An Interview with HB Charles
H.B. Charles is Senior Pastor of the Shiloh Church in Jacksonville, Florida and the author of several books on preaching and on pastoring. He is also the founder and director of the Cutting It Straight Conference, and provides a popular podcast and website for pastors. This summer he was elected as the first African-American to serve as President of the Southern Baptist Pastors Conference. He was recently interviewed by Executive Editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: You came to this church as a fairly young man, but you started as a pastor as a very young man. How did that happen?
Charles: I’m a third generation pastor, I professed faith in Christ as boy, and started preaching at the age of 11. My father was my Pastor who led me to Christ and mentored me in preaching. He passed away when I was 16 years old, and a year and a half later the church extended a call for me to be its next pastor. I was still in high school as a senior when I began my first pastorate and I served there for 18 years until 2008. The Lord called me here to Jacksonville to serve the Shiloh Church, and I’m in my ninth year currently.
Preaching: How has your preaching changed and developed over the years from being a 17 year old pastor to where you are today?
Charles: My father was a textual preacher, most of his friends were textual preachers, and I would say very early on that was the model. I struggled with that model, and I felt like I did not have any expectation that would be the way I would be able to preach over the long haul. Then I begin to hear men, particularly African-American preachers, who were narrative preachers, who knew how to tell the story, as we say in the vernacular. By the time I’m in my early pastorate, I am working my way through narrative passages, but at that time I am also being introduced as a theory to expositional preaching and behind the scenes I am trying to figure this out.
In those early years the church I served is watching a progression from textual preaching to narrative preaching to very early attempts of expositional preaching. I am studying, introducing myself to my book – for instance, an epistle in Galatians – and then I spend 30 minutes introducing the church to the book before I ever get to the text. They were bad attempts, but I would say very early on I was burdened by the priority of the text.
That shaped my preaching from the beginning. I didn’t really hear, early on, topical preachers as such. Every model was in one way or another trying to deal with the text, and my understanding of preaching was shaped by that. I felt like that was a progression that I was on early; I felt like I was growing over time and, I hope, still am.
Preaching: Who were some of those preachers that you began to hear that gave you sense of what expository preaching can look like?
Charles: Reading Jerry Vines’ book on A Practical Guide to Sermon Preparation helped me a lot very early on, which caused me to then start reading his other books. In some instances they were printed sermons, which was giving me a model. Early on I was listening to Chuck Swindoll on the radio. I would say a major influence was John MacArthur; for an extended period I would sit in the back of his church on Sunday nights. I would say the man who sealed the deal for me in terms of expositional preaching was the late Dr. E.K. Bailey. Then by hearing Dr. Bailey I was also exposed to Dr. A. Louis Patterson, who had a major influence on my understanding of preaching.
There were two local pastors in my city, African American pastors, who around this time I’m also being introduced to. They are in my backyard and were teaching and promoting expositional preaching. One was Dr. R.A. Williams at McCoy Church in Los Angeles and Kenny Omar who still serves in the city. I listened to those men early and often. They had great influence on me early.
Preaching: If you were to sit down with another young pastor to try to explain what expository preaching is, what it looks like, what would you say to them?
Charles: I would define expositional preaching as that preaching in which the point of the text is the point of the sermon. That the main idea of the sermon is rooted in, flows from, is in alignment with the meaning of the text.
I believe you can come at that a lot of different ways. For me very early on trying to understand this, I was confused. By hearing and reading different things, I was associating expositional preaching by how many points you had and by the length of the text, and none of those things have anything to do with exposition. It is about how you treat the text, not how you structure the sermon.
There is a sense in which topical, biographical, doctrinal preaching can be done in an expositional way, but I think it is harder than just starting at a text and working your way through it. At it’s core, I would define expositional preaching as that preaching which allows the point of the message to the governed by the primary truth of the text.
For instance, you can take Philippians 4:6 and 7, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer, supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God guards your heart and mind.” There are a lot of themes in that text, but if you preach that text and are making the primary thought thanksgiving, you have missed the primary meaning of the text. Or even peace, which is just the fruit of what the command is, or the result. So I think it’s not just the point of the text because there could be many biblical themes there, but the primary meaning shaping what you do with the sermon.
Preaching: Your views align with Haddon Robinson where he says expository preaching is not so much formula as it is a philosophy – a way to approach the text.
Charles: As I mentioned, I listened early to John MacArthur often and his slogan for his ministry is, “Unleashing God’s truth one verse at a time.” It really shaped my understanding. The first time I had a professor to force me to deal with this, I was assigned to write a message on a chapter from James. It just blasted through a lot of wrong notions I had about what exposition was, that he was saying that it had nothing to do with the length of the text, it has everything to do with how you treat the text.
Preaching: Tell me a little bit about your preaching: do you preach in series? What kind of series do you do? What would a typical Sunday morning sermon look like for you?
Charles: I am a series preacher. That’s important to me just because like most pastors I’m busy, I’m a husband and a father and a pastor, and I just cannot afford to be thinking every week. I can’t wait until Thursday to figure out what I’m going to say Sunday, so that’s my starting point.
As a student of exposition, I really believe expositional preaching is the most faithful way to preach God’s Word, and the most faithful way to be an expositor is to preach through books, is my philosophy.
In most instances, you’ll catch me in a book. My cycle is to do an Old Testament book, some biblical theme, which will be a collection of expositions on prayer or some biblical subject, then a New Testament book and I’m cycling through. On most Sundays when I am walking to the pulpit, the congregation is standing and opening their Bibles and it is going to start with a word of prayer and the reading of a text. The heart of that sermon, I would say, the consistent thing that you will get from me is that I am working through a text and am trying to explain and apply the text.
