By Joe LaGuardia
Georgia is blessed to have some of the greatest preachers in these United States of America. The list goes on and on, from Thomas Long at Emory University to Barbara Brown Taylor in North Georgia.
We are truly surrounded by good, Bible-based preaching.
This past month, we lost one of the best, as the Reverend Dr. Fred Craddock, retired professor of homiletics at Emory University and long-time pastor of Cherry Log Christian Church in North Georgia, passed away March 6.
I’ve heard him twice, both times memorable. I shook his hand once. A collection of his sermons, which he signed “To Joe, with gratitude,” remains on my night stand.
Craddock’s influence on preaching cannot be fully described here, but since the 1970s, he’s become one of the foremost–and sought out–preachers of our time.
He redefined preaching, which was, at one point, growing stale and predictable: Three points and a poem, as they say.
Craddock argued that the texture of preaching should reflect that of the Bible. If the Bible came to us in narrative form, then so should our preaching.
The goal of preaching, he taught, isn’t to talk about the Bible. It is to acknowledge that the Bible is God’s sermon to us. God gives us the honor to be in on the conversation and, by a leap of faith, become a part of the conversation.
That best describes Craddock’s sermons: They were conversational. Hearing one of his sermons was like hearing your grandfather tell stories about the old neighborhood while sipping beer and rocking on the back porch.
When we preachers learn how to preach, we study the parts of sermons. Craddock’s sermons were standards for those of us who learned narrative preaching.
Take his sermon introductions, for instance. You always felt like you were a part of the family as soon as he began to preach. They were never flamboyant or theatrical, and many a sermon began with a whitty joke.
“I’ve been given permission…to dress less formally. In fact, one person asked me if I ever wore Bermuda shorts to preach. I am wearing Bermuda shorts. I didn’t come here to be made sport of.” If you knew Fred Craddock (he’s quite short), then you got the joke.
The middle of a sermon is where we preachers delve deep in a scripture text for the day. The meat of Craddock’s sermons always wrestled with the text and brought new insights to the Bible. He invited his congregation along for the ride, to eavesdrop on the biblical text with a keen ear.
Another aspect for which Craddock was known was his use of dialogue. Whether he was role-playing characters from the Bible or describing his interactions with people as an illustration, his use of dialogue was something to behold.
I’ve tried to replicate it more than once in my own preaching, but with miserable results. I can never get it right. Dialogue was his unique gift.
Perhaps what Craddock was most famous for were his sermon conclusions. He never really gave any formal endings or tied a sermon into a neat bow.
Instead, he posed challenging questions or told some moving illustration. Sometimes he’d emphasize a lesson for the day.
He often concluded sermons abruptly: He simply stopped preaching, sat down, and let the next portion of worship commence.
He gave his audience the gift of God’s Word, but let them open it for themselves.
These days, when preachers are quick to give their congregations easy answers to all of life’s problems, Craddock’s sermons were a breath of fresh air.
I’m going to miss Fred Craddock. I regret that I won’t be able to hear him preach again.
But thanks to him, an entire generation of us will cherish his style and continue the legacy of preaching in the narrative style as best we can.
I praise God for good preaching. I praise God for giving us Fred Craddock.*
Brosend,William. “The People’s Preaching Class.” The Christian Century (4 March 2015): 20-23.
Craddock, Fred B. The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, with a foreword by Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2011).