How does the other man think? is a question of no little importance to the minister. We would be saved from many a blunder in our preaching judgment, and reach and help more people, if we kept ourselves sensitive to the trends of thought among the laity. A trend may suggest symptoms of disease. Therefore, knowing how the layman thinks, and thus discovering his spiritual appetite, is essential to the man of God who truly desires to reach the inner needs of his congregation.
We notice that the Methodists of Oak Park, Illinois, "would rather hear a sermon on serenity than on any other subject," according to the Religious News Service, commenting on a poll taken by Paul E. Turk. "Churchgoers showed least interest in how to meet death, the second coming of Christ, the devil, and the liquor problem. Mr. Turk launched a series of ten sermons in October, based on the topics that proved most popular in the balloting. The winning sermon titles: (1) Keeping Serene; (2) What a Protestant Believes; (3) Meeting and Mastering Defeat; (4) How to Be a Christian in the Business World; (5) How to Read the Bible; (6) Utilizing Your Hidden Resources; (7) How to Learn to Pray; (8) How to Overcome Worry; (9) What Can We Believe About Heaven and Hell? (10) Religion and Health."
The church members were also asked to vote on a sermon series they would most like to hear. The popular topics were the Ten Commandments, the parables of Jesus, and New Testament characters.
Now, such a trend as this poll reveals may not immediately please us. Men will have "itching ears" in these latter days, and many will not desire strong doctrine.
Therefore there is danger that we, of all people, might dismiss such a reaction as a desire on the part of the people to escape the obligations of truth and duty. Our heritage has taught us to preach fearlessly the "faith which was once delivered unto the saints." The "last warning message," with its clear call to the judgment and reform, has rightly molded the theology of the remnant church. As custodians of special light, we are bound to preach it with the conviction of the apostles and defend it with the vigor of Luther.
Yet there is another side to the question. The remnant church in these latter days is not only the apologist for the truth; it must of necessity provide a spiritual home for the near million people who call themselves Adventists. And we know that souls cannot thrive long on prophetic diagnosis alone. They cannot always feed on a basic-doctrinal diet. Dates and facts and proof texts do not in themselves mature the soul. They do not comfort in time of sorrow. They do not prepare the heart to meet the modern sins and temptations that assail today.
A distraught and morally crazy age is swiftly breaking the barriers that safeguarded the Christian in a former generation. Much that greets the eye and the ear is conditioning our youth and normally healthy adults to a strangely new Seventh-day Adventist generation. "In the world, but not of the world," in this day of carelessness on the one hand and anxiety and restlessness on the other, is a spiritual achievement accomplished only by vigorously claiming the grace of God.
Edward L. R. Elson, the pastor of the National Presbyterian church, the church of the President of the United States, has written a thought-provoking analysis of present spiritual trends in the land. His new book, America's Spiritual Recovery, describes the tragic failure of the average man in the business of living. On page 22 he observes:
"We are brilliant but unhappy, clever but unstable, comfortable but comfortless; we own so much and possess so little. We are forlorn souls, groping and hungering and lost. Once again, as in the Garden of Eden, man is a fugitive from God and bereft of spiritual certitude."
Could this be one reason why men are calling for practical sermons? Could this be one reason why men want to know "how" to live? And more important to us, where do our people stand? Are they asking such questions? What would a similar poll among Seventh-day Adventists reveal? Do they stand as outstanding examples of serene, radiant, well-adjusted Christian living? We do see a large cross section of our people who are submitting their lives to the sanctifying influence of the truth, who are born again and know the joy of the Lord. But—and of this every worker is distressingly aware—there are many who know little about the life hid with Christ in God.
"Inspirational" speaking does not alone meet the need. The widely advertised formulas for banishing worry and fear and tension can be futile and disappointing. Many popular peace-of-mind cults give a shot in the arm, but leave a terrible emptiness of soul. Rather, the laity is eagerly looking for an uncompromising call of God to forsake sin. Old-fashioned, penetrating preaching about repentance will do wonders for the human heart and solve many a baffling psychological problem as well.
Happy and blessed is the man who has conditioned his preaching habits by a faithful reading of such clear counsel as this:
"Ministers need to have a more clear, simple manner in presenting the truth as it is in Jesus. Their own minds need to comprehend the great plan of salvation more fully. Then they can carry the minds of the hearers away from earthly things to the spiritual and eternal. There are many who want to know what they must do to be saved. They want a plain and clear explanation of the steps requisite in conversion, and there should not a sermon be given unless a portion of that discourse is to especially make plain the way that sinners may come to Christ and be saved."—Evangelism, p. 188.
"Theoretical discourses are essential, that people may see the chain of truth, link after link, uniting in a perfect whole; but no discourse should ever be preached without presenting Christ and Him crucified as the foundation of the gospel. Ministers would reach more hearts if they would dwell more upon practical godliness."—Ibid., p. 186.
No observation of the trends in religious thinking today should ignore the fact that there is emerging an undeniable awakening of religious thought and action throughout the United States. The moral confusion of postwar years and man's sense of inner failure just described have resulted in a notable revival. The earmarks of this wave of personal religion are too clearly genuine to be dismissed as spurious.
And our humility must embrace the fact that it may have resulted from preaching other than ours. "Other sheep have I," we know, and God has His way of using them. We must never forget that the Holy Spirit can be trusted. Men will be prepared for the loud cry, and one encouraging feature is that genuine revival does not close the door to further light. Almost prophetically Mr. Elson continues on page 60:
"We are not perfect, but we have found a perfect Lord; we are not holy, but we have found a Holy God to worship; we are not without sin, but we have discovered where sins are forgiven; we are not spiritually completed, but we are growing in the things of the Spirit. If the revival continues, God may yet use us for the redemption of His world." (Italics supplied.)
Such is the challenge and opportunity that faces the Advent ministry. Now is the time to preach the complete gospel of grace with simplicity and power, lest the new wave of converts find in us a strange note of dissenting legalism foreign to the spirit of their new-found hope in Christ.
It is most important, then, to keep the ear close to the heartbeat of man's soul if we are to succeed in reaching him for God and teaching him the light. And now a suggestion—why not preach soon on the text "Acquaint now thyself with him, and be at peace"? It may prove a breath of fresh and living air to the congregation. Even some of our own members may be searching for serenity.
G. E. V.