By Stephen Cuss
Fred Craddock died over the weekend. He was 86 years old.
His influence belied his small stature, extending to tens of thousands of pulpits around the world. I cannot overstate how much he influenced my approach to scripture, story telling and preaching.
I first encountered Dr Craddock when I was a teenager in Western Australia. Our preacher’s son, David Timms had returned from his theological education in USA. He preached at our church and I’d never heard any sermon like it. Winsome, gentle, inviting, provocative. I was hooked. David’s sermon was “Craddockesque” and he closed with a powerful story authored by Fred Craddock. That was the kind of preacher I wanted to be.
With David’s influence, I enrolled at Johnson University, Fred Craddock’s Alma Mater. Dr Craddock came through town to give a lecture on the synoptic gospels. Our professor, David Reece, took us to spend a day listening to the maestro. 6 hours of content, no notes. Ninety minutes each on Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. Craddock was as fascinated by “why does Luke want us to notice this?” and “How does John arrange his stories” as “what is Jesus saying here?” I was fascinated by Craddock’s fascination. That was the kind of Bible student I wanted to be.
To pay homage to my hero, here are a few lessons I learned from Dr Craddock:
1) Let the text work on you before ever opening a commentary. If you begin by asking “scholar questions” you will end up with a “scholar sermon.” First ask human questions before ever turning to the scholars. Craddock, a world class New Testament scholar himself often said, “scholars can ruin a lot of good sermons.” To be clear, he was pro scholarship and warned of the danger of a preacher going too far down his own path. But his challenge was to FIRST ask the same sorts of questions of the text that the person in the pew would ask and to let that shape the message. He was a PhD New Testament Scholar but he always came across as the fellow traveller on the journey of life. He harnessed scholarship to serve the every day people.
2) Preach in such a way to put the listener in a dynamic relationship with the text. Dr Craddock was an early lone voice to shift preaching from proving a point to crafting an experience that gives room for the listener to draw his or her own conclusions.
3) 15 hours of prep, 30 minutes of resolution BAD. To summarize Craddock: “why spend all that sermon preparation wrestling with the text, trying to figure out what it means, the implications, the challenges etc, only to resolve it for people in a 30 minute sermon? Instead, structure your sermon to provide a framework for your people to wrestle 15 hours this next week.” I wonder if this is why Craddock was so famous for crash landing his sermons. In “What Shall I Do With The Gift” Craddock preaches for 26 minutes and doesn’t make his main point until the last 26 seconds of the message. 25 minutes in and Craddock is still cruising at 30,000 feet, when suddenly, within 30 seconds he’s done, sitting back down on the front row in silence while the rest of us are thinking, “wait, its not finished yet.” I have listened to that message over a dozen times and each time I ponder it for hours.
4) Effective preaching is as much about the audience than the text. This isn’t pandering, it is connecting. Craddock shaped preaching away from how it is spoken to how it is heard. A subtle difference? Craddock says it is all the difference and that is why people from all walks of life love Craddock’s sermons. They fit as comfortably in Yale’s Chapel as they did in Appalachia Georgia.
5) A well told story never needs to be explained. Craddock always advocated for the intelligence of the listeners, but too many preachers are heavy handed when connecting the dots. When you attend a play, the director doesn’t come out at intermission and say, “Aren’t we all like the lead character, Daryl?” Let the story do its own work and trust the intelligence of the listener to connect. They will connect much deeper when you don’t try to hold their hand.
6) Not just “what does the text say” but “what does this author want us to notice?” Before Craddock, I’d never thought much about the difference between Matthew and Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, but since Craddock, I always ask this vital question and it always brings the text more alive.
7) Find your voice and preach your way. Craddock was famously short with a high pitched voice. He came to influence in an era of 6′ tall baritone and bass preachers who’s very posture commanded authority. Craddock said, “It would be ridiculous of me to try to barge in the front door of the heart. With my size and voice, I have to climb in through the back window.” He was a master at understanding the natural human resistance to a message. We’d come in to listen to a sermon with the front door of our heart dead bolted shut. Craddock would be rummaging around in our hearts before we ever realized we’d forgotten to lock the back window. He used what God had given him to a stunning advantage.
8) Finally, only preach what matters. Late in life after a generation of teaching Homiletics and New Testament, Craddock retired and found himself planting a church in Georgia. His pledge to them was, “I will only ever preach on things that matter.” Too many sermons are too small for the gospel. They don’t match the burdens, wonder, excitement and fears of the listeners. They simply don’t matter. Preach what matters to people and you’ll get a front row seat to spiritual hunger and growth in your people.
Thank you Dr Craddock for your profound influence on my life and the lives of tens of thousands of others. I sit in my chair, about to continue sermon preparation for this week. Your commentary on Luke is open and ready.
You have no equal in the pulpit, but I’m forever grateful for your influence.