Passing the Torch: An Interview with James Meeks and Charlie Dates

Preaching: It is unusual to have someone grow up in a church to come back and become the senior pastor of that church years later. How did all this come about? What was the process that led you to this point where Dr. Dates is coming in to succeed you at Salem? 

Meeks: Charlie served our church a number of years – I think about six or seven as preaching pastor. Our services are live every Sunday and every Wednesday on television. So once a month, I didn’t preach and the preaching pastor does the preaching and the teaching. Charlie did that for about six years and he was so faithful to the task of preaching, our church just fell in love with him. 

One day (year ago) I said to the church that if I am on one of the overseas trips – the choir and I traveled with Luis Palau during his lifetime, going overseas, doing crusades – I said, “If something happens, I want Reverend Dates to be the pastor of the church. So now everybody knows it, we don’t have to have any confusion.” So we voted right then that Charlie would succeed me. And so I always had my eyes on Charlie as a successor – not as a possible successor, as a successor. 

Preaching: Charlie, had you always had a sense that was going to happen? 

Dates: No, I had not. I’m one of multiple kids who came through the Salem system, as it were, who received the favor and the grace of both the pastor and Mrs. Meeks. I came in the system as a kid. So there’s a sense in which now that I look back over life, I see it. I see it unfolding in some striking and unusual ways. 

What I did notice over time is that my personality and the way that I felt God has shaped me fit with Pastor Meeks and the system really well. Kirstie and I talk about it, I have a bent toward this ministry. My biography leans in that direction. And so I noticed, though over time, that Pastor Meeks was entrusting me with more responsibility and he was giving me the keys to the car in a sense. 

And he was trusting me with his credibility. I noticed that was a bit more than I saw other people getting it. And so in my mind, the response to that was to just be faithful with it, regardless of where it would lead to. I’ll be honest with you: the announcement that I would be the contingency successor that he just described was news to me. I mean, I think like any 20 something year old kid, I was blown away by it; I couldn’t believe that he would see that in me. 

And then he let me go, but kept his hand on me, so to speak. And in doing that, I mean, my ministry has flourished in connection to it. So I see now what I didn’t see when I was a kid in my 20s. 

Preaching: Transitions can be bumpy or smooth. So far, it looks like it’s been a pretty smooth transition. But in what ways do you all see each other as similar to each other? And in what ways are you different? 

Meeks: I think we are similar in our love for preaching. 

Dates: Yes. Yes. 

Meeks: I think that we are similar in the fact that we believe that preaching can solve everything. We’re similar in the fact that we think that preaching is the answer, and we are students of preaching – we know that preaching doesn’t just happen. You don’t just get up and all of a sudden you’ve got a lot of great stuff to say. Preaching is an art, it’s a craft, and time must be put into preaching. 

And as a matter of fact, when you walk out of the pulpit on Sunday, your number one burden has to be what you’re going to preach the next Sunday. And it has to be a burden on you until the next sermon is finished. Both of us share the exact same thing – once he finishes preaching, he’s burdened about what he is going to preach next. And then he gets into the study and he wrestles with where God is taking him next. And that has been me for 42 years. 

Dates: Yeah. I would say amen and amen to that. I think the brilliance of Rev. Meeks’ preaching ministry has made my preaching more palatable. So there are many weeks I can’t count him where he’ll call. We’ll be talking about whatever and he’ll say, “Now what you talking about on Sunday?” And so I started telling him, but because he’s been preaching for all these decades, he’s preached a lot of these texts two or three times. And so he’ll say things and I’ll write them down. And so I’ll get in the sermonic moment and I say, “I’m going to use one of these lines.” True story. They end up being the best lines of my sermon and the lines people remember. 

And I think even when I was listening to him today, he has the mind of a logician and a philosopher in preaching. So that’s one thing. The other thing is I would say our care and concern for Black people and the church’s responsibility to serve marginalized people. Where Salem is and what Salem has done is an outstanding illustration of what the church in America can be about and should be about more. 

