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A Visit to Loma Linda University Church
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Editor’s Note: On March 31, 2014, Pastor Pablo Ariza, Associate Pastor at Calimesa , visited Dr. Randy Roberts, Senior Pastor of the Loma Linda University Seventh-day Adventist Church.   Dr. Roberts pastors the largest Seventh-day Adventist church in the North American Division and his preaching is viewed worldwide over satellite and streaming.  Pablo sat down with Randy to find out what it takes to create relevant, well-crafted sermons week after week.
 

Pablo:  How long have you been here at the University Church?

Randy:  I’ve been Senior Pastor here about 13 and a half years. It’s been a while.

Pablo:  That’s a lot of sermons! How do you approach sermon preparation and delivery?

Randy:  I strongly believe that the Word of God is, is as scripture says, “living and vibrant and active; that it’s sharp, it’s incisive in our lives.”  If we come ourselves to scripture with an openness and a willingness to hear what it says; and we try to understand what it means in our hearts and lives; and if we do that which God calls us to do, it will be germane and relevant to the people in the pew.  If you’re faithful to scripture, I believe, you will end up being faithful to the realities of the day and time, because scripture has a timeless quality to it.  I heard one speaker say “it’s as though you’re a pipe and the oil of the Holy Spirit flows through you, and your interest is to keep that pipe cleaned out so as much of the oil as possible can flow through unhindered to the people who need that.”  So I believe philosophically that preachers are called to speak a word for God, a word that is both timeless and timely.

Pablo: So here at the University Church, you’re speaking to a broad audience.  You’ve got professionals, you’ve got people who are retired, and you have students.  How do you approach speaking to such a broad audience?

Randy:  Well, it can be a challenge when you have people at different places on the age spectrum, as well as different places on the educational spectrum, and probably a variety of others as well.  But the bottom line is that we all have our personal internal lives, our own spiritual lives.  We all have the same kinds of feelings of anger and joy and hope and despair, wondering if God is active in our lives, wondering if God is with me, why is this happening to me, struggling with grief and sorrow.  And so if we address the human person I think that tends to cut across those areas in which we differ, and gets to the place where we are truly united, where we are truly human, where we truly feel and think and hope and dream, and despair.  Somebody once said to me, “preach to broken hearts because there’s one in every pew.”  

Pablo:  I’m curious, how long did it take for you to arrive to a place where you felt comfortable with your style, not just being a preacher, but the style that’s right for Randy Roberts?

Randy:  [chuckles]  Well, I’m not comfortable yet.  I hate watching my own sermons.  So I suppose there’s always a part of me that’s not entirely comfortable.  But in terms of feeling effective…probably about twenty years ago when I was doing a Doctor of Ministry degree at Fuller Seminary some of the preaching work I did there helped move me technically to the kind of preacher I am today.  From that point forward I felt a greater degree of effectiveness in communication.  That basic style has continued and morphed.  It has been a journey all the way along.

Pablo:   I don’t know how it is for you, but I know for me personally, the sermon preparation is sometimes a love-hate relationship. I love what this text is saying, and I think it’s exactly what this family needs to hear, but sometimes it doesn’t seem to be coming together.  So I’m curious, what are some of the biggest challenges that you face in the sermon preparation?

Randy:  Sabbaths just keep coming, it doesn’t matter what else happens in the week; it doesn’t matter if you’ve had a good week, a bad week, an up week, a down week, a busy week or a fairly open week--it just keeps coming.  There is a relentlessness about week-to-week preaching in the sense that preaching is never far away.  It doesn’t matter what’s happening when or where, it’s always there, it’s always looming.  Sunday morning, playing basketball, I’ll be thinking about the sermon. Friday afternoon, washing the car, the sermon is there.  Taking a trip and knowing that I’m preaching when I get back, the sermon is there.  There is a relentlessness and a presence that never goes away.

Another challenge is creativity. I don’t know how it is for others, but for me, creativity is not available on demand.  You can’t sit down and say, okay, between nine and twelve on Thursday mornings I’m going to be creative.  It just doesn’t work that way. It’s kind of like quality time versus quantity time.  We went through a period of time here in this country where everybody talked about quality time with your family, quality time with your kids, as though you could work and do everything else, and then just schedule this little piece of quality time with your kids on Thursday evenings from seven to eight-thirty.  It just doesn’t work that way.  In order to have the quality time, you’ve got to have large sections of quantity time.  And then these quality-time moments are serendipitously made evident in the midst of the time you have together.  To me, preaching and creativity is a great deal like that.  You have to have a significant amount of time, and then you pray for the creativity of the Spirit to become evident during that period of time.
There are many times when I am running low on time and when I’m stressed and I’m pressured where I experience writer’s block.  The best thing I can do is just set it down and go do something else for a period of time. It could be 15, 20 minutes, a half-hour.  Sometimes it’s all evening, and I don’t come back to it ‘til the next day.  Then somehow that log jam bursts and it starts to flow again.  The Spirit of God is not available at our demand.  You know, ‘okay, I’m ready, now give me something.’  We are to be available at His request and behest.

