Five, six—seven books. It was 1987, and I was ringing up another sale in my bookstore three blocks off the Indiana University campus in Bloomington. Four of the books were No Wonder They Call Him the Savior, two were God Came Near, and one was On the Anvil. All of the books were by a little-known missionary to Brazil named Max Lucado. "You must really like this author," I said to the customer as she wrote out her check. "Someone gave me his books, and I just love them," she said. "Now I want to give copies to all my friends."
This scenario repeated itself over the next few years as each subsequent Lucado book connected like wildfire with readers in our university town. It was a word-of-mouth phenomenon happening on a much larger scale across the United States—and it showed no signs of stopping.
Today, almost two decades since the release of his first book in 1985, Lucado has written more than 50 books that have sold 33 million copies and been translated into 30 languages. His books are staples on Christian bestseller lists; 10 have sold close to or more than 1 million copies. Pretty good for a writer whose first manuscript was rejected by 14 publishers.
In his books and his sermons, Lucado uses simple anecdotes, retells Bible stories, and emphasizes the Cross, grace and forgiveness, and second chances. It's a message Lucado embraced again after walking away from Christ as a teenager. It's also a message that, unobtrusively and with little fanfare, is engaging more and more readers as the years go on.
A Non-celebrity Pastor
Despite his growing fame as a writer, Lucado, 49, continues to preach 40 Sundays a year, as well as at midweek services, at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas, where he is senior minister. He's been at Oak Hills Church since returning from Brazil in 1988. On a sweltering Sunday morning in June, I sit with Lucado and his assistant and administrative editor, Karen Hill, in the church's front row of folding chairs. About 4,000 people will attend the three services this morning in the church's gymnasium-like auditorium.
Lucado looks relaxed; his red hair is close-cut, and he's dressed casually in an open-necked short-sleeve shirt and khakis. He sings an a cappella praise chorus with the congregation, then walks forward to preach today's message, "Come Thirsty," based on John 15:7.
As Lucado preaches, Hill scribbles notes in her copy of the sermon transcript. The sermon series and Hill's notes will become the basis for a new book also tentatively titled Come Thirsty, which Lucado, working with Hill and longtime editor Liz Heaney, will create this year.
Lucado, a self-described introvert, finds that preaching energizes him. "I think a healthy church boils down to a lot of prayer and a lot of preaching about Jesus. If the message of Jesus is a steady diet, the church has a good chance." Preaching, he believes, allows him to engage with people's lives, and be a better writer.
Sprinkled throughout the congregation are tourists who have made Oak Hills Church part of their vacation itinerary. "I think Max and the church leaders welcome the fact that his notoriety does bring visitors to worship with us," member Larry Heller says. "Visitors may walk in wanting to meet Max, but the hope is that they will walk out having had an encounter with the living God."
Lucado does not autograph books on Sunday morning (he'll sign books left at the information desk during the week, and the church mails them back to the visitors). His name does not appear on the sign outside, and it shows up only three times in the church bulletin. The church's 24-page monthly newsletter has a short pastor's column and a brief mention of Lucado's latest sermon series. That's it. "I didn't come here as a celebrity. I was hired as a minister," Lucado says. "We have grown in this together."
What seems to help the shy Lucado stay grounded is his sense of humor. You can't spend time with him without hearing one of the thousands of jokes in his repertoire—and he's not above being corny. Over lunch with Lucado and his family, the jokes fly thick and fast between him and his youngest daughter, Sara, 14, as his wife, Denalyn, and I laugh—or groan.
It's this sense of humor that repeatedly pops up when you ask his publishers, friends, and editors to describe Lucado; they always mention how much fun he is. They also use superlatives like authentic and, especially, humble. "I know he's like all of us, and there is an ego there somewhere," says Steve Green, his literary representative and former college roommate. "But I've never seen it."
Don Jacobson was marketing director at Multnomah Press for several of Lucado's early books and is now president and publisher. "I've watched him now for almost 20 years and have always appreciated his humble spirit," Jacobson says. "If anything, he's more humble now than when I first met him."
