Preaching in the Heart of the City | An Interview with Mac Brunson

Preaching in the Heart of the City

An Interview with Mac Brunson

Mac Brunson has served for 11 years as Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida. Prior to that he served as Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. He is an author and former President of the Southern Baptist Pastors Conference. Editor Michael Duduit recently visited with him at his church.

Preaching: You are pastor of a church that sits in a strategic location in downtown Jacksonville. In fact, I believe you own about half of downtown Jacksonville for the church here that covers multiple city blocks. 

Brunson: I feel like we pay it out, too!

Preaching: I’ll bet that’s true. So what have you learned about pastoring an urban downtown church over these past 11 years?

Brunson: I’ve learned that you have to be sensitive to the needs of the inner city. If you’re here, you need to minister. And that’s a very unique thing. People in the inner city have unique needs. You’ll find everything from the very poor to the extreme rich in an inner city. But they all need the gospel. They all need Jesus.

Preaching: Your church is also really a regional church because you really draw people from all over the region that come downtown to church.

Brunson: We do; we have folks that drive here every week from Brunswick, Georgia. And in fact, I have a lady that flies in from New York City every week, and has been doing it for years. She catches Jet Blue and flies in here for the weekend service.

Preaching: Why do you think that happens?

Brunson: I don’t really know. I really don’t. I hope it says that they want the Word of God, that they’re hungry to hear the word of God preached. But I would imagine it has more to do with the fellowship of the people.

Preaching: I know a lot of churches that were once downtown churches have moved out of the city. Has First Baptist Jacksonville every entertained that idea of a move?

Brunson: Not in a serious way. I feel like it would be a major mistake to move out of the heart of the city. We do have some satellites that are out, but I would not move. Personally for me, I’m not a city boy, I’m a country boy, but this is where God’s put me. He put me in Dallas in the heart of the city. When I was in my first church out of seminary, when I was in Norfolk, or Chesapeake, I was really in the heart of a very depressed neighborhood, declining, dying neighborhood, inner city. I would come to the office on a lot of mornings and I’d pick up some lady that had been battered or beaten up in the doorway of the church. I just think there’s a lot of ministry. And I think it is critical for the city – though city politicians wouldn’t agree – it is critical for the city that there be strong churches here. It helps the community. It is far more of a help than anybody realizes.

Preaching: Do you find that your preaching in this urban setting varies at all from when you were preaching in other kinds of areas?

Brunson: I’ve never preached in anything else, other than in North Carolina, and it was really a downtown church in a sense there as well. So I’ve never really been anywhere ele, except for my first church and that was far out in the country. Brother, we were at the end of a paved road. They had to pump sunshine into that place!. That was country but I preached the same there that I do here.

Preaching: You mentioned earlier about preaching the word. You are known as a strong biblical expositor. Tell us about your philosophy of preaching. What is your approach?

Brunson: I simply try to be a voice for the text. That’s all I try to do. I just want to be a voice for the text. I want to say what the text says. That’s simple; anybody ought to be able to grab onto that, and I think that’s all a preacher is, and that’s all he’s supposed to do. If he does anything other than that, he’s gotten away from what his calling is.

Preaching: Tell me about your process of getting ready to preach. As you’re moving toward the next Sunday, what does that preparation process look like?

Brunson: The easiest thing for me is to stay in a book because I don’t have to think: what am I going to preach? I hate getting in a situation where I’ve got to think, “What am I going to do?” It was Mother’s Day a couple of Sundays ago, and I was really working myself up into a little bit of a panic and I thought, “For crying out loud, I’m going back to the text.” I’m preaching through 1 Thessalonians right now, and I said, “I’m just going to back to that, and if anybody comes up and says, ‘Well, you know, we had my mother here today and we thought you’d preach.'” And I say, “Listen, I preach the Word of God. I can’t do anything else.”

So I have to preach what the Holy Spirit impresses and leads me to. So I stay in a book. I go to the next pericope, the next passage, and I start studying. Sometimes I’ll start on Sunday nights. Just when I get home after church, sit down in a chair, pull out and start looking. I gather what I’m going to use, my material, the commentaries. Then I get up by five o’clock on Monday morning; I get up to the study, do a little personal time of devotion and just start looking. I start looking for what is the central concept of what is being said. What is the thesis statement, what is the north star – whatever you want to call it. What is the one thing that’s being said in this passage?

