–March of 2005
I was comfortably settled in at my writing desk preparing to polish off the rough draft of an article I had written for this issue of the Revivalist, when all of a sudden my pen refused to write another word about the subject at hand. Instead, it wanted to write about some of the great preachers I have known. The shift in focus could be attributed to the fact that I had just returned home from the funeral of one of the greatest orators in the holiness movement, and I was still thinking about his life and preaching ministry. Nevertheless, the subject has been on my mind for months, so I gave in and let my pen have its way.
As a preacher, a student of preaching, and someone responsible for the training of preachers, I have had a keen interest in what makes for great preaching and great preachers. Though notable scholars and great preachers have written numbers of books on this subject, I feel the need to add my observations with a list of the characteristics of some of the great preachers I have known. This is not a list about good men, good pastors or good leaders. It is not an exhaustive list. It is strictly a list of the characteristics I have observed in men that I consider to be great preachers.
1. They are men who have had an encounter with God that marked their lives forever.
For some it was their conversion, while for others it was the point of total surrender and heart cleansing. For others it was their call to preach. The issue is not so much when or how they had a life-altering encounter, but that it had indeed happened. Like Moses, they had a burning bush encounter with God, or like Jacob they met him in struggle. However it happened, their encounter with God marked them forever and left them with the firm conviction that for them is was “preach or perish.”
2. They are men of strong belief and firm convictions.
Armed with the conviction that they speak for God, they speak with authority and certainty out of a well-developed belief system, which is based solidly on the principles and convictions of the Word of God. They don’t care whether they speak the company line or not. They care nothing about being politically correct. They don’t look the crowd over to see what message fits best. They speak for God! We are plagued today with mild-mannered men who have developed the art of almost saying something. They never draw a line in the sand or speak of absolute truth. You never know where they stand on anything! Not so with the greats. They are men who give no uncertain sound.
3. They are men with big souls.
H.E. Schmul was a man that characterized this as well as any. He could embrace others that didn’t agree with him on every jot and tittle. He knew what he believed, was secure in what he believed, and wasn’t afraid to embrace his brother who was a little to the left or right of him. Though he didn’t personally identify with the more mainstream groups, he didn’t just cut them off or de-Christianize them. J. Wesley Adcock, R.G. Flexon, L.D. Wilcox, R. G. Humble, V.O. Agan, and Robb French were all men of this caliber. Robb French imposed upon himself some very rigid convictions, but never made others feel spirituality inferior for not doing the same.
4. They are men with a great capacity and love for all of life.
They are men who walk the narrow way without being narrow minded. They are not so focused on the world to come that they miss the beauty of the world that is around them. L.D. Wilcox loved the symphony and attended it often. He also had a great love for growing flowers, especially roses. Dr. Dale Yocum was a great lover of science. He was at home gazing at the constellations or talking with the animals. H.E. Schmul loved traveling and was extremely knowledgeable of Civil War History. Millard Downing never lost his love for farming and farm animals. Larry Smith is quite knowledgeable of antiques and architecture.
5. They have inquisitive minds that have been developed by constant learning.
They are well read in the Bible, theology, and history. They have read some of the great literature and the classics. They stay abreast of current Christian thought. Their reading has prepared them to speak forcefully to the issues of contemporary life and the current trends in theological thought. Richard Taylor, Dennis Kinlaw, Larry Smith, and Bobby French are examples of this.
6. They know how to tell a good story.
They understand the value of a good illustration and know how to tell it with great effect. Millard Downing, Standley Kendall, Paul Lucas, and R.G. Flexon perfected this art. Richard Taylor uses illustrations with the most precision of any I have heard. His stories always enlighten and make the point well. Great preachers know that the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning.
7. They preach the Bible—all of it. They are not “one stringed” preachers.
Some preachers are always on a “crusade” for their personal agenda. Great preachers understand that they are Ambassadors for Heaven and that they must speak the whole counsel of God. Great preachers don’t just ride a hobbyhorse or seek to be known for a single emphasis. H.E. Schmul said to me once, “Avery, I am not just a ‘holiness preacher.’” He went on to explain that there was more to preach than the doctrine of entire-sanctification (though he firmly embraced it, preached it effectively, and saw it as central in redemption). He admonished me to preach all of the great themes of the Bible.
8. They maintain their individuality and preach out of their own personal gifts and strengths.
Almost every time Larry Smith preaches in chapel he says apologetically, “I’m not an expositor, or a firstly, secondly, and thirdly preacher. I’m just an exhorter.” Yet, when Larry lets God use him, just as he is, I know of none that can equal his eloquence and depth. J.W. Adcock had a photographic memory and could quote his sermons verbatim with great effect, while R. G. Humble, V.O. Agan, and R.G. Flexon read every word of theirs with the same great effect. Millard Downing had no equal in illustrative story telling. His ability to use words to graphically describe biblical truth made his ministry both captivating and powerful. L.D. Wilcox was not a captivating speaker, yet his ability to take a profound theological truth and make it understandable to even children was his strength, and he worked effectively from that vantage point. Great preachers are comfortable with their style and use it for God’s glory. If you ever heard O.W. Willis, you could never forget the cadence of his speaking. Men like Bud Robinson and August Leulf turned speech impediments into a means of captivating an audience. R.E. Carroll would occasionally punctuate his preaching with a piercing shout. As unconventional as it may have been, it added something to his ministry. Wingrove Taylor stands a still as a statue, speaks in a conversational tone, and alliterates every line. All of these men are very different, yet all very effective. God needs individual personalities to pour his truth through!
9. Their ministry is marked by the optimism of grace.
Great preachers are like the tide; they lift people. The story is told that when the great Scottish preacher, George Matheson, begin to preach in Edinburgh, an old lady who lived a dark, dirty cellar moved to an apartment in an attic that was light and airy. When asked about her move she said, “You cannot hear George Matheson preach and live in a cellar.” The ministry of great preachers can be summed up in words spoken about Job, “Your words have upheld him who was stumbling, and you have strengthened the feeble knees.”
My life has been blessed by the unique contributions of many great preachers. It is my prayer that the young men of tomorrow’s pulpit will allow God to use them to make their unique contribution to His Kingdom.