The Preaching of Stephen F. Olford

Reflections After 20 Years

Years ago I was asked to be one of the presenters at a conference on preaching. Near the end of the event one of my fellow presenters, speaking to the whole group, expressed appreciation for the fact that I did not ask people to preach like my father. I believe I know what he meant when he made that statement. I never asked him about it, because it came at the end of the conference. So, my comments here are my own “take” on his words.

I certainly took the statement in a positive way. At the same time, behind his comment could also have been the caution that although it is good to have mentors and models, we don’t want to mimic someone else. No two preachers are alike, and to try to copy someone you respect can lead to frustration to say the least. Furthermore, we certainly should not adopt a style of presentation that is not our own, and even worse, we should not adopt a style simply because “it works” for someone we admire. I was grateful for the comment made.

It is almost 20 years since the completion of my father’s race on earth, and it is a good time for me to reflect further on the life and preaching ministry of my father. Thinking now about that statement made years ago at the preaching conference, I want to take that statement in another direction. In short, without shallow imitation, or inappropriate veneration, I think that there are some ways that preachers would actually “do well” to preach like my father. No, I’m not talking specifically about his fondness and skill (I might add) for the use of alliteration; although improving our skill in the use of words is a good goal to have as a preacher. He was exceedingly good in his use of words. No, I’m not talking about my father’s dress and appearance in detail; although an awareness of the visual in preaching is a good thing. No, I’m not talking about his specific delivery style, which actually could change depending on the context. No, I’m not talking about his English accent, which I do not share having grown up in New York. (Many have been disappointed when I opened my mouth to speak, and at least one reason has been the lack of an English accent.)

What I want to share here are some comments concerning important aspects of my father’s preaching that are worth thinking about, and relating to our own preaching ministries. It would take way too long to focus on my father’s background and private life, his 56 years of marriage, his relationship with my brother and me, and other aspects of his personal life. This has been addressed ably in a biography of his life. No, I am thinking specifically about his preaching and aspects of it that are relevant to us today.

My first comment about my father’s preaching is that it was part of a lifestyle.

My father would be the first to admit his need for the mercy and grace of God. He did not claim to be more than he was in reality, but at the same time he could rejoice that he was what he was “by the grace of God,” and he was a preacher. This meant that preaching was part of a lifestyle, a lifestyle based on being “in Christ,” and being in union with Christ by grace. It was a lifestyle of seeking to be in fellowship with the Lord, a commitment to do the will of the Lord, and a desire for the glory of the Lord. These passions were not just pulpit goals, they were life goals, really. My father wanted preaching to come from the overflow of a relationship with the Lord, and it was his calling as a person to be a preacher. He desired to live – a holy life, and his approach to preaching was in keeping with that desire. He wanted God Himself and the Word of God to be honored and glorified in the activity and the message of preaching. My point here, though, is that these desires were not just part of an approach to preaching, they were part of an approach to living. So, it would be hard to separate the preaching side of my father from anything else in his life. This didn’t mean that he was always thinking about his next sermon when you were trying to talk to him; not at all. But, at the same time, preaching and preaching preparation were a lifestyle, not a special task that involved only a specific time slot on the daily, weekly or monthly planner. Oh, he spent plenty of time in what we would usually call the sermon preparation process, but he sought to live what he preached, and he preached out of a personal lifestyle in step with his preaching.

Second, there was no doubt that my father saw preaching as a Word-driven, Word-focused activity.

He put great stress on the actual reading of the text, believing that the “text read” was as important as the “text preached.” At least in the reading of the text, and especially in a good reading of the text, God’s Word was going forth. This emphasis on the text-oriented nature of preaching was based upon a love of the Scriptures, a high view of the inerrancy of the Scriptures, and faith in the life-giving power of the Scriptures. From his devotional life, to daily living, to leading a church, to sermon preparation, to preaching itself, the key concern was “what has God said in his Word.” In the preaching event itself, my father desired that the text be the foundation and the authority for what was being presented.

