Preaching and the Holy Spirit: An Interview with Max Lucado

Max Lucado is the teaching minister at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas, and one of the most popular authors in the Christian church today. He has more than 90 million books in print and his newest book is entitled, Help is Here: Finding Fresh Strength and Purpose in the Power of the Holy Spirit. He was interviewed recently by Executive Editor Michael Duduit. 

Preaching: Your newest book is about the mystery of the Holy Spirit. What do you see as the role of the Holy Spirit and why does that matter to believers? 

Lucado: Jesus spoke more about the Holy Spirit than any other topic. He made the Holy Spirit the topic of his final conversation with His followers in the night before His crucifixion. And then before His Ascension, He told His followers don’t go out until you have received the Holy Spirit. And they went to Jerusalem and they waited for the Holy Spirit. So it’s easy to see that the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential to the ongoing work of Jesus Christ on our planet today. 

Preaching: Max, you had a turning point as a young man and came to a new understanding of the Holy Spirit. Can you share some of that? 

Lucado: Just a super short version, I’m a converted drunk. I was the guy that daddies warned their daughters not to go out on a date with. I was, in high school and the early part of college, I just was off track and my life was headed down the gully. I came to trust the grace of Jesus, that He could forgive me, when I was about 20 years old. That led to a decision to go to seminary, and that led to a decision to go to Brazil. And that led to an opportunity to come to San Antonio where I’ve been since 1988 at the same church. 

I came to San Antonio at the age of 33. By the age of 35, I was burned out. I was just exhausted. Pastors will relate to that mindset that I thought I had to do everything. Yeah. I thought I had to be the perfect pastor. I had to visit every sick person, counsel every confused person, answer every doctrinal question, I had to raise money. I mean, I was wearing myself out. That led to a time of insomnia. I don’t know why, but all my life I’ve struggled with sleep, but that was really intense during those days. And I would go all night long and I couldn’t sleep. My world felt like it went from technicolor to just gray and black. 

During those nights I couldn’t sleep. I would go downstairs and pray. I would sit on a couch or kneel at a couch and just pray. And Michael, it was during that season that I began to sense help. Little by little, it wasn’t overnight, but little by little, the color began to return to the world. I had breakthroughs with some things I was struggling with. I witnessed some healings in our church, some healings of disease. I began to enjoy ministry more and I began to sleep better. 

And a few months into that process – I’m still in my mid-thirties, still a couple years into the ministry – I was studying John 14 with the church and read how Jesus called the Holy Spirit our helper, or our counselor, our advocate. And that’s when I realized: that’s who’s been helping me. Now, a person might hear that story and say, “Lucado, you mean you were a seminarian, a missionary, a pastor, and still didn’t recognize the Holy Spirit?” And my confession is yep. That’s the truth. That’s the truth. It’s a testimony to the Spirit that He helped me so much when I acknowledged Him so little, but that’s how he is. 

Preaching: One of the major issues that’s confronting us, particularly a lot of young people and young adults in our American culture, is the issue of anxiety. And that’s just as true in the church as it is in the wider culture. How can a right understanding of the Holy Spirit help our folks deal with this issue of anxiety? 

Lucado: In the book, I took the approach of looking at the different word pictures or metaphors of the Holy Spirit. If you were to ask most people: is there an image that comes to your mind when you think of the Holy Spirit? Most people would think of a bird, of the dove. And that’s because at the baptism of Jesus, the Holy Spirit came in one gospel, like a dove and another gospel as a dove. And so the Holy Spirit took on the form of a dove. 

And I cannot think of a more gentle bird than a dove. You think of a hawk. You think of an eagle, even think of a hummingbird, you think that might have been more appropriate, but the Holy Apirit wanted to be known as a gentle, maternal figure like a dove. Even in the first reference to the Holy Spirit in the Bible, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God hovered over the creation when it was still being created in Genesis chapter one. The Spirit of God hovered. And so before there could be a creation, there had to be a calming, a hovering of the Holy Spirit over creation. So these and other examples in the Bible suggest to us that the Holy Spirit can come as a calming presence. 

