Members of Oak Hills Church of Christ never understand what all the fuss is about when visitors want their pastor to sign a book or pose for a picture.
To them he's simply "Max," the guy who invites them over for a Labor Day picnic, plays with their children in front of the church on Sunday mornings, calls them when they're sick, and loves to tell golfing stories and talk Dallas Cowboys football.
Despite having sold 12 million books, syndicating a one-minute radio show in 900 markets, and pastoring a church approaching 3,000 in weekly attendance, Max Lucado (it rhymes with potato) is as unpretentious as if he had never left Andrews, his West Texas hometown.
His old friend, Kenny Wilson, an elder at the San Antonio church, says "There's not one shred of pretense or self-importance in Max. ? He's one of us."
Max's agent and college roommate Steve Green agrees. "Max is fun to be around whether it's playing golf, watching a football game, or sitting down to dinner and talking."
The soft-spoken son of a hard-working oil field mechanic and a nurse, Max grew up the youngest of four children in a "real happy home," he tells me in our interview. His "daddy," as 45-year-old Max still refers to him, was an elder in the small town's Church of Christ. Max was baptized at age 10 at Parkview Church of Christ in nearby Odessa.
In high school, Max played center on the football team, joined the debate team, and served as student body president. He considered becoming a football coach or a politician; his mother suspected her boy had the makings of a preacher, because of his leadership skills and conscientious church attendance.
"He's always been so good to me. It makes me feel pretty special," Thelma Lucado says of her boy then and now.
Though Max seemed to be an angel, he was actually making some poor decisions. From his sophomore to senior year in high school, in his words, he "walked the path of the prodigal." He hid it, for the most part, from his mother by faking religion.
"I spent three years drinking and partying. ? During that stretch, I probably abandoned every single value that I'd been taught," Max says. "I'd go to church, but I would not listen. I wouldn't sing. I led a dual life."
Max could down a six-pack of beer without feeling anything, and his drinking quickly led to womanizing and worse.
Max's father, Jack, a teetotaler, was upset by his carousing. Jack came from a family of nine siblings, some of whom were alcoholics, so for him, Max's drinking was "the ultimate act of rebellion."
Turnaround at Piggly Wiggly
God was relentlessly pursuing Max nonetheless, a theme he now emphasizes in his books. It was in July 1973, soon after graduating from high school, that the Holy Spirit began to firmly press Max's soul.
He and a buddy were spending a Friday evening drinking in the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly (grocery store) in Andrews. As they sat there, Max began to feel disillusioned and remarked, "I think there's got to be more to life than this."
The remark sparked a spiritual quest.
"I think it was the Holy Spirit talking," Max says in reflection. "It was one of the most mature things I'd said in three years."
In the fall, Max went to Abilene Christian College (soon to become University), partly due to his parents' encouragement. His first year and a half at Abilene, Max continued to fool around, but he also began to see Jesus in a new, exciting way.
He took a required course on the life and teachings of Jesus. For Max, the instructor's charismatic lectures brought to life Jesus' integrity, his love for people, and the way he gently touched sinners. "The teacher just loved Jesus himself. And that is contagious," Max remembers.
Within a year or so, Max was also deeply affected by a local preacher's sermon on the radio. "All I remember was that he was saying why Jesus died on the cross. To be quite honest, it sounded like just a good Baptist sermon," Max says in his gentle Texas drawl. "It caused me to pull over to the side of the road and say, 'Hey God, I'll give my life back to you.'"
The last time Max got drunk was in December of his sophomore year in college. The following spring he publicly recommitted his life to Christ at revival services in an Abilene church.
Remembering his past and God's intervention helps him keep humble now. "Had Christ not intervened in my life, I'd be addicted to something?or in jail now," he told Release Ink magazine in 1995. "When I start feeling cocky, I look back at where I'd be without God's grace."
Likable, charismatic Max remained likable and charismatic?"He didn't become an overly pious, stiff-backed individual that you can't have a good time with," Steve Green says?but now he had bigger things on his mind than partying. Max went to Brazil on a mission trip following his junior year, then graduated in 1977. He wanted to return to Brazil for full-time mission work, but their government required that he have a theological degree and two years' experience before he could enter the country as a missionary. So, he started pursuing a master's degree at Abilene.
Grace and disappointment
Just before completing the degree, Max moved to Miami to serve as an associate minister at Central Church of Christ for two years. Denalyn Preston, another recent Abilene grad, had also moved to Miami and began attending Central. The two had known each other casually in college, but in Miami a romance developed, which led to matrimony and a grateful husband.
"I'm surprised that God would give me such a good woman, considering my past. I would have been happy with a C+, but he gave me an A+," Max says with obvious sincerity. "Denalyn is so pretty and she's behind me 100 percent. That's a powerful combination."
Finally, in 1983, Max got his degree, and they moved to Rio de Janeiro for a five-year church planting stint. There several things happened that changed his life dramatically.
First, he came to internalize "grace," which has become perhaps his most important writing theme.
