Preaching and Story:
An Interview with Max Lucado
Through nearly 50 books which have sold more than 28 million copies, Max Lucado has become one of the best-known preachers in America. Since 1987 he has been Pulpit Minster at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas. A former missionary to Brazil, Max has been featured in national television programs and was dubbed “America’s Pastor” by Christianity Today. More than a decade ago, Preaching magazine featured an interview with Max; recently editor Michael Duduit visited with Max again and talked about his use of story in preaching.
Preaching: You are so well known for your use of story. Why do you think “story” is so effective in communicating truth?
Lucado: Of course, the obvious answer is because Jesus modeled it for us — that goes without saying. But I think there is something about a story that is enduring. Stories take on a life of their own. What I may intend for a story to communicate and what a story ends up communicating could be two different things. And it could be an even more positive thing. The strength of a story is that it stays with people and it gives an opportunity for that story to connect with people where the Holy Spirit intends for it to do so.
In this post-modern culture in which we live — where people question absolute truth — they are resistant to platitudes; they’re resistant to me making declarations of truth to them. A story can do that in kind of a Trojan-horse fashion. Truth can arrive within the story and ride latent — a bit incognito — within a story, and people are more prone to receive it. I think one reason is our society is just less open to platitudes, more open to stories.
We are such a sound-bite culture; people are so accustomed to flipping through their television so quickly that we only have just a few seconds to grab someone’s attention. And a story does that: it will reach out and hook somebody and hold them for just a few moments while you unpack this story in their presence. I think it is an attention grabber. I think it’s a truth conveyor. Those are two great features of a good story.
Preaching: How do you respond to those that cite the danger of over-reliance on story to the exclusion of proposition?
Lucado: That’s a great concern. I think you can tilt too far to the side of the story where the message is just simply entertainment. So I think your goal has to be to craft in one sentence what the truth is you are trying to convey. And then you find or create a story that you wrap around that truth. You know, there are so many examples that come to mind of how Jesus did this. You know the Prodigal Son story is, I think, the greatest short-story ever written. It has such drama in it, such great characters, it’s so clear and concise, and it’s entertaining in the sense that everyone can relate to it. But you have no doubt what our Lord was trying to communicate in the heart of that story. So the truth was not sacrificed on the altar of entertainment in that case. And it can be.
I think there is a time, if I can say this; there is a time in a message where you might just tell a story to give your audience a break. I’ve found great virtue in two-thirds of the way into the message; right before I’m really want to nail home a point, pausing to tell a joke or to tell a light-hearted story, because I know my audience has been working with me now for 20 or 25 minutes. And if I can get them to laugh, get oxygen into their system, it wakes up those who might be sleeping, so there’s something about using a story to draw people back in right before you drive home your final point. In that case I think it’s real legitimate just to use a story for story’s sake.
Preaching: Do you ever do sermons that are completely composed of a story?
Lucado: I’ve never done that. Wait, I take that back. I do have a couple of advent messages where all I did was tell the story following Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem. So if I’ve done that it is following a narrative of scripture. I don’t think I have ever created an entire fiction piece or followed a historical piece and made that into a sermon.
I do think there is great strength, though, in starting a sermon with a story, then returning to that story at the end. That puts book ends to a sermon. It is a real simple technique that communicates to the audience that there is a sense of closure, that they have a package here, or we began and we closed with this. I think that’s just a nice technique.
Preaching: Obviously most of us know you best through your books. If they were to hear you preach, how different would what they hear be from what they read?
Lucado: I think they would be struck with how consistent the two are because I write my sermons out in manuscript form. Because we have several services we have to really watch the time, so I do that. And I’m not able to chase any rabbits, which is probably good for me. They are pretty consistent. The manuscript or book will be tighter than the sermon because it is, by the time it goes to publication, an edited version of that sermon, 20 or 25 times. You know I’ve really edited it down and tightened it up. But all of my books began as sermons, so really the heart of the message is still the same. I think that I speak a lot like I write.
It works well for me to go ahead and prepare the sermon with a chapter in mind. What that does is to force me to be very thrifty in my language, tighten up my words and not ramble so much. It puts some fiber in the sermon.
