Preaching in an Urban Setting | An Interview with Romell Williams

Preaching Magazine Interviews

Preaching in the Urban Setting

An Interview with Romell Williams

Romell Williams is pastor at Lilydale Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in his hometown of Chicago, Illinois. A third-generation pastor, Williams is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute and Trinity International University, and is associate director for preaching workshops with the Simeon Trust. He was interviewed by Preaching executive editor Michael Duduit.

Michael Duduit:

Tell me about your call to ministry and how you came to this church.

Romell Williams:

I am a third generation preacher, my father, my grandfather. I was led to faith in the Church of God in Christ under the ministry of my grandfather, who founded Bright Star Church of God in Christ. He pastored there for 40 years.

I accepted Christ shortly after my 14th birthday and I had a very strange childhood. My play was preaching. Every week, from Monday to Saturday, my mother would sing my grandfather’s theme song and wrap a towel around my shoulders; that was supposed to be my little robe. I’d march into the living room with the Bible, open it up and do my best to preach on the coffee table. One of my sermons was about Esau and Dotson. Mother Dotson was my Sunday School teacher and my grandfather preached about Esau and Jacob that week. And I couldn’t make out Jacob, so I just talked about Esau and Dotson.

The call to ministry was always kept in front of me. Periodically, my father would challenge me if I did something wrong or I got in trouble, saying “you know you have to preach.” And so, I ended up accepting my call to preach at the age of 17, just a few months before turning 18 and graduating from high school. Accepted my call to preach and ended up spending about two years just being discipled by my granddad. And then after he died, I ended up enrolling in Moody Bible Institute. It was just always something that I knew I was going to end up doing.

Michael Duduit:

How long have you been here at Lilydale?

Romell Williams:

This year it will be 15 years of service here at Lilydale. My coming here was quite interesting. I lost my granddad at the age of 20 and I ended up at the Rock of Ages Baptist Church serving under Pastor Marvin Wiley in Maywood, Illinois as the youth pastor. While serving there, in a real sense, God kind of replaced the vacancy in my life left by the death of my grandfather with Dr. William Copeland.

Dr. Copeland got a phone call asking for someone to lead a first Sunday worship here at Lilydale, and he recommended that they call me to come preach. I just came over to fill the pulpit that day, and as Providence would have it, they ended up asking me to be willing to consider serving them as their interim pastor. When I heard back from them they said, “We want a resume and whoever would serve as interim wouldn’t be eligible to candidate for the church.” And so I submitted a resume and about 18 months later received a call.

Michael Duduit:

You’re pastoring here in an urban setting in Chicago. What are some of the particular challenges of preaching and pastoring in that kind of setting?

Romell Williams:

First of all is understanding how the culture of the church functions. The majority of my membership is comprised of two big groups: those who are foundational members who live in this community, and then their children and their grandchildren, who don’t live in this community. So they were raised in this community, they grew up, they educated themselves, and now they live in the suburbs. So while the older mother may live five minutes from here, her daughter and son-in-law and grandchildren may live 25 or 30 minutes from here. The challenge, of course, becomes who’s got more strength, more ability, more activity to do ministry? Managing that has been a major thing.

Another factor is not just understanding the culture but understanding the high amount of crime in this particular local area. We try to get out into the community to make sure that the community knows us and that we are representing Christ to them and at least making contact. Because it becomes more difficult to do crime to people who you have communication with. We’ve dealt with break-ins in our parking lot – my car’s been broken into five or six times – and then a lot of murders around this area. So we try to be a part of that as well – showing up when crime happens and those things take place.

The last major challenge to leading a local congregation in the inner city is single parenting. Specifically with single mothers. Trying to foster in our men’s ministry a sense of accountability and to say to them, “We need to be adopting boys.” And trying to be godly examples to them and providing male mentorship. Because if we continue to let them fall through the cracks, then the cycle continues.

