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.”
answered the very weary wife, “and probably one fewer than you think!”
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
preachers are persons of great personal integrity before they are great pulpiteers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
preachers tend to feel deeply; they are passionate souls.
love is focused in two directions – toward their fellow man and Godward.
Especially do they have a devout love of Christ.
of Clairvaux was a monk, a theologian, and a mystic who lived 1091-1153 A.D.
By preaching, he enlisted thousands to go on the second (and ill-fated) crusade
to free the Holy Land. This assignment took him throughout his native France
and through Italy and Germany. He had to preach through an interpreter in Germany,
yet people were moved to tears even before the translation. Someone has said,
“Painted fire never burns.” With Bernard it was real passion. He was
also a hymn writer who gave the church hymns of deep pathos. Some of them are
still in our hymnals nearly a thousand years later; he wrote “Jesus the
Very Thought of Thee.”
preachers have a passion to preach.
tend to have in common the desire to set others ablaze with the fire that burns
in their own souls. Thirty years ago, Donald Demaray published his study, Pulpit
Giants: What Made Them Great? He named Paul Rees as “one who preaches
on the fire of the Spirit (and) is himself a man on fire.” Then he drew
an important conclusion: “This seems to be the one underlying characteristic
of all great preachers: they burn with a holy passion to communicate.”
pastors are content to be administrators and organizers. Other ministers would
gladly spend all their time in visiting or counseling or other one-on-one ministry.
They might wish preaching were never part of their duty. They know nothing of
Paul’s burden: “I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I preach not the
gospel!”(1 Cor. 9:16 NIV). Great preachers must preach or die.
Whitefield (1714-1770) was mightily used of the Lord in bringing the Great Awakening
to England and colonial America. He preached year after year over five hundred
times a year. In addition, he started a great orphanage ministry in Georgia
and promoted it everywhere he went. But he was a preacher first of all. He preached
some eighteen thousand sermons of record. These were one-hour and two-hour sermons
mostly to vast crowds gathered in the open air. If we count the unscheduled
“exhortations” which crowds begged of him, that number would probably
Preachers are anchored to the Bible.
Wycliff (c. 1329-1384) was called the Morning Star of the Reformation. He burned
with a passion to get the Bible into the hands of every man in his native tongue.
Translating the Latin Vulgate into his fourteenth century English, he became
the first to give the whole Bible to his generation in their native tongue.
A granite pillar in his honor fittingly stands in Lutterworth, England where
he did most of his preaching. On it is the text, “Search the Scriptures.”
Great preachers are usually readers of many books, but they are anchored to
the Bible supremely.
Macartney (1879-1957) could preach a masterful sermon on three words in a single
verse. Hundreds of times he preached his sermon on Paul’s plea, “Come Before
Winter” (2 Tim. 4:21). Before the sermon is over, those three words are
a sparkling diamond in a skillfully crafted setting of the whole chapter. Masterful
application to the hearer’s personal life enliven the text as well. In his autobiography,
The Making of a Minister, Macartney could say factually what many preacher claim
only wistfully, “My preaching has been based entirely on the Bible.”
preachers are relevant.
heard a minister interviewed on the occasion of his retirement after spending
more than thirty years in one pastorate. The reporter asked the secret of his
long tenure. He answered: “In thirty years I have never preached on a controversial
subject.” Personally, I should not like to be in that brother’s sandals
at the Judgement Seat of Christ! Great preachers speak to the burning issues
of their time.
Fant and Bill Pinson came to one over-arching conclusion at the end of their
monumental study of ninety preachers that for the ten-volume set Twenty Centuries
of Great Preaching: “Great Preaching is relevant preaching . . . .The preachers
who made the greatest impact upon the world were men who spoke to the issues
of their day.”
