Editor's Note: This is the third in a new interview series. Each interview asks the same five questions of great preachers in the pulpit today.
Mark Labberton is the Director of the new Ogilvie Institute of Preaching at Fuller Seminary. This innovative program is bringing together worship, preaching, and justice through a multitude of resources for students and preachers available online, at conferences, and in preacher formation groups. He has published two books, The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God's Call to Justice and The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor: Seeing Others Through the Eyes of Jesus, that have helped many move further into God's love for the world.
In his work as a pastor for twenty-five years and now as a professor and writer, Mark has held a graciously prophetic role, calling those in evangelical circles to a greater concern for justice and calling those in progressive circles to go beyond a list of tasks to being transformed by the God of justice.
To me, Mark is a pastor, mentor, and friend who walked with my family through painful days, who kept my mind and heart connected to scripture through seminary, and who has made time to listen and reflect with me on life, ministry, and vocation. I have learned from Mark that it is possible to lead a community that is diverse theologically and politically and to do it with humor, grace, humility, and authenticity.
Listening to Mark preach for several years gave me a curiosity about his preaching. He preaches without notes, at a quick pace and with great intelligence, humor, and candor. Learning more about his process helped me understand how that happens and also discover a very different way of preparation that extends into a five-year plan. While many may not take quite such a long view of their sermon preparation, Mark challenges all of us to see our preaching as an extended conversation with a community and to marvel at the mystery and authority of our journey to incarnate the gospel through preaching.
This coming May 5-7, the Ogilvie Institute will be hosting the first in a new series of conferences in partnership with International Justice Mission, "Mighty Waters: Preaching and Living God's Passion for Justice," in Pasadena, California. Information on this conference and the many other projects underway at the Ogilvie Institute can be found at OgilvieInstitute.org.
What has been your journey as a preacher?
I grew up outside the church, so my impression of preachers was that they were people who attended to a very small world with obsessive care. That had less than no appeal to me. My dad was a modernist, a scientist, a skeptic of the church. His fear was that religion shut down people's minds and their life in the world. I brought that bias to my reading of the gospels and I was so surprised by Jesus. Nothing could be less true of Jesus. The gospel became huge news to me, it was cosmically encompassing, so how could it be so minutely represented?
When I had been a Christian for about two years, my mom's pastor came to visit me because my mom told him I had had a religious experience. Assuming I would be a pastor, he said to me, "I've just finished a Doctor of Ministry that compared the pension plans of all the major denominations and I want to tell you which one has the best pension plan." Silly me, I thought I had begun to know the God of the universe and it turns out it was about pension plans. That felt like the exact thing my father had feared, and yet I was having this experience and encounter with God in Jesus that was so different than the domestication of the gospel I was experiencing from this pastor.
My whole sense of the gospel and preaching has been this tussle: Is it a big gospel or is it a small gospel? Is it a gospel that ultimately gives an account of the universe or is it a gospel that's just about a pension fund? So one way of tracking my journey is following my desire to become a preacher who would preach a big gospel, because that seemed like the gospel I was encountering in the gospels.