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Preaching Through Their Defenses: An Interview with John Ortberg

  • Michael Duduit
  • Updated Feb 10, 2010
Preaching Through Their Defenses: An Interview with John Ortberg

Since 2003, John Ortberg has served as senior pastor of the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California. Prior to that, John spent nearly a decade as a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church. But most of us likely know John best from his best-selling books.
Preaching editor Michael Duduit recently visited with John to talk about writing and preaching.

Preaching: First, let me say that you have some of the most creative book titles around—like Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them and If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat.
Ortberg: They tend to kind of write themselves as the books come along!

Preaching: You've recently published When the Game Is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box. I heard you speak recently on that topic. Explain what is behind that title.
Ortberg: Actually in some ways it's really ancient. There were manuscripts back in the Middle Ages that compared life to chess. They said, "Pawn or king—they all go back in the same bag." But the particular metaphor that I talk about, I had actually heard used first by James Dobson. It reminded me of playing Monopoly with my grandmother back when I was a kid. She was this ruthless Monopoly player. She would always win. She understood that money's the name of the game. You've got to acquire everything. I would always lose. I'd have to give her all my money and get really depressed and disappointed.
And then one summer I played all summer long with a kid who lived in my neighborhood, and I gradually learned what it took to actually win at the game. I was finally able to defeat my grandmother—my moment of great glory—until the final lesson came: when the game is over, it all goes back in the box. All the houses, all the hotels, Boardwalk and Park Place, all that money—everything is going back in the box. That really is sort of the central metaphor for the whole deal of life.
We get messages from the media, from ads, from school, from our peers that life's about nothing more than trying to become master of the board. That money is how you keep score. It will give you identity, make you secure. And there are very bright people who play the game really well. They only forget this one small detail: that the game is going to end; and when it ends, it all goes back in the box.
So the book really is about how I live life wisely in light of this one inescapable fact that a lot of really bright, gifted, capable strong, smart, clever, people forget, which is our mortality. It really is a way of talking about mortality and eternity that can kind of sneak past people's defenses. Almost everybody I know wrestles with this stuff or they have a son or a daughter or somebody they love who's too busy or who's a workaholic—wrapped up in the wrong kind of stuff—and they just need to be awakened to what they know really matters.

Preaching: How does that resonate in the life of a pastor?
Ortberg: First of all, just for the pastor as a person. All of us are tempted to devote our lives to climbing the ladder. If I'm working at GM or Apple I might keep score—in fact I have a whole chapter in the book about how we keep score—by salary, income, that kind of stuff. With pastors there's still that temptation to keep score by comparing ourselves with other pastors. "How big is my church? What do I get invited to do?" All of that kind of stuff. And none of those things are necessarily bad things; but if they become idols, they can just kill us. I think they're a part of why, for all of us in pastoral ministry, it's easy to feel discouraged, depressed or inadequate if things aren't going well, or pumped up and grandiose if things are going pretty well.
So pastors—as much as anybody, and in some ways even more—need to be reminded not to keep score the wrong way. We need to be reminded of what really matters, that life really is being rich toward God. I know when I first started in pastoral ministry, one of the thoughts in the back of my mind was: Well, at least one of the benefits is that I will have spiritual maturity thrown in. And of course, none of us do. You don't have to be in the game very long before you realize we all face the same temptations as anybody else. In some ways it is just a little more pernicious because it can be more subtle, or we don't talk about the temptations, or we can't talk about them as openly and honestly.

Preaching: Even as young pastors, we're taught to count nickels and noses. That's how you tell who's winning.
Ortberg: Yes, and part of the difficulty is that if I'm pastor at a church and attendance plummets by 90 percent, maybe I am doing something wrong. It's not a bad thing to keep track of that. If people are coming to Christ, that's a good thing to keep track of. And money can do good things. So it's important to be realistic about that stuff. An appropriate awareness of them is good. But they cannot be allowed to dominate my identity, my sense of well being. They cannot become God in my life.
The other thing I'd say for pastors is that as you think about preaching on these issues, we have to find ways to get past people's defenses. In a sense what this book is saying is, "We're going to die, so don't be an idiot." But if you just walk up to somebody and put it that way, they're going to tend to get a little defensive about it. So we have to find ways that we can communicate very basic, deep truths to people who are heavily defended against them.

Preaching: You served several years at Willow Creek—an affluent, suburban community outside Chicago. Now you are in the Bay Area of California. I'm guessing that Menlo Park, although culturally different from suburban Chicago, still has a lot of the same kind of folks—successful professionals and others who are not particularly interested in listening to discussions of their own mortality.
Ortberg: There was actually an article in the New York Times with the headline "Millionaires Who Think They're Not Rich," and it was about Menlo Park/Atherton/Palo Alto where we live right now. The housing is just so outrageous. There's an 850-square-foot house not far from our church that just sold for a million dollars. And one of the guys quoted in the article said, "You know, out here with 10 million dollars you're nothing." That was the quote: with 10 million dollars you're nothing. Well, how much does it cost to be something?
But once you get on that treadmill it becomes so overwhelming to you that you can't see it's possible to get off that treadmill. All you can think of is, "Can I run faster? Can I run harder? Can I make more?" It just dominates people to such an extent that they really cannot see there's the possibility of life beyond the treadmill.

