McNeil is ‘a real character’ alright
By Bob Baysinger
August 12, 2003
|Jim McNeil takes on the character of James as he quotes the New Testament book. McNiel has served three times as president of Missouir Baptist Evangelists. McNiel is also on staff at Tower Grove Baptist Church, St. Louis|
Sharing the Gospel and memorizing the WHOLE Bible!
ST. LOUIS – Dementia (memory loss) affects many Southern Baptists as we get older. We forget names and places, times and dates. But the problem obviously hasn’t impacted Jim McNiel.
McNiel, a long-time Southern Baptist and member of Tower Grove Baptist Church, St. Louis, has reached the middle-age segment of life filled with vigor, excitement and a memory bank that includes much of the New Testament.
That’s right, almost all of the New Testament.
He can quote "pretty well" 12 or 13 chapters of Matthew, the book of John, some of Mark and Luke, Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, First and Second Thessalonians, First and Second Timothy, Hebrews, James, First, Second and Third John, Jude, Philemon and Revelation.
And McNiel, who has spent much of his life working as a music evangelist, is now using this special gift of memory to share God’s Word in churches, at colleges, at conferences and many other locations across Missouri, the nation, and the world.
"Sixteen years ago I was in a revival with Larry Lewis at First Baptist, Piedmont," McNiel remembers. "Larry and I were out walking one night before the service. He said to me, ‘Jim, January Bible study is the book of James.’ I told him I thought I would memorize the book of James and do it as a character. That’s how it got started."
And God continued nudging McNiel in the direction of "dramatic character" evangelism.
"I was doing music for the Home Mission Board one night in Atlanta," McNiel explained. "On the last night, they brought in a guy who did a dramatic monologue, telling the story of Simon Peter. As I watched, the Lord recalled to my memory. He said to my spirit, ‘This is what I’ve trained you to do.’"
McNiel is a junior college graduate of Hannibal-LaGrange College and earned his bachelor’s degree at Oklahoma Baptist University. While in Oklahoma, he served as music minister at a church.
"I switched majors from music to speech and drama, so I decided to start putting together dramatic monologues. I did characters such as Judas and Simon Peter. I would do them during Sunday School hours, and people were being saved," McNiel said.
The first major presentation was at his home church, Tower Grove. He memorized the book of James.
"I had it polished, but I was nervous," McNiel said. "I remember talking to the Lord about it and telling him I was nervous and that I didn’t know how it was going to work. In his spirit he responded that I should do what I was gifted to do. He reminded me that his Word was sharper than any two-edged sword. I did it on a Sunday night at Tower Grove and there were 12 public professions of faith."
McNiel says people are intrigued by what he does – both spiritually and intellectually.
"I have people come up to me and say, ‘I don’t know how you do that.’ I’ve even had people ask me if I lip sync and if I hide notes in my costume," McNiel said. "Now, when they say things like that, I just say, ‘Yes, it is an amazing gift. It is a gift the Lord has given me. I didn’t ask for it, but it is a great joy to give it back in service toward him."
It was at an affluent Baptist church in Tupelo, Miss., that a person came nearest to understanding the secret behind McNiel’s work.
"An attorney was intrigued by my presentation. He came to me and stated that he had figured it out. He said, ‘You not only see it, but you also hear it.’"
According to McNiel, concentration is the key, and he can hear while quoting a verse of Scripture if words are coming out properly. "If I’m in a service quoting Scripture and somebody gets up to take a baby out or if somebody moves, I turn real fast to the other side so I don’t lose my place," he said.
"I got my mother’s Bible when I started memorizing. I don’t use different Bibles because I know where the words are. I can almost read it. I see it. I hear it. I can wake up in the middle of the night and start quoting. For example, the eighth chapter of John begins almost at the top of the left column. I can see it in my mind. It’s amazing!"
Jim McCollum, who now pastors Liberty Baptist Church, Bellegrade, but grew up at Tower Grove with McNiel, says the most amazing thing about McNiel’s presentations is the way people respond.
"I’ve had him at our church several times, most recently last April. We’re a small church with only 40 in Sunday School and 60 in church, but we had seven professions of faith on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. On Sunday night, a man the church had been praying for the last 10 years got saved. On Monday night, a 22-year-old man was saved," McCollum said.
Not everybody understands McNiel’s methods.
"A friend of mine – a really close friend – said he didn’t consider what I did as preaching," McNiel explained. "He described it as drama. But I told him that it really doesn’t matter what he called it because I would be using more Scripture in one sermon than he would use in six months of sermons."
McNiel’s philosophy is present the Word and leave the results to God.
"I spoke at Mobile University last fall and there were 55 public professions of faith. I did the Sermon on the Mount. A lot of times I can see young people start snickering. But rather than let them know I am hurt or offended, I just start quoting Scripture … BOOM, BOOM, BOOM … the Word of God.
"It’s almost as if I can see the Holy Spirit using that sharp, two-edged sword cutting away.
"I’m not funny," McNiel added. "I don’t tell funny stories. I don’t tell sad stories. All I’ve got is love in my heart for the people and the Word of God. And God does the work."
Some are surprised when they learn that McNiel has turned to drama evangelism. Many were introduced to him through music.
"I come from a singing family," McNiel said. "Both of my grandfathers down in Arkansas had what you call singing schools. Although I didn’t know them, that was my heritage. My mother was a fabulous alto singer, and my daddy was a song leader in church back in the days when they didn’t pay the music guy very much."
McNiel holds his mother and dad in high regard – for good reason.
"It was at the age of 12 that I went into their bedroom one night under the conviction of the Holy Spirit," said McNiel. "The Spirit had revealed to me that being a good boy and going to church and Sunday School was not enough. I could sing Jesus Loves Me and Oh, How I Love Jesus. But it was there in that bedroom at the foot of their bed that I said a lie to daddy when he asked me if I knew if I would go to Heaven or Hell.
"I told him I really didn’t know, but I did know and didn’t want to admit it. Daddy told me I could know, adding that God had a simple plan that even a little boy could understand. The plan, he said, was that the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
"He told me if I would call on the name of the good Lord, He would save me. It was there that I stood and received the Lord. We didn’t even pray out loud, but I knew the Lord had transformed my life."
Step by step, McNiel was led into music evangelism.
He recorded his first album at RCA Victor in Nashville with the Oak Ridge Boys. A second album featured McNiel with the Imperials. He recorded a third and fourth album in London with the London Philharmonic. McNiel’s sisters – Billie Jen and Judy – provided background on all the albums.
McNiel still sings, usually doing at least one song during a presentation.
It was during a presentation of First John that McNiel dressed as an old man and closed by singing People Need the Lord. "It melted people’s hearts," McNiel said.
What’s next for the St. Louis evangelist?
He recently returned from Bombay, India, where plans were completed for a Dec. 3-6 crusade. McNiel said Indian crusade organizers are promising crowds of at least 200,000 nightly.
"My life has been a vacation," McNiel said. "I have so much peace and contentment, but I still long to have others come to know the Lord Jesus Christ."
And maybe that’s why there’s no evidence of dementia.