them Roman numerals, some Ads, and stories, it’s fragmented. It doesn’t hold together.
It’s not good enough to tell them you need three points. That’s not thinking; that’s just arranging stuff. Sometimes, the student says, “Teach me to preach,” which means, “Teach me to put sermons together.” You end up with cookie-cutter sermons. Every week, you do the same thing. So I think a great deal of it has to do with teaching people to think. And the danger of that is that they may not think your thoughts after you.
TD: So, how do you teach them to think creatively?
HR: One way is that I talk about narratives. A narrative is a way of showing people how the person in this text is working it. So Joseph’s story is different than Jacob’s story. And you come to literature and you say, “What is Sarah doing here? What is the writer trying to do?”
If I read a John Grisham novel, and you say to me, “What’s the novel about?” And I say, “There are three things I learned from it,” that’s not what you’re asking me. I’m saying [that] the story is set in New York City in a court in which a man has no power, and a great and large law firm is coming against him. You go through this, and you might say to me, “Well, what’s the idea then?” I would answer, “The person is doing this: I think he’s trying to help us realize how difficult it is to be right in an unright world. And he does it in a number of ways.” That’s not the same thing as saying, “There are three things we can learn.”
TD: Regardless of age or experience, what advice would you pass on to those who preach on a weekly basis?
HR: I would say to them, you don’t realize how strategic you are. Most people in church get their understanding of God, the Holy Spirit, and Christ from you. They may have devotions every day, but that’s not where they get their minds shaped. So, to get before them and bore them is to say something about God. And boredom is not only bad communication—it’s a destroyer of life and hope.
Whatever it takes, treat the Bible as God’s Word in the sense that holy stuff does not mean boring. It’s holy. It’s set apart to teach me about God, and teach the people about God. I may entertain them as I preach; but if I entertain them and don’t teach them about God when I open this text, I haven’t served the Lord well.
But it’s easy week after week after week to forget that. You preach not because you have something to say, but because you have to say something. That’s the agony of preaching. And every serious preacher feels that. Some weeks you open a passage, and you see it. But there are many other weeks where you wonder, What in the world is this about? And if I understand it, how do I get it across effectively? Very seldom the great questions are asked, but if they are asked it’s at the point of pain.
TD: What’s been your greatest joy on this journey of teaching and being an administrator?
HR: To have folks say to me, “You taught me to preach; I’m eternally grateful to you.” Every student has gone beyond what I’ve taught him. But that’s the delight.
Or, to have people in churches say to me, “I asked our pastor to train with you, and when he went to that program I don’t think he realized how close he was to being asked to leave. Now he comes back and we hear him preach. We want him to stay forever.” That’s a small part of what takes place. There is no greater delight than that.