Interview with Robert Smith Jr

Robert Smith teaches preaching at Beeson Divinity School and has been a featured preacher at past sessions of the National Conference on Preaching. Preaching editor Michael Duduit speaks with Robert about the place of passion in preaching.

Preaching: Whenever you preach I sense an enormous amount of passion in your preaching. Tell me a little bit about what you see as the place of passion in your preaching specifically and then generally with preaching.

Smith: My passion does not come simply become I’m outgoing. Really I’m very introverted. But my passion comes as a result of my being engaged with the text. When God has revealed to me through my studies the meaning of something that is so revelatory and relevant and the text literally comes to life, then my passion is ignited. I feel a relationship with Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 29 he said: “I said I was not going to speak in His name anymore but his word was in my heart like fire shut up in my bones, and I couldn‘t hold my peace. Because His word was in my heart then it was like fire. Ignited my emotions, and I had to speak it.” 

Those kinds of passages help me to understand the role of passion in preaching, which is directed by an engagement with the text so that exegetically one comes to understand what that text is saying to Gods people. In the passage as they are leaving Jerusalem on the way to Emmaus, they said, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked with us by the way and opened to us the scripture.” Hear what they said:  Eyes were opened. Opened to us the scripture. There’s burning, and a desire to go back to Jerusalem to tell the eleven that the Lord is risen. 

Preaching: Most people would tend to think of passion as being emotionally-driven but you talk about it being textually-driven.

Smith: Exactly, because all of us are emotional. Maybe some are more subdued than others. Real passion comes from listening to God’s Word and being engaged in a conversation with the text. Passion is not simply feeling in the pulpit, to scream and holler. A preacher may stand still, never bobs and moves and does nothing emotional, that individual can still have passion because of the Holy Spirit.

Preaching: What is the role of the Holy Spirit in passion and preaching?

Smith: The Spirit is the catalyst, the energizer. He is the one who gives unction. This is how I picture it. I think of preaching and passion in terms of the role of the Spirit in Genesis 2, Ezekiel 37. Adam had everything he needed to be considered a human being except breath. He had all the bones he needed, he had skin, organs. The only thing God did was to breathe into his nostrils that breath of life. 

The same think in Ezekiel. There are dry bones, then they take on flesh — there’s everything but they’re still lying down. They need the breath. I think preaching can’t really stand until the Holy Spirit takes our message and breathes upon it, because He knows — He’s omniscient. He knows what Robert Smith needs. He can take something that I’ve prepared – I have no idea what you need or what the congregation needs – and He takes that and distributes it in diversified ways. And that’s exciting. 

Sometimes we’re not aware of it until after the service is over and people come up to us and ask, “How did you know?” with tears in their eyes, and the Holy Spirit has been moving. Sometimes what we’ve said has not necessarily been said well in terms of articulation and presentation but the Spirit takes what we consider an aside and applies it to the people. I see the Holy Spirit as the omniscient one who is fitting us for being in the pulpit. He’s with us in the study preparing. He is the preacher doing the sermon and He’s the after-preacher, because after the sermon is over the Spirit is still preaching all week long applying the message to people. Most of the time we never see our product and we won’t know how our preaching hits some people until we get to Heaven.

Preaching: Tell me what you see is the place of prayer in all of this.

Smith: Prayer is my recognition that everything I’ve done by way of preparation is in vain in my own strength. It brings me to the point that I know I’m inadequate, I’m insufficient. When I open myself up to God to use my weakness and my wayward thoughts and disorganized ideas — and sometimes to watch Him do that in the pulpit is almost like having an out-of-body experience and saying, “This is not me.” So prayer, for me, is opening the door so that God can come in and take what I’ve done and use it beyond my fondest dreams. Its like Fred Craddock saying, after he’s prepared his message and is on his way to the pulpit from the study, “God, I have nothing. Let’s see what you’re going to do with nothing today.” Just opening yourself up to be used.

To go to the pulpit depending totally upon your preparation instead of the Holy Spirit makes you a double fool, because then you don’t open yourself in terms of praying and saying, “God, even though this is well-designed and well-manicured, if you don’t use it I’m going to flop.”

