Jerry Falwell started a church in his own hometown, then used it as a platform to speak to the nation. In 1956 he founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia (with a beginning congregation of 35 people), and within a year was speaking on radio and television on “The Old-Time Gospel Hour.” The church grew rapidly, his TV program went national in 1971 – the same year he founded Liberty University – and Falwell became a well-known public figure. In 1979 he founded the Moral Majority, which became a major political force in the 1980’s. In recent years he has aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention, and continues to be one of the most recognized Christian voices in America through his recent appearances on television talk shows and news programs. Preaching editor Michael Duduit recently visited with Falwell in his Liberty University office (where he serves as Chancellor, in addition to his pastoral duties).
Preaching: In the past you have described yourself as a “salt and light” preacher. What do you mean by that?
Falwell: Well I believe that God has called me to be both salt of the earth and light of the world. Light of the world – evangelism, soul-winning, world evangelization church planter. Salt of the earth – confronting the culture, speaking out against the ills of society that need a prophetic voice. And I have done both for many, many years – about 50 years. Not every one agrees with that and approves it and it is something that my mentor Dr. Francis Schaeffer taught me. I was his student for many years and sometimes like to feel that I am extending his ministry.
Preaching: As you think about those two issues – evangelization and cultural confrontation – how do you relate those? Do you see them as separate themes or do you see them as connected?
Falwell: They both blend in my ministry. There’s hardly a sermon I will preach anywhere in which I will not touch on both somewhere during the message. Always evangelism, always soul winning, almost always there will be some reference to my ministry to the culture.
Preaching: Has that been a characteristic of your ministry since you began preaching or is it something that developed over the years?
Falwell: Somewhere in the early 1960’s, when Bible reading and prayer were removed from public schools by the U.S. Supreme Court, I began speaking out. I had been taught in Bible College that politics and religion don’t mix. Nobody gave me a book, chapter and verse, but I accepted it. I was raised a Democrat by my father and I became pretty much a Republican by conviction – but I use the qualifier “pretty much” because there are many Republican whose views on the social issues leads me not to support them. When I find myself in a quandary – where both candidates are pro-choice, pro-gay rights, anti-strong national defense and so on – I go fishing on Election Day.
Preaching: The use of preaching to seek to achieve political and social change dates back to the earliest days of American history. Clearly it has been one of the dominant themes in your ministry. How has that impacted your preaching to have such a major emphasis on cultural and political confrontation?
Falwell: To be a salt & light preacher does put you in confrontation from time to time. There are places where I would never be invited to preach, simply because of the fear they might have that I might address the abortion issue, the gay issue, faith and family issues, but it is what I feel definitely called to do. So it is irrelevant to me that there is a price to pay.
My Mars Hill ministry is a ministry to the media – Crossfire, 5, 6, 7 times a week I will do national TV shows. I do Hardball each Friday night debating somebody on some issue. It’s my way of getting the gospel out to what I call the greater public. The greater public is not a church on Sunday morning and it is not listening to religious broadcasting on television or radio. A primetime debate forum for me is a way to get the gospel – the death, burial, resurrection of Christ – message out to people while confronting the other side on the moral and social issues. The positive side to that is that through the years about five million faithful, conservative, mostly Christian families have come along side and have asked me informally to be their spokesperson. So I am speaking for that politically incorrect minority of a few million people who don’t have in the media another spokesperson with a possible exception of a Sean Hannity or George Will from time to time.
Preaching: Have you ever felt pressured or drawn to move more fully into that sphere and not continue in the pastoral role?
Falwell: No, I watched people make that mistake. I watched Carl McIntyre make that mistake a generation ago, and Billy James Hargis and some others. The primary ministry any preacher of the gospel has is just that, preaching the gospel. But for me a significant part of my ministry is confronting the culture. While I have no intention of running for public office or leaving the pastorate of the local church ever, I feel strongly that I must do what I am doing.
Preaching: As you look at other preaching in churches across the country do you think that pastors do enough of that kind of cultural confrontation in their own preaching ministries?
Falwell: I would have to say, I do not. I believe that we all have a different calling in some areas; each of us is unique. At the same time I don’t think that anyone is exempt from being salt of the earth, and when you come to the premier social issue of our time – i.e. legalized abortion – I don’t think that any person who takes the Bible seriously has the luxury of being silent on this issue. I think we shall stand with bloody hands if we do. But, again, I am not hard on other preachers who are less vocal. Everyone must do what he feels God is calling him to do.
