Minister and author Max Lucado has written a lot of books. Well, that’s an understatement. According to his publisher, he now has 100 million products in print, making him the most widely-read Christian writer on the planet. But behind the publishing juggernaut is a gentle man with a quiet voice, a pastoral heart, and a tender affection for the local church. His latest book, Max on Life: Answers and Insights to Your Most Important Questions (Nelson, 2010), is a series of questions and answers gleaned from his years at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas. Drew Dyck talked with Max about responding to tough questions and the best uses of a pastor’s authority.
Your new book, Max on Life, is intensely pastoral. You’re responding to people’s problems and fielding their questions. How have the questions you’ve received over the years shaped you?
They’ve been extremely formative. I can’t overstate their importance. I love the church. I honestly do. I love this little pond that God’s given me to fish and oversee here in San Antonio.
There is that time after services, where you’re just greeting one person after another after another. And about every fourth or fifth person will have a question, sometimes a difficult question.
Typically there’s not a lot of time to chat, but I’ve realized that truly hearing people’s questions is every bit as important as the sermon. So I lock in on that person, and I try to, for those few minutes that we have, hear that question as deeply as I can.
I pretend nobody else is in the foyer. It may be my only chance to hear this person’s heart. These questions have meant a lot to me. They seem to stick in my memory vault. Then they will work their way into messages in the future. Remember that guy who asked me about divorce? Or that person who wondered if it’s all right to play with an Ouija board? They just seem to surface. Yes, questions have been tremendously helpful for me.
Questions about God’s goodness, even his existence, have been raised by popular atheist authors. Do pastors today have to be philosophers? How do you deal with those really tough questions?
We have to be ready to respond to what people are hearing throughout the week. Most people, however, don’t want a complicated response. My goal is always to keep the cookies on the lower shelf, to keep the answer accessible. Most of the books on a pastor’s shelves are too complex for what people want. My main job is to distill an understandable answer that people can take home.
People want pastors to bring a frame of reference to conversations that is biblically-based and God-centered.
There are some exceptions to that. Every church has some people who are extraordinarily intellectual. But 90 percent of the people are saying, “I prayed that God would heal my father, but he still died. How am I supposed to process that?” That was a real question that someone asked me yesterday.
So for three minutes I tried to gently suggest that sometimes God doesn’t do what we want, but he always does what is right. I didn’t try to get too philosophical. She just needed somebody to reassure her.
Some pastors, like Tim Keller or John Piper, are different than I am, and they excel at reaching those deeper thinkers. I listen to their sermons, and they’re just at a different level. And I think that’s phenomenal. I’m so grateful for people like that. I speak to folks who don’t dwell at that altitude.
When a person first asks you a question, are they just testing to see if you can be trusted?
Yes, a person’s first question isn’t really the question. Their first question is kind of like tossing the tennis ball into the air. It’s a practice swing. They’re just testing to see if I am listening to them or not.
So I make a habit of following up the first question with a question of my own: “Can you give me an example of that? When did that last happen to you? What effect has that had on you?” When I do that, I find that I hear them better.
If I answer too quickly, my odds of providing a good answer diminish. Sometimes people don’t want an answer; they just want to be heard. They just need to get something off their chests.
I heard a counselor once say, “Try to find the question behind the question.” That’s good advice for pastors. Even when people come at you and they’re a bit antagonistic, I’ll sometimes be so bold as to say, “Now, what’s the question behind this question? What do you really want to talk about?”
Are you generally tempted to answer a question with too little information or too much?
Probably with too little information. Even this morning I was reflecting on yesterday’s services and conversations. I was thinking, Oh, I wish I’d said this. I wish I’d said that. I could have done a better job of giving practical solutions.
Sometimes people come to you with such huge issues, even in casual settings. I’ll be in the grocery store and somebody will come up and say, “I’ve got to talk to you about my father, who just got put back in rehab. What can I do?” I think, Wow, this is not the time.
