Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sermon Smackdown: Colonial Style

I like old books. I was an English major, so I was forced to read a good many old books. Some were Beowulf old, some were just Emerson and Thoreau old. Lots in between. I've never been much for modern literature, mostly because I just don't know what to read after 1900.

I was watching this PBS series a few months ago called God in America. It was fascinating. It talked about a man named George Whitefield, a Great Awakening minister who preached around the colonies in the mid-1700s. They recited parts of his sermons, and they sounded really interesting. So, naturally, I got the book. Sermons of George Whitefield. It's a collection of almost 30 sermons on various topics, all written somewhere between 1736-1770.

Also, I'm a nerd for all things Colonial American. I'm in the DAR, for heaven's sake!

Still, I find these sermons fascinating. And quite modern in tone and content. The one that really struck me is entitled, "Directions: How to Hear Sermons."

My first thought: How to hear sermons? I need directions on listening? Like I'm in preschool? Thanks, George Whitefield, for undermining my intelligence.

What it actually says is how to pray for your pastor, how to pray for your heart to be open to the message and what God wants you to hear, and also to listen to whatever preacher is up in front of you and don't bolt when you get to the doors of the church and you realize your favorite pastor isn't speaking.

What what?

Our church has, like, five speaking pastors. We have one main one, Gary, who is a phenomenal preacher and the one who does most of the talking. Then we have four others who rotate around when Gary—heaven forbid—takes a vacation or goes to speak at a conference. While it takes a few listens to get used to the other pastors, they all have their strong points. One's a history buff. One is super deep and intellectual. One is modern and philosophical. They're all interesting to listen to, and I always get something out of their sermons.

But I know there are people who don't show up the Sundays Gary is gone. There was a time when I was tempted to do the same! But, you know, now I'm super mature and everything.

*insert eye roll here*

So, this begs the question: Are they showing up to hear God or to hear Gary? Who are they really following?

This is what George Whitefield has to say on the subject. Prepare for a smackdown:

     A third direction, Not to entertain any the least prejudice against the minister. 
     For could a preacher speak with the tongue of men and angels, if his audience was prejudiced against him, he would be as sounding brass, or tinkling cymbal. [...]
     Take heed therefore, my brethren, and beware of entertaining any dislike against those whom the Holy Ghost has made overseers over you. Consider that the clergy are men of like passions with yourselves; and though we should even hear a person teaching others to do what he has not learned himself, yet that is no sufficient reason for rejecting his doctrine, for ministers speak not in their own, but Christs, name. And we know who commanded the people to do whatsoever the scribes and Pharisees should say unto them, though they said but did not.

So God has put him in that position and he's got something useful to say. Wait! There's more!

     But, fourth, as you ought not to be prejudiced against, so you should be careful not to depend too much on, a preacher, or think more highly of him than you ought to think. For thought this be an extreme that people seldom run into, yet preferring one teacher in apposition to another has often been of ill consequence to the church of God. [...]
     Not to mention that popularity and applause cannot be but exceedingly dangerous, even to a rightly informed mind; and must necessarily fill any thinking man with a holy jealousy, lest he should take that honor to himself, which is due only to God, who alone qualifies him for his ministerial labors, and from whom alone every good and perfect gift comes.

Even pastors aren't immune to the pride that comes with accolades. I'm sure it's tough to keep your ego down when thousands of people are showing up every week to listen to you talk about God. Adoring "fans" probably don't help the matter. Fawn over God and what he's doing through your pastor, not the pastor himself.

This sermon is something else. Here's a full transcript of the sermon, if you want to read a little more. Pray for your pastor, whomever it is that week. Pray that he would speak the Word of God and that your heart would be open to it. Don't put your pastor above God. He's God's mouthpiece—a prophet—not a replacement for God. That's how people get disappointed in their clergy, honestly. If you put them up on a pedestal next to God, you'll be very disappointed when they turn out to be human.

And go to church. No matter who's speaking. Just prepare your heart to receive God and you won't be disappointed.


  1. I think it is so neat how timeless some of the "old" writings on the faith are. It just goes to show that humanity across history is, at its core, the same regardless of era, technology or lack of, circumstances, etc. I read about Harriet Tubman recently and her extraordinary life was so specific to her era, foreign to us today, and yet she had to find her dependency upon God and trust Him implicitly in so much the same way as those who came before and after her. We can learn so much from history!

  2. You make a good point here. I think it can be fairly easy to put our trust in people (even good, Christ-following people who are role models), when we need to make sure our whole trust is in God.

  3. I admit there were times when we were having a guest speaker...and I'd stay home. Not the right attitude at all.

  4. I was a fill in for our pastor once and he even said they wouldn't be "advertising" that I would be filling in because people tend to be no-shows when they know he's gone. Sad, isn't it?

    Last week, our pastor was out and a guest pastor came in. He's affiliated with our congregation but not a member or regular attender. His sermon had some people in knots!! People swearing it was a political message and that's not what the pulpit is for... my father in law was one of those people. He got up and walked out after 5 minutes. He decided that he already knew the message, he decided that it was political, and he missed out on the true message- being good stewards of the creation of our Lord is a way of serving God. I think that's a pretty awesome (and non-political) message.

  5. As a fill in speaker/pastor at my church, thank you for this! i really appreciated how you pulled from the past to what is so relevant today!

  6. Awesome post, and very thought-provoking. Thanks!

  7. Hi Rachel. I have just found your blog and I love it. So good to 'meet' someone REAL. I love your sense of humour. I will be following you and enjoying it no doubt! God bless. TKT

  8. Good reminder to always be listening for the voice of God, even when we may not like the "package" it's coming from.

  9. Good thoughts here Rachel. I have been caught up in "Pastor worship" and unfortunately found he was human. It is a hard lesson to learn.

  10. SO many reasons I love this post!

    First of all, I'm a fellow English major. Book nerds unite!

    Second, I watched "God in America" and also really enjoyed learning about George Whitefield. I will definitely have to look for that book of his sermons.

    My church only has one pastor, but that doesn't make me immune to the same problem of letting my preferences get in the way of what God is saying through someone. I am so accustomed to my pastor's way of doing things, that I sometimes struggle when I find myself in other places listening to other pastors. I have to remember that my pastor's way is not the only way, and as long as what a speaker is saying lines up with God's word, I need to quit being critical and start paying attention.

    Great post!


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