Lucado acknowledges compliments like these by—of course—making a joke. "Being a humble author—I take pride in that!" he says.
Lucado admits that he wrestles with pride, which he says manifests itself in his competitiveness. "I'm ashamed of the fact that I sometimes want to have the biggest church in town, or a book on the bestseller list," he says. "I take too much pride in that. I ideally want to be able to say that I can be content if 500 people read my books rather than 500,000. But I can't."
His desire to have the largest church in town was an issue for several years. "I confessed it to the church—I was sick of always wanting to know if our church was as big as the others," Lucado says. "A man gave me some great advice. He reminded me that when another church does well, we all do well. After he said that, I suddenly saw Oak Hills as one tiny corpuscle in the body of Christ."
He channels much of his competitiveness into fitness and sports: jogging, playing golf and basketball, and biking up to 100 miles a week. "Everything I do ... it's hard not to want to win," Lucado says. "When I'm in bike races, I want to be at the front of the pack. I know competitiveness can be healthy and good, unless it is pride-driven. It's a struggle for me."
Like Father, Like Son
Lucado is also forthcoming about his missteps as a youth. He grew up in Andrews, a west Texas town, which he describes as "summers skillet-hot and winters wind-tunnel cold, populated by friendly people, pump jacks, windmills, and cattle on treeless prairies." His father, Jack, was a hobo during the Great Depression who led "a rowdy life," Lucado recalls. Jack became an Exxon oil field mechanic and married Thelma, a nurse, who had grown up working the cotton fields. By the time Max, the youngest of four children, was born in San Angelo in 1955, the happily married Jack was 40 and no longer rowdy.
"He'd been in and out of the wild world, and was unimpressed by it—and he didn't feel as if he needed to impress those in it," Lucado says. "He was a good example to me: self-assured, confident, loyal, moral, responsible. Very quiet."
It was from Jack that Max learned his sense of humor and his enjoyment of a good time. "He laughed a lot—he loved to tell jokes," Lucado remembers. "Even when he was just starting to tell one, he'd begin laughing. His eyes would become half-moons."
His father shaped his view of God, Lucado says, by his provision for his family, his stability, and his even temper. "I never feared abuse or absence," he says. "When I imagine a faithful, unchanging God, who isn't moody or temperamental, I can do it because I saw this in my father." Lucado's family wasn't wealthy, but he says his father was a good provider. "I have this image that God's job is also to see we have our basic needs of life provided for."
Lucado's journey somewhat mirrored his father's during his teen years. Although he was baptized in the Church of Christ at age 10, by age 14 he was beginning to rebel. When he was 16, Lucado spent his summer digging ditches for oil field pipelines. The pay was great, he says, but he soon fell into the habits of the rough men he worked with, downing six-packs of beer, chasing women. When he was 18, Lucado realized there had to be more to life than partying. "But I didn't think a relationship with God was the solution," he says. "I thought the solution might be a good career, or getting into politics or social concerns." He decided to go to college, major in communications, and become a lawyer.
When he left home for Abilene Christian University to room with Green, Lucado took his high school party habits with him. He played hard, but he also worked hard. To earn money for school, he spent 80 hours a week during the summer on door-to-door Bible sales in northern Georgia. During the spring of his sophomore year, "I rededicated my life to Christ," he remembers. "I knew I was on the road to alcoholism, if I wasn't there already."
It was a turning point. In Lucado's junior year, he went with a team of students to Brazil, and the missionaries he met there impressed him as "independent people of deep conviction," he says. "It ignited in me a desire to be one." To qualify for the mission field, he needed a graduate degree in theology and two years of pastoral experience. Lucado finished his undergraduate work, did an internship in St. Louis, and began his master's degree in theology at Abilene Christian University.
In 1980 Lucado became associate minister at Central Church of Christ in Miami, working with the singles ministry and writing a column for the church bulletin. When Denalyn Preston, another Abilene Christian University graduate, came to Miami to teach and attended Central, the two began to click. "We hung out as friends about five months," Denalyn recalls. "Then it turned into something else." Says Max, "I couldn't imagine not having her in my life."