Preaching: How long is a typical sermon for you?
Lucado: 25 minutes
Preaching: How far out do you plan your sermons?
Lucado: We plan the sermon series out a year in advance. We know what the series are going to be. For example, I know what I’ll be preaching in the spring, what I’ll be preaching in the summer, and what I’ll be preaching next fall. As far as specifically preparing the sermon that is only prepared two weeks in advance.
Preaching: Which, in your mind, comes first, the sermon series or the book?
Lucado: The answer to that is the sermon series. I’m first a pastor and then a writer. I meet with our elders and we pray and I will come to them with several sermon series ideas and they will help me make the decision. So then my hunch is if the church needs to hear it, then perhaps the body of Christ at large might benefit from it. Not all sermon series become books; probably half of them do.
Preaching: That’s interesting that you have your elders involved with helping to select the series. Tell me why you do that.
Lucado: Because I think that the Holy Spirit works through the pastors of the church. It helps me avoid the trap of writing to the reading market. It helps me stay a pastor first, because they have no agenda; they are not thinking: “This would this be a good book someday.” They’re thinking: “How this will help Bob and Suzy who are going through a tough marriage? What series can encourage them?” And so I really bow to their preference. Never have we really gotten into a conflict though. It seems like what I feel and what they feel is clear within 10 or 15 minutes. We really come to a quick consensus and we interpret that as from the Holy Spirit and press on.
Preaching: Have you ever had an issue where you really disagreed with them on a series?
Lucado: No. There was an occasion last year that one of the elders felt real strongly. He said it’s been a while since you’ve done a series on Jesus. And I said, you know what, you’re right. And so we’re going to correct that next fall and do a series out of the gospel of John.
Preaching: What are some of the factors that help you determine what kind of series you are going to preach?
Lucado: There’s quite a bit of “hunch” in it. I’m sorry it’s not more technical. (Laughing) You know you kind of have a gut feeling as I talk to people and listen to the church. For example, this new book that just came out, Cure for the Common Life (Thomas Nelson), you can trace its infancy back to several conversations with the staff on how can we mobilize volunteers. You know every staff wrestles with that. We’ve got more to do than we have people volunteering to do and do people really know their spiritual gift. Do they know their place in the church? How can we help them do this? So we began exploring possibilities for a sermon series. Initially it was going to be a more traditional series of lessons on spiritual gifts. As we got into it we decided to expand it and talk about the uniqueness of every individual and how to use it and the individual can find their gifts. Kind of a long answer there, but it actually came out of conversations with the staff on how we can mobilize more volunteers.
Preaching: Your elders are involved in helping you choose your series. Do you have any involvement of others in the actual preparation of the sermon itself?
Lucado: I don’t. I’ve got some close friends who have a research team that help them, and I have considered that. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet. It probably would strengthen the sermon. We do have a teaching team though, that fills in when I’m out. We have our singles minister and our adult discipleship minister. When I’m out of town, like I was last weekend and this weekend, they alternate. So we will sit down and often times as we plan out the schedule we’ll see that during a certain sermon series they are going to be bringing a third of the messages or even a half if I’m going to be traveling. So we’ll sit down and create the series together in that case. That’s what we did for the January and February series we’re doing.
Preaching: Your most recent book is titled Cure for the Common Life. You are talking there about people finding their calling, finding the gifts God has given them. Tell me about your preaching strategies in that series.
Lucado: What really set this one apart is unique. We wanted to find a tool by which we could help people really understand their unique giftedness. As God orchestrated events we came in contact with an organization called People Management, Inc. I was really captivated by their philosophy, which is, basically, that every person is unique. Consequently, no psychological grid works, because if you try to place every personality in one particular grid then you’d need about 4 billion grids because we are all so unique. I was really captivated by that. It just made all kinds of sense to me, so we took our whole staff through the PMI approach. It was wonderful! It was so liberating for each of us to find our own strengths.
