Preaching Biographically: An Interview with Charles Swindoll

Through his books and Insight for Living radio broadcast, Charles Swindoll has become one of America’s best-known preachers. Following his service as President of Dallas Theological Seminary, he became the founding pastor of Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, Texas. He was interviewed by Preaching editor Michael Duduit.

Preaching:  Several of your books have originated in sermon series on biblical characters What drew you toward biographical preaching?

Swindoll: I think there’s nothing like a biography to incarnate the truth.  You can talk about faith until you are blue in the face, but when you put Abraham with a knife in his hands standing over Isaac, until you go there, you’ve missed the application of how that occurs.  You can talk about courage and spell it out, but when you wrap it around a life like Paul who demonstrated it when he got to Pamphilia, and probably at that time got malaria, continued on and went through the stoning of his experience in Derby and Lystra and all of that, you see courage in action. There’s something about putting it into a life that translates theory into reality.

Preaching: As you do biographical preaching, what are some of the strengths you see in communicating biblical truth in that way?

Swindoll:  I think the preacher is always looking for ways to help people realize how relevant the scriptures are.  I would like to underscore how I said that, lest you think I’m saying it’s our job to make the bible relevant.  It is relevant.  The preacher’s task is to help people who are either reading what he’s saying, or writing, or hearing what he’s saying to understand how in touch this book really is with life.  So I think it helps underscore the relevance of scripture.  

Second, I believe it breaks life down into believable chunks.  People in the Bible go through experiences. They go through, amazingly, some of the very same things we go through today.  Change the names, change the places, change the date, and you’ve got something that’s happening last night or today or tomorrow.  When that happens I believe it is so much less complicated to then turn to an application because the people have seen themselves on the page.  Something wonderful happens when that occurs.  I’m not listening to something that is dated back to the first century or even a thousand years before the first century, I’m listening to how my life is today — it just happens to be in another setting.  

Third, you’re also teaching biblical content.  That’s one of the benefits.  So much preaching today does everything to draw people to a story or to some situation that a preacher may imagine and then it goes into a moral of it and applies it and you go on.  Rather than: let’s open our Bibles right here to Joshua chapter 14, we’re going to look at the life of a man who never really got that old — at least in his attitude — and his name is Caleb.  And when you work your way through the life of Caleb you see youthfulness even in a man that is 85 years old.  Well, that gives a whole lot of hope to guys who are getting up in years.  It also says to those who are younger, staying at it is worth it.  Here’s a man who never did go over the hill.  He went up the hill but never went over it.

Preaching: Are there any particular dangers that preachers need to be aware of as they do biographical preaching?

Swindoll:  Oh, I think some of the dangers are the same dangers as you’ve had in any other kind of preaching, like reading into it something that’s not there — you’ve got to be careful to exegesis, not eisogesis.  I think also if you’re not careful, and you do a biblical character and you stay on that character so long, it’s easy to take that character out of context and make him stand on his own.  I think every character has a setting.  And the better you know the setting and communicate the setting, the more accurate you will be with dealing with his character. 

That brings me to three gates that I always have messages pass through: Is it accurate, is it clear, is it relevant — is it practical?  Accuracy has to do with the accuracy of the text.  What does it, did it mean when it was written?  Not now, but what did it mean when it was written?  What did the author have in mind?  That’s being accurate to what is revealed in the print on the page.  Second, am I saying it in a way that is clear so that I’m not talking in a code language that is known only to the insider?  Would the guy that’s just off the beach that sits on the back row of the church that I’m pastoring, would he understand it as clearly as the charter member that has been here for 25 years?  So be sure you’re clear.  The danger of just talking to yourself is always a very real and present danger.  