Denalyn knew Max's future plans. "I thought, If I end up with this guy, I will go to Brazil! I had to pray, talk through it." But God, she says, was already "pulling at my heart." They married in 1981, and a year and a half later, they left for Rio de Janeiro.
The Lucados adjusted to the challenges of a new culture and language. But there were frustrations. "We were young gringos in a cheap storefront that put up a sign that said church and expected the people to pour in," Lucado remembers. Less than a dozen people showed up for services, most of them Americans. "Brazilians could find religion anywhere."
A discouraged Lucado rethought his message. "We began to focus on helping people realize their guilt could be forgiven and that they could have a relationship with God, then they would live forever," he says. "That became the heart, soul, and DNA of our church. And it began to grow."
Eventually they planted three churches with 80 to 100 members. Lucado also embraced the message he was preaching to Brazilians, and realized for himself that God's grace and forgiveness covered his sins during his teen years.
"Brazil did a lot more for me than I did for Brazil," Lucado says. "When a person comes to the end of himself, he begins to find God." It was there he experienced the message of grace and second chances that would later permeate his books and his preaching. "I discovered you teach the grace you experience. If I didn't let God forgive me, then inadvertently, I knew I would teach a conditional grace. If I felt forgiven, there would be a joyful grace."
Fourteen Rejection Letters
As his missionary efforts found their focus, Lucado thought of the columns he'd written for the church bulletin in Miami and wondered if they might be publishable. After reworking them into a manuscript he dubbed On the Anvil, he optimistically queried 15 publishers. He received 14 rejections, including a kind letter from Liz Heaney at Multnomah, who invited him to submit something in the future.
The 15th response was a contract from Tyndale House, which published On the Anvil in 1985. Lucado, who was making $2,000 a month as a missionary, remembers receiving his first royalty check for $1,500. "We just nearly flipped," Lucado says. Encouraged by Heaney's kind rejection letter, Lucado submitted his next manuscript, No Wonder They Call Him the Savior, to Multnomah, which published it in 1986. (Heaney, now a freelance editor, continues to edit many of his books.) The book caught the eye of Chuck Swindoll, who decided to use it as a radio premium. "All of a sudden I had an endorsement from Chuck," Lucado says. "It took everything higher." (There are now 1,790,335 copies of No Wonder in print.) His next book with Multnomah, God Came Near (1987), has sold more than a million copies.
As Lucado's writing life accelerated, his personal life was also in transition. Daughters Jenna and Andrea were born in Rio de Janeiro, and back in the States, his father died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease). As the Lucados' five-year commitment to the mission field ended, they wanted to be closer to extended family. In January 1988, they returned home.
Their home turned out to be the 525-member Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas, which was searching for a new pastor. Lucado, at the time 33, was only the fourth senior minister the church had ever hired. Psychologist Susan Jennings, a member since 1965, remembers hearing Lucado preach—and stumble over the pronunciation of Les Miserables in a sermon. "He was so endearing," she recalls. "He was always mispronouncing things. He doesn't do that anymore, and I kind of miss that."
As he practiced his preaching skills, his writing career soared. When Six Hours One Friday sold briskly in 1989, he signed with Word Publishing (now W Publishing Group), which released his next book, The Applause of Heaven, in 1990.
The timing was perfect, Word associate publisher Joey Paul (now a publisher at Integrity) remembers. Lucado was a welcome antidote to the 1980s book world, which was filled with 12-step recovery books. "Readers were ready to swing back to a more reflective, devotional style," Paul says. People were ready to "feel" in reaction to the "fix my problem" movement.
Lucado was earning a generous income by 1990, and began returning his salary to his church, which had grown to almost 800 members. The Lucados live in a beautifully appointed but not ostentatious house overlooking the hill country of San Antonio. "Affluence has been the biggest surprise of our lives," he says.
