One of the greatest blessings that we can be thankful for is the vast amount of books that are available to Americans. If reading is a vice, then I am guilty of it in the worst kind of way. I have an addiction to books! I enjoy new bookstores, particularly Barnes and Noble, although bargain books are usually kept in a much larger selection at Books-A-Million. I enjoy going to used book stores and thrift stores because they have a market on older books that may be out of print. I have gotten some very good books very cheaply at used book stores and thrift stores.
I am doing my diligence to write much more for the Barnabas Blog than I did the last three years. What I noticed about the last couple of years is my lack of book reviews and recommendations. I have discovered on several blogs that I usually go to daily how they have recommended books that have been very valuable to my personal and spiritual growth. I tell you about one such book with this post.
Too Great A Temptation has an ominous subtitle. It is “the seductive power of America’s super church.” It is written by Dr. JoelGregory and the book tells the harrowing tale of his succeeding W. A. Criswell at First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. I knew I was in for a ride when Dr. Gregory wrote the following in his introduction:
Will this book hurt the Christian church? The reader can be the jury to decide that. If one thinks that the church is about power games, position, politics, and the maintenance of personal influence, this book will hurt. If one thinks that the church is about servanthood to humanity, a redemptive ministry, and a self-forgetfulness on the part of the church itself in which the church is not an end to itself, this book might help. It is my deepest conviction that the kingdom of God will prevail; what happens to local congregations is of less consequence.
At the time that Dr. Gregory followed W. A. Criswell, First Baptist-Dallas, had a membership of twenty-nine thousand. It sat on five square blocks in downtown Dallas. It had a 900-student body that went K-12 that was divided between two academies on separate campuses. It had a three-hundred student college, a five-hundred bed homeless shelter, thirty church plants, and a radio station. Gregory enjoyed the surroundings of a large, executive style study with a price-tag of $80,000 given by an anonymous donor immediately prior to his arrival. For two years, Gregory was the captain of the ship. Finally when the pressure of performing and posturing got to him, he abruptly resigned on a Sunday evening in September 1992.
There are several lessons that I took away from the book. The first one had to do with the immensity of ego that often finds its way into the souls of preachers. Thomas Watson once inferred in his writings that if the devil cannot tempt us to debauchery he will try to get us drunk with pride. The bumping egos between Criswell, the man who could not let go, and Gregory, the man who could not take hold, left the church in a precarious position. Understandably there are two sides to every tale and Criswell, now deceased, never articulated his side. However, Gregory had to contend with a very condescending manner of Criswell who always called him “lad.” I feel sure that would have even tested the stoutest of souls.
As ministers we have to be very careful that we don’t fall into that mentality that we are rock stars. I am fearful that American church growth techniques and the drive to succeed and press the kingdom of God forward have caused some of this. We are more and more cast in the light of Scripture as servants and shepherds. When we attempt to become CEO’s, administrators, and various other things there is a creeping professionalism that emasculates our spiritual authority. Peter Drucker and all who followed him may have a small contribution to make to ministers concerning personal growth but they can never incite spiritual growth. Seeking direction from these sources will reduce the altar just like Ahaz did when he imported one from Damascus to replace the real one in Jerusalem.
The second lesson that I came away with was how we can get seduced by the lights. Gregory initially preached all of the Sunday nights in January 1984 and he admits that he was overcome with the décor and the majesty of the super-church. Instead of really being himself, he allowed the temptation of pressure to perform change his identity. He noted this was the “Baptist Super Bowl, the Grand Prix of preaching, the Kentucky Derby of divine inspiration.” He let the pressure of the pulpit of George Truett and W. A. Criswell knock him out of the servant role and into the MVP role.
At some point, a minister has to live with his own identity and his own calling. He cannot let the thrill of preaching to a large crowd or at an honored place swell his sails too much just as he cannot let the small assignments and little places defeat him. Gregory would not come to the be the pastor there for another six years but that six years was long enough for him to develop his own character so that he would not compromise who he was or his mission as he had in 1984. That would prove to be his undoing. He wrote that he refused to get overwhelmed by the “holy haze” as he had in 1984. He would never again be swayed by the powers that wanted to control him.
The third lesson I learned was that no matter what size an organization is, whether it is religious or social, there are politics involved in it. Churches, districts, and national bodies like to think they are immune from the dirtiness of political maneuverings but no matter what we may like to think, they are there. Subtle put-downs, pandering, moving about in various groups, saying the right things to the right people and then changing horses in midstream are routinely things that take place among holy precincts. There are only very few who have learned how to overcome this kind of activity. The men who live above this are men who are so focused on the task of their calling that the wrangling falls under their radar while they invest their lives into the kingdom. I have known a few of those men and generally they are so focused on their preaching or concept of global missions they do not give a whit about the politics in the local church, sectional divisions, regional districts and national entities. They end up being world-changers much to the chagrin of the devil!
The fourth lesson that I learned has to do with preaching. It does not matter how “great” of a preacher a man may be, his presence outside of the pulpit and his manner of living preaches far more than his sermons in the pulpit. Criswell and Gregory both were apparently looked upon by the Baptists as “great” preachers. Yet Criswell sullied his name by the underhanded way that he treated Gregory. We are called to be saints first and preachers second. Your first calling is to be holy; it just so happens that you are called to be a proclaimer after that. If you want to brush up on the character traits of a godly man who is called to preach, look no further than Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus.
The fifth lesson the Gregory brings to us is that “ambition has its own rewards and punishments.” He noted that far too many, himself included, fly too close to the sun because of their pride and their wings melt and they plummet to the earth. It is important to develop character, hunger, and desire to accomplish all that God wants to do with our lives. However, ambition can cause Judas to stir, Balaam to awaken, and Urijah to want a paycheck. There are dark winds in the soul of every preacher and he has to daily crucify those things with devoted prayer and a diet of the Word. There are great rewards that come with a minister faithfully discharging his call and there are also punishments that will sometimes have to be endured because of it. Our ambition must be submitted to the cleanliness of godliness for it to ever be effective.
There are many other insights that this book will prompt in your mind. Suffice it to say that this 330 page book will absorb you to the degree that you will not want to put it down until you finish it. I also might add that the 1994 edition, the copy that I have, has been revised and it has now been reprinted.