Preaching in a Changing Community

An Interview with Robert Scott

In April 2017, 48-year-old Robert Scott became just the fifth pastor in the 117-year history of St. Paul Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. One of the largest churches in Charlotte, St. Paul has been active in social ministry among the city’s African-American community. Preaching editor Michael Duduit recently visited with Scott at the church along with a group of Doctor of Ministry students from Clamp Divinity School; some of the later questions were posed by members of the seminar.

Preaching: Tell me about St. Paul.

Scott: St. Paul Baptist Church is located in what is called the Belmont neighborhood. We moved here during the 1950s. Interestingly, this used to be a high crime area; particularly in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s it was very rife with criminal activity. Now we have whites that are moving in, property value is going up, and the demographics are changing.

One of the things that my predecessor, Dr. Greg Moss, decided to do with intentionality was say that St. Paul is going to stay in the community and we’re going to minister to the community even through the change. That’s the changing dynamics as far as the community is concerned. For example, a house that seven to ten years ago that may have gone for about $80,000 to $90,000 is now going for about $280,000 to $300,000.

Everything is coming back to the inner core as far as the city is concerned. People want to be close to uptown. If you walk out of the sanctuary, you can look toward the right and you can see uptown Charlotte, so we’re in a good location.

The housing development you saw coming in, that’s our development. We partnered with the city as well as a local developer. It’s an $18 million affordable housing development along with senior citizen housing that we’re doing, 112 units. We’re starting to have people that will be moving in at the end of this month, and then we’ll start occupancy for our senior citizen development next month. We’ll be doing the dedication in honor of my immediate predecessor, Dr. Greg Moss, because this was his vision. They just handed the ball off to me to bring it to fruition.

Preaching: How has that demographic changed the community? Has it begun to impact your church in a significant way?

Scott: In a sense, yes. One thing is that the housing development has greatly impacted our parking. I’ll be glad when it’s over. One of the things that we did was in the development, we built parking for the church. Once we finish, we’ll have parking available for the church, but the way that the church is growing, we still have to use off-site parking, and there’s a school down the street that we utilize for parking.

With changing demographics, people that are moving in don’t understand the significance of St. Paul in the community. Unfortunately, when it comes to parking, people call the police, complain about folks being in their yard blocking them. We tried to address it with our congregation, so the parking issue is one thing.

The other thing is that we got some push back when we started to do the development, particularly for affordable housing. We got some pushback from our white neighbors who did not want affordable housing in the neighborhood. I’m glad that we prevailed, but a lot of pushback came from those constituents who just moved back into the neighborhood, who moved into the neighborhood probably about five to ten years ago and don’t understand the significance of our presence as far as this neighborhood is concerned. We’re just trying to make it better.

Here in Charlotte, there’s a deficit of 30,000 housing units. And Charlotte is one of the fastest growing cities, not only in the South, but in the country. The deficit is only going to grow. When it comes to affordable housing, we’re not even making a dent, but we are trying to do something. We consider that to be part of our ministry as far as the larger community is concerned.

Preaching: What do you find to be some of the particular challenges of pastoring and preaching in an urban setting?

Scott: I think that the challenges of pastoring and preaching here in Charlotte in the urban setting is probably the same as it is in the rural and the suburban. Because of the shift of the culture, we’re dealing with people who have no sense of Bible, who really don’t have an appreciation for the church. We are really trying to reach out to millennials and now Gen Z’ers, and dealing with that particular constituency, it’s an interesting mix to make the gospel palatable and relevant as far as that generation is concerned. I think that is part of the challenge.

The other thing is that of course in the urban context, you have a problem with helping people to navigate through the challenges of dealing with trying to have affordable housing, trying to deal with educational academic challenges as far as our school system is concerned, dealing with the uptick of crime, and really just trying to maintain their sanity in a world that is constantly and consistently going through cultural and moral upheavals. I like what we’ve seen as far as my generation is concerned.

James Emery White really hits it on the head in his book on dealing with Generation Z, that we are trying to unfortunately do an Acts 2 ministry in an Acts 17 world. We take for granted that when people come to our church that they know the gospel story, when in actuality they don’t make those connections. It’s back to basics.

One of the things that I try to do as a pastor, and I do this with great intentionality, is I teach the new members class. I teach the new members class because I want people who join the church, first of all, to get to know me on a more intimate level, because that’s probably the only time they’ll get to be that close to me. Then the other thing is for them to start at least hearing my vision and my heart as far as what I sense God wants to do as far St. Paul and as far as their lives are concerned.

Preaching: What’s your approach to preaching? If we were to come on a typical Sunday, what would we expect to hear?

