Each Sunday morning, Jerry Vines preaches to a congregation of 8,500 people in the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida, a thriving downtown church. A popular speaker and author, Vines has also served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Preaching: First Baptist Jacksonville is at the heart of a major urban area. While many city-center churches in recent years have moved or experienced steep declines, your congregation appears to be vibrant and growing. Why are you seeing such success?
Jerry Vines: There was a conscious decision made over thirty years ago to stay downtown. The other churches were and have moved out. The conviction was there needs to be a strong witness in the heart of the city. Also, neighborhoods have a way of growing and declining; so to stay in the center of the city, regardless of whatever happens you still remain central in the city.
Of course, our city has not just moved from neighborhood to neighborhood; it has grown out – the circle has gotten bigger. Which means we have to work a lot harder to reach people! But we just believe there’s a real testimony to have a strong preaching station and a strong witness for Christ in the middle of the city.
Preaching: Does the downtown location make any impact on your approach to preaching?
Jerry Vines: City Hall is just across the street from us here, and because of that I know that what I say here does have an impact on the city’s life. And while I don’t necessarily just pick topics as they come along – I certainly don’t speak on every city issue – what I speak does get a pretty good audience.
Preaching: I would guess that you have a wide range of people – demographically, economically – in this church. How does that affect the way you preach to this congregation?
Jerry Vines: What you said is exactly true. Our church is really a people’s church. We cross all lines here – we have educated, uneducated. We have all nationalities and cultures. We have people who are poor and living on welfare. On any given Sunday we’ll have sitting on the same pew a millionaire and a person living on Social Security.
When I prepare to preach, in my imagination I picture people in the congregation. I picture the businessman struggling with ethical issues. I picture the widow living on a small Social Security check, trying to meet her day-to-day expenses In my mind’s eye I try to picture that high schooler who is facing the pressures of peers. So when I prepare I try to keep in mind all these different groups of people in our church.
Preaching: Among all the well-known Southern Baptist pastors, you are perhaps the most consistently expository in your preaching style. What led you to that approach to preaching?
Jerry Vines: I was brought up under a pastor who did exposition, and I knew that was the way you should do it. I had a little church when I was 18, and I knew that was the way you were supposed to do it, so I took off in the book of Romans! I had at that point in time, beside my Bible, one other book to my name, George Truett’s Quest for Souls. Those were the sixteen most miserable weeks of my life! I preached a sermon a week on a chapter in the book of Romans, and at the end of that I definitely knew it was not for me. So for the next ten years of my ministry I basically preached topical sermons. I really didn’t know how to do exposition. My training in college or seminary – I won’t say they didn’t offer it but somehow I didn’t get it. I just didn’t pick up the tools to help me do exposition. I guess my unpleasant experience may have colored that.
I was a pastor in the Chattanooga area, and went to a Bible conference to hear a man I’d never heard before, named Warren Wiersbe. Here was a man who opened up his Bible and almost nonchalantly, matter-of-factly, just began to explain the scriptures. I heard him saying things about the scripture I’d never heard, and I wondered where is he getting this? And I looked in the Bible and he was getting it right out of the text. So it created a real desire on my part.
Taking from him, I determined that I would go back and start trying to preach through books of the Bible. Then along the way I had other influences in addition to Dr. Wiersbe. There was Stephen Olford – I started hearing him on Sunday nights from Calvary Baptist Church in New York. God gave me different teachers like that. Then I started reading books like Expository Preaching Without Notes. I just set out to do it, and I’m still learning.
Preaching: Who are some other preachers who have been an influence in your life?
Jerry Vines: I love to hear John Philips; he’s a very fine expositor. I enjoy hearing Adrian Rogers. I used to love to hear James Montgomery Boice, before his death. W.A. Criswell was one of my early influences; he really stirred my heart.
Preaching: Why would you encourage other pastors to adopt an expository preaching style?
Jerry Vines: I would encourage it for several reasons. One reason is what it will do for you personally. I cannot tell you what it has done in my personal own life just to go through books of the Bible – just the study itself. Paul said to young Timothy, “Take heed to thyself and to the doctrine.” Just the study of scripture to preach in an expository fashion is just invaluable to your own personal spiritual life and growth.