Third, having said all of that from the text, and then said it clearly, can I identify with it in the 21st century?  Little help comes from just learning facts.  Some help comes from that — it does give you a depth of knowledge, and since the cults prey on ignorance it certainly would help you know your way around doctrinally or biblically, that would be helpful.  But the danger of just teaching information without applying it, I think, causes the scripture to fall short in a person’s life.  Howard Hendricks — in a course he taught on Bible study methods when I was at Dallas Seminary — used to say that, “interpretation without application is an abortion.  It is a literary abortion.”  That is a strong word, but I think it gets the point across.  If you don’t apply the text, and if your interpretation is skewed, your application will be skewed.  So in that order: if it is accurate to the text, and then you’re applying it based on the accurate presentation or interpretation, then your application will be in line.  You don’t run the risk of getting too close to the lunatic fringe in your application.

Preaching:  You’ve preached on a lot of biblical characters.  Do you have a favorite?  

Swindoll:  I honestly don’t.  I’m not a good subject to ask that.  People always want to know favorite verse; I don’t have a favorite verse.  You have a favorite book? I don’t have a favorite book.  I think there are some characters that I find a little more fascinating than others.  Certainly, I find David and the color of his life so much more fascinating than, say, an Elijah.  I find Joseph a fascinating individual because of what he endured and he never became bitter in his life. You meant it to be for evil, he said to his brothers, but God meant it to be for good.  I’m drawn to a person who’s able to live above the pain of his life.  

Sometimes, I think, a brief biography.  I mention Caleb – you don’t know a whole lot more about Caleb than what you read in that chapter.  But he’s a fascinating story again.  I’m drawn to a person who refuses to let his age get in the way of his effectiveness.  He hasn’t checked into neutrality or mediocrity just because he’s gotten up in years. I’m drawn to situations like that. And you’d have to include Esther — this woman who was brought on earth for such a time as this.  I think it is a marvelous, remarkable story of a person who makes the most of where she is at the time.  

Preaching: Is biographical preaching your favorite, or what would be your favorite approach to preaching?  

Swindoll:  Well, I probably am most comfortable with the practical themes.  I probably wouldn’t get as excited about teaching the book of Ezekiel as I would about teaching on marriage and the family.  You can track that.  I know some guys that are just as comfortable going through the book of Deuteronomy – which, by the way, is a marvelous book – as they would be in going to a subject like how to endure the pain of the days in which we live. 

I find myself drawn to life’s realities a little more comfortably than I am to just taking a subject or a chapter of a book and developing it.  That’s why when I’m speaking at a conference, for example, I will usually draw the messages along the lines of where people are rather than “during my time with you we’re going to study the book of Colossians 

I still say that people love book studies probably more than any other type of series, at least in bible churches and community churches I’m a part of. They love the study of letters of the New Testament or books of the Bible probably as much as anything they ever hear.  They always are excited about that.  So I’m drawn to that.

Preaching:  Who are some of the preachers who have really influenced your life?

Swindoll:  He’s now dead, but S. Lewis Johnson was one of my teachers at Dallas Seminary, a fine preacher. Howard Hendricks, of course, his ministry and influence in my life.  I was an intern – if not his first, among the first – of Ray Stedman’s; he was an influence in my life. Haddon Robinson was a long-time friend of mine and was one of my mentors at Dallas Seminary.  Donald Barnhouse – I used to hear him on the radio, never knew him and never met him; I was influenced by his approach to scriptures, especially the handling of the doctrines and his work on Romans. John R.W. Stott is someone I really admire as a preacher of God’s truth.  I could name a number who taught me at seminary.  But, that’s a pretty good rundown.

Preaching:  As you look at preaching across the church, are there some things that give you a sense of optimism and are there also some things that are concerns for you?

Swindoll:  I think the desperation of our times causes me to realize that if the church does its job, and some are really doing the job, people cannot stay away.  Ray Stedman used to say, “If the church were doing what it is supposed to be doing the world would become so attracted, so curious, if nothing else, the sheer curiosity of it would draw them in.” I think the church that has a message that is balanced and in touch, biblically-centered and delivered in an interesting and appealing manner, I’m very encouraged — I don’t think people are turning that off.  I think their finding that it is almost contagious for them.  

