five decades of biblical teaching and preaching, Charles R. Swindoll’s
name is second only to Billy Graham as the most influential living
preacher, according to pastors surveyed in 2009. The author of dozens of
bestsellers, Chuck is known for his biblical insight, practical teaching,
and hearty laugh. He and his wife Cynthia have four grown children and ten
grandchildren. In this interview Chuck talks with our editor Phil Callaway
about “worship wars,” tough times, regrets, and a hill worth dying on.
Hey Phil, how are you? You’re looking well.
You’re looking good yourself.
I’m here in
I’ll be on there one of these days.
I heard a funny line the other day. This guy’s a comedian and he says,
“When I was young we had nothing—nothing! I really didn’t know we
were poor, but we were. And the problem always came at Christmas. There
were six of us kids and one year my mom actually had nothing to give us.
So guess what she gave us? Sleeping pills. So all six of the kids slept
through Christmas. We woke up on the 28th of December and we
said, ‘Ma, Ma we missed Christmas! And she said, ‘I just didn’t want
to wake you up—you were sleeping so well.’
I repeated a joke to someone the other day. My mom took me on the bus when
I was a baby and the driver said, “That’s the ugliest baby I’ve ever
seen. Go to the back of the bus.” So she did and told a passenger beside
her that the driver had been really rude. And he said, “You know, you
need to go up there and confront that driver. And while you do, I’ll
hold your monkey.” But I’ve gotten better looking as you pointed out.
I’m so glad.
How old are you now, Phil?
I am 49.
Good for you. Are you worried about next year?
I don’t think so. Should I be?
I almost died six weeks ago, in all seriousness, not of laughing, but we
flipped a quad, an ATV—by which I don’t mean that we sold it for a
profit. We did and I just about…well, I’m thankful to be alive. Heaven
would have been fine but…
Did you break anything?
Just some rules of common sense and a bunch of ribs. Plus I got a gash on
the head. I thought about you as I was preparing for this interview
because I know you’ve been out on the Harley occasionally. Are you still
No, I’ve sold it. My son and I were partners and would ride together.
I’m not a big group rider but we rode together for 12 or 13 years. And
one day he said to me, “You know, Dad, I’ve got little kids and I get
nervous at intersections,” and I said, “Sell the bike.” So he sold
his and I realized about a year later that it was no fun doing it alone so
I sold mine too. But we had a great time and it was something that brought
us back together. Our mutual friend Ben Lowell [Director of Insight For
Living Canada] is now into it.
Yeah, I was just with him the other day and he had all the gear on even
though he wasn’t riding—he’s that excited. But we’ll pray for him.
I think he sleeps on his bike on occasion.
He’ll get over it.
Listen, I am very glad that you agreed to do this. Servant goes into about 110 countries, primarily the
Yeah, I certainly would, maybe now more than ever. I do meet a lot of grim
and heartless folks—they’ve lost their heart for life. I know times
are hard. Cynthia and I came to the realization the other day: it’s
always been hard. It was hard for my parents, married in the Depression,
had their kids during the Depression and shortly after that World War II
happened. Boy, that was hard. And then the Cold War. And then teenagers.
Now you’ve got to seriously go to school and then the military. And then
for me, finding out you’re called to the ministry—that’s hard.
You’ve got to go through seminary—that’s hard. It’s always hard.
You never have enough money. God doesn’t do sky-writing so you have to
trust Him by faith. You have to go with what He gives you and let Him
guide you and listen to His reproofs and love one another and all that
goes with that. It’s always difficult—always. So we’ve learned that
since times are difficult there’s no reason why we ought to make it more
difficult. We ought to spread some joy. We ought to take God very
seriously, but not ourselves all that seriously.
Well, you’ve been criticized for that, for laughing too much.
Oh, I know. That’s what makes it exciting.
Was that hard at first?
I like Churchill’s comment: “Nothing in life is more exhilarating than
being shot at without results.” A lot of folks want you to be as
miserable as they are. I’m not getting on that bus.
How do you respond to criticism?
You know, Phil, it still isn’t fun. I can make light of it, but it
hurts. It stings. I think the price you pay for that is that you’re
sensitive. Pastors who are worth their salt, care. If you don’t care
then nothing affects you and you’re like a piece of steel. But who wants
a minister who’s a ball bearing? But if you care, those jabs hurt. And
you often want to stand up and say, “Wait, wait—if I could just have
three minutes I could explain what I meant!” But you never get those
three minutes. I mean this the right way, please, but yes, you get to
where the older you get, the more confident you are in what you really do
believe. When I was younger I ‘died’ for many things. Now that I’m
older there just aren’t many things I’d die for. But I’d die quicker
now because I know they’re worth dying for. Before I had answers to
questions nobody was asking. Now I think through my answers and I’m
pretty confident. I have convictions now; I don’t just have beliefs.
