My friend George sent me a brief email on Sunday: “Don’t know if you’ve heard but Fred Craddock died a couple of days ago.” That’s a name that probably means nothing to you. That’s a name and a man that means so very much to me. Craddock is one of the four great influences in the way I go about preparing and preaching a sermon.
One of Craddock’s well known sermons is about John the Baptist. The title? “Have You Ever Heard John Preach?” Well, I did when I heard Craddock’s sermon. Have you ever heard Fred preach? If you did, you’ll never forget him. I know I won’t.
Fred was small in stature—think Zacchaeus. I read where Fred often called his son, a much larger man than he, “a block off the old chip.” But when he stood to preach he must have been nine feet tall. I first heard him at the Hester Lectures on Preaching when I was a student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in either 1979 or 1980. And though he didn’t “preach” in those lectures, the preaching he described lit a fire in my soul. I’d never been content with typical Baptist preaching: three points (alliterated if possible and forced if necessary) and a poem. Within each point offer explanation, illustration, and application. Tell ‘em what you’re going say, say it, tell ‘em what you said. Every Sunday every sermon sounds like the Sunday before. Pardon me while I yawn. I’m not saying that such preaching is not biblical, nor am I suggesting that God doesn’t inspire and use that kind of preaching. God has used that style for centuries. A lot of preachers do it well, and a lot of Christians profit from it.
But for a preacher like me, that style was like wearing Saul’s armor. It didn’t fit who God wired me to be. So Craddock, without knowing it, sort of gave me permission to be the preacher God was calling me to be. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not claiming to preach like Fred Craddock. Nobody preaches like Fred Craddock except Fred Craddock—the man was in a league of his own.
But some of the things that drove his preaching are the things that drive mine: humility, kindness, image, story, everyday life, subtle humor, a respect for words, a respect for the congregation, a desire to bring the Bible to life in ways that leaves the hearer engaged, occasionally surprised, and thinking, “Why that Bible story is my story.” Craddock’s preaching reminded me that the Bible is a story before it is a book of principles, propositions and points, and that maybe, for at least some of us, we’d rather leave worship with a full heart instead of a full notebook.
Craddock was sometimes criticized that his sermons were weak on “application”—he believed it wiser to leave that work to the Holy Spirit and to the listener. (I hate to admit that he probably trusts both more than I do.) Yet I never heard or read one of his sermons when I wasn’t moved to respond in some way. When I heard Craddock preach, God always got a little bigger for me and I wanted to be a better Christian. Tell me what’s weak about that application.
Fred Craddock didn’t know me from Adam—never had a one-on-one, face-to-face conversation with him in my life. Still, I feel like I’ve lost a friend. Thankfully, he will continue to live on my bookshelves, in a few recordings of his sermons, and in the way I think about preaching. The kingdom of God has lost a giant. I’m just thankful that while he strode the earth, a little bit of his shadow fell on me.