Fred Craddock was the Bandy Distinguished Professor of Preaching and New Testament in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta for many years. He was also an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), originally from rural Tennessee. What we Disciples recall most is that he was an excellent preacher, featured at countless General and Regional Assemblies and various church retreats over the years. Often characterized as preaching with a style that is "folksy," Craddock was known for using humor in sermons, sermons that were more like parables in that he would leave listeners in doubt about precise meanings and would tease folks into wrestling with what they mean. Often his endings were abrupt. He was a masterful storyteller. Newsweek ranked him as one of America's greatest preachers.
One of my favorite Craddock stories is the one he shared about the first little church he served in east Tennessee near Oak Ridge. He talked about how that “little bitty town” was booming due to the establishment of the atomic energy complex that had been located there. He describes how all kinds of people were showing up to work at the plant. There were a lot of construction workers and their families and very few places to house them. So trailer parks popped up overnight. The church he served was nearby—white frame building, one hundred and twelve years old. It had an organ that someone had to pump air through for the organist to play. He said she could play it as slow as anybody. The church was beautifully decorated for the time, with kerosene lamps on the walls and hand hewn pews.
After church one Sunday morning, he asked leaders to stay behind to discuss something close to his heart. “Now we need to launch a calling campaign and invite all those people in the trailer parks to church.” “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think they’d fit in here,” one of the leaders said. “They’re just here temporarily, just laborers. They’ll be leaving pretty soon.” “Well, we ought to invite them, make them feel at home,” Craddock responded. They argued about it until someone decided time ran out, but they agreed to vote on it the next Sunday.
The next Sunday, they all sat down after the service. “I move,” said one of the leaders, “I move that in order to be a member of this church, you must own property in the county.” Someone else immediately said, “I second that.” It passed. Craddock says he voted against it, but they reminded him that he was just a kid preacher and didn’t have a vote. It passed.
Years later, Craddock and his wife Nettie moved back to that area. He took his wife to see that little church, because he had told her that painful story. He had a little difficulty. Roads had changed. An interstate went right through the area. It took a while to find the county road and then the gravel road that led to the church. There among tall pine trees was the building shining white in the midday sun. But something was different. The parking lot was full—motorcycles and trucks and cars packed in there. And out front, a great big sign: Barbecue: All You Can Eat. It was a restaurant! He took his wife inside. The pews were pushed against the walls. They had electric lights now and the organ was pushed unused into a dark corner. There were all these aluminum and plastic tables, and people sitting there eating barbecued pork and chicken and ribs—all kinds of people. Craddock said to Nettie, “It’s a good thing this is not still a church, otherwise these people couldn’t be in here.”
I tell this story because I so admired Dr. Fred Craddock and because his stories are timeless. Even in the 21st century the church of Jesus Christ struggles with the invitation for people to come and worship, and seems to invent even more roadblocks to keep certain folks out. Many don’t come, frankly, because they don’t feel welcomed. We have got somehow to turn that around. There are folks living not far from us whose lives are empty or are falling apart and in despair. Some are in rocky relationships. Some make poor decisions over and over again. Some have a self-destructive personality. Others can’t make a go of it no matter how hard they try. They all want to know if someone cares, if someone can help.
Do you remember? More than likely you were once in the very same predicament. Then all of a sudden, out of the blue, a friend or even a stranger presented you a peculiar invitation. “Hey, we’ve got this little church that believes God loves everybody and that God can help you straighten out the mess of your life. Come with me and see what can happen. You’ll find a bunch of people who understand and who will listen.” And thus began a journey of faith and trust. You were introduced to the wonders of God’s grace and love and it literally saved your life.
I know no one likes to talk of evangelism these days, probably because we’ve made it too complicated with program after program and every one of them results-oriented. I believe it is time to get back to basics, back to the invitation and the introduction. Let us be an inviting people. Let us be a people of welcome. Let us see our mission as introducing folks, all kinds of folks, to Jesus.
I just don’t want to see any more churches turned into restaurants!