Modesto, Calif. Max Lucado is the Hans Christian Andersen of American pastors, a masterful storyteller. He has sold 65 million books over the past 25 years and is the only author to have won three Christian Book of the Year awards — for “Just Like Jesus,” “In the Grip of Grace” and “When God Whispers Your Name.”
His newest release, “Fearless: Imagine Your Life Without Fear,” was released this month and is especially timely in this fragile economy. Like his other works and his sermons at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas, each chapter is full of stories to illustrate his points.
Lucado (pronounced loo-kay-dough) is 54 and is married to Denalyn, 53. They have three daughters, Jenna, 24; Andrea, 22; and Sara, 19. He sat down with The Bee at the Christian Book Expo in Dallas earlier this year to talk about how he first fell in love with words, how he switched from enjoying parties and alcohol to loving Christ, and the theme that underlines his ministry — God’s grace.
Last year, you stopped competing in Iron Man competitions and had heart surgery, and also stepped down as your church’s senior pastor. How is your health and your church?
They couldn’t be going better. We hired a new senior minister, Randy Frazee, from Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. We’re splitting the preaching 50-50. I love working with him. He’s a great guy, a great leader, loves to build a team. Our plan is that when I’m not preaching, I’ll be able to write. And when he’s not preaching, he’ll be able to focus on leadership development of the church and strategic plans. It’s good.
Q: You’re such a fabulous storyteller. Did you tell stories when you were a youngster?
A: I’ve always loved stories. I remember going to the elementary school library and reading the biographies of American presidents and leaders. And I remember as a middle schooler, I ran for office on student council, and in my speech, telling stories, illustrations, and being surprised at how well people listened. It was then I began to realize there’s a power in a story, and using a story can be a really great communication tool.
Q: You’ve said you were shy as a child. Were you academic? Athletic at all?
A: I was probably more athletic than academic. But I had a real interest in literature. My brother and I both really enjoyed reading growing up. The earliest I can remember enjoying writing was in middle school, being turned loose in English class on an idea. I can remember writing the first paragraph and how much fun that was creating something from nothing. Some people are intimidated by a blank page. A blank page has always invited me. I thought, this will be fun to create something.
Q: Can you give me an anecdote from your youth that reveals who you are?
A: One of our assignments was to write a short story when I was a high school junior — literally hearing the rest of the class groan, and I got excited. I was barely home and I was already writing the story and spent the whole evening writing it. I can still remember it today; I can even see it in my mind on the paper, written out longhand, and I couldn’t wait for my turn to read it because I knew everybody would be impressed. I knew I would get a good grade. At that moment, I was beginning to sense my love for stories and love for words.
Q: What was the story about?
A: I’m almost embarrassed to tell you the title. It was called “Life is Hell.” That’s a horrible title. I wasn’t a Christian at the time, and everything was fatalistic. I think teenagers are prone to fatalism without Christ, because you begin realizing how tough life is. It was the story about a guy who played football at an Ivy League college, and then he was diagnosed with cancer. It was all about his living with that, coming to grips with it, and finally his death. It was a very sad story. I wouldn’t want anyone to read it now. But the fact is that I took it so seriously and actually enjoyed creating it.
Q: Did you get a good grade?
A: Yes, I did.
Q: You’ve mentioned that your folks offered to send you to Abilene Christian University. Why did they do that?
A: I had developed a drinking problem in high school. My older sisters went to Abilene. To this day, it’s a solid school. They felt that by increasing the odds of having a good peer group, that it would be a good move for me. Then also putting me in a position of having to take Bible classes, which is what Abilene required for all their incoming freshmen and sophomores, they thought would be good for me.
Q: You talk about your brother in your “Fearless” book. Is he younger or older?
A: Three years older. Alcohol really entangled him, but like I said in the book, his life ended well. But it played havoc with him his whole life.
Q: Did your parents offer to send him to Abilene, too?
A: Yes. He went there and got kicked out, because he struggled so much with drinking. I went there and had a better result.
Q: Why, do you think?
A: I think it was my conversion when I was a sophomore in college when I made a commitment to Christ. It was a genuine commitment. I really sensed the Lord’s presence in my life. When I was 10 years old, I made a commitment to Christ. I think my faith in some ways was just activated at (age) 20.
Q: You went to church as a child. When did you set aside that faith?
A: It was mainly in my teenage years, when I was 15, 16, 17 and 18. It was nothing that I rebelled against. I just got caught up in a crowd of people that didn’t care about anything spiritual, and I didn’t have a faith deep enough on my own. There were just no Christians in my class. And if they were, they were perceived as very odd. The dominating atmosphere in our school was really a party atmosphere, and it was hard to escape.
Q: You’ve been called “America’s Best Preacher” and “America’s Pastor,” and your books often are on the best-seller list. How do you deal with all the success and kudos?
A: I play golf. (laughs) That will keep anyone humble. I have a friend I play with. He says, “I play golf because the rest of my life works so well.”