For over two decades, Frank Harrington has stood before the congregation of Atlanta’s Peachtree Presbyterian Church. A widely-respected and admired churchman, Harrington is a gifted preacher who has led Peachtree to its status as the largest Presbyterian congregation in the nation.
Peachtree Presbyterian Church is located in the midst of Buckhead, an area of Atlanta which blends old Georgia with the New South. The church will host the 1993 National Conference on Preaching. Preaching associate editor R. Albert Mohler, Jr. interviewed Harrington in Atlanta.
Preaching: How do you envision the preaching task? How do you see that task week by week as you proclaim the Word at Peachtree?
Harrington: My own view is that preaching is the central task of the preacher. All else in ministry radiates from the effectiveness of the man or the woman in the pulpit. The pulpit is your best opportunity to be an evangelist, your best opportunity to be a pastor, your best opportunity to be a prophet. The pulpit sets the tone for the parish.
The preacher ought to consider himself as God’s chief dreamer in this church — as the standard to articulate the dream God has placed on the heart, so that preacher and people together can make the dream come true. That is the central task of the preaching minister.
Preaching: How does that vision of preaching inform what you do each week?
Harrington: I have been privileged to serve this church now for two-thirds of my professional life. I have been pastor here for twenty-one years and this environment has been encouraging. This church has encouraged me to articulate the dreams and hopes that God has laid upon my heart for these people. People and preaching always go together.
We have all heard the line that the preacher is invisible during the week and incomprehensible on Sunday. That is nonsense. The preacher must prepare, as Karl Barth said, with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. There is a profound truth there. If you’re not in constant touch with people, knowing their hurts, their hopes, their dreams, the rigors of reality in which they are living — you may find yourself in the pulpit answering questions no one is asking.
I prepare my preaching a year in advance — I know where I’m headed, I know what specific subject, topic and text that I’m going to be addressing on a given Sunday a year in advance. I actually write my sermon three months in advance so that I’m never operating under the pressure of next Sunday. That doesn’t work for everybody, but I work best when I’m not under the deadline of next Sunday. It also preserves my availability to people. I know that come Sunday morning, a lot of people will be in that sanctuary ready for whatever it is I’ve got to say. So I arrange my schedule to write ahead of time so that I’m never under the pressure of next Sunday.
Now if something should come up — like the War in the Persian Gulf — of course I interrupt my announced schedule to address that reality. I preached three Sundays in a row on sermons I wrote each week as we were moving toward that war. The Sunday after we were, in fact, involved in combat, I spoke to the situation that was on everybody’s mind. You have to do that from time to time. Events intrude upon any schedule. Human need knows no agenda.
I remember one tragic weekend in my second pastorate where two young men were killed under tragic circumstances and a third young man was critically injured and left with permanent disabilities. I knew that the entire family of faith that was represented in my church, their whole focus would be on those events. So, I changed my sermon that night and wrote a sermon on the great text, “Lord to whom shall we go, for thou hast the words of eternal life.” Events interrupt our sermons.
In preparation for preaching, I am away two months in the summer. In preparation for planning I will write seventy-five to one hundred people in this congregation and in the community – including people who I may have heard from through television — and ask them a simple question: “If you had the responsibility of standing in the pulpit of Peachtree Presbyterian Church forty-eight Sundays next year, what themes would you emphasize?” Then I print that letter on the front of the church bulletin a couple of times. Interestingly enough, when I first started that the responses just started trickling in. Now I get an avalanche of mail from a wide variety of people and sources, and I receive some most insightful ideas to develop.
Preaching: What is the method used for preparing your messages, once you’ve identified what they’re going to be? You often preach in series pattern.
Harrington: In the course of a year, I’ll have two or three series. I’ll generally have a series at Advent, a series again at Lent, and a series on relationships. That would be a major portion of my preaching. I have discovered that worship attendance is better during the series.
My series generally are centered on two realities: the part of the church year which is Advent and the part of the church year which is Lent, and then of course it is now an annual tradition here that I preach a series on relationships. But I cover a lot of territory in my relationships series. That series just ended with a service in which we renewed our marriage vows. But in that series on relationships I had a sermon on euthanasia because that’s an issue that’s in the framework of family relationships these days. I also preached a sermon with the title, “Is Any Sex Safe?” I cover a lot of territory.
