Pastor John, you recently preached at Passion 2013 in Atlanta in front of 60,000 students, a conference so large it was held in the Georgia Dome, the home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. As I was watching your sermon back home via the live stream, I have been wanting to ask you, what was it like to preach in front of 60,000 students?
First of all, it is not just what it’s like to stand in front of them — and really you are only standing in front of about 30,000, because in that big bowl you have your back to most of them. But first of all, you are up in the box where we eat, and you are looking down, and I am just blown away by the laser show and sound. This is the biggest, most fancy production I have ever spoken into.
And they asked me if I wanted to go down on the night I was speaking and sit by the stage. So I went down there while they were practicing, standing about 30 feet away from the speakers. And I said, “I don’t think I can do this; I think not.” So, I did not even sit down there. It was not that it hurt my ears (my ears are 67-year-old ears; they do not hear much anyways). It was what it was doing inside my chest. The magnitude of this sound just made me so tense that I had to go back up to the top.
So the first thing is just a massive sense of intimidation: This is big. This is loud. This is amazing. This is beautiful. This is well done. And how in the world can I speak into this? So it is a big intimidation factor.
A Providential Reminder
And, providentially, what the Lord did for me is they asked me to speak to the leaders that Thursday morning, before I spoke in the evening. So I got to speak to a couple thousand leaders of the students in the morning – a “little” group. And I gave a 20 minute talk to them from Matthew 6 on anxiety:
Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air…Consider the lilies of the field…Your heavenly Father know that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you…Tomorrow will be anxious for itself (Matthew 6:25-34).
And I presented them eight arguments from that text why Jesus does not want us to be anxious. And I said, “You know why I am doing this, don’t you? I am anxious! I am anxious about tonight, and I want you to pray with me.” So this, I think, is the answer to your question: “What is it like to walk the stairs, and wonder ‘Can I do it?’ ‘Am I going to get through it?’” I am reciting to myself Jesus’ words. I am listening to Jesus tell me, “I love you. I will be with you. My Father will care for you; he will meet your needs.” I am just preaching promises to myself. So that faith in future grace — meaning the next 45 minutes — is going to be there, and I am going to trust it to be there.
And this time I made it even harder for myself, because not only do I feel some of that age-old nervousness creeping up inside me but I resolved that I would start my message by reciting the entire fifth chapter of Revelation from memory. I would not even look down. That was my prayer: “Lord, I am going to do this, and I do not ever want to look down. I want to look right at the students and recite to them the entire fifth chapter of Revelation from memory to capture the beauty of the worship that we have just sung and to lead into my talk on suffering.”
So, I made it even harder for myself. And all afternoon, sitting in my hotel room — or rather, pacing back and forth in the hotel room — I am reciting this to myself and just praying, “God, please, if it would be your will, let me complete this without stumbling. But if I stumble, then I will assume that it is worth it, because you are going to encourage some student that ‘even John Piper stumbles’ or something like that. So, I will just trust you.” And God was so, so kind for me.
Distinctive Features of Large-scale Preaching
You have preached in a lot of large gatherings before. Was there anything inherently different for you, on stage, as you were preaching at Passion?
Not inherently different. You know, once the crowd is so big that you cannot see them anymore — and that would begin at 10,000 maybe, depending on how the lighting works — it does not matter much anymore, it seems to me. So, nothing intrinsically different. I just think the intimidation factor grows because the whole thing is run with so much more rigor.
There are 30 people around you fixing your microphone, and cameras are everywhere. It feels like you are in a big technical pool, which can be very threatening to your own soul. But that is really not unique to 60,000 — anything that gets big is going to have that kind of pressure.
Afterwards, when you were done with your message on suffering, what was going on in your mind? How did you process the preaching event?
I came out of it not feeling very good. You know, I once heard Don Carson say that when he is done, he generally feels like he blew it. And when I was done with that message, my first thought was: it was too short. I did not earn my pay, and I did not fill up my time. And that really bothered me, because I was so worried about going too long since they had warned me, saying “There is going to be two big clocks — you have forty-five minutes.” And I do not think I took anywhere near forty-five minutes.
So the devil kind of tormented me all through the evening with that. And you always kind of second-guess some words you use or emphasis you made and wish you had said it a little different. So I just have to labor to lay that down and say, “God, it is done. I did what I could do. I pray that you would take it and use it.”
Faithfulness Over Famousness
Pastor John, what would you say to a pastor or a speaker who sees you preaching before 60,000 people and they feel drawn to that. There is a layer maybe of glamor to it all and they aspire to preach on a platform of that size. What would you say to them?
“My job is just to speak the truth faithfully in love in whatever situation.”
“That is a very bad desire.” That is what I would say. It would be bad for me to desire glamor and notoriety and celebrity. What we want is to have an effect on people’s lives for the glory of Christ, wherever we are. For example, this morning I was at a prayer meeting with twelve people. Now, in that setting, I want to pray with those people in a way that encourages those twelve people. That is what God will smile upon and bless.
In the moment with the ministry God’s given you to do, are you doing it with all your might, and are you utterly devoted to him and to the good of those people? That’s what a pastor should aspire to. Let the crowds and the size and the ripple effect be his. Always try to say, “God, I am going to drop this pebble in this group — whether it’s a little group or a big group — and I want the pebble to be a Bible pebble, a passionate pebble, and I ask that you would breathe upon that. Just blow upon the water so that the ripple of my little pebble dropping, now blown upon by your Spirit, would become a wave that breaks upon these 60,000 or upon these twelve.” My job is just to speak the truth faithfully in love in whatever situation.