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‘Letters to Timothy’ retirement gift to young pastors by John B

HOUSTON (BP)–Though he did not take a conventional path into the pastorate, John Bisagno has become a model pastor to thousands of preachers and laypeople alike over the past 35 years.
And now, as he prepares to retire from the pastorate of First Baptist Church in Houston, he hopes to extend his mentoring influence even further as an aide and encourager to young pastors and pastors of smaller congregations.
One way he’ll do that is through publication of a new book titled “Letters to Timothy: A Handbook for Young Pastors.” The voluminous 114-chapter book will be published by Broadman & Holman next year.
He describes the book as full of practical advice to ministers, covering “things that might have fallen through the cracks in seminary.”
One of the things he advocates strongly for young ministers is to attend seminary, something he never was able to do but wishes he had.
Though he has become perhaps one of Southern Baptists’ best-known preachers, he started out in ministry as a trumpet-playing music evangelist. From there, he felt called into the preaching ministry as an evangelist, only later becoming a pastor.
Although not having a seminary education is one of his greatest regrets, he has worked overtime to compensate for that, he said, doing extensive research for sermons and freely consulting with friends who are seminary professors.
His strength as an evangelist, combined with being an incredibly quick study, has been a major part of his strength as a pastor, said Russell Barksdale, who wrote his doctoral dissertation about Bisagno’s preaching.
“His strongest preaching was and always has been evangelistic,” said Barksdale, who now is pastor of Rush Creek Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. “That’s his first love. But this is a man who can adapt significantly to his audience and to the need of the moment. His ability to build a church–a lot of evangelists can’t do that. He built two great churches.
“To me, he’s one of the great ones Southern Baptists have had. This is a guy who has done it all. He has done what very few people have ever done.”
One of the things that makes Bisagno so successful as a preacher is his ability to analyze his audience, Barksdale said. “There is a part of preaching called audience analysis. He is excellent at that. He feels his way into a sermon if he doesn’t know the crowd.”
Bisagno also is a master of simple presentation, said Jimmy Draper, president of LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, Tenn.
“John has a very strong ability to be simple and clear,” Draper explained. “He doesn’t play with a lot of theological terms. He’s not long-winded. He knows how to get right to it. And he thrives on the platform. He’s one of those guys who comes alive on the platform.”
Another key ingredient to Bisagno’s success is a heavy dose of creativity, said Draper, who followed Bisagno as pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Okla., in 1970.
“John was one of the first pastors to really envision winning hundreds and hundreds of people to Christ,” Draper said. “First Southern baptized 700 to 800 people per year. Nobody else was doing that then.”
Where others saw problems, Bisagno saw possibilities, Draper added, explaining that Bisagno became a master of turning traditionally low-attendance days into high-attendance days.
For example, in the ’60s he started a two-week evangelistic crusade in Del City that was scheduled every summer to overlap the Fourth of July. At a time when most churches lose attendance, he was bringing in thousands of newcomers to Starlight Crusade, an event that continues to this day.
“I really believe John Bisagno is the pioneer at creative church ministries,” Draper said. “I don’t think he had a peer in the ’70s and ’80s.”
While it may be hard to recall today, few Southern Baptist churches could be considered mega-churches in the late 1960s and 1970s, Draper noted. At the time, First Baptist in Dallas and Bellevue Baptist in Memphis, Tenn., were by far the largest Southern Baptist congregations.
“John is one of the main reasons we have a generation of mega-churches now,” Draper said. “He showed that it can be done. Southern Baptists owe a great debt to him as a visionary and a creative leader.”
When Bisagno left Del City in 1970 to accept the pastorate of First Baptist Church in Houston, he found a congregation of fewer than 400 people meeting in an old downtown building designed to seat a vast crowd.
Over the course of the last 30 years, not only has the congregation grown, but it relocated to a $60 million facility at the convergence of two major highways in west Houston. The 22,000-member church has given $250 million to missions causes during his tenure, has baptized 15,000 converts, started 63 local missions and three schools and sent more than 500 of its members into full-time Christian vocations, including 100 as foreign missionaries.
