Jan. 22, 2021
Professor Don Sunukjian is known for his preaching classes at Talbot School of Theology — his passion for excellent preaching cannot be missed. Nor can his standards for what a superb sermon looks like, which is one of the reasons Sunukjian has become an internationally recognized pastor and sought-after teacher.
With regularly teaching and preaching across the globe, more than 25 years teaching at the university level, and 14 years experience as a senior pastor, Sunukjian brings a wealth of practical knowledge to the classroom. He’s authored and contributed to numerous books on preaching, including a textbook on preaching with clarity and relevance: Invitation to Biblical Preaching.
Sunukjian has been tied to Biola University since his childhood. Growing up, he attended Church of the Open Door, a church founded by Biola’s founders in 1915. Sunukjian returned to his roots and began teaching at Talbot in 1996.
Biola Now asked Sunukjian about his keys to writing a good sermon and a new program he is overseeing at Talbot — a new master’s degree program in preaching and pastoral ministry.
Can you share a bit about your journey to becoming a pastor and how/when you knew or felt called to be a pastor?
One Sunday in an eleventh grade Sunday School class, the teacher made the offhand comment, “Some of you ought to consider serving the Lord full time.” Though I was headed toward an engineering career, I remember thinking, “Now that’s an interesting idea.” When summer came, I was a counselor for two weeks at a children’s camp in the mountains. On the Saturday when the busses were taking one group down the mountain and bringing another group up, I had some free time. I spent a couple of hours sitting against a tree, praying. And that’s when the Lord’s direction became clear — I would be a pastor instead of an engineer.
That was a big change. What about that summer transformed your heart so deeply?
Early that summer I had run for the presidency of Key Club International, at the national convention in Washington D.C. I had promised God that if he allowed me to be elected, I would witness for him in all of my travels and speaking engagements at Kiwanis Clubs during the next year. But I was soundly defeated. As I talked with the Lord about this humbling defeat, he used it to draw me into a life-time of witnessing for him.
What is one of the most impactful and best pieces of advice a pastor has offered to you?
“Being a pastor is the best thing for your own spiritual life.” While that may not be ‘advice,’ that observation spoken at dinner by a former pastor who was back at seminary getting a doctorate, has proven true over and over again. God uses the situations and experiences of being a pastor to remove your immaturities and sinful tendencies, and to make you more like his son. For me, one example of this would be how God used declining church attendance in my first pastorate to address my prideful ego, and to compel me to decide whether I was ministering for his glory or for my own.
What is your process when writing a sermon?
I start by translating the passage from the original language of Hebrew or Greek, making observations as I go. Then I read the best relevant commentaries and journal articles available. After 6-8 hours of this kind of intense study, I’m ready to form my sermon outline, including the contemporary connections of the truths to our lives today. I then manuscript the entire message, working hard to make the language ‘oral’ instead of ‘literary.’ The final step is to rehearse it several times so that I can internalize it, and preach without podium or notes.
How did you learn to stay with the intense study required for every message?
I set aside the morning hours every day to work uninterruptedly in my study at my home. I didn’t go into the church office until after lunch. The stamina to continue this over the years came from the weekly refreshing God promises to those who take a ‘Sabbath rest’ from their work; every week I took one complete day-off from anything connected to my ministry work.
What is one of the most unexpected challenges you've had as a pastor?
The most difficult challenge is hearing someone say, “I know the Bible says that, but . . .” It seems to me that if we believe the Scriptures are the words of God, our attitude should be, “I know the Bible says that, therefore …”
Lastly, what advice would you offer to a young pastor?
Never short-change the rigorous study, hard work, and extensive hours necessary for good preaching. Every nationally famous and effective preacher commits 15-20 hours to each message. Never stint on that. God and his people deserve our best efforts.
Written by Jenna Loumagne, media relations specialist. For more information, contact Jenna at (562) 777-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
media [dot] relations [at] biola [dot] edu