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Rick Warren honors memory of legendary W.A. Criswell

ST.LOUIS (BP)–The death of W.A. Criswell did not signify the passing of an era, only the passing of “the greatest pastor of the 20th century. I don’t think anybody else even comes close,” said Rick Warren, keynote speaker at the Criswell College alumni luncheon held in St. Louis, June 11, during the Southern Baptist Convention.

Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forest, Calif., was joined in his memorial remarks about the legendary pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, by Adrian Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn., Jerry Sutton, pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Johnny Hunt, pastor of Woodstock Baptist Church, Woodstock, Ga., and Evangelist Junior Hill, from Hartselle, Ala.

Criswell “was my father in the ministry. It was under him that I actually felt called to be a pastor,” said Warren. “He’s been an incredible influence in my life.”

Warren attributed Criswell with developing “the most widely copied model” of church organization and ministry in America.

“He was not just a great preacher and a great theologian, this man was an organizational genius,” Warren said. “He knew how to grow a church.”

“Most people think of tradition when they think of W.A. Criswell,” Warren said as he read a quote from his book, The Purpose Driven Church. “But actually, his ministry was incredibly innovative. It only became known as traditional after everybody else copied him.”

“W.A.’s ministry spanned five decades,” said Warren. “It was no flash in the pan. It stood the test of time. To me, that is genuine success, loving and leading consistently, and ending well. Ministry is a marathon. It’s not how you start that matters, it’s how you end.”

Warren wondered aloud why Criswell had made such a cross-generational impact, and then voiced the following four reasons: Criswell “spoke with integrity, served with intensity, shared with generosity, and succeeded with humility.”

— He spoke with integrity

“Who may live on your holy mountain? He who walks with integrity … and speaks the truth within his heart.” Ps. 15:1-2 (GW)

Turning to various pastors he invited to help memorialize W.A. Criswell, Warren introduced Rogers. Rogers said he is often approached by young pastors for advice concerning ministry.

“I’ve thought about this, and I’ve boiled it down to one word — integrity,” Rogers said. “If you are faithful in that which is small, you will be faithful in that which is much.”

Rogers joked that early in his own career, he longed to get a seat close to Criswell, or even touch him, “thinking that some virtue would go out of him and into me.”

“And Rick, I agree with you, Criswell is the monumental minister of the 20th century. … I never, ever, ever, heard him shade the truth or lower the bar. He was a man of integrity. And I am grateful to give him the honor that is due his name,” Rogers said.

— He served with intensity.

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” Col. 3:23 (NIV)

Speaking to Criswell’s intensity, Hunt recalled meeting a 67-year-old Criswell, who “seemed like a very, very, very young man.” On three different public occasions, Hunt said Criswell demonstrated his intense love for younger preachers by praying for Hunt and his ministry.

“I was greatly influenced as many others were. And I thank God for W.A.’s witness, his boldness, and the way he helped shape my life and the life of so many others,” said Hunt.

— He gave with generosity.

“A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.” Pr. 11:25 (NIV)

Warren introduced Sutton who spoke about Criswell’s generosity: “Dr. Criswell was a very remarkable man, a very remarkable pastor. One of the things that set him aside from other pastors was his willingness to give.”

Sutton noted the more than 50 books that Criswell wrote, saying they were indicative of Criswell’s generous nature with his time.

“Back in the early ’70s, when I was trying to decide if God wanted me in the ministry, I was building houses at the time,” Sutton said. “And I had an old paperback copy of ‘Why I Preach the Bible is Literally True.’ When I would take my break I would read that book, and I read it over and over and over again. … He gave himself to many of us by what he wrote.”

Sutton also revealed Criswell’s habit of buying art treasures as he traveled the world. “Many people would criticize him. But what those people don’t know is that his entire estate (reputed to be worth millions) has been left to the Criswell Foundation.” Sutton said even Criswell’s fortune was focused on spreading the Gospel.

— He succeeded with humility.

“Arrogance will bring your downfall, but if you are humble, you will be respected.” Pr. 29:23 (GN)

Before introducing Hill to speak about Criswell’s humility, Warren related a vignette from his own life that occurred at a “Mega-Metro” meeting, which he described as a one-day meeting of the SBC’s mega-church pastors who gather to talk about “what God is doing in our churches.”

Warren said he was only 29 when invited to his first such meeting, and was also asked to speak. Fighting back the tears, Warren recalled that Criswell was “taking notes as fast as he could. I can’t tell you how humbling that was. That man has forgotten more than I will ever know.”

“I walked out of that room and burst into tears, and I thought, ‘God, when I’m that old, may I be that teachable,'” Warren said.

Hill then told the crowd, “I’m like so many of you. Dr. Criswell was a hero of mine.” Relating his “first” and “fondest memory” of Criswell, Hill said he was sitting on a plane to Atlanta.

“He tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Lad, may I ask you a question?’ And I thought, ‘Boy, do I wish I had a tape recorder.'” Hill recounted. “Dr. Criswell was asking me a question.”

Criswell told Hill he had “thousands of sermons, thousands … but now that I am out here on the road, traveling around and preaching, I find myself coming back to the same two or three. Is that all right, son?'”

“And I thought, ‘Can you imagine, a great man of God asking a redneck Alabama evangelist if that’s all right?”

“I don’t think it ever occurred to him that he was a great man,” Hill said of Criswell. “He was a humble man who treated everybody with the same kind of courtesy. He was a man who didn’t know that he was somebody.

“That’d be wonderful if we could all learn that lesson, wouldn’t it?” asked Hill.

“Some of us are kind of like the pastor who was so proud after he got through preaching that he signed his own Bible,” Hill joked. “I don’t think we could ever think of Dr. Criswell as signing his own Bible. And would to God that we could all learn that characteristic.”

Warren said his own “life verse is Acts 13:36a … ‘David served God’s purpose in his generation.'”

“What greater epitaph could you have?” Warren asked. “I think that is a verse about W.A. Criswell.”

“I think the greatest way to honor Dr. C is to live as he lived, to speak with integrity, serve with intensity, give with generosity, and succeed with humility,” he said.

Warren related the first time he heard Criswell preach in 1973.

“I was determined to hear this living legend,” said Warren, who, with a friend, cut college classes and drove 350 miles to hear Criswell.

“God spoke personally to me and called me to be a pastor,” Warren recalled.

In the reception line Warren said Criswell looked at him with “kind and loving eyes and said, ‘Young man, I feel led to pray for you.’ And without any delay he put his hands on my head, and this is the prayer he prayed,” said Warren, fighting a trembling voice:

“‘Father, put a double portion of your Spirit on this young lad. May the church he pastors grow to twice the size of [FBC] Dallas. Bless him greatly, O Lord.'”

Warren said Saddleback now has 64,000 names on its rolls as attendees, and has baptized more than 9,100 new believers in the last seven years. “And God has answered that prayer.”

“I feel led to pray that prayer for you,” said Warren, referring to those in the crowd who were Criswell college students.

And he did.

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  • Norm Miller