PW walks into the Lucados' tasteful home overlooking the hill country of San Antonio and is greeted by Salty, a Shih Tzu, and Molly, a bounding golden retriever who, much to Denalyn Lucado's dismay, has been in the trash again and strewn it all over the immaculate living room. It's an anecdote straight out of Max Lucado's new book, Next Door Savior (W Publishing, Sept. 2), in which he shares many of Molly's bad habits while writing about God's love and forgiveness. Denalyn halfheartedly scolds the dog and picks up trash while PW admires the walls of childhood photos of Denalyn and Max's three teenage daughters, Jenna, Andrea and Sara. His pastoral duties finished for the day, Lucado excuses himself to change into gym shorts and a scruffy shirt, then he and PW repair to the entertainment room upstairs to talk about his life and work.

And an astonishing volume of work it is. They say everything is bigger in Texas, and there aren't many authors bigger than Lucado, whose more than 50 books of faith for adults and children have sold 33 million copies over almost two decades of publishing. Traveling Light (2001) hit the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists, and many of his books have landed on PW's list since 1995. "Max is unique in that he can write in a way that touches a five-year-old, 15-year-old, 25-year-old or 85-year-old," notes David Moberg, senior v-p and publisher for the W Publishing Group, which is home to much of Lucado's writing.

At least one of Lucado's titles has appeared on a CBA bestseller list every month for the last dozen years, and in February, he had 18 different books on the various Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) genre lists. His children's book sales are impressive. "Max is our biggest author," says Lane Dennis, president and publisher at Crossway Books, which has published nine children's titles with Lucado in 16 editions, translated into more than 30 languages. His bestselling book for Crossway, You Are Special (1997), has sold more than two million copies in various formats and editions and was picked up by Scholastic and Books Are Fun.

In addition to books, Lucado's words have been spun off into many products: children's videos, CD-ROMs, DVDs, read-along DVDs, music CDs, mass paperback booklets, apparel, giftware, bookmarks, calendars, videos, study Bibles, Bible workbooks and guides, curricula and plush products. Plans are in the works for The Christmas Cross (1998) to become a network television special or possibly a limited theatrical release. Lucado even has a new line of Hallmark cards that launched this spring, projected to sell one million units in the first year.

"At the core of Max's message is God loves you and thinks you are incredibly special and valuable—just as you are," says Susan Ligon, CEO of Dallas's The Ligon Group, which manages the Lucado brand. "This message is universally appealing to the CBA and general markets alike." Lucado's message is in line with that of his church, the Church of Christ, which according to a study reported in the New York Times last year is one of the fastest-growing religious denominations of the past 10 years (it has boosted its membership in the United States by 18.6% since the last survey, in 1990).

With Lucado's phenomenal sales has come recognition. He's appeared on Larry King Live, CNN and the Christian Broadcasting Network's 700 Club, and has been featured in the New York Times, USA Today and the Dallas Morning News. Lucado is the only author to win three Charles "Kip" Jordon Christian Book of the Year Awards (1995, 1996, 1998) given by the ECPA and voted on by retailers, and he's won 10 ECPA Gold Medallion Book Awards. In 1999, Lucado was the keynote speaker for the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.

Many of those who have followed the West Texan preacher's career attribute his success to the way he lives what he writes. "Max Lucado is real," says Doug Ross, president of ECPA. "His ideas seem to flow out of a life fully dedicated to Christ." But as Lucado will be the first to tell you, this hasn't always been the case.

Sowing Wild Oats

Lucado was born in 1955 in San Angelo, Tex., and raised in Andrews, the youngest of four children. His father was an Exxon oil field mechanic who, Lucado remembers, always smelled of grease cleaner. "It makes it easy for me to see a God who is loving and kind—because my dad was," he says. His mother was a nurse who grew up working in the cotton fields.

Both parents were conservative Christians, and drinking was strictly prohibited. But that didn't stop Lucado from experimenting. At age 16, he spent the summer digging ditches six to eight feet deep for laying oil field pipelines. "The country was so flat, if your dog ran away, you would see it for three days," Lucado quips. His co-workers were a rough and tumble group of older guys who regularly stopped at bars on company time to get drunk. Lucado, a quick study, was soon drinking heavily, downing a six-pack of beer before he felt a buzz. The first time his father caught him drunk, "I disappointed him," says Lucado. "I sure tried to hide everything." But his partying accelerated. On weekends, "We'd get in our pickups, buy kegs of beer and go out chasing women," he says. "I really made a mess of my life. I had lost my bearings."

