W. A. Criswell is one of the best-known biblical expositors in the evangelical world. He recently celebrated fifty years as pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, the largest congregation in the Southern Baptist Convention. (Billy Graham is his most famous church member.) He continues to serve that church as senior pastor, although his primary ministry focus has now shifted to his work as chancellor of Criswell College. He was recently interviewed by Michael Duduit, editor of Preaching.
Preaching: You have been preaching for sixty-eight years. What have you learned about preaching over the years, and has your preaching changed during those years?
Criswell: As I grew up, every preacher I ever heard preach was a topical preacher. Every one of them, even the great ones that are famous. They were topical preachers. When I had been out of the seminary about five years or so, I started expounding the Scriptures — preaching expositionally, exegetically. And for all the years that remained I have followed that pattern.
For example, in Dallas I preached eighteen years through the Bible. I started at Genesis and where I left off Sunday morning, I picked up Sunday night. Where I left off Sunday night, I picked up the following Sunday morning. For eighteen years I preached through the Bible. And as I went on, I got slower and slower and slower. If I had preached as slowly at the beginning as I was doing at the end, I would have been there a thousand years preaching the Bible!
Preaching: Describe the expository preaching that you do.
Criswell: I study the text and try to learn all the things that enter into the passage. Then above all, I find in my studying a message that is pertinent to that congregation and I always preach toward a verdict. I think that is the purpose of preaching: to change that life, to win that soul, to turn those people in the path of a Christian ministry and dedication. And the sermons all take that form. I never preach a sermon without a drive toward that ultimate appeal. I have been in Dallas fifty-one years and I have never had a service there but that God has given us a harvest. That is one of the miracles of this modern time.
Preaching: During your years in the pastorate, did your week have a pattern in terms of sermon preparation?
Criswell: I studied! I tell preachers to make the announcement to your people that in the morning you want to be left alone with God. Don’t you call me, don’t come by to see me, don’t expect me to be a part of any kind of committee or program. In the afternoon, I’ll do any work of the church. In the evening, I’ll attend meetings. It was important for me to have my mornings devoted to study.
I would always try to have the sermon prepared by Friday. Beginning Friday and Saturday I would be with God as I get it in my heart. I was just seventeen years old when I started my pastoral work. I got down on my knees before the Lord and said, “Lord, I am going to preach without notes and I am going to depend upon you to bless my memory, so that when I stand up there to preach I won’t forget or stumble.” I was terrified when I started doing that. What if I were right in the middle of the sermon and came to the third point and couldn’t remember it, couldn’t recall it? What would I do? It would be embarrassing beyond description. But I trusted God for it. And to this day I have never forgotten; I have never stumbled. Once in a great while, I might have a moment of difficulty in recalling that third or fourth point, but I just keep talking and in a moment or so it will come back to me.
I do preach with an outline, and I have a way of writing it down. I take a sheet of typing paper, and I fold it. I preach down the front of it and then in my mind I turn the page and preach down that second page. Then I cross-over to the third page and preach down and then cross-fold it and come to the fourth page and I preach on that. I follow that every sermon.
Preaching: Do you carry that with you into the pulpit?
Criswell: I may put it in my pocket just to have it, but it is always in my pocket. It is never out; I never exhibit it. It is never in my Bible or on the pulpit desk.
Preaching: As you preach, you make frequent reference to the original language of the text, particularly the Greek language of the New Testament.
Criswell: I suspect the beginning of an emphasis like that came during my years at Southern Baptist Seminary. I took Hebrew under John R. Sampey and Greek under A. T. Robertson and Hersey Davis. Robertson died while I was there. And that has been a part of my background in the expounding the Word of the Lord. I look at that text and those words and there are so many profound revelations that God has placed in that Word that just reacting to an English translation does not appear ample. It is very important that the preacher look at that inspired Word itself and then expound the meaning of it to the people.
Preaching: Were there any preachers who particularly influenced you as a young minister?
Criswell: As I was growing up, I never heard an expository preacher. Every preacher I ever heard was a topical preacher. My predecessor in Dallas, the great George W. Truett — the greatest Baptist preacher we have ever produced, president of the Baptist World Alliance, president of the Southern Baptist Convention — Truett was a topical preacher. He never preached an expository sermon in his life. He never preached an exegetical sermon in his life. I grew up in Texas when Truett was the prince of all preachers and everyone who I heard growing up was a topical preacher.
