Yesterday in church we prayed for the growing—and growing increasingly persecuted—Church in Iran. It was humbling to learn about the spread of the gospel in that country and especially because I had spent 20 minutes that morning learning from the Washington Post all about the policy shifts and political activities of Sarah Palin in Alaska. Arriving at church I think I was more informed about the library restructuring in Alaska by a “bulldog in lipstick” than I was the status of the gospel in ancient Iran.
So it’s got me thinking today–what constitutes true news?
We are inundated with blogs, websites, podcasts, XM radio, newspapers, books, magazines, talk shows, Oprah, CNN, coffee-shop conversations, and the list goes on! And we all want to be well-informed (that’s why we read blogs). But it often feels like we are waist-deep in a powerful stream of information passing all around. What should we scoop up in our little mug for closer examination? What should we let pass untouched?
What constitutes true news is, for the Christian, no easy question to answer. But neither is this a new question. Long before the “information age,” an obscure Puritan preacher named Henry Hurst (1629-1690) delivered a sermon to answer the question: “How may we inquire after news, not as Athenians, but as Christians, for the better management of our prayers and praises for the Church of God?” His text was Acts 17:21—“Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”
Hurst understood the attraction we all have to the latest news, not because of its intrinsic importance, but due to our Athenian-like insatiable inquiry to feed on a stream of fresh tidbits. And I don’t claim innocence here. Often my news consumption habits are as defendable as the Athenians.
In Hurst’s sermon he begins by separating “news” into three categories:
A. Trifling reports. These reports are, “below the gravity and prudence of a man to receive from a reporter, or to communicate to any hearer.” Think petty rumors spread in gossip columns, blogs, or in conversations at Starbucks, the fascination into who Michael Jackson is dating, the National Inquirer, much daytime television, etc.
B. Personal and private matters. These reports are “of no more concern to a judge or magistrate or the public than a scuffle of boys in their sports to a general and his army.” These are stories with very little consequence, that should have remained a private issue, but have become public only because of the Athenian attraction within us.
C. Public news that concerning the state and Church. The final category includes news reports that communicate “threatening danger, or some smiling providence” as it relates to the Church or state. There is every reason to be aware of what threatens the health and safety of our country. Genuine worldwide threats should concern us, and especially those in position to provide leadership in light of the dangers.
But the infatuation so much inconsequential “news” (#1+2), Hurst argues, led the Athenians to wasting time, neglecting duties, a loss of trade and employment, and bred further false stories of others and provoking contention among those we should be offering peace. Hurst writs, “I could wish there were a redress of all the inconveniences and vices that spring up in coffee houses [the blogosphere of the 17th century]; but I believe that every man who frequents them must mend his own faults herein.” I’m writing this at Starbucks, and as I look around to the tables of conversation I see that this temptation to Athenian rumor milling is just as relevant here as a 17th century coffee house.
Inquiring about the Church
Although much of Hurst’s sermon is convicting, he does provide very helpful and constructive thoughts on how to pursue news for the glory of God. And it’s all based upon a very simple premise.
True news is defined by a genuine love and concern for the Church. Hurst says it this way: “You may, as Christians ought, inquire what news of the Church’s affairs that you may the better manage your prayers for the Church in trouble, or praise God for good wrought for it.…A Christian ought to make inquiry into news that concerns the Church, according to the advantage and capacity he hath, to more fully to know both the good and welfare of the people of God, or to know the sorrows and dangers that lie upon the Church.”
After encouraging kings and Christian leaders especially to concern themselves as to the state of the Church, Hurst turns to the lay folks.
“Merchants and travelers who learn from the far remote parts for their trade, and gentlemen who travel for their pleasure and to satisfy themselves by an ocular survey of countries and cities, have some greater advantages to see and hear the low and sinking state, or the rising and flourishing condition, of those Churches which are planted in such countries. As Christians, they are bound to observe, inform themselves, and tell others, how it is with the Churches, so that prayers and praises may be offered unto God for them. But this is very little minded by merchants, when abroad; and less minded by them, when returned home with wealth, greater than ever they hoped. Though religion decay, and Churches lessen in number, knowledge, faith, and holiness; yet who of them, out of their abundance, settle a tribute of thankfulness to God, making provision for the sending and maintaining preachers and schoolmasters among them.”
