As Baptists have grown and diversified it makes defining common characteristics more difficult. Perhaps, three well-known Baptists in current memory will help to demonstrate something of this preaching diversity, yet point to some continuing characteristics of Baptist preaching. Billy Graham, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rick Warren each represent important aspects of Baptist life and witness.
Undeniably, Billy Graham represents “evangelistic preaching” in remarkable ways. In his History of Preaching O.C. Edwards repeats the claim that “Billy Graham has probably preached to more people than any spokesman for the faith in all Christian history” – around twenty million people of whom one million have made “decisions for Christ.”[i] Graham’s emphasis on preaching personal salvation, literally holding up the Bible to demonstrate its authority, has challenged with clarity and passion. Further, his willingness to use developing technology testifies to resourceful pragmatism that sought to take advantage of every evangelistic means. Edward concludes that the most important reason explaining the power of his attraction lies in Graham’s trust in the authority of the Bible: “he has transparent conviction of his message’s utter truth. His most persuasive argument is ethos, the trustworthiness of the speaker, rather than the logos, reason, or pathos, the capacity to stir emotion.”[ii]
Graham’s evangelistic emphasis is particularly evident in the Southern Baptist denomination which forms the largest part of the Baptist world family (and has impacted many others through its missionary programmes). A survey of Southern Baptist preaching identified fifty preachers "with content as varied as the preachers themselves"[iii] but commonly, whatever the biblical message, an appeal to “walk the aisle” concludes the act of preaching. Evangelistic intentionality remains strong. However, Southern Baptists have also developed a broader homiletic tradition, bringing together informed interpretation of Scripture with concern for sermon structure, particularly through the influence of John Broadus (1827-1895) whose textbook on preaching became standard through the early part of the twentieth century. Interestingly, Broadus was not only concerned with content but with the role of imagination. When asked to sum up the key qualities of preaching he said: “Sympathy, sympathy, and sympathy” – a typical Baptist insight.
In contrast, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed a dimension of preaching with strong political emphasis that also greatly impacted society. Educated in a white, more liberal intellectual tradition (with influential white preachers!), he also studied examples of great African American preachers like Gardner Taylor (another Baptist). In his call to lead the civil rights movement, “his principle was to combine militancy with nonviolence, and his method was to use oratory that combined intellectual content with the power of classical African American preaching.”[iv] His expressive voice and tone deployed rhetorical devices such as repetition and assonance, achieving rhythm and musicality to his powerful preaching within the call-and-response interactions of black congregations. He demonstrated classic homiletic of the African American church by preaching in churches, masse meetings and other public gatherings that brought black preaching to the attention of the world.
His impact on black preaching, and especially black Baptist preaching continues to be hugely significant today, emphasizing God’s provision for his people, with prophetic challenge to systemic issues and holistic engagement with community. Because the majority perspective on preaching practice has been dominated by white males, only recently has the rich history of black preaching and its inextricable connection with culture been published. So, for example, paralleling C.H. Spurgeon (1836-1897), we now learn of Charles T. Walker who was called “the black Spurgeon,” born into slavery yet a prominent New York preacher.[v]
Rick Warren is probably the best known Baptist preacher today, through his ministry in Saddleback Church, California, and books such as “The Purpose Driven Church.” Regarded as a new breed of Baptist leader, savvy about communicating to a changing culture, his preaching is aimed at the “unchurched.” Aware of high levels of biblical illiteracy, his preaching begins with “needs” in the congregation and then connects with teaching in Scripture. Together with other mega church leaders, his “seeker sensitive” preaching has been widely influential though not without critics. However, Warren has also been heavily engaged with the gospel’s social repercussions, involving many in programmes to relieve poverty and disease. With intentionality and practical skills he represents preaching that builds local communities in order to serve others.
[i] O.C. Edwards, 775.
[ii] Ibid, 778.
[iii] R Earl Allen and Joel Gregory, Southern Baptist Preaching Today Nashville: Broadman, 1987, 3.
[v] Ibid, 532-535.