In preparing to preach, I read widely and constantly. I read at least three books a week. I’ll read a biography, a best seller (both fiction and non-fiction, I read all of that). I read the books I know other people read. I read widely and I think reading is mandatory for the minister.
If a congregation was to ask me if there is any one essential thing they ought to do for a minister, I would certainly put high on that list: be sure that minister has enough financial resources to buy books, and help him to find the time to read them. I carry a stack of books with me everywhere I go. And you will see you can get in a lot of reading time. I read early in the morning and I read at night when I’m at home. But you look down at your watch, for example, and say “it’s twenty minutes until lunch time, no need to get started on anything.” What I would do is pick up a book and read, because I’ve always got my books with me.
Preaching: What kind of materials do you use in the actual preparation of your sermon? Once you’ve identified the issue, whether it’s a series or a stand-alone sermon; once you have identified the focal point, do you begin with a text? Do you begin with a topic? And once you have the two joined together, how do you work through the preparation and construction of the sermon?
Harrington: Well, it could work both ways. I may have a text that has just created an irresistable urge in me or I may have a topic that I’m thinking about, so I will find a text. I always begin with a text, and the first part of my preparation is that I read the text. I read it in several translations, and when I’m reading the text I’m just reacting spontaneously to what is there. If something hits my mind about this text I will jot it down in my spontaneous reaction. I may check the original languages in this verse, and then put it aside and come back the next morning. By the time I finish that exercise, I have three or four pages of handwritten notes. Also, I have one other thing: that is an emerging outline that has come out of that text. I have my outline before I ever consult any of the commentaries — that’s the second stage. Then I go to the commentaries. In my experience, if you go to the commentaries first, it stifles your creativity because you are fixed on what someone else has said rather than a spontaneous reaction. I think you ought to go to the text with as clear a mind and spirit as you possibly can. I don’t want someone else to force their vocabulary on me and my responsibilities.
Preaching: Your sermons shift from inductive to deductive reasoning — and vice-versa. Is that a conscious methodology or a formalized philosophy of preaching?
Harrington: It is all of that. I combine both modes of reasoning. Actually, I have a full manuscript in the pulpit when I preach. I think the preacher should discipline himself to write out a full manuscript. I have in that manuscript more material than I can preach in the time allotted, and there is something in the creative moment of delivery where you’ve got to delete some material. It’s in that creative tension that you respond to the needs of the people who are before you. That tension gives my preaching whatever vitality it has.
Preaching: You give a great deal of attention to sermon titles. How do you develop these titles, and how do they function in the context of a preaching schedule?
Harrington: I think one of the most crucial issues is what you call titles. It’s amazing — I get a lot of church bulletins. What astounds me is the number of church bulletins in which no sermon is announced. That is a lost opportunity! I announce my sermon topics six months in advance. I could announce them a year in advance, but I really work on that and I think that’s a very important opportunity.
Preaching: Your ministry at Peachtree has seen the church grow to an incredible size and influence. To what degree has preaching been the mainstay of your ministry?
Harrington: I think it’s been at the heart of everything we have done. That is not to say that I am the chief cause of it. You know, great people encourage great preaching. Many people say the preacher makes the church, but the very opposite of that is true. The church makes the preacher. I have been encouraged immensely by the members of this church to go into the pulpit and preach what God has laid on my heart. I have never had anyone suggest that I do otherwise, and the reason for that, I think, is because the prophetic and the pastoral must go together.
When I stand to preach it’s within this family of faith in which we love each other. Together we have known happiness and heartbreak, success and sadness, triumph and tragedy; and if you can’t talk about the things that are vital in this context, then where in God’s name can you talk about it? I think the prophetic and the pastoral always go together.
Preaching: You are the only preacher in Atlanta listed in the “100 Most Influential People,” published in Atlanta Business Weekly. To what degree does your role as a public preacher inform your ministry here?
