Billy Graham once referred to Greg Laurie, pastor and evangelist from Harvest Church in Riverside, California, as the “evangelist of the future.” Greg has drawn more than four million people to stadiums and arenas around the world for his Harvest Crusades, and this year marks their 21st anniversary.
In this interview, Greg talks about his new book, Signs of the Times, dealing with family loss, and handling criticism as a leader.
Q: What drove you to write Signs of the Times, and why do you think it’s so important?
Greg: I wrote this book because of what I see as an urgency in our time. Some might think, “Oh, no, another book on the last days? Don’t we have enough of those?” But I still think people are losing sight of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. So I’ve sought to write a book that takes these very complex, hard to grasp matters and breaks them down in understandable language. But the book also looks at current events from the front pages of our newspapers and online and asks, “Do any of these things fulfill what Jesus and the prophets said would be happening prior to His return?” I believe they do.
Q: Early in the book, you say that the teaching of Christ’s return is a litmus test for our spirituality. What do you mean by that?
Greg: If you are walking with God, you will look forward to and long for the return of Jesus. If you are not walking with God, you will dread His return. As the Apostle John said, “Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.” This should be the heart-cry of every believer. But Jesus Himself talked about the wicked servant who said, “My lord delays his coming,” while his behavior was godless, and he engaged in drunkenness and fighting and so forth. So if you really understand what the Bible says about the return of Jesus, it will keep you on your toes spiritually. We’re told in Scripture that he that has the hope of the Lord’s return purifies himself even as He is pure. The knowledge of His imminent return keeps us closer to God.
Additionally, the book of Revelation promises a blessing to those that hear and then keep the words of that book. Revelation, which means “unveiling,” is largely a book about our future. I think what is true of the book of Revelation is true of Scripture, and specifically true of end times events. In other words, if you understand them, there is a special blessing attached to it.
Q: Should most pastors be experts in end-times theology? What are your thoughts?
Greg: I don’t know if I’d say they need to be experts, but I think they need to be conversant and familiar with it and able to expound on it, because it’s on people’s minds. We live in a troubled world, and people expect their spiritual leader to be able to help them understand it. So you don’t have to be an expert on the topic, but there are experts that can help you as you prepare your messages. I do feel we as pastors need to not shy away from the topic or say, “That’s too complex for me to figure out.” Again, a blessing is promised to the one who hears and keeps the words of Revelation. My question to pastors would be, “Don’t you want your people to be blessed?” I would even challenge a pastor to teach through the book of Revelation in a series on prophecy; it would be an enriching blessing for the people who listen.
Q: What would you say to somebody who’s afraid to teach on the end times because they don’t feel like they can deal with all the theological issues? How would you encourage them?
Greg: Well, pardon me for promoting my own book, but I’d say it wouldn’t be a bad idea for them to order it. When they read through it, they’ll think, “Wow! I can teach this!” I would say to any pastor out there: “Steal my material.” I don’t care if you give me credit or not. Just take it, and use it if it helps you.
There’s some other great books out there written by some legit people—people like Joel Rosenberg and Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye and others—that have taken these complex themes and made them far more understandable. I’d say, “Go for it!”
Q: Greg, could you share with us just a little bit about your journey and how you’ve approached the second coming of Christ? Have you been more passionate about it in recent years?
Greg: The eternal themes have become stronger to me. I was being interviewed a while back, and a pastor said to me, “You know, I notice that you always are talking about heaven and about eternity. Why is that?” It’s something I’ve always done, but I do it even more now, and I’m more aware of it personally, because my son died in 2008. I’m still deeply mourning his departure. I miss him desperately, and yet it’s made me more aware of things that matter—and things that don’t. In ministry, we can get caught up in the game of competing one with another, and who is the biggest church and the fastest-growing church and the “whatever” church. A lot of that is really just nonsense, because in the final day, when we stand before God, He’s not going to say, “Well done, good and successful servant.” We need to concentrate on staying faithful to the Lord in what He has set before us, be it big or little or somewhere in the middle.
You realize when something like this happens that eternity is real, and life as we know it could be over in a moment. I mean, one does not plan for their child to precede them to heaven. It causes you to re-evaluate a lot of things. Everything has taken on a different tone to me, from the topic of teaching on heaven and what it means—because heaven’s become far more real to me—to the topic of the soon-return of Christ. Of course, it means that not only will I see Jesus, but it also means I’ll see my son again. So I suppose I’ve developed a greater urgency about all things eternal in the last couple of years.
Q: That’s powerful. I appreciate you sharing that, Greg. Could you share your process for sermon prep? Give us a behind-the-scenes look at how you prepare and some of your thoughts about preaching.
Greg: We need to realize that when we teach and believe these things, it should affect the way we live. If there’s a mist in the pulpit, there’ll be a fog in the pew. When we get up before our people, we need to go with a certain degree of certainty about our message, yet with humility, transparency, and most importantly authenticity. When we preach on this or any topic, we must be truthful about ourselves but still speak authoritatively on a topic.
So when I get into the pulpit to speak, if it’s before a huge group or small group or just a few people, I prepare carefully. You know, Benjamin Franklin said, “He that fails to prepare is preparing to fail.” So when I get up and speak, it may look somewhat easy; they don’t need to see the work that’s done. I just want them to have a good meal. If you hear an amazing guitar player, and he doesn’t even look at his guitar, it almost looks like you could get up and do that. But that guy has spent hours practicing what he does. So we need to spend hours in preparation so we can get up and deliver our message in an understandable, down-to-earth, friendly way with our people. I don’t believe in working out my confusion in the pulpit. By the time I get there, I’ve sorted things out to the point where I can preach them confidently.
Q: How do you handle criticism as a leader?
Greg: I’ve heard it said that if you want to be a good leader, you need the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the height of a rhinoceros. One learns to not be overly impressed with good press or devastated by bad press. I don’t ignore criticism, because there are times when the critic actually has a valid point, and something I’ve said might not be correct. But more often it’s that I didn’t explain carefully enough.
The thing that frustrates me is when people critique me for things I haven’t done. In other words, they assume that I do certain things, and they haven’t taken the time to research what I actually do. In my case, because I’m an evangelist, somebody will hold a large meeting and say, “Laurie doesn’t preach repentance, and he doesn’t tell people there’s judgment, and it’s an easy believism, and it’s just a bunch of rock music, and…” Well, you know, that’s a fine criticism, but it’s not true. I mean, do I use rock music? Oh, sure. Do I use the latest technology to reach more people? Absolutely. But do I water my message down? Do I mention hell? Do I talk about the need to repent? Absolutely. All you have to do is listen to any of my evangelistic messages, and you would know it. But sometimes critics like to set up a straw man and knock him down. In other words, they set up what they think you say and then attack it. Sometimes when I read the critiques of me, I agree with them, because I don’t say those things!