Harold John Ockenga’s distinguished career as a pastor, educator, administrator, and author has spanned more than half a century since his graduation from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1930. Upon completion of 25 years as chairman of the board of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Dr. Ockenga reflected on some of his noteworthy experiences.

For 33 years he occupied the pulpit of Boston’s famed Park Street Church. His preaching and his leadership restored the church’s dynamic and brought new life to the cause of evangelicalism in New England. While there he set the pattern for world missions involvement that many churches have followed since. In the field of education, he was the first president of Fuller Theological Seminary and served in that capacity for 11 years. Most recently he was president of Gordon College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. His major contribution to the cause of evangelicalism in the U.S. and around the world came through his pioneering efforts on behalf of the National Association of Evangelicals and the World Evangelical Fellowship. The author of 14 books, he is retired and lives with his wife Audrey in Hamilton, Massachusetts. He will be 77 on his next birthday, but continues active in speaking and writing.

You started your pastorate at Park Street Church in 1936. How did you build up your congregation?

I put my hardest work on the Wednesday night message, because fewer people came to that service. I put my next hardest work on the Sunday night sermons because it’s harder for people to get out Sunday night, so you’ve got to have something interesting. I put the least work on my Sunday morning sermon, because I would get those people anyway. Incidentally, I got this idea from Dr. Withrow, who was pastor there years ago.

Did it work?

Yes. Things began to grow when I preached a series of Sunday evening sermons on “Our Protestant Heritage.” I took a number of different men—Calvin, Luther, Wesley, Zwingli, Cromwell, William of Orange. What I didn’t know then was that there were a lot of Orangemen [Irish Protestants] in New England. They must have gotten wind of what I was doing. They began filling up the church Sunday nights. From then on I had the evening congregation for whatever I preached. The morning congregation did seem to come in the evening.

You started the Boston Evening School of the Bible, too, didn’t you?

It ran for 25 years. There I taught something I had been working on for my sermons, so I could handle it without preparation.

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But you still had to give four messages a week?

Yes, and then I added a fifth, the one on television on Thursday morning.

How did you find time?

I blocked out the whole week in half-hour segments, either for studying, or calling, or interviewing, or whatever. I worked hard and things began to grow. But then I got into trouble. We had no amplification system at that time and I began forcing my voice. I ripped a blood vessel in my vocal cords and was out for five months. But we turned the corner, and gradually got up to 2,400 members. It was a gradual, hard job. I used to wonder if I would ever have the crowds they had at Tremont Temple [a prominent downtown Boston church]. On Sunday night I’d look up and see 300 or 400 people and know that over there they had 2,400. I wondered what in the world was going on. But I worked and worked and worked, and finally it came. We had overflow congregations in the morning and were full at night.

Some people say that to do a really good sermon you have to work 20 hours on it. How did you do all the studying required for your sermons?

I did a lot of reading. I’d read on the subway going to church and home. I’d read at night. I’d even read some in my office. I had certain times for each thing I did. I always kept Mondays free, if I could; sometimes I visited people in the hospital on Monday. On Tuesday I started getting my topics ready for Sunday, if I didn’t have them in advance—which I usually did. I’d get those topics ready, get the material ready for the church bulletin, and that sort of thing. Then I would work for my Sunday evening sermon. That was the last thing I would unload, so I did it first. I’d work on that until late afternoon, and then go calling.

Wednesday morning I’d start on the Sunday evening sermon again and pretty much finish it up. At noon I’d go to the Rotary Club, and on Wednesday afternoon I had interviews. Wednesday night I’d have some meeting of the church, or be out somewhere.

Thursday morning I would start on my Sunday morning sermon. In the afternoon I’d go calling. Because our midweek meeting was Friday night, I would put everything aside on Friday morning and work on that topic until I got through. Then I’d do organizational work.

On Saturday morning I would go back to the Sunday morning sermon and work on it until I got done. I never worked at home. I always went to my office and I stayed there until I was finished with the morning sermon. Because I had to unload that first I put it in last, making it the freshest in my mind.