And when I go into other pulpits, I try to be as sensitive as possible to the preferences of that pastor of that church except in rare situations where it demands unacceptable compromise. I can’t think of an exception where that would be true. I would not go into a Methodist church and preach on baptism by immersion. If I accept the invitation I should be a gentleman also. And I don’t go into Roman-Catholic churches and talk about the gay priest in Boston.
I speak in lots of places because of my political involvement. Debate at Harvard, Yale, most of the major schools on a regular basis. I’m always as kind as I can be to the powers that be in those things that deal with the issues, not personalities. For example at Princeton, Peter Singer believes that parents should have the right to kill their little born babies up to 30 days after birth. Well, I have spoken at Princeton, I haven’t been there lately but if I were to go now I would go with the understanding that I would not be lashing out at the president or the board of trustees for having Peter Singer on the faculty. I would probably make strong reference to what he is saying without using his name.
Preaching: On average, how many times each week do you speak?
Falwell: I speak over 20 times a week
Preaching: As pastor at Thomas Road Baptist Church, tell me a little bit about your approach to preaching. How do you go about planning what you will do in the pulpit as pastor?
Falwell: As a pastor I try to be sensitive to the needs of the congregation. I have preached through books of the Bible many times. More recently I preached on the book of Proverbs, the last year thru the Revelation, usually a chapter a Sunday. I leave the Bible teaching in-depth to the classes and to conferences. I deal with issues also, and topics – things that are facing the church or the nation I will address for a period of time. I primarily an exhorter – I encourage the saints. I try very hard to somehow lift the burden that each congregant might have in every audience. I point them to the promises of God and encouragement that is in Christ.
I am primarily a topical preacher dealing with what is happening in the culture. The subjects that you would be hearing on Oprah, Montel, and all the talk shows and the political talk/debate shows of MSNBC, FOX, CNBC, CNN are topics that I take right to the pulpit. Every week usually has a burning issue, or two or three burning issues. Things are happening so fast it’s seldom that one issue has a shelf life of more that two or three weeks and we are on to something else. Right now for example the climate is war and probably somewhere between now and certainly by years end we will be at war with Iraq. [This interview was conducted early in 2003, prior to the war in Iraq.] Well, that means that in my church – and it is happening now and in the university – young people will be called up, several last week. That is on the minds and heart of our people. And so it is a matter that we need to be driving people to their knees and praying about and helping them know how to pray for the President, the men and women in combat, for those in authority, for the Pentagon, and for the whole nation that God might get glory out of that difficult situation.
A year ago it was 9/11, and along the way a long wave of the kidnapping and killing of little children. It’s a 50% divorce rate in this county and still climbing. All these things for me, as a pastor with a prophetic voice in ministry, motivate my sermon preparation. I have people who help me gather research and I depend heavily on my computer at home and here on the road. Then I have several people who are searching out, capsuling into paragraphs information that I am able to build into my messages and to books so that when I am speaking we are talking about today – not a month ago – and using scripture to apply that.
There are people who don’t like that. There are some people who want to sit under pure, simple, unapplied Bible teaching. Dr. J. Vernon McGee all of his life, and even on radio since his death, is that type of a teacher-preacher. Much needed, excellent, but his preaching is just as effective now on the air as it was back when he was living because he did not apply what he was teaching to what is happening in current events. There is a need for that and the people who want that would not be happy under my ministry. And there are others who get too much into the political and too much into the social and too little edifying people in Christ. I try very hard to keep the balance, where a family leaves church Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night spiritually fed, their needs met, and also alert and aware of the world they are living in.
Preaching: With the kind of hectic schedule that you must keep, how do you go about the process of preparing for Sunday morning? Could you walk me through what a preparation process for you might be?
Falwell: Early morning by 6:00 am I shower, dress, and study. By 8:00 am I am out heading to the hospital, to the office, to my work. Mid-afternoon I am crawling in the back of our own plane where I will be going somewhere – usually east of the Mississippi, north of Miami, south of Bangor – to preach that night and come back home that night. And I sleep in the plane. I have a satellite phone in there so no matter where I am in the world the office, my wife, my family can call and it rings right by my little desk there. And I have a satellite internet connection there where I can receive and send emails I am in instant communication with everybody all the time. And my seat at that desk also folds into a bed and we have a galley on board.
Some people travel with me so I get my rest and if I am short changed at night I make it up in two hours flying to wherever I am going. When I get there I will have shaved and refreshed and cleaned up and step off the plane and go to work. Then we hop in the plane and I sleep all the way home. Then I go directly home and right into bed and the next morning same thing. I’ve been doing that 47 years.
For me sermon preparation is happening in my study, in my private devotions, in my traveling on the plane and then when I catch a couple of hours in the office like here today both on the computer and on the pads here I am putting together for next Sunday the follow-up for the super conference.