About that time we kicked off the series and started working with them in putting this into a church format. How can we help the church — because they work with corporations — how can we help the church find their unique giftedness? It’ll be a real short answer to a long process, but we finally resulted in a seminar that we could offer our church, called the My Story Workshop, whereby people can go in and spend half a day and evaluate their own strengths and walk out with a clearer caricature or picture of their uniqueness.
In the sermon series, I wanted to give people permission to be unique and offer a prescription on how to find their uniqueness. Giving them permission was fun. That was in the sermon series, which was called Cure for the Common Life; it took about 18 weeks actually. And then the prescription was this My Story Workshop.
Preaching: What are some of the things you felt came out of the sermon series that have really been the most helpful within your congregation?
Lucado: I think this might be one of the most practical sermon series that we’ve presented. The reason is because in our research we came across some phenomenal statistics, sobering statistics. 1 out of 3 Americans says, “I hate my job.” 80-plus percent say, “I’m ill-equipped and unenthused about my work.” I remember one Sunday I preached a sermon called something like “Surviving a Job Mismatch.” I said: raise your hand if you have ever been in a job you don’t like? And every single hand went up. And then I said: raise your hand if you are in a job you don’t like. And I was astounded — it might have been 70% of the hands went up!
You know I love my work, and maybe you love yours, so I just assume everybody loves their job, and they really don’t. There’s a lot of employment dissatisfaction out there, which to me speaks to something which translates into marital difficulty. If you are 8 hours a day in a job you hate, you’re not going to be a very good spouse; it can contribute to chemical dependency, financial mismanagement. So I really felt in this series we were going way upstream and finding the headwaters of some of the problems of society.
I really enjoyed presenting that series of lessons; it seemed to connect right where people lived. I was a little surprised; I thought I would find more sermons and more books on being a Christian in the work place. Of course, I found some phenomenal works — William Hendrickson did a great book, Your Work Matters to God — but there wasn’t that much. And to me that’s always a little satisfying — to find an underdeveloped topic and start developing it. That was another benefit.
Preaching: A natural question pastors would ask when they read your books is: where does he come up with these stories? To what extent are the stories you use original as opposed to finding stories from other sources?
Lucado: I have never thought about that. I could easily go through all my books and mark the ones that were original, mark the ones that were adapted or pre-published that I’ve found. I’m guessing though that probably 75% of them are personal events. I just love a personal story.
Here’s what I really love: I love a funny story that I can tag a serious line on the end of. My favorite story right now that I’m telling as I travel is this: I am eating some cookies that I found on the island in our house — you know, on the kitchen island — that I thought my wife had bought for me at the bake sale the day before. I ate three or four of them, and I just kind of over do it talking about how I didn’t like them that much, but they were ok; I know some amateur made them and I was hungry, so how could I complain, only to find out they were home-made dog biscuits. I’ve had so much fun with that story. That explains why, for the rest of the day, every time I when I scratch my belly my leg would kick.
You know, people by then are chuckling and they’re rolling their eyes and they are wide awake. At that point to try to find the right timing to say: it is important to talk to the maker. There it is: “Bing.” You kind of get that zinger in there. You’ve got to talk to the maker. Those are my favorite kind of stories.
I really enjoy making people laugh; I’ve discovered that’s a great technique. That’s as powerful as stirring their sorrow, stirring their compassion, because that befriends you to them. It engages you with them and then you can come in; they will remember that point. Why don’t you talk to your maker? I would guess that about 75% of my stories are like that — personal experiences that I probably over-milk. I try to be honest though, Michael; I really do try not to exaggerate the story. I try to be accurate. I have caught myself — I’ll confess — I’ve caught myself a time or two adding or embellishing. I don’t think that pleases the Lord. I don’t think He needs my dishonesty to convey His gospel. So I’ve confessed it to Him. I’m pretty good right now. In my younger years, you know, I would kind of embellish and I would feel a stroke of guilt; I think it was from the Holy Spirit, saying you don’t have to be dishonest to communicate the gospel.
Preaching: I remember Bob Russell saying whenever he had a story he was going to tell in which he was the hero, he always tried to precede it with a story in which he was the goat. Have you ever think about that kind of thing in terms of these personal stories?
