What does an African American Pentecostal pastor in Dallas have in common with a Presbyterian pastor in California, a retired Disciples of Christ professor, a young church planter in Charlotte, and a pastor with Southern Baptist roots in Atlanta? They are simply five of the best preachers in America today.
While their styles are diverse, they are some of the most highly effective communicators of the gospel in our generation. My picks in no particular order are T.D. Jakes of The Potter’s House in Dallas, John Ortberg of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, Steven Furtick of Elevation Church in Charlotte, Fred Craddock, professor of Preaching, emeritus, at Candler School of Theology at Emory University and Andy Stanley of North Point Church in Atlanta.
In 2001, Time magazine called T.D. Jakes America’s best preacher and wondered if he might be the next Billy Graham. Jakes’ preaching displays an incredible knowledge and familiarity with Scripture. He often recites passages from memory and can bring some of the most obscure passages in Scripture to life. In his church, which is predominately black, he often uses phrases filled with alliteration and passion which reflect the best of African American preaching. However, to pigeonhole him as preacher to one race, is to miss the amazing breadth of this man. I have heard him speak to world leaders at a Willow Creek Leadership Summit and he always tailors his message to his audience. He barely raised his voice in that context and yet the content of his message had the audience spellbound. I still remember his message that day on “Four Leadership Styles from the Life of Moses.” I rarely see him look at a note and yet his message is always cogent and organized. In addition to preaching he is a song writer, playwright, and movie maker. He is clearly one of the leading preachers in America today.
CJohn Ortberg of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church is one of my favorite preachers to listen to. Preachers have the task of making complex issues simple and Ortberg is a master at communicating deep truths in understandable ways. Ortberg developed a long friendship with one of Christianity’s greatest thinkers in Dallas Willard. Willard’s books are incredibly dense and filled with meaning but sometimes hard to access for the common reader. Ortberg calls his book “The Life You’ve Always Wanted” Dallas for Dummies. It takes a much skill to make eternal truths accessible to people and Ortberg has that gift. On SermonCentral.com 10/26/2011 Ortberg said this about Biblical preaching, “It’s About Working the Soap of the Word Deeply Through the Stained Fibers of Hearers’ Hearts” Ortberg says the goal of preaching is “not to get the people all the way through the Word but to get the Word all the way through the people.” (SermonCentral). Ortberg has taught me to ask three questions as I prepare sermons: 1)What do I want them to know? 2) What do I want them to feel? What do I want them to do? I ask these questions as I prepare sermons today.
teven Furtick is my guilty pleasure favorite preacher. I listen to his podcast almost every week. Furtick breaks the stereotype of having to do a sermon in a half hour or less. He often preaches close to an hour, but listeners are spellbound because of the passion with which he communicates the message. At 33 years old, he understands and speaks the language of this generation. Lest you think Furtick is all passion, however, his content reveals the fact that he puts many hours of study into each message. I often listen to him while I am jogging and I often end up either shouting “Yes!” or I break down crying as the power of the Word hits me while he preaches. He gets loud while he preaches and sometimes breaks into song, but his messages are very easy to follow and very memorable. He uses current technology, and powerful illustrations in order to bring his points home. He preached a sermon about David last year called “The Horn, The Sword, and the Robe”, that was life changing for me. The coolest thing ever, however, was that I tweeted him thanking him for encouraging me in one of his messages and he tweeted me back and asked for my phone number and called me. Elevation Church has thousands of members and multiple campuses but that one act of kindness spoke volumes to me about who Steven Furtick is. He is also a great author and you should read his books. His latest is Crash the Chatterbox: Hearing God’s Voice Above All Others. You should also read Sun Stand Still and Greater. I just turned fifty and I listen to Furtick because he keeps me current. He understands this culture like few other preachers I have heard. But most of all, Furtick is the real deal.
Fred Craddock is the one academic on my list, but he made my list not because he is a great lecturer about Preaching, but because he is an amazing preacher. Craddock was one of the foremost teachers of preaching until his retirement. My seminary textbook called “Preaching” was written by Craddock. Although Craddock was a mainline pastor in the Disciples of Christ denomination, don’t imagine him as dry and esoteric. Craddock is one of the most folksy storytellers among preachers that I know. Craddock has the perfect blend of doing the Biblical work to explain what was happening when the original hearers heard the Scriptures and then brilliantly translating the message into the common vernacular. If I were a student who wanted to learn how to preach and be faithful to the text, I would listen to every sermon I could by Craddock and read everything that he has written about preaching. His book “Overhearing the Gospel” is a classic. He contends that as we preach, its not our words that produce life change, but rather that people “overhear” the gospel as we preach. I have had the opportunity to hear him preach live on several occasions and I have always come away deeply impacted by the message. Craddock grew up in Tennessee and attended Johnson Bible College in Knoxville. He never lost the story telling ability that is so native to rural Tennessee where he grew up.
Finally, Andy Stanley, is a preacher that I have learned so much from. He is encouraging to me because he is the son of another famous preacher, Charles Stanley. I am also the son of a pastor and preacher and I love to see how the preaching gift passes from one generation to the next. As a preacher’s kid, Andy and his father model how it is good and possible to have completely different styles in order to reach a different audience. Andy is not simply riding on his father’s coat tails. It is true that he got a tremendous start to his church by being able to launch with a significant congregation made up from people from his father’s church. He has proven, however, to be an incredible communicator and innovator in the modern church. Andy is a strong proponent of the “one point” sermon. His sermons always contain one big idea which he tries to boil down to one sentence. He calls this “the phrase that pays.” One always comes away from his sermons with a clear understanding of what he was trying to communicate. He is also very clear about who is audience is. Stanley contends that our churches should say “no” to a lot more things than we say “yes” to. He urges people to figure out what their church is really good at and focus on that rather than trying to be all things to all people. Andy pushes the envelope on technology and even uses a hologram of himself on one campus. I’m told by people who have attended that it is so real that many people think that his is actually there. So if you are wanting to learn from the best preachers in America, you can’t do much better than T.D. Jakes, John Ortberg, Steven Furtick, Fred Craddock, and Andy Stanley.