Often I will say, “I really want to put you in touch with the right person for this question.” That’s been a helpful phrase for me. It implies that I may not be the right person. Or I’ll say, “Call my office tomorrow. Let’s talk about this on the phone, and we’ll see if we can put you in touch with the right person.”
That keeps me from pledging an eight-week counseling commitment right on the spot, which I’m probably not best qualified to do. I know I wouldn’t do as well as other people would. Pastors can’t take on every problem and solve everybody’s need.
What does it mean to be a pastor with people’s questions? Do people view you as a representative of God, or more as an empathetic friend?
They’re asking me questions because they believe God has told me something. And of course I know that’s not always the case. But they’re asking because they think I will bring a frame of reference to this conversation that is biblically-based and God-centered. So I really want to do that. When people ask me questions, I find myself praying: Lord, is there a verse I can give here? Is there something I need to be especially sensitive to? And if a verse comes to my mind, often I’ll just quote that verse.
My wife is exceptional at this. When people come and ask her for prayer, she doesn’t do much more than quote a verse or two, and then she’ll start praying. She’ll say, “Now don’t be anxious about anything, but by prayer and supplication make all your requests known to God.” The person may not realize she just quoted a verse. She doesn’t say, “I’m about to quote to you Philippians 4.” But that’s a very effective way to minister. So I’m learning from her, and trying to do that more.
You don’t need a huge arsenal of verses. Maybe six or eight verses that you’re very familiar with, and that you are comfortable reciting. For instance, every preacher should be ready with Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Or Psalm 23. Those should be part of our vernacular. What a gift those verses can be in difficult situations.
When people come with questions, they reveal a glimpse into the state of their spiritual life. Do you feel obligated to inquire about their spiritual condition?
Yes, I do. That’s why I usually follow up their question with a question of my own: “How’s this affecting you?” “Do you feel close to God these days?” or “Is this discouraging to you?” That helps me see where they are. So many people come to us because they’re angry at somebody. So you’ve got to feel that anger with them for a little bit, but then say, “Now, if you really try to get even with them, is that going to solve this problem?”
You may need to say, “Sounds like your biggest challenge is to forgive.” At some point every angry person has to deal with forgiveness and turning things over to Christ. Sometimes you have to speak firmly and clearly about that aspect of being a Christian.
How does pastoral authority apply here?
The first thing that comes into my mind is when we find ourselves giving counsel to an individual who is about to make a decision and we are trying to urge them down a particular path.
We no longer live in a day in which the pastor is given authority just by virtue of the title. That change is probably good for us. Now we must earn the authority to speak into someone’s life.
By nature I’m a pretty gentle person. But when I have seen our church members head down the route of divorce, or head into a career that’s going to take all their time away from their kids, I feel within me a burning, a passion rising, and I’ll warn them directly. And I reserve terminology for times like that: “Now, brother, I want to offer some counsel and to talk to you as a pastor.”
How do people respond?
They respond well. They may not always agree with me. But I think they respect it. Part of that is that I’ve been here since 1988. Some of that comes with time. But even as a young pastor, we have to take Paul’s words about not letting anybody despise our youth. We are called to speak into people’s lives. The Holy Spirit is leaning into us, counting on us to speak truth to people. In those one-on-one settings, that’s absolutely essential.
Sermons provide a wonderful opportunity to be the voice of authority in someone’s life. It’s not a one-on-one setting, so they don’t feel quite as threatened or defensive. But in a sermon we can speak direction into someone’s life. I’m doing a series on grace right now. I’m concerned about the person who thinks, Okay, grace gives me license to sin. The Romans 6 question: “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” So in one sermon, I said, “If you’re thinking these lessons on grace are giving you permission to do evil, consider yourself corrected.” And I just stopped. I let that sit for about 30 seconds. I think that’s effective—just giving a firm word like that. “Consider yourself corrected.” I’m really not an in-your-face kind of preacher. I’m more pastoral and gentle. But one of our privileges is to speak against bad thinking.