I got a phone call recently from Alistair Begg.
Some of you are thinking, “You’re kidding!” And some of you are thinking, “Who’s Alistair Begg?”
After I came to the church in 1997 I learned of a conference being held in Anaheim, California called “Preach the Word”. It was being hosted by Greg Laurie and Harvest Church, and featured the top three expository preachers in the country at that time: Chuck Swindoll, Chuck Smith and John MacArthur. I had benefited from the ministries of each of these men, through their radio broadcasts and their books.
Charles Swindoll’s wonderful sermons had impacted me several times at key moments in my life, and I loved his laughter. Chuck Smith had a wonderful, laid-back way of teaching the Bible. He used to say, “The secret that I seek to impart to those eager to enter the ministry is to simply teach the Word of God simply.” And John MacArthur, while extremely serious in his delivery, always put the Biblical text in its historical context and took pains to explain exactly what the Bible says. All three of these men were heroes to me in the ministry, and examples of what a Biblical preacher ought to be.
So at first I thought I would go to that conference. Then, after thinking about the cost of plane fare, staying in a hotel, renting a car and paying for meals, I thought I’d just stay here and buy the tapes of the conference sermons instead. And that’s what I did. In the days before cell phones or widespread internet access, I tracked down the number of Harvest Church in Anaheim, made a long-distance call, and ordered the tapes of the conference on my credit card.
And when they got here, I was disappointed.
At the last minute, John MacArthur had gotten sick, and was unable to preach at the conference. So they got someone else to substitute for him. I thought, “Oh, no! Are you kidding me? No John MacArthur? And who’s this guy? I’ve never heard of him! He’s got a funny name!” And so I listened to all the other messages by Chuck Swindoll and Chuck Smith first. Then finally, because I had paid for them, I thought I would at least give one of the messages by the guy with the funny name a listen.
That was the first time I ever heard Alistair Begg preach. And I loved his messages best of all.
Alistair Begg is a Scottish preacher with a wonderful brogue. He says he’s lost most of his Scottish accent since living in America, but I don’t think so. He could read the phone book and keep an audience’s attention. It is such an unfair advantage. He came to America in 1983, and has been the Senior Pastor of Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio ever since. He is 67 years old.
After listening to his messages at the “Preach the Word” conference I discovered he had a radio broadcast, “Truth for Life”. It is carried on hundreds of Christian radio stations across America, and features recordings of his sermons preached at Parkside Church on Sunday mornings and evenings. I always listened to him whenever I could. These days I have the Truth for Life app on my phone, and listen to him at least once every week or so. His messages never fail to speak to my heart. (Because preachers need to hear preaching, too.)
With my background among independent Baptists, I have to say that I quickly grew weary of preachers whose sermons seemed to contain more emotion and shouting than Biblical content…”more heat than light,” as they say. I have often been criticized over the years for not being more emotional when I preach. Sometimes I do get emotional, but it’s never planned. It always takes me by surprise, too. If you really care about something, it’ll come out in the way you talk. But I’ve never been one to “holler and spit”, and though I did occasionally pound the pulpit in my early days, it didn’t take me long to get away from it. If you have to bang on furniture in order to make your point, you probably don’t have much of a point to begin with.
You say, “It sounds like you’re being critical of that kind of preaching.” Say, it’s good you picked up on that. I am critical of that kind of preaching. If you want a “hell-fire and brimstone preacher” who will engage in emotional histrionics, then go someplace else. People are facing life, and death, and heartbreak, and disease, and loss. God wrote a Book for us that tells us what He wants us to know about life, and death, and heartbreak, and disease, and loss, and about how to be rightly related to Him and be ready to meet Him when we leave this world. How could I waste peoples’ time by giving them a lot of emotional stories and pulpit antics, and not do my best to tell them everything God has said in His Word? Someday I’m going to stand before the Lord and be accountable to Him for how I preached. The Apostle Paul said, “But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s Word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:2) There it is. If the open statement of the truth of God’s Word doesn’t move you, then emotional stories about meeting momma in heaven aren’t really going to be of much help.
Whenever I have heard someone explaining what the Bible is really saying, and then pointing out what we should do on the basis of what it is saying, I have always been drawn to that kind of teaching and preaching. That’s the kind of teaching and preaching I want to do. That’s the kind of teaching and preaching I’ve felt called to do, and what I have given my life to. And that’s why I have been drawn to the ministries of men like Chuck Swindoll, Chuck Smith and John MacArthur. And Alistair Begg.
I’ve had the privilege of meeting and having brief conversations with Alistair Begg twice after conference sessions at Moody Bible Institute. And once on vacation in 2005, before an evening service at Parkside Church, an older lady insisted on introducing my wife and me to her pastor, saying, “Of, you must come meet Alistair!” And to our surprise he stood and talked to us for 15 or 20 minutes.
I have learned over the years that if you will write a brief, handwritten personal letter to prominent pastors, as often as not, if you’ll be patient, you can get a personal response from them. I once wrote to Charles Swindoll like that, and I still have his reply to me in my files.
Over a year ago I had received some significant discouragement about the value of preaching from others in ministry whose approach was significantly different than mine. Their comments left me feeling as if I might have wasted four decades of my life. Listening to one of Alistair Begg’s messages from his Basics Conference earlier this year, he seemed to describe a similar experience that happened to him when he spoke at another conference in a seminary. His message was encouraging, but I was eager to know more. So I wrote to him, told him of my own experience, and asked him if he could recommend any books that might encourage me some morewith regard to preaching. After about three weeks I began to eagerly watch the mail.
On Thursday, December 5th, I had just returned to the church at 2:22 pm. I had a brief word with our secretary, and then entered my study. I turned on the lamp on my desk and immediately blew a light bulb. I unscrewed the bulb and was holding it in my hand when at 2:26 pm the phone rang. I heard the secretary say, “It’s a Pastor Begg from Parkside Church. Do want to talk to him?” I nearly crushed the light bulb in my hand.
Our current phone system will often drop phone calls when our secretary tries to transfer the call from her desk to mine. I stood there, holding the light bulb, praying fervently, “Oh, please don’t let it drop! Please don’t let it drop!” After a few tense moments the phone on my desk rang.
When I answered it I heard a familiar voice say, “Hello, David? This is Alistair Begg.” I said, “I can’t believe I’m talking to you!” He said, “I can’t believe you can’t believe you’re talking to me!” I said, “I’m about to cry.” He said, “Well, that certainly wasn’t my intention in calling. I got this nice letter you sent me, and I hate to respond by writing letters. So I asked my assistant to see if he could track you down, and I thought we could just have a nice phone conversation for a few minutes.”
And we did have a nice phone conversation. He talked to me for almost 18 minutes, and said some very encouraging and affirming things about the value of expository preaching, and how it is worth giving our lives this task. Then he asked if he could pray for me. I said yes, of course, and he proceeded to pray for both me, and himself, and our ministries, especially as we prepared for the Sundays of the Christmas season. He concluded by inviting me to come to the Basics Conference for pastors next year, held at Parkside Church each May. I told him, God willing, my colleague and I would be there. Then we said goodbye.
It was a surreal but wonderful interlude in my day, and my week. Though I had much to do, I immediately sat down and wrote a summary of the phone call in the flyleaf of my Bible. In the absence of a written reply, I wanted some way of recalling the essence of our conversation. I was blown away that Alistair Beg would take the time to call me personally. It really did move me to tears. It was all very encouraging. And it made me want to keep on keeping on in my efforts to preach and teach God’s Word.
Soli Deo Gloria!