What Makes a Great Preacher?

As 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.”

“True,” answered the very weary wife, “and probably one fewer than you think!”

What 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 agree.

Great preachers are persons of great personal integrity before they are great pulpiteers.

Phillips 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

Brooks had in mind especially issues of personal character. Some people have argued that the character of a minister is incidental to his work including his 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.

Historian 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. 

Brooks 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.      

Great preachers tend to feel deeply; they are passionate souls.  

Their love is focused in two directions- – toward their fellow man and Godward. Especially do they have a devout love of Christ. 

Take Bernard of Clairvaux for example. He 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 still in our hymnals nearly a thousand years later such as “Jesus the Very Thought of Thee.”

Great preachers have a passion to preach.

They tend to have in common the desire to set others ablaze with the fire that burns in their own souls. More than forty 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.”

Some 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. 

George 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 double.

Great preachers are anchored to the Bible.

John 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 booksbut they are anchored to the Bible supremely.

Clarence E. 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, “My preaching has been based entirely on the Bible.”

Great preachers are relevant.

I 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. 

Clyde Fant and Bill Pinson, came to one over-arching conclusion at the end of their monumental study of ninety preachers that issued in 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.”

Charles 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.”

Some preachers today studiously avoid disturbing the status quo. They never preach sermons that deal with ethical issues like abortion, race relations, gambling, world hunger, and 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.  

Great preachers are overcomers.

An 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.  

Thomas 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. 

His 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.   

Great preachers are given to thinking and meditation.

Not 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.

Take 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 twenty-nine, 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. 

When 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.

F. 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.          

Great preachers have a shepherd’s heart.

They 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.  

George 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.”         

Great preachers walk with the Lord. 

Some 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.” 

John 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. 

John 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. 

F. 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.” 

Great preachers work hard.

In 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!

Consider 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. 

When 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 goes to his office. 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 to New York City’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1911. We 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.