Scott: I consider myself to be a biblical preacher. For me, if I could give the foundation for my preaching, my preaching is rooted in the person and personality of Jesus Christ, His crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and return. My preaching is highly Christological in that sense. Samuel DeWitt Proctor has influenced my sermon development greatly. He has a book entitled The Certain Sound of the Trumpet. In that book, he deals with the Hegelian or dialectical method of sermon development, thesis-antithesis-synthesis, relevant question, proposition. I develop my sermons based upon that particular model.

The proposition – what other homileticians would call the main idea or the theme – the proposition for me is a one to two-sentence statement of what the sermon is going to be about. It’s like my North Star. When I’m reading a biblical text through various translations and trying to get a sense for what God wants to do, that proposition becomes the guiding thread for me.

I start from the proposition and then I will go to what is called the antithesis. For me, the antithesis is what people are dealing with as far as the reality is concerned, their everyday issues and things of that sort, because I know that in today’s listening ear from an aural perspective, you only got three to five minutes to catch people’s attention, really three. If you don’t get it upfront, they’ll never catch up with you. I try to hit people where they are so that they can know that I understand. That’s my antithesis.

As I work through the antithesis, dealing with what people’s realities are, then for me the thesis is the biblical text. As I make the shift to the thesis, you can sense the transition. I make the shift to the biblical text, do exposition as far as the text is concerned, talk about what the text is about from a cultural, historical, theological perspective, and then I raise a relevant question.

I think that one of the problems with some pastors and preachers is they try to answer a whole lot of questions. Raise one question. Of course, you know in any text there could be a plethora of questions, but I try to find the one question that I sense the Lord would have for me to deal with. Then from that question, pick up from the text either explicitly or implicitly how to answer that question and how to help people to navigate as far as their lives are concerned.

Of course, in African-American preaching we take what I call celebration very seriously. Frank Thomas has a book dealing with celebration and people tend to remember what they celebrate. In typical African-American form, we’re going to come with a hard close celebration.

Preaching: Walk me through your week as you move from one Sunday toward the next Sunday. What does your preparation process look like?

Scott: Someone asked me when do you start working on your sermon? I said as soon as I leave the pulpit. The Spirit does something to you. I tend to do series preaching. When you’re doing series preaching – when you have a series of either three, four, or five sermons that you’re trying to do – that helps me to know where I’m going as far as the next Sunday is concerned.

A typical week for me is that I would just jot down some scribbles that I get as far as inspiration dealing with the next text. On Monday, I’ll start reading the text in different translations. I preach from the New King James version of the Bible. Even though I went to schools where they used the NRSV and the NIV, being in an African-American church, people love King James Version. They really think that God spoke in Victorian English.

I tell folks, there’s nothing like quoting the Psalm from the King James Version of the Scripture, but I use New King James because, of course, it translates the King James English into modern language. But I’ll read New King James, what I’m preaching from the NASB, the ESV, the NRSV, the NIV, and The Message. I usually look at about five or six different translations.

I tend to print up the text and start circling words that you see repeated over and over, start asking questions of the text, wrestling with why was this said here and there. On Monday evening, Tuesday morning, I have one or two pages of what looks like a crazy map of stuff being circled, stuff being highlighted, and really in prayer, trying to get a sense for what is it that the Spirit wants to bring out as far as that text is concerned.

Then I start my exegesis, looking as far as word search is concerned and word study. I made a major investment in Logos. I love Logos. I know different people like different Bible software, but I love Logos. In fact, I got their collector’s edition. I know 80% of the books I’ll probably never use, but just being able to have such a breadth as far as a library is concerned, I think I got about close to 14,000 books as far as that collection is concerned. I then start my word study, doing the Hebrew or the Greek. I write out a rough draft of the sermon, and then I go to the commentaries.

By Wednesday or Thursday I’m looking at commentaries to make sure at least I’m on point from a theological, historical, cultural perspective of what the text is all about. In fact, I was preaching a sermon that, when I did my initial study, I thought it was dealing with David, and then when I consulted the commentaries, I saw David is not even mentioned, so I had to go back and do a rewrite!

By Thursday, I am writing a full manuscript by hand. I don’t even type it, I write it by hand. Then I type it. I know that’s double work, but for me writing it by hand allows for it to start getting into my psyche. Then as I type I’m editing what I’ve written. By the time Friday comes, I try to at least have it on my iMac as far as a manuscript.

Then Saturday, I’m just doing final edits and reading through it. I’m a manuscript preacher. One of the things that I love about being a manuscript preacher is that when you’re a manuscript preacher, it keeps you focused even though I’m not a slave to the manuscript. I admire those who can memorize their sermon or speak it extemporaneously.