As the sons and daughters of Salem, we talk about this all the time. We saw him lead the church into so much that we actually think we can do some of this stuff! So it’s quite shocking when it doesn’t work for us the way it worked for him, but there is that burden that the gospel is not a pretty message to preach alone. It is an action that must be lived out in the community. People have got to be able to fell it and to see it. 

I think ways we are maybe not so much alike: he’s way more charismatic and winsome in his own way. That’s very natural for him. And so I work at some of those things. 

Preaching: Where do you see the differences between the two of you? 

Meeks: I think that he’s much more studious than I am and I think that he’s much more of an academician than I am. And I think that the academic approach to preaching, like Tony Evans, is a strong gift to the body. Preachers who’ve gone to school and studied their craft, they’re able to get much more out of a text than people who didn’t. And so I would want to hold him up as an example to other pastors that these things called education and ministry goes hand in hand. 

You take the Apostle Paul, who was obviously an academician. The only person who could have done what Paul did was Paul. And Paul was brilliant. The only person who could have done what Luke did was Luke, but Luke was also an educated man. So it takes all of it. I mean, we have some of the other apostles who were obviously not as educated – when they perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant, they took knowledge of them that they had been with Jesus. 

Now don’t get me wrong: being with Jesus adds a whole lot, but being an academic mind and getting your craft through foundational training can add a whole lot, too. 

Preaching: Both of you are obviously very committed to the preaching of the gospel, preaching scripture, but are there similarities and differences in your particular approaches to preaching? Charlie, how would your preaching differ from Pastor Meeks and how would it be similar? 

Dates: I think one of the differences is just generational. It is that he came of age preaching in the ’70s and the ’80s and I came of age preaching in the early 2000s. So what it takes to understand culture and society would be something that’s a shift in terms of approach. If you talk to him, it’s very clear that he is one of the brightest minds in the pulpit. And when you look at the fruit of the ministry, with so many people responding to it, what you see is a kind of approach that chose to be profound by being simple. 

I met a woman in the early 2000s, she was an accountant. Her husband was a pediatric gastroenterologist and they lived in a different city than Chicago. In fact, she lives in a different state now, but she still attends Salem religiously every Sunday. And her husband – a lot of money, super bright guy, does surgery on infants. He sat down in the living room with me and said, “Man, I wasn’t going to any church. We would try churches. I went to Salem. Reverend Meeks got to my mind. It was just the way he explained the Bible and preached.” And that guy got saved. And now at that time, I was a student in seminary and it occurred to me that some of the biggest and strongest churches in America were pastored by guys who had not gone to do all of the education but that the Lord had given them an incredible depth and treasure of wisdom. Pastor Meeks chose to make it plain and that’s something I’m trying to do in my preaching now. So that’s one way in terms of approach. 

I think one way that we are similar in terms of approach is what I call a very high view of scripture. The answers to the problems are locked in those pages, and if we would just be true to that, whether times are good or bad or whatever, then that’ll solve it. So in terms of my generation, I’m thinking more about the skeptic these days, more about the person who wrestles with doubt and concern and folks who are losing any grasp on the moorings that we once held onto. And I’m trying to drive in that direction. 

Meeks: I’ve always thought in terms of the common people. The Bible says the common people heard Jesus gladly. So that simply means to me that regular, plain, ordinary people, they were attracted to Jesus’ teaching and if they heard him gladly and they were attracted to him, it must have been something about his teaching that they understood. And so I embraced simplicity a long time ago. And because I wasn’t eloquent, you had to have enough sense to know that if you’re not eloquent, you just better be simple. 

But I embraced it in such a way that I did not mind and I do not mind even now people not having a high view of me. Two preachers, Joseph Parker and Charles Spurgeon, were contemporaries. It is said that when people came to hear Joseph Parker preach in the morning, they’d say, “Man, that guy was great. He was this. He was that.” And that night when they went to hear Spurgeon, they would say, “What a wonderful God we have.” And that’s really all I wanted in the end. I didn’t care if people didn’t remember my name. I didn’t care if people didn’t think I waxed this or that. I just wanted people to really know God and to get him in a way that they would have a relationship with him that they never had before. So I just felt simplicity was the route. 