Yes I am. I’m really concerned, Phil, that we’ve picked up a marketing
scheme for something that was never meant to be marketed. I’m saddened,
really, to see the silliness that passes for what people call
‘church’. I weary of guys that feel that if they preach they’re
going to be called a dinosaur when they’d have to admit that what
changed their lives was strong preaching, the faithfulness, the clarion
call of a minister of the gospel who had the guts to stand there and tell
you the truth. Why wouldn’t that still work? Do I want to go to a
physician who says, “You know, actually, you’re going to be fine”?
And I walk out not knowing I have a cancerous tumor in my stomach? But he
wants me to feel good. He wants me to really sleep well so he says to me
what I want to hear. I don’t admire a man like that. I admire him when
he says, “I want you to bring your wife and come back this afternoon.”
And we sit down together and he says, “Chuck, you have a tumor in your
stomach and after the biopsy, I need to tell you it’s malignant. Now,
here’s what we can do.” I tell you what—I’m going back to that
guy. Why? Because he told me the truth. He didn’t dress like a clown, do
a skit, have fun and games, serve punch and cookies and have everybody
leave liking life. He said, “Come back with your wife and sit down and
listen to me.”
And you feel that’s where we are right now in the church?
You tell early in the book how your grandfather measured the erosion of a
cliff near his cabin when you were a boy and the need for churches to
measure where they are on that erosion scale. How can we measure that?
Well, first of all, we have a book of directions, so let’s just take the
New Testament. If you want to, just the letters of Paul, and go to those
letters that address the church, like Timothy and Titus, and make a
serious study of what they say. How are we doing? Are we carrying out the
assignment set forth in this timeless, true book? If the answer is no,
then where are we off? Then let’s do a course correction. We had to in
our church. We had the wrong elders so we had to dismiss some. Was that
easy? Hardest thing I’ve done in my life, Phil. They hate me today.
They’ll never understand why I did it. I tried to explain it. But we
were moving in the wrong direction. Part of it was my fault because I let
it go on too long. Much of it was their fault because they really didn’t
have a heart for what Scripture taught. They wanted to run it like a
How did you recognize that at the time?
Oh man, by things they would say. And I began to feel more and more like a
figurehead. They wanted me to come and preach, not come to the study at
the church. They’d run the church like a business, they’d hire and
fire. I’d show up and I’d say, “Why to you want me to do that?”
And they’d say, “Well, because you bring in the crowd and the
money.” And I finally had to say, “Stop. Do you know what you just
said?” And they said, “Yes, that’s exactly what we meant.” And I
realized then that I’d been too far removed. I was trying to run the
seminary, trying to handle several things that were like forest fires, I
was writing three books, I was all involved in starting a church and I
just thought, They’re good guys,
let them take care of it. And I realized—we are moving south.
We’re not moving north on this. This is wrong. So I acknowledged it and
I said to them, “I cannot work with you. It’s either you or me.”
I’d never done that in my life. Never. And I hope never again to do
that. And I said, “I take full responsibility because I voted for you
guys to be here. I was wrong. We’re going to do this biblically. We’re
going to do this right.” The salvation is that it never got to the
congregation. I’m telling you more than the vast majority of our
congregation ever knew. It never got there, thank goodness, or we would
have split the church.
So you’re very much for not spilling these things in front of a
I don’t think you should. Whatever you can handle—it’s like
discipline. I think very, very seldom do you do public discipline of
somebody. It can usually be handled behind the scenes very effectively and
without the embarrassment that goes with that. You’re trying to
reconcile; you’re trying to get the person restored. You’re not trying
to send them to ‘prison’ for the rest of their lives. Sometimes, of
course, it does have go public. I told those men, if you fight me on this
and tell me I’m through, I want you to know I’ve got one more Sunday
and I’ll expose every bit of this and you have my word on that.
And they backed off?
They did and they left. And of course they called me a bully and all that.
I wish it had never come to that. I wish they had agreed on their own that
they weren’t moving in the direction we wanted to go, that I was that
pastor and we all wanted God to be honored. But they saw it as a hostile
takeover on my part.
I think you said in the book that was the most difficult season for you in
five decades of ministry.
That’s exactly true. I still bring it up at times and it’s a
nightmare. Two nights ago I dreamed it and I got up at 2:30 in the morning
shaking. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever gone through.
What got you through that time?
That’s a great question. A magnificent wife who was with me all the way.
A handful of very close friends, several of whom were not connected to the
church. A body of praying individuals, my extended family, my sister and a
few of her friends who knew the depth of what it was. Only Cynthia knows
how deep it was. But you see, if I ever go down for anything in my legacy,
it will be saving the life of
So doing the right thing and following the truth actually does—
You know, when you cut out the tumor and you go through the radiation and
you get rid of all those cells, you have help and relief and sleep at
night and joyful days and harmony. And you also have a big bag of wisdom
you strap to your back and you draw from every once in awhile.