Hurst’s mode of information is certainly dated, but his standards for genuine news are not. He encourages those out in the field to carefully communicate to the rest of the Church on the condition of the global spread, successes, and hindrances to the gospel. This is truly eternally-relevant news to spread among the Churches.
Sounds great if you are a missionary, but how should those of us domestically-bound folks find and use these updates on the condition of the global spread of the gospel? Hurst provides the following directives:
1. Find levelheaded sources. “He who inquires as a Christian, in order to manage prayer and praise, should, I think, inquire of those who can and will inform him the best, most truly and sincerely, of any news he knows. There has been, and now are, persons who abuse the world with false reports to amuse the more simple-hearted. They dare coin lies, and cry out, ‘Woe, woe!’ or, ‘Peace, peace!’ very wrongly to the nature and aspect of affairs.”
2. Respond to this news from the heart. News of the Church’s condition around the world should affect our hearts. “If you would inquire as Christians ought, to affect your hearts, in order to pray or praise God for the Church, let your thoughts be much upon the importance of what is reported to you. Weigh what influence the new things are likely to have on the good or evil, to the comfort or the discomfort, of the Church-catholic, or any particular churches near to or far from you.” Our hearts will be numb towards the condition of the global Church until we have properly weighed the eternal significance of the so-called news we fill our minds with.
3. Inquire with compassion. “He who inquires as a Christian, must inquire with a compassionate affection to the suffering Churches of Christ, feeling their wounds as living members feel the grief and wounds of the body in whatever part is hurt…When Christ foresaw and foretold the doleful state that Jerusalem should fall into, he wept over her; and so must every Christian weep over desolate and disconsolate Jerusalem, when he hears her sorrows, and prays for her relief. Among natural relations, few there are who are not affected with grief for the sorrows and troubles of a brother: there should not be one among spiritual relations, but should with hearty grief entertain the news of sorrows and distress upon the Church, and give God no rest till he make her a quiet habitation, till he turn her mourning into joy, till he take away the garments of her widowhood, and clothe her with the garments of his salvation.”
4. Inquire humbly. “When you inquire into the present news that concerns the Church, that you may the better pray for the Church, or praise God on behalf of the Church, inquire into the condition of the Church with an humble, mourning, and repenting heart. So did Josiah, in reading the law, and comparing Judah’s former behavior—how that people had sinned against the law of God; and by this he discovered what sins.” Reports of success or failures should be received by a humble, broken, and prayerful heart. When we see the Church faltering somewhere in this country or globally, we (bloggers) can be tempted to strike out publicly, often through some form of “watchtower” blog. Often these blogs become nothing more than a fire hose of self-righteousness spewing trifling reports on private matters. Especially for those of us not in persuasive positions of authority, problems within the Church should drive us to our knees in humble, private prayer to God. Do we respond humbly to Church news?
5. Pray, anticipating the full deliverance of the Church. Negative news, like updates on the persecution in Iran, should lead us to pray for the full deliverance of the Church. How long, O Lord? “It needs not a particular proof, that there are many express promises that the Church shall be delivered; that there is a fixed time for the beginning, progress, and full accomplishment of these promises; that their accomplishment shall be gradual, and such as will clear itself; and though we cannot say when the full accomplishment will take place to a day or month.”
I could go on. Hurst’s sermon is helpful in so many areas. Like the Athenians we are prone to the “new” not what is true “news”. We need to be careful we don’t heedlessly soak our heads in the inconsequential facts, rumors, and what should remain private. And Hurst motivates me to see that when we open the newspaper we need to especially guard our hearts for what we consider important news. Is the gospel advancing? Is the gospel seemingly receding? These events should especially capture our attention, our hearts, and our prayers.
As much as I love reading about the upcoming Presidential elections, I find myself intrigued in reading about the “bulldog in lipstick,” whether John McCain knows how to Google search or send an email, and the enduring effect of Obama’s pillar-decorated DNC speech. That’s why I’m thankful today for an obscure 17th century Puritan preacher (“obscure”=he has no Wikipedia page dedicated to his life and accomplishments). He reminds me to focus on the truly important events happening around the world.
May God help us as we pursue true news, reports that update us to the Church’s highest mission—“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Hurst’s sermon was published in volume 4 of MORNING EXERCISES AT CRIPPLEGATE, ST. GILES IN THE FIELDS, AND IN SOUTHWARK, a collection of Puritan sermons published in 1844 by James Nichols.