Lucado: I think you have to be very careful about any story that puffs you up. You cover 50 yards on the playing field of faith with a story that downplays your success. You cover 3 yards, or you may even end up backward, with anything that up-plays or promotes you. The pulpit is no place for self promotion. It is a great place for self-deprecation.
Preaching: And they do enjoy that don’t they?
Lucado: They do, they do. (Laughing) And you know, I’m their pastor. They know me. I mean I’ve been there 19 years. They know my strengths and weaknesses. I don’t ever mention if the books are selling well. I don’t ever tell them about trips I’ve been on. That disconnects me from them. That puts me in a world in which they don’t live, and I don’t want to be there.
Preaching: We’ve been talking about story, and that’s maybe part of a broader area of creativity. What do you think of the place of creativity in preaching?
Lucado: I once heard somebody reflecting on a class called Creative Writing; I think it was Fredrick Buechner, actually. And I think he said: “Is there any other kind?” Well, I suppose there is, but actually I think “creative preaching” is redundant. All preaching should be as creative as we can make it. We’ve been entrusted with such a treasure. To have anywhere from 50 to 5000 people who give us 30 minutes of their time to hear whatever we want to say — I think they deserve all the creativity that we can give. So I would think that creativity has got to be the warp and woof, the heart and soul, of our sermons. Let’s try to present the same gospel but in a fresh fashion, always looking for a better way to connect with the audience.
Preaching: Do you in your own preaching use any visual elements or other kinds of tools?
Lucado: We do use PowerPoint. We project verses on the screen and the main points on the screen. I really enjoy finding some kind of clip out of a television show or movie. Not too long ago I did a lesson on grieving and I found a clip from the movie Lonesome Dove, where Captain Call gives advice to the young boy; his best friend has just died and they buried him. His advice was, “Walk away from it son, just walk away.” So we talked about: is that how you handle grief? We played that two-minute clip and talk about is that how you handle grief? Walk away from it. I love doing that.
We have been known to even put a skit right in the middle of the sermon. I remember one time I did a sermon on sexuality and a friend of ours owns a cello that is an antique; it’s worth $50,000. And he let me use that cello. I didn’t even touch it though. He set it up on the stage on the platform on its holder and I told the church about it, and I kind of got real close to it, but I didn’t touch it. I said I wanted to help them see this is how valuable their life is to God. It is fragile, it is special, and it is valuable. And I just had it up there the whole time and I think that helped. So little creative things like that are very helpful in a lesson.
Preaching: How has your preaching changed over these past few years?
Lucado: I used to yell. I was pretty ambitious, I was back and forth across the podium, and now I’m very conversational. And the reason is because I developed vocal nodules — nodules on my vocal chords. That took place about 1998 or ’99. I mean, my throat would just ache after services, so I had to go in for some vocal training. I had to start taking some medication. I just had to learn to talk differently. So now it’s very conversational.
Preaching: Do you think it’s better than it was?
Lucado: I think it is! I do. I think there is a place for a really “Ra-ra” sermon, but few and far between. What that does though — when I do elevate the volume during the sermon, it’s more powerful.
Preaching: What have you learned about preaching over those 19 years?
Lucado: Number one, how much I love it. Just this morning in my devotional reading, I was in I Corinthians 9, and Paul said, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” I really can understand that. I think I’ll always preach, Michael. I have to. I don’t know if I’ll always be a pastor. That’s something I’ve learned, as the church has grown larger. I struggle with trying to be a good pastor of a large church. There are so many decisions in which I would like to be stronger, more confident in making in terms of expanding the campus, adding staff; I feel some self-doubt in those areas. But I am very confident in preaching.
Michael Jordan once said that the most peaceful moments of his life were on a basketball court, because that’s the only place he knew exactly what to do. And to me the most peaceful moments in my ministry are in the pulpit because that’s when I really know what I’m going to do. Sometimes in staff meetings I’ll look around and say: I have no clue how to lead these guys. And they know it. I mean, sometimes in budget meetings — which I try to only attend a few of them — I’ll say, “I don’t know what to do.” But in the pulpit, I really feel like I’m in my sweet spot, I’m in my stride. I just love preaching.