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Top 25 preachers: Fred Craddock

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Fred Craddock was never the leader of one of the megachurches that are sprouting up around the country, but his great storytelling abilities and his writings earned him a spot on the top 25 list of influential preachers during the past 25 years, according to Preaching magazine. He has influenced thousands of preachers over the past two decades.

When he told his father he intended to become a preacher, his dad jokingly said, "Well, don't lose your head like John the Baptist did."

But in a more serious scenario in 1928 his mother prayed that God would spare her eight year old son from diphtheria. She sat on a hay bale in the family barn and asked that God spare Fred from an early death from the deadly diseases which killed tens of thousands before a vaccine was invented. Little did she or anyone else realize that Craddock would someday revolutionize preaching after surviving his bout with the dangerous illness.

One of his idols in his early preaching days was Billy Sunday, a major league baseball player turned evangelist, who strode beside the pulpit with a booming voice and dramatic gestures. Sunday had great success with his bold, fiery style. But Craddock doubted he could measure up to that approach.

He couldn't bring the thunder and lightning like Sunday and other preachers of the day. As if he didn't have enough problems already, a high school counselor informed him he shouldn't become a preacher because of his size. The counselor thought he was too short and his voice too weak. His first sermon wasn't met with positive feedback. A man in the back of the sanctuary even stood and asked him how he could be sure there were three wise men who visited baby Jesus. The inexperienced Craddock was caught by surprise and stood silent.

But the man who nobody but his mother thought was cut out to be a preacher persevered. When he began preaching in Tennessee in the early 1950s there was a formula preachers followed. The sermon structure as taught in many seminaries at the time was to begin with a thesis, follow that with three points which backed the theme up and then close with a restatement of the thesis.

But Craddock was perceptive enough to realize that format didn't fit his talents. He told CNN recently, "Something in me said that's not the way to do it."

The young preacher hit on his own style while serving as pastor of a church in Columbia, Tennessee. The realization suddenly struck him one day that his listeners reacted better to his informal talks outside the church service than to his actual sermons. This epiphany he had convinced him to create his own, unique style which departed from the conventional wisdom of the day.

What if a preacher didn't structure his message like a legal argument but instead more similar to a conversation? He came up with the idea of allowing the people sitting in the pews to give the sermon its meaning. His own experience caused him to think in new ways. He had sat in churches as preachers tried to goad his own father back into religion.

"No one wants to listen to pulpit bullies behaving as though they had walked all around God and taken pictures," he wrote in his book "Craddock on the Craft of Preaching."

In one sermon Craddock pretended to emcee a debate at a dreary church committee meeting between early Christian leaders arguing over whether Gentiles should be inducted into the church. In another creative sermon he imagined bored teenagers who "sat on the hoods of their camels listening to a shaggy John the Baptist preach in the desert."

As he continued in his orginal style his reputation spread. He wrote influential preaching books and became a professor at Emory University in Atlanta. In 1996, he was named to a list of the top 12 most influential preachers in the English-speaking language in an article published by Newsweek Magazine.

The Rev. Thomas Long said Craddock's 1971 book on preaching "As One without Authority" was one of the most pivotal books on preaching in the last century. Craddock was voted in at No. 16 on Preaching Magazine's Top 25 Most Influential Preachers of the Past 25 Years in 2010.

Born in 1928, Craddock served as the Bandy Distinguished Professor of Preaching and New Testament Emeritus in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He also served as director of the Craddock Center, a non-profit service group in rural Appalachia.

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