Preaching: What are some things you try to do in terms of preaching and teaching with such an audience? What are some things you do to try to get past those defenses?
Ortberg: I will try any vehicles I can think of to get folk's attention. One time I just had ladders set up all over the place—up on stage, in the sanctuary, out on the campus—so when people would come they would see all those ladders. The whole message was about climbing the ladder and about how Jesus, instead of being a climber, was downwardly mobile, as we would put it. The problem with spending your life trying to climb the ladder is you're likely to go past Jesus on His way down. So I try to find ways visually, try to find stories, try to have people tell stories, playing out the contrast.
Let's say you devote your whole life to making more. Where is that going to lead? Paint the picture. If you devote your life to being generous, where is that going to lead? Paint the picture. I'll use any ways I can to get underneath the surface.
Then the other big thing for us as preachers—it's so tempting for me to overestimate what will happen if I just say something. You know, preaching is very powerful and very important, but generally transformation requires experience and action, not just preaching. And so to try to hook it up—like we do one weekend a year where we cancel all of our services. We call it "Compassion Weekend." We have everybody just go out and serve all around the Bay. And people will go on adventures where they actually take action or experience something or get to know somebody who is poor. That makes a much bigger difference in their life than listening to 20 sermons could.

Preaching: Hearing goes so far, but experience...
Ortberg: And tying them together—that's one of the great things about preaching. You can lead people to experience, but I have to remind myself of that because otherwise I'm apt to think, If I could just tell it in a powerful way, that's going to make changes that this by itself won't.

Preaching: You mentioned the use of the ladders, the visual images and the story. How important are those kinds rhetorical tools to communicate with today's listeners?
Ortberg: Part of what we wrestle with is that attention spans keep getting shorter. On television and in movies, the editing cuts keep getting briefer. The sound keeps getting louder because people are losing the capacity to focus their attention. The ancient Greeks had no word for boredom. And even in the English language it's a fairly recent word with the concept that it has now.
I would have thought that people living 2,000 years ago would have been bored out of their minds. What did they do? There were no computers. There were no podcasts, no movies, nothing. But precisely because of that fact they were able to focus their attention on streams of thought for long periods of time. They did not require external stimulation to carry their attention. The whole dynamic of boredom is a fairly recent occurrence precisely because we have gotten so used to offloading the marshaling of our attention to television, movies, radio, podcasts, computers—whatever it is. Our attention muscles, if you want to think of it that way, have gotten really, really flabby.
So as a preacher I have to be aware of that, and I have to try to find ways that I can use visual cues—anything that can help. Like last weekend at our church, we were talking about saying "yes" to God. So I just had a big easy chair put up on a platform. I got a volunteer to come up from the crowd and put slippers on his feet, gave him Ovaltine and a Twinkie and a remote control. We had one of our vocalists sing a lullaby to him, put the lights down and then just asked everybody, "Does this look like a man who's ready to spring into action? If God comes along and asks him to do something really hard, does he look like he's ready to sacrifice?" And that image of life in a chair is such a strong one. For a lot of us, that's what we're really after—comfort, safety, security. But you were meant for something more than life in this chair. Then it becomes a short-hand way of referring to a way of life that enables preaching to pack a much stronger punch than if you just tried to describe it with words.

Preaching: You preached at Willow Creek for years, and now you're in California. I'm sure you had some culture shock when you made that transition. Was there any pulpit shock?
Ortberg: Yes, there was. You know, at Willow Creek the messages were probably typically 40 or 45 minutes. Menlo Park was kind of a typically Presbyterian church in that the sermons were typically 20 minutes. Well, that's not even an introduction. So we kind of compromised, and I usually preach 30 or 35 minutes there. But a piece of it was to kind of walk the church through "this is my understanding of how preaching works, and this amount of time would be helpful for folks" and to have to think about it myself.
The other piece probably was that there's a bigger age range at Menlo Park. We have folks from 106 all the way down the ladder. So probably the easiest place to preach nowadays is to start a church and have everybody be exactly the same age because then you can know that your references—not just biblical references but culture references or more often pop culture references—will be picked up by everybody. And that can be kind of fun, but you can also exclude folks who are not part of that pop culture.
Willow intended to be a boomer church, although it's 30-plus years old now, so the split there now is much bigger than it was. When it started in 1975 you could safely assume everybody had watched "Saturday Night Live" the night before, and everybody knew what Chevy Chase or Dan Akroyd had said. Even at Willow that's changed a fair amount now, and at Menlo the change is that much broader.