Now I believe this calming can happen through counseling, it can happen through meditation. It can happen through advice, but it can also come supernaturally. Just today, I saw a good friend who lost his wife about 18 months ago. I’m 67, I think he’s 65. And it was a rough thing. It was a rough, rough thing. I said, “How are you doing?” And he said, “You know, I’m doing better than I ever imagined I would be.” Now he didn’t say the Holy Spirit did that, but in my mind, that’s the job of the Holy Spirit, to comfort. He comes like a dove, a comforting presence in the lives of people who are passing through a tumultuous season. 

And so, yeah, I’m with you. The young people today are battling anxiety at a high level; suicide is worse than it’s been since World War II. So these are very challenging seasons and we need to welcome the presence of the Holy Spirit to bring supernatural comfort into our lives. 

Preaching: Over the years that you’ve been preaching, what has been the role of the Holy Spirit in terms of your sermon content? How much preaching have you done about the Holy Spirit through the years? 

Lucado: I’m a little embarrassed to say, not as much. If I were to do it all over again, I would preach more often on the Holy Spirit. Why did I not preach as much? Part of it is I come out of a background, to be quite honest, that under emphasized the Holy Spirit, I do not come out of a charismatic background. And so I felt ill-equipped, I had more questions than answers myself. 

And then secondly, there’s not a book in the Bible called the book of the Holy Spirit. So I thought: how am I going to tackle this topic? What angle and from what direction? And so I would seriously give it some thought, but I couldn’t figure out how to approach the Holy Spirit in terms of a series of sermons. 

Now I would, of course, teach on the Holy Spirit if I was teaching through the gospel of John. I’d get to John 14. Yes, I would. So I’m not saying I never thought about it. But I couldn’t find the right angle. And then I came across this idea, the Lord gave me the idea of studying the metaphors of the Holy Spirit. And I thought, wow, that’s a wonderful sermon series – or at least that has the potential of being a wonderful sermon series! So I made a list of all the metaphors I could find. Anointing oil, wind, breath, fire, everything I could find that is a picture of the Holy Spirit. And that turned out to be just a wonderful way to study the Holy Spirit. So the answer to your question is if I had to do over again, I would’ve found a way earlier, but I’m grateful that I eventually did. 

Preaching: What counsel would you offer to other pastors and preachers as they try to approach this issue of the Holy Spirit? 

Lucado: Well, it is very fair to begin the sermon series with a quote. My favorite quote about the Holy Spirit is from the theologian Bernard Ramm. I’m opening my book up, if you let me just, just what a wonderful quote he said, “There is a hiddenness to the Spirit that cannot be uncovered. There is an immediacy of the Spirit that cannot be shoved into vision. There is an invisibility of the Spirit that cannot be forced into visibility. There is a reticence of the Spirit that cannot be converted into openness. For these reasons, one feels helpless, inadequate, and unworthy to write a line about the Spirit.” 

He maybe could have said that a little briefer simply by saying the Spirit cannot be explained or contained. But that doesn’t mean we don’t try. I think we pastors are a little hesitant because we’re afraid we’re going to be asked a question that we cannot answer. And so we’re careful. But we can’t let that keep us from teaching about the Spirit. He is far beyond anything we could ever imagine. That’s even more the reason for all of us to give our best effort to try to express to our beautiful members of our churches how wonderful the Holy Spirit is. 

Preaching: Now I know that your books start out as sermon series. When was this series done at Oak Hills? 

Lucado: This was preached right before COVID. The fall of 2019. 

Preaching: As you were preaching that series, are there some things that you learned out of that series that were an encouragement to you and maybe it could be an encouragement to other pastors? 

