SAN ANTONIO (AP) To millions of readers, he's a writer whose personal anecdotes help connect ordinary Christians to God. To thousands at his church, he's an honest, humble preacher.
But to some within the Churches of Christ, Max Lucado is an errant theologian whose positions on baptism and instrumental music in worship have strayed too far from the faith's literalist following of New Testament teachings.
For his part, Lucado whose more than 50 books for children and adults have sold 33 million copies said he answers only to the elders at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, where he has ministered for 16 years.
''I really gave up on trying to answer to or even please everybody else. I don't think we're called to do that,'' Lucado said in a recent interview to promote his new book, ''It's Not About Me,'' which arrived in stores Tuesday.
While Lucado's latest book is not an autobiography the theme is that God, not man, is the center of the universe friends say the title fits his life and ministry.
''I've heard him preach to 50,000, to 10,000, to three in his living room, and he's the same every place,'' said Kenny Wilson, an elder at Lucado's church. ''He's really genuine, without ego, and I don't know how he does it.''
Lucado's critics differ with him on matters of faith, not personality.
Howard Norton, editor of Church and Family magazine, published by Church of Christ-affiliated Harding University in Searcy, Ark., said Lucado is a longtime friend.
''He is kind and considerate and generous and all those wonderful things you can say about him,'' Norton said. ''Having said that ... he has really disappointed a lot of us in the direction that he has taken the church and in some of the things that he has said.''
Churches of Christ are autonomous congregations with no central headquarters and an estimated 1.3 million members nationwide, according to ''Churches of Christ in the United States: 2003'' by researcher Mac Lynn, former Bible department chairman at Church of Christ-affiliated Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.
Most Churches of Christ teach that baptism by immersion is an integral part of salvation and the vast majority believe the Bible prohibits instrumental music in worship services, permitting only a cappella singing.
While Lucado views baptism as important, he suggests it's not essential for redemption. His church allows instrumental music in some services. And in October, Oak Hills dropped the ''Church of Christ'' from its name an effort to reach people hesitant to attend a Church of Christ, Lucado said.
So, when Church of Christ-affiliated Abilene Christian University honored Lucado last month as its 2004 Outstanding Alumnus of the Year, critics again voiced concern.
''A lot of people ... felt like that came right on the heels of basically a separation from the church,'' Norton said.
Abilene Christian President Royce Money said Lucado deserved the honor.
''He is a nationally recognized media figure, a counselor to the president ... he's easily the most recognized ACU alumnus in the world today,'' Money said. Still, Money acknowledged disappointment at some of the decisions made by Lucado's church.
In Lucado's view, his church reflects a societal shift. Since the name change, average Sunday attendance has jumped to about 4,500, up from 3,300, he said.
''It just seems like we're in kind of a post-denominational society that those differences are not as important to people as they used to be,'' Lucado said. ''Now, the big issue isn't so much Methodist or Baptist, but Jesus or Buddha.''
Lucado, 49, was raised in the West Texas town of Andrews, the son of an oilfield mechanic and a nurse. His conservative Christian parents insisted that he attend Abilene Christian.
After graduation, he was hired as associate minister at the Central Church of Christ in Miami, where the columns he wrote for the church bulletin helped form his first book.
He and his future wife, Denalyn, also an Abilene Christian graduate, started dating in Miami, where she was a teacher. They later married, moved for a time to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as missionaries, and now have three teenage daughters.
After Lucado's father died from Lou Gehrig's disease in 1986, Max returned to Texas to be closer to his mother and focus on writing. The 500-member Oak Hills Church of Christ hired him as pulpit minister in 1988.
Lucado soon gave up his church salary because his book royalties were so strong. ''Also, I felt better then because I need to take time away from the church work to do the writing,'' he said.
Lucado takes off several weeks a year to write at least one new book for adults and one or two for children. His books mix personal stories, current events and Scriptures in a conversational, seldom-preachy tone that portrays God as real and accessible.
Despite his fame, Lucado turns out to be the second most-famous minister on staff at his church. Retired San Antonio Spurs star David Robinson joined the congregation last year as ''minister at large.''
Lynn Tollberg, 52, from Shorewood, Minn., sought Lucado's autograph on a recent Sunday.
''I've read all his books. They're awesome,'' Tollberg said. ''He makes God seem real and attainable, and he really encourages you in your walk with him.''
Lucado said he feels a bit self-conscious about signing autographs, especially on a Sunday. ''But I really don't mind,'' he said. ''If it encourages someone to read the book, it's sure worth it.''
On the Net:
Oak Hills Church: http://www.oakhillschurchofchrist.org
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