Dates: So let me say this too. One of the ways he’s challenged me in preaching is that when I was on staff for him and for the Salem Baptist Church, he’d say, “Man, you got a choice to make when you’re building a porch in your sermon.” And he said, “Every house needs support. You need to find a way to get people. Number one, your porch is too long.” And he said that you are choosing to stay in Jerusalem and not get into Chicago fast enough. 

That helped me. And I think a lot of seminarians have this because when you’re coming out of seminary, you just get all of this academic stuff and you’re trained by academic people. So what I learned was is that Jerusalem is for Chicago. Athens is for Chicago. And what happens in that localized geographical context has to be made relevant to the world today. So my preaching has been strengthened, and my devotional life has been – those kinds of comments where he chose to get to Chicago quicker has helped. 

Meeks: People come to church and lend you their mind; they’re going to lend you their mind for a good 30 minutes. For 30 minutes, you got it. They will loan you their mind. There might be a chance they’ll give you 15 more minutes if what you said the first 30 minutes is really making sense. And while you have it, I’ve always figured that if I had to spend 10 minutes on how this was relating to a text and another 20 minutes on how this applies to your life, I’m going to take the other 20 minutes on how this applies to your life. 

I know we have biblically illiterate people in our congregations, but they are there to come to church more so to hear about how can this affect me and my life and my children than they do how many stairs were in the Psalms of Ascension? Whether they were 14 or 15, whether or not the sons of Korah were married or whether or not the ground swallowed them up on Friday or Thursday. 

That’s not what they’re concerned about. They’re concerned about the price of gas and grocery and does Jesus care about that and the struggle that I’m having. That’s all they care about. So you got to get to them quicker than ever before. 

Dates: So I don’t know if you gave me this quote, I took it straight from him and I read it elsewhere. He would say, “Charlie, the mind can only absorb what the seat can endure.” I held on to that. And people these days cannot sit as long as they used to. 

Preaching: Speaking of how long people will listen – how long is a typical sermon for you? 

Meeks: About 35, 40 minutes maybe. 

Preaching: Charlie, how does that compare to you? 

Dates: I’m getting there! I do think I’ve trimmed back quite a bit the last few years. Consistently this year, I’m about that 35, 40 minutes. 

Preaching: How long do you spend preparing a typical message? 

Dates: I don’t know that I have an average. I’m planning my preaching before it’s time to preach. So like tonight, I started the work on this text weeks ago and I started pulling ideas and reading over weeks. It’s hard for me to actually attach an hour to it. What I will say is it’s a multi-step process sometimes over days, sometimes over weeks. And it typically begins with doing just the nuts and bolts textual work, translating a passage, doing an exegetical diagram, trying to work my way to an exegetical idea and then polishing it to a homiletical idea. And then from there trying to figure out how the structure of the text will lend to the structure of the sermon. 

What I’ve seen is a change that I’m trying to make. I spend so much time during the week doing that, that by the time I get to the middle or end of the week, I don’t have enough time or I’ve not used the time in a way where I’m figuring out how to actually get the hay to where the horses will eat it. So I’m actually in transition right now in trying to spend more days turning those ideas, searching for illustrations and looking for call to action. 

That’s the other thing that I would say is a distinction that I’ve adopted from Pastor Meeks. His sermons are calling for the church to do something, not just the individuals, but the collective church to do something. And so I’m searching through that in my mind, during the course of the week. 

Meeks: That is very simple. So when I’m preaching through a book of the Bible – Luke, First Corinthians – Sunday night when I walk out of the pulpit, I am already thinking in terms (of next Sunday) because I know where I left off. So I know that I’m preaching seven verses of Luke chapter five, whatever. Monday morning and Tuesday, I am reading all the commentaries, the study materials that I have on those verses. So I know that the background of the text is out of the way. By Thursday, I have to frame it out what it is the passage is saying. It’s not necessarily what I’m going to talk about. What did the passage talk about and what relevant message is in there for people? 