Lucado's first wake-up call came in high school as he and a pal were drinking beer in a Piggly Wiggly grocery store parking lot. Having a revelation, Lucado turned to his friend and said, "There's got to be more to life than this!" It was the start of his journey back to God. "Maybe this is why I write about Jesus so much, [because] he forgives what I did then, and what I do now, and... he can use me," Lucado says.

After graduating from high school, Lucado attended Abilene Christian University and roomed with Steve Green, who would later become his agent. To earn money for school, Lucado spent two summers working 80 hours a week selling Bibles door to door in northern Georgia. "It taught me discipline," he recalls. Lucado majored in communications with aspirations of becoming a lawyer, and in his journalism classes, "I learned the importance of brisk sentences, brevity and making a point and getting off of it."

Alas, the freshman student and Bible salesman was still "a reckless character," smoking, drinking and partying. Then, in the spring of his sophomore year, Lucado went to a Sunday night service where the minister called for those who needed forgiveness to make a new commitment to Christ. Lucado was ready. "It was a real turning point," he remembers. Another epiphany for Lucado came on a mission trip to Brazil his junior year, which inspired him to become a missionary. There was one hitch: he had to have a graduate degree in theology and two years of experience as a pastor to qualify. He finished his undergraduate work, did an internship in St. Louis and began his master's degree in theology at Abilene Christian. In 1980, he was hired as associate minister at Central Church of Christ in Miami, writing columns for the church bulletin, working with singles and making about $1,000 a month. "Miami was where I began to love preaching," he reflects.

Finding the Message

After six months as a pastor, Lucado was invited to dinner at a friend's house along with another Abilene Christian graduate, Denalyn Preston, who was teaching in Miami. "I thought she was really pretty," remembers Lucado, adding that he enjoyed how comfortable he felt around her. Denalyn says she found Lucado's humor and love for God attractive. They were married in 1981 and, two years later, they headed to Rio de Janeiro as missionaries to start new churches.

But the Lucados' fledgling church in Brazil struggled. No one seemed interested in their brand of Christianity. Lucado remembers that about 10 people showed up each Sunday, mostly Americans. "I began to think, 'What are we marketing?' We realized what was unique to Christianity was forgiveness of sin and the resurrection of the dead. When we began to focus more on helping people have their guilt forgiven, their relationship with God and living forever... the church began to grow."

This became Lucado's message for Brazil, and for his life. "My church today laughs because I preach the same sermon every Sunday from a different angle. But I don't mind. I discovered it through the grist of failure in Brazil."

The church in Brazil grew to 50. Denalyn was pregnant with their first daughter. And Lucado, who still wrestled with guilt about his wild teen years, began to discover God's forgiveness and grace for himself. "It was a good time in our lives," he recalls. In his spare moments, Lucado decided to retype some church bulletin columns he had written in Miami with the idea of publishing them. He looked through the 30 books he had brought with him to Brazil and found 15 different publishers' addresses. Optimistically, he sent his manuscript to each one.

Fourteen rejection letters later, Lucado wasn't discouraged. "I was doing it for the fun of it!" he insists. Denalyn, however, cross-stitched a gift to encourage him, a sampler reading, "Of all those arts in which the wise excel, nature's chief masterpiece is writing well." (It still hangs in his office today.) The gift was an auspicious omen, for soon the 15th letter came, from Tyndale House Publishers, offering a contract for what became On the Anvil (1985).

Dr. Wendell Hawley, then Tyndale's editor-in-chief and now retired, had a policy of reading all unsolicited manuscripts. When he read Lucado's, he says, "My heart was touched. He has very emotive power with words—not clever words, but plain and simple words." Since its publication 18 years ago, On the Anvil has sold nearly 450,000 copies (including a gift edition) and average sales per year are still about 10,000— 12,000 copies.

However, Hawley recalls that although On the Anvil sold moderately well, "there wasn't wild enthusiasm to do further books." So when Lucado finished No Wonder They Call Him the Savior (1986), he remembered an admiring rejection letter he had received from editor Liz Heaney at Multnomah Press, inviting him to submit future books. Heaney, who has freelance edited a dozen of Lucado's adult trade books, says, "Ever since then, I've had great respect for unsolicited manuscripts—the next Max Lucado might be in that pile!"

More success came when CBA bestselling author, pastor and radio host Chuck Swindoll wanted to use No Wonder They Call Him the Savior as a radio premium. "Multnomah flew me from Brazil to the National Religious Broadcasters convention," remembers Lucado. "We were on a missionary salary (about $2,000 a month) and this was like rarified air. I walked around saying, 'Hi, I'm Max Lucado, and I'd like you to read my book,' and passing out copies."