Lucado: Yeah, I was amazed how excited the people were that we were going to study the Holy Spirit. Because we all have our questions. We all have our mysteries that we’ve yet to resolve about the Holy Spirit. You know, a wonderful thing happened. When I preached the sermon on the Holy Spirit as a river of living water – that was one of Jesus’ analogies, “And out of your heart shall flow river of living water” – I used that to describe revivals and I preached a sermon on some famous revivals, like the Second Great Awakening in the United States. 

When I started preaching about revival, there’s a man in our church, he’s got to be in his mid-eighties. He looks a little bit like Elijah or John the Baptist. He’s got a scraggly beard and hair down to his shoulders and he’s bald on top. And he stood up right in the middle of the sermon and he started singing that old hymn: Revive Us Again. 

I’ve never had that happen in a sermon. And one by one, the church started standing up and I just backed away from the pulpit and we sang that song two or three times. We didn’t have the words. We didn’t have any instruments. It was all a capella. We just started singing that song. And it was a great moment. It spoke to me of our church’s desire for revival. There is a longing for supernatural help, for a visitation from the Lord. And it was a special memory. 

Preaching: You’ve been at Oak Hills church since 1988. And I know you continue to serve as teaching minister there. How many Sundays a year are you preaching now? 

Lucado: 20. I was full time until about three years ago and I transitioned into this role and that means I don’t head up the staff any longer. I don’t raise money or build any buildings or anything like that. But I still preach 20 times a year. And I still do a lot of writing. 

Preaching: The last time you and I spoke was early in the pandemic and obviously it’s not over; you just experienced COVID yourself. 

Lucado: Yeah. Here I am. I know. My second bout with COVID. 

Preaching: Are there some things that maybe you’ve learned doing ministry, preaching, writing through the pandemic that maybe will inform your ministry going forward? 

Lucado: Well, I’d love to hear a panel of pastors answer that question! 

I was not senior pastor during the pandemic, so my heart goes out to those who had to make really hard decisions about closing the church, doing just online worship services. I didn’t have to make those decisions. So my heart goes out to those who did. I have been a bit bewildered at how long it has taken most churches to fill up again. I don’t keep up with the statistics, but what I hear secondhand is that still quite a few churches, including ours, are not quite back to their pre-COVID attendance numbers. And I’m not sure what that says about us. I think we got in a habit of either not going or watching just online and it’s taken a while to get that habit changed. 

Preaching: I’ve heard people say that COVID didn’t create the problem so much as revealed where the problems already were. 

Lucado: That’s a very good point. We were blessed because we have a nice sanctuary and a very sophisticated camera and technology department. My heart went out to the little churches who couldn’t do online services. They didn’t have the equipment, which is a vast majority of churches. And they had to hurry to staff up and figure out how to get online. So maybe if anything good has come out of it is it’s helped us to become more sophisticated in our use of technology. 

Preaching: One last question. As a preacher, how do we blend or balance the ministry of the Word and the ministry of the Holy Spirit in your preaching and pastoral ministry? 

Lucado: That’s a big question, isn’t it? That is a big question. I feel like when I am practicing what I preach and walking with Holy Spirit, then in my own life, I’m practicing prayer. I’m practicing spiritual disciplines of a time alone with God. And I’m opening the scriptures, inviting the scriptures to speak to me before I speak to the church. I’d be lying if I said I do that all the time. I don’t. But when I am in a good place, I feel like the Spirit, the ministry of the Spirit and the ministry of the Word are inseparable. It’s like the Spirit is telling me what to say. 

Now, there are those moments of pure delight when I’m writing a sermon and I can barely get it written fast enough or prepared fast enough, because I’m so confident. This is the Spirit telling me what to say. There also have been times I just can’t crack the code on the scripture. And oftentimes it’s because of my own heart. I’m just wanting to get the job done more than I really want to hear from the Lord. So I guess my answer is, if I’m in the Spirit, then there’s no difference between the ministry of the Spirit and the ministry of the Word.