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Sunday afternoon we would go home, have dinner, and a nap. Then I would get up and work on my Sunday evening sermon to get it in mind. I wrote out my sermons and memorized them, and always preached without notes.

Tell us about your reading.

I try to read a book a week, something I have done for years. Everywhere I go I take books. I have long-term reading, where you can go through a whole book, like on a plane trip to California. And I have short-term reading, when you have 15 or 20 minutes, like standing in the subway. I read at night. On Monday I’d go off somewhere, or I’d stay at home and read or work outside.

Over the years, what books have been crucial building blocks, or just something special to you?

Someone asked me to list the 12 most important books I had read. This is my list: What Is Christian Civilization?, by John Daley; Crisis of Our Age, by Pitirim Sorokin; What Is Christianity?, by Herbert Butterfield; What Is Faith, by J. Gresham Machen; Therefore Stand, by Wilbur M. Smith; The Battle for the Bible, by Harold Lindsell; How to Be Born Again, by Billy Graham; Fire in the Fireplace, by Charles Hummel; On Human Understanding, by John Locke; The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx; and The World and the West, by Arnold Toynbee.

Do you agree that preaching is the basis of the pastor’s authority?

One hundred percent. You can’t stand and converse with people from the pulpit; you’ll lose them. If you have a strong pulpit ministry, you’re going to have a strong church, no matter if everything else is lacking. If you have a strong counseling church without a strong pulpit, you’ll have a weak church. Preaching has got to be there, or people are not going to come. It has to be enlightening, interesting, and challenging. Conversational preaching is a mistake. You’ve got to develop certain points, like a syllogism. You have to develop something people can follow, an outline with alliteration. When you get through, people can say, “That’s what he said about this and that’s what he said about that.”

Is there too much of an emphasis today on the pastor as a teacher rather than as a preacher?

The pastor-teacher is the essence of the pastor-preacher. A man can’t preach two or three times a week without teaching. He has to have content. One fellow once told me, “I never thought content would be the attractive power of the pulpit until I went to hear you. The thing that brought me back always was the content.” I preached through books of Scripture. This was not running comment—I preached: 30 or 40 sermons on a book of Scripture. The people would come back; they would want to hear the next one and the next one. We didn’t have any advertising. It was preaching that filled the church.

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What really distinguishes the preacher from the teacher?

I’ll tell how I learned the difference. When I was in college, I preached one whole summer as part of an evangelistic team. Later I was asked to preach again in one of those churches. In the meantime, I’d had a religious experience, so I took the Scripture and illustrated it by that experience and applied it to the people. When I got through, one of the members of the team came to me and said, “That’s the first message I’ve ever heard you give.” The difference is, you’re pouring out your soul to get something across. You must have urgency. You want to move people so they will act and respond.

You mentioned strong counseling ministry without a strong preaching ministry. Some pastors are spending 20 to 30 hours a week counseling. Is this a good trend for the church or not?

It’s a cop-out from able, dedicated preaching. Pastors are glad to do it because they don’t have to prepare for it. They don’t have to do anything but sit and listen to people, and then give them their best advice. In some cases their advice may not be good, because they’re not trained well enough. I never got any counseling from anybody in my life; maybe one or two cases, but that’s all.

You did no counseling as a pastor?

I always had a counseling period. Wednesday afternoons when people could come and interview me were always full. But I’d go home tired and unsatisfied with the whole thing. It’s dirtying to listen to these things. I just don’t think that is what the Lord wants us to do. If your preaching is biblical, people will get the same ideas you give in counseling. You might as well handle a thousand people as one or ten. Counseling takes time. You can’t do that and preach.

How did you handle the growing pains at Park Street Church?

What discouraged me the most was that the New Englanders thought differently than people elsewhere. In the Midwest, South, or West, if a preacher has an idea and he wants to put it across, he can put it across. I’d have to suggest it, and suggest it. Then I’d have to let it sit for four or five years until somebody else thought it was his idea and he advanced it. Then we would be able to do it.

