Often called the “Dean of Black Preachers” in the United States, Gardner C. Taylor has proclaimed the gospel for more than half a century in churches across the nation and around the globe. Now pastor emeritus of the Concord Baptist Church of God in Christ, in Brooklyn, New York, Taylor was recently interviewed by Preaching editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: You’ve had a long and productive ministry. What part has preaching played in your ministry over the years?
Taylor: I came along at a time when preaching was really at the center of Protestant church life — and most assuredly of black churches, African-American churches. That may have been about all that was happening in most of them, but there was a great emphasis on it. I had the opportunity to grow up in that era, and then I was privileged — really privileged — to go to New York at a time when I found the greatest concentration of gifted preachers perhaps in the whole history of Christendom.
When you think of it, at one time Scherer and Buttrick, McCracken, Steven Wise the Jewish preacher, and Fulton Sheen were still at work. There were all of those men and then there was a remarkable Jewish preacher in Brooklyn, Sidney Tidestky, and one superlative black preacher, Sandy Ray. Adam Powell was more a political preacher but he had a certain charisma and a certain force of power. To have been thrown into that environment is the greatest privilege I’ve had as a preacher. I had the opportunity to preach there and wander among those men.
There used to be a kind of Lenten circuit: Syracuse, Detroit, Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Cleveland. There would be noon-day services — some of them for a week at Old Stone Church in Cleveland, some for one night in the week, but it was a circuit — and I was privileged to become a part of that. I remember Henry Heath Crain, the Detroit preacher, as being in that group. I had that advantage.
My father was a preacher, and a remarkable preacher really. My father was not highly educated but he read constantly. As a boy in Baton Rouge, which would have been in the 1920’s — he died in 1931 — I remember some of what he was doing. It fascinated me. I had that background before these other things happened; really it was providential how I was thrown into situations.
M. E. Dodd was minister in First Baptist Church of Shreveport. Did you know I preached in his pulpit one night when he had a Bible conference? I had spoken on the radio to a Black convention which had been carried in Shreveport. I spoke in his church — it had to be before 1947 — and Robert G. Lee was the other preacher there. It was remarkable in my years to have had that kind of exposure.
Preaching that excites and electrifies, elevates and edifies, does not seem to me to be nearly as much in vogue now as it was in earlier years. One of the problems — I discovered this in students — is what our schools are doing in terms of literature. One key to the pulpit is language. The beauty with which people have used language seems to have dropped out of our undergraduate schools. People who write plays use the language with much more vividness than those of us who preach; that’s sad. Also, I think these playwrights and novelists are dealing with deeper matters of human life in ways we preachers seem often afraid to confront.
Preaching: When you were in the pastorate did you try to read certain things that helped you keep your language fresh?
Taylor: Yes, I did then and I still read the book review section of The New York Times every week. I get the New York Review of Books though I don’t get a chance to read as many of the books as I ought. And I read the Arts and Leisure section of The New York Times.
While at Oberlin College, I read almost every issue and almost every word of the Christian Century Pulpit. Now it has declined, but then it was the definitive thing. At that time, it had Scherer writing and Frederick Norwood the Australian preacher, Leslie Weatherhead, Clarence McCartney — people like that. I guess I was fascinated and I’m sure a lot of their thought forms passed on to me almost without my awareness.
Preaching: New York City had a rainbow of outstanding preachers in the early years of your ministry. Did you find having that kind of environment influenced your own preaching?
Taylor: Oh yes, I’m sure of that. I admired Scherer a great deal. He had a gift for metaphor which belonged to something almost native to my own background and it was his preaching which gave me a certain endorsement for what came naturally with me. I took a course with him at Union Seminary and I came to know him. He preached for me in the Concord pulpit. But the atmosphere couldn’t help affecting one, whether you had an interest in preaching or if you only wanted to hear preaching. I felt greatly privileged and honored to be in their company. I still do.
Preaching: Besides those you’ve already mentioned, were there some others who had a lot of influence on you?
Taylor: Yes, James Stewart’s work. I once had a conversation with Stewart. He and I talked about A. J. Gossip’s preaching and I’ll never forget his phrase. He said Gossip’s preaching was like, as he put it in his Scottish way, “a river at spate.” I’ll never forget that phrase.
Clarence McCartney was a magnificent preacher. He was Harry Emerson Fosdick’s principal opponent, I guess. Magnificent preacher. McCartney had a remarkable gift for bringing the Bible and biblical characters into focus and life-giving. I had a wonderful colleague in Brooklyn, Sandy Ray; it was sad that our fractures of race did not open him to the wider Christian community. He served the Cornerstone Baptist Church in Brooklyn. Wonderful. He had a gift.
Preaching: How has preaching changed during your lifetime? Has your preaching changed?
Taylor: I hope it has. I hope it’s changed for the better, though sometimes I’m not sure about that. In my case, my imaginative powers are not like they were. I never could memorize, but I could carry phrases. I don’t have that ability as I once had.
