BIO: Steve DeNeff has served for more than ten years as the Senior Pastor of College Wesleyan Church, a church of 1200 people, in Marion, IN on the campus of Indiana Wesleyan University. College Wesleyan Church is an inter-generational congregation in an academic setting that exists within a city that is economically and educationally strained. Steve shares the following words of wisdom with his preaching colleagues: One good person, doing one thing well, in one essential place, long enough can move the earth toward heaven.
Lenny: Your preaching context is unique. Tell us a bit about your preaching context. Who are the people sitting in your pews and how do you strive to preach to all the people?
Steve: You’re right, our congregation is diverse. We’ve got almost fifty couples who have been married 50 years or more; we’ve got several hundred students who are 18 and under; but our fastest growing population is the twenty-thirty year olds, like you. Like many congregations, we’ve become more ethnically and culturally diverse, too. And on top of that, our television ministry reaches hundreds who never set foot in our church. If I get stopped 10 times, during the week, by someone on the street who watches the sermon, eight of them will be blue-collar, lower-income people, and about six of them will be African-American. So yes, we’re very diverse and that presents some unique challenges. The key, I think, is in bringing together the peoples’ most pressing need and the Bible’s most appropriate text. The most pressing need is usually not the first need people admit to, nor the first one that sends the preacher to the text. It’s the real need, behind the other needs. For instance, our problem is not that we’re busy, nor even that we lack focus. It’s that we have confused the secondary with the essential. We have let someone else imagine, for us, a better life. We are not seeking the right things. That may take many different expressions – depending on one’s age or career or culture – but it is essentially the same problem. One’s status or income or education does not affect, one iota, their deepest, most pressing needs. So I try to preach to those and when God’s Spirit applies to them the most appropriate text, the impact of God’s Word is incredible. There is nothing more powerful than the Word of God let loose on raw human need.
Lenny: You started your sermon with the question, What is God like? You started with a theological question to frame your message. I have heard you preach on many occasions and it seems to me one of your preaching goals is to help people see what God is like. Some preachers focus so much on giving people life-application advice that they don’t say much about God. You, on the other hand, seem to be convinced that preaching is theological, that it should reveal something about God that actually reveals God in the moment the words are spoken. Is this theological preaching emphasis intentional or accidental?
Steve: It’s intentional. In my opinion, most sermons fail because, in the end, the preacher did not have anything interesting (or new) to say about God. Think about that! The heavens cannot contain him, yet a preacher can’t think of something interesting to say about him. How often is that true? Our congregation sends us up the mountain every week, to get for them a word from the Lord, and so often we come down with a handful of practical tips to make their lives a little easier. I don’t think that’s what they want. Yet we are so busy that we sometimes forget we are the resident theologians and the resident scholars of our churches. There is no one in our churches who knows God and theology; who understands grace and the human condition more than the preacher. I think our preaching must reflect that because our people will not go any deeper than our preaching.
Lenny: I have puzzled over your manner of structuring sermons. You are not typically a linear point by point preacher. Neither do you seem to be a pure narrative preacher who structures the sermon with the flow of setting, problem, plot, climax, and resolution. Once you develop all of the parts of the sermon and decide what parts will make their way into the sermon, how do you tend to structure the parts of the sermon for focus and flow?
Steve: Ha! Lots of people are “puzzled” over the structure of my sermons. Even me. I told this to one of my staff and they said, “Your sermons have structure? Really?” For me, the sermon moves through four stages, or four “shifts” (literally; you can watch the people shift in their seats as the sermon moves; look for it the next time someone else is preaching and you’ll see it). The idea, if I have it right, is to coordinate the movements of the sermons with the shifts in the congregation. They will tell you when it’s time to move on. It begins by (1) engaging people’s interest (the introduction and the all-important transition); then moves toward (2) deepening their understanding (where we explain the meaning and relevance of the Text). Then from there it (3) triggers their comprehension (this is the “aha” moment where they begin to see where we’re going; why we’ve brought all of this up; what we really want them to see and we begin to unpack some of the implications of this one profound truth on their lives). Finally, the sermon ends by (4) calling on their passion (this is where we ask for some kind of change, some practical response; this is the plea or the climax of the sermon). I think at this point we are seeking to do one of two things: Convict or inspire. And of course, we can’t do either of them apart from the Holy Spirit.
Lenny: You preach in a variety of contexts outside of the local church you serve as pastor. Does your preaching change, in terms of either content or delivery, based upon the context in which you’re preaching? If so, please describe those changes?
Steve: Yeah, the shifts are different. So the rate of delivering the sermon has to change. I was preaching to a couple hundred (non-Wesleyan) district leaders just last month and I noticed this in the first five minutes. I was ready to move on but the look on their faces was like, “Wait! Could you say that again?” So I started looping the sermon more. You know, taking longer to say the same thing and telling more stories to illustrate each point. Last week I preached to the Chairman’s Circle for our city’s Chamber of Commerce and it was just the opposite. Only one person there knew what Maundy Thursday was (Ha! I bet he was Catholic) so everything I said to lead up to the point meant nothing to them. They wanted the bottom line and they wanted it now. So I made my loops smaller, threw a bunch of material overboard, and cut to the chase. Seven minutes into the sermon I was already to the comprehension part. All that was left was the passion part. So I finished by saying, “What does power look like in your office? Do you use it to wash people’s feet or do you use it just to get something done? Why don’t you wash someone’s feet today and go do your secretary’s job. Let’s pray!” Fifteen minutes, man. It was a little long for the Catholic fellow, but the rest of them were happy.
Lenny: As a preacher and as a teacher of preaching you have influenced many aspiring and seasoned preachers. Is there a person, book, or experience that has profoundly influenced your preaching?
Steve: I read a couple preaching books every year. I learn something from each of them but there isn’t one that I would go to as the quintessential book on preaching. I’m about done with Steven Smith’s, “Dying to Preach” (great book!) and I’ll pick up Robert McKee’s “Story” after that. McKee’s book is not for preachers. It’s for script-writers but I think there is something to learn from that discipline. That goes for other disciplines too. As for mentors, I’ve spent much time with Dennis Kinlaw over the last 4-5 years. I visit him each time I’m in Asbury and spend a couple hours talking about theology and the Church. Dennis is almost 90, and still he moves seamlessly from Plato’s Republic (quoting it in Greek) to John Paul’s Theology of the Body, to Tom Torrence’s book, Incarnation, then he brings it right back to the practical and daily work of a pastor. Finally, I watch people while someone else is preaching. They will tell you when someone is interesting and when he is not. So I go to school on them while they’re going to school on you. And you’re pretty good, man.