Evangelical Preaching


Billy GrahamNovember 7 was Billy Graham’s 95th birthday, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, whose CEO is his son Franklin, used the occasion for a sort of mini-crusade, which had two main components. One was a 30 minute video production called The Cross, which was a mixture of comments from Graham concerning the spiritual state of America in 2013 with scenes from the other, a similar production called Defining Moments. The latter was a mixture of video of Graham preaching during his active years with comments by three converts about their former and current lives. On that date I happened to be on the Wheaton College campus, where Graham earned a graduate degree and founded the Billy Graham Center, and I thought I’d watch them there. For some reason they weren’t showing The Cross, but their showing of Defining Moments allowed us to see it there and be back at our digs in time to watch The Cross on Fox News.

Defining Moments was a video narrative that interwove three stories of conversion featuring what today are ‘ordinary people’—a young white female, a young black male, both drug addicts, and an illusionist whose stage career was cut short by cancer, punctuated by video montages that included scenes of Billy Graham preaching, mostly from the 1980s, I’d guess. The video narratives were pretty predictable, I’m afraid, and I found it hard to cope with the ‘mockumentary’ approach to such seriously broken lives as these seemed to have once been, but Graham’s preaching, after not having seen it for many years, hit me with all the power for which it was famous. I left the Barrows Auditorium hungry for more.

The Cross was publicised as ‘A Long-Awaited Broadcast From Billy Graham To Our Nation’, but it turned out to be less than that. It used the video footage of two of the subjects of Defining Moments, but punctuated them with footage of the 95-year old Graham speaking from his arm-chair. The passion of his preaching years had been replaced by a great peace, and I suspect that if he had spoken about the source of his peace, his words would have had the same impact as his words about the source of his salvation did during his preaching career. Instead he made a few comments on the need for a spiritual awakening in contemporary America, but was never given time to develop his thoughts into a message for the nation, and I think the production will soon be forgotten.

Much of Graham’s greatest preaching is on film, though, and if the BGEA really wants to get America thinking about its spiritual state, the best thing it could do would be to rent every cinema in the nation for six or seven Sunday nights in a row and show one of the surviving films. I think they’d be surprised at the attendance, as well as at the continuing effectiveness of his preaching style. His comments about American society in the 1950s and 60s seem as relevant today as then, except that Communism has been replaced by Terrorism as the perceived threat to our safety. Most people under thirty will have never seen anyone like him, and his plain statement of the truth found in the pages of the Bible, in simple words from a heart overflowing with passion for Christ, is bound to have an impact that neither the slick productions nor the smooth evangelists of today can match. Check out this one, or this, or this, and see for yourself.

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When the American branch of the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion was active, one of the things we put most energy into was building up biblical preaching. Almost every gathering of EFAC-USA included a preaching workshop, at which participants would practice focussing on the Biblical text and preaching nothing but what was contained in it. A recent book, The Bible Story Handbook by John and Kim Walton, has applied this approach to Sunday School teaching, and in his introduction Walton summarises the basic points in ways that will be helpful to anyone who wants to apply the Word of God to human life, whether preacher, teacher, or mere Christian.

‘Only the things that Scripture intends to teach carry the authority of the text,’ Walton writes (p 16). ‘For example, we can learn much about leadership by studying Nehemiah. In the end, however, there is no indication that the author of Nehemiah was preserving and presenting his material so that readers could be instructed in leadership. Because of this, the authority of Scripture is not being tapped when leadership is taught from the book and life of Nehemiah. Leadership is an important quality, one worth learning about, but one may just as well learn about it from the lives of Abraham Lincoln or John Calvin. There is no special merit in learning it from Nehemiah simply because his story is in the Bible whereas the others are not. The Bible is unique because it teaches with the authority of God; in the case of Nehemiah we learn, among other things, that God fulfils His promises of restoring the city of Jerusalem and that He sovereignly carries out His plan through Nehemiah’s submission. God used Nehemiah’s leadership, but that does not mean that Nehemiah’s was the best possible leadership, approved by God in every way. Nehemiah’s success does not authorise his example as a Biblical model for leadership. The model itself has no authority.’

I’d be tempted to put it even more strongly: the Bible’s teaching on leadership suggests that Nehemiah’s example is of no value, at least as far as Christian leadership is concerned. The Bible’s teaching on leadership says things like ‘whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave’, and Nehemiah provides neither precept nor practice of this.