Having lived through that amount of change, Bisagno believes he’s learned a thing or two about churches, the pastorate and preaching. Ask him, and he’ll rip off a list in sermon-outline form.
The No. 1 lesson he cites is one few might expect to hear fall off the lips of a mega-church pastor: “Take time for people. They are never an interruption to our ministry; they are our ministry.”
Even having concentrated on this, he still wishes he had done more.
“I probably know 3,000 names” of church members, he said. “I regret I didn’t learn more names. I wish I could have been more involved in the lives of our people.”
Likewise, he said, pastors of all size churches always can learn something from others. A secret to his success, he said, has been his eagerness to learn from people who do things differently than he does, who believe differently than he does, who worship differently than he does.
A third lesson he’s learned is “the awesome joy and blessing of giving yourself away,” he said, citing First Baptist’s intentional sponsorship of 63 local missions through the years.
“You can’t outgive God,” Bisagno explained. “I call it being a church with a kingdom mindset. The advent of the kingdom of God is more important than the advent of First Baptist Church.”
That’s not something he always understood, he admitted. “For 15 years, my ambition was to build this church. But there came a time when I had to confront that with the rising costs of land and buildings, the faster pace of multiple services. … How much more can you do here?”
The answer he banked on was to start giving himself away and lead the church to start giving itself away. Thus was born one of the greatest and most successful missions programs ever endeavored by a Texas Baptist church.
First Baptist of Houston jumped into multi-housing ministry before most other churches in the United States ever heard of it. Scores of First Baptist members went out across Houston to start new congregations and ministries of all types.
This was a major reinvention of what it meant to be a leading Baptist church in Texas and in the United States.
But reinvention to meet changing needs is something Bisagno does well.
In his dissertation, Barksdale documented how Bisagno changed his preaching style from his time as an evangelist to his early days in the pastorate and then to later stages in the pastorate. He believes Bisagno evolved from a purely evangelistic preacher to a doctrinal preacher and then to an expository preacher.
And after Barksdale completed his dissertation, Bisagno changed again. About five years ago, when Bisagno was 60 years of age and already well established as a premiere preacher, he determined he needed to change the foundational structure of his preaching style.
“I began to realize oratory was not necessarily the style for today,” he explained. “I made a conscious decision to be more conversational, more contemporary.”
He learned a lesson from California pastor Rick Warren and adopted what he calls “principal preaching” as his style. “I reinvented myself as a preacher, trying to be a better communicator to today’s man.”
And then there was the issue of worship music. Like most every other Baptist church in America, First Baptist of Houston in recent years has struggled to address changing trends in music and worship styles. In fact, Bisagno cites this as one of the three greatest challenges he’s faced in his 30-year pastorate in Houston, ranking alongside the oil bust of the 1980s and an attempted “charismatic takeover” of the church in 1979.
Bisagno said he “greatly underestimated the difficulty of beginning to introduce into a 161-year-old church the new contemporary music.”
Church leaders must acknowledge that “99 percent of music sold today is not classical music,” he said. And if churches want to reach young people, they must face the music, he added.
Though of an older generation himself, he sees value in newer praise choruses because they are primarily based on Scripture and they are songs to Jesus rather than songs about Jesus.
God’s truth doesn’t change, but music styles do, he said.
“True worship must be from the heart and consistent with biblical truths. … Real worship is in spirit and truth.”
This same type of quest for authenticity is what Bisagno believes makes people want to listen to some preachers more than others.
“What makes you a preacher people want to listen to? Before they check out your preaching, they check out your spirit,” he said. “If they don’t like you, they’re not going to like what you’re selling.”
Preachers who hope to be heard must be positive, must believe in people, must want to instill hope and joy, he said. And they must be “unwavering in the purity of the word of God.”
Bisagno will preach his last sermon as pastor of First Baptist Church at the end of November and will retire officially Feb. 1.
He plans to continue preaching both in the United States and abroad, supporting missionary work and encouraging young pastors.
He’ll also spend more time with his family–his wife of 45 years, Uldine; their children, Ginger Dodd, Anthony Bisagno and Timothy Bisagno; and five grandchildren.

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  • Mark Wingfield