Preaching: There are many churches today where there doesn’t seem to be a lot of power. To what extent do you see that as a lack of what we’ve been talking about in terms of dependence on the Spirit, the role of prayer, the place of passion?

Smith: There is a detachment between head and heart so that some will enter the pulpit — the congregations are well-trained, very educated, that’s wonderful — and they preach from the neck up because that’s what people want. They want to hear, to learn, to take notes, that’s it. “Give me information.” 

Then there are those who preach to people from the neck down. They want to be set afire in the heart. They don’t necessarily want to be informed. They want to feel good. They want to shout. 

I think we have to come to the place where we preach to people holistically. We want to inform them but we want to inspire them as well. To preach to some congregations, in order to get to them you have to start with the heart. Inspire them. And others you have to start wit the head; after you earn the right to be heard because they understand you can be intellectual enough — there’s credibility in what you say– then they’ll open themselves up and be inspired. But for other people, if you start there that’s too sophisticated, too educated, too high for me. They won’t hear you but if you can start with the heart, then you can teach them something. I just think we have to cover the whole canvas. There’s a detachment between the head and heart, the cardiological and the cranium. There’s a detachment between what I consider anthropological and ontological. 

I need to know that there are people who come here who need proclamation in terms of the gospel to be saved. I want to cater to their salvation but there are some who have been Christians for a long time and they need to be taught, so I want to instruct them so that they can mature in the faith and not keep drinking milk, get ready for the meat. But then I want to inspire in terms of therapy because there are some who are strong in faith but they’ve been beat up on. Bad diagnosis, trouble in the family, joblessness, death, etc. They need to be encouraged and inspired. I think what we’ve done is to dichotomize our preaching to the point where we just shoot for the head or the heart. Instead we need to seek a wholeness, an engagement the way Jesus did.

Preaching: You come out of an African-American tradition as a pastor for a number of years but you’ve now taught in two schools where the majority of your students are not African-American. Tell me what insights you try to draw out of your own preaching tradition that students outside of that need to learn from. What are things that pastors, preachers who are not African-American can learn from those churches?

Smith: First of all I don’t consider myself a black preacher. You didn’t say that, but I consider myself a preacher black. I say that because I want my preacher-liness to define me and not my race. I’m a preacher that just happens to be black so I don’t want to be defined, confined and categorized by my ethnicity, which I don’t deny. It’s to enable me to be true to who I am but to be able to move out of who I am so that I can adapt to any audience because truth is not ethnic. I need to be able to relate to any congregation I preach in — the idioms in those congregations, the time schedules in terms of their worship — don’t decry them, don’t think that there is a superiority in African-American preaching over any other preaching. But to say that God has given all of us something and we need to learn from each other and inform each other so we can be more effective. My students hear that all the time. So that’s one of the things that’s been helpful for me. 

Of course black preaching is not monolithic. There are congregations that participate in call and response and other black congregations where if you held a gun to their head they wouldn’t smile or do anything! 

I want to be myself to a point that I’m kind of like Michael Jordan. He was asked, “What do you think about when you have 10 seconds left in a game and the score is tied and you’re one point behind? Are you going to make a hook-shot? Are you going to dunk, drive or you going to shoot a 20-footer, a fade-away?” He says, “I take what the defense gives me. If there’s an opening down the lane I take it. If someone backs off and I can fade, take a shot, I’ll do it.” 

That’s the way I am with preaching. I take what the congregation gives me. If the congregation is open to me swinging, I’ll swing. If it’s open to me lecturing more or whatever . . . I want to, at the same time, still be myself and perhaps take them further than they are used to going. And that can never be done unless there has been an engagement of the text all the way through. Otherwise it is just emotionalism.

I’ve had the privilege for 38 years of probably doing 60 percent of my preaching in a white context. I’m a product of white seminaries and white Bible colleges. One of my African-American Ph.D. students asked me one time why I was doing a dissertation on a white German theologian. Why not a black person that I could write about and leave a legacy for our church?  I informed him that this person, Helmut Thielicke, was an individual that for me transcended colors — that he could be linked to suffering of all people. Intellectually as a churchman he kept his foot in the church and the academy. I wanted to present someone who could bless more than the white church but could bless the entire church. That’s why I chose to write on him – and he has informed me ever since. He just happened to be a preacher who was white. That’s all.

