Remembering Haddon Robinson (1931-2017)

Dr Haddon Robinson went home to be with his God on Saturday 22nd July, 2017.  He was 86 years old.  His legacy is incredible.  Haddon started teaching preaching at Dallas Theological Seminary while still a student.  He went on to teach there for 19 years.  He was president at Denver Seminary where he served for 12 years.  He finished his seminary career at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary where he led the Doctor of Ministry program and served as Interim President during a difficult season at the school.  He wrote many books and articles, including his classic textbook Biblical Preaching, and he also served with other ministries including Discover the Word, Our Daily Bread, and the Christian Medical and Dental Society.

Haddon was passionate about preaching, of course, but also about education.  Consequently, it is fitting that the final decades of his ministry were spent at Gordon-Conwell equipping people to teach preaching across the world.  I am so thankful that I got to be one Haddon’s students during those years.  My seminary preaching profs had spoken so highly of Haddon that I was thrilled to get the chance to study at Gordon-Conwell from 2005-2007 in the Doctor of Ministry program.

I remember the first Monday morning our cohort were together.  Haddon took three hours to go around the room and hear from all 25 of us.  Men and women from various backgrounds and denominations, but across the board, we all answered one question in the same way.  “Why did you choose to come here?”  To put it simply, we all said, “I want to learn from you, Dr Robinson.”  He probably got that from every group, but there was never a hint that his ego was stroked.  For Haddon “there are no great preachers, only a great Christ.”

On the final day of our last cohort together Haddon went around the room again.  Time and again we all said something like, “Haddon, I came here to learn from you and I leave here counting you as a friend.”  Haddon was humble, he cared, he showed interest, he cheered us on, and throughout the program he educated.

Each year Haddon would bring in a friend to co-teach the cohort. These were men who had learned from him and were now at the top of their field.  They were wonderful teachers and we learned so much from each of them.  However, whenever Haddon spoke, we all grabbed for our pens.  Actually, it was tempting to grab for a pen even when he prayed.  Haddon was a wordsmith.  He could put things into words so effectively, whether he was teaching a class, preaching a sermon, or chatting over coffee and a donut.

Haddon Robinson did not believe there are great preachers, but nevertheless, he was one.  Many times I have marveled at Haddon’s ability to say so much in a way that feels so unhurried to the listener.  I don’t recall hearing a Haddon sermon where the big idea was not clear, concise and accurate.  I never heard him fail to nail a landing – his final sentences crafted like a runway that he would always touchdown on a couple of sentences earlier than you expected.  Listening to a sermon from Haddon felt like going for a walk through a Biblical text with a wise uncle.  I remember finding a sermon on video where Haddon took his glasses out of his shirt pocket and then struggled to put them on one-handed (his other hand held his Bible and he had no lectern to put it down).  His struggle comforted me because it was good to see that even he could get a bit stuck, but his calmness in the situation was still a delight to watch as he dropped in a hilarious comment about having just had his one-a-day cup of coffee … and that cup was for March 14th 2035.

Haddon Robinson was a great preacher because he so understood the world of the Bible and because he thought deeply about his listeners.  More than that, he understood communication profoundly.  And then, on top of that, he was a master educator.  Haddon said, “Education isn’t filling a pail with information; it’s lighting a fire in the spirit of a learner.”  I remember defending my thesis and having Haddon throw questions at me out of left field with a glint in his eye. He was a wonderful teacher of preachers, although he knew he couldn’t get everyone to the same level.  Some struggled to grasp the freedom Haddon espoused in preaching.  They might read his book or hear him lecture and think it was a complex formula to be meticulously followed.  In reality, Haddon wanted to train preachers who were biblically constrained to say what the text said, who were homiletically free to communicate as effectively as possible, and who were spiritually responsive to the God who so masterfully crafted His communication.  I am sure all of us who learned from Haddon are not as effective as we could be inasmuch as we haven’t grasped or consistently implemented all that he offered us.  At the same time, Haddon was so effective as a teacher that I am confident there are hundreds of preachers and teachers of preaching that are making a massive difference because of Haddon’s input in our lives and ministries.

Haddon grew up surrounded by the gangs of Harlem.  There was always a steely determination and a look in his eyes that showed he knew exactly what was going on around him. Sometimes people who do great things in ministry seem to get a pass from those around them for where their character fails to show the fruit of the Spirit.  In my experience and observation, this is not so much the case with Haddon.  He was gracious, humble, caring and godly.  To use words from his definition of preaching, it was my experience that the Holy Spirit had first applied biblical truth to the personality and experience of Haddon, then through Haddon, he also applied the Bible to the hearers.