For me, I’m a wordsmith. For me, words are very important in how I create my sermons. Particularly in the African-American tradition, it’s almost like listening to jazz. Just like a jazz musician, we have these riffs and runs in the sermon. We have certain things we repeat, certain riffs, certain runs. I tell anyone, if you go to sleep while I’m preaching, you’re really tired. I think that while we are called to speak to the head, we’re also called to speak to the heart and to the emotion. My sermon is like listening to jazz. It has different moves and it has different highs. My sermon will probably start off like this and go up and level out, and go up, level out, go up.

Then, of course, the apex for me of the Sunday morning worship is the call to discipleship, the call to invite persons to have a walk with Christ as Lord and Savior and/or to become a part of the church.

Preaching: How do you deal with political issues in your preaching?

Scott: When it comes to political preaching, I think that for me I don’t use the term political; more so I would use the term prophetic. Prophetic preaching allows and empowers us to be a biblical critic of the times regardless of who’s in office. There were some things that President Obama did that I didn’t support and I spoke out against it. There’s a whole lot of stuff Trump is doing that I can’t go with. It is not critiquing the person more so than biblically dealing with some of the issues and things of that sort that really goes contrary to the Word of God. So for me, I wouldn’t necessarily use the term political; more so I would say prophetic.

From the pulpit, I don’t endorse anybody. Of course, you get in all kinds of troubles and issues as far as the IRS is concerned. I know that several years ago, some churches got in trouble because they were endorsing candidates either explicitly or implicitly from the pulpit. While I don’t endorse candidates when candidates come, regardless of what party they’re a part of when they’re here, I’ll allow for them to greet the congregation and things of that sort, be it Republican or Democrat or Independent.

But prophetic preaching allows for me to be able to address in the Obama administration, no, God does not want man to man and woman to woman to get married, while at the same time critiquing in a Trump administration how we’re treating those that are coming in seeking asylum as refugees and how we’re separating parents from children. I don’t think that God would be in favor of that. I went on a blistering tear when Jeff Sessions and Sarah Huckabee tried to use the Bible out of context to substantiate what they were doing, what was going on as far as the border is concerned.

Preaching: Do you deal with giving in preaching?

Scott: This is something you’ve got to preach about. One of the things that I have to help St. Paul get adjusted to and really come into their own is when it comes to stewardship. Now I ain’t afraid to talk about money. You can’t be a pastor and be scared to talk about money. You just can’t. I don’t care if they look at you like they had a bowl of sour lemons for breakfast that morning, you cannot be an effective pastor and be afraid to talk about finances, about giving, about stewardship.

One of the things that St. Paul is getting adjusted to is me dealing with that because my predecessor shared with me he just really didn’t focus on that a lot. For a church of our size, we’re not really giving at the capacity that we could give, and so there’s a lot of teaching and preaching that I have to do.

My first year here I introduced digital giving to the church, where you can give using your phone or smart device. Our revenue went up $600,000. Every pastor’s got naysayers. A naysayer’s going like, “That ain’t right.” The numbers don’t lie. The numbers don’t lie.

A lot of it had to do with me telling the leaders you can’t take people where you haven’t been. I said as leaders you’ve got to be giving; you’ve got to be tithing and giving offerings. I said you can’t expect for folks to give when you don’t give.

My mentor Wyatt Tee Walker once said that a person who does not tithe is a thief and the person who said they cannot tithe is a liar, so we have both thieves and liars in the church. He wrote a book entitled Common Thieves.

One of the things that the church is really trying to get adjusted to is me talking about giving. However, in this generation and in these times, if you say it’s in the Bible, folks don’t care about biblical authority, so you’ve got to come from another vein. That other vein is from a position of grace and generosity. What I discovered, particularly among millennials, is that they would give to your cause before they give to your Christ. If you have a cause that you can connect to as far as giving, they’re more apt to give to that. If they see where their money is really making a difference, they would give, but for you to just say tithing, the Lord really has to do some major plowing of fallow ground upon the hearts of people.

I grew up tithing and I grew up believing that. I tell folks, you know it’s bad when the pastor’s the third highest giver in the church of this size, but I’m the third highest giver in this church. You would look at what I give and you try to equate thinking that’s what I make as far as that, you’d be sadly mistaken. But I give because I have discovered that I’m most like God not when I love but when I give, and when I give from a place and when I give from a position of generosity and grace.

