Preaching Happy | An Interview with Max Lucado

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Preaching Happy

An Interview with Max Lucado

Max Lucado is one of America’s best known Christian pastors and authors, with more than a hundred million copies of his books in print. He continues to serve in ministry at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas. Max’s latest book is called How Happiness Happens, published by Thomas Nelson. He was recently interviewed by Preaching editor Michael Duduit.

Michael Duduit:

You have got a brand new book called How Happiness Happens. That prompts the question, why is there so much unhappiness out there?

Max Lucado:

There is, there is. It’s enough to make a person unhappy to just read all the research on happiness or the lack thereof. I think the most distinct study and summarizing study related that one out of every three Americans considers him or herself happy. That means that two out of three of us cannot work up enough joy or happiness to check yes on the happiness questionnaire.

This is the lowest it’s ever been since the study began over a decade ago. Each year we’ve gotten increasingly unhappy, and now we’re at an all-time low.

There’s a lot of unhappiness out there. What we know intuitively, I’ve tried to demonstrate empirically, but we know intuitively that unhappiness creates problems. Our relationships are not healthy. Our bodies are not healthy. We don’t perform as well at work.

People who are happy, by contrast, have healthier marriages. They have higher salaries. They earn more. Their bodies respond to the happiness by processing food better, by developing a stronger immune system. There are many benefits to happiness, many challenges to unhappiness. I think this is a very relevant issue for our day.

Michael Duduit:

So, Max, how does happiness happen?

Max Lucado:

The challenge of unhappiness is that many, many people are unhappy because they are convinced that what they see on television, what they read in the magazine or see in social media is true: that happiness is always just one purchase away, a new spouse away, a new house away, a new job away; that if they can change their circumstance, then happiness is going to happen. There’s a better approach. Jesus summarized how happiness happens when he said, “It is really better to give than receive.”‘

Now, that just flips on its ear a basic philosophy in our society because we believe it’s better to receive than to give. I mean, a billion-dollar marketing industry has been built upon the idea that I will be happier when I have the new car, when I have the hair implants, when I lose the weight, get the date, find my faith, all those things. But Jesus said, “No, no, no, no. Happiness happens not when I do something for me, but when I do something for other people,” and that’s why the Bible has so much to say about helping other people.

We preachers understand that the New Testament is populated with what we call the “one another” verses. I count 59 “one another” verses, and these verses are practical – not always easy, but very practical – go-to directions or admonitions to help us make a difference in someone’s life: serve one another, help one another, love one another, encourage one another, forgive one another, and on and on they go. What I did in this book is simply take those “one another” passages, reduced them down to a manageable list of 10, and show how by

implementing these one another verses we truly can not only make other people happy but find happiness ourselves as we give it away.

Michael Duduit:

I know some pastors and church leaders who don’t seem very happy. Do you have any particular counsel or advice for some of your fellow pastors?

Max Lucado:

Yeah, I know a few of them too, and sometimes one of them’s looking at me when I look in the mirror. I’ve been a pastor at this church here in San Antonio, Texas since 1988. I entered the ministry in 1979, so I’ve been in the ministry the same amount of time that Moses and the Hebrews were in the wilderness, and sometimes it feels about the same.

Ministry’s not easy; it’s just tough work. It’s a high calling. It’s a Holy calling, but it’s a hard calling, and for a variety of reasons. But, I think that the pastors among us can find more happiness if we will be reminded of the beauty in serving other people. There’s really genuine joy that comes from serving other people. Not only did Jesus say, “It’s better to give than receive,” He said, “I have come not to be served, but to serve and give my life as a ransom for many.”

Most of us, if we think back to the early days of our call into ministry, whether it be a matter of months or years or for some of us decades, we can remember that joy that we felt when we first served someone else, when we got out of ourselves. I came to Christ as a 20-year-old and soon thereafter had an opportunity within the first few months to travel to Guatemala and help build homes that had been devastated during the 1976 Guatemalan earthquake. The joy I felt was unlike anything thus far in my life I’d ever felt.

It was hard work. It was backbreaking work. My hands were not equipped for lifting those concrete blocks all day long and stacking those cinder blocks into walls. But I felt such a deep sense of satisfaction that came from serving others, and that’s where I began to realize I want to do this the rest of my life.

But you know, we forget. We get tied up in budget meetings, building buildings, in defending our doctrine, or promoting our cause. We forget that really our call, at the purest sense, is to be what Jesus was, and that is a servant. It’s still a challenge for me to this day. But, all of us can find that greater happiness if we can return to that initial call, and that is serve one another just as Jesus serves us.

Michael Duduit:

Did this book come out of a sermon series or maybe become a sermon series?

Max Lucado:

It came out of the sermon series. All of my books have, just about, come out of sermon series. I have found that’s a great way to develop a book, to first let it pass through the filter of the screen, if you will, of preaching it. I find as I prepare the sermon, I prepare a better sermon if I think it someday is going to be a book. But not all sermons make their ways into the book. Some of them just don’t work. I can tell by watching the expressions of the people that this isn’t working, I’m chasing a rabbit, so sometimes I’ll change the chapter and strengthen it.