Just this morning I was reading your chapter on worship and that’s how I
would describe it. You said, “When the Bible loses its central place in
the church’s worship, even if good things replace it, the fallout is
biblical ignorance. What are some of those good things?
Number one would be the benefit that comes from being informed of the
truth. Nothing equips you to deal with the cults of our day, superstition,
fears, nothing equips you like truth. So you get the truth. Second, your
focus is right; it’s on the
What would you say to people in the pew who are recognizing an erosion in
I have a good friend who is in that position right now. For 21 years he
was in a church that was doing it right and now he’s watching the
erosion. I’ll level with you, Phil. I’d say you’ve got to talk to
people who can make the decisions to bring about a change. If you don’t
get anywhere, learn a lesson from Luther who thought he could clean up the
Roman Catholic Church. Finally they excommunicated him because he called a
spade a spade. But you know what? He couldn’t continue on in that
church. So I have to say to some, if you’re in a church where Christ
isn’t being exalted and His Word isn’t being taught and truth isn’t
taking first place and worship isn’t meaningful and it’s not going to
change, you’re in the wrong church. The tragedy is that in some places
there isn’t another church to turn to. Hopefully this book will help
say, “ou know, folks, it’s never too late to start doing what is
right.” So as a pastor you can start by saying, “This Sunday morning I
stand before you a broken but an honest man to say, ‘I have not been
leading this church as I should have and I acknowledge it and I repent
before God. I want all of you to know that’s going to change. I need
your prayers, I need your patience, I need courage, I need a team of
people around me who will go with me through this. But I want all of you
to know we’re no longer going to erode. We’re going to turn this
around and here’s why.’” And I would spell out the reasons. If he
needs to quote from my book, fine. But go somewhere to say on the basis of
this, “This is the direction I’m going to take our church. Tell me now
if that’s not where you want to go. If it’s not, I won’t hang
around. I won’t make a scene; I’m gone. I’m going to find a place
where we can do it right.” I have the feeling, Phil, that church would
stand and applaud that man. Now, some would leave because they want to be
entertained. That’s okay. There are lots of places that will entertain
you. But I’ve found this, when I do have that cancer in my stomach, I
don’t need entertainment. I need somebody who will say, “Come here.
I’m going to love you through this because I care about you even if you
can’t swallow your food. I’m right here for you.” That’s
You have been in ministry five decades, which makes you 54 years of age,
Chuck, by my math—I’m not real good at math.
What is something you wish you had done sooner?
I’ll tell you something negative and something positive. It’s the
first time I’ve been asked that in a long time. First, the negative. I
would have cared less about what people thought or said. With that I would
have cared more what Scripture said. Positively, I would have been a
better husband and father. I’d have been better at home.
In what way?
I’d have been there more. I’d have been more understanding, more
forgiving, less demanding. I would have loved them into righteousness. I
would have told them how much they meant to me earlier. I tell them often
now. But I’d have built a bridge back to my younger son. Both of our
daughters have been through tragic divorces. I don’t know where I figure
in any of that—maybe I don’t. But every parent feels like maybe I
could have said or done something that helped. But sometimes divorce
can’t be helped and it’s how you survive. If I had been closer, would
they have talked to me more? I would have been a better husband during
seminary, a better father when they were little.
I had the honor of being in
I can’t stand that thought. I’ve thought about it and I don’t know
what would happen. Every day of my life we’re connecting. Every morning
over coffee, every evening we’re talking. Our lives are so intertwined.
And now that we do ministry
together, it’s like one breathes in, the
other breathes out. I sang in a quartet years ago and we sang together so
long and so often that we knew when the other guy needed a breath. We used
to talk about that. I sang first tenor and I always knew when the second
tenor needed a breath and we would all pause and let him breathe and then
we’d go on. That’s kind of the way my relationship is with Cynthia.
Well, you’ve been a tremendous example to Ramona and me. I thank you for
You give her my love, and you love her—do you hear me? I know you’re
the big deal and it’s easy for you to forget that you’re just Phil and
she really needs you, man.
One more question: what would you like on your tombstone? What would you
like to be remembered for? You mentioned Stonebrier Church. Anything else?
I probably wouldn’t want to put that in granite. That’s hard to
Not a fair question?
It’s a good question. I think, “He exercised the gifts God gave
him and he did it for God’s glory.” Maybe that would be it. I have a
friend who said he would put on his tombstone: I told you I was sick.
I saw one: Here lies an atheist; all dressed up and no place to go.
[laughs] I love you, buddy.
You too. God bless.
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