Haddon was great fun to be around.  He took the Bible seriously, he took preaching seriously, and he took education seriously.  But he didn’t take himself too seriously.  He was alive in coffee breaks, laughing and probing with a big smile and bright eyes.  He was alive when he would gather the cohort in the center of the classroom to sing some hymns together.  He was alive when Bonnie, his wife, was able to join us for a meal or another sing-along at a piano.  And now he is alive in the presence of the God that he served so faithfully throughout his life.

I thank God for the life and ministry of Haddon Robinson.  I am just one of many who learned from him as a preacher, an educator, a writer, a mentor, and even as a friend.  Haddon loved the Bible, the God of the Bible, preaching, his wife Bonnie, his children … he seemed to love life.  May that legacy be multiplied in the years to come.

Big Idea or Big Story? Lessons Both Ways

Tents2I studied preaching in the “Big Idea” school of preaching. We were required to read books from the “Christocentric” school of preaching.  In my experience, many preachers in both groups need to learn from one another.

The big idea folks tend to emphasize the particular passage open before them.  They never dismiss the big story of the Bible, but their primary concern is to communicate the message of this particular passage.

The big story folks tend to emphasize the big story of redemption, irrespective of which specific text they may be preaching.  They don’t dismiss the importance of a particular passage, but their primary concern is to preach the big picture gospel at every opportunity.

Both approaches can be highly effective.  And both approaches can be done very poorly.  One way both will fall short is where the Bible is mishandled.

Big idea folks focus on the specific passage, but this cannot guarantee accurate exegesis, nor effective presentation of the relevance of that passage to listeners.  If the preacher harvests the imperatives in a passage and preaches a pressurized message inviting the listener to self-initiate some kind of moral transformation, then the text has been abused and the message of the Bible corrupted.  If the preacher fails to effectively engage the bigger story of Scripture, then the particular passage could be mishandled in light of its whole Bible context.

Big story folks focus on the full history of God’s redemptive plan, but this cannot guarantee immunity from moralistic preaching, nor does it always generate accurate handling of the text.  If the preacher imposes fanciful shortcuts to get to the goal of the rest of the redemption story, then it may seem like the text before the listeners may be turned into a secret code that only the preacher can unravel.  When big story preaching does not handle each text carefully, it can have the effect of flattening the Bible so that every passage is essentially a vague reflection of the one big story that will get imposed on it by the preacher.  And even when the redemption plan is laid out, how easily moralism can creep in via pressure to choose belief as our great work.

Both schools of thought have a lot to offer and I would thoroughly recommend you read the best books in both groups. But whichever camp you choose to set up your homiletical tent in, be sure to benefit from what is good about the other group too.

The Fig-Arm Journey To Simplicity

Forest2Oliver Wendell Holmes is credited with this great quote – “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity, but I’d give my right arm for simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

I remember Haddon Robinson using this quote to distinguish two types of simplicity in preaching.  This side of complexity the simplicity isn’t worth much.  Often very young preachers offer this because it is all they have to give.  Listeners will resonate at a certain level, appreciating the simplicity combined with a young preacher getting launched into ministry.  But there will also be a lack of depth, of experience, of insight, of nuance, and of genuine impact.  This less-than-a-fig’s worth of simple preaching will hopefully yield to a pursuit of something more valuable.

The goal is arms’-worth simplicity.  This is the kind of simplicity that great preachers offer. They have a much greater and more personal understanding of the Bible, of life, of their listeners, and of themselves.  This kind of preacher knows how to plumb the depths of Scripture and serve up a simple message that is not paper thin and feather light, but life impacting and pregnant with deep truth, resonating with listeners as true. To hear a great preacher preach simply is heart warming, life changing and profoundly satisfying.

But there is a journey from less-than-fig simplicity to arms’-worth simplicity.  It is a journey through complexity.  Here are five quick thoughts on the journey:

1. It is a necessary journey.  It may be tempting to stay this side of complexity and try to fake depth by copying preachers that have made the journey.  This cannot be effectively faked.  Knowing comments, beard stroking, profound stares and implying you are a deep well simply won’t convince the more mature listeners.  Determine to prayerfully make the journey over the next years to that far side of complexity.

2. It is a multi-faceted journey. It is tempting to assume that the journey simply involves learning a lot.  It includes that, but also much more.  By all means go to seminary, read lots, learn loads, but know that merely filling your head with knowledge will not get you through the dark forest of complexity – it will probably plant you right in the middle!  There will also be life experience needed, and only God can orchestrate that.  There may well be suffering – sometimes “low level” and sometimes a horrendous “crucible experience.”  There will need to be painful feedback pursued and taken to heart.  This journey is not easy, neither is it quick:

3. It can be a slow journey.  Know that it can take years to successfully get through the forest.  Many preachers play around the edges of the forest, but never plunge in and come through to the other side.  They read a bit, study a bit (even getting a degree can be just studying a bit), and try to act like the three bushes they have hung out with constitute a forest!  It is hard to spot shallowness and ignorance in the mirror, but pray for a clear view of yourself, and pray for honest insight from others.