I have looked back over the years and tried to recall when I began expounding the Scripture — not preaching topically but expounding the Word of the Lord. It happened when I was pastor in Muskogee, Oklahoma. And for the life of me I cannot recall what happened in my life that turned me into that kind of a pulpit minister. But in Muskogee, started expounding the Bible and I have been doing it ever since.
Preaching: What do you think has been the result of that kind of an approach?
Criswell: When I went to Dallas, after I was there for maybe a year or so, I made the announcement that I was going to preach through the Bible. I was going to start at Genesis and go clear through to the Revelation. You never heard such prognostications in your born days! The deacons gathered around me and said, “You are going to kill the church. People are not coming here to see somebody preach on Zechariah or Zephaniah or Haggai. We don’t even know where it is in the Bible and you are going to destroy this downtown First Baptist Church.” I said, “We are going to preach the Bible and we will just see what happens.”
We had a problem, I don’t deny that. But the problem was you couldn’t get in the church house. That is a big church, you know. And they jammed it and that is when I started having two services, both about the same in size. I just expounded the Word of God going through the Bible.
Preaching: After you finished those eighteen years, did you develop a new preaching plan?
Criswell: There were books that, as I preached through the Bible, were interesting to me. I went back and preached meticulously through those books. For example, I preached through the book of Ezekiel, through the book of Daniel. I preached through Matthew and Acts and Ephesians, Galatians and James and just a whole bunch of them — did one after another.
Going through the Bible, especially at the beginning, I would preach five or six sermons on Genesis and like that — just taking large sections of it. But as I went along, I got slower and slower. Instead of taking a whole piece, I would take a small portion of it.
Preaching: As you prepared Sunday by Sunday for preaching, tell me a little about your reading.
Criswell: Because of the amount of time I would spend in preparing that sermon and getting it in my heart and getting ready to preach, practically all of my reading and studying were concerned with building that message. I take about four or five magazines and I read a daily newspaper, of course, and I would read a few books along the way, but those were exceptions. They were not the general course of my studying. My studying was almost always in the area of expounding that Word.
I have about seven thousand volumes in my library and they are arranged according to the Word of God and the Christian expansion in the world. Let me tell you the greatest homiletical discovery I ever made. I took a wide margin Bible and on the side of that text I would write the number of the book, hyphen, and the page upon which the discussion of the sermon was found. And I just gave a number to those books as they came into my hand and put them up there in my library. From the first page to the last page of that wide margin Bible there are thousands of messages and sermons and expositions that you can turn to with the snap of your finger. Then, of course, I have many volumes of Bible commentary. The library is full of books of literature and then there is a section of doctrine and a section of history and a section of missions.
Preaching: Do you have any other kind of filing system to keep illustrations and other resources?
Criswell: I started off doing that. And I still have that file where I put them in manila folders, and numbered them; I still have all that which I did when I began my ministry. But as time went on, I did not follow through with it any more.
Preaching: How do you analyze the state of preaching today?
Criswell: I think much of it is a travesty. That is why Christianity is dying in the western world. There is not 15 percent of people, say in a city like London, who go to church. Nobody goes to church in a city like Paris. Now over here in America, you go to some of those great historic churches in the north, and they will have a congregation of thirty-five, a little handful of people. I think the reason for it is obvious: why go to church to hear a man stand up there who is talking about the social and political issues and the headlines of the newspapers? Why go to church to hear a fellow like that, when someone who knows ten times as much about it will be writing in Newsweek or in Time? Why go to church and listen to that stuff? What you need to do when you go to church is to hear a man who has a message — “thus saith the Lord” — and this is addressed to you. And that is why the attendance in these churches is dying and these great denominations are beginning to die. It is tragic. What we need is a rebirth of expository preaching, “thus saith the Lord.”
Preaching: Do you have advice for young ministers about their preaching and their ministry?
Criswell: Prepare your life to be a student. If the young minister would do that, starting right in seminary — study. Make A+ in everything. Study. And then when you get out there keep up that habit of studying. The rest of your life, as long as you live, you study. And if you’ll do that, God will bless you. People will love hearing you preach.

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About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

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