H. Parkhurst (1842-1933) pointedly exposed the corruption of New York’s Tammany
Hall politicians. He believed “the wicked flee when no man pursueth, but
they make better time when someone is after them.” He is the preacher who
said “We must fight the good fight with the first names and last known
addresses of evil doers.”
preachers today studiously avoid disturbing the status quo. They never preach
sermons that deal with ethical issues like abortion, race relations, gambling,
world hunger, alcohol and tobacco addiction. They justify their silence by saying
“People don’t come to church to hear about pornography and promiscuity
and every problem of society.” They may be right, but they risk being irrelevant.
Great preachers in the history of the church from New Testament times to last
Sunday are prophets who shirk not to thunder the Word of the Lord on the issues
that matter today.
preachers are overcomers.
interesting thing that appears commonly in the lives of great preachers is that
so many of them tasted failure or rejection early in life and suffered great
hardships but rose above it all. They are overcomers.
Chalmers (1780-1847) was 23 years old when he became pastor of rural Kilmany
church in Scotland in 1793. Scotland already had a rich heritage of great preachers,
but in his early years Chalmers was neither a good preacher nor a good pastor.
He was powerless in the pulpit, among the flock, and in the community. His first
pastorate was a disaster. He began in Kilmany with no care for his flock and
little interest in Christianity. This went on for seven years while he nearly
emptied the church. Then the dry and dusty domine discovered the cause of his
spiritual poverty. A series of personal crises led him to realize that he was
lost! He came to the Savior and immediately began to preach with a new spiritual
power. His consuming hobby of mathematics he laid aside. Other distractions
also fell away as he fixed his heart on the excellencies of the Father in heaven.
conversion dramatically transformed his life and ministry. He fell in love with
the Bible, his pastoral duties, and the preacher’s task. The next four years,
the people flocked to hear him preach. His most famous sermon speaks of “The
Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” He preached in a city famous for great
preachers and in the greatest era in the history of preaching, yet Chalmers
has been called the greatest preacher Glasgow ever heard.
preachers are given to thinking and meditation.
all great preachers in the history of the church thought alike, but all truly
great preachers are thinkers. They tend to have minds given to reflection, to
innovation and to originality. Some, like Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin were
theoretical and abstract thinkers. Others, like Thomas Chalmers and Fredrick
W. Robertson were creative thinkers. Their sermons were marked by fresh insights
and lucid language.
F. W. Robertson (1816-1853) as a case study. Robertson grew up on a military
post and wanted a military career. His father, however, urged him to consider
the gospel ministry. Shortly after he entered Oxford at age 29, an offer of
an officer’s commission came to him. He had made his choice, though, and did
not look back. At 32 he was ordained and began a rigorous agenda that might
break anyone’s health. Up at dawn, skip breakfast, spend all morning in Bible
study. All afternoon rush from hovel to hovel in the slums of London. He spent
the evenings in discussions with his supervisor. No leisure, no social life,
no rest until his health broke and his doctor sent him to Switzerland to recover.
he came back a year later, he began his pastorate at Trinity Chapel, Brighton.
Though he was thoroughly evangelical in theology and evangelistic in ministry,
many of his fellow pastors were suspicious of his concern for social reform.
After all, the “social gospel” was making inroads into many churches.
While Robertson ministered in the slums of London, Karl Marx was in that city’s
library writing his Communist Manifesto. Robertson preached the true gospel
of Christ, however.
W. Robertson died at 37 years of age counting himself a failure. In fact, acclaim
as a great preacher came only after he died. Though his life was cut short,
he had memorized the whole New Testament in English and much of it in Greek.
He always preached extemporaneous sermons after thorough study and reflection
on his text. Then on Sunday night after he preached, he wrote out his sermon
manuscript. After his death, these sermons began to be published. They are still
widely read and praised today.
preachers have the shepherd heart.
have compassion for the lost sheep and a loving concern for the whole flock.
Some, like Charles G. Finney and John Wesley were great missionary evangelists.
They were itinerant preachers more than local church pastors, but they kept
in touch with the common man. Their great passion was to win the lost. Other
preachers focused more on tending the sheep already gathered into the fold.
A pastor ought to do both. Great preachers who are pastors will go after the
one lost sheep and not fail to feed the ninety and nine.