Then what it will do to the people. It will give the people a well-balanced meal of the bread of life. You don’t get hung up on one hobby horse, you don’t neglect areas. It gives a total picture, which I’m a little concerned about today with the trend toward more need-oriented preaching. I think you should do need-oriented preaching, but if you’re not very careful you’ll avoid certain things. I’m preparing to preach from Galatians 3 – one of the tragedies in today’s preaching is we take people straight to Jesus without getting them to Moses, and I think you’ve got to meet Moses before you’re really ready to meet Jesus. You’ve got to see yourself as a sinner. Because even if you can come to Christ without seeing yourself as a sinner – which I’m not sure about – you won’t have that overwhelming appreciation and gratitude for what Christ has delivered you from.
Preaching: Are there some areas in exposition with which you struggle?
Jerry Vines: Yes, one thing I struggle with is to work at keeping the method fresh. It can become a very dull and boring enterprise if you don’t work to keep it fresh. I mean by that you can get into certain patterns. I have heard some expositors get up and say, “Now last Sunday we looked at thus-and-so,” and then give you a 10-minute recap of last week. That can get pretty dull.
Also — and I need to do a better job on this — the way it is presented, the packaging of your preaching, needs variety. It’s not that hard to get the material up. Almost anybody can find enough books to get the material up for an expository sermon. It’s how you package it that’s the hard part. The manufacturing part is not all that hard; the marketing part is the real challenge! To keep it fresh, to keep it interesting.
Preaching: What are some things you do to keep your preaching fresh?
Jerry Vines: I try to approach things in a little different way sometimes. For example, I try to use some facets of drama. To me, good preaching is good use of imagination. Sometimes if you can couch the passage in some form of drama you can make it more interesting. I’m always looking for something to freshen it up a bit.
I think just the delivery itself – connecting with people where they are. Getting up-to-date, real-life illustrations helps a great deal, especially when you’ve been at a place for 20 years like I have!
Preaching: How many books of the Bible have you preached through since coming to Jacksonville?
Jerry Vines: I have preached through every book of the NT one time, and almost half of them two times. I have preached through – not necessarily verse-by-verse, but a pretty-good treatment of all the books of the OT except ten, and I’m down to the real hard ones, like Leviticus! My intention, if God lets me live, is to do something on every book of the Bible, to at least give the people a good sampling.
One of the things I have found is that many of those little-known books – or at least little-preached books – have been the most interesting. Like Ecclesiastes – that was one of the most enjoyable, for me personally, of any of the books I’ve ever preached. And Job – I preached ten messages in Job. I didn’t preach 42 – that would get them so depressed they’d never get out! [laughter] I just got done with a series in Ezekiel – that’s a challenge. I did about 14 of those. There’s a lot of good stuff there if it’s packaged right and put in a form the people can relate to.
Preaching: How long is a typical series for you?
Jerry Vines: My series are getting a little smaller. One of the reasons is people are more mobile than they used to be. We have quite a turnover in the city of Jacksonville. The second time I preached through the book of Romans I think I preached 81 messages. The last time I preached through Romans I did 43. Now I try to make it even shorter than that. Right now I’m doing a series from Proverbs – it’s going to be called “Proverbs for Parents” – and there will be 12 messages. I’m doing a series called “A World in a Week” from Genesis 1 – I finished preaching through the book of Genesis, now I’m going back to Genesis 1 – and there are going to be 12 messages in that series. That’s a little more in-depth on a smaller passage.
I’m cutting the length of them down. I have done a lot of verse-by-verse, and I am going back now on some that I have done and packaging it a little tighter. My tendency has been to be very content-oriented – that is, give them every of, the, and and but. But I have also found along the way – it’s been a humbling experience – that they don’t get it all. So I’m trying now just to get the real essence of the passage rather than all the details. I think you can get lost, sometimes, in the minutiae and miss the big picture. If it’s germane to the understanding of the passage, then I’ll deal with that prepositional phrase, but if it’s not . . .
If the verse starts with behold, I don’t give an exegesis of behold, the different words for behold, how it’s used in other contexts, and all that. I used to! My introductions would be my sermons – I wouldn’t have time for the sermons because of the introductions! So I’m trying to get a little better.
We’re in a different day. People have a lot of things to do. I read the old Puritan writers, and I love them, but I think their folks didn’t have a lot else to do!
Preaching: How long is a normal sermon for you?
Jerry Vines: We’re on television, so that restricts me somewhat. I will normally preach about a 37-minute message on Sunday morning. Our Sunday-evening service is also televised, but it’s not live; it’s tape-delayed, so I have a little more flexibility.
I preach three sermons each week here: Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night.
