The Seventh-day Adventist preacher must have a grasp of the times. "[He] should be able to feel the pulse and sense the mood of the age in which he lives. To do this, he must be in touch with the currents of life and thought. Such understanding will help him slant his preaching to today's world rather than to yesterday's." —Paris D. Whitesell, Power in Expository Preaching, p. 134.
But there is a danger here. It is possible for the preacher to become so sub merged in the thought forms and ideas of his day and so impressed by the latest happenings that he becomes a mere reflector of the times rather than a prophet to the times. We are not called to preach the times. We are called to preach to the times. If we can keep this in mind, it will save our preaching from being a pedestrian running commentary on current events sprinkled with a few Bible texts and quotations from Ellen G. White.
Our ability to preach to the times does not necessarily depend on knowing every detail of current history—for example, how many wars are going on at the present time, how many earthquakes occurred last year, the percentage in crease in major crimes during the past decade, or any other such data. In order to preach effectively to the times we must know what time it is. And that, as they say, is what being a Seventh-day Adventist preacher is all about. He must have not only a grasp of the times but a sense of time.
The Greek word kairos describes it best—a limited period of time marked by a suitableness of circumstances, a fitting season, a signal juncture, a marked sea son, a destined time. We stand in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, whose "Thus saith the Lord" was coupled with "The time is at hand."
To a great extent our style is deter mined by this tradition. The Seventh-day Adventist preacher must give his mes sage in the setting of time, eschatologically, with apocalyptic overtones: "The time has come." Our raison d'etre is the prophetic forecast recorded in passages such as Revelation 12, 14, and 18, Daniel 7, 8, and 9, and Isaiah 58. At the right time in history, the decisive moment, at a signal juncture—kairos—a people arose with the message to meet the needs of that hour.
Now if you do not believe this, it is better to go and preach for someone else. We have had some great scholars among us who have done just that, withdrawn from the organized work one recently, because of his inability to believe in the predictive element in prophecy. The uniqueness and timeliness of our message is the only justification for organizing our activities along separate lines on a global basis.
Our concept of time is not cyclical, as classical Greek philosophy understood it, but linear, as in all Hebrew-Christian thought. To the Adventist preacher time can best be described as a line between two eternities, with definite points of beginning and ending. He views time as that measured-off portion of eternity when God pauses to deal with the sin problem—measured, I say, by epochs and seasons and generations. His under standing of the prophecies leads him to believe we are in the last measured-off section of that line, the time of the end. As far as he is concerned, the news analysts, philosophers, sociologists, and political scientists describe the times and record helpful data, but only the prophets can interpret the times.
Seventh-day Adventist preaching should be distinguished by something different. It must bring to the present situation those insights and understandings that are found in the prophetic portions of the Bible. All true Seventh-day Adventist preaching has Revelation 14:6-12 as its frame of reference. As in England all roads lead ultimately to London, so in Adventist preaching and theology all sermons and doctrines wind up somewhere in the neighborhood of this threefold message.
On the other hand—lest I seem over balanced to one side or biased toward spiritual isolationism—we cannot afford to withdraw from the times. John the Baptist, who has been commended to us as a model for Adventist preachers, did not spend his life in "idleness, in ascetic gloom, or in selfish isolation. From time to time he went forth to mingle with men; and he was ever an interested ob server of what was passing in the world. From his quiet retreat he watched the unfolding of events. With vision illuminated by the divine Spirit he studied the characters of men, that he might under stand how to reach their hearts with the message of heaven."—The Desire of Ages, p. 102.
As he shapes and fashions his mes sage, which is based on eternal truth, the preacher must ask himself, What is the contemporary mind? What are the ideas and ideologies that mold and motivate people today? It is in the light of these questions that he benefits from a knowledge of current events, history, psychology, sociology, and the findings of science in all of its disciplines. He will need to sample what the thinkers are saying and take a look at the theological straws in the wind. Read The Christian Century and Christianity Today. Follow some good columnists such as James Reston, Carl Rowan, and David Broder (I don't buy any of them completely). If you are situated near a university, take advantage occasionally of a lecture on current events. But take it all in stride. Be eclectic in the best sense of the word. Prove all things, hold fast only to that which is good.