I am discouraged that some guys are selling out to the stylized approach to ministry where it is, as I mentioned earlier, becoming more of an entertainment center. As I heard a preacher say, “It was about two miles wide and three inches deep.” One preacher said, “I always like leaving them laughing when they leave.” It’s one of the silliest comments I’ve ever heard.  If I leave them laughing have I done anything?  

Now, you know me. You’ve heard me enough, I love to laugh, probably as much as any preacher you know. So I’ve got nothing against laughter but one of my goals is not to leave people laughing. It is to get out of the way so the spirit of God can use the truth in their lives. And I think churches that are doing that are in demand. Churches that aren’t easily lead people to a wrong conclusion: that God is just a great big friend, just a good buddy, happens to live in heaven.  

God is not a good buddy. God is the Awesome, Supreme, Father of our lives and in Sovereign control of the events for our lives.  The more I learn to respect Him and fear Him and trust Him the deeper I will become.  Now, I miss that kind of emphasis on great theology, the great doctrines, that kind of teaching that makes me think.  Now don’t miss this: not boring. If I’m bored, I’m not getting it and it is usually the preacher’s fault. But if I’m on the edge of my seat, realizing, “Good night, that man’s talking my language, he understands my world, and this book is about me and about my life? Oh man!” Who doesn’t want to be around that?  Who wouldn’t want to listen to something like that?

Preaching:  If you were talking to young preachers just starting out, what would you really encourage them to do?

Swindoll:  I would encourage them to get solid theological training.  First of all, I would make sure there is really a call to the ministry. I would want to talk about how does that person know he is really called to do this. Then I would say if you’re called, don’t be in a hurry. Take your time so that you get your feet on the ground and you get your heart right, and you gather sufficient theological training to hold your ground, because you are going to need that.  

I would also say to that person, don’t lose your passion for the lost.  Remember that most in the world have never heard and will never hear. So before you get all caught up in just ministering to the saints, remember there is a vast number of people who have never met Christ. So stay keen on the gospel. Stay clear on making Christ known. 

I’d probably say to address things of your character that you know are out of line because they will haunt you in ministry and they will bring you down.  If you have got things that aren’t in place — if there are addictions, if there are unconfessed areas of your life, if there is a lack of forgiveness and a dragging of grudges and ill feelings toward others — that is going to take away a lot of what you could otherwise be giving.  

Practically speaking, I would say know who you are, accept who you are, be who you are.  Very simple outline I pass along to younger pastors all the time.  The first has to do with really understanding how you’ve been put together and knowing that you’re unique. God has called you to say it. You’re the only one who has your voice, you’re the only one that has your background, you’re the only one that has those experiences. That’s knowing who you are. 

And then second, don’t try to be somebody else. Accept who you are. Where there are weaknesses, try to bring about strength, but don’t hide the fact that this is a weakness to you. Be vulnerable, be open, authentic. Today’s generation longs for that.  Show me a person who really is authentic, and I will show you a person who won’t have trouble getting a following. People love authenticity. That means you admit it when you’re wrong, you confess it when you’re weak, you ask for help when you need it, you don’t try to do it all yourself, you delegate, etc. 

And then third, be who you are.  As that unfolds, as you unpack those things, let the real truth happen. I spent ten years of my ministry being a little bit of every one of the faculty members I had studied under until my wife said to me one day, “Honey, just be who you are.” She said, “You are a lot more fun at home than you are in the pulpit. You are a lot easier to live with than you seem or you are a driving machine. And I know you’re doing it with the right intention, but it doesn’t help to drive people. You need to learn how to be more real.” She was talking about being who I am. 

 I remember giving myself permission to do that and it was a process that was at first frightening, and uneasy, because I didn’t know too many who were. Ray Stedman had been, but I thought, “Well, I guess you get like that when you are sixty.” But I find you can be like that when you are forty. It takes guts. It takes a willingness to be unique.

Don’t take all you can use from the way other people are doing it. Think a little, on occasion think originally. Who cares if this is the way other big names among preachers are.  It’s easier to think: they’re successful so I’m going to start doing that. That is the quickest road to discouragement of anything I know about. Plus you’re not being who you are. Principles work, but trying to emulate others – that doesn’t work.