Preaching: How long is typical sermon for you?
Charles: I am allotted 40 minutes and in my head that is what I am preaching. The guys around me tell me I rarely hit that mark, but I am preaching a lot of places outside of my own pulpit these days, and I am preaching outside of my pulpit in more conferences then local churches. You have very strict time requirements in these settings; for instance, if I am preaching a chapel at a seminary and they say you have 20 minutes and the students have to get to class, you cannot run over and I am taking pieces of material that I have used in the past and saying I need to get this down to 30 minutes. I am seeing, I didn’t rob the essence of this sermon and I’m starting to feel like pieces are cleaner because there may be some rabbits I was chasing or just spent too much time when a more direct or cleaner route to explain this might have been best.
Having been dealing with that the past couple of years I am more intentionally trying to shorten my sermons, by no pressure from the congregation, Praise God, they’ll take me as long as I’ll give it to them. I feel like I am more effective the tighter, the cleaner, and in many instances, that means the shorter the pieces are.
Preaching: What do you find to be your greatest challenge in preaching?
Charles: I feel like my default mode is to explain stuff, so I enjoy the research, I enjoy the hard work of coming to an understanding of the text, and I want the congregation to understand the truth that I have worked to understand over the course of that week. I feel like I have the heavy lifting for me and where I feel the weight of preparation is two-fold for me: depth and clarity. In my own study I want to learn the Word of God and in my own study I want to go deep. But when I get to the pulpit, my goal is not depth, it’s clarity. That is hard work.
It is harder work because there is a high level of biblical illiteracy and you can’t assume people know stories of the Bible, you just can’t. I would say in the culture of the church I grew up in there was biblical imagery and language that you just could use and people understood that. Now you almost have to clean your preaching up of that because you can’t make those assumptions that people understand those things. Working at clarity is a challenge,
I feel like application I have to work hard at, and it’s all the more important because there is a growing hostility to Christian truth in our culture and I believe our people, more than ever, in the culture of America, need to understand how to apply this in the world around them. It just can’t sit out as a theory, they have to live this out, outside of the cocoon of the Sunday morning worship where the people around you agree with what you believe.
For example, I catch myself now when I say something about marriage, I’m adding: the Bible defines marriage as a lifelong covenant between one man, one woman. I feel like it’s just an amazing thing where we live in a culture that things that were assumed when I started pastoring 25 years ago, now they are not. This is the world that my children, our teenagers, live in and will have to come up in and I feel like the hard work of clarity and application are urgent. Almost apologetics, helping people to know not just what they believe, but why they believe is a challenge I feel the weight of week to week preaching these days.
Preaching: What do you love most about preaching?
Charles: Wow, all of it, even the hard work is a joy. I love to preach. I can complain that I’m tired, and the guys say, “Well you know I could fill in for you.” Well the preaching is not the hard part, it’s the other things that wear my out; you’re plowing through the week hoping to get to the pulpit on Sunday.
I also, I feel like I am wired a certain way, so I don’t feel the research as drudgery. I enjoy studying the Bible and I count it a privilege. I feel like God has orchestrated the circumstances of my life where my weekly study for preparation is a part of his sanctifying work in my life. I enjoy shepherding people through the Word and I think that would be the biggest thing.
I have a had a couple of opportunities to consider different routes about life in ministry only to come to the conclusion that I am a pastor. I think what do I enjoy about preaching is 3rd John, verse four, “I have no greater joy than to know that my children are walking in the truth.” That’s a part of the pastoral connection of preaching. I would do whatever the Lord tells me, but I wouldn’t want to be an itinerant going from pulpit to pulpit, my heart is in shepherding of a congregation in truth.
Preaching: You were recently elected as the President of the Southern Baptist Pastors Conference. What does that mean to you?
Charles: It is a great honor. First of all, as I mentioned, I love the church, so I love pastors. The opportunity in this way to serve pastors in our denomination is a privilege. A lot of things that I consume my life without outside of my own local church is really targeted to help pastors, so to be able to do this on this scale is a privilege. Connected to that I love preaching and I love preachers, so to be able to have this chance to serve pastors and churches through organizing an event that is focused on biblical preaching is a joy.
The other thing is that it is the first time an African-American pastor has served in this role in the history of the Convention, and I feel the weight of that. That is an honor and a privilege.
From our relatively short period in the Convention, I’ve met godly men and have made strong relationships with good men. We’ve had strategic partnerships develop with local churches and the fact that some of these men have come to me and said we believe this is of the Lord, means more than what I can say. The opportunity to be in whatever way God would chose, a bridge builder in that regard, across generations. I love preaching and I love preachers; that means I love old and young preachers and black and white preachers and across the spectrum. If you love the Bible and love Jesus, and love the church, you’re cool with me. I’m hoping to have that opportunity to reflect that, and if God would smile on that to help us take steps forward in Christian unity. That would be a great thing.
Preaching: One last question: Suppose the angel of homiletics knocks on your door tonight and says, “Pastor Charles, you have sermon left.” What would you want to do with that sermon?
Charles: I would want to take a text that is going to help me in that one sermon exalt the person of Christ and explain the work of Christ. That is, I would take an opportunity to preach the gospel. That is the link of all of the scripture. Christ is the central figure of the Bible, the cross is the central factor of the gospel. I’m not sure what text I would land on, but I would want to preach Christ and Him crucified if I had one more sermon to preach.