The overwhelming influence of the media and earnest preaching

We don’t live in the Stone Age or Bronze Age, our era is rightly called the Information Age. We are buried alive in books, blogs, emails, websites, magazines, etc. And so are the hearers of our sermons. So why is the message of the Bible more important than the latest war headline from CNN? The listeners to our sermons may not see a big difference between the two, especially as the Middle East is birthing the next world war and gas prices close in on $4 a gallon. And those seem to have more ‘real’ impact today on sinners then dangers of a spiritually loose life now and eternity to come. What is needed (no, required!) in the Information Age is earnest preaching. Long before blogs and websites John Angell James wrote the following:

“Will anyone deny that we want an earnest ministry to break in some degree the spell, and leave the soul at liberty for the affairs of the kingdom which is not of this world? When politics have come upon the minds, hearts, and imaginations of the people, for six days out of the seven, invested with the charms of eloquence, and decked with the colors of party; when the orator and the writer have both thrown the witchery of genius over the soul; how can it be expected that tame, spiritless, vapid common-places from the pulpit, sermons coming neither from the head nor the heart, having neither weight of matter, nor grace of manner; neither genius to compensate for the want of taste, nor taste to compensate for the want of genius; and what is still worse, having no unction of evangelical truth, no impress of eternity, no radiance from heaven, no terror from hell; in short, no adaptation to awaken reflection, to produce conviction, or to save the soul; how can it be expected, I say, that such sermons can be useful to accomplish the purposes for which the gospel is to be preached? What chance have such preachers, amidst the tumult, to be heard or felt, or what hold have they upon public attention, amidst the high excitement of the times in which we live? Their hearers too often feel, that listening to their sermons on the Sabbath, after what they have heard or read during the week, is as if they were turning from brilliant gas-light to the dim and smoking spark of tallow and rush [a candle].”

– John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times (Banner of Truth, 1847/1993) pp. 194-195.

“And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:3-5, ESV).

The god of laughter and earnest preaching

Our era is marked by an addiction to humor. Plot-less movies bring in millions of dollars in revenue simply because of their power to make fun of life or otherwise humor the viewer. At the same time this era we live could be much more serious about the eternal world about to crash into each soul. Preaching must stand in contrast to this god of laughter because we serve a God who expects a seriousness and fear from us.

The following quote by John Angell James, written before television and the entertainment/comedy boom, says this addiction to entertainment is another motivation for serious and earnest preaching.

“It is hard to conceive how earnestness and spirituality can be maintained by those whose tables are covered, and whose leisure time is consumed, by the bewitching inspirations of the god of laughter. There is little hope of our arresting the evil, except we make it our great business to raise up a ministry who shall not themselves be carried away with the torrent; who shall be grave, without being gloomy; serious, without being melancholy; and who, on the other hand, shall be cheerful without being frivolous, and whose chastened mirthfulness shall check, or at any rate reprove, the excesses of their companions. What a demand does this state of things prefer for the most intense earnestness in our Sabbath-day exercises, both our prayers and our sermons! In this modern taste we have a new obstacle to our usefulness of a most formidable kind, which can be subdued only by God’s blessing upon our fidelity and zeal. Men are wanted, who shall by their learning, science, and general knowledge, give weight to their opinions, and influence to their advice, in their private intercourse with their flocks; and shall, by their powerful and evangelical preaching, control this taste, and counter it by a better.”

John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times (Banner of Truth, 1847/1993) pp. 198-199.

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Cor. 5:11, ESV).

Earnest preaching and earnest conversation

When I think of being earnest in the pulpit many quotes from preachers come to mind (see the quotes here by John Angell James). But what about earnestness during a one-on-one lunch or breakfast meeting? This is where I must learn more about earnestness and feel the same weight as when I climb behind the pulpit. If what people see inside and outside the pulpit are inconsistent, our preaching loses authority. If we are to be earnest in the pulpit we must be earnest outside the pulpit as well. This is the great warning from the life of M’Cheyne:

“Whatever be said in the pulpit men will not much regard, though they may feel it at the time, if the minister does not say the same in private, with equal earnestness, in speaking with his people face to face; and it must be in our moments of most familiar intercourse with them, that we are thus to put the seal to all we say in public. Familiar moments are the times when the things that are most closely twined round the heart are brought out to view; and shall we forbear … We must not only speak faithfully to our people in our sermons, but live faithfully for them too. Perhaps it may be found that the reason why many who preach the gospel fully and in all earnestness are not owned of God in the conversion of souls, is to be found in their defective exhibition of grace in these easy moments of life … It was noticed long ago that men will give you leave [permission] to preach against their sins as much as you will, if you will but be easy with them when you have done, and talk as they do, and live as they live. How much otherwise was it with Mr. M’Cheyne, all who knew him are witnesses.”

Andrew Bonar, Memoir & Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne (Banner of Truth: 1844/2004), p. 74

Preaching with freshness

“My soul – never be satisfied within a shadowy Christ. … I cannot know Christ through another person’s brains. I cannot love him with another man’s heart, and I cannot see him with another man’s eyes. … I am so afraid of living in a second-hand religion. God forbid that I should get a biographical experience. Lord save us from having borrowed communion. No, I must know him myself. O God, let me not be deceived in this. I must know him without fancy or proxy; I must know him on my own account.”

This quote from Charles Spurgeon is a reminder that we must know and press close to Christ ourselves. Some of the darkest periods of church history, where the shroud of monotony covered the pulpit came at a time when preachers lived off a second-hand, borrowed communion.

Anyways, during the Middle Ages, the deadness of the churches can certainly be tied to a failed pulpit. Most noticeable was a failure of preachers to stand for God’s Word with conviction and freshness enforced with genuine godliness of character. We are reminded of the impotence of the church when God’s preachers do not preach from the freshness of personal communion with Himself but rather simply copy and regurgitate what was given by others. The result is borrowed communion and dead preaching:

“We have already had occasion to speak of the low character of the clergy during this epoch [the medieval period leading up to the Reformation]. Much ignorance, immorality, luxury and ambition [or a desire for rank], laziness, avarice, and other evil things have to be charged to their account. And this of course was at once both the cause and evidence of decay in the pulpit. For in all times the character of the preacher either enforces or enfeebles his preaching. And where the average of character is bad, no matter how noble the exceptions may be, the average of preaching will necessarily be low. Where there is a lack of true piety and conviction in the preacher the pulpit work tends to become empty, formal, frigid and without moving effect. And this is the character of much of the preaching of that age.”

“Always one of the signs of degenerate preaching – as of any literary production – is a slavish dependence upon others, past or present, a want of independence, originality, freshness. Copyists and imitators are found in every age, it is true, but when the masters belong chiefly to a former generation and the small followers mostly abound, the fall is great.”

– Edwin Charles Dargan, A History of Preaching (Solid Ground: 1905/2003), 1:308.

The preaching of Jonathan Edwards

I purchased my copy of Marsden’s biography Jonathan Edwards: A Life at CLC this Spring (two days after visiting Edwards’ grave in Princeton). It has become one of my favorite biographies just behind Dallimore’s George Whitefield. Edwards had a powerful preaching style stemming from his intellectual gifts and seriousness with divine things.

“Although Edwards had none of the dramatic gestures of a Whitefield or a Tennent and was said to preach as though he were staring at the bell-rope in the back of the meetinghouse, he could be remarkably compelling. An admirer described his delivery as ‘easy, natural and very solemn. He had not a strong, loud voice; but appeared with such gravity and solemnity, and spake with such distinctness, clearness and precision; his words were so full of ideas, set in such a plain and striking light, that few speakers have been so able to demand the attention of an audience as he.’ Through sheer intensity he generated emotion. ‘His words often discovered a great degree of inward fervor, without much noise or external emotion, and fell with great weight on the minds of his hearers. He made but little motion of his head or hands in his desk, but spake so as to discover the motion of his own heart, which tended in the most natural and effectual manner to move and affect others.’ The combination of controlled but transparent emotion, heartfelt sincerity both in admonition and compassion, inexorable logic, and biblical themes could draw people into sensing the reality of ideas long familiar.”

– George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale: 2003) p. 220