In 1990, the year Gardner Taylor retired from preaching, Lee Strobel began to preach. By that time, Taylor had pastored historic Concord Baptist Church in New York City for 42 years. Today at 77 he still preaches almost every weekend, while Strobel regularly fills the Plexiglas pulpit at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois.
Taylor preached in a heyday of American preaching, when New York City pulpits were filled with the likes of George Buttrick, Robert McCracken, Fulton Sheen--and Gardner Taylor. In 1980 "Time" magazine declared him "dean of the nation's black preachers." The "Christian Century" recently quipped, "What was once alleged of Southern Baptist preacher Carlyle Marney may equally be said of Taylor: he has a voice like God's--only deeper."
Throughout his ministry Taylor's love of preaching was surpassed only by his love for Laura, his wife of 52 years. "I sometimes see her lying in repose now," he said, "and a great sadness comes over me because I know one of us must leave the other. But what can we do?"
Last February, several weeks after those words were published, Laura was struck and killed in a crosswalk by a city truck.
"My wife's passing," says Taylor now, "has given me a far larger confidence in the future life."
Before Lee Strobel began preaching, he earned a master's degree from Yale Law School and then became an award-winning reporter for the Chicago Tribune. The prototype Unchurched Harry, he began attending Willow Creek and moved from confessed atheist and irreligious journalist to a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ.
Eventually Strobel joined the staff of Willow Creek and now serves as a teaching pastor; he, Bill Hybels, and two others share the responsibility of preaching to 15,000 people each weekend.
One thing didn't change at conversion for Strobel, however: his investigative intensity. A while ago, his daughter said, "Dad, can we buy the house next door?"
"Why would you want to move next door?" he asked.
"No, no," his daughter replied. "We wouldn't move next door. You would move next door the weeks you're working on a sermon."
Strobel is the author of "Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry & Mary" and "What Jesus Would Say."
LEADERSHIP brought Lee Strobel and Gardner Taylor together to find out what makes preaching biblical--and how preachers present biblical truth in different generations.
LEADERSHIP: What was the first sermon that made an impact on you?
TAYLOR: It would have been around 1929. My father was a preacher in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He pastored a church that I later pastored. I was only 13 when he died, but as a boy I remember a sermon he preached, "A Balm In Gilead," which touched me deeply.
STROBEL: It was January 20, 1980; I was 28 years old. I remember the date because I was an atheist. My wife had become a Christian through Willow Creek and encouraged me to attend. I rebuffed her attempts for several months but finally went. That Sunday Bill Hybels was preaching a message called "Basic Christianity." For the first time in my life, I walked away understanding what grace is. I don't want to say no one had ever tried to tell me before, but at least I had never heard it.
I came away from that service thinking two things: I don't believe it's true. But if it is, it would have incredible implications for my life. That sermon prompted a spiritual investigation that culminated in my coming to faith in late 1981.