Life-changing preaching: An interview with Haddon W. Robinson
Editor’s note: Haddon W. Robinson has been recognized as one of the outstanding preachers and teachers of preaching in the twentieth century. He concluded his memorable career as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Derek Morris (DM): You have received many awards and recognitions as an outstanding preacher, including a Baylor University poll where you were identified
as one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world. What do you enjoy the most about preaching?
Haddon Robinson (HR): There is something about sensing the hand of God as you speak to a congregation, believing that, through you, He is talking to your listeners about His will for them. There is nothing that compares to that.
DM: What is the hardest part of the preaching process for you?
HR: The hardest part of the preaching process is learning how to take a passage from the Bible and make it apply to the twenty-first century. It never gets easy because you are dealing with two entities: a text written two thousand years ago and people today. Strong biblical sermons must be bifocal. They need to reflect the big idea of the text and also reflect the concerns, needs, and questions of the listeners today. Through relevant biblical preaching, people can come to understand and experience what God has to say to them today. But working that process is challenging.
DM: When did you develop a passion for teaching people how to preach?
HR: I think I backed into it. I didn’t really have a passion to teach people how to preach, but I did have a passion to preach well. When I was at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) years ago, I would go up to the library every Friday and read books on preaching. I didn’t know much about preaching, but I wanted to learn. Then I had some students in my senior class who asked me if I would teach a class on preaching. They didn’t have much homiletics at DTS in those days, let alone any
seminary. So every week I taught a class to my classmates. I taught them what I knew and what I didn’t know! But that was the beginning of my experience
with teaching homiletics.
After graduating from DTS, I served as an assistant pastor in Medford, Oregon. One day I got a letter from Dr. John Walvoord, asking me if I would come back to DTS and teach. He took a risk with me even though I had very little formal training in preaching. I went on to get an MA in communications from Southern Methodist University and a PhD in rhetoric and public address from the University of Illinois. When I went to the University of Illinois, they didn’t know what to do with me. The
advisor they suggested was Dr. Otto Dieter, a classics scholar. I first met him in the classics library on campus. He was sitting at the end of a long library table. He said to me, “Well, what do you want?” I said, “I need an advisor, and they thought you would help.” “What do you plan to do in the future?” he asked. “Teach preachers,” I replied. He said, “Do you think you need the Holy Spirit to preach?” “Yes,” I said. “You’re out of luck,” he responded. “He hasn’t been on this campus for fifty years.”
On that library table was an old pulpit Bible. I have no idea where it came from. He pointed to the pulpit Bible and asked, “You plan to preach that?” I
said, “Yes, I do.” Then he said, “I’ve read them all—Quintilian, Plato. I’ve never known anyone whose life was changed by reading the classics. But I do know some people whose lives have been changed by reading the Bible.” I learned later that Dr. Dieter had two nephews who had really gone off the deep end but reading the Bible had changed their lives. So he was speaking out of his own experience.
DM: Through your years as a teacher of preaching you have always continued to preach on a regular basis. Why is it important to stay connected as a practitioner and not simply work as a teacher of preaching?
HR: It seems to me that it is not enough to teach about preaching. You have to do it. As you preach, you are involved in the text of the Bible and the lives of people. Your teaching is shaped, moved, and changed by your own preaching experience. My students have also helped me be a better preacher. For the past twenty years, I have been teaching doctor of ministry students at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. They come from the front line and don’t let you get away with anything. They raise important questions about preaching, and if you are just spinning out some theory that doesn’t really touch life, they will challenge you.
DM: Since the publication of your bestselling book on preaching, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages,* your instruction on preaching has made a significant impact on the field of homiletics, not only in English-speaking countries but also around the world. What do you see as the most significant contribution you have made to the training of Christian preachers in the past three decades?
HR: I believe every sermon is the communication of an idea. Every text in the Bible is about ideas. The challenge is to get an idea from the Bible, put it into a sermon, and preach it. That process of discovering the big idea is probably the key contribution I have made. It turned out to be significant. What is so strange is that if you go back into antiquity Quintilian, Plato, Aristotle—they all talk about the importance of the main idea. But somehow it got lost through the years or it never was applied to expository preaching. With the importance of the big idea in mind, I developed my working definition of biblical preaching as the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher to the hearer.
DM: How have your thoughts about preaching changed through the years?
HR: People used to think that preaching was yelling. If you didn’t shout, you weren’t preaching. What changed my approach to preaching was the time I spent as the general director of the Christian Medical and Dental Society, first in Texas and then for the whole country. You don’t stand up in front of a group of physicians and dentists and yell at them. You find yourself talking with them rather than at them. That was also the way communication was going, from an emphasis on monologue to dialogue. That’s one major change I have seen.
I think there is also more importance placed on the audience. You need to be aware of your listeners. That wasn’t a dominant theme years ago. Are you are speaking to a working-class congregation or a highly educated group of listeners? Understanding your audience is important when you preach.
I have also been impressed with the importance of effective sermon titles. Sometimes I visit a city over the weekend and go through the religious pages in the newspaper. I read sermon titles like “The Church in Corinth” and I think, Who cares? Other titles are very practical, like “How to Be a Leader.” There are certain churches that I have gone to as a guest preacher and they have asked me in advance for a sermon title. Sometimes when I have sent the title for my sermon, I get a response back saying, “We need a better title than that. People have to drive by seven others churches to come here, so if you don’t have a good sermon title they might not even come to hear you.” Most people are asking, “If I go to hear that sermon, would I be helped?” Even if they only see the sermon title when they come to church, an effective title has already begun the process of connecting with your listeners.
DM: Your book Biblical Preaching has recently been released in a third edition. What are some of the changes that you have made in this edition?
HR: I have added many exercises. I found that when students of preaching were reading the book, they couldn’t quite figure out all that I was saying. I use many exercises when I’m teaching, and students appreciate that approach. So we have added more, especially in regard to the task of finding the subject and complement in the text, and thus discovering the big idea of your preaching passage. It’s not enough just to read the theory. You have to work the process.
DM: You have held various positions in your career. What factors helped you decide to become the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary?
HR: I came to the conclusion that it’s hard to stay in one place for more than ten or twelve years without repeating yourself. When I was invited to go to Gordon-Conwell, I responded positively because it just seemed like the right thing for me to do. I had discovered through the years that many pastors believe the Bible, but they have no idea how to preach it. Our focus at GordonConwell was simple—how to preach the Bible effectively. I’ve also discovered that learning how to preach is a group process. You can’t just stand in front of a group and teach. You need to involve the group—they need to interact. In the doctor of ministry program, we involved all of the students in the teaching of preaching, because when you have to teach something, you learn it.
DM: What counsel would you give to Christian preachers today?
HR: Preach the Bible. If you don’t preach the Bible, you have nothing to preach. But don’t just preach the Bible. Preach the Bible to people. Understand your audience. Who are they? Pastors have a great advantage when they interact with their congregation. You know their hurts, problems, and questions. I think it is vitally important that the people in your congregation know that you love them. You want God’s best for them. When you do that, you capture something in your preaching that is vital and solid.
DM: Great Christian leaders are remembered for a variety of reasons. As you reflect back on your life and ministry, how would you like to be remembered?
HR: I am most gratified when something I teach impacts someone’s life and ministry. When I see that happening, it is a great delight.
Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1980, 2001, 2014).
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