Preaching: That's interesting because a lot of the newer churches, the new church plants, are more narrow demographically. They are niches, whereas the typical pastor of a traditional church doesn't have that focus. Are there some intentional things you do to be sure you include the broad range of listeners?
Ortberg: Well, one of them is you have to not assume. Like you can't assume biblical literacy, you also cannot assume pop culture literacy. So if I'm going to talk about a movie—let's say I did something out of Princess Bride—I will work to explain that and not assume that everybody knows it. Whereas if I was at a different context I might assume that almost everybody knows it. So I think you can still use a lot of material, but you just have to do it without assuming that everybody's familiar with it and give it enough context so that somebody who wasn't familiar with it before can get on board.
The other piece is that every congregation has stuff that it will resonate with. You don't know for sure until you preach with that congregation for awhile. It may be a football team, or it may be stories that you tell about your kids. It may be that in a particular congregation something that's tender touches their heart in a unique way. It will be different in every place. Part of what a preacher has to do is to have a radar to be watching for that all the time.

Preaching: You write some excellent books that have great insights for the Christian life. Do most of your books come out of sermon series?
Ortberg: It's a funny thing. The short answer is "no." I've always wished they did. I've always kind of envied some people who'll do a sermon series and turn it into a book. For me, they inform the books; but the books are much more a cut-and-paste job from other stuff. Actually for the first time now I'm working on a book on faith and doubt. I did a sermon series on faith and doubt, and it's not like each sermon becomes a chapter. But it's the first time I've done a whole series where I was able to think, research and then move from that into the book. It's been a great experience—very stimulating.

Preaching: Do you normally preach in series?
Ortberg: I do preach in series. I think it's just the best. You can just do a lot more research and thinking and tie stuff together that way.
At our church right now we're doing a series called "Open Doors." And we're getting to launch a couple of multi-campuses. So the vision is taken from an image that's used a lot in the New Testament, but especially from Colossians 4 where Paul says, "Pray for us that God may open the door that we may proclaim the gospel boldly as we should." And so we're going through six weeks on God opening doors for our ministry.

Preaching: Do you consider yourself more expositional or thematic? What's your approach to preaching?
Ortberg: I love different styles of sermons. One of my pet peeves is when people will talk about homiletics or sermons and they say, "Here's the one structure that you ought to use." When I think about preaching that has touched my life or I'll talk with other folks, any kind of structure you can imagine has been used by God. So I actually love the variety of different styles. I love to teach the Bible. I love to study the Bible and to teach it in creative ways, so sometimes I'll get extremely immersed in a text. I love life, and sometimes I'll find an image or metaphor that hits life issues real strongly, and I love to talk about how does God want to address fear or courage or faith or something like that. So I would feel deprived as a preacher if I were straight-jacketed into just one style each week.

Preaching: What do you enjoy most about preaching? And what do you find to be your biggest challenge as a preacher?
Ortberg: What I enjoy most about preaching is when I stand before a congregation and it feels like God is at work. I feel like I'm listening to the congregation, and I'm trying to discern what's going on. Do I need to slow down for a moment? Do I need to speed up? Are they ready for a challenge? I'm trying to listen to the Spirit. It's hard to put into words, but I feel like every cell in my body is alive and at work. But it's not labored. It just feels fully, fully alive.
The hardest part is when that's not happening. I'm talking, and it's not connecting. It's not working, and it's laborious. And my armpits know it's laborious, and my adrenal glands know it's laborious. And I feel guilty, and I feel semi-ashamed. God, what am I doing wrong? Has my spiritual life slipped up? And I want to go slink away. (Laughter)
And both of those things can be happening on the same platform, sometimes in the same message. There's no exhilaration like it when it feels like God is using you, and there's no pain like it when it's not connecting.

Preaching: If you could give counsel to young pastors, what would you advise them to do as they are early in the ministry?
Ortberg: Early in the ministry I would say be as ruthlessly honest about whether or not you have the spiritual gift of teaching. You know, it's an interesting thing—I loved seminary and had a great seminary education. I place a high value on theological reflection, theological education. But I think one thing that often doesn't happen in seminaries, and maybe it can't, is to help people find out whether or not they have the spiritual gift of teaching, preaching.
Folks who do [have the gift] will find out because they will find that they have a love to study Scripture. They love to think about how to communicate it. They have a good radar for a congregation. They will get feedback from a congregation—"God has used your preaching to change my life, to put a marriage back together." They have an internal affirmation from God about how they're being used. People who don't have [the gift] or have it to a lesser degree won't have those kinds of things going on.
So be ruthlessly honest about it. If you don't have the spiritual gift of teaching, don't teach. Do something else. It will be really painful for you to admit it, but better pain for a few months than 40 or 50 years of pain for you and a congregation. If it's in your gift mix but not the top gift, maybe you need to preach once every two or three or four weeks. Make sure you're part of a team so you don't have to do it all the time.
If it is your primary gift, hone it. Devote yourself to it. Teach a lot. Get really good feedback from people who you know and love who will talk to you honestly. Get tapes of messages and listen to people who are really good preachers and teachers. Read about it. Experiment with it. Just keep honing it. Don't neglect your gift by thinking, "Well, there are other parts of pastoral ministry I'm not too good at, so I'll spend more time shoring up my weaknesses." Don't do that. Just hone it, hone it, hone it.

This article originally appeared on Used with permission.