But don't overdo this modern-man thing. Don't get swept away with auguries about the future of man, no matter how scholarly or well documented they may seem. The new psychology or behavioral science may yield limited in sights into the human situation, but it has no chart or compass. The prophet's words are true: "It is not in man ... to direct his steps." The Seventh-day Adventist preacher must recognize both what time it is and where man is—hopelessly trapped in the cul-de-sac of his own devising, or, to change the figure, cut loose from the moorings of divine absolutes and drifting hopelessly between the Scylla of atomic annihilation and the Charybdis of ecological extinction. Any attempt to understand his plight is to be confronted with such words as alienation, polarization, fragmentation, estrangement, separation, depersonalization, withdrawal. Brash, self-assured, so-called objective, post- Christian man has given way to fear-rid den, anxious, insecure, neopagan man, experience-oriented and subjective, who can at the same time live in a computerized society and daily consult horoscopes, astrological charts, and gurus.
Futurism is all the rage now. Note the rash of book titles containing the word future. But there is a vast difference between secular futurology and Christian eschatology. Says Karl E. Braaten, "The future in secular theology is reached by a process of the world's becoming. The future in Christian eschatology arrives by the coming of God's kingdom. The one is a becoming, the other a coming.''
Years ago I wrote a sermon on Isaiah 21:11, "Watchman, what of the night?" It began something like this: In Unalakleet, Alaska, and Thule, Greenland, the men of the United States Army Signal Corps keep a never-ending vigil. Peering into radarscopes, giving ear to huge, ultrasensitive listening devices, they analyze every sound. They sift and weigh every signal that comes to them, trying all the while to discover whether there is a pattern and, if so, what it means. It is their business to know what it means. In those days they called it the EW (early warning) and DEW (distant early warning) system. The safety of the nation depended on the correct deciphering of the signals.
You, Seventh-day Adventist preacher, are a watchman on the walls of Zion. You stand on the watchtower, a Bible in hand, listening, scanning the horizons of our times, carefully observing the sensory signals that come to you from every direction. Then you analyze and interpret the signals by the eternal Word, and you speak to the world from whence the signals come on the basis of that Word: "The morning cometh, and also the night" (verse 12). The safety of the inhabitants of the city and the eternal salvation of many outside the city depend on the word that you, by the mercy of God, are commissioned to give. Small wonder that the awesome responsibility of such a calling, our apparent inadequacies, and the terrifying consequences of misreading the times and giving the wrong message move us to cry out, "Who is sufficient for these things?"
Modern sons of Issachar must care about people and their real needs. Genuine concern is the great need of our day. This seems a better word to me now than that overworked, misused, greatly misunderstood word love. It is possible for preachers to become so involved with the care of the temple that they neglect the care of souls. If we do care about people, we will go to them, find out what their needs are, and minister to those needs.
After a man has been in school continuously for eighteen years, he needs to get away from the academic setting and begin to learn about people. "He who seeks to transform humanity must him self understand humanity." —Education, p. 78.
Jesus mingled with people as one who sought to do them good. He took advantage of every opportunity to be with people, especially in social settings, one-to-one situations, and large gatherings such as religious festivals and wed ding feasts. He welcomed those kinds of situations where interpersonal relation ships are made possible.
This is the way to keep our preaching alive and vital. A good visitation pro gram will prevent sterility in preaching, too much of an academic flavor. As we visit the people we should tactfully ask questions, listen to their conversation, observe their Biblical needs, the doctrines that they have not grasped. Wide spread doctrinal deficiency in the congregation is cause or opportunity for the preacher to instruct, not in hit-or-miss fashion, but to the point.
Some things are better said in a public setting. Of course we will avoid divulging secrets or breaching confidences, but there are some faults and sins common to mankind that can be spoken of in the sermon in such a way as to meet a particular case. Visitation can help us immensely in discovering where the spiritual needs of the people really are.
Merrill Abbey, professor of preaching at Garrett, tells of a gifted preacher who begins his sermon preparation each week by setting down on paper the initials of a dozen or more persons with whom he has had a specific pastoral relationship during the previous week. In each instance he puts opposite the initials a sentence summary of the situation or need of that person; a sense of failure, a grievous temptation, a grief, a feeling of rejection and isolation, a warped attitude, a besetting sin. Then he says to himself, "This is a cross section of next Sunday's congregation. These are the souls to whom the gospel must be brought. Unless the sermon speaks to their condition, does redemptive business with their specific needs, it is not a sermon." —G. Paul Butler, ed., Best Sermons, p. 361.
Love and genuine appreciation for people grow through visitation, personal contact. This interaction prepares the preacher for effective communication. He comes to respect the so-called common people. He learns from them lessons about real faith, the dignity of man, courage in the face of adversity. He comes to see people as more interesting than any book. Should it be his privilege to serve humble folk he will not think it a waste of his superior training, as one young preacher armed with a sparkling new Master of Divinity degree indicated when he remarked, "We expect to be in a better situation before too long, where our talents and training will be more appreciated."