Preaching: Tell me about your planning process.
Jerry Vines: I’m doing more planning than I used to. I used to get through with one series and get into the next one, but I am trying to contemplate ahead. I’m working generally three to six months out.
What got me into it was the harder books. I found out I couldn’t announce a series on Job and start studying it this week for next Sunday. So the harder books got me into doing a rough outline ahead, so when I get ready to start a book I’ve already done a rough outline and a lot of the commentary work. So I try to plan three to six months ahead. Then week-to-week, I try to stay two or there weeks ahead, because I’ve found that you have emergencies come up during the week, and if you lose two or thee days there you can be in real trouble.
I divide my days into three parts. In the morning I stay at home. I have my study at home, and I do my study there in the morning. In the afternoon I come into the office for staff meetings, counseling apartments, anything I’m involved in there. At night, we don’t have a lot of night meetings here; I do go visiting on Tuesday night. So I’m able to be home.
My mornings I plan very tightly. I schedule out the entire week, every hour of every day, in terms of study. I don’t necessarily follow that every day, but at least I have something I can adjust. For instance, I may get started on my Sunday morning message on Monday morning and it’s just really clicking. Where I was going to spend just an hour-and-a-half on the morning message and an hour-and-a-half on the evening message, I may spend the entire time on the morning message because it’s just really producing for me. So I go ahead and finish out. I’ve got a schedule to follow but I’m not rigid – but the fact that I have a schedule helps me get a lot done.
To have my study at home, I can go in – after my wife and used to be my children go to bed – I can go in and study and not take time away from them. I used to be quiet a night-owl; I quit that these days!
Preaching: How long do you spend in preparation for each message?
Jerry Vines: Preparation for Sunday morning, I’ll spend about twenty hours. For Sunday evening, about ten. Wednesday night, probably about five. That’s a lot of hours, but that includes everything – in the morning, at night.
Preaching: Do you have three consecutive series running simultaneously?
Jerry Vines: Right now on Sunday morning I’m in stewardship, but I’ll be done with that next week and go back into Proverbs. On Sunday night “A World in a Week” on Genesis 1, and Wednesday night I’m in Galatians. A lot of things I do on Wednesday night are things I’ve already done; I’ve already got outlines, I’ve already had messages prepared. That doesn’t mean I just pick them up and use them; I study again, but a lot of the initial work is right there. I keep all of this in notebooks. It’s there for future reference – I’ve got all my word study, outlines, those kinds of things. A lot of the spade work is done for me.
The big challenge of going back to books you’ve preached on is illustrations. An illustration you used when you preached ten years ago may not be so hot today! You’ve got to freshen it up. Or sometimes the outline I used before doesn’t seem to work now, so I’ll revise it. By the time I’m finished with it it’s a new message, though it may have some of the components of the first message.
Preaching: What do you see as the advantage of preaching without notes?
Jerry Vines: I do think there are advantages to preaching without notes. You get better eye contact, I think you can be much more extemporaneous without notes. I would recommend it to young preachers.
There is a disadvantage to preaching without notes. As you get a little older, your memory tends to weaken. I think a young preacher would be wise to learn how to do it both ways. I turned 65 Sunday, and I’m aware my memory is not quite as keen as it used to be. I used to memorize every poem I used — I still memorize most scripture I use. I memorized every quote. I don’t do that any more: number one, I don’t have time. And number two, I don’t know that there’s a real need to do that. So now on poems or things like that, I have them typed up and printed out in large print; I clip that in the back of my Bible, then when I get ready to use it I just turn there and read. I think I have tormented or afflicted myself enough on that!
There is some advantage to that eye contact, not having to look down.
Preaching: How has your approach to preaching changed over the years?
Jerry Vines: I think I have learned that you can make exposition interesting. When I first got into it, I think I labored with it so much, got so caught up in the process that it may not have been as interesting. I’ve tried to brighten it up. I’ve tried to use humor.
If I was starting over, I would study preaching more than I did. I’m still learning.
The preacher is facing tremendous obstacles today. Here he is preaching to a group of people who every night watch very polished people deliver newscasts, reading from teleprompters. And here the preacher is, perhaps with limited training, standing before the people — it can be very intimidating. But the preacher who is walking with God has a communicative tool that is unavailable to any other communicator on earth — and that is the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit can take a stumbling, stammering preacher’s message and use it to bring about miraculous changes.
(from the January-February 2003 issue of Preaching)