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Not Ready to Retire

Feisty octogenarian evangelist Martha Tennison keeps on preaching.

The 5-foot, 2½-inch, white-haired octogenarian stands on the stage at North Central University (NCU) and displays a larger-than-life presence. Evangelist Martha Tennison of Lake Ozark, Missouri, is speaking at NCU's chapel as the spring Moen Chair for Pentecostal Preaching, giving one of six sermons she will deliver during the semester.

“I want to minister to you this morning very quickly,” the peppy Tennison tells the room filled with students eager to hear a sermon from “Mother Martha.” She continues, “I’m gonna preach fast. You listen quick. If you get through before I do, stay with me!”

The room erupts in laughter, and Tennison delivers an unforgettable message about treasures in jars of clay from 2 Corinthians 4:7–10.

Martha Tennison worked as a telephone operator when she married W. Don Tennison, then a preacher serving a church in Texas. Martha credits him with putting her into the pulpit. She recalls that she often approached her husband with sermon ideas, and one day he said, “Well, Sunday night, you’re up.”

Martha protested that she was not a preacher, but Don replied, “God gave you a message, and you are to deliver that message.” And that’s how she started preaching.

Allen Tennison is the couple’s only child and serves as dean of the College of Church Leadership at NCU. He never saw competition between his parents.

“Everywhere they pastored, the church asked my mom to deliver the final sermon, which never bothered my dad,” Allen says.

Martha wasn’t just beloved because of her preaching. She cared for the flock with a mother’s fierce love. When the couple served at Radcliff First Assembly in Kentucky, Martha got to know every adult adherent and every child by name. Each Saturday, she phoned all the families that regularly attended.

“On Sunday morning, I looked over the congregation and I could tell who was missing,” Tennison says. “On Sunday afternoon, I called them to see if someone was ill, if they had a need. People want to know you care.”

Allen points out that the family had to replace their rotary phone multiple times. The phone company had never seen anything like it.

When the Tennisons in 1978 began pastoring First Assembly in Radcliff, 52 people attended. When they left in 1990 to become full-time evangelists, more than 700 showed up on a regular basis.

Martha and Don served as pastors in churches and itinerant evangelists. Since Don died in 2019, Martha has continued to preach — in part because she promised her husband she would.

After battling Parkinson’s disease for 13 years, Don knew he had little time left on earth. As he moved into hospice care, Don told Martha that his departure didn’t release her from her calling. She promised to keep preaching.

Tennison turned 80 on April 10, and she believes her calling is still in place and will remain so as long as she has breath. Even now, she doesn’t mind being compared to the spunky Granny Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies.

On May 26, she was a featured speaker at the AG National Evangelist Summit in Springfield, Missouri. At the conference, she also received the Smith Wigglesworth Evangelist Legacy Award from Superintendent Doug Clay. The award is given for a lifetime of faithfulness, integrity, and passion in fulfilling God's calling as an evangelist.

Tim Enloe, national evangelist representative for the AG, called Tennison a faithful, Spirit-filled trailblazer who has been used mightily by the Lord.

In her keynote address, Tennison thanked male pastors who opened their pulpits to allow her to preach as an evangelist, starting in 1975. As is her custom, her spellbinding sermon featured biblical truths spoken with rapid-fire delivery, back-and-forth pacing, aptly timed humor, and an occasional enthusiastic jumping up and down.

Any long career in ministry and evangelism comes with highs and lows, but the Tennisons experienced one of the lowest lows imaginable while serving in Radcliff. On May 14, 1988, a drunk driver hit the church’s youth group bus head-on in Carrollton, Kentucky, as the kids returned from a day at an amusement park. The force of the impact caused a puncture in the gas tank, and as the driver attempted to move off the road, sparks ignited the gas. The bus erupted into flames.

Twenty-seven members of their church family — 24 students and three staff members — perished in the blaze. The accident remains the worst drunk-driving crash in U.S. history.

Allen Tennison, 15 at the time, was one of the 40 survivors.

“It was not just a life-altering event but a life-forming one,” he recalls. “At that age, I was still developing my understanding of the world and I had witnessed the death of my friends. I came to realize, as I’m still growing up, that life is fragile.” Allen experienced his parents living their worst nightmare as pastors and coming out on the other side.

Martha and Allen still vividly recall the event and the ensuing months — and years — of healing. But it’s the lessons God brought to Martha through tragedy that have had the most significant long-term impact. While not questioning God’s authority, Tennison says she learned, as Job did in ancient times, to ask questions about the why of the catastrophe.
“I learned we have no promise of tomorrow,” Tennison says. “Today is the day of salvation; it never mentions tomorrow.”

Tennison says she also discovered the importance of treating her family and friends well.

“Many times, we talk most hateful to the people we love the most,” Tennison says. “We know they love us, they'll forgive us. But we don't talk as hateful to friends and people at church.”

The Lord provided a test about that lesson for Tennison just a few weeks after the bus wreck. After hauling hay at a church member’s farm, Allen came home one day and turned his shoe upside down, pouring hay out on the floor in the living room. Martha upbraided him about the mess. Allen offered up a typical teenager excuse, but forgot, and repeated the mistake another day.

“After he’d gone to school one day, I walked into the living room, and there’s another pile of hay and I started to get upset,” Martha recalls with tears forming in her eyes. “And the Lord said to me, Many a mother today would trade this hay with you to have a child to hold onto and love. I picked up that hay and kissed it, and I said, ‘God, because of this hay, I still have a son to love and hold onto. Please help me not to get upset over trivial things.’”

She is focused on more important matters, primarily the need for evangelism in the U.S. and the rest of the world. As the Moen chair at NCU, Tennison saw the tender hearts of students as she taught a class on Pentecostal distinctives. Some of them wept as she spoke.

“We have a generation coming up that’s hungry to see a move of God, not just a church service,” Tennison says. “These young people want to see miracles, want to see the Holy Spirit work in ways they’ve never seen before. The spirit of evangelism is alive and well today."

Bottom Photo: Allen Tennison pays tribute to his mother at the national Evangelist Summit May 26 in Springfield.