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FIRST-PERSON: W.A. Criswell’s legacy to extend for generations

LAKE FOREST, Calif. (BP)–The first time I heard W.A. Criswell speak in person was in November 1973. A buddy and I skipped our college classes and drove 350 miles to hear Dr. Criswell speak at the Jack Tar Hotel in San Francisco. Criswell was the renowned pastor of the largest Baptist church in the world, First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. For me, as a young Southern Baptist, the opportunity to hear Criswell in person was the equivalent of a Catholic getting to hear the Pope. I was determined hear this living legend.

In fact, I believe W.A. Criswell was the greatest American pastor of the 20th Century. He pastored in Dallas for more than 50 years, wrote more than 50 books and developed the most widely copied church model of the last century.

Not only was he a powerful preacher and leader, he was an organizational genius. Most people think of tradition when they think of Criswell but actually his ministry was incredibly innovative. It only became known as traditional after everyone copied him! His ministry in Dallas spanned over five decades. It was no flash in the pan. It stood the test of time.

As I listened to this great man of God preach, God spoke personally to me and made very clear that he was calling me to be a pastor. Then and there, I promised God that I’d give my entire life to pastoring a single church if that was his will for me.

After the service, my buddy and I stood in line to shake hands with Dr. Criswell. When my turn finally arrived, something unexpected happened. Criswell looked at me with kind, loving eyes and said, quite emphatically, “Young man, I feel led to lay hands on you and pray for you!” Without delay, he placed his hands on my head and prayed these words that I will never forget: “Father, I ask that you give this young preacher a double portion of your Spirit. May the church he pastors grow to twice the size of the Dallas church. Bless him greatly, O Lord.”

As I walked away with tears in my eyes, I said to my friend Danny, “Did he pray what I think he prayed?” “He sure did,” said Danny, also with wet eyes. I could not possibly imagine that God could ever use me like Dr. Criswell had prayed but that holy experience confirmed in my heart that God had called me to pastor a local church.

In the early years of Saddleback Valley Community Church, we were constantly criticized or misjudged because of our church’s non-traditional methods and innovations. Well-known pastors were afraid to associate with me for fear of being called a “liberal.” But not Dr. Criswell! He befriended me, defended our church to critics over and over, and even offered to write the foreword to my book, “The Purpose Driven Church.” I will always be grateful to this gracious leader who took the time to learn firsthand what we were doing and why we were doing it, rather than run with the crowd who criticized what they didn’t understand.

Dr. Criswell understood that while the message of Christ never changes, the methods we use MUST change with every generation.

From that day forward, I focused on living out that calling, and I claimed as my life verse Acts 13:36: “… for after David had served his generation according to the will of God, he died and was buried….” When I heard of Dr. Criswell’s death, I immediately thought of that verse. He served his generation as well as any preacher of his time, and because he was a spiritual father to so many — including me — his influence will be felt for generations to come.

We often hear about celebrity pastors whose stars flame bright for a few years and then fizzle out. It’s easy to make an impressive start. But Criswell’s ministry lasted half a century in one church! To me that is genuine success: loving and leading consistently and ending well. Ministry is a marathon. It’s not how you start out that matters but how you end.

So, how do you make it to a successful end, similar to W.A. Criswell? The Bible says, “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13: 8). If you minister out of love you can never be considered a failure.
Warren is the founding pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forest, Calif., one of the largest Southern Baptist churches in the country, and author of “The Purpose Driven Church,” which has sold more than 1 million copies in 18 languages. For Warren’s free e-mail newsletter, visit his website, www.pastors.com.

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  • Rick Warren