I have little doubt that this is a list of twelve highly effective preachers: Alistair Begg, Tony Evans, Joel Gregory, Tim Keller, Thomas Long, Otis Moss III, John Piper, Haddon Robinson, Andy Stanley, Chuck Swindoll, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Ralph Douglas West. I have even less doubt that they are not the “twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world” that a recent survey claims them to be.
An update of a 1996 survey that followed the opening of Baylor University’s George Truett Seminary (in which Long, Robinson, Swindoll, and Taylor also appeared), this one invited responses from members of the Evangelical Homiletics Society and Academy of Homiletics. I’m sure those experts on preaching developed terrific criteria and nominated deserving candidates.
Yet even on that basis, Baylor has absolutely no business claiming to have singled out anything like a top twelve preachers list.
Start with the simple fact that a few hundred experts could not possibly hear even a single sermon by even a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of women and men currently preaching in the English-speaking world. This ranking exercise — like most others — reveals far more about how the respondents perceive reputation than any meaningful measure of actual effectiveness.
So you look at a list like this, and you’re tempted to intuit the biases and preferences of the respondents. To make something of the fact that it produced a list with as many dead men (Robinson) as living women (Taylor). Or that so many are Americans, and none come from the many Anglophone regions of the Global South. Or that a survey by Truett Seminary somehow found that one-sixth of the most effective preachers in the English-speaking world happen to teach at… Truett Seminary.
But there are even deeper reasons to find this not just a pointless, but dangerous exercise. It feeds a false understanding of the nature and purpose of preaching.
Whatever else it is, preaching is an intensely local activity, inextricably bound up with worship, formation, missions, and the other activities of the local church. I have no business being in any pulpit, but in my recent burst of sermonizing, the only place I truly felt like I might have been even marginally effective was in my own church: proclaiming good news in a context that I knew well; exhorting sisters and brothers with whom I have a relationship. Not that I didn’t enjoy sharing an hour in the lives of those other congregations, but I was a guest speaker, not really a preacher.
So for reasons of statistical sample size, but also because of the very nature of Christian preaching, I feel confident in saying this:
If I somehow had a God’s eye view of all preaching taking place at this time in my native language, I would easily identify not just twelve, but twelve times twelve preachers other than those named in the survey who are toiling in relative obscurity to greater effect.
Take John Piper, for example. Whatever my theological differences with him, I believe what many of my students and colleagues used to tell me: that he was an extraordinarily effective preacher during his decades down the road at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. But he retired from that pulpit five years ago. Piper continues to speak from many different platforms, but I daresay that any one of the sermons he preached at Bethlehem — to the gathered, embodied, worshipping community for which he was not just the preacher, but the pastor — was more significant than any of his messages to countless unknown faces at arena-sized conferences.
Likewise, I’m struck that the Baylor press releases emphasizes the multimedia ministries of about half the preachers on its list. But as one of those twelve — Tim Keller — once pointed out, via reflection on the ministry of the Welsh Reformed preacher Martin Lloyd-Jones:
It is obviously a good thing if a person who never hears or reads the Bible listens to the recording of a good gospel message and is helped by it. But the Doctor argues that people experience the sermon in a radically different way if they hear it together with a body of listeners and if they see the preacher. Watching on a screen or listening as you walk detaches you and the sermon becomes mere information, not a whole experience. There is a power and impact that the media cannot convey.
At the end of the day, what I think the list primarily reveals is the assumption that preaching is like most any other activity in America: those who are especially good at it will naturally be noticed and elevated to increasingly prominent platforms (most often based in large cities and having connections to mass media) where they will reach audiences of a size commensurate with their abilities.
But that is the logic of the free market, not the logic of calling.
It’s a logic that transforms pastors into celebrities — and so risk a pitfall that E. A. Skogsbergh once pointed out. Though he was widely regarded as a highly effective preacher in his context (“The Swedish Moody“), the fiery pastor of the 3,000-seat Swedish Mission Tabernacle (1st Covenant Church) in Minneapolis warned that it was “dangerous for a preacher to fall for popularity so that, in his own eyes, he becomes remarkable and important.”
I don’t mean that the twelve on the Baylor list are among Skogsbergh’s “victims of pride and self-love among preachers.” Those whose names I recognize generally seem — at a distance, for I’ve heard none of them preach in person — rather humble and self-effacing.
But exercises like this help tempt preachers to forget their calling and seek popularity and prominence. “Many have on that path,” Skogsbergh warned, “dug their own graves and have, within a short time, made themselves useless, not to mention that on that path one can become a scandal in the church of God.”