Lucado's next book with Multnomah, God Came Near (1987), did well, and Don Jacobson (then the house's marketing director, now its president and publisher) "knew there was something pretty special going on." (The book now has over a million copies in print.) All but one of Lucado's Multnomah titles will get a new home October 1, when Multnomah trades them to W Publishing/Thomas Nelson Inc. for Nelson's backlist by James and Shirley Dobson and Andy Stanley.

The underlying message of all of Lucado's books is a love of God. Like other Christian writers, including Rick Warren, John Eldredge, Gary Chapman, Oswald Chambers and Franklin Graham, Lucado offers readers answers to life's big questions. Lucado does it by filling his books with anecdotes, stories, Bible quotes and exercises—a winning combination.

Coming Home to Success

In January 1988, the 525-member Oak Hills Church in San Antonio was looking for a new pastor, and the Lucados were ready to come home from the mission field. Lucado's father had died of Lou Gehrig's disease, and he wanted to be closer to his mother and focus more on writing. The church hired him, and he and his growing family moved to San Antonio, where he plunged into life as a pastor and writer.

Six Hours One Friday (1989) with Multnomah garnered more attention for the young pastor. "Kip Jordon came to San Antonio to talk to me about publishing with Word [now W Publishing]," Lucado remembers. "I thought, 'Wait a minute! That's who publishes Billy Graham!' " Lucado released his next book, The Applause of Heaven, with Word in 1990. With the books coming quickly and royalty checks giving him a generous income, Lucado decided he would return his salary each year to the church, which had grown to almost 800 members.

He also hired Karen Hill, then a freelance writer, editor and teacher, to be his assistant and administrative editor. Today, every project Lucado works on comes to Hill's desk at some stage for input. Lucado, she says, is affirming, forgiving and a lot of fun. He has incredible recall, she notes, especially in telling jokes ("He probably has thousands in his memory bank"). This vivid memory, she says, does not extend to the question of where he might have left his keys. "I chase his lost stuff around the globe—he has a propensity for losing things like Palm Pilots, cell phones and wallets." Indeed, when Lucado and PW drive to Lucado's office at the church one Sunday afternoon, it's locked up tight, and he's forgotten his key. When he taps on the office window, Hill unlocks the door to let us inside.

Another part of the Lucado team is his former college roommate and only agent, Steve Green. Until a few years ago, Green, president and CEO of Anvil II Management in San Antonio, and Lucado worked together with only a handshake agreement. It only recently changed to a more formal arrangement because, according to Green, "Max wanted to be sure I was taken care of if anything happened to him."

This concern for people is one of Lucado's defining characteristics. Jana Muntsinger, president of McClure Muntsinger Public Relations, which handles much of Lucado's publicity, remembers working with him as Word's senior publicist early in his career, escorting him to business meetings and media interviews at a CBA International convention. "We needed to scoot to make some VIP bigwig meeting, and he noticed a man in the corner of the suite, cleaning tables, who looked like he might be from Brazil." He was, she says, and he and Lucado spent the next 15 minutes happily chatting in Portuguese. "Max treated the man cleaning the room the same as the man running the show," says Muntsinger.

The Love of a Preacher Man

Lucado has now published more than 50 books and been affiliated with countless products. His book royalties underwrite a 60-second daily inspirational radio message called UpWords, which airs on nearly 1,200 stations in North America and overseas. He also preaches about 40 Sundays each year and at midweek services at his San Antonio church. Although he's a self-confessed introvert, "I love to speak," Lucado says. "It energizes me."

On a muggy, 100-degree day in June, PW sits in the front row of folding chairs at Oak Hills Church with Lucado and Hill, who sing praise choruses a cappella. The author has a pleasing voice, but his fans shouldn't expect to hear his voice on records anytime soon (although the preacher does narrate his audiobooks). The three morning services attract about 4,000 casually dressed attendees, including some tourists who drop in to hear the famous preacher speak in the gymnasium-type center. After a few more songs, he strides up to the podium to preach his third sermon of the day.

Hill sits alert, with a typed transcript of the sermon "Come Thirsty" in a three-ring binder. She jots down some of Lucado's extraneous comments, whispering to us that they might work well in his next book. In January, Lucado will use this sermon series as the springboard for a new adult trade title, working with Hill and Heaney to translate his spoken words to the page.

There isn't much in the church's promotional materials that showcases Lucado. His name appears in the worship bulletin exactly three times: once for welcome and announcements, once for the message and in a brief message at the bottom ("If you would like to receive a daily devotional from Max..."). The church's newsletter, an impressive 24-page monthly, has only a brief mention of his sermon series and a short pastor's column. "I've tried to be just a preacher at the church," Lucado says. "I don't want to make a big deal about my books."