Preaching: As you preach in your own pulpit here, what do you carry with you? Do you take notes or write out a manuscript?
Falwell: All the time, when I hear something that is interesting to me I write it down and stick it in my pocket. Then when I get home at night I put it in a document. For example, at the lunch table today Dr. Rawlings gave a definition of contemporary fundamentalism and what it must be; he said that a contemporary fundamentalist must be consistent in doctrine, moderate in attitude, progressive in methodology, and liberal in spirit. So I wrote that down.
Then I take all these notes. Like anybody else I have the most current Bible study software – every commentary, every Bible translation that I use – and I build the information. It may be towards something down the road that I will come back to later but I am constantly building frameworks for sermons. Then something will happen today that becomes the catalyst for doing it next Sunday.
It is not easy when we have 24,000 members here. We have seven services on Sunday: five in the morning and two on Sunday night. We only seat something over 3,000 at a time so it is in-and-out, in-and-out. We use our inner city church, and we use Liberty with a campus pastor who’s a Thomas Roader, and a lot of Thomas Road people will come here – the younger ones especially who like a little better tempo music than we permit at the church. I usually preach the 8:30 and 11 am and 6 pm. I preach three times a day on Sundays. We are relocating the church here to Liberty Mountain. We are building a 12,000-seat sanctuary starting this year.
I am always preparing sermons. I am listening to everybody from John Maxwell to Bailey Smith. My wife reads to me every night ’til I fall asleep; she is a prolific reader and I bring home at least a book a day because I do interviews on Listen America. I did Henry Kissinger one week, Sam Donaldson the next, Larry King the next, Geraldo Rivera the next. This last week I did David Horowitz. And they all have books and I will bring those home and I’ll peruse the index and chapter headings. Then I will ask her to read chapter 3 and chapter 4. And then I build that. So I am constantly reading newspapers, magazines, having books read to me by my wife and others while travelling. I get sick while reading in motion so I have others read to me. The minute I hear something good I make a note.
We try to take the newest books. If anybody were to ask me what’s the last book you read it would be probably the best seller from yesterday. There might be two pages in the book that are worthwhile or one thought, one idea. But at 69 I try to stay relevant and try to stay cutting edge. We have 6,000 sharp kids here and you can’t razzle dazzle them. I speak to them every week at least once, sometimes twice – the whole student body. I have to keep them challenged, on the edge of their seats. That demands a lot of study, a lot of preparation. They are not impressed with shouting, jokes, that stuff – they laugh at you, not with you. We bring speakers in sometimes to try something that worked at the church. But the kids have been there, done that. It can be a tough crowd.
Preaching: On Sunday morning you step into the pulpit do you have notes with you?
Falwell: I do, because we put the full sermon on the website as if it were to be read by somebody. If you were listening to it would not be greatly similar to what is written, but it’s done so that it is readable and says the same thing, like doing a script. And for the power point I have headlines right throughout the text so that it will go up on the screen while I am speaking. But it is very unlikely that the script will be very close to what I am saying. I will be saying the same thing but in a different way. Sometimes I totally digress from it. But when I have finished the message I will have covered the same materials scripted. And then they know that they can go right to the web site and print out the actual original script and read that, too, which usually reinforces.
Preaching: Over the years you’ve gotten involved with radio and television and of course now the internet, has the use of media changed or influenced your preaching in a significant way?
Falwell: Yes, being a media minister helps you to say more with few words because it’s usually only the first two or three sentences, the sound bite as they call it, that the public is accustomed to capture. You will have others who will get it all, you will have many who will get a good bit of it, but most only get the sound bites. So it is important that your first paragraph is attention getting. It is important that at various points of the message where you want to drive home a truth, that something that will recapture their attention. It is important that the way you end is a memorable ending because two weeks from now they won’t be able to remember the topic they have heard so much since then.
I try very hard to think of what I am doing at the pulpit as though I were on Face the Nation or one of the talk shows when you are across from an opponent. You don’t get the chance to go into all of your rationale. You will be shouted down or talked over. You’ve got to have two or three sentences that go right through. For example, Friday night I was debating on Hardball. I had said in a 60 Minutes interview, when asked about comparing Moses and Jesus and Mohammad, I said that Jesus and Moses were great models for love, peace, truth, faith and family. Mohammad was a man of war and violence. And then he asked, “Well, why do you think Mohammad was a bad example.” I said I think Mohammad was a terrorist and I think that he got his kicks out of killing and assassinating people. That is if the Muslim biographers are to be believed.
