Editor’s Note: This article is part of a preaching series from Southwestern Dean of Theology David Allen. To view the series, click here.
From 1968 to 1974, under the superb expository preaching of the then unknown Jerry Vines, no less than three dozen men and women were called by God to full-time Christian service out of West Rome Baptist Church in Rome, Georgia. One of them was a 16 year old junior in high school. For a period of six months, I knew that God had been dealing with me about His call on my life. On November 18, 1973, I walked down the aisle at the conclusion of our Sunday night service and told my pastor God had called me to preach. The call to preach was as clear and real to me as my own salvation experience a few years earlier. I would sooner doubt my salvation than my call to preach.
Later that night, after pizza and coke at a local restaurant with several in our youth group, I returned home. I was too keyed up to sleep, so I went outside, lay down on the hood of dad’s old Chevrolet Impala, and gazed up at the sky. The breeze played its haunting tune through the tops of the tall Georgia pines that studded our front yard. The words of a recent sermon from Dr. Vines ticker-taped across my mind. He was referencing 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 and 2 Corinthians 5:10 about how we all must stand at the Bema of Christ to give an account for our lives. Works of gold silver and precious stones abide, but wood, hay and stubble is burned. Forever etched in my mind are these words: “Some Christians will stand before the Lord in that day and press into the nail-scarred hands of Jesus the charred embers of a wasted life.” I remember praying: “Oh God, don’t let that be me.”
I began to seize upon every opportunity to preach, from nursing homes to churches. Floyd County, so I’m told, has the distinction of having more Baptist churches per capita than any Georgia County, and from November 1973 to August 1975, I preached in many of them. Most were either one day or weekend Youth revivals. I’ll never forget my first sermon preached at a Friday night youth revival at a small country church in Plainville. Among the congregation of mostly senior adults were some 15 teenagers. I preached on the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. I described his selfish desire to leave his father’s house with his share of the inheritance; his wild party lifestyle with all of his friends in the far country; his fall from grace when daddy’s money ran out; and his dismal stint in the hog pen. I had him in the far country of drugs, sex and alcohol and I had his grieving father standing each morning on his front porch, looking with longing eyes down the winding road for a glimpse of the returning prodigal. You know the rest. My hermeneutical awareness was shockingly limited, my expositional skills were minimal, and my delivery was, shall we say, less than scintillating. All young preachers have to learn the importance of beginning to work in water colors and paint by numbers before they can create a Dutch Master. But my heart was in it and the Spirit of God was on it. That night the angels rejoiced as two teenagers entered the Kingdom of God. The 18 mile trek home down Highway 53 seemed but a millisecond; I felt as if I were being borne on wings of joy! I had been bitten by the preaching bug and its powerful force surged through my spiritual veins. From that moment, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life preaching the Word!
Our baseball coach and some fellow teammates gave some strange looks one late Friday Spring afternoon when the catcher announced he needed to leave the game after the 4th inning. Even more strange was the reason for this early exit: I had to be at a church to preach a youth revival that night at 7:00. You would have thought I had morphed into some hideous creature from a horror movie. Though they never said it, I suspect visions of the word “fanatic” danced in their heads. That made no never mind to me (a southern slang idiom that I’m not allowed to use anymore now that I am a professor). As much as I loved baseball, I loved preaching more.
In the summer after high school graduation, I was given the opportunity to serve Bush Arbor Baptist Church as their interim pastor before heading off to college. One of the oldest Baptist churches in Floyd County, it had been established on a picturesque knoll in 1857. The original building was in remarkably good shape, complete with its old wooden pews put together with wooden pegs, the pew dividers to separate the men from the women, the plaster seal visible through coats of paint just below the ceiling where the pipe of the potbelly stove intersected with the wall in a bygone era, and the large antique wooden shutters on the windows. Good deacon Cantrell escorted me around the exterior of the building and pointed out a place high atop one side of the roof that had been long ago repaired after one of Sherman’s errant Yankee cannonballs had struck it during his march through Georgia. I took his word for it. For some 15 weeks God and those sweet people gave me the privilege of standing behind the old pulpit and preaching His Word. The people endured my pulpit inexperience, not to mention my pastoral inexperience, with loving words of encouragement. Had I been willing to stay, they probably would have called me as their pastor.
But even then, as now, I believed that the call to preach is the call to prepare to preach. Though the sheepskin does not have to hang from one’s wall for God to use a man’s preaching (the history of the church is replete with men who did great preaching without it), for most of us more trees are cut in the long run when time is taken to sharpen the axe. Mine needed sharpening desperately. I recall the story of a woman who verbally accosted John Wesley one day after he had preached and said to him: “Mr. Wesley, God does not need your Oxford education!” To which Wesley is reported to have rejoined: “Nor, Madam, does He need your ignorance.” I had not yet lived long enough to learn the maxim that the horizon of my knowledge was the frontier of my ignorance, but even then I knew that my horizon was not too distant from the end of my nose.
As strange as it may seem, I had already decided on the seminary I would attend once I graduated from whatever college the Lord would lead me to. Providentially, and ironically, Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth was my planned destination. Given the condition of the other Southern Baptist seminaries at the time, it seemed the best choice. But where was I to go to college? In early May, just prior to the beginning of my short tenure as interim pastor at Bush Arbor Baptist, a young, fiery redheaded preacher filled the pulpit of my home church on a Sunday morning. With a Greek New Testament in hand he preached the Word of God with passion. His exposition was clear, his illustrations pungent and vivid, and his application practical and to the point. Meeting him after church, I learned that he was the newly elected president of a small Christian college in Dallas, Texas. With a recruiting sagacity that characterizes him to this day, Paige Patterson convinced me to come out to Dallas, stay in his home, and visit the college. I did so, and discovered that the Criswell College was the place for me. After all, it was only 32 miles to Southwestern in Fort Worth, just across the Trinity River.
In August of 1975, with trunk and back seat loaded to the max with a smattering of clothes and my library of 400 books (most of which had been given to me by an old, retired Baptist preacher), I turned the nose of my Ford Maverick into the western wind and took Horace Greeley’s advice: “Go west, young man” . . . to learn all I could about this marvelous thing called preaching. Thirty-six years later, I’m still learning.