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Do you recall any really hot controversies?

We used to keep quite a large sum in reserve for emergencies—like bringing missionaries home, or to use if the church burned down. It was $300,000 or $400,000. We were supporting 145 missionaries. Well, one of my men got the idea we ought to spend everything. We had a knock-down, drag-out fight one night in the board of deacons. I told them that as long as I was pastor, I was going to have the say as to where we spent our money. He finally came around, but it wasn’t easy.

Another time two of our trustees were at loggerheads over our investment policy. So I got the trustees together one night and said, “Look, men, we’re having a lot of blessing in this church. It would be easy to lose it all if you start fighting. Now, either you can tell the board that you’re sorry you have put these things in one another’s way, or you can both leave. One or the other, but we’re not going on with this anymore.”

One fellow got up like a gentleman and said, “I apologize to you. I’ll not insist on my way any longer.” The other fellow sat there, glum as an ox, and finally he said, “Well, I’m not going to change.” He left and never came back.

How did you develop your interest in missions?

When I was a student at Princeton, I volunteered to be a missionary. I was planning to go to China. One day Clarence Macartney and some other prominent preachers got hold of me and said, “Look, we’re not going to be able to do anything for missions if we don’t hold some of these churches in this country. You ought to take a church here, build it up, and raise money for missions.”

That’s what I did, first with Macartney at First Presbyterian, Pittsburgh, then at Point Breeze, and then at Park Street. I tried to put missions first at the time. The first year I was at Park Street we had $2,200 for missions. We soon changed that. Missions were first in our interest—in our giving, and everything else. We did it by voluntary giving. We never raised any money with chicken pot pie suppers.

You’ve raised a lot of money in your time. What insights do you have about money management in the local church?

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The pastor should sit on the board of trustees, not as a member, but just as he should sit on the board of deacons, or elders. He ought to know where everything goes. He has to raise the money, therefore he ought to be able to see where it goes. He ought to be able to agree with where people want it to go. But if it is raised for one thing, don’t take it from that for something else.

He ought to have a good bit to say about the final disposition of funds. I didn’t do that directly; I did it through the boards. I sat on every board that spent a dime, because I didn’t want the money to go to the wrong place. It was too hard to raise.

While you were pastor at Park Street Church you were also president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. How did you handle both responsibilities?

I commuted a great deal and used the telephone a lot. I guess I went back and forth 200 times. I used my assistant, Harold Lindsell, a lot. He executed what I determined as policy—with the trustees, of course.

You were also president of the National Association of Evangelicals for a while and chairman of CHRISTIANITY TODAY for 25 years.

I have always been very busy, but there is a secret to that. You can do things okay if you keep a prayer list. I’ve kept one for 41 years and I have everything on that list. When I go over it, I’m reminded by the Lord if I haven’t tried to solve a problem; I’m very alert to that situation. If I have enemies I’m praying for, something may come to my mind that I can do about that.

Everything goes on that prayer list: faculty, evangelism, family. I write a very brief summary of what the petition is, and I number it and date it. When it’s answered, I write across it “answered.” As I pray, I don’t look at those, I just go to the next one. Some have been answered in the negative—not very many, but some of them. I just put crosses right across those, and I know immediately that they have been denied. This keeps a person alert to his responsibilities.

For instance, if I had a problem at Fuller, I put it on the prayer list. When I would go over the list I was reminded of that problem. I either prayed about it or did something about it that needed to be done. That was a way to keep alert to administrative activities so I could run Fuller, the NAE, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, and my church.

This gives you a tremendous release from tension. When do you find time to pray?

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That’s right—I never worry about it. I pray every morning. First I do my exercises, then shave and bathe, then pray until my wife has breakfast ready. I pick up where I left off on my prayer list and go on through the whole thing. I’ve had this prayer habit from the time I went to college.

Speaking of your college experience, it’s been said that you are the heir of a blend of Reformed and Wesleyan traditions. Is that how you would describe yourself?

