BIO: Dr. Benji Kelley serves as the Senior Pastor of Newhope Wesleyan Church in Durham, NC, one of the most rapidly growing churches in North America. Thousands of people gather every weekend at one of newhope’s three campuses, including one that is online. Pastor Benji has been in ministry for 20 years and planted Newhope almost 10 years ago. He strives to “preach the text in a way that connects with people in the 21st century.”
Lenny: I so appreciate that you not only acknowledged Pentecost Sunday, the celebration of that day when the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 made the church the church, but actually focused your entire message on Pentecost. (FYI: Pentecost Sunday is June 12 this year). Megachurches like yours are often, as you know, accused of neglecting 2000 years of Church history and tradition to “do their own thing.” Your message proves the naysayers wrong. Do you consistently acknowledge high points in the Christian Calendar, such as the seasons of Advent and Lent? Why do you think it’s important for preachers to center their sermons on longstanding themes in the Christian Calendar?
Benji: Yes, I definitely refer to the Christian calendar and church history often. I think it is imperative for churches to ground themselves in the great history of God’s people. I believe one of the misconceptions out there is not only that mega-churches neglect these rich nuggets in the Christian calendar, but also that church history or seasons in the Christian year have to be presented in a boring way. I believe that is why many churches neglect some of these rich traditions. I really believe it is nothing less than a sin to take the greatest message and movement the world has ever known, namely the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church, and bore people to death. So, if a pastor decides to use the Christian calendar, I believe it is imperative that he/she do so in a way that is engaging, relevant, and enjoyable! I don’t believe we should become slaves to such things, but when appropriate, and led by the Holy Spirit, it is definitely helpful to remind ourselves that we are grounded in a long tradition and we are always better when we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us!
Lenny: A good sermon is a good sermon when it intersects with the needs of people in a particular congregational context. Simply put, an effective sermon in one context may bomb in another context. A solid sermon is one that artfully weaves together what God is doing in the biblical text with what God is doing in the preacher’s congregational context. How does your sermon reflect faithfulness to not only the biblical story regarding that first Pentecost but also to the needs, doubts, struggles, and dreams of people in your particular context?
Benji: I agree completely that a sermon may be very effective in one context, while potentially bombing in another. However, when asked to craft this particular sermon for the Wesleyan Denomination, I tried to make sure it had a wide appeal and potential in various contexts. I am not sure if I succeeded, but that was my goal. In doing so, I chose a popular passage of Scripture that, I believe, possessed nuggets of truth inherent in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and therefore, I believe applicable and relevant for any church context. Sure, different contexts might call for personal stories by the pastor and homiletical structuring relevant to a church’s particular context, but the signs of a healthy church that I try to lift out of the biblical text in this sermon, I believe, are universally relevant and can be preached in any setting.
Lenny: You could have had more passion in your communication of this message…just joking! I’m not sure you could have preached with more passionate energy than you demonstrated. I imagine you preach with this level of passion often, but what about this particular message elicited such passion in you. In other words, what was bubbling in your soul underneath the surface of your words?
Benji: Yes, I have often been accused of being passionate. I just can’t help myself. I was really lost before God found me and I have never known anything but “All In”! In addition, anything related to Pentecost and the people of God being an Acts 2 Church fires me up beyond words. I truly believe that if you cut the church body, we should bleed evangelism. I believe that is what Acts and the New Testament for that matter are about. When you think about it, it is quite remarkable that a motley crew of disciples, who often had a propensity for putting both feet in their mouths at the same time while totally misunderstanding Jesus more often than not, were actually changing the world through their passionate belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Because of their bold commitment to live out the Gospel message of Jesus, while unapologetically and passionately sharing that Good News with others, the spiritual landscape of planet earth has never been the same!
