Zack Eswine, senior pastor of Riverside Church in St. Louis and author of Preaching to a Post-Everything World, joins Urbana Seminary for our annual Preaching Forum on March 4.
Here he shares with us in a very honest, inviting and insightful way about his spiritual journey.
What pastor/preacher has had the greatest impact on your life? How so?
The pastor/preachers that have had the most impact on my life are local. Dr. Bob Smart has apprenticed me in life and ministry, love and forgiveness. He preaches and I taste a sweet sense of prayer and of God. Jerram Barrs has offered friendship, invitation, frightening gentleness and hospitable presence to those he serves. When he preaches I experience a tangeable expression of Jesus’ presence. Dr. David Calhoun has preached quietly and steadily while living with cancer for years. With quiet exaltation he bids us to look up off of ourselves to the steadfast love and majesty of the Lord. I suppose, I hear the sermons of men such as these through the aid of their lives. I see something of both their sorrows and their rejoicing when the pulpit mic is turned off. This makes the moment of their preaching shine all the more to me.
As it relates to preaching I’ve also greatly valued the writings of Augustine, Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd Jones, Robert Smith Jr., Tim Keller, Calvin Miller and Bryan Chapell. The writings of Eugene Peterson have greatly aided my concept of the pastoral vocation.
Since those years ago when you transitioned from serving as professor to serving again as the pastor of a local congregation what has the Lord been teaching you?
Humorously I can say that I actually thought that it was a humble thing in Seminary to let someone call me “Zack” rather than “Dr. Eswine.” Being in the pastorate again reminds me that human beings often call each other by their first names. There is nothing uniquely humble about it! In the small church that I serve folks care very little whether I’ve written books or preached all over the place. What matters to them is that I pray for them, seek to live alongside of them, confess my own need of Jesus along with them, and point them to Him from the word in a way they can understand. Likewise, as a professor I could play to my strengths more. People almost always encountered me at my best–in a pulpit preaching, in a classroom teaching, in my study advising. In contrast, a church this size forces others to encounter my weaknesses, sins and limits much sooner. We get to learn to do life together warts and all.
What first got you interested in writing a book on preaching to a “post-everything” world?
First, my life had changed so much that I began to wonder if I could reach who I once was with the gospel. Second, the cultural landscape of America continues to change rapidly. Many of us will preach in contexts with people who do not know, understand or have experience with the Bible. Third, I wanted to account for these realities in the context of the preaching curriculum at the Seminary in which I was teaching. These personal, cultural and curricular concerns forged a desire within me to write the book.
What has helped you most in faithfully preaching the gospel while still connecting with a post-modern, but ever-changing, audience?
Trying to get to know my neighbors, listening to my kids, being honest about my own human dilemmas and trying to pay attention to the local questions and answers that people are asking and offering. I also value access to other pastors and apologists who are actively trying to preach Jesus from the Scriptures while paying attention to our cultural moment.
Given your recent book, Sensing Jesus, what advice can you offer your fellow pastors that you yourself wish you had been given?
God heard your prayers before you went into the ministry. He walks with you, not because you are a pastor, but because of Jesus. Therefore, the greatest challenge you might face in ministry is to try to act like you are something other than a human being. In truth, you read the Bible with coffee breath and preach with toothpaste breath. This means paying attention to the power you lack. People will demand that you be God for them or praise you for trying. But only God can fix everything, know everything and be everywhere at once. You needn’t repent because you can’t fix it all, know it all or be everywhere for all. If there is any repenting to do it is for our attempts to try knowing everything, fixing everything and being everywhere for all–in other words, it is for our old edenic attempts to try and be like God. This also means paying attention to one’s place. There are no little places. In order to reach the world for Christ someone has to make it their great ambition to reach the folks on the corner of Kirkham and Rock Hill in Webster Groves Missouri or any and every other place–no matter how small or large.
Finally, almost anything we value in life requires a marathon not a sprint. But almost everything around you teaches you that success equals doing large things, in a notable way as fast as you can. This sprinting way of life values impatience and haste–two values that the Bible equates with folly. The pastorate requires us to learn how to cultivate small beauties slowly over a long period of time. This is Jesus’ way with each of us after all! Jesus possesses the grace to show us how to get somewhere by staying put. Pastors and congregations desperately need this grace.