In the first post on this subject, I highlighted the comment by J C Ryle that it was “a few individuals, most of them clergymen of the Established Church, whose hearts God touched about the same time in various parts of the country” and their labours “shook England from one end to the other.” The means through which they effected such change was simple – “no more or less than the old apostolic weapon of preaching…They wisely went back to first principles, and took up apostolic plans. They held, with St Paul, that a minister’s first work is “to preach the gospel.”
Ryle then lists and comments on ten features of the 18th century preachers and their preaching, each of which, I believe, has lessons we need to note in the spiritually bleak days in which we live, certainly in the western world.
First on Ryle’s list is that they preached everywhere.
“If a pulpit of a parish church was open to them, they gladly availed themselves of it. If it could not be obtained, they were equally ready to preach in a barn. No place came amiss to them. In the field or by the road-side, on the village-green, or in a market-place, in lanes or in alleys, in cellars or in garrets, on a tub or on a table, on a bench or on a horse-block, wherever hearers could be gathered, the spiritual reformers of the last century were ready to speak to them about their souls. They were instant in season and out of season in doing the fisherman’s work, and compassed sea and land in carrying forward their Father’s business. Now, all this was a new thing. Can we wonder that it produced a great effect?” [i]
What does this aspect of 18th century preaching have to teach us in 21st century Britain? Well, our circumstances are undoubtedly very different but for me, above all, what we learn is that if people are to hear the good news of a Saviour in our day and age then we have to go to them – everywhere and anywhere – and break out of the confines of our church buildings.
What I mean by that is this – I simply don’t expect the unsaved to come to church to hear the preaching of the gospel. Why would they? The church is the gathering of the people of God to hear the word of God in order to be built up in their most holy faith and be equipped for effective, transformational, gospel centred living in our communities. In church, my primary responsibility as the pastor is to feed the sheep – not the goats.
Yes, by God’s grace, from time to time, some unsaved people will be among the sheep, and I will always, with God’s help, recognise them and address them appropriately. Indeed, I never assume that all who think that they are saved actually are! But long experience has taught me that, with a few glorious exceptions – and there have been some, the unsaved only come to church because they have been invited by a friend and are genuinely open and interested, or because of a special occasion – like Christmas or some family celebration.
We need to be realistic and accept that for a non-believer to come to church would be as unlikely as my crossing the threshold of a pub or a betting shop or a tattoo parlour. It’s not going to happen. Those places are, for me, alien worlds, while I couldn’t rule out going to one if an unconverted friend invited me and it gave me an opportunity for the gospel without compromise. Likewise, church buildings and gatherings are increasingly alien worlds for the unsaved people in our communities. We need to go to them, where they are, and introduce them to the Saviour and then, when the Spirit of God is at work in their hearts, encourage them – and bring them – under the regular preaching of God’s Word.
Running a Christianity Explored course in a local coffee shop is likely to be more fruitful than holding it in a church building. Evangelism should be church based but not necessarily, or even preferably, church-building based.
It is becoming more and more difficult to do street preaching these days because of antagonism by local authorities, and we are not all gifted to make a good job of it, but we regularly take the gospel on to the streets in our community with a table of refreshments and literature and engage people in conversation about the good news of the gospel.
For a couple of years I regularly offered my services to a Christian firm of Funeral Directors, and had the privilege of conducting numerous funerals for completely unchurched families who, nevertheless, wanted a Christian Minister to take the service. With pastoral visits to the family, in preparation for the service, and the service itself, which I always followed up with a letter and some Christian literature, in those two years I probably preached to more non-Christians than in the rest of my entire ministry and had the advantage of doing so when, because of the context of death, hearts will probably have been a little less hardened and a little more open.
We, too, need to “Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as [we] find.” (Matthew 22:9)
[i] Christian Leaders of the 18th Century Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1978 p24