When the president of the Potomac Conference asked me to speak on this occasion I sought to learn what he had in mind. His reply was that I could select my own subject; but he took occasion to express the hope that it would be something on the ministry, or about preaching—something that might contribute to the improvement of the working force of the Potomac Conference.
The field is a very large one, and one could range far and wide over its vast area. It is not in my mind to do that. Rather I propose to limit myself to a very few, but very important, considerations in connection with the work that our ministers are doing—or the work that they are supposed to be doing.
I am among those old-fashioned people who hold the conviction that the chief work of the preacher is to preach—not to gather funds, to raise goals, to lead drives, to spark campaigns, to promote projects, to be an entertainer, to show pictures and films, to curry favor with his leaders, or to seek promotion for himself, but to preach!
Mind you, I say preaching should be his chief business, the thing that he is doing or preparing to do most of his time. These other things that have been mentioned may be auxiliaries to his preaching, but they are to be secondary, not permitted to crowd into the first place. Preaching is to be his great work, his chief work, his lifework. Other things of lesser consequence may follow after, but preaching must be paramount.
"Go . . . Preach!"
It must be remembered, and always kept in mind, that the great commission we received from our Divine Master is, "Go ye into all the world, and preach." The commission contains nothing bidding us to go into all the world and raise money, or conduct campaigns, or raise goals, or promote this, that, and the other thing. There is nothing in it, either, I should remark, telling us to go into all the world and become counselors, qualified to apply the principles of psychology and psychiatry to the problems of men. There is only one Norman Vincent Peale, and it is not a part of our calling to attempt to imitate him. One such is quite enough. Our business is to "Go . . . preach." Let us be about our business.
I beg you not to misunderstand me. I have no disposition to minimize or discount the importance of any or all of these other things that have been mentioned. What I have in mind is to emphasize the chief importance and imperative necessity of preaching, and to point out its deplorable neglect in these days, and the substitution for it of things of much lesser consequence. What I would do is to encourage you to put the things you are expected to do into their relative positions of importance, placing first things first, where they belong, and to become really good preachers, effective preachers, convincing preachers, not allowing anything of lesser consequence to take the place of preaching.
It may be I can best illustrate and emphasize what I have in mind by relating an incident in my own experience. On one occasion when I had returned to my homeland from my field of labor in South America, I went to visit my mother. Mother was a faithful and devoted Adventist..It was her prayers that brought me into this faith and put me into the ministry. It was always a joy to me to visit her and listen again to her fervent witnessing for her Lord, and for this message of truth. She loved this cause and had always been most faithful in the performance of her church duties, particularly church and Sabbath school attendance. On this occasion, after we had discussed and brought ourselves up to date on all family affairs, I inquired how the church was developing. Mother's membership was in a fairly good-sized city church in southern New Jersey. I said:
"Mother, how are things at the church?"
"I do not know, son. I do not attend the Sabbath meetings anymore."
"Mother! What in the world do you mean? Have you been sick?"
"No, Son. I am quite well. What has happened is that the Sabbath services have become not merely uninteresting but positively irritating. Instead of doing me good they do me harm. Instead of bringing me a blessing they stir my ire. I would never think any more of taking my non-Adventist friends to our Sabbath meetings. They would be driven away from our faith, and not attracted to it."
"Tell me why, Mother. What has happened?"
"Just this: We do not have any preaching any more. We do not hear a sermon from year's end to year's end. We go to church to hear the Word of God preached. We do not hear it. There is no preaching. There is no sermon. There is no uplift. There is no spiritual food. We go home depressed, not inspired and lifted. Finally, I gave up. I get much more blessing now remaining home and studying my Sabbath school lesson."
"But surely, Mother, this does not go on every Sabbath!"
"Yes, every Sabbath. Every Sabbath has been tagged for some project that must be put over, some goal that must be gained, some department that must be promoted, some fund that must be built up. I believe in every one of them and want to have them all prosper. But, Son, the Sabbath morning hour is for worship, for preaching. I am starving to death for a good sermon that comes from God's Word. But we do not have preaching any more. We have promotion, we have book sales, we have subscriptions to our magazines and periodicals —but no preaching. So I stay at home and study my Sabbath school lesson. I get much more out of it."
I labored with Muother, as a dutiful son should. But I made little impression, certainly not sufficient to alter her course in this matter.
Sabbath Is for Worship—Not Promotion
I feel I should repeat that I am making no appeal for any abatement in our promotional program, or for the abandonment of goals, campaigns, and drives. What I would have you consider is whether it is not right and necessary to safeguard the Sabbath morning hor of worship for worship, for the Bible, for preaching. To me it seems imperative that the Bible and preaching should be restored to their rightful places of centrality in the hour of Sabbath worship.
This need not mean that our promotional efforts should be curtailed or weakened. It means merely that they should be carried on in a different way, and at different times, and not permitted to usurp the place of the Bible and of preaching. Indeed, I hold a profound conviction that when the Bible and preaching are restored to their rightful places in the activities of our churches our promotional activities will at once become easier, more efficient, and surprisingly more fruitful.
This is not mere theory. I saw it demonstrated and proved on one occasion. It was in one of our large city churches with a membership between five and six hundred. The pastor had become deeply concerned because the number of special days and special programs and special promotion left him with very few Sabbaths when the Bible and preaching could be given the chief place in the Sabbath morning service. He took the matter to the church board for discussion. They met on several occasions, studied the church program and needs from every viewpoint, gave consideration to the methods other than Sabbath promotion by which their church needs and denominational goals for home and foreign missions might be raised, and finally came to a positive decision.