W. Truett (1867-1934) is a worthy model for a pastoral preacher. He was a true
shepherd who went out after the lost sheep in personal evangelism and in evangelistic
preaching. Then, like the Good Shepherd, he did more than dip ’em and drop ’em
as soon as they were counted. Truett was a shepherd who fed the flock Sunday
after Sunday. Scan the titles of Truett’s sermons and hear the heartbeat of
a pastor. Especially in the dark days of World War II did he offer encouraging
sermons like “Christ and Human Suffering,” “Why Be Discouraged?”
and “The Conquest of Fear.”
preachers walk with the Lord.
of them we might call mystics. Some had this walk from childhood; some turned
to the Lord in a sudden and dramatic conversion. Others were changed later in
life by a “deeper experience.”
Tauler ( 1300-1361) was ordained at age 35, but years later a layman brought
heavy conviction on him, saying: “You must die, Dr. Tauler! Before you
can do your greatest work . . . you must die to yourself, your gifts, your popularity,
and even your own goodness.” He quit preaching for two years. When he returned
to the pulpit, it was with a power and zeal to exalt Christ. His writings were
a strong influence on many, including Martin Luther.
Bunyan’s (1628-1688) adult conversion experience is well known. He was a traveling
tinker, making and selling pots and pans. One day he overheard three women sitting
on their respective door stoops, talking about the joys of knowing Christ. He
went through a long incubation of conviction on the way to conversion. At that
time he could not read or write. Before he finished his pilgrimage, he wrote
a hundred books. His Pilgrim’s Progress is still counted as one of the greatest
books in English literature.
B. Meyer (1847-1929), was a British Baptist greatly used of God in the Keswick
movement as well as in notable pastorates. He confessed that it was many years
after he took Christ as Savior and several years after he entered the ministry
that he took Christ as his Judge, Lawgiver, and King. He said, “It was
a very memorable night in my life when I knelt before Christ and gave myself
definitely to Him, and committed the keys of my heart and life to His hands.
. . . and though I had no joy, no emotion, no ecstacy, I had a blessed feeling
in my heart that I had but one Lord, one will, one purpose in all my life and
for all coming time . . . Jesus . . . for whom henceforth my life was to be spent.”
preachers work hard.
the history of preaching, those who excelled at their task were all busy preachers,
never idle. How a Calvin or Wesley or Whitefield could preach every day – and
sometimes several times a day – and still find time to study and write and
organize and promote a mighty movement of men and nations, boggles the mind!
Whatever other gifts or talents they had, they worked hard!
Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892). Besides preaching and growing a great church,
he established a pastor’s college and lectured to the young men regularly. He
established an orphanage and ministered to the children. He published a monthly
magazine called The Sword and the Trowel that included in every issue his fresh
exposition of a psalm or some other text. It enjoyed wide circulation all over
the English-speaking world. Wilbur Smith calculated that Spurgeon’s writings
would approximate 27 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He founded a literature
distribution society and arranged for colporteurs to distribute wholesome Christian
reading material in a society woefully in need of it.
John Henry Jowett (1863-1923) was a new pastor, he was awakened early in the
morning by the clomping of work shoes going past his window. The mills started
work at six o’clock. “The sound of clogs,” he said, “fetched
me out of bed and took me to my work.” In his Yale Lectures on Preaching,
Jowett advised young pastors to enter their study at an early hour. He recommended
that hour be as early as the earliest of their business men go to their offices.
His lectures are among the very best in that series named to honor Lyman Beecher.
In addition, Jowett occupied some of the most illustrious pulpits in England
including Westminster Chapel in London following G. Campbell Morgan. He moved
from there to New York City’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1911.
should agree that to be a famous preacher is not the same as to be a great preacher.
Not everyone who preaches a better sermon than his neighbor finds the world
beating a path to his door. In heaven we may find that all our ideas of greatness
miss the measure that really matters. In history, however, among those regarded
as great preachers, these ten traits tend to gauge their greatness.
is a writer and adjunct professor in Shreveport, LA.