Caught Up in Self-promotion
With success came demands for Lucado to do author tours and speaking engagements to promote his books. The press he's received is noteworthy: USA Today, The New York Times, and the Dallas Morning News have all featured Lucado, and he's appeared on Larry King Live, other cnn shows, and The 700 Club.
Denalyn recalls that in their early years in San Antonio, she would work with Max and his staff to decide what invitations he would accept. "There was always a part of me that didn't want to keep him from doing the things God wanted him to do," Denalyn says. Because he was "caught up in self-promotion," Lucado says, he was "trying to say yes to most stuff."
His schedule eventually took its toll on Denalyn, who had experienced bouts of depression since college. "Three small kids, being a pastor's wife, me gone ..." Lucado's voice trails off as he remembers. After returning home from speaking and teaching on a holiday tour in 1994, Lucado found Denalyn so depressed that she was unable to eat. "It was a wake-up call," he says.
A doctor immediately started Denalyn on antidepressants. "It was the first time I had heard the word for what I had," Denalyn remembers. Lucado began curtailing his travel and declining speaking engagements. Denalyn no longer battles depression, she says, because of prayer and her doctor's intervention.
Lucado is still selective about how much promotion he will do, especially if it conflicts with his daughters' volleyball games. "Your kids don't call you and say, 'Hey, put me on your calendar,' " Lucado says. "I have to give myself permission to say no, because my kids are only here for a short time. It's important to live your life in chapters and know what page you are on."
For all its apparent simplicity, Lucado's message is seemingly inexhaustible. Lucado's words have been licensed for other products, including DVDs, videos, CD-ROMs, music, booklets, apparel, giftware, study Bibles, curricula, calendars, and Hallmark cards. Lucado's Next Door Savior sold 268,765 copies in less than three months after its release, and his new It's Not About Me: Rescue from the Life We Thought Would Make Us Happy (Integrity) releases March 9 with a first printing of 350,000. Crossway will publish a children's book, A Hat for Ivan, this spring, and Lucado has several other books and tie-ins releasing later this year.
"From all indications, Max's audience is continuing to expand and grow at a very significant rate," says David Moberg, senior vice president and publisher for W Publishing Group. "Max Lucado is becoming, for many people, America's Pastor, much in the tradition of Norman Vincent Peale or Billy Graham. I think that's his future."
Louis Markos, professor of English at Houston Baptist University and author of Lewis Agonistes, says Lucado mixes the simplicity and directness of Billy Graham's gospel presentations with the seemingly inexhaustible metaphors and analogies of C. S. Lewis. "He is as wide-ranging in his allusions as Philip Yancey or Chuck Colson, but he mixes in a rare gift for piercing down to the heart and catching his reader off guard," Markos says. "He'll make you cry, but the tears are more cathartic than they are manipulative or simply sentimental. Though the message is not as deep or nuanced as Yancey or Colson, it is a message you can't simply shrug off, because it hits you so spontaneously and with the force of grace."
With their oldest daughter, Jenna, a sophomore at Abilene Christian College, and daughters Andrea, 17, and Sara not far behind, the Lucados are beginning to think about an empty nest. Denalyn says she hopes to become more involved with her James 1:27 Foundation (supported by proceeds from some of Lucado's books), which provides counseling, encouragement, and connections at Oak Hills for single mothers. As for Lucado, "If I can leave behind 50 books, and one or two of them are really strong, I'll be thankful," he says. "I really do want to make a difference. Books will be here long after I'm gone. Books speak to so many people I'll never see. When people read, they are opening their heart up. I appreciate the trust people put in me."
Cindy Crosby is a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly, and writes the Bookmarks column for The CT Review.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Also posted today is a look at the unique changes Lucado is making at his church.
Other Christianity Today articles on Max Lucado include:
Learning to be Loved | Max Lucado's A Love Worth Giving shows that the model for loving was set by Jesus. (Jan. 15, 2003)
Max's Maxims | Best-selling author Max Lucado shares his struggles with prayer, goals for golf, and vision for being just like Jesus. (Feb. 8, 1999)
Max Lucado's web site has more information about him and his books.
His books are available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
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