An Interview with Steven W. Smith
In the new issue of Credo Magazine, Steven Smith answered questions relating to sermon preparation, preaching against idolatry, and more. The following is an excerpt from his interview. Steven W. Smith is the pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, AR. He is the author of two books on preaching: Dying to Preach and Recapturing the Voice of God.
You have written a book titled, Recapturing the Voice of God, wherein you guide the reader in how to preach genre-sensitive, text-driven sermons. What tools must a pastor have to preach such sermons?
In Recapturing I’m arguing that there is meaning on the structural level of the text. The text-driven sermon allows the meaning found in the structure of the text to influence the structure of the sermon.
The only way to effectively accomplish this is to read and re-read the text. Spending the first few hours of sermon prep just reading the text is invaluable. Regarding tools, I recommend exegetical commentaries that would help you understand the structure from a macro level. I love commentaries, but often detailed exegesis hides the reality that there is a macro level structure. Commentators, saddled with years of exegetical history, often manage that weight with information that, while interesting, will never influence pulpit communication. For balance one is helped by works like Semantic and Structural Analysis produced by SIL (Wycliffe). A short commentary whose interpretation is influenced by structure.
How would you encourage a pastor to rightly preach and counsel against the sin of idolatry?
Sunday, I preach Nehemiah 13. Of course, Nehemiah chronicles the last events of the Old Testament, and chapter 13 is a description of Nehemiah’s final reforms. The last great sin he deals with, in this very last chapter, is idolatry. He even mentions Solomon by name (13:26). Nehemiah summarizes his last reforms in v. 30 when he says, “Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign…”. This is a great definition of idolatry, “everything foreign.”
This is so fascinating. The last sin in the Old Testament is idolatry. God had a favorite people and they had a favorite sin, idolatry. God was exclusive, they were inclusive. He loved them, they loved to displace Him. What God wanted was their affection (Jer. 9:23,24), but they loved other things.
And so, Nehemiah’s last reform, the last sin of the Old Testament, was idolatry.
There is something instructive there. Of the hundreds of years recorded in the Old Testament, this never changed. The infection of displaced love has deep ancestral roots in our faith. We love to love other things besides God. I will always have to guard my heart against “everything foreign.”
So, my answer would be to preach the Old Testament. Idolatry is in Genesis – Nehemiah. Then be graciously plaintiff about calling out idolatry in our hearts.
Do you have a favorite aspect of the sermon preparation process?
Yes, it’s generally the first two days, out of the four mornings of prep. Specifically, I love the first day when I am reading and rereading a text trying to understand the structure. It generally does not come easy and its an enjoyable challenge. Once the structure is clear there is the challenge of re-presenting that structure in a way that is consistent with the biblical author but is also compelling and interesting. The tension between faithful re-presentation of the text and engaging communication is a challenge. Laziness lay in wooden exegesis or fluffy rhetoric. Wooden exegesis is missing the hard work of rhetorical finesse and communication. Fluffy rhetoric is missing the hard work of exegesis. Both are boring: one emotionally boring, and the other intellectually boring. Since the Scripture is never boring, this is a misrepresentation of Scripture.