We must not only visit with our people, we must visit with our neighbors, the people of our community. Happy is the preacher who can take his Bible in his hand and speak to men in an unaffected way about their souls, about the signs of the times, about the will of God for the human family. But visitation should always be with a purpose. It should not degenerate into aimless conversation. It should not be allowed to drift without point. We are to study to be workmen who need not be ashamed. We should be specialists in communicating with people.
One of the great problems of modern existence is loneliness and estrangement. People feel helpless to stay the forces that tend toward dehumanization and depersonalization. The preacher will therefore need to be a sociable man, not the glad-hander, backslapper type, but a man who is genuinely interested in people. G. K. Chesterton could not under stand how a woman could be interested in great causes and neglect the greatest cause of all—personal attention to the welfare of her own children. It is hard for me to understand the Seventh-day Adventist preacher who is interested in great doctrines and Biblical themes, finishing the work, who knows all about ecclesiology, et cetera, and yet has no real interest in his own people.
People are our stock in trade. We cannot avoid interpersonal relationships with our flock. We must not take up the visitation ministry with an air of clinical detachment. We must have warmth in our souls. Bishop Palmer is right when he says, "Effective preaching grows out of sympathetic understanding. Empathy is an imperative for preaching that is worthy of the gospel." The preacher who carries out such a visitation pro gram will never be at a loss for sermons, and his sermons will be like arrows that go straight to the mark. The visitation program will help the preacher to dis cover the theological gaps in the frame work of the people's thinking and help him to fill those gaps.
We are discussing the visitation pro gram here as it relates to the preaching part of a man's ministry, how it strengthens and undergirds it and makes it relevant. Visitation should be specific with clear-cut objectives. We should not visit the same people all the time—just "our kind." Get out of the rut. Don't be chaplain to your own middle-class group, be a minister at large. Seek personal contact even with those who are hostile to the cause. Learn how to reach the so-called unreachable. Diversified visitation will make for rich diversity in our sermons. We'll not always be speaking to the same group mentality, unable to communicate with those out side our immediate circle.
John Wesley, Oxford don and proper Church of England cleric that he was by training, understood this. When he and one of his young lay preachers chanced to walk by a London fish market just as several women were engaged in vigorous discussion, using the colorful and some what off-color language of their group, his lay preacher wanted to leave forth with, but Wesley stopped him, saying, "Stay, Sammy, and learn to preach."
Conversant with bis God
We are all concerned about power in preaching and long to be able to communicate the gospel more effectively, to reach and move men for God. But first things must come first. P. T. Forsyth, the turn-of-the-century preacher-theologian, was not far from the mark when he said: "Our great need is not ardour to save man but courage to face God—courage to face God with our soul as it is, and with our Saviour as He is; to face God always thus, and so to win the power which saves and serves man more than any other power can. We can never fully say 'My brother!' till we have heartily said 'My Guilt!' " —Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, p. 134.
You will remember the anecdote Ellen White uses in Gospel Workers: Some women are discussing the merits and success secrets of their pastor. They talk about the usual things his talents, his speaking ability, et cetera. Then an old Lancashire woman settles the question in a sentence. "'Nay,'" she says, "'I will tell you what it is. Your man is very thick with the Almighty.'" —Page 255.
The temptation to take off here with a long homily on the need for holiness in the ministry is great, but I will forbear. All of us have read the Ellen G. White passages and the Biblical exhortation. This genuine knowledge of God is the sine qua non of the ministry. It should suffice to say there can be no separation of the man and his message. If the preaching is something that stands unrelated to the preacher, like a work of art (the artist's work is accepted on its merit irrespective of his character), then our concentration should be wholly on form, techniques, and skills, et cetera. We would do well to learn what actors call the "method." Master the art of communication. But you know and I know that there is more to it than that.
The message comes through the man, not over and around him. Preaching is self-exposure. A young Seventh-day Adventist woman, a communications expert, was sent to do a story on an evangelistic series. She sat in the audience night after night observing it all through her professional eye. Then it began to dawn on her that here was something more than mere slick production. Though the best in communication skills was employed, there was a plus. The words of this plain man had a life-changing effect. Sangster called it "the plus of the Spirit." Phillips Brooks called it "truth through personality." The apostle Paul called it "the foolishness of preaching."
If we listened to the secular communications experts and their critique of the sermon form, we would give up preaching. The stand-up-straight, talk-lecture approach is the worst form of communication, they say. But any preacher who has experienced the joy of forgiveness and, as a result, the energizing Presence, knows also that as he spoke in this context virtue went out of him.