This book came out of the One Another sermon series. I’ve preached that series twice. That’s what happens when you’ve been in a church so long. I didn’t preach all the same sermons both times, but I love these “one another” verses, so maybe 20 or 25 years ago I preached a series of lessons on the “one another” verses, and then about five years ago I did again. I took those sermons, and in turn, they formed the essence of this book.

Michael Duduit:

That’s some good advice to pastors: if you stay in a place long enough, you can re-preach some of those series!

Max Lucado:

That can also be said about pastors who move around and just recycle it.

Michael Duduit:

Well, you’re probably right about that. We’ve been talking about happiness. What do you enjoy most about preaching?

Max Lucado:

I love the study. I really do. I love trying to come to a deeper understanding of what a particular passage would mean. My case in point: this week I’m writing a sermon on Jesus’ presentation of the Holy Spirit to Nicodemus. When he talks about those who have been not only born again but those of us who have been born of the spirit. I woke up this morning thinking of that phrase, born of the spirit, born in the spirit. What does it mean?

I pulled a commentary down off the shelf, an old commentary. At least, the book is not old, but it was written a long time ago by Arthur Pink. He’s got a great half-page there, and he says, “If a plant is born of a tomato plant, it’s a tomato plant; if a dog is born of a dog, it’s a dog; if a cat is born of a cat, it’s a cat. We who were born of the spirit, we carry the nature of the spirit within us.”

I got so excited over that, Michael, I went off to work out this morning and I kept thinking about that. It stayed with me. It’s a thought that’s lifting my spirit today, and I can’t wait to incorporate that into the sermon. That’s what I love about preaching. It’s just coming to these little nuggets that I know will lift other people, but I’m the first beneficiary, right? I get to discover it first, and to me, I find that to be the most delightful part of preaching.

Michael Duduit:

Counter to that, what do you struggle with the most in preaching?

Max Lucado:

Well, that’s a very fair question. I struggle with the sermons that would fall into the category of vision casting, strategizing. I realize that some of my colleagues, that’s their favorite kind of sermons. They want to say, “Here’s where our church is going and here’s how we’re going to get there.” I’ve certainly done my share of those through the years. I’ve found those a little more difficult. They’re important; I’m not minimizing them, but trying to find the right way to cast a vision and to lead a staff into that vision, lead a church into that vision, has become more difficult for me than the task of taking a topic like we’re talking about today, the Holy Spirit, this passage in John chapter three, and just living with that scripture until I at least find a good way to present it. The part of preaching that I like the least is strategizing.

If there is one that I even like less, that’s fundraising sermons. I’ve not quite met the colleague who says that’s his or her favorite kind of sermon, but it’s all part of it. Stewardship is essential, and so I really respect those who do it well.

Michael Duduit:

How long does it take for you to prepare a typical Sunday sermon?

Max Lucado:

On a given week, I will study about four hours on Monday; Tuesday is meetings; Wednesday is study, and I’ll go another four hours; and usually by noon Thursday, which is another three to four hours depending on the week, I’ll have a good first draft of that message done. I would say in three half days I can have a good message.

Now, what I do that’s kind of different, I write my sermons way in advance; I mean like three and four months in advance, sometimes five. What I’m writing today, I will preach three months from now. I know I have recording and broadcasting. They’re not exactly the same day, but that’s about three months out. I like doing that, I’ve had the luxury of doing that through the years, and it gives that sermon time to marinate. I’ll come back to that sermon during the week before I preach it and give it another half-day. I always make some pretty significant changes there at the very end.

You might call it a discipline, you might call it desperation. I don’t function well when the deadline’s on top of me. I tend to panic and so it’s better for me to give myself some wiggle room.

Michael Duduit:

How long is an average sermon for you?

Max Lucado:

Well, 25 minutes is what we block. I usually go 30, but I’m not supposed to take more than 25.

Michael Duduit:

Are there any particular preachers that you enjoy listening to that help you?

Max Lucado:

Yes. I’ve got a wide range of them. I love John Piper. His messages really help me to be more precise and specific, kind of go deeper. Robert Morris, at Gateway Church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, brings beautiful messages that help me to stay sensitive to deeper healing that can happen. I have discovered that there is a podcast of Charles Spurgeon sermons. I don’t know who reads them, but they do a very good job. The other day I had a two-hour drive, and I listened to a Charles Spurgeon sermon, of all things, and so I intend to do that more because that was very beneficial.

Michael Duduit:

One last question. What makes you happiest?

Max Lucado:

I really do get happy at the thought of heaven. I do. I think it’s just going to be splendid; I think God is a happy being; I think the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit dwell in happy communion, one with the other; and I think that the tongues of angels is laughter. I feel like happiness awaits us. I don’t think any of us on this Earth have begun to discover the happiness that will appear once the curse has been removed, and so I get happy to think about that – not just seeing people I love, I’m looking forward to that – but just to see God, to finally see God, to finally see Jesus, and to finally experience what Adam and Eve experienced in the garden of Eden. That puts a smile on my face.