I tell my students they ought to be open to things after periods of barrenness. I saw a documentary on Miles Davis, the trumpeter, and he was saying that for five years he lost the sound of his music. I talked with some jazz musicians about this and they said he did lose it. Then Davis started producing a new sound — what they call “cool jazz” — which is out of my area but I get great lessons from this. Something inside Davis curled up and changed and there was this emptiness, but then a new thing came.
I have discovered barren periods in my preaching. I guess everyone does. My wife calls them preaching plateaus. I go through them. I have discovered that each plateau is a kind of preparatory period — if we allow it to be — for a new burst of energy and insight.
Language has become the mode of expressing the Gospel. As Scherer said in his Beecher Lectures, “Words are the weapons of our warfare.” I’ve often said it seems to me I could have invented a better way to transmit this Gospel than preaching. It’s so insubstantial, in a way of speaking, yet the Lord has done it. The mode of expression today has become more metallic.
Preaching: What do you mean by that?
Taylor: I mean a certain flat, pedestrian language that does not fire the imagination. It is not gripping. Preaching may be confrontational sometimes, certainly exhortatory, but it should have an added sense of the majesty of life, the glory of its possibilities, and the greatness and glory of God. It’s saying something, but it’s saying something in a glorious way. I don’t hear that in preaching as much as I’d like.
Another remarkable preacher I will never forget: when we were in Orlando for the National Conference on Preaching, that sermon by James Earl Massey on Jacob was a tremendous thing. I don’t hear enough of that: the drawing forth of these ancient characters and giving them contemporary meaning. What I hear is jazzy. I think language ought to be crisp and contemporary. This kind of jazzy, camp language in the pulpit bothers me. I guess it’s a part of me being old and all!
Preaching: One of the interesting things that relates to language in the last few years among preachers is a new attention on narrative and stories. It seems to me that one of the great elements of African-American preaching has always been the story, the vivid image.
Taylor: No question; always has been. Coming really out of our background — or most of it — is a subconscious stream of story. In the villages of Africa, the Griot was the person who through story carried the myths of the tribe from generation to generation. He was storyteller and historian to an oral people who had no written works. Also, wherever people have known oppression there comes a kind of vividness, a kind of apocalyptic quality to their thinking, a gift for indirect statement.
There was something in the story about my people who came out of slavery which had in it a mixture of humility, earthiness, and a mysticism and a beauty of language. I heard it as a boy and though this was orally passed on from one generation to the other that did not diminish its beauty. African-American deacons or other men praying: — I remember some of their praises — “We come before you knee bent and body bowed; our hearts below our knees and our knees in some lonesome valley.” I’m thankful that I have been heir to that.
I think my own preaching was affected, and it should have been, by the civil rights era. Sometimes I have the feeling about African-American preaching that we too often for too long were other-worldly and then became too much this-worldly, when it ought to be a mixture.
Preaching: You speak to pastors all over the country and I’m sure you have opportunity to talk with many and hear some of the things on their hearts. What do you think are some of the greatest concerns pastors are feeling these days, particularly in areas that would relate to preaching and worship?
Taylor: I think many preachers are overpowered by this society. When I went to New York, the Times on Monday would carry excerpts from Sunday sermons. There has been this draining out of religion from American life, unless it has an angle to it or is off-center. Uncertainty about the structures of the society seems to be clear and powerful — but here we are. Yet this is what Jesus said to His disciples: “I have sent you forth, sheep in the midst of wolves.” When those disciples looked at the magnificence of Herod’s temple, they oohed and said “aah.” Preachers are not to scorn the culture; there are notable and wonderful things about it. They are to realize that culture is human, temporal, passing. We are to address our culture as a part of it and yet not a part of it, and to address it with that kind of authority — not arrogance — that comes to one who believes that he or she is an emissary of a kingdom that will outlast all kingdoms.
There’s a great hurting among pastors. Owen Cooper lived in Yazoo City, Mississippi: a remarkable man. He was one of the few lay persons who was president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Cooper sent an open letter to Southern Baptist laymen urging them — pleading with them, really — to allow their pastors to preach to them the whole dimension of the Bible. For whatever reason, many of us are afraid to deal with the whole sweep of the Gospel. I’m not just talking about race now. I’m talking also about greed. I’m talking about the private and public immorality of corruption in our public life. This has something to do with the moral health of the nation, and by the living God I believe the Gospel has something to say to it. I’m not talking about any partisan issue; I’m talking about the spiritual welfare of a nation and therefore the spiritual welfare of individuals. I’m talking about setting our human lives within the light of the Gospel; that’s what I’m doing.
I was at William Jewell College when a man asked me, “You preach this in your church?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I couldn’t do that. People would think I was getting to be too high falutin.” We were not talking about race.
Preaching: Do you think pastors sometimes underestimate their congregations?