My goal is by Friday at noon to have a finished manuscript. And I do that for selfish purposes because I want Friday night to myself and to my family. I want Saturday. I don’t want to be dealing with the struggle in the toil. I think that too many preachers are letting Sunday catch them. In other words, they’re into Saturday and they’re still under some pressure. I think you got to get the pressure off yourself by Friday at noon. So I think that everything from Sunday night to Friday at noon has to lead itself toward you completing the process so that you can have your weekend free. You can go into the pulpit free. 

Dates: And I caught this from him years ago, he used to talk about it. Didn’t you all used to go bowling on Fridays? 

Meeks: We used to go bowling on Friday night. 

Dates: He and his family did that, so he had to have the sermon done before bowling time. And I think about this as my kids are getting older; kids get out of school on Friday and they are off on Saturday. When they’re off, they need their daddy to have some free time. So I feel it from that angle. 

I also feel it from another angle, Frank Thomas calls it creative dislocation. He says that you need time before Sunday away from the writing of the sermon to let the balls fall into the holes. And the penalty of rushing into Sunday is that you end up having a better idea on Tuesday. So if you can finish it and let it breathe, then your mind can relax and do the work and be ready. 

Meeks: Most preachers are so stressed on the weekend. They’re just stressed out. They’re just stressed on Thursday, all day Friday, all day Saturday. And it’s still Saturday night, they’re wrestling with something. That’s unfair to you and God for you to have to wrestle on that. But you have to discipline yourself to be through at a certain point. Like I said, Friday at noon for me is it. If I’m not done Friday at noon, then I stop everything and nothing else happens until I get through because you just have to have it done and complete for your own sanity’s sake. 

Preaching: As you move forward with your succession plan, how will you know it’s been a successful transition? 

Meeks: When we don’t have to talk at all about any persons or personnel or things that we outlined in the transition, when we don’t even have to discuss it. 

Dates: Something happened to me on the Sunday we made the announcement. That church responded in such a roar that it affirmed my sense of God’s direction and Pastor Meeks’ long proclaimed sense of God’s direction. I think after some time, when the church is okay without seeing him every week and is yet doing what the church was started to do, then I think that’s a marker for me. But what I hope is that the hardest part is behind us. And the hardest part was just getting to the announcement and getting all the details arranged and all that. And now we’re just we’re waiting for God to bring all the pieces together. 

Preaching: One of the unusual aspects of this process is that you’re still going to pastor at Progressive as well as becoming pastor of one of the largest churches in the country. How do you see that working? 

Dates: Let me say first that the revitalization that Progressive has experienced is a revitalization that many of our churches are languishing for, yearning for. The revitalization that happened in Progressive is a gift of God, but it is directly tied to the ministry of Salem. There are people out there right now at Progressive who came out of Salem too, who got exposed to the possibility of ministry. So I wonder if the Lord will do for other churches who are struggling during this pandemic, help them come back to life by more of what Salem did for us, what Reverend Meeks has done for me – that there’s a chance that this revitalization, the training, the journey, the spark, whatever you want to call it, can infect other churches who are open to it. 

In other words, all the things we learned and heard and saw that we are trying to do now has to be entrusted to other people who will do it also. I just wonder if we can systematize that in some way. And so what I’m hoping is before I’m done at Progressive and at Salem exclusively, is that will become attractive to some other churches that we actually find a way to help strengthen younger preachers to go into these churches and equip the churches. So a larger platform and a pipeline. All of that is to say it took us a while to get to the point where we were okay with this arrangement. And I made it clear to Salem and to Progressive, I sense my spiritual biography bends in the direction of Salem. 

I want to see some of the vision that God has given us at Progressive – that we are in the middle of right now – to see that accomplished. But I have to applaud Progressive for having the maturity and the openness to see this happen. The churches are 11, 12 miles apart. We’re in the middle of building a counseling and justice center, along with a few other things. If I walked away right now with those things up in the air, it could really hinder some of that church’s work. That’s my human perspective on it, but I want to applaud them because they said to me at the membership meeting, “Hey, when it comes time for you to go, we know the time is coming, will you recommend an awesome candidate?” That was the question. So I think that this is unusual, but it serves a purpose and I don’t fully know what that purpose is. 