My father was not naïve about the human aspect of the Scriptures including translation work. Having been raised in Angola (Portuguese West Africa at that time), he was aware of the task of translating the Scriptures into the Chokwe language. (One of my most prized possessions is a copy of the translation of the New Testament and Psalms that was done by a translation team including Frederick Ernest Samuel Olford, my grandfather.) Stephen Olford, growing up in that culture, could see that the Chokwe translation could have been improved. Yet, God was at work mightily using His Word to bring salvation and spiritual growth in Angola. The light was going forth. Questions about different translations of the Scriptures were not of deep personal concern for my father, because he trusted that God used His Word. Accuracy, yes, was the goal. But, God honors His Word, and He honors the attempt by preachers to be faithful to the Word of God in their preaching. So, a sermon being “Word-driven” was not just a commitment to exegetical preaching, it was a commitment to honor and respect the Word of God in the preaching event, and to trust God to use His Word for His purposes and glory.

A third aspect of my father’s preaching was the priority he placed on Christ-Centered preaching.

If you are reading this article, you probably know that there is a lot that has been written about the subject of Christ-Centered preaching recently. How do you preach Christ from any given text of Scripture? Well, besides a hermeneutic that pointed in that direction, and an evangelistic gifting that kept him there, there was a core to my father’s preaching and teaching ministry. His life’s verse was Galatians 2:20, and he wrote a book on this text with the title “Not I But Christ.” Christ-Centeredness was his approach to the Christian life and spirituality. In keeping with this emphasis in his life, was this emphasis in his preaching. I have often shown a DVD in training seminars of a session my father presented on the core truths that every person in the local church ought to know. And the text for that set of core truths is Colossians 2:6-10. In short, every Christian ought to have a good understanding of what it means to receive Christ Jesus the Lord, and how to walk in Him. The Saviorhood and Sovereignty of Jesus are both emphasized, as well as the need for obedience and dependence in the Christian’s walk. And all of these truths are important aspects of a believer’s life in Christ.

On the practical level, my father may not have been known for his stand on certain issues, except the authority of Scripture, and racism. But, he was known for his involvement with conventions that sought to bring Christians together under the heading “All One in Christ Jesus.” Being in Christ Jesus was of central importance to him. Teaching what Galatians 2:20 means practically and personally was central to him and his preaching. I was recently sent a DVD of a message my father preached back in the 80’s on that succinct powerful testimony of the Apostle Paul in Philippians, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Christ-Centered.

 Many people, including preachers, were helped by my father’s emphasis on the “Spirit-filled life.” My father’s textual focus for the Spirit-filled life was Ephesians 5:18. He viewed the Spirit-filled life as the normal Christian life, and the Christian’s regular condition should be that of being “Spirit-filled.” My father distinguished the filling from the baptism of the Spirit with reference to 1 Cor. 12:13, and used the word “baptism” in relation to your “position” in Christ. It is the indwelling Spirit that distinguishes the child of God and that initial entrance into the family of God is by the Spirit, pictured in water baptism. The baptism of the Spirit is instrumental to this position in Christ. So, the baptism for my father was an initial work of the Spirit with continued impact. The Spirit-filled life should be an ongoing personal experience based on union with Christ, faith and obedience. At my father’s memorial service Dr. Jim Shaddix rightly emphasized that my father spent a lot of time explaining to preachers the need for Spirit-anointed preaching. I know that some people do not like the word “anointed,” because of its misuse or overuse. But, my father saw this word as referring to Spirit-authorized and empowered service. Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 61 in Luke 4 is critical is this regard as Jesus related this promise of the Spirit to Himself. The need for the disciples to tarry in Jerusalem until they were “endued” for witness is an important reference. For my father, the conscious awareness of the need for the Holy Spirit’s work, and the discipline of “asking” were important to him. My father’s categories of explanation may not simply fit every text, but they are helpful for those trying to understand the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. Certainly, the Christian life starts when one is truly born of the Spirit. The daily experience is to be that of life in the Spirit, which means being Spirit-filled in the Ephesians 5:18 sense. But, the Holy Spirit is a missional/vocational/proclamative Spirit, who empowers the preacher in the preaching of the Word.