Taylor: Yes, no question about it. I tell my students that they think there are certain things they can’t preach to people. Well, almost any congregation, no matter where it is, has about the same color of intelligence. It may not have the same trim. I tell the students that congregations can get it if pastors have got it. I tell them, if you’re not quite clear on what you’re dealing with, they may not get it. Sometimes, though, even that is rescued by the Holy Spirit and congregations get it even though you don’t know what you’re talking about! But you ought not to presume God’s rescue. Yes, I think pastors sometimes underestimate their congregations, no question about it.
Preaching: What counsel would you offer to young preachers?
Taylor: The first thing I would tell a young preacher is to be available for what the Lord wants to do in his or her life — have an openness, a readiness. I don’t think there’s anything to substitute for that.
I would also suggest that there be a balance between spirituality and intellectuality. Be sure neither one dominates the other; if one does, it should be spirituality — with intellectuality in close contest. I’m at Princeton now and there’s a pietistic thing — which I admire — but also a suspicion of learning. I think it goes back to the old Princeton controversy. I say to the students that true spirituality is not embarrassed by anything intellectual. True spirituality can handle anything; you don’t have to suppress it. True intellectuality is not compromised by spirituality.
I spent a morning with Albert Einstein. Unbelievable! I was preaching at the Princeton Presbyterian Church, travelling there on the train every day. A gentleman who came to the service asked, “Would you like to meet Albert Einstein?” I said, “Would I like to?” He told me, “It means you would have to come down on an earlier train.” I said, “I’ll stay up all night!” I did go down and had a talk with him. During the course of our conversation — he was not a person of great spiritual design — Einstein said the theory of relativity was the greatest thought that ever came to him. What does he mean by “came” to him? It must have arrived from somewhere outside himself, which means that we are not in this alone.
There’s a great story about John Wesley. A woman is supposed to have said to him, “You know, Mr. Wesley, the Lord does not need all of your Oxford education.” He said, “Of course not, madam. He doesn’t need your ignorance either.” I wouldn’t want to say that one ought to cultivate the mind and neglect the heart.
Also, I think our preachers ought to seek to clothe the Gospel in as worthy a language as they can find for it. I would want to say something about their prayer life. In New York I became a member of the Board of Education and got into New York politics and all that kind of thing. My wife said to me, “You’re going to wither in your work. Your preaching is getting very thin.” I have never heard a thing that stung me about my work like that did! But the Lord quickly got me out of there when Nelson Rockefeller dismissed the whole board. My wife claimed I was the Jonah! I may have been, I don’t know. He put us all out. I agree that we ought to give large amounts of time for our own spiritual nurturing.
My own people used to talk about looking into the Rock. Sometimes you’d come upon them and they’d just be sitting. This solitariness and this willingness to be alone and to reflect and to brood and to let the Spirit have its play upon our lives — these are things I think we miss, partly because we don’t have confidence that what we do is authentic enough. We feel we have to justify ourselves in the society and in the community by doing a lot of other things that we are not called to do.
I come back to that matter of identity: recognizing our calling, recognizing its significance, not presuming upon it and — for heaven’s sake — trying not to be arrogant about it. In Lewis Drummond’s work on Charles Spurgeon there appeared to be a certain arrogance about Spurgeon and it may have been unbecoming. I know it was in Joseph Parker. It was in Paul Scherer. It was in George Buttrick.
I talked with a student of Buttrick and asked what was the characteristic about him that the student saw most clearly. Buttrick was a remarkable preacher — he was a humble man — but sometimes his awareness of his gifts got ahead of his humility. Yet these men also had a sense of what they did and that gave them a sense of who they were. You see this in Paul, his awareness of who he was. He said, “I shouldn’t do this but I’m going on a little longer with it.” It’s a wonderful kind of way to look at things.
I would hope that more of our pastors would consider longer pastorates. Sure, pastorates can be too long and I know that very well. When I first went to my pulpit the men who were my deacons were like fathers to me and they surrounded me with prayer. Sometimes their faces pass before me now in the evening and in the day too. Then they became as brothers, and then at last as sons. There’s something to be said for a continuing pastoral relationship; no question about it. But it can get too long and people can long for something new. Here one has to consult the Holy Spirit and look for guidance in that matter.
Preaching: Those pastors who really changed their cities almost invariably are those who have had extended pastoral service.
Taylor: I’m sure you can study successful preachers — Beecher, Fosdick, Truett, Spurgeon, Parker — and see that all of them had long pastorates. I remind young preachers of this, particularly young African-American preachers, because with us there is a new materialism — I wish I could call it by some other name but I’m close to the truth. And people do not turn themselves over to strangers; nobody does. Unless you’re claiming that because you are a minister of the Gospel and therefore have the divine right for people to turn their lives over to you, it’s presumptuous to think people will hastily turn over their lives to you. People don’t do that. It takes time to develop relationships of trust and love and mutual interest. I would urge pastors to at least consider longer periods of service.

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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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