Rev. Meeks built the biggest church one could under one roof in the state of Illinois and beyond. All right? I’d love to see us build the biggest church we can under multiple roofs to help some of our languishing churches, if they are willing to come back to life. Can these bones live? Salem is a mother global church that has a DNA to be multiplied in other churches and cities around the country to do some of the same thing. It’d be a shame to see all of this happening just limited to one place. So I’m curious to see how God is going to unfold it. I’m just walking about faith. 

I’m not a glutton for for punishment. I’m going to preach the same sermon (at both churches). It’ll be the same sermon, but twice. And we’re going to move the worship services so that they will be in tandem. And when he’s ready and willing, he’ll come and preach from time to time. I do need to say this though. Progressive was about 150 people on a Sunday morning, average age 65 when we came in 2011. It’s more than a thousand people now through the course of a month, more than that on the books. And it’s grown a lot younger. So the arrangement is unusual, but the church is different now, too. And that, I think is a work of the spirit of God for this moment. This could not have happened five years ago like this. I’d just have had to walk away. 

Preaching: Any counsel for pastors and churches wondering if something like this could be in their future? 

Meeks: I think that there are a lot of preachers around the country who are wondering: how did Charlie and I pull this off? How did we come together? I do think that with Charlie being the preaching assistant at Salem, it helped because the people knew him and they loved him and they were already endeared to him. I do think that too many preachers are trying to do it all and suffering from burnout. And if there are pastors that you’re writing to who can catch a vision that it may be okay once a month to grab a young guy and allow him to speak into the life of the congregation, once a month. Number one, it gives the pastor a week off of preparation and time to rest. That’s number one. Number two, it gives the church an opportunity to hear other voices. That’s where the pipeline is going to be developed. 

Now, all of a sudden, everybody’s coming to me asking, “How do you find a Charlie Dates? I want to quit too. I want to lead to, but I don’t have nobody.” Well, Charlie was the leading candidate, but we have about five guys that I could have plugged in. But all five of these guys have preached consistently at our church. And pastors are going to have to give other preachers on staff opportunities to speak to the masses and see who is starting to rise head and shoulders above everybody else. So we would start trying some of that. 

Dates: I would say to some younger preachers that you gain everything and lose nothing by honoring your parents in the ministry, that there is a symbiotic relationship that is very natural to the church. It’s an honor to succeed Rev. Meeks. I’d have never considered it on my own, but it’s an honor to do it. And I feel I have a sacred trust and charge now to see to it that as they Pastor and Mrs. Meeks start to get a break a bit more and move into something else, that they are able to do so confident that the church is going to be okay, as well as that they’re able to be blessed by the church. 

So for me, it’s an honor. I’ve seen some of the sacrifices he’s made and there are many others that God has seen that I’ve not seen. And I feel a holy burden now to see to it that they get to enjoy some stuff they did not get to enjoy as much of. So that’s what I would say. On the same times, he’s asking, he’s saying, “Hey, make room for others.” I’m saying it’s a privilege to get in, because he who brings a prophet of cool drink of water will get the prophet’s reward. 

Meeks: And I know exactly what God wants me to do next: be a consultant to Preaching magazine! That’s exactly what he’s calling me to do next. So here’s my phone number and whenever you all need some advice, let me know. 

Preaching: That sounds like a great plan!

Salem Baptist Church in Chicago is one of the largest churches in America, and it was recently announced that Senior Pastor James Meeks is retiring and will be succeeded by Charlie Dates, who grew up in Salem, served there as Associate Pastor, and is now serving at Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, where he will continue to serve as pastor in addition to serving Salem as Senior Pastor. Michael Duduit recently met with both men (at the EK Bailey Preaching Conference, where both were speaking) to discuss the succession process for two of the nation’s best-known preachers.