Lessons from the Megachurch Pastor Who Killed a Man
Want a riveting beach read this summer? Then pick up The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America by David Stokes. It tells the story of one of the earliest megachurch pastors – J. Frank Norris of First Baptist in Fort Worth, TX.
If there’s one thing Norris knew how to do well, it was how to attract publicity. By 1924, he had the largest Protestant church in America. His weekly newspaper was delivered to 50,000 homes. And his radio station broadcasted his messages to millions.
The outlandishness of Norris’ preaching would be merely a footnote in history today if not for the fact that on July 17, 1926, Norris shot and killed an unarmed man in his office. In 1927, he stood trial for murder and was acquitted.
I grew up hearing about Norris. He achieved a sort of legendary status in independent Baptist circles but usually not in a good way. So I found the story of his meteoric rise and disastrous fall interesting on a number of levels. Most intriguing was the progression of Norris’ downward spiral into unhealthy patterns of leadership.
Can we learn some things from J. Frank Norris? Yes. His ministry can serve as a cautionary tale in these ways:
1. Recognize the Difference Between Strong Preaching and Sensationalistic Preaching
[Norris] said, “The question of sensational preaching was a serious one with me. I knew that with a great many people it was taboo, especially among the so-called conservatives.” But he knew that he wasn’t making headway with what he called “the present, dull, dead, dry method.” And many years later, “Norris recalled that he switched to this extraordinary style of preaching because he had noticed that those preachers who engaged in it were the ones most successful in winning converts.”
Norris was an entertaining preacher no one would label as “soft.” He spoke forcefully against all kinds of sin and immorality (unfortunately, racial prejudice was not included). He wasn’t afraid to name names. Local ones even. One sermon was titled “Should a Prominent Fort Worth Banker Buy the High-Priced Silk Hose for Another Man’s Wife?”
It’s important to keep in mind, however, the difference between strong preaching and sensationalistic preaching. Strong preaching is grounded in the text of Scripture and reiterates forcefully what the text says plainly. Sensationalistic preaching is motivated by what will draw attention. It may use the text as a launching pad, but the bulk of the message is the pastor’s forceful delivery of his own personal opinions.
One way to tickle ears is never to preach against sin. Another way is to preach hard against everyone and everything else.
2. Results Do Not Equal Fruitfulness
The church had received a record 479 new members in 1911, more than twice as many additions as in any previous year. Norris certainly saw this as vindication of his new way. Converts were the bottom line.
When criticized for his sensationalism, Norris appealed to his church’s growth. His defense was pragmatic to the core. It allowed good results to vindicate questionable methods.
Even today, we tend to look at a pastor with a large following and immediately assume the numbers are a sign of God’s blessing. But Norris’ example should warn us against allowing certain results (number of converts, new members, big buildings, etc.) to justify any and every means to getting there.
3. Listen to Your Friends’ Rebukes
A popular poem among Baptist clergymen of the day ran: And what to do with Norris was a question broad and deep. He was too big to banish, and he smelled too bad to keep.
Norris left the Southern Baptist Convention loudly. He claimed it was because of the SBC’s decline into liberalism. But the truth of the matter was most Southern Baptist leaders had lost respect for Norris and Norris had lost his influence.
Over the years, Norris consistently refused to listen to his friends’ rebukes. Whenever his sensationalistic preaching was challenged, he appealed to his number of converts. When pastor friends warned that his ministry was losing credibility, he no longer believed they were credible critics. He walled himself off from criticism, surrounding himself only with friends who were fans, which sped up his descent into extremism.
4. Remember the Ministry is Not About You.
Wilke listened as [Norris] talked about receiving “hundreds of telegrams from all over the country.” His telephone, he said, had not stopped ringing, adding “I think the congregation showed it was still with me and believed in me.” It was, in his thinking, all about him.
Though his stated goal was to promote the ministry, the effort, like almost everything Norris did, was about him.
The format was simple: Norris would give a homily, in effect the lesson that all teachers in the Sunday school would teach the following Sunday. Then there would be a time of prayer. It was a weekly motivational session during which the preacher inspired his followers to go out and, as noted by one of the faithful, “sell J. Frank Norris to the masses.”
It’s easy for the pastor of any church (large or small) to think that the ministry is all about them. A pastor’s heart can become so entangled with his ministry that if the ministry suffers, the pastor’s identity suffers. Such was the case with Norris.
In all the transcripts and testimonies about Norris after he killed the man in his office, the most disturbing trend is to see the visible self-centeredness that kept Norris from reckoning with the enormity of his actions. Instead of the trial being about justice for a grieving family, it became a referendum about a controversial pastor on a crusade against those who would persecute him.
I wonder how often this is the case with us. We want to see results in ministry because it makes us look good, not God. It’s trading self-denial for self-deification.
5. Don’t Use Others to Do Your Dirty Work
[Norris] had so polarized the denomination with his constant attacks on perceptions of modernism that he and his church had been shut out of the movement many times. Yet he would persist in trying to come back in order to be heard on this or that matter… Often when Norris wanted to petition for reentry and acceptance, he would use agents to carry his message. J.T. Pemberton was one of his “go to” guys when it came to Baptist politics.
As Norris lost influence, he sought to maintain his power by manipulating from behind the scenes in order to bring about his own desired outcomes. This manipulation always involved people. If he didn’t have the influence he once had, he would utilize those who did. This gave him a way to maintain the illusion of power and control while appearing above the fray.
What’s the lesson for us? Don’t use others to accomplish your personal ambitions and goals. How we treat people matters.
For all his talk about courage and steadfastness, Norris was remarkably shady in his back-room dealings. The ends always seemed to justify the means, even if that included at least some measure of deception.