The following is a brief interview with Steve Mathewson, Senior Pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, IL. He has taught preaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Moody Bible Institute and is the author of The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative, Preaching the Four Gospels with Confidence, and Preaching the Hard Words of Jesus.
Hi Steve, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions for us. I appreciate our friendship and I know our readers will benefit from your insight into preaching as I have.
How long have you been preaching?
Wow, I’ve been preaching as a pastor for thirty years!
As preachers, we are constrained by a sense of calling and love for people. But in terms of the sermon writing process itself, what would you say is your favorite part of preparing a sermon?
I love all parts of it–until I get stuck! I still get fired up about exegetical study, but I still get great joy when I figure out how to communicate the text to my listeners in a meaningful way. So an outline or application coming together is also a favorite moment.
What is one significant way that you have modified your preaching over the years?
I do a lot more biblical theology (BT). I’ve always loved BT, but I see a need to show listeners how a particular text fits into the overall narrative of Scripture and how the gospel enables us to do what a particular text calls us to do.
You are probably best known for your book The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative. What are two or three salient points from the book that you think are crucial for preachers to keep in mind when it comes to that topic?
Only three? Just kidding! First, stories communicate theology, and that theological message is what we need to preach. Second, this theology comes to us through the crisis-resolution flow of a narrative; so look for the crisis and how it is resolved in the narrative. Three, while we must do more than re-tell the story, we cannot do less than that. So I encourage preachers to use a narrative form instead squeezing it into a more didactic form such as a list of principles.
I have appreciated your take on the whole Christ-centered preaching controversy. Some want to see Christ in every verse. Some want to leave Christ out of the verse unless he’s explicitly mentioned. Your article on “Preaching the Gospel in Judges” which appeared in both PreachingToday.com and The Gospel Coalition is helpful. Could you summarize your approach in a few sentences?
Yes, I take a mediating approach, almost identical to the one Sidney Greidanus described in his doctoral dissertation, Sola Scriptura. Unfortunately (in my view), he has retreated from that and adopted a much stricter view–a Lutheran view–which he articulates in his landmark book, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament. I argue that we must take the O.T. in its own terms first. Then, I use biblical theology to show how the theology of a particular O.T. text fits into the larger metanarrative of Scripture which has its center in Christ. I’m not as big on Greidanus on moving to Christ in analogical or typological ways–though I feel a bit freer to do that with narratives like 1 and 2 Samuel since there is a much more natural connection between David and the Messiah articulated in both O.T. and N.T. What I want to avoid is making characters like Samson become a type of Christ. Samson, really?! In many sermons on O.T. texts, I show how the good news of Jesus Christ enables us to carry out the “ethical thrust” (to use the language of Greidanus) of the text.
I know you have an interesting variety of theological maturity in your congregation. Surely you have recent converts, young Christians and those for whom deep study is difficult. But I know you also have world renowned scholars and theologians. How do you preach in a way that keeps both ends of the spectrum in mind?
Honestly, I feel more pressure about communicating to the recent converts and nonbelievers than I do to the scholars and theologians. The latter groups are wise enough to know that what they need is to have the living God re-revealed to them in preaching week after week–even if they learn nothing new exegetically or theologically. I recognize this in my life as a listener whenever I hear our interns preach. Even though they may be rookies, I am always challenged by their sermons because they are preaching the life-giving Word of God. Haddon Robinson uses a grid that helps me determine how to satisfy the needs of my listeners whether they are new or nonbelievers or whether they are Bible scholars and theologians. I always ask what needs to be explained, what needs to be proved (validated), and what needs to be applied.
You seem to receive frequent invitations to schools, chapels and other churches to teach or preach. How do you balance or incorporate that time into your weekly demands as a Senior Pastor?
I preach about 38 Sundays a year (which makes outside ministry more doable than if I preached 45-48 Sundays a year), and I have serve with a good ministry staff and a lot of capable volunteers. I also have terrific elders in our church who support my outside ministry (and see it as an extension of our church’s ministry) and also help me limit it so that it doesn’t diminish my effectiveness as Senior Pastor of our church.
In Preaching the Four Gospels with Confidence you talk about “Right-sizing,” i.e. finding the optimum length when mapping out a sermon series and determining preaching units in the Gospels. Would you share a couple of quick tips here?
First, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Look at what commentaries and other preachers have done. Second, default to larger preaching units so that you can show the flow of the writer’s argument. When I first began preaching, I had a conviction that preachers did too much analysis and not enough synthesis. I am as convinced of that today as I was thirty years ago. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway!) that you need to make sure you have a preaching unit. That means longer texts in narrative books.
Any recent reads that you would highly recommend to preachers?
Tim Keller’s Preaching is an outstanding book–particularly on the audience to which we preach. I’m also working through the various essays in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, edited by D. A. Carson. The convictions which this volume reaffirms really do enrich my preaching. I also like books that help me exegete the culture. An obvious volume, which I am currently reading, is James K. A. Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. I just finished a classic novel by Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety, which gave me a lot of insight into the human condition. Stegner can really turn a phrase. For example, one of his characters said that he wanted to leave a mark on the world, but instead, the world left a mark on him and that life chastened him. I’ll use that line somewhere in an upcoming sermon.
What are you working on these days?
I’m writing a PhD dissertation under the supervision of Christo Van der Merwe at the University of Stellenbosch (South Africa). Christo is a world class Hebrew grammarian and linguist. I tell people this is my torturous form of continuing adult education! While I don’t need a PhD, because I’m not planning to leave pastoral ministry, it will at least sharpen the way I read and study Scripture. It will be worth it if that’s all it accomplishes. Perhaps it will open some doors in the future for writing commentaries for pastors.