Michael Duduit:

You mentioned the murders and unfortunately in the national media, that’s what Chicago increasingly seems to be identified with. Do you try to speak to some of those kinds of issues in your preaching?

Romell Williams:

I do, but I try to speak to them in a more blanket way rather than naming off those individuals who have been directly affected, because one of my challenges as a communicator is not to send people on what I call mental bathroom breaks. Sometimes things that have transpired in a news cycle are still weighing so heavily on the congregants for whatever reasons, that to say the name may disrupt their ability to continue to walk forward with you in the sermon.

So I will talk about blue on black crime or I’ll talk about black on black crime in a general way to address the dysfunction in our culture and our need to be sensitive to it. We had a young man killed that was on the national scale with a hoodie on. Every time my car was broken into, the perpetrator had a hoodie on. We’ve got him on camera. So I addressed that to my congregation, you know, be careful about what you’re purchasing for your children. And be careful about how they are dressed when they are traveling without you.

Simple things like that that we have to be honest about. Of course, wearing a hoodie doesn’t make you a criminal, but when you are being approached and when you are being processed, you need to be cognizant of the fact that this is what criminals do to hide their identity.

Michael Duduit:

I know that you are a believer in expository preaching. Tell me a little bit about your own approach and if we were to come on a Sunday morning and listen to you, what would we experience?

Romell Williams:

My own approach to expository preaching is firmly rooted in my Pentecostal background. My parents, my father in particular, joined a church called South Shore Baptist Church; it is now Christ Bible Church. James Ford, Jr. is the pastor there. He was my first exposure to expository preaching.

If you were to come here on a Sunday, you would see me trying to grab the attention of the audience with a solid introduction, to try to offer them a reason why they need to listen to the message. I do my best to state a thesis and prove it from the text of scripture, while trying to make sure that before ending the message, I connect whatever truths have been explored to the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Those are my fundamental convictions. You need to get their attention, you need to get them to the text, you need to explain the passage, apply the passage, and connect it to Christ.

Michael Duduit:

How long is a typical sermon for you?

Romell Williams:

A typical sermon for me in the context of Sunday morning is about 30 to 35 minutes.

Michael Duduit:

Do you preach mostly in series?

Romell Williams:

I preach series. I preach through a book of the Bible each year. This year we are walking through the book of Mark. But my church is conditioned so that my calendar year is set up where we have an annual theme, so I’ll preach thematically. Say our theme is grace. I’ll preach about grace from the first Sunday in the year until after resurrection Sunday. And I typically start the exposition of whatever book we’re studying as soon as possible after resurrection Sunday.

Michael Duduit:

Do you insert some other series in the middle of that, or do you just stay with that one book year round?

Romell Williams:

I typically don’t insert other series. I preach on stewardship at least once a quarter, and there may be those times when I break a series, but typically I stay on task. This year I preached through our vision statement for five sermons. Our vision includes exposing people to God, explaining God’s purposes, experiencing God’s gifts, evangelizing the world. And so, I preach through the five parts of our vision statement and that is something that the elders have called for me to commit to doing every few years so that the congregation remains clear about who we are and why we uniquely exist.

Michael Duduit:

Give me some sense of your preparation process for preaching.as you move from Sunday to Sunday,

Romell Williams:

My preparation process for preaching begins on Sunday night. Sunday night, I want to sit with the passage. I want to read it and I want to begin to memorize it. I also have a couple of study Bibles that I want to open up just to kind of get a general sense of what’s going on.

So, Sunday night I’m going to spend an hour to 90 minutes just mulling over the text. Reading through the context and trying to get a general sense of what I think is going on. Monday morning I’ll get up and do my word studies, culture and context, things of that nature. And by Tuesday, I want to move toward being able to outline the message and make sure that I

am able to crystallize what I believe to be the exegetical idea, so that I can shape that into some kind of preaching thesis.

