Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Preachers Then and Now: Has Something Changed?

John Wesley once suggested that, if he didn’t get himself kicked out of town after he spoke, then he wondered if he had even really preached the gospel at all.

Somewhat of a stark contrast to what passes for preaching today, wouldn’t you say?

Somewhere along the way preaching seems to have evolved into a strange form of “feel-good-ism” that I’m relatively sure wouldn’t even be recognized as preaching the gospel by many of the giant preachers of yesteryear (ouch).

I will go one step further and suggest to you that perhaps a large percentage, if not an overwhelming one, of people today (including Christians) would not tolerate the style and theme of preaching of those giants of yesteryear. Oh, I’m sure that they had their objectors and ridiculers back then too, but the more I read and observe society around me, the more I am starting to notice the differences.

For better or for worse, has something changed?

Jonathan Edwards, who some would argue was one of the greatest of all North American thinkers and philosophers, preached a sermon on July 8th, 1741 that he called, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Here’s a small portion of it:
The use of this awful subject may be for awakening unconverted persons in this congregation. This that you have heard is the case of every one of you that are out of Christ. That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell’s wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of; there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.
Wow! The image of God holding the unconverted up by the scuff of the neck while the poor slob dangles over the fire of hell is quite the picture, isn’t it? I wonder how many folks would remain seated in their pews today if such a sermon were preached at them?

Today it seems if “hell” has become the dirty little four-lettered word of the church. Fewer and fewer of us seem to tolerate it anymore; fewer and fewer of us even seem to believe that such a place exists, much less that a loving God could possibly send anyone there. The faith of many today edges closer and closer to a full-blown universalism, in which ultimately everyone will be saved, regardless of their belief system this side of the grave. But, if they’re still not saved, is there a third option besides heaven or hell? Personally, I haven’t found one in my Bible.

For better or for worse, has something changed?

I’ve shared this illustration before, but it bears repeating. I remember visiting a church once that was pastored by a friend of mine. On that particular Sunday there was a visiting missionary who had taken the pulpit. I do not recall much of his “preaching” except that it had nothing to do with the gospel at all. If memory serves me correctly, there wasn’t even one scripture verse shared. Instead, all that was shared with his captured audience was trivial stuff to do with his “post-doctoral studies,” a term he went back to time and again. I felt like throwing up. However, what surprised and saddened me the most was that the congregation seemed not to notice or care that there was nothing even remotely biblical in his “preaching.” As a matter of fact, they seemed to enjoy it.
The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end? (Jeremiah 5:31; NIV) 
For the time is coming when [people] will not tolerate (endure) sound and wholesome instruction, but, having ears itching [for something pleasant and gratifying], they will gather to themselves one teacher after another to a considerable number, chosen to satisfy their own liking and to foster the errors they hold, And will turn aside from hearing the truth and wander off into myths and man-made fictions. (2 Timothy 4: 3-4; Amplified)
For better or for worse, has something changed?

Preaching in many places of worship today is not at all like it once was. Then again, if the previous verses from Jeremiah and Timothy teach us anything, they teach us that there’s really nothing new under the sun; this has all happened before.

Perhaps if preachers today were to preach the kind of messages that Wesley preached, they too would find themselves kicked out of town. Perhaps the reason there is so much turn over in many pulpits is because its previous preacher was in fact kicked out of town (or at least out of that particular church). Perhaps too, that helps to explain how it is that “1,600 ministers in all denominations across the U.S. are fired or forced to resign each month” (Viola, Frank and George Barna, Pagan Christianity? Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2008).

As for the hell question, I guess in the end everyone will have to wrestle that one for themselves. Certainly there are more than enough Bible verses to support it, but many have also found ways explain away those verses. In the end, God will make the final judgment on the matter. In the mean time, hopefully we’ve made the right decision too, or we’ll potentially have all eternity to regret it ... or do we?

For better or for worse, maybe nothing has changed.

Hmm. Thoughts?

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  1. When I first read this, I had a hard time with the illustration from Jonathan Edwards. I couldn't imagine God holding on to the sinner, dangling him over the pit of hell. I was thinking about friends who don't even want to consider that there might be a God, never mind that there are consequences for not following His son.

    Upon further consideration, it occurs to me that the sinner is me. Perhaps God is dangling me over the pit of hell. Perhaps what I smell, mixed in with the sulfur, are my hairs being singed. Thank you God for showing me the error of my ways.

    And thank you Will for sharing.

    1. Dear Anonymous,
      Based upon the way you're even acknowledging God in this comment, I'd be willing to bet that He is NOT dangling you over that pit. As for the smell, that could be anything; from a passing skunk to a neighbour passing something else. Peace & Blessings :)