And so I am on Hardball and this guy says, “You bigot, why would you say such a thing?” He was screaming at me. I said, “Abraham, now settle down, don’t have a stroke. Let me ask you something: You have read the biographies, the Muslim biographies. Did Mohammad kill innocent people?” ” What’s that have to do . . . ?” “It’s a yes or no question, did he kill innocent people?” He wouldn’t answer me. I said, “Your refusal to answer does answer it. The answer was, he did. And that is what a terrorist does.” And I said, “Now most of you out there have not read a biography of Mohammed and never will. Go to falwell.com – I’ve printed one out for you there to summarize it.” So you’ve got to say it quickly. We’ve gotten 82,000 hits since Friday night reading the copy.
So that translates into preaching. The shorter the sermon you’re going to bring – and I bring 30 minute sermons – the shorter the sermon, the better prepared you’ve got to be. In today’s world with everybody seeking instant gratification, everything’s instant, everything – you’ve got to be able to say it quickly, say it well, prick their minds, drive them to further research and tell them where to get it, simply. Really, the preachers of the next generation have got to be smarter than the preachers of our generation. They’ve got to say it better, quicker, with greater support. People no longer can say as we once did, ‘this is the way it is.’ Because they want to know why is that the way it is. You’ve got to build that in and then give them the resources to get the rest. Kids are wide open today but you can’t fool them as once churches could.
Preaching: As you look back over your ministry . . .
Falwell: I have been preaching 50 years; I’m in my 47th year at Thomas Road Baptist Church.
Preaching: Are there some things that you wish you would have known 40 or 50 years ago that you have learned since then about preaching?
Falwell: The answer is always yes to that. I was listening to Dr. Billy Graham the other day and a Youth for Christ sermon that he brought back in the 40’s and rapid fire, I had to listen real attentively to hear what he was saying. And that was back when there was Billy Sunday, before he had broken chairs over the pulpit. They didn’t have good sound systems. The preacher who really was considered a great preacher back in the 40’s and 50’s was a guy that could speak 180 words a minute without breathing and then swallow the mike and do it again.
In the early days coming out of Bible college it was very easy to preach 45 minute to an hour sermon and sort of get off down rabbit trails and then come back and so forth and literally lose and bore your audience and get by with it. You learn bad habits and so I would have liked to have known 50 years ago what I know now. I think that with everything we are doing it would be 10 times better. But I was not allowed that privilege. We have to live it out and learn it.
Preaching: If you could offer a word of counsel to other pastors, what would it be?
Falwell: I think that the average American evangelical church is spending too little time teaching and preaching the Bible to its people. There are 168 hours in a week. The average evangelical church has its average member less than an hour. And then all the voices of the culture are crying out the other 167 hours. Instead of revving up to meet the challenge, churches are canceling Sunday night, Wednesday night, and doing far too few in-depth study programs with their people.
Once a month we do an all day Saturday Bible study special event. For example this year, early this year we brought Tim LaHaye, our own Ed Hindson, Gary Frazier who works with Tim. Brought them in for a 9:00 am to 3:00-pm, 6 hour series on prophecy. Then they stayed on to Sunday and did three hours in the morning and two at night. We had eleven hours of teaching and the same 4,000 people in overflow sat through the whole eleven hours and took notes and were tested on them. A month later we brought in Ken Ham, from Answers in Genesis, and did exactly the same thing in two days – people standing around the walls and teaching them. And then we do one on the doctrines of the Bible. We see to it that through our Sunday school and church that our teachers and especially our new converts get to these. So that in one year at Thomas Road – besides Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night – we have what we call the Equipping Institute with 24 different classes. Everybody is in a different class learning different things, men and women. In one year you’ve been through the average Bible College.
The result is that our young people, our young couples, our older Christians can take a Bible quiz any time you want to give them one and pretty well do as well as the preachers. And the rush of the day is not a problem. People are hungry for it. It’s just that the preachers are not willing to work that hard. They have to be there. They can’t just have these things and go off somewhere flitting around. They have to be there moderating, adding to it, handling the transitions, and providing the shepherd care to make sure it all happens right. But the end result is that you build a church.
These felt-needs churches, seeker-sensitive – I’m not trying to be critical, but I meet a lot of those people that don’t have the foggiest idea about Bible doctrine. That’s why they are blown around by every wind of doctrine. They are entertained by skits that make some reference to the Bible. Great crowds come but their lives are not radically changed. And they are not tied into the Bible. If we have to be forever worried about offending people because of the Bible we’re missing something.
My experience is people want to know the Bible, and the more you demand the more you get. So to me teaching and preaching is the bottom line. Everything else supports that. Teaching and preaching is the bottom line and if they don’t have that in their heads then it won’t be in their heart.