"God doesn't honor the self-made man. He honors the man who kneels at the foot of the cross," Max says. "When I came to rebuild my life after those years as a prodigal, I thought I had to do it myself." But in South America, he realized he needed to live as a saved person who's been forgiven, rather than live as a person who's trying to save himself. The wideness of God's mercy came into focus for him against the background of Brazilian spiritism, which is grounded in fear rather than love.
Second, Max's book writing career began. Pulling together some articles he'd written for the Miami church, Max sent a manuscript to more than a dozen U.S. publishers. He was rejected by all but Tyndale House, which published On The Anvil in 1985. Before leaving Brazil, Multnomah Press released No Wonder They Call Him the Savior and God Came Near, setting Max up for enormous success when he returned.
In addition, Max became a father to Jenna and Andrea in Brazil, and lost his own father to Lou Gehrig's disease. Max was able to fly home to be with his father when he died and preach the eulogy, but the loss of his father, his biggest influence, was tough.
"I thought God was going to heal him. I just sensed it in my heart. But God did not. I wasn't angry, but coming to grips with it was not easy. I was disappointed," Max admits.
Helping people "see" Jesus
The Lucados returned to the United States in 1988. Max had accepted the pastorate at Oak Hills, which had about 500 members at the time. He's stayed ever since.
"I don't think I'll ever leave this church, unless God really makes it clear (that I should). I feel a strong sense of loyalty here," Max says, noting that loyalty is one of the most important values he learned growing up in West Texas. Max tells me, in addition, that he and Green, his agent, have no written contract between them, just the spoken word.
Max hopes to continue what he's doing for a long time. The pattern suits him: two sermons a week?one Sunday and one Wednesday, multiple books a year, and family time with Denalyn and his three daughters, Jenna, 15, Andrea, 13, and Sara, 10.
His major pastoral responsibility is preparing excellent messages each week. He has few administrative duties, though he does some marrying and burying and pastoral care. Max, who receives no salary from the church but lives comfortably on book royalties, says the discipline of having to deliver two great sermons each week keeps him working hard, because the congregation won't let him coast on past success.
So far, he hasn't disappointed. "People all over the country tell me his books are great. My response is that he preaches better than he writes," elder Kenny Wilson says.
Preaching is actually an integral part of his writing. In most cases, Max turns his fall sermon series?13 or 14 lessons?into his major book for Word the next year. As early as Christmas, he'll start organizing his sermons into chapters, rewriting them many times.
In late January or February he'll start going back and forth with his editor, Liz Heaney, on further revisions. In March, Max, Heaney, and Max's assistant Karen Hill sit down and read the manuscript out loud to each other, making final changes. Finally, in April, the book is sent, always on time, to the publisher.
"He's the ideal author," Heaney says. "He takes editorial input seriously. His success has not made him feel above editing."
Max's books continue to attract readers and awards?he's won the Christian Book of the Year award three times. Readers love his creativity, his vulnerability, and the "warm embrace of the Lord," as Word Publishing's chief operating officer Lee Gessner puts it.
Max says he will continue to encourage his readers by emphasizing the basics in his books: God's love, grace, and the cross.
"I hope when people finish a book (of mine) they say, 'I've never seen Jesus quite like that,' " Max says.
He's constantly thinking of book ideas and already has a backlog of unpublished material, so he plans to continue writing for many years.
Strong home, strong heart
He also plans to be around in the future, which partly explains why he works out twice a week with a trainer and runs four miles a day. His mother, his father, and his brother have all had heart attacks, so he knows he needs to keep in shape.
Max considers his wife "one-in-a-million," and gushes with praise for her. He especially admires her evangelistic and encouraging spirit. For instance, after Max spoke at the February 1999 National Prayer Breakfast at the White House, Denalyn made a point to privately share some uplifting Bible verses with Hillary Clinton, who'd been suffering through the Lewinsky scandal for months.
Denalyn has a heart for single moms, and the Lucados will soon start a foundation, funded by book royalties, to assist them.
Max used to travel more, but a bout with insomnia and a desire to see his girls grow up, grounded him with few exceptions. "You can't force quality time with your family. You just have to hang around and hopefully be there when it happens. That's the main reason I don't travel," he says.
He makes a point of kissing his girls goodnight every night, even his oldest daughter. "I feel like I've done something wrong if I don't."
When they were younger, Max tried out his ideas for children's books on them. If they liked it, he knew he had a winner. His daughters even helped him write The Crippled Lamb, published by Tommy Nelson.
In his free time, Max loves to golf. In fact, he's admittedly bordering on obsession. His scores are improving, but if he tells you he shot an 83, think 127, teases golfing buddy Wilson.
"He takes extra shots. He doesn't write down accurate scores. He makes up rules as he goes along," Wilson says. His friends call do-overs "lucados" rather than "mulligans," the traditional term. "I do cheat at golf," Max confesses.
As our interview winds down, I ask Max about his favorite novel. It's Lonesome Dove?not a deep theological treatise or even a true classic. Just a good story about dusty plains and cowboys?the kind of book perfect for an easy-going guy from West Texas, grateful for God's grace.
A Christian Reader original article.
2000 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian magazine.
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