Harrington: It’s interesting. Several people called me about that and several people mailed the article to me. That’s the second or third time I’ve been in such a list. I have thought about that a great deal and I think that whatever influence I have, it is a product of trying to be a faithful pastor to my people and a faithful witness for Jesus Christ. The influence that I have is because of the possibility that I may impact the people who sit in this church week after week after week, and through them impact this city. You see, the reality is that if I can influence the people who sit in the pews of this church to walk closer to Jesus Christ, this church can have a role in shaping the destiny of this city. That is both a great opportunity and a great responsibility.
Preaching: How do you construct your worship services around the preaching event?
Harrington: Worship here is designed to be celebrative. We meet every Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Worship is celebrative in nature and always invitational. It begins with an invitation and ends with an invitation, so that worship is uplifting and joyous and celebrative. We change certain elements in the worship service so that it does not become a matter of rote that we just routinely go through each service. There may be a creed in the service one Sunday and the next Sunday there may be a confession for sin and assurance of pardon, a responsive reading or a litany. There should be a creative tension operative there.
Preaching: You have a very large congregation but you seem to have a very strong personal connection with them.
Harrington: When I stand up to preach, I don’t look out at a mass, I look out at individuals. I look over there and I see a couple that I married five years ago and their two boys. I look over there and I see a young couple who are engaged, or I see a young man home from college or a young woman who just finished her medical training. I watched those people grow up, you see. I’ve been here now over twenty years. I’ve married many people who I had confirmed into the membership of this church — and I’m now baptizing their babies. It’s all like a great family to me and I want to see them each Sunday.
Preaching: How much is your length of tenure here a part of the effectiveness of your ministry?
Harrington: It’s a part of it. You become a trusted individual, which is a tremendous responsibility. I’ve had people quote back to me things I said five years ago. That’ll cause yu to stay on your knees! That’s certainly a part of it. I have a theory that there are no strong churches in the urban environment (and it may be true in any environment) where there is not a history of long pastorates. This church is seventy-two years old this year, and it’s had five pastors. I’m the only one still alive, but two of us of the five have served about fifty-four years.
It’s a continuity factor. Continuity is extremely important. This congregation knows that on forty-five to forty-eight Sundays a year, I’m going to be in this service at least twice every Sunday. Over a period of years, you build a great setting for the proclamation of the Good News.
Preaching: In observing your preaching, I would note the effectiveness of your Southern rhetorical style. How did you learn to preach?
Harrington: I knew I was going to be a minister before I was a senior in high school. My ambition was to be a lawyer and to run for governor of South Carolina. So early on as a school student I began to enter speaking contests and debate competitions. If you’re going to be a political figure, you need to be able to think on your feet and to articulate what your convictions are. When I look back I can see the hand of God in all that. An individual’s style must be authentic to who that individual is. One of the things people say to me is: “Oh, you’re not any different in person than you are in the pulpit.” That’s very important. It always astounds me somewhat. Why wouldn’t I be the same person? I think if you develop some sort of a phony stained-glass personality it doesn’t work … it won’t work long.
Preaching: At the end of the twentieth century, you hear the suggestion that preaching is passe, yet there is not a church of any size which does not feature a strong preaching ministry. On the one hand we see a renaissance of preaching, and yet other sectors of the church have given up on it. What is your message to the church about the importance of preaching?
Harrington: I will come back to where I began — preaching is the central task of the minister. My own judgment is that we are going to move into a tremendous era of renewal in preaching. I have on my desk right now five folders, several letters there from churches writing me, asking me to recommend them a minister. And those churches range in membership from about 350 to 3,800. All of them have one central issue: recommend someone who is an effective preacher. I think if you can create a caring environment in an uplifting worship environment and have standing at the center of that a person who can articulate the truth of God in relevant terminology, you would be hard-pressed to have a building big enough to hold the people.
You have to constantly maintain that time for preparation, and if the minister ever gets to the point where he or she is relying on what they did five years ago they will dry up spiritually. We must be constantly digging and grappling with the central questions, because that’s what causes us to grow and in our growth we can help our people grow.

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