A Tribute to Criswell: Part 3 Pastor of the Local Church

B21 exists to be a voice for the next generation of pastors and leaders in the SBC, but we also began with a strong commitment of honoring the past. Many great men have come before us, and we have taken the last three posts to honor one. ICYMI, check out Part One and Part Two.

W. A. Criswell may be the best preacher to come along in the past hundred years in any denomination.This simple country boy from Eldorado, Oklahoma grew to be a clarion voice in the Southern Baptist Convention. Throughout a ministry spanning almost fifty years Criswell proved to be a leading voice not only for his own pulpit at First Baptist Dallas, but for the Southern Baptist Convention and evangelicalism as a whole.

As a local church pastor, Dr. Criswell was resolutely devoted to the Scriptures. In fact, as highlighted in this Christianity Today article, he spent eighteen years preaching through the Bible verse by verse, week in and week out. If you are looking for a faithful expositor and powerful communicator, head over to Criswell’s Sermon Library where, due to endowment, all of Criswell’s sermons (video, audio, transcript, outline) will be free till Jesus returns!

Pastor of the Local Church

At age thirty-five W. A. Criswell was called to the pulpit of one of America’s premier churches to fill the shoes of one of America’s greatest pastors and leaders, George W. Truett. There was much concern over the choice of Criswell as pastor. Criswell tells the story of an old man who came to his father’s barber shop in Fresno, California to have his hair cut.

The man said, “First Dallas hired them a young Okie to fill the shoes of the great Truett. And you better believe, there ain’t no Okie in the world that’s up to that!” Just about that time the elder Criswell was sharpening his razor, with anger in his eyes, about to start the shave. His father said, “That boy is going to be the greatest successor any great pastor ever had. God has His ways!” The man questioned, “How come you’re so sure?” Criswell’s father answered with the razor shining in his hand, “Because that boy is my son!” The man replied, “I don’t think I’ll be having a shave today, just a trim of the hair.1

The Leading Pastor

Not only was Criswell a great successor, but his accomplishments removed him from the shadow of the great Truett, and established him as a leader and innovator in his ideas on church growth. In many ways Criswell revolutionized church organization. Criswell reorganized First Dallas. Instead of having a leader for each program (i.e. Sunday School, Missions, and visitation), he divided the church into graded divisions with a director responsible for all of the activities in that grade. This allowed more efficient service in the church and better shepherding of the flock.

He also was a pioneer for youth and children’s ministries. At age eighteen, Criswell was called to Marlow Baptist Church in Marlow, Texas. He began a training union for young people on Sunday evenings. No other church offered evening services. As a result of this activity, the young people brought their parents with them, and this principle stuck with Criswell. Criswell saw that parents would follow their children to church if the children enjoyed it. Criswell’s dream was to facilitate a family-centered church program that would attract the young families and their children. This had to be if the downtown church was going to survive.

Criswell also led by promoting a total church program with activities for all members of all ages. He would have festivals for the church to participate in. Every year, at the end of summer, Criswell would put on a huge family celebration to get ready for the new fall year, renting out Six Flags over Texas for a day. Also, the week prior to Easter at the noon lunch hour, Criswell brought a series of sermons simply known as the “Pre-Easter Services.” These services were intended for business men and women in the downtown Dallas area to come at lunch and hear the gospel message. Hundreds if not thousands of people who never would have come to the church regularly came to these activities and services.

The Loving Pastor

At the center of Criswell’s ministry was the great love he had for his flock. He deeply cared for his people, and Criswell was greatly loved in return by his congregation. Criswell’s love flowed from his passion for evangelism. Evangelism was the main goal of his ministry. To his congregation Criswell emphasized visitation and outreach. In his own ministry he declared the role of the pastor is to do the work of an evangelist. This aspect of his pastorate stemmed from his view of the Bible, whose specific purpose is saving souls.

Perhaps Criswell’s greatest example of being a loving pastor was his emphasis on making people in the church feel welcome. He often joked with people coming to join the church or accepting Christ, “You can’t get into the kingdom without shaking my hand!”He loved people and embraced his shepherding commission from God with open arms. Criswell said, “The example of the great pastors of the world is always one of personal contact with the people. The pulpit is the throne of the preacher, but the throne is not stable unless it rests on the affections of the people.”This conviction was the foundation of his preaching ministry.

Criswell would tell of George Truett who refused an invitation to be president at Baylor University by saying, “No, I cannot come, for I have sought and found the shepherd heart.”4 Criswell’s shepherd heart was revealed as he wept with those who were weeping, encouraged the downtrodden, joyfully fed the flock from the word of God, and heartily shook every visitor’s hand as he was the devoted shepherd of his flock for over fifty years.

Baptist21 is honored to highlight the Criswell Library each year at our panel at the SBC and this year is the same. Criswell Library offers 4100 sermons from over 50 years of Criswell’s ministry absolutely free! Click here for more information.

Criswell, Standing, 170-171. Rohm, Dr. C, 118. Criswell, Criswell’s Guidebook, 275. Ibid., 276.