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Preaching and Parables: An Interview with Darrell Johnson

June 14, 2016
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"The goal of preaching is to bring people into the text so that they meet the Jesus of the text."

Darrell W. Johnson is the former Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Regent College. He served for more than thirty years as Preaching Pastor for churches in Canada, the United States, and the Philippines. He continues to teach as a sessional lecturer at Regent College in addition to serving as Director of the Centre of Preaching at Carey Theological Institute. This summer, Darrell is teaching The Parables of Jesus at Regent College from July 4-8. Amy Anderson sat down with Darrell to discuss his passion for preaching, his love for parables, and his upcoming course.

You’ve been teaching at Regent for a long time. How did your relationship with the College first develop?

I was called to Regent in the fall of 2000. Over the first decade of this century, I taught widely in the MDiv focal courses: preaching, Christian education, pastoral care, re-evangelization of the west, a couple of advanced preaching courses, and some Bible courses.

What inspired you to go back into pastoral ministry?

While working at Regent, I guest preached at First Baptist Church several times. At various times of transition the church approached me about coming to be their preacher and I said no, but in 2009 they prevailed upon me that this was the right thing to do. By that time I felt that in order to stay fresh in both preaching and pastoral care—all the pastoralia—I needed to be more engaged in the life of the church. Ideally, I would have liked to just preach at First Baptist and keep teaching at Regent, but a large church like First Baptist requires more of a senior minister than just preaching. So I concluded that I needed to do ministry full-time to do it well.

What did your time at First Baptist add to your understanding of pastoral ministry and to your teaching?

Well, I was a pastor from 1970 to 2000, so I had 30 years of pastoring ministry by the time I started at First Baptist. I pretty much knew the lay of the land, but I found that pastoring in downtown Vancouver was a whole different challenge. We were up against issues I hadn’t had to face before, new challenges—how the church was going to grow and operate in that kind of context—so I learned a lot. I especially learned that I have a whole lot more to learn!

When you say you’re pastoring a downtown church, people assume that it’s a place of decay and crime, that the challenges are all about social collapse. But downtown Vancouver is in the midst of all these high-rises. It’s a whole different ballgame. You have no access to people in their homes, because you can’t go knocking on apartment or condominium doors. So how do you reach out? How do you do evangelism in that kind of place?

What inspired you to make the transition back into academic teaching?

It became clear to me that I no longer had the capacity to keep up with all the responsibilities that come with being a senior minister. I can preach until I die, I think, but a pastor doesn’t just preach: there are other responsibilities. And I could see that I couldn’t keep up with them. In August of 2012 I had a heart attack, and then at Christmas of 2015 I had a stroke. So it became clear it was time to step down from that kind of demand and pressure.

As I was processing the decision to step down, the leadership at Carey began to ask what I was going to do afterward. I said, well, my burden is encouraging and empowering preachers. So they put together a Center for Preaching and asked me to start it. I’m also teaching courses for Regent: the core course on preaching and other courses during the summer term.

Your course at Regent this summer is on Preaching the Parables of Jesus. How do you deal with the challenge of preparing people to teach the parables well?

I think, first of all, we have to understand what Jesus is doing in choosing this mode of teaching. He doesn’t only teach in parables: he has his discourses. There’s the Sermon on the Mountain and all those theological discourses in John. So he doesn’t only teach in parables, but parables are his primary way of teaching.

So: why? Why this way? In order to be effective communicators of Jesus and his gospel, we need to understand why he chose to communicate his gospel in these parables.

Do you have a favourite parable?

I do: Luke 11, the parable traditionally called “the parable of the friend at midnight.” As you know, the person in the parable receives a guest at midnight, needs to put some food before the guest, goes to a neighbour, and asks for help. And the traditional interpretation is that the man who is being asked for help says, “My children are in bed, go away, I can’t help you,” and that Jesus says, “Because of his persistence, he wore him down.”

Well, understood in a Middle Eastern context, that’s not what’s going on at all. The parable itself is in a question form, asking: “Can you imagine a man receiving a guest at night, going to his neighbour, asking for help, and being told, ‘the door’s locked, my kids are in bed, I cannot get up and give you anything’? Can you imagine that?” And in Middle Eastern culture, the answer is no. It’s impossible!

The Western interpretation says that because of the man’s persistence the man in the house gets up and gives the asker everything he needs. But we now know that “persistence” is not the right translation. It’s shamelessness. The man inside doesn’t want to be shamed. He doesn’t want the word to go around the next morning that somebody came asking for help to extend hospitality to a visitor and he didn’t help.

What Jesus is saying in that parable is this: can you imagine going to God the Father in the name of God the Son and asking for help, and being told that the door is closed? And the answer is no, because the Father is “shameless.” Because he will not bring shame on his name, he will get up and give you everything you need.

That’s my favourite parable, because of the character of the Father that Jesus reveals. And right on the heels of that is the parable of the prodigal son.

What do you hope your students will get out of the class? 

First, a greater admiration for Jesus as a teacher. I’d like the students to go away saying, “Nobody is able to communicate so much truth in such apparently small ways as Jesus of Nazareth.”

Secondly, I hope they go away with a greater appreciation for context: both the historical context within which Jesus speaks and the particular context within each of the gospels. Luke records certain parables because he has a certain orientation in his gospel. Matthew records other parables because he has another orientation. I hope students leave appreciating what each of the gospel writers is doing with the whole of his document, why the parables are placed where they are in each gospel, and the implications of that for interpretation.

I would also like them to leave with greater assurance as they preach a parable that they’re preaching it faithfully. And, finally, I want them to really embrace the portrait of the Kingdom of God and of the God of the Kingdom that Jesus is developing in each of the parables.

You’ve been preaching for many years. What, for you, is the core of a good sermon?

I believe that every text of Scripture in one way or another is pointing to Jesus. I take a Christocentric reading to the whole Bible. So a sermon on any text is successful to the degree that it points to the Jesus who is being revealed in that text.

A sermon is also effective as it opens up the whole of the text for people. I think of each biblical text as another room in this big house called “reality as it is in relationship to the living God.” Every text takes us into another part of that reality. The job of the preacher is to bring people into that space in which we encounter another aspect of who Jesus Christ is. Put another way, the goal of preaching is to bring people into the text so that they meet the Jesus of the text.

Want to hear more? Join Darrell Johnson's class, The Parables of Jesus, from July 4-8 at Regent College.

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