4. The preacher should determine to make this journey.  Only God knows the journey through the forest, but pray for Him to lead you and start taking steps.  And remember your goal is simplicity.  Know that your listeners won’t love the complexity as much as you do, so always look to grow in simplicity in your preaching, wherever you are in the journey.  Often you will fail, but always aim to communicate as clearly as you can.

5. The listeners will need to have patience with the preacher.  If you know someone on this journey, then please support them, cheer them on, encourage them.  Give them feedback that will help them grow.  Give them grace and space to make mistakes and to make progress.  Don’t chase them back to cheap simplicity, and don’t chase them out of your church because they are trying to grow.  You will be glad when they make it through, and they will make it through, in part, because of your help!

The Preacher’s Clock: Procrastination?

clock2Haddon Robinson was on target when he suggested the weekly cycle of sermon preparation is too short.  Starting on Tuesday for the following Sunday is not soon enough and can messages under-cooked and preachers without the time for the message to be working authenticity into their experience.  Robinson suggests putting in some preparation the Thursday of the week before.  I think he is on target.

But what about when things go the other way and preparation gets squeezed?

I have a personal principle on this issue.  If I genuinely have had unforeseen delays and have to prepare at the last minute, then I ask God for help and know that He understands.  But then there is a second part to it too – if I have procrastinated and end up preparing at the last minute, then I confess that, ask for forgiveness and still ask God for help.

The first part of the principle has been forged in the relatively gentle furnace of family life and missions organization participation, and in recent years by the busy schedule created by combining ministry roles.  Sometimes life happens and there is no way to prepare as you would like.  God understands this.  Last minute preparation is not ideal, but it is possible and it is still better to prepare as much as you can, rather than not prepare at all.

The second part of the principle is because I am human.  I admire people with perfect track records in the area of self-discipline (but I also doubt them!)  Rather than make up excuses and try to convince myself that I genuinely could not prepare fully due to life circumstances, I would rather be honest and admit when I have allowed other things, often very good things, to distract me from what was needed as a ministry deadline loomed.  I may have lacked self-discipline, I may even have succumbed to some tempting distraction, but I don’t want to succumb to another temptation and seek to justify my procrastination.  Hence, I sometimes have to repent and ask for forgiveness and then prepare at the last minute.

Let’s all be marked by the last fruit of the Spirit in our ministry preparation, making the most of every opportunity to preach the Word as good stewards of the privilege.  And let’s be real with God and ourselves when we fail.  Let us neither abuse grace, nor reject it.

The Four Places of Preaching – 3

So the preaching process starts in the study, then the preacher needs to stop and pray (in an even less distracted place), but then comes the third location.

Place 3 – Starbucks.  Huh?

Let me clarify before I start into this that I personally don’t tend to pick Starbucks (or pray in a closet, for that matter), but the principle applies.  I have a good friend, and a preacher I highly respect, who does literally go to a coffee shop for this phase of his preparation.

He takes five 3×5 cards and puts names on the cards – the names of individuals in the church, a cross section, essentially.  With his five listeners spread out on the table, and surrounded by real life and culture, he is then able to prepare the message.  He can ask himself as he goes, “would this communicate to Jim?”  or “How would Kerry take that?

The goal in this place?  To prepare a message that will effectively communicate the prayed-through main idea of the passage to the particular listeners as an act of love for them and for the Lord.

The best biblical content will be wasted if it isn’t targeted appropriately.  Our task is not to make the Bible relevant.  It is.  Our task is to emphasize that relevance.  And by definition, something can only be relevant to specific people.  Relevant to this age.  Relevant to this culture.  Relevant to this community.  Relevant to this church.  Relevant to these individuals.

So John Stott was on target when he urged preachers to be at home not only in the world of the Bible, but also the world of the listener.  Haddon Robinson took the two worlds notion and expanded it to distinguish contemporary culture from the specific culture of the local church.  So we can misfire with  traditional presentations in a changing culture, as we can with postmodern engagements in a church that hasn’t gone there.

Whether we sit in Starbucks, or ponder the church’s phone list.  Wherever we spend time with church members and people from the community we seek to mark.  Somehow we need to make sure our messages are more than great biblical content.  They have to be on target, and to be on target, we must know the hearts we aim to reach.

The Four Places of Preaching

There is a journey from text to message.  A journey consists of a sequence of locations, so I’d like to lay out the four places of preaching.  Perhaps this will be helpful to someone.

Place 1 – The Study

The first place the preacher needs to go is the study.  Just the preacher, the Bible, perhaps a desk, whatever study resources may be available, and a prayerful pursuit of the meaning of the text.