That’s a major task for me right now: to really try to get this church to start coming into their own as far as financial capacity is concerned. Part of the reason that we’re woefully understaffed is because we are not at the financial capacity where I could bring on persons that I really, really need. A church of this size, besides me having an executive pastor, I should have a full-time children’s pastor, I should have a full-time youth pastor, I should have a full-time pastor of Christian education. That’s just the beginning. But right now the only other full-time is my executive pastor.

Preaching: What do you enjoy the most about preaching and what do you find the most challenging about preaching?

Scott: Interestingly what I enjoy most about preaching is also what I find the most challenging, sermon preparation. For me, preparing is the most challenging, but it’s also what I like to do. It’s amazing when you sit down at nearly 50 years old, a text that I read when I was in my 20s I see now differently approaching 50. Being able to look at a biblical text where I am at this point in my life, being able to hear the Spirit differently than I did when I was younger, bring in a fresh perspective as far as what is going on with the culture and the times.

The sermon prep is something that I ain’t crazy about, but also it’s something that when, through study and through reading commentaries, you find a little nugget, like “Oh, I didn’t see that before,” and you’re able to take away a little gem. It’s an amazing thing about preaching, when you can take a little gem of something that you have picked up in your study and it explodes. The writer Koheleth was correct when he wrote in Ecclesiastes, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” However, what is revealed to us is fresh, it becomes relevant, and it becomes the aha moment for someone as far as their life in transformation is concerned.

Preaching: Preaching since you were 11, I’m quite sure you’ve had some preachers who were called under your pastorate. What kind of things did you to help them make that transition from the pew to the pulpit, and preaching that first sermon?

Scott: The older I’ve become, I’ve taken that on with more intensity than I have in the past. I think that some people who think they’ve been called to preach, they are getting somebody else’s text message or email! I think there’s some confusion between being called to preach and being called to ministry, that some wires get crossed.

What I tend to do whenever someone comes to tell me that “I think the Lord is calling me to preach,” I tend to watch them and I give several assignments. The first assignment I give is for them to write a spiritual autobiography. Tell me about your life. Tell me where you’ve seen God move. Tell me about the highs and lows. I want the good, the bad, and the ugly. Tell me about your call. Tell me about your conversion experience. I have them do a spiritual autobiography. Then I sit and wait, because the last thing we need is another lazy preacher.

Here’s the thing, it’s your call, it ain’t my call, so I’m not going to be calling you asking when’s that spiritual autobiography going to be ready? It’s your call. If it’s your call, you’re going to do what’s necessary. I have them do a spiritual autobiography.

Once they do a spiritual autobiography, then I have them to read three books. The first book is You’ve Been Called: Now What? by Adam Bond. Adam Bond teaches at Virginia Union. The second book that I have them to read is The Power of the Call by Blackaby and London. Then the third book that I have them to read is The Certain Sound of a Trumpet, which would help them as far as preparing the sermon. And they’ve got to do book reports, because if you’re going to be a good preacher you need to be a voracious reader and you need to be a good writer. I think the more you write, the better preacher you become. Even if you preach from memory or preach extemporaneously, a sermon should be written somewhere. I stress writing. That’s why I have them do these reports.

Again, I’m not going to be calling you asking you when is the book report due? This is your call. What that says to me is that if you don’t want to do this, then you’re not ready to get in the pulpit. It has a way of separating the sheep from the goats. I’ve driven a lot of folks – well, I don’t want to say a lot – I’ve driven quite a few folks away who thought they were called to preach because I put that on them. In fact, I had somebody come tell me, “I don’t think this is what the Lord wants me to do.” I said, “Okay.” I said, “All right,” because the call to preach, the call to do ministry, is also a call to preparation. It’s something that we shouldn’t take lightly.

I think that when it comes to doing this work of ministry, it is also a call to develop the life of the mind. You’re called to stretch yourself. You’re called to become a voracious reader. While you may not be an expert on all things, you’re called to be knowledgeable of a lot of things. You’re called to be knowledgeable not only of Bible, theology, hermeneutics, homiletics, but you’re called to be knowledgeable of sociology, psychology. We’re called to be aware of cultural anthropology.

For me, I find myself reading at one time six different books at the same time across various genres to feed my mind. That’s something that was instilled in me because when I was a boy preacher, when I did my initial sermon, I didn’t know what I was doing. I still remember that sermon today. I preached from Matthew 26. My sermon topic was the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s all I talked about, was Jesus Christ dying on the cross, why he died on the cross, and stuff like that. They had to stand me on a milk crate in that pulpit. The church was packed, but I had no idea what I was doing. From age 11 to age 22, I was mimicking people until I got to Sam Proctor. When Sam Proctor gave me that method, I found my voice.