Wednesday to Friday, after having established a good skeleton for the message, I’m trying to put some muscles and some skin, some flesh and some clothing on this sermon. I typically practice creative disassociation on Saturdays. Well, really I start on Friday evening. Fridays I want to spend time with my family. And then Saturdays, we’re typically here for some form of discipleship, so I divorce myself from the sermon for about 24 hours. Because sometimes while you’re staring at it you can’t see the holes in it. Divorce myself from the sermon for about 24 hours and my family is programmed around 6:00 or 7:00 on a Saturday night, they leave me alone.

So, I’m in my office and at that point I typically fully craft out my introduction and my conclusion and finalize things. I don’t sleep much on Saturday nights. I average about three or four hours of sleep on Saturday night. So I’m back up with it, praying early in the morning, going over it until I’m here and ready to preach on Sunday morning at 8:00.

One of the gifts that I received from Pastor Wiley that I didn’t know I was receiving was each Sunday, after the initial proclamation of his sermon at 8:00, he and I would go into his office and we would dialogue about the sermon and about what worked, what didn’t work, what can be changed. Because sometimes after having worked through it, you can see it more clearly.

That lives with me even now. This past Sunday I preached Mark 9 and I wasn’t comfortable with how the message landed. And so, I homiletically reworked it so that I completely told the narrative at 11:15, then walked through the point structure, as opposed to trying to weave the narrative into the point structure as I did at 8:00.

As late as Monday I’m still rewriting final edits on a sermon, depending on whether I sense it was something exclusively for my church or something that I’ll share in my itinerant ministry. So sometimes on a Monday morning before I get to work on what’s coming for that Sunday, I’ll still be brewing and chewing on the passage from the previous week and make edits, where I take out some of the pastoral application and things of that nature. To say, “Hey, this may go into that file,” and be able to be preached again.

Michael Duduit:

As you are preparing to preach, do you prepare a manuscript? Do you do notes?

Romell Williams:

I write a full manuscript each week. I’m a really strange guy. I preached the majority of my ministry with nothing but a Bible, because I grew up in that Pentecostal context. As time has gone on and I’ve grown as a communicator, with more to say hopefully, it depends on whether or not I have time to internalize. So I try, as a rule of thumb, to use an outline or a manuscript on site here during my pastoral preaching. And I try to commit the sermon to memory for the sake of communicative freedom when I’m away from here.

Michael Duduit:

What do you enjoy most about preaching?

Romell Williams:

I would have to say what I enjoy most about preaching is seeing the truths that I have been exposed to register and resonate with the audience as they are being shared. So it’s seeing the light come on for them, knowing that it came on for you in the study. As a church kid, one of my big things is so many people know book, chapter, verse, as relates to what the Bible says, but may not know what it means. And so, the privilege of the expositor is to have an opportunity to actually flesh out and unearth what this text means.

Michael Duduit:

Before we started the interview recording, we were laughing about some favorite preacher stories. Share a favorite preacher story.

Romell Williams:

A lot of my favorite preacher stories revolve around Good Friday services and the seven last words of the Lord Jesus Christ being preached in an abundance of clever and interesting ways. I’m always fascinated by instances when a person is attempting to preach a passage to me that they can’t read.

So I was at a seven last words service and the guy was trying to read, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” And so he gets to the original language and he says, “Elijah! Elijah! Something or another salbatine.” I don’t think I heard any more of that sermon. I could not recover. And that is still one of the running jokes with me and my friends: “Elijah! Elijah! Something or another salbatine.”

Michael Duduit:

One last question, if you had a young pastor sitting here and you could offer them one word of counsel, what would it be?

Romell Williams:

Never forget the importance of discipline in what we do. I think a lot of times we highlight gifts and education and all of these other things that are necessary. But we don’t talk about the fact that without personal discipline, you’re going to have a very limited ministry. If you don’t have the personal discipline to pray, if you don’t have the personal discipline to study, if you don’t have the personal discipline to write yourself clear. And these are not things that anybody else can do for you. The Bible is not going to call your cell phone and say, “Come study me.” You have to have the discipline to do what needs to be done.