When I started newhope nine years ago, the very first sermon series was titled, “Do it again, God.” It was a sermon series grounded in Acts Chapter 2 with the simple prayer of asking God to do it again. I am just foolish enough to believe that if God could do what we see happening in the book of Acts 2,000 years ago, then He can do it here and now. That has been one of our heartfelt prayers throughout the newhope journey!
Lenny: One of the high points of your message, and perhaps the most bold, was your stress on how “grace happens.” You mention several scenarios in which grace can and must happen- for those who have been incarcerated, who have had abortions, and who have had affairs, to name a few. That was a powerful moment, I suspect, for many at newhope. In our preaching, we seek to offer “grace and truth” (John 1:14) without diminishing either. How can preachers learn to balance “grace and truth” in our preaching?
Benji: Well, I believe you hit on the key word when you said, “Balance.” It really is a balancing act that we preachers have to come back to time and time again. Unfortunately, we have all experienced churches that lean too far one way or the other. When you find a church that is all about truth, everybody is carrying their big Bibles and their heads are full of knowledge but, quite often, these folks are not building redemptive relationships with lost people and therefore, their churches are not reaching people with the Gospel. On the other side of the spectrum, we have all experienced churches that lean too far towards grace, with no real commitment to biblical truth. In those churches, you often find a kind of pseudo-Christian experience, rich on fellowship, warm fuzzies, and secular/liberal agendas, but lacking in salvations and real life change. It seems to me that both extreme experiences are missing the mark and the call of Christ.
This is one of the things I love most about Jesus in the Scriptures. In John 1:14, we see that He was the perfect embodiment of unbelievable grace and yet held a firm commitment to truth. In doing so, I believe Jesus modeled for us the way the Church should operate in a culture desperate for both grace and truth. When a church truly starts to get this tension right, and a pastor preaches with this kind of balance between the two, the Church becomes the most beautiful movement on the face of planet earth. There is nothing like the Church when she is operating faithfully amidst this tension between grace and truth.
Lenny: In a rapidly growing, busy church like newhope Wesleyan, how do you carve out and guard your time for sermon preparation? How much time, on average, does it take for you to develop the sermon? What are some key steps in your sermon preparation process?
Benji: That is a great question, and one that I am often asked. The two words we just discussed above come to mind – namely tension and balance. This is a never ending struggle but one that I work really hard to manage. Instead of trying to describe how this works for me, maybe my schedule will help more than anything:
Mondays – I am in the office all day with usually no sermon prep. I often tell people, I am not even a Christian until noon. Just kidding, of course. Seriously, though, I don’t know what it is like for other pastors, but I can tell you that the “holy hangover” is a very serious reality for me. As a result, Monday mornings usually consist of whispering with the lights down low and having lots of quiet time alone. By Monday afternoons, I am in nonstop meetings.
Tuesday – I don’t go near the church and usually put in somewhere around 8 to 10 hours of uninterrupted sermon prep in my study at my house. I intentionally stay away from the office for all sermon prep. My staff do a good job of trying to respect that time and not interrupt the process.
Wednesday – Executive and Senior Staff meetings all day at the office.
Thursday – I spend the morning hours back in my study at the house, ideally, putting the finishing touches on my sermon. By 1 pm, I am rolling into the church to encourage staff and engage various other meetings.
Friday – Sabbath Rest
Saturday pm Hours – I spend this day in prayer, making final tweaks to my sermon, memorizing the sermon, getting focused etc…for Sunday morning!
If you add all that up, I typically put in anywhere between 15 – 20 hours in sermon prep each week. To be honest, it is both an exciting and grueling process.
I often tell people that the hardest part of my calling is preaching week in and week out, which is one of the reasons I am regularly trying to increase the number of guest speakers and other pastors on staff who can teach/preach. This year, I will preach somewhere around 43 to 45 times. My goal is to eventually get to 37 to 39 times a year. Since I hope to serve newhope a long time, I try to envision my leadership/ministry as a marathon and not a sprint. As such, I am trying to create a pace that will enable me to serve the beautiful people of newhope for the long haul.