Preaching: Who are the preachers that have influenced you? 

Smith: My father in the ministry was Elijah Lee Alexander from Little Rock Arkansas. Crude, rough-hewn, baptized me, made me a junior deacon at seven, ordained me, all that. He was the kind of individual who shaped the way I think and the way I preach. When I was probably about 10 years old I had to know the church covenant word for word. No excuse. I had to know the 24 articles of faith. I had to know that. My mother and father gave him permission to literally whip me — I know it sounds mean – for being lazy in thought. I had to know that. I was forced to teach adult Sunday school at 14. I had home Bible study, correspondence course for adults in that neighborhood when I was 12, 13. All those kind of things came as a result of him. So he shaped the way I think. 

Once I was getting ready to preach at his church as a young teenage preacher. I had 50 pages of a manuscript that I was going to preach at Shiloh Baptist church in Newark, Ohio, and about an hour before the service he said, “Bobby, is this your’s son?” I said, “Yes, sir.: I had taken all these notes on the Pulpit Commentary and all that. 

He tore up every one of those pages and threw it into the trash can. He said, “Now if you need all of that to preach from, if you can’t remember anything you’ve read, how do you expect the people to remember? Now,” he said, “You go on and preach.” 

I was mad — of course, I wouldn’t let him know that — but it shaped me. I’m for any way of communicating the Word of God but it has to be internalized. He forced me to internalize my thought, organize it and to present it. So he informed me. 

Another person is George Q. Brown, who was pastor at New Mission Baptist Church for 18 years, and I was there with him for ten years. I succeeded him. I used to carry his luggage. I learned so much about preaching just incidentally, almost accidentally. His delivery was always a delivery that focused on Jesus — there was always a Christ element. It’s not preaching unless you talk about Jesus and his death. So he influenced me. 

And then since 1992, James Earl Massey has really influenced my life, particularly when it comes to being scholarly and documenting everything. He’s walked with me through some moments, like in the hospital. He was the external reader for my dissertation and is now serving as a conversation partner in a book that I’m working on during sabbatical. So those are the three individuals in terms of preachers, E.L. Alexander, George Q. Brown and James Earl Massey, who had the greatest impact on my preaching. 

I love to listen to Charles Swindoll because of his communication skills. He knows how to communicate. I love to listen by recording to E.K. Bailey, because E.K. Bailey served as a model of how to be yourself in any audience, bring the gospel, to be graphic, to make the text live; I still like to go back and listen to him. I like to listen to John Piper because Piper reminds me of the seriousness and the gravity of our task of preaching. No nonsense. His emphasis on the sovereignty of God is moving and significant for me. I love to listen to how he can let the gospel be as radical as it is. No compromise. 

Among African-American preachers – E.K. Bailey, Tony Evans. I like to listen to him because of his exegesis. He’s biblical. He has passion. Obviously again these persons are speaking not only to African-American audiences but white audiences. A. Lewis Patterson, Jr., who pastored the Mount Corian Baptist church in Houston. I liked to listen to him for his love of biblical language. He was a word molder, very alliterative. 

And the last one, of course, is the dean of preachers. That’s what Tom Long calls him. He didn’t call him the dean of black preachers, but the dean of preachers: Gardner Calvin Taylor. I’ve listened to him preach for 30-something years. The way that he engaged you and could take one word and just continue to stretch it until you can see what he’s saying, not just hear what he’s saying.

Preaching: You’ve been at this for a long time now as a pastor, associate pastor and now as a teacher. What are some things you’ve learned about preaching that you wish you’d known when you started out preaching?

Smith: Scottish theologian Donald Baillie said, “Theology exists to make preaching as hard as it needs to be.” Earlier in my ministry I wish I would have spent more time reading theology, because theology for me today is serving as a reservoir for my preaching. Theology represents the iron rods that hold my preaching together. – like the iron rods that hold the concrete together on the highway. So I wish I would have know that. 

I read so many preaching books, wonderful books, but I wish I would have read more theology. I wish I would have at an early point read Barth’s Church Dogmatics. I’m finding myself now at 55 years of age devouring theological compendiums. That’s a major thing I wish I would have known then.