Archive: Barbara Brokhoff and the life of an Evangelist
By Sara L. Anderson
Good News, July/August 1986
A young visiting evangelist and the local pastor walked up and down the streets of a small town inviting people to services. “We came to a house, the dirtiest house I had ever seen in my life,” recalled Barbara Brokhoff, the evangelist. When a man answered the door they invited him to church. He refused, saying, “I’m not coming to your revival because preachers will never eat with me.” But he amended that statement with, “Young lady, if you’ll come and eat with my family tonight, I’ll come to your revival.”
“So, I did that,” Barbara said, “and I’m not even able to tell you how filthy that home was. We ate skunk and boiled potatoes.”
Whatever abuse such cuisine inflicted upon her digestive tract, she saw rewards from that visit. The family came to church that night, and when the invitation to trust Christ as Savior was given, the couple and four of their six children came forward.
“A year later I was back in that church,” Barbara continues. “I didn’t even recognize them as being the same people. The pastor said that they had cleaned up their home, themselves – everything. It was amazing to me, just a nineteen-year-old preacher, how God could do something like that by such a simple act as sharing a meal.”
The Mexico, Missouri, daughter of a Methodist pastor, Barbara had heard the call to preach more than two years before, but resisted. “This was less than a hundred years ago [actually more like the early 1940s],” she recalled, “but I had never heard of a woman preacher.”
Finally 17-year-old Barbara McFarland gave in. “I said, OK, God, if you want me to preach. I’ll preach, but you have to open the doors.’ I thought, ‘That’ll fix God,’ because no doors would be open to a woman preacher.”
But that first week she received several invitations to preach, and when her pastor heard of her call, he told her she could preach at the county jail the next Sunday. After a few rounds of “No, I can’t,’’ and “Yes, you can,’’ Barbara left thinking she’d won the argument. But that Sunday she found 30 or 40 inmates expecting a sermon – from her. She opened her Bible to Isaiah, talked about Jesus as the prophesied Messiah and told what Christ had done for her. That impromptu message christened her a genuine preacher.
After attending North Central College in Minneapolis, Barbara sought advice from her district superintendent. He hadn’t heard of a woman preacher either and didn’t recommend seminary. So she completed her education by correspondence and seminars. Finally in 1956, women were admitted to full clergy status in the Methodist church, and Barbara achieved elder status in 1958.
Remarkably, since that first invitation, Barbara has never requested an opportunity to grace the pulpit. “The doors have just been opened, and God has always given me more places to preach than I can possibly fill,” she said. “It’s as if all my life he’s said, ‘I’ll show you how I can open doors.’”
Those doors opened into homes, hospital rooms, small country churches, and large urban worship centers during her early preaching days, her 15 years as a pastor in the Missouri East Conference, and her current tenure as conference evangelist for Florida. They’ve also opened to a number of “firsts”: First woman to preach at the Missouri East Annual Conference, at the North Georgia Annual Conference, at the Florida Annual Conference, the Lenten Series at Chicago Temple, and at the Missouri Conference Ministers’ Week. And everywhere she goes, the warmth of her personality and truth of her message indicate why the “firsts” have not also become “lasts.”
“My main message is Christ, that he absolutely is the hope of the world, and that God can be trusted in all of life,” explained the 58-year-old evangelist. “That means on a national basis, on a world basis, and on an individual, nitty-gritty problems-of-life basis.”
Yet husband John Brokhoff, Professor Emeritus of Preaching at UM-related Candler School of Theology, is quick to point out that the medium can be significant in how the hearer receives the message. “I think one of the reasons for Barbara’s effectiveness is that her personality is so vibrant, and she is so excited about the Gospel that the enthusiasm and the joy of [being] a Christian come through in a powerful way.”
But the medium, however enthusiastic, is unmistakably female, and there are still churchgoers who, unlike Barbara 40 years ago, have heard of women preachers but have never heard one preach.
“Most people are more prepared to hear a male – they’re just traditionally geared to that,” Barbara said. “I have found, though, that God has opened doors so that when people hear the truth of the Word, they don’t care whether it’s a man or a woman speaking, just as long as they hear from God.” For emphasis, she adds, “It’s the Word that’s the healing, saving, helping factor. It’s like going to the doctor. If you’re bleeding to death, you really don’t care if it’s a male or female who stops the bleeding.”