And then when you find that, if it’s biblical, if it’s in the text, then everything in that text is just shouting this at you. It’s just hollering. This is the thesis here! So everything in that passage will support it. Your points naturally just come out of that.

So that’s where I start. I begin to think: how do I introduce it? I spend a lot of time on that because if you don’t catch their attention in the first 30 seconds, you’ve lost it for the next 30 minutes. So I spend a lot of time on how do I introduce this, how do I start this? And I want to do something that’s going to capture their attention.

I just heard yesterday that the average attention span of the average American is eight seconds. A goldfish has an attention span of nine seconds. So goldfish can pay more attention than the average American can. You look at how long people stay on a website, how they just move through one, the other, the other. Same thing with television – we have trained ourselves not to be able to focus. I know that’s a weird way to say it, but that’s essentially what it is. So I spend a lot of time on that.

I do try to spend a lot of time on my conclusion because I’m appealing, I’m making an appeal for people to come to Christ, and that is critical. I always want to put the gospel in every message. You hear a lot of sermons today where you can walk out of there and you might as well have been at a Ted Talk, for all the good that it does you. If the gospel is not there, it’s not a sermon. It’s just not a sermon. So I’m making that appeal at the end: come to Jesus.

Preaching: You mentioned that sometimes you’ll actually get started on the whole process on Sunday night. Is there a typical pattern of preparation for you?

Brunson: I am down to preaching one sermon here. I have others who preach Wednesday night and Sunday nights and I just preach Sunday mornings. But I am now spending as much time in the study on one sermon as I did on three a few years ago. So my study time has not decreased, it’s really increased – and I still can’t preach any better! But I’m spending more time now in the study on one sermon than I used to spend three. The older I get, for some reason I spend more time in the study. I want to.

Preaching: What does your study look like? Do you use software, or do you just open the books?

Brunson: No, these younger guys I know all use software, and Logos has been given me their product and I’ve turned around and given it to somebody; I find a young preacher and I give it to them. There is no substitute for me, I’m old. So I go to a book. I like a book in my hand. It’s the way I came up and it’s what I used.

Now, I do use this Kindle and this iPad, and I’ve got a library there. I blame Doctor Vines [Jerry Vines was Brunson’s predecessor at the church.]. He showed me how to download some stuff off of commentaries; I should send him the bill because it has cost me thousands of dollars. But it’s a lot easier carrying this on an airplane. I do that when I travel. But if I’m home or here, I prefer to go get my books and lay them out.

Preaching: Do you write a manuscript?

Brunson: I will do a full-blown manuscript. And I have, over the years, learned to footnote, so when you start writing a book, you don’t have to go: now where did I get that from? I just footnote it as I go along.

Preaching: At what point in the week do you want to have the sermon ready to go?

Brunson: It’s not ready until I get in the pulpit. But my manuscript is done usually by Friday, and I’ve spent the week working on it. Sometimes into Saturday morning, it just depends. I’m down here at the office by 5:20 on Sunday mornings, and I am then committing it to memory and refining. I still find that after I sleep on it that Saturday night, I’ll get up on Sunday morning and I’m still refining my points. I’m shooting things over to the media department.

I have a tendency to be too wordy and to write sentences that are too long, but that’s Pauline so I feel like it’s godly! But, you know, my wife, through the years, has said, “Boil that down. You know, shorten it up, don’t write such long sentences.” And so does everybody else in writing. So I keep trying to refine because people can grasp a shorter sentence – almost in a staccato type fashion: this, this, this. So I’m still refining that until I get up in the pulpit.

Preaching: What do you carry into the pulpit with you?

Brunson: I take a full manuscript. But now I don’t generally refer to it unless I’ve got a long quote. I memorize. I know this is difficult for some people and so I don’t mean to say that this is the only way you can do it, I’m just telling you what I do. I memorize pretty much everything that I do. Stories are so much more effective if you have it memorized and you can just relate the story, rather than having to read it.

Preaching: How long is a typical sermon for you?

Brunson: About 35-40 minutes. I say 30 minutes, my staff would say 40 minutes. But they’re a little slow.

Preaching: How many times on Sunday morning do you preach?

Brunson: Now, I preach twice. I preach down at one of the campuses, then I drive down here and preach, and then the video is broadcast over to another campus.

