Through his pastoral service at First Baptist Church, in Atlanta, his In Touch TV and radio ministry and his many books, Charles Stanley has become one of the nation's best known preachers. Preaching editor Michael Duduit recently had the opportunity to visit with Pastor Stanley about his newest book and his preaching ministry.
Preaching: Your most recent book is Landmines in the Path of the Believer. What led to the writing of this book?
Stanley: I began by thinking in terms of my staff, and so asking the Lord to give me some direction to help them. I had a lot of young staff members at that time, and I chose the subjects that people often overlook. We can talk about doubt and some things that are more evident, but pride, jealousy, insecurity, compromise, unforgiveness, disappointment, fear, immorality, slothfulnes—these are the things that I think trip us up, often when we're not expecting it. So I've tried to deal with each of those and identify why they are there and how to overcome them.
Preaching: As you think about those potential landmines in our lives, are there one or two of those that perhaps are more of a struggle for Christians than any of the others?
Stanley: I would certainly think of unforgiveness. I think counselors will tell you that at the bottom of most problems of people, unforgiveness is usually lying somewhere close by. Then immorality. I think we live in a time where immorality is becoming more and more acceptable in the eyes of some people. If I had to choose, these would be the two.
Preaching: I'm assuming this book grew out of a sermon series?
Preaching: As you talk to other pastors, are there some landmines for them to be aware of as they preach on these issues?
Stanley: I think a man has to be very careful at this point. I have noticed in the ministry— and I've been a pastor for 50 years—that when a man gets on a particular area, and he just hammers away at that over and over and over again, many times that's the area in which he has a problem. So we all have to look at these from the perspectives of our own lives.
I think as far as pastors are concerned, pride is a major issue. I will never forget on a plane one night, on my way home, talking to this pastor who was very, very famous at the time. I remember he said to me, "Charles, we're number one. We're the biggest and the best." I can remember it was just like God shot an arrow straight to my heart. It hit me so hard, it's like He said to me, "Don't ever let it cross your mind." I think that is a major issue, and I think today with television and all the kinds of publicity and public appearances and so forth, I think pride is a major, major issue in the ministry.
Preaching: How do we deal with that? What are some things pastors can do to help from stepping on that landmine?
Stanley: I think one of the primary things is to remember where you came from. A lot of folks don't do that. They only think about where they are, and where they are going. They forget the fact that apart from God, you wouldn't be where you are, and you wouldn't get where you're going. I think that recognizing who you are—your absolute, total dependence upon God, and recognizing also that some of the things that God allows us to go through in life are for the purpose of keeping us, and reminding us where we need to be.
If you just move along and you don't observe what's going on around you, and how God is working in your life—if you don't observe, to be able to discern what He's really trying to say to you as a person, often these are warnings.
Preaching: You mentioned that this particular book came out of a sermon series. Do you preach mostly in series?
Stanley: Most of the time I do; it just depends on what I think the Lord has laid on my heart. If you ask me what I prefer? Absolutely, I'd prefer to preach one series after another if the Lord would give it to me that way!
Preaching: Most of us know you primarily through the In Touch television and radio ministry. As you try to balance the issue of media ministry vs. the local congregation to whom you're preaching, do you find there are issues that you have to struggle with as to what might be good for the congregation vs. something that will work effectively in the broader media ministry?
Stanley: I used to think that would be a problem, but over the years I've realized it's not. People are who they are and what they are, whether they attend church or it's on television. The issue with me in preaching is: What's the need? I think what's really helped me over the years is if I preach something, my primary objective may be the church; then a couple of weeks later I check the mail to find out how people are responding; it's just the same. I mean, it's really been an eye opener for me—the truth is the local church is sort of an indication of where people are at everywhere.
Preaching: Are there certain needs or hurts that you hear more than others, within your local congregation and then within your broader media congregation?
Stanley: Yes, one of those particular areas is divorce. It's just amazing to me how often we hear that. Also, people who are going through difficulty on their job, and people criticizing them for being a Christian, and they feel persecuted. I think that's a major issue. A lot of times people don't have the courage to stand for what is right. One of the reasons I talked about compromise is I think compromise is a major issue. Then the whole issue of sex— it's becoming an alarming thing.
Preaching: Tell me about your philosophy of preaching. Do you see yourself primarily as an expositor?
Stanley: Not really. I used to be more so. My approach is this: 1) What's the need? What is it God's laid upon my heart? 2) What's the passage of scripture that meets that need? What is the key to me, as far as sermon preparation is, what's the theme? What is the theme that I want to deal with? That theme ought to be evident all the way through the sermon, from the introduction to the conclusion. I want people to walk away with one thing. If they'll walk away with the central truth that I want to get across, then I'm happy I think every point in that sermon should go back to that major theme.