John agrees emphatically with that observation. “When Barbara starts out in a new place, there’s always a question as to whether or not the people want a woman preacher,” he said. “But after she builds a rapport with them, through her introduction – which is somewhat personal – and starts preaching, the Word becomes so predominant that it doesn’t matter whether it’s a male or female who is speaking.”
The key word here is “Word.” That has much more significance to the Rev. Brokhoff than adding more “firsts” to her list. “The gospel is the cause for which she lives and works,” John observed. “Many of the women I know in the ministry have made the women’s movement the cause of their lives. I think [they] are making a very bad mistake. The gospel has to come first and the person is only an instrument in proclaiming the gospel.”
While acknowledging the need to address issues that face women in the church, Barbara clarifies “the Gospel is larger than any one issue. It’s larger than race, it’s larger than male-female, because when the Gospel is truly preached, then Paul’s word [“in Christ there is no male or female”] comes true; then equality is found.”
But John also notes that women often bring different gifts to preaching than men. “I think women preachers are a little more sensitive to the human situation,” he said. “They have more emphasis on feelings, whereas male preachers are more doctrinal and theological and probably more abstract in their presentation.”
While delivering the gospel to people involves sensitivity to their circumstances, Barbara would be the first to admit that the Word is also incisive. Her nonthreatening, almost maternal demeanor might lead one to believe that she could not speak with firmness about the consequences of sin. But that is a significant part of her presentation. “I’m under the conviction that you can tell people almost anything, however difficult it is, if you do not become strident and angry and critical in doing so,” Barbara said. “People hear your spirit. Someone said they didn’t mind their pastor telling them they were going to hell, [but he didn’t have to] seem so glad about it.”
The turning point between pastor/part-time evangelist and full-time evangelist altered Barbara’s message. This change came about after she attended a preaching seminar taught by Dr. John Brokhoff, a Lutheran scholar teaching at Candler. She may not have been the first woman to attend one of his seminars, but she was the only one enrolled in that session. And Barbara’s preaching style was undoubtedly influenced by the eminent Dr. Brokhoff, but that was not the major change wrought by her presence. In the interests of ecumenical understanding, not to mention other considerations, the Rev. McFarland became the Rev. Brokhoff 14 years ago. Barbara joined John in Georgia and requested appointment as conference evangelist for North Georgia. “That meant that we could be on the road for preaching together when John was not teaching,” she said. “It also meant that when he was teaching, I could be somewhere else preaching revivals and missions and seminars.”
That arrangement worked well and it was made even better when John retired seven years ago. Then team preaching became their ministry. Now the Brokhoffs live in Clearwater, Florida, and travel together three-quarters of the time, offering churches a unique program. John teaches for an hour, usually on fundamentals of the Christian faith, and Barbara follows with an hour of preaching. In churches where members have little biblical or doctrinal knowledge this is an important emphasis.
“I think we do need exhortation,” John emphasizes. “But we also need understanding of the Word. Exhortation leaves you with a good feeling, and you’re inspired to make decisions. But feelings come and go. If you get rooted and grounded in the faith and biblical doctrine, you have a chance for permanent understanding.”
Along with teaching the Word and leading people to Christ, the Brokhoffs consider encouraging local pastors a significant part of their ministry. “They are good pastors, they’re just discouraged and are carrying a lot of loads alone,” Barbara said. She recalls a presentation she and John did on the “forgetfulness of God, that he simply does not remember our sins against us. He blots them out – even from his own mind.
“When we gave the invitation that night,” she recalled, “a district superintendent came forward with tears rolling down his face and knelt at the altar. When he stood up his whole face was illumined and he said, ‘All my life I thought that everything I’d ever done wrong would be read out for all to hear on the last day. I had not been fully aware of the forgiveness of God.’”