Preaching: What do you most enjoy about preaching?

Brunson: Preaching. And the study. Listen, this church doesn’t pay me to preach. They pay me to go through the aggravation of what you have to do when you go to meetings. They pay me to go to meetings. I study, all of that, the study and the preaching is free. I don’t charge them for that.

Preaching: And what do you find to be the biggest challenge in preaching?

Brunson: I think the attention span. I think that’s one thing,and biblical illiteracy. At Dunkirk, when the British expeditionary forces were pushed back to the beaches of France, and the Luftwaffe was coming and was going to bomb them, they sent one telegram out from the beaches of Dunkirk back to England, and the telegram was this: “But if not.”

That’s all they said. But they didn’t have to explain it, even to the population. That’s a direct quote from out of Daniel, from the Hebrew children who said, “Our God will deliver us, but if not…” We’re here, burn us, you know. Today if you say, “But if not,” they’re going to think: “Was that Tom Cruise in Top Gun? What does that mean? We have an entire generation that has lost any kind of knowledge of what is in scripture.

I mean, the vast majority of people today think “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible. So I think that’s the challenge for our day, and speaking to a generation who does this. Generation Z is right here, looking at a phone.

My granddaughter turned six and she wanted to come and spend the week with Honey and Doc. So we had her. This is what she did – play on the phone – the whole time. And I told Deborah, “This child will never be able to carry on a conversation with somebody.” But you got a generation like that. So those are the kind of challenges we face. People who don’t know scripture and you want to give them meat, and yet, you find I can’t give them but so much, and I have to puree the stuff in order to give it to them.

Preaching: Do you have some strategies you’ve used to do to try to overcome those particular challenges?

Brunson:  I have to say that the congregations that I preach to, they’re really a step above other congregations in the sense that they are used to exegetical preaching. They’re used to word by word. I would encourage every pastor: get in a church, start it, and don’t let anybody talk you out of it. Don’t listen to anybody.

I’m not even going mention his name, but there’s a guy who wrote a book a couple of years ago on preaching – and I read his stuff because there are some things that he does that I like – but he said, “What you need to do is just narrative, just tell stories. Forget exposition, don’t do that, the modern mind can’t handle that.” Well you can train people to want it! And I find, especially the younger people are hungry for that. They want somebody to take the Word and break it down for them. So commit yourself to being an expositor and do not let anybody, regardless of their rank and position, get you off of that.

Preaching: Who are the preachers who have influenced you – who have shaped your ministry?

Brunson: My preaching professor had the greatest impact on my life and that was Joel Gregory. Just his believing in me was number one. Number two – you know, he’s got the voice of God – I remember one day saying, “I come out of South Carolina, and my folks come out of the lower part of South Carolina. When I go back that way, my wife will say, “Good Lord, listen to the way you’re talking.” I’d kind of lapse into this real bad southern drawl, and I felt like that was a hindrance.

I grew up in public education. That was all that was available. A private education was a foreign concept and my daddy would not have done it to begin with. But, he said, “That’s what I pay taxes for, go there and learn.” But I’d sit in Classical Greek at Furman and listen to guys who had been in private school who knew what parsing meant and who knew what declensions were, and I’d never heard these terms. And I’m sitting in Greek in the very back of the room thinking, “I’m sunk. This is the first day, and they’re talking about declensions and I don’t know what a declension is.” Dr. Gregory believed in me. And he gave me chance, just watching, listening to him. He said, “You’ve got to see expositional preaching done. It’s not enough to sit in a class room and study it.”

Dr. Vines and Dr. W.A. Criswell both influenced me. I never had an expositional preacher growing up. I didn’t know what it was. I listened on the radio driving to school on Sunday nights and I would listen to Bob Jones preach, and they did something different with the text, though I couldn’t describe what it was. But I knew it was different. It was feeding me.

I love guys like David Jeremiah and people like that; I respect and listen to them. Eerybody loves HB Charles; I love to listen to him preach, but his preaching professor was my preaching professor. So we kind of come out of that same school. Anybody that’ll get up and take a text and just work through it.

Preaching: One last question. If you could go back to the beginning of your ministry and talk to young Mac Brunson, and tell him something that you’ve learned over the years, what would it be?

Brunson: I think, commit myself to sharing Jesus more personally. Commit myself more to the study and commit myself to not preaching mad.