I think about it like a tree trunk. That is, all the limbs make up that tree. You don't have a limb over here alone; you don't have oaks and palm trees together. So if you have one central theme, and you hammer away at that for 50 minutes or 45 or whatever it might be, and you have a sense of direction that's clear; a sense of progression, a sense of order, a sense of clarity. Inother words, I want to be able to walk away and know that they've heard one thing they just can't escape.
Preaching: Tell me about how long you typically preach? Is 45 to 50 minutes about a normal sermon?
Stanley: Yes. About 50 minutes. Somewhere between 45 and 50 minutes.
Preaching: Tell me about your preparation process through the week, as you're getting ready for a message. How far out do you plan, and then within that week getting ready for the message, what's it look like for you?
Stanley: I come home on Sunday afternoon, and I start thinking about next Sunday. I do a little bit on Sunday and get my mind in that direction, so I can be thinking about it in my sleep—in my subconscious when I'm sleeping—and I can think about it when I'm not sleeping. You know when you're a pastor, it's all the time.
On Monday I'll just do a little bit, just to get an idea of the direction I'm going in. Sometimes I don't get that direction until Wednesday or Thursday, but that's what I'm after. I call it the mystery moment for me. That's when I'm dealing with a passage or with a theme and all of a sudden, "Bang!" I know that's the sense of direction, and I'm onto it then. So if I'm dealing with a passage of scripture, I want to get the theme out of that passage, and go from there. Or if I have a theme, I find a passage and I really dissect that passage to see what it says, because I want to use that to prove something, but I don't want to manipulate it to prove something that's not true.
Then I will study a great deal of Thursday and Friday. I want to have it finished, most of it finished, at least by Friday evening, so on Saturday I can just look at it, and pray over it. But sometimes it's Saturday. I don't like that, and I try to make that an exception. I have discovered that if I finish far enough ahead of time it can get cold on you, and I don't want that to happen, so I really don't even want to finish until sometime on Friday evening or thereabouts.
Preaching: As you're preparing, do you write a manuscript or do you make notes?
Stanley: If I wrote a manuscript, I couldn't even preach it—I couldn't! I outline. I have about a six or seven page outline, and I just think that way. By the time I have put it on the computer screen, and looked at it and developed it, then I don't have to do much studying because it's just sort of in me, you know? It's a part of you.
Preaching: Do you carry any notes with you into the pulpit?
Stanley: I may jot a few things down in the margin of my Bible, but a long time ago I decided I just didn't want to start doing that. I thought, "Well Lord if I make mistakes, I'll just have to make them, and if I miss something I'll miss it," but I can't carry paper with me. If I can't jot down a few things in the margin, then I just don't do it. I'm freer that way. I have to be free, that's why I don't stand behind the pulpit.
Preaching: That's becoming more and more common for pastors, to step away from or even not have a pulpit altogether. How long have you been doing it that way?
Stanley: I've been doing it that way for probably 20 years.
Preaching: Do you find that really helps with your communication?
Stanley: Yeah I do, because there's nothing between me and them. What I used to realize was I would step around the side of it; it's like something inside of me wanted to get out in the middle of where they are. So once that was removed, I feel like that's where I am. If you notice the way our worship center is built, people are around me, all around me, and I like it that way.
Preaching: What do you enjoy most about preaching?
Stanley: I love studying, but I also love delivering. There's nothing in the world like that. I do love getting in a passage of scripture, and just studying, and knowing that I've got God's theme; there's something very satisfying about that. I can't study enough once I get that going.
Preaching: What do you find most challenging about preaching?
Stanley: Sometimes it's a challenge to know exactly what is the need. I think that's a challenge: To be sure I'm dealing with a need that's evident and that people—the persons out there who are listening, and myself— that we're in agreement that here's a need and I want to help meet that need.
For most pastors, the time to study is a major issue. I'm very blessed with having a great staff at In Touch and a great staff at church, so I have time. I don't have any excuse for that, but I think for most, that's probably a major issue.
Preaching: If you had one word of counsel or encouragement for other pastors and preachers, what would that be?
Stanley: Here's what it would be: I would say to them the most important thing in their preaching today, tomorrow, next year, the last sermon they ever preach is their personal, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. That is the key.
And I think the most important thing I do is spend time praying, talking, listening to God. I learned a long time ago it's the greatest time saver in the ministry. The way I learned that was that I would study, study, study, and I didn't have a theme, and I'd get in the prayer room. I'd start praying, and I'd go to sleep. I'd sort of berate myself for going to sleep. But then I'd wake up, I went back to the study; I went back to the desk and sat down. It was just amazing. My subconscious got busy, after I got out of the way. The prayer time is the most advantageous timesaving element in the ministry. ❖