The Brokhoffs’ stories could go on for pages, and they love to tell them in that way that married couples and good teams do – with interjections reminding each other of some salient detail – and with affirmation for one another. This is noteworthy, considering the fact that a Lutheran Church of America preaching professor and a United Methodist evangelist could find some fertile ground for argument. “We have some wonderful theological discussions,” John said. And Barbara added, “I tell John that whenever Lutherans get a bad pastor they can’t get rid of him, since they call him. [He is not appointed by church hierarchy.] And John tells me that when Methodists get a good pastor they can’t keep him,” she continues, laughing. “Polity is the only thing we have any real difference of opinion on.”
The couple also appears to be unthreatened by each other’s ministry or popularity with a particular congregation. “Our common goal is to be what God had called us to be, so we’re not in competition with each other,” Barbara said, and adds that since they understand each other’s need for solitude when studying or preparing a sermon, that decreases the chances for tension. “Sometimes we even say that we feel sorry for people that are not in the same work, because we understand each other’s problems and needs,” Barbara said. “We just enjoy working together,” John added.
And, as long as the doors keep opening, as long as the Brokhoffs receive more invitations to preach than they can possibly accept, this ecumenical couple will continue to add to their “firsts” list. But, of utmost importance to them, they will be pursuing that common goal or helping people come to Christ and become rooted and grounded in the faith.
Sara L. Anderson was the associate editor of Good News when this article was published in 1986.
Editor’s note: Dr. John Brokhoff died in 2003; the Rev. Barbara Brokhoff died in 2023. Photos by Ed Sedej.
Q&A: The Church We See Today
Barbara and John Brokhoff have brought their two-pronged method of evangelism – teaching followed by preaching – to hundreds of churches. Good News asked them about the needs they’ve observed In United Methodist churches.
Good News: What is the greatest need of the average lay person?
Barbara Brokoff: I believe the most urgent need is to come into some kind of relationship with Christ, and then, born out of that relationship, a sense of responsibility for evangelism of the non-Christian [is necessary]. The biggest need of our church is for people to know Christ better and then to make him known. I know that’s simplistic, but I really think everything else revolves around that.
John Brokoff: As I get around to the various churches, I find there is an abominable lack of knowledge and understanding of the Scripture. People do not read the Bible, they do not know how to understand or interpret the Bible. And, as a result, they do not know what it is to be a Christian. They have no roots that hold them fast, to give them a sense of certainty in regard to the Christian faith (What is sin, what is salvation, what does it mean to be in Christ, how do you get right with God?). They’re living on a level of works-righteousness. They think Christianity is being nice to your neighbor or doing a little good turn for somebody. A majority of people in a recent poll – I think it’s around 70 percent – indicate that they think God will accept them if they try to do what is right.
BB: We’re amazed at how many people in the teaching sessions, particularly the one that John does on fundamentals of the faith, say, “Oh I’ve been in the church all my life and never did know that.”
GN: Isn’t it rather odd that Methodists who were in the Reformation tradition of salvation by grace and salvation by faith would drift into works-righteousness?
JB: Much of our preaching today, I think, is ethical, moralistic, rather than being Gospel, Christ-centered. And this leads people to think in terms of works-righteousness for salvation. These moral pep talks are not helping people.
BB: I preached at Chicago Temple with Dr. William White this year. I remember one thing he said relative to that. He said, “There is nothing that is so terrible as being told you’re all right when you know that you’re all wrong,” and when we tell people, “Oh, you’re OK,” and do not give them a way out of their dilemma, It’s terrible.
JB: Today there is a minimization of sin and a maximization of the human with our human rights, civil rights, and the glory of being human. When you get God-centered, you have an overwhelming sense of sin, which leads you to Christ as the Savior.
BB: And then, having known that you’re accepted by Christ, you understand human worth in the light of his sacrifice and his acceptance, but not through ourselves.
JB: We emphasize in our teaching that we’re saved by grace alone, and that when you receive this grace through faith, out of faith comas good works, but they’re only a by-product of the previous grace that we experience.
GN: Do you find that Methodist are generally open to hearing a conversion message?
BB: I think people are very hungry to hear that message. People are looking for solutions and answers. People that know they are Christians and have been for years love to hear again the old story of Christ and his coming to save. And people that have not come into a vital relationship are exposed to it. One day the Holy Spirit takes [that message] and makes It vital for them.