Another challenge is simply time.  Life is what happens while you’re making plans.  Preaching is a lot like that.  Sometimes I have the week scheduled out for sermon prep work and then a crisis happens in the congregation; somebody dies, a family splits apart, something else takes place, the conference says we have a meeting, whatever the case might be, suddenly those things get re-shifted and reshuffled.  And it requires then that the preacher shift and be flexible.  And thus you end up at times with late nights and early mornings and other kinds of things because of the relentlessness of Sabbath.  No matter what else happens out there, Sabbath is still coming and there will be a lot of people sitting out there waiting to hear, ‘is there a word from the Lord?’  And so you just have to deal with those kinds of challenges that come your way, and then pray for God to bless the time that you’re left with in such a way that His word will be heard when the preaching moment comes.

Pablo:  If you could go back to when you were just starting off in ministry what would you tell your younger self about sermon preparation?

Randy:  That’s not hard to answer, because I just had this conversation with my son yesterday as I was taking him to the airport to fly back to Walla Walla, where he’s studying theology.  And it’s essentially the same conversation my father had with me (my father was also a pastor).  When I graduated from college I had my own two church district right next to my father’s district. He was kind enough to oversee my work.  Driving back from our first meeting at the conference office, he said to me, “Randy, make certain that you reserve your mornings for study.”  And he said, “Now is the time you have to make that choice, because the longer you wait to make that a priority, the harder it will become.”

There are many pastors who have never made that a priority. As the years pass they become used to different kinds of rhythms, and it never becomes a part of their lives.  And so their preaching suffers.  They have a certain number of sermons and then they’re ready to move on to the next district and re-preach them all again.

So when my son Austin and I were driving to the airport yesterday, I just talked with him about that same concept, about being a person of discipline who reads regularly and who reads deeply and reads widely, so that you exercise your mind to think, to question, to ask, to store things.  Otherwise, you end up a mile wide and an inch deep. You’re always looking for the latest gimmick to somehow reenergize your sermon, when there isn’t the substance there that is required.  And I can feel that at times, if I haven’t been spending that time, certainly in scripture, but in other kinds of reading as well, just deepening my own soul, deepening my own heart.  I can feel myself getting dry, and that’s not a good place to be for anyone, and certainly not for one who is preaching.

Somewhere early in my ministry someone told me these words : “deepen my ministry and let God broaden it.” In other words, if I focus on deepening my own life with Jesus, deepening my own understanding of, commitment to, and involvement with His word; deepening my prayer life; if I focus on deepening my heart with God, God will take care of how broad he wants that to be; whether he wants me to stay in this church, another church, a small church, a large church, whatever that may be,  becomes God’s business and becomes something that the Spirit will tend to. Billy Graham said, “If I were a young minister again, I would preach a lot less and study a lot more.”

Pablo:  What are some of the things that you enjoy about sermon preparation and delivery?

Randy:  I love the process of sitting down with a text of scripture and trying to understand what it meant, understand what it means, and  then draw from that something that God might be speaking to the people that I love.  I love the process of seeing the light go on in people’s eyes, understanding a text for the first time, or sensing that God is speaking to them through the sermon and it touches a resonating chord in their lives. 

Preaching is agony and ecstasy, and there’s not a lot of ecstasy and there’s a whole lot of agony.  Ironically this is one of the things I was talking to my son about yesterday as well, because he’s much more outgoing and much more socially gregarious than I am.  I tend to be a loner.  I said to him, “if you’re going to preach well, you’re going to have to become accustomed to long periods of time alone with the Word, with your computer, or however you do your work.”

 Now, for some people, that’s agony.  It’s not agony for me, I thrive on that.  Standing up to speak can be agony or it can be ecstasy--it just depends how effective one feels the message was delivered.  Did you connect with people? Did you speak the words that you felt God gave you in the study?  Was there a point where people connected?  When that happens, I love it, it’s wonderful.  There’s a lot of joy, and I think the joy comes especially in connecting with people who say, ‘God spoke to me today.’ ‘That made sense to me.’  ‘That helped me sort through a dilemma that I’ve been wrestling with.’  Those are irreplaceable moments to me.