There’s some truth to that. I went to Taylor University from a large Methodist church in Chicago. There I came under the influence of the holiness club. I felt I needed another, or deeper, Christian experience. Things weren’t going well on the evangelistic team. I was going to quit preaching, but one of the fellows told me I was the trouble.

One Sunday morning one of them preached on Acts 1:8, “You will have power, after that the Holy Ghost has come upon you,” a sermon I’d heard him preach before. He gave the invitation and nobody responded. As we came to the last stanza, it was as if somebody spoke to me out of the blue, “You want that bliss …” I went forward and it has made the difference in my life. I recognized that I needed a different quality of experience through the Holy Spirit, which I didn’t have at that time. I told the Lord I wanted it.

I found out that there is a higher standard than just being a believer. There is such a thing as being filled with the Holy Spirit for a purpose. The Lord does that.

So, I got the Wesleyan emphasis at Taylor. I rejected sanctification in the sense of being without sin. I left Taylor and went to Princeton. Then I went to Westminster and more or less absorbed the Reformed and Presbyterian viewpoint. But I think there is a lot of the Methodist in me when it comes to preaching.

Your pastoral ministry was also an interesting blend of a large major denomination and a smaller one. How do you compare the two?

I started pastoring a Methodist church in the summer resort town of Avalon, New Jersey, during my last year at Princeton. The people wanted me but the bishop told them I had gone to the wrong seminary; it wasn’t Methodist. In the meantime, Clarence Macartney had invited me to be his assistant at First Presbyterian, Pittsburgh. But I stayed in the Methodist church for a year until the annual conference. Out of the blue, Macartney wrote me again. I decided to test the people at Avalon over the summer. That’s when everybody makes money, but they don’t go to church. The summer went by and I didn’t see any of my faithful people until September. So I decided to accept Macartney’s offer.

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I joined Chambers Wiley Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, was licensed by the Philadelphia presbytery, and then transferred to the presbytery of Pittsburgh. I became a Congregationalist the minute I went to Park Street Church. I was installed by the Congregational Church. I held standing in both denominations. The Pittsburgh presbytery had me laboring outside the bonds of the presbytery and the Suffolk West Association (Congregational) accepted me as a member of their association.

Didn’t you subsequently leave both denominations?

The Los Angeles presbytery didn’t want Fuller seminary there. Half of our students came from local Presbyterian churches, and in ten years we would have controlled that presbytery and several others if they would have given us the green light. They asked my presbytery to enjoin me from laboring out there. I was told I could fight it, and probably win, but the seminary would have been launched in a controversy, so I didn’t.

When the Congregational Church merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church (to form the United Church of Christ), they allowed those who didn’t come in—many churches like Park Street didn’t—to have their names published in the annual minutes. I still have my name there, although I am not a member of the United Church of Christ.

A Pulpit Primer

While serving as Dr. Ockenga’s student assistant at Park Street Church in 1937, I made my way to his tower study after a Sunday morning worship service. Intrigued by his sermon content and flawless delivery, I asked, “Dr. Ockenga, could you take time to explain to me your method of sermon preparation and delivery?” Without hesitation, while he showered and dressed, he launched into a homiletical lecture and study that surpassed all the college, seminary, and graduate speech courses I ever had.

It revolutionized my own preaching style. It challenged me to prayerful subject selection, thorough biblical research and preparation, careful word-for-word manuscript writing, detailed and comprehensive sermon outlining, memorization of the sermon outline, and utter dependence upon the Holy Spirit for preaching without notes.

Little did I realize that this impromptu lecture by one of America’s greatest pulpiteers was God’s crash course preparing me for Dr. Ockenga’s brief illness. In a few months (as a young theolog) I was preaching in his strategic Boston pulpit. It also became my model for over 40 years of teaching and preaching.

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Dr. Ockenga’s First Assistant

Park Street Church

Should a young candidate for the ministry start in one of the major, liberally oriented denominations, or in a smaller evangelical body?