Lucado, 48, is fit and trim, the result of his self-confessed obsession with biking 60 to 100 miles each week. As his sermon unfolds, he seems comfortable in khakis and an open-necked, short-sleeved shirt with a black T-shirt underneath. He soon dispenses with the podium. Moving across the stage in scuffed-up butterscotch loafers, he draws the congregation into his message, lucidly outlining his sermon points in a serene yet passionate voice.

Lucado's calm passion for his faith and to make each of his books better than the last is one of his trademarks. "He has grown as a writer. He's very good at self-editing," says editor Heaney. "He is so open to revisions—he wants them.... He'll go away, pray, focus on it, and you can see how much energy he puts into it—see it on his face—he's drained and tired." Lucado has the same integrity about his contracts. Green tells PW Lucado's never missed a deadline for a manuscript and "90% of the time he's early."

After the service, Lucado meets and greets folks in the foyer while PW chats with his youngest daughter, Sara, 14, who is patiently waiting for us to go out for lunch. She's pretty, poised and happy about the family's vacation trip to Hawaii the next morning. Indeed, all three of Lucado's daughters seem unspoiled and comfortable with the media. Denalyn, who rides in PW's car so we don't get lost on the way to the restaurant, is charming and generous; she's the impetus behind the Lucados' James 1:27 Foundation, which uses some proceeds from Lucado's books to help single mothers.

These four women are the axis around which Lucado's life revolves and the reason he doesn't do as much media as his publishers would like. Muntsinger remembers when Lucado was invited to present an award at the nationally televised Dove Awards program; "He said, 'No,' because one of his daughters had a sports event or dance recital that he had promised to attend. I admire his priorities, and he is consistent about those priorities."

Maximizing Max

Lucado does carve out some time away from family to promote his books, including a controversial fall 2002 "Come Together and Worship Tour" sponsored by Chevrolet (the tour generated a media flurry as some questioned whether a major American business should sponsor events that were so unabashedly evangelical). This fall, Lucado will do a "virtual tour" and speak to 1,500 churches in North America live on a satellite simulcast from his home church in San Antonio, using Next Door Savior's theme—of God's love, compassion and forgiveness for people's imperfections—as his topic.

W plans a 300,000 first printing of Next Door Savior and will spend "more on this title than we have ever spent on a Lucado title," says Moberg. "We believe Next Door Savior will reach the million mark quicker than any Lucado release in the past." The Lucado brand seems to have staying power in a down-turned economy. At Thomas Nelson Inc. (which includes W Publishing, Tommy Nelson, Nelson Bibles, Editorial Caribe and Jack Countryman), the Lucado brand is up 17.8% in revenues this fiscal year compared to the last, Moberg says. To keep the Lucado brand's momentum, Lucado's product development, marketing and overarching brand strategy are managed by Susan Ligon, of the Ligon Group. "Licensing is pursued on a very conservative basis, with the philosophy that the message is more important than the market," she says. "We say no to much more than we say yes to." As long as Lucado keeps generating new books, the potential for products may be limitless. "Max is an idea person," says Ligon. "He literally has more book ideas than he'll likely have time to write in his lifetime."

Despite his busy schedule, Lucado still remembers to thank the people who help make him successful. Independent bookseller Larry Heppe, owner of Scripture Stall in San Antonio, enjoys telling PW about one busy Christmas Eve more than a decade ago when he was helping a long line of customers at the cash register. He noticed a man with something that looked like a return hovering close by. "I gave him the, 'Be with ya in a minute, sir.' I was going to make him wait until I checked out the other customers," recalls Heppe. Twenty minutes later, he turned to the man. It was Lucado, brandishing a plate of Denalyn's homemade cookies and wanting to thank Heppe for his work. Heppe couldn't believe it. Since then, Heppe says, Lucado brings his staff cookies every Christmas. "He doesn't send someone else to do it for him. He does it himself. He is an unusual guy."

The bookseller isn't the only person who finds the megaselling author extraordinary. Ask Ligon, his brand manager: "I've been to so many signings with him and heard the staff saying as he left, 'What a great guy. I've never had an author be so nice, much less shake my hand and ask how my day was going,' " says Ligon. "He's the real deal."

The staff at W Publishing Group concur: Lucado has thrown two "thank you" dinners in Nashville for them at his own expense, providing entertainment and giving everyone gifts.

And adds Muntsinger, his publicist: "He's not changed a bit. He honestly is a nice guy from West Texas."