Ever since they were translated into a medium that could be distributed en masse, carefully crafted messages have been going “viral”—a term used to describe information that gains popularity and circulates rapidly. At the forefront of these messages are timeless sermons, which not only impact their immediate audiences but also pay spiritual dividends for decades and even centuries.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London and known as the “Prince of Preachers,” preached to as many as 10,000 parishioners each week. His legacy has endured for more than 150 years due to the wealth of sermons preserved by faithful transcriptionists: 63 volumes constituting over 3,500 individual sermons.
During his ministry in the mid- to late-19th century, Spurgeon’s sermons were circulated weekly in the Penny Pulpit, and the demand was so great that publishers often struggled to keep up. His is the first example of a preacher going “viral,” but Spurgeon is remembered more for the quality and immensity of his sermon library, along with his vibrant ministry at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, than for any one particular sermon.
David Allen, a longtime pastor who now serves as the dean of the School of Preaching at Southwestern Seminary, is a trained homiletician who regularly teaches advanced classes to students who will go on to preach on a weekly basis for most of their lives.
Allen points to Jonathan Edwards’ famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”—often studied by high school English students—as a prime example of a particular sermon that has stood the test of time.
“Today, his sermon is studied primarily for two reasons: its historical impact, and Edwards’ current popularity in the evangelical world,” Allen said. “Outside of this, I wonder whether Edwards’ sermon, if preached today, would still go down in history. I doubt it.
“The sermons that have lasted through history, and there aren’t many of them, have done so because in one way or another they made a significant impact in their own contex.”
It comes as no surprise that context is a significant factor when evaluating the legacy of any particular sermon. When Southern Baptists faced a crossroads in the late 20th century, a handful of sermons paved the way for a group of conservatives to reclaim the direction of the denomination.
As 45,000 messengers assembled in Dallas in 1985 for what would become a historic meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, First Baptist Church of Dallas pastor W.A. Criswell addressed the Pastors’ Conference on a Monday night with a sermon titled “Whether We Live or Die,” outlining the stakes of the controversy.
Criswell considered it the most important sermon he ever preached. As Baptist historian Jerry Sutton put it, Criswell felt his address “set forth the two directions and the implications of those directions in the Southern Baptist Convention.”
The sermon went on to have a life of its own, impacting not just those gathered but also those who would listen to it on tape or on the radio for years to come, and it is featured as one of the classic sermons at the Criswell Sermon Library online at wacriswell.com.
Jerry Vines has garnered an international audience through his preaching ministry but will perhaps best be known for his address to the 1987 Pastors’ Conference in St. Louis where he preached “A Baptist and His Bible,” yet another sermon addressing the controversy between conservatives and moderates.
Vines outlined a historical understanding of how Southern Baptists have viewed Scriptures throughout the years, and the audience responded enthusiastically.
According to Allen, Vines’s sermon that year “may have been the most important single sermon preached at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting during the (Conservative) Resurgence.”
In his book Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future, David Dockery lists “A Baptist and His Bible” as one of the watershed sermons for the conservative movement in the late 20th century.
One of the first viral sermons on YouTube began making waves across the internet just over 10 years ago. Paul Washer, a Southwestern Seminary graduate and former missionary to Peru, was addressing more than 5,000 students at an evangelism conference in Alabama.
With the metered pace of Mister Rogers, Washer opened his sermon with a warning: “I will tell you things that make you so angry with me, and I’ll tell you things that you will deny.”
A few minutes into the sermon, he railed against those who “judge themselves by themselves” and are deceived into believing they are saved but are not. As the crowd of teenagers broke into thunderous applause, Washer quietly extended a finger to the audience and said, “I don’t know why you’re clapping. I’m talking about you.”
The sermon, variously titled “Shocking Sermon” or “Shocking Message,” has been viewed more than 4 million times on YouTube. By comparison, Criswell’s “Whether We Live or Die” has just shy of 5,000 views.
Blake Stiles and his wife Connie run SBC Tapes, which they founded in 1997 to record and distribute the sermons of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual Pastor’s Conference. While sales are not the only indicator of a sermon’s popularity, having spent the last 20 years taping and selling Southern Baptist sermons has given Stieles insight into what sermons hold the most appeal and what audiences various preachers and sermons best connect with. According to Stieles, the appeal of a sermon has much to do with the relationship between the preacher and the listener.
“Having done this business for 25 years, we’ve seen many preaching styles,” he said. “Adrian Rogers’ style of telling stories and offering practical applications seemed to stir the hearts of the congregation best. Ed Stetzer, a very practical, statistically driven preacher, seems to reach the more intellectual person. The younger preachers like David Platt and J.D. Greear always reach the youngest generation best.”
Unsurprisingly, Stieles said, the best-selling sermon at the 2016 SBC was that of president Ronnie Floyd.
There is no one indicator that makes a sermon go viral or last the test of time; a combination of factors goes into it. Spurgeon had a massive pulpit and a means by which to keep his sermons preserved through mass transcription, while Edwards had a significant impact on the culture and historical setting in which he lived. Criswell and Vines appealed to a specific controversy, while Washer’s shocking sermon made its way onto YouTube at just the right time.
“Who are the preachers of this generation whose sermons will be remembered 50-100 years from now? I couldn’t tell you because I don’t have a clue,” Allen said. “Great preachers are not always remembered. Great preaching is not always remembered either, oftentimes because such preaching is done by someone whom the world has never known and never will know as a great preacher. But heaven will know … and that’s all that matters.”