It depends on the individual and his background. If he’s a member of a smaller denomination, he’s got to consider the cost. On the other hand, if he’s a member of a big denomination, United Presbyterian or Methodist, he should stay there, preach, and bear his testimony, unless he’s hindered and limited by the denomination. If it becomes an issue of doctrine or principle, then he has to leave.

How can one prepare for ministry in a mainstream denomination?

Get your evangelical theological training first. Go to an evangelical seminary first, so you have the answers to the problems liberals raise. If you go to a liberal seminary first, and they raise the problems and you have no answers, you’re set adrift. Get your positive answers first and you can judge what you would like to do.

You can always go from a big denomination to a little one, but you can’t go from a little one to a big one. They raise too many questions. They press too hard on you. They have their own students trained in their own seminaries and they want them to have the jobs.

What do you think about the church growth movement?

It’s almost a fetish. I used the good things in the church growth movement before there was a movement. Some of the ideas are good. Get the head of a family converted first and the family probably will come. Get the leader of a group and you probably will get the people. But I don’t like some of the viewpoints, especially the one about making converts all of one class [homogeneous unit principle]. Supposedly, if they were all of one kind, your church could grow much more rapidly than by having converts of diverse backgrounds. Obviously, such churches will grow faster. People are much more at home in a group like that. But that’s not what the church should be. The New Testament church at Antioch, for example, had wealthy and poor people, educated and uneducated, blacks and whites. The church should cut across these things, so people feel at home in other than their own culture or class.

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Take Park Street Church. We always had some wealthy people; not many. We had a great many poor people, a great many blue collar workers. Our deacons and trustees represented all classes of people. The wealthy ones didn’t look down on the others. The middle-class people didn’t demand that we put people from their group in office.

You were instrumental in the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals, were you not?

In 1936, J. Elwyn Wright conceived the idea of a national organization. He said that if we didn’t do this, we’d be frozen out by the Federal [later National] Council of Churches. I wasn’t quite convinced, but I went to the first meeting in Saint Louis. We met for a week, about 150 or 175 men. Wright asked me to give the keynote address (published in Great Speeches that Affected America). I told them we had to get together, to stand together. We had to do it in radio broadcasting, or we would be put off the air. The Federal Council was drawing up a broadcasting code of ethics. We had to do it in the military, or we wouldn’t have any chaplains. The impetus for NAE came from the fact that the fellows all felt they were being cut down.

At that time Carl McIntire demanded that we state categorically in our constitution that we were opposed to the Federal Council, and that our purpose was to hinder their work. It wasn’t the right thing to do, because we would have started on a negative rather than a positive basis. McIntire forced a vote on the issue and lost, but he pulled out 25 or 30 fellows with him and later they formed the American Council of Christian Churches. We went ahead and laid down our basic principles and formed the NAE.

They made me president—because I made the speech, I guess. The church permitted me to make three major trips across the country to speak in churches about the NAE and what we were going to do. Finally, in 1943, we met for a solid week in Chicago for our constitutional convention. We had a great time. I remember Bishop Leslie Marsden of the Free Methodists saying as we were leaving, “America’s revival is breaking.”

How did things go between you and McIntire?

You should know that Carl was in my wedding party, but when I refused to join the Independent Board for Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church, he was so disgusted that he returned the gift I had given him, a couple of book ends of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Anyway, when he started his American Council it became very confusing for churches, schools, missions boards, and denominations. Rather than get into the scrap, many of them decided not to join either NAE or the ACCC.

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But the ACCC did a very bad thing. They would home in on an individual, publish the reports in McIntire’s Christian Beacon, and undermine his work. They cut into his invitations. They went after Donald Barnhouse, after me, after somebody else. They began to whittle us down, one by one, who were the leaders of NAE. As a result, some of them dropped out. It was unfortunate that we had the ACCC and NAE division.

What dangers do you foresee for evangelicals now?

One of them is fragmentation. It looks like it might be over the question of inerrancy of Scripture. That could be a divisive thing when it comes to the future of NAE. However, I think that denominationally we’ve almost had all of the fragmentation we’re going to have. If NAE stays with a positive emphasis, it can have a great influence in the churches.

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