Don Sunukjian: How I Preach

March 17th, 2014| Topic: aBeLOG, How I Preach | 24

Don Sunukjian: How I Preach

Don Sunukjian: And this is How I Preach

[I’m happy to present Don Sunukjian on How I Preach. He has been in ministry for close to four decades now and has left an indelible mark on evangelical homiletics, including that taught at Dallas Seminary, where he was a prof in the 80s.]

Donald R. Sunukjian
Professor of Preaching
Chair, Department of Christian Ministry and Leadership
Talbot School of Theology, La Mirada, California

Current gig (preaching, teaching, etc.) and years at it:
Teaching preaching at Talbot for 18 years.
Just finished an 8-year pastoral stint at Armenian Christian Fellowship of Orange County, Costa Mesa, California.

Most used English Bible version:
New International Version.

Use of Greek and Hebrew (light/moderate/heavy):
Heavy Greek, moderate Hebrew.

Current computer(s)/device(s):
I’m still a “paper guy.” But I love my MacBook Pro!

Who or what made you want to preach?
The off-hand remark of a Sunday School teacher in an 11th grade class that “some of you ought to consider full-time ministry,” followed by a “call” while counseling at a summer camp before my senior year in high school, set the course of my life. Dr. J. Vernon McGee, of the Church of the Open Door, modeled what an impactful ministry for God could look like.

One word that best describes how you prepare to preach:

One word that best describes how you preach:
Several words vie for mention. I hope my preaching is perceived as “engaging/interesting,” “relevant,” “clear,” “deeply-felt,” and “thoroughly biblical.”

Who are you most indebted to for making you the preacher you are (besides God)?
Haddon Robinson. I took every class he offered at Dallas Seminary, plus some independent studies. He shaped the initial focus and approach of my preaching.

What tools/aids for sermon prep can’t you live without?
The most recent exegetical commentaries. Lexicons. Interlinears. Parsing guides.
I subscribe to New Testament Abstracts and Old Testament Abstracts and mark significant articles that I look up later if I need to, during sermon preparation.

Illustrations: Where do you go for them and how do you store them?
I’m not real big on illustrations that are outside the living experiences of my listeners. While these may be interesting, they first of all seldom add anything to the understanding of the biblical concept, and more importantly, they don’t help the listeners see how the concept actually shows up in their lives. I prefer to use scenarios from their daily experiences. These have the advantage of concrete and contemporary relevance.

Average numbers of prep hours per sermon?
15–20 hours.

What’s your best time-saving trick?
I don’t know many shortcuts to good preaching. Obviously, doing a book series allows early study of background and overall argument/flow to suffice for several sermons in the whole series.

What time of the day are you most effective?
I’m a morning, pre-dawn, person. I get less productive around 4:00 pm, and seldom attempt any serious work after supper.

Tell us your sermon-prep routine:
First stage: original language text plus an interlinear and parsing guide—making notes on white paper.
Second stage: stack of commentaries and journal articles—reading and entering notes on the computer.
Third stage: blank white paper—developing the outline and flow of the message.
Final stage: computer—manuscripting.

Any props used regularly in sermons? PowerPoint? Handout?
PowerPoint for maps, chiasms, or other unfamiliar literary structures, and to quickly access verses not part of my primary passage. Any props that help visualize the message are fine with me. No handouts. These tend to preoccupy people rather than joining their heart with my heart around the passage. My goal in preaching is not for the listener to remember an outline (which I forget myself in a few days), but rather to engage with the Take-Home-Truth as it connects with their lives.

Who critiques your sermon, besides yourself?
In my early days my wife often made helpful suggestions.

How has your preaching improved over time?
My understanding of the skills of oral clarity grew after I’d been teaching at Dallas Seminary for a few years, listening to 15–20 sermons a week! You begin to notice some glaring deficiencies. Once I was able to pin those down, they obviously became a fixture in my own preaching.

What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else?
Packing a car for a vacation trip. Squeegee-ing a car window.

What do you listen to while you work?
Nothing externally. Hopefully the Spirit internally.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
An introvert. One-on-one conversations are satisfying, but I’m drained by social group-schmoozing.

What are you currently reading?
I’m reading whatever commentaries are contributing to my preaching. I try to keep up on all the homiletical books coming out. Occasionally a non-preaching religious book will capture my attention. On vacation, I go through several “beach reads.”

What’s your sleep routine like?
Being an early-morning person, I never know what’s on television after 10:00 pm.

What do you wish you had learned when you were in seminary?
I’m grateful for the great preparation I got at Dallas Seminary. Obviously no education can provide the wisdom and experience that can be gained only through years of ministry.

Exercise routine?
For decades I played racquetball at least twice a week. Now I walk 2–3 miles most every day.

Spiritual disciplines?
An occasional fast.

Favorite food?
I’m ethnically Armenian—‘nuff said.
But I guess I haven’t met a cuisine that I didn’t like.

What you do when you aren’t involved in preaching-related activities?
I have 5 married children and 16 grandchildren—the birthday celebrations alone fill in my social calendar, to say nothing of holiday gatherings.
I take one complete day off every week. My wife and I often go to Disneyland (we have season passes) or to the beach to walk on the pier and have lunch. (I know, I know, it’s a rough life, but somebody’s gotta do it.)

Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _____ answer these same questions.
Abe Kuruvilla. 🙂
[Editor’s note: Alright, alright, one of these days ….]

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
In my senior year in high school, I encountered Dr. McGee in a hallway at the Church of the Open Door. I asked him, “Dr. McGee, what advice would you give a young man who was going into the ministry?” His abrupt answer: “Develop a thick skin, brother!” As the decades unfolded, I learnt that was good advice.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Who could ask for a better life than to be absorbed with God’s Word—studying it, presenting it, and hopefully living by it!

[For the archives of this series, How I Preach, see here.]


  1. Michael Karpf June 18, 2014 at 11:40 am

    I am reading Dr Sunukjian’s book, An Invitation to Biblical Preaching. I’ve already implemented some of his suggestions (using scenarios from the backgrounds of my listeners instead of illustrations). There is much food for thought in his book. But as he said, the goal of preaching is when you’ve finished your sermon, you and your listeners will all be able to conclude, “Look at what God has said to us.”

  2. Grant Paschke April 10, 2014 at 9:47 pm

    My wife said that if she knew that someday in our future that we would be able to go to Disneyland as much as we wanted she would die of happiness.

  3. Len Sunukjian April 3, 2014 at 11:46 pm

    Even though I have known Don for almost 71 years (I am his brother) I learned a few things about him I did not know.

    He is a good man – a godly man whom I respect greatly!

  4. Bret Avlakeotes April 3, 2014 at 12:58 am

    Your preaching classes at DTS were among the most memorable and helpful to me in ministry. God has used you and is using you now.

  5. Rick Griffith April 2, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    Interesting thought about giving listener notes. I always do this with a two-page outline containing about five fill-in-the-blank words and ending with thought questions for personal study. Dr. Sunukjian brings up a good point, though, that our goal is life transformation instead of remembering an outline. My intent in giving notes is to make the points clear, ultimately for application, but Dr. Sunukjian is correct that it could actually work against life change. We must be careful.

    I also use from 40-100 PowerPoint slides per message and upload them to my website at for listeners and other preachers to use. We live in a visual age where I find that good visuals help sustain interest. It’s nice to see God use varying types of preachers, though—and Dr. Sunukjian is my favorite preaching prof ever!

    • Abe Kuruvilla April 2, 2014 at 7:20 pm

      Don is de man!

      Thanks, Rick, for your comment and sharing your preaching habit.

      One of these days, I’m gonna have to write a book on the theology of the voice (of the preacher), and how everything else can be a distraction in the sermon. As I age, I am, like Don, abandoning more and more of these adjunct elements, and learning the power of preaching with just me, the Bible, the listeners, and the Holy Spirit. Yup, Theology of the Voice sounds like a good title!

  6. Michael Norten April 2, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    I still remember Don’s sermons that I heard over 30 years ago. They still ring in my mind. He is an awesome preacher!

  7. David Gough April 2, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    Dr. Sunukjian was one of my favorite profs at DTS. I loved his classes and couldn’t wait to hear him preach in chapel when his time came around. I still have cassette tapes of some of his messages and get them out from time to time and listen. Thanks for sharing this with us. Is this part of a regular series on the DTS website? If so, how can I access previous interviews?

    • Abe Kuruvilla April 2, 2014 at 2:03 pm

      David, thanks for your comment.

      This series is on my personal webpage, but I’ll try to announce each new installment of this series, through Alumni Services at DTS.

      To catch earlier installments: On top of the Don Sunukjian post, right under his name, there is a heading “Topic,” and right next to that is “How I Preach” in orange. That is how I have tagged all these posts. Clicking on that orange link will pull up the previous two as well. Of course you could go to my homepage (clicking on logo or on “HOMILETIX”) and browse through all my offerings!


  8. Jesse Northcutt April 2, 2014 at 11:53 am

    Thanks again for this helpful blog! I had Don Sunukjian for several classes at DTS before I graduated in ’81. I also enjoyed his preaching when he spoke in chapel. It’s great to see how God continues to use and shape him in his current situation.

  9. Matthew March 18, 2014 at 7:15 pm

    Abe, You recommended Haddon Robinson to me when I asked you for a good homiletics textbook. Today I listened to a sermon from a Dallas Seminary grad. I was impressed with his delivery and asked him for his recommendation, and he, too, named Haddon Robinson. With the same recommendation from Don Sunukjian, I am going to make this the next book on my reading list. Thank you for this blog! I look forward to more.

  10. Forrest Weiland March 17, 2014 at 10:10 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed the interview. Thanks much for the practical questions and answers on preaching. I’m looking forward to seeing both of you in November!
    Forrest Weiland

  11. Keith Ferguson March 17, 2014 at 10:07 am

    Great stuff, Dr. K. Keep them coming!

  12. Imanuel Christian March 17, 2014 at 9:08 am

    I liked his last comment: “Who could ask for a better life than to be absorbed with God’s Word—studying it, presenting it, and hopefully living by it!”

    There is not a day goes by when I have not though the same!! What a blessing it is to be in the Word every day, all day!!




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