I shared the stage with several top-drawer preachers on July 6 at the funeral of Wayne Smith, who for many years led Southland Christian Church, Lexington’s largest Protestant congregation.
The other speakers at Smith’s funeral included luminaries including Jon Weece, Southland’s current lead follower/elder, and Bob Russell, retired senior minister at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville.
In his heyday, Smith himself, of course, ranked among the pulpit’s greats.
To be clear, I definitely do not rank up there. Not by a long shot. I never even took a seminary course in homiletics. I never even graduated from a seminary.
But I’ve had the privilege of hearing world-class preachers, and I’ve interviewed a few.
Listening to the elite at Smith’s funeral got me thinking about the qualities that make some preachers great.
I’m not talking about the qualities that make a pastor great. Pastors lead a church flock. They visit the sick, mediate among the deacons, raise money for new church buildings. That requires a much different set of skills than preaching requires.
Of course many preachers are pastors, too.
But I’m talking in this column only about preaching, about the ability to stand behind a pulpit and deliver sermons that electrify the masses, that change hearts.
Skeptical Benjamin Franklin told of hearing British evangelist George Whitefield preach in 1739. Whitefield took an offering to build an orphanage in Georgia.
“I silently resolved he should get nothing from me,” Franklin wrote. “I had in my Pocket a Handful of Copper Money, three or four silver Dollars, and five Pistoles in Gold. As he proceeded I began to soften, and concluded to give the Coppers. Another Stroke of his Oratory made me asham’d of that, and determin’d me to give the Silver; and he finish’d so admirably, that I emptied my Pocket wholly into the Collector’s Dish, Gold and all.”
Franklin also printed some of Whitefield’s promotional literature. He concluded that the preacher was entirely trustworthy, by the way.
From my own observations in more recent times, I’d suggest eight qualities great preachers bring to the pulpit:
▪ Study. No matter how unrehearsed their sermons may sound, the best preachers rarely wing it. They may or may not be intellectuals — some are, some aren’t — but they prepare extensively. They study Scripture, concordances, commentaries and even pop culture. They organize, write, rewrite and practice. They think and think and pray and pray.
▪ Simplicity. The best possess an ability to make thorny theological issues accessible to lay people who might not be versed in the subject and who might be distracted by a half-dozen personal issues. The best of the best don’t dumb down the content, though. They don’t pander. They just have a knack for explaining. They know how to draw analogies. They make the complex easier to grasp.
▪ Storytelling. Every great preacher is a spellbinding storyteller. Jesus himself employed stories to illuminate his sermons, and 2,000 years later those tales remain part of our common lore: the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the widow’s mite. Similarly, top preachers today can bring you to the edge of your pew, or to the brink of tears, with a short, sharp story.
▪ Sense of humor. There are a handful of terrific preachers who never crack a smile. But they’re the exception. More often, the greats tend to be very funny. Southland Christian’s Smith was once dubbed “the Bob Hope of the Ministry.” Some of the funniest things I’ve ever heard, I heard from pulpits.
▪ Spontaneity. Top-notch preachers can intuitively read their audiences. They know when to go off-script in mid-sermon. They’ll ad lib. They know at once whether to expand on a point that’s working or drop one that isn’t.
▪ Sincerity. The best believe what they’re saying — often because they’ve lived it. There’s a time-worn adage among writers: “Write what you know.” Similarly, great preachers preach what they know. If you listen to them regularly, you’ll find that they tend to have just one or two themes that drive them, subjects they return to again and again: grace, for instance, or racial justice, or salvation. It’s whatever they’ve experienced themselves, whatever has dominated or changed their lives.
▪ Self-deprecation. Away from the podium, some great preachers, like accomplished people from any profession, can be prima donnas. But in the pulpit, most come across as humble, approachable and more or less human. They talk about their shortcomings. They are, or pretend to be, refreshingly transparent.
▪ Spiritual transcendence. No matter what talents they were born with and have honed through hard work, preachers don’t become great without something else. It’s what we Pentecostals call “the anointing.” It’s something only God can add, a double dose of the Spirit, the ability to reach into heaven like some ancient prophet and pull lightning and archangels down to Earth, where we mortals can behold them. That can’t be taught. A preacher either has it or doesn’t. Only God gets to decide who receives the anointing.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.