If one was to analyze my father’s preaching carefully, they would see that his preaching was application oriented.

He was always concerned that people know what to do with the truth being proclaimed. He saw response as needed on the part of the people, not just hearing and understanding. His evangelistic gift came through even in a pastoral context. I am not thinking about a specific presentation of the gospel in the message. I am talking about the whole direction of a preached message being response and life-change on the part of the hearer. My father believed in the “urgency” of the preaching event. Tomorrow would be too late to deal with the frogs (Pharaoh!). A good friend of my folks used to say that my father would “put you in a corner” through the preaching and not let you out. What was meant by that statement is that the listener was called upon to respond to the message one way or another. I am not talking about public invitations or methodology, that is another subject. I am talking about the nature of the message itself. Truth deserves to be taken seriously, personally, and considered immediately. My father trusted in the work of the Holy Spirit. Through the Word and by the Holy Spirit, people were and are confronted with the need to respond, take a step, commit to the truth, and make a decision. He liked to think of preaching as creating a crisis of decision. A choice needs to be made. But, that was not the whole picture. A crisis, he would say, is followed by a process. A first step is followed by other steps. Although he would not use these words, in a sense, preaching creates the crisis and teaching enables the process. All of this is the work of God, through the Word and by the Holy Spirit. 

One of the distinctives of my father’s regular preaching was what he termed “the after-meeting.” 

This was especially the case after evangelistic messages. He wanted to provide clarity for people who sensed a need to respond to the truth of the message. Regardless of what type of invitation was given, he would invite people to an after-meeting. In the after-meeting he would focus on the core of the message and what personal responses are needed to the truth. In addition, at Calvary Baptist Church (1959-1973) counseling would be offered, and literature would be available for those who needed it. This “method” grew out of his evangelistic ministry. My father took the preaching of the Word seriously. He took the preaching event and moment seriously. He saw the need for personal appropriation and response, not just initially to the gospel, but as a means for continued growth in the Christian life. Every preaching event was an aspect of God’s work in people’s lives.   

For my father, preaching and prayer went together.

Both preaching and prayer were to be part of a preacher’s lifestyle. In practice, prayer needed to precede preaching and preaching would lead into praying. Prayer is a much bigger subject than I can address here, but one specific text that was central to my father’s teaching was Acts 6. When problems emerged in the Jerusalem church in the early days, it was dealt with by way of delegation. Men were selected to handle the problem.  And by delegating the resolving of the problem to faithful men, the Apostle’s were freed to give themselves to prayer and the Word of God. My father saw this as a principle for pastors who are involved in the preaching of the Word. When possible, pastors need to delegate tasks and problem solving to able people, so that the pastor/preacher can give more time to prayer and the Word of God. My father’s concern was to help the preacher focus on primary responsibilities (prayer and preaching), and to seek to allow others to handle matters that they can handle. The preacher needs to come to “the pulpit” ready to preach, and not “empty” due to pre-occupation with other matters - resulting in limited time in prayer and preaching.

One last comment to make is that my father left a legacy without constantly talking about leaving a legacy.

This legacy is found in the family and friends who were touched by his life. His legacy is found in the written works he left behind and numerous lectures and messages captured in other media. His legacy can be found in the numerous preachers who would say that their commitment to “preaching the Word” was strengthened by Stephen F. Olford. The ministry he founded continues to encourage and equip preachers and teachers in our day. This ministry continues not simply to be “a reminder of the man,” although there is nothing wrong with good and motivating memories. The ministry continues to promote that type of preaching present above. These aspects of preaching, I believe, are commendable and worthy of emphasis in our day. Of course, there is much more that can be said about faithful Biblical exposition. Ultimately, preaching just needs to be Biblical in every sense. And in those ways that Stephen Olford sought to represent and promote “Biblical Preaching,” it is worth “imitating him” as he imitated Christ.   

— David Olford

 

 

 

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