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What Makes A Great Preacher?

By Austin B. Tucker
As the story goes, on a Sunday night a young pastor was driving home, his wife beside him. It had been a busy weekend at the church. The Sunday night sermon had lasted longer than usual since the preacher felt unusual liberty and unction in the pulpit. They drove in silence for some miles, he with his thoughts and she with hers. Finally, he broke the silence, "You know, Sweetheart, there are not many truly great preachers in the world today."

"True," answered the very weary wife, "and probably one fewer than you think!"

What makes a great preacher? As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so opinions may differ on great preaching. In history, however, some preachers are clearly pulpit giants. There seem to be certain qualities that set a few preachers head and shoulders above the rest. What makes the difference? Here is my list of ten personal qualities that great preachers tend to have in common. See if you agree.

Great preachers are persons of great personal integrity before they are great pulpiteers.

Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), an early contributor to the Yale Lectures on Preaching, defined preaching as "truth through personality." But what did Brooks mean by "personality"? Is this what turns an actor into a star? Is this what helps a politician win elections? Is personality what makes a preacher popular? Brooks used the term "personality" for that mix of qualities that makes a preacher what he really is — not just what he appears to be. He was talking about the true person, not just the persona.

Brooks had in mind especially issues of personal character. Some people have argued that the character of a minister is incidental to his work, including pulpit work. Phillips Brooks challenged that view. The personal character of the preacher matters. Indeed, it is a priority. The preacher's task involves persuasion of the mind, emotions and will. We are more willing to believe good men. The preacher must be a person of integrity. Truly great preachers, as distinct from famous (or notorious!) preachers are servants of God, with Holy Spirit anointing.

Historian Ralph Turnbull wrote the third volume to complete Dargan's A History of Preaching. In it he declared Brooks as "the living example of his own ideals and counsel regarding preaching. Character is the principal thing in making a preacher." Brooks had compassion for the poor of the city as well as the affluent who flocked to hear him preach. Children loved him because they sensed that he loved them. The carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem" he wrote for the children of his church while on a trip to the Holy Land.

Brooks took a courageous stand on social and ethical issues of the Civil War era and afterward. In a time when Unitarianism and Darwinism were so strong, especially in New England, he held to all Thirty-Nine Articles of his Episcopal church. A fitting monument was erected in his memory in front of Trinity Church in Boston, the scene of his last and greatest pastoral ministry. It is a statue of Brooks standing in his pulpit with his open Bible. Standing behind the preacher (who himself stood six feet, four inches and weighed about three hundred pounds) is a larger-than-life Christ with his hand on the preacher's shoulder.

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