Pablo: You mentioned earlier about personality types, how sometimes, say if you’re introverted, you feel very comfortable and energized by the alone time, letting the text brew and marinate a little bit.  How do different personality types create challenges for the preacher?

Randy:  For me one of the helpful ways to understand the difference between extroversion and introversion is to ask what people do to you.  For an extrovert, people energize you and excite you.  And when you want to relax and enjoy, you want to get with people.  People stoke your fires and keep you active and alive.  For an introvert, people deplete you.  People wear you out.  And so when you want to recover, you want to be alone.  So for me one of the big challenges is when the preaching is over, when Sabbath afternoon comes I don’t want to be with people.  Or if I am with people they need to be family or really close friends.  And even then sometimes I crave some alone time to recover.  What’s tough for me, particularly Sabbath after a hectic week and preaching, is if I’m with a group and nobody’s saying anything, and then I have to carry the ball.  That’s real work. So one of the challenges for us introverts who are in the public eye is finding ways to get those batteries recharged, finding ways to reenergize, enough so that when the next week begins we’re ready to go at it again. 

I would guess that for an extrovert one of the challenges is being able to make the choice to spend enough time alone in the week so that you legitimately study and prepare something that you can deliver with integrity on Sabbath.  
 
Pablo:  How do you establish a healthy sermon prep rhythm week to week and throughout the year?

Randy:  I try to get some time late in the academic year where I lay out the coming year’s pulpit calendar.  That is so vital.  If I miss that we pay for it all year long, because then we’re playing catchup.  So it’s really rough if I don’t get that time during that period.
In that time I’m trying to lay out the series.  There are some weeks that are already a given-- Christmas, Easter, Communion services.  Next I’ll take a look at what we have otherwise in terms of the length of series.  I personally much prefer expository series but I also realize that one style of preaching soon becomes same old, same old.  So I try to break that up.  I realize that our culture has moved much more in a topical direction, so I do those as well.  But I try to get something solid from the Old Testament and something solid from the New Testament in each year.  And then I look at what other slots are available and what other topics or themes might be important.  So I try to lay out that full year, and then gather as much material as possible for each of those series and each of those individual sermons so that I know generally where this is going.

Now, when I’ve had adequate time to do that it’s a different year, because I know with clarity where we’re going. I’m not scrambling or trying to put something together later.  Is that always set in concrete?  No, it’s not.  In fact, I just changed about two weeks ago our final series for this year because of some specific concerns here in our congregation that our worship planning team talked about, so I made a shift in a short series.  Occasionally those things change.  But for the most part we stay with what was originally planned.  Sometimes other kinds of things will create a change. 

Years ago we were at a staff meeting when 9-11 erupted back on the East Coast.  We were kind of reeling, watching what was going on.  And right away we looked at each other and said ‘We can’t do what we were going to do this Sabbath.  There’s no way.’  And so we changed the whole service, the whole sermon, everything shifted and changed. So there are those times when you plan something and something else comes along with substance and you say, we’ve got to make a change. But it’s not frantically grabbing from one week to the next, trying to figure out what are we doing this week, what are we doing next week.  So that’s the rhythm of sitting down over a period of two or three weeks, and planning the full next year.

Then there’s the weekly rhythm of the preparation.  And I can tell you how for me it ideally works.  And why I say ideally is that sometimes Juan Pablo shows up at the door, and you say, ‘okay, we’re going to change things.’  [chuckles]  So Monday morning I will sit down just with the text.  This is just thoughtful, prayerful interaction with the text, trying to understand the text, what it means, what it says, and the exegesis that I’m going to do on the text;  the themes and the thoughts that emerge.
If there is time on Tuesday, I’ll look at commentaries trying to see if I’m headed in the right direction, if a course correction is required, drawing in insights that will be relevant to the topic. 

On Wednesday I look for illustrative material.  I’m always on the lookout for illustrative material.  I beg, borrow, steal, everything else (giving credit of course).  I look in my own life, my family’s life, my reading life, media, Internet, friends, church members who send things in, books of illustrations, whatever;  I will look anywhere and everywhere trying to find illustrative material.
By Thursday I have a lot of pages of material.  And that’s where it can get a little overwhelming, because I’ve got to hone it down, to focus on the key thought and figure out how I am going to present that.  When I’ve accomplished that I write a manuscript, and then an outline from the manuscript, and try to commit some of that to memory.

Then Sabbath comes, and it’s time to preach.