That decision was that the Sabbath morning service of worship should be used only for purposes of worship, preaching, and Bible study, and no intrusion of other things should be permitted. The board pledged itself to support the pastor in maintaining such a program. There was to be no promotion activity on the Sabbath, no solicitation of funds, no appeals for church expense, church school expense, janitor, heat, or anything else; no solicitation for Ingathering or Week of Sacrifice or foreign missions. All these interests would be taken care of in other ways than formerly, and at other times than on the Sabbath.
They decided to lump all the church expense funds together under the name of home missions, divide the whole amount by the number of members and number of Sabbaths in the year, and accept the result as an individual weekly goal. They printed their own tithe envelopes, and on them had but three items—tithe, foreign missions, and home missions, the latter including all items of church and church school expense, such as teachers' salaries, janitor, heat, light, telephone, repairs, maintenance, amortization of mortgage, et cetera.
All Goals Met and Bettered
The year before this program went into effect the tithe of this church amounted to $27,000; the year after, to $72,000. The year before, foreign missions giving amounted to $4,700; the year after, to $17,000. The year before, home missions giving—that is, all items for church and church school expense—amounted to $8,600; the year after, to $35,000. And every periodical and magazine subscription total of the year before was exceeded. The most important development, however, was that the spiritual life and activity of the whole membership, their soul-winning activities, were raised immeasurably.
I think I need not add that getting this program started brought its difficulties and misunderstandings. When department secretaries—local, union, or General Conference—were to have the Sabbath morning service and were told of the vote of the board, that only a sermon was expected—a good, spiritual sermon, with no promotion or solicitation—some of them expressed dismay. And dismay was not the only thing they expressed. One department man refused to take the Sabbath service unless he was permitted to raise a fund for magazine subscriptions. He was told with kindness and deference, but most firmly, that the church would have to get along somehow without his ministrations for that day. The report he took back to Washington about that pastor—and that church—was really something. He had greater ease of delivery and vigor of expression than had ever been observed before.
But the church liked the program and prospered greatly as it carried it out, and without bringing any injury to the regular goals and campaigns of the church. When God's people are fed with the bread of life, and nourished with the Word of God, and built up by spiritual preaching, they will come behind in nothing needful to the welfare of God's cause.
What Is a Sermon?
You will not fail to recognize that if preaching is restored to its rightful place, and engaged in regularly, a great deal more attention and time will need to be given to the construction of sermons than is noticeable today. And certainly that will not be something to be regretted. Our preaching has fallen to a rather sorry level, and it is putting it very mildly to say that we could do with something better. It has come to the place that a compilation of quotations from the Spirit of prophecy, with very few connecting remarks to link them together, is looked upon as a sermon. It is not a sermon. It is only deplorable evidence of the speaker's inability to do any thinking of his own.
Now do not misunderstand me. I have a wholehearted belief in the Spirit of prophecy, and most certainly believe in its proper use. But I do not believe it is properly used when selections typed out on cards are read one after another in lieu of a sermon, in order to save the worker from doing any brain work of his own.
If a man is to be a preacher he must not look on the making of a sermon as a trivial business. It is rather big business—the biggest, most massive, most sublime business any man can engage in. It should be given the very best ability that a man has. It is not accomplished by the easy gathering and compiling of a few or of many quotations, whether from the Spirit of prophecy, from the newspaper, from books, or even from the Bible itself. As Bishop Quayle, in his Pastor-Preacher, says,
"I have seen some men preaching who appeared to me to be clerks in a poor store. They were very busy; but they had no goods. They sifted the newspapers to disclose a Sunday theme. They were eager with a childish eagerness to have something to say, but when they spoke they had nothing to say which, if left unsaid, had left a new heart-break in the world."
And he adds: "If I left this sermon unsaid, what loss would ensue? Put that sharp sword at every sermon's throat and see how the sermon fares."
It is not necessary that a preacher be a great man. It is necessary that every preacher recognize that he is engaged in great business, that he is to preach great matters. The thing that brought us into this business of preaching was not, I am sure, the lure of wages, or of leisure, or of prestige. We did not enter this work to gain a name for ourselves. Rather, it was the lure of things to be done that, if left undone, would leave the world a wreck along the shores of time. If this gospel we are preaching—if our preaching of it—be not utterly necessary, then it is utterly unnecessary. There is no halfway permission or commission in our heavenly calling. Man is lost and we are in the business, with God, of saving him. And unless a preacher feels the utter necessity of preaching, he must not preach. The man who does not look upon his mission as supremely great—that man is not big enough to preach. Unless a man's ministry is, to himself, momentous, he himself is trivial. More, his preaching is trivial.
So I put it to you, preachers. How do you look upon your work? Is it sublime or trivial? If to you it is not sublime, you have missed your calling. You are bound to fumble a task whose magnitude you can neither appreciate nor approximate. Men so little as to think the gospel of the great God a lean and trivial thing, must not undertake to preach it.
I have left many things unsaid that should be said, that time has not permitted to be said. The making of sermons should be emphasized. The matter of prayer should be discussed. The supreme need of the Holy Spirit, the one thing of greatest importance, should not be omitted. It would be well to study the most efficient method of organizing the church to raise all its goals, reach all its objectives, and care for all its needs. I urge you to think through these matters by yourselves.
I leave these thoughts with you. Two ways open before you, and I would have you look at and consider both. You can be a beggar, a huckster, an auctioneer—or you can be a preacher. The great need of this cause is preachers. God help you to be a preacher!