What is the goal in this place?  To be able to accurately state the main idea of the passage in a single sentence summary as a result of prayerful historical, grammatical, literary study of the passage in its context, with a heart laid bare before God.

Who is involved?  This place is where the preacher is in prayerful pursuit of the meaning of the passage.  So there is a historical focus, a sense in which the preacher is seeking to go back then to the time when the human author wrote the passage.  There is a deep concern with making sense of the text as it was intended, as inspired, with the historical and written context, the inspired choice of genre, the content of the passage in terms of its details and its structure or flow, and the intent of the writer.

So the preacher is studying, exegeting, interpreting.  Yet in that quiet place of wrestling with the text, the text is also wrestling with the preacher.  This is not some sort of abstract and entirely objective study.  The preacher is there.  When the Bible speaks, God speaks, and when God speaks, lives change.  So the preacher has the privilege of being marked by the text as the Spirit of God first applies the passage to the life of the preacher.

The study is a place of deep fellowship between the preacher and God.

Why, then, the study?  Should this not be the library, after all, studying involves resources?  No, this should be a study, because a library is a place of people pursuing information for a variety of purposes.  The preacher’s study is a place where the preacher meets with God as the biblical text is studied both exegetically and profoundly devotionally.

Should this not be the office, after all, ministry is a complex business these days?  No, this should be a study (whatever the room actually is), because an office is a place of action and interaction, of incoming emails and phone calls, a place where multiple plates are kept spinning.  No great and profound preaching can come out of an office.  (If your study is too much of an office, then study elsewhere – borrow a room and leave your phone behind, study in your car in the woods, but go somewhere where you can be with the Lord in a “study”.)

Tomorrow, place 2 . . .

Saturday Short Thought: Glorious Gospel

In a little while I’m heading to London to speak at a Cor Deo Delighted by God conference.  Our subtitle for the day is Glorious Gospel.  I am excited to hear the other sessions and to ponder together just how glorious the gospel really is.

What it comes down to, I suppose, is how glorious our God is, and what kind of gospel He has given us.  Too often the presentation of the gospel I hear is less than glorious.

It seems like a negotiation between a willing sinner and a reticent God.  The sinner is willing to say some words in order to gain a significant package of benefits.  And God is open to some sort of a contractual deal, but really is essentially resistant without the intervention of a kind lawyer working for us.

This is such a corruption of the truth.  God’s initiative is critical, and the extent to which He has gone to overcome the resistance of the human heart is stunning.  And as for the language of contracts, let’s dump that in the grip of His fatherly embrace!

The gospel is wondrously glorious, but it’s the kind of glory that involves His being high and lifted up, in absolute self-giving humiliation.

Let’s be sure we don’t preach a watered down, or petty, or negotiated gospel.

PS We’d really appreciate your prayers for today’s conference to go well!

_______________________

Next Week: The 10 Biggest Big Ideas

In the classroom Haddon Robinson said more than once that there are basically eight to ten big big ideas in the Bible.  He never gave us a list, but I’ll offer mine starting on Monday.  What would you include?

Saturday Short Thought: Rooted Preaching

John Stott wrote about preaching as requiring a certain familiarity in two worlds – the world of the Bible and the world of the listener.

Haddon Robinson takes this a step further by adding two more “worlds.”  The world of the listeners is the world of the congregational culture, as well as the societal culture at large.  Then there is the world of the preacher’s inner life.

It isn’t easy to live in multiple worlds at once.  There is always a danger that we will give diminished attention to one of these worlds.  That was a point Stott made.  Instead of building a bridge from one world to the other, there is always a tendency to build heavily on one side only – either being in this world only or building a tower from the Bible straight to heaven.

How do we measure our engagement with each world?

The world of the listener – prayerful concern for specific people and watchful awareness of the cultural influences, local and national?

The world of the Bible – prayerful fascination with the text, the culture, the people, the politics, the geography, the history, etc?

I was struck by this quote from John Smith, in The History of Virginia.  A nudge to keep history and geography tied together:

As geography without history seemeth a carcus without motion, so history without geography wandereth as a vagrant without certain habitation.

Preaching isn’t a simple task, but what a privilege!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to NewsvineLike This!

Get the Idea? – Part 2

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

This is the middle post in a series of three on Big Idea preaching.  Specifically, I’ve been struck by how many people recommend Haddon Robinson’s book, yet seem to not have grasped what it teaches.  I understand that they are impressed by the well written chapters dealing with various elements of sermon preparation and delivery (I was impressed first time through), but the powerful notion of the Big Idea is not instantly grasped (took me a while!)  So yesterday we thought about The Big Idea being about communication.  But more than that . . .

Continue reading