Walton’s book contains 175 Bible stories, with ideas for presenting them to children in ways that teach them only what the text teaches. Highly recommended.

I don’t want to name this church, the last in this series, because I’m going to be critical when I don’t have all the facts. But it would be a shame not to complete the tour, so here goes.

The church in question is a well known evangelical church with three Sunday services, one at 9.15 which includes participation by children and teenagers, a more traditional, ‘reflective’ service at 11, and a ‘prayer and praise’ service at 6 pm. It’s not C of E but in worship style the 11 am service fit right in with those described here and here. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the words of the prayer of confession came right out of Common Worship. At any rate, the similarities were strong enough that I don’t need to go into any detail, except to say that the singing was almost as good as at St Helen’s, and I was given the opportunity to sing Lyngham, which always leaves me feeling like a lion. I was also introduced to an excellent new hymn by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty (a metrical setting of Psalm 23).

So I feel like an ungrateful churl in being critical, but when there’s a problem with the preaching, no amount of good music can undo the damage done. The preacher, who appeared to be the senior minister, began by explaining that he felt the need to address certain issues the congregation was facing. Some of these arose out of a possibility the church had of acquiring retail space in the shopping precinct in which the church finds itself after redevelopment of the area some years ago, others arising from the growth of the 9.15 service in comparison to the 11 am in particular. The first issue would involve the congregation in raising money, the second would involve change in the 11 am service. I knew he was in trouble when he asked the congregation if they were excited about this, and, getting no response, asked them if they could at least look excited. I assume this was meant as a joke—there was scattered laughter—but it appeared to represent his approach to the whole subject: ‘The leadership has a plan and we want you to cheer us on.’ He then applied various verses from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, out of context, to the situation. Not understanding the situation very well, I can’t say whether his plan was good, but his preaching was not the careful exposition of scripture to which Evangelicals have historically been committed. If I were a newcomer wondering whether to make this my church home, I’d probably go somewhere else next Sunday.

Actually, I will certainly go somewhere else next Sunday, but that’s the end of this mini-series!

I’m always torn between the morning services at All Soul’s Langham Place and the morning meeting at St Helen’s Bishopsgate, but this time other commitments made the decision for us, and 10.30 found us at St Helen’s, a medieval building in the financial district that was severely damaged by an IRA bomb in the 1990s. The walls remain medieval, the furniture and most of the fixtures inside are modern.

The rector, William Taylor, wearing jacket and tie, called a noisy crowd (very few empty seats) to order at the appointed time, and announced that the theme of the day was God’s sovereignty. He gave us a Scripture verse expressing that, and then announced a hymn making the same point, ‘O Father You are sovereign’, to a rousing tune by Basil Harwood, Thornbury. There was organ accompaniment for most of the hymns, but the congregation’s vocal power put it in its proper place. The church web-site‘s claim that ‘we love to sing together as a church family’ was proved true throughout the service.

The sovereignty of God over all earthly powers was proclaimed throughout the service, each hymn being introduced with a scripture verse justifying the hymn texts, which included ‘God rules in the height, almighty to save’, ‘King of Kings, Majesty’ (the only contemporary hymn), ‘His sovereign power, without our aid’ and so on. The sermon, however, was only incidentally related to this theme; although this wasn’t stated, I couldn’t help thinking that the theme of God’s sovereignty was intended as a reminder of priorities to a nation celebrating a different sovereignty.

Although the Queen’s sovereignty was not celebrated, it was prayed for with sincerity and a deep gratitude for the Queen’s faith, which has become more and more outspoken in recent years. Her faith—‘traditional and low church’ according to one newspaper— has been a regular subject of discussion in the press during the week before the 60th anniversary. The prayers concluded with the singing of two verses of the national anthem, which is of course also a prayer.

St Helen’s is coming to the end of a sermon series on Isaiah which has been going on over six months, and today’s sermon was on Isaiah 60. Isaiah’s words to Israel were applied to the contemporary church by calling us to be a reflection of God’s glory by our obedience to Him. The preacher was Paul Clarke.

There were more liturgical elements in this service than in the service at All Saints last week (described here). A confession, the collect of the day, a Communion prayer and a post-Communion prayer from Common Worship were all used. The rector said the communion prayer from the lectern below the pulpit rather than at the table. The words of administration were said once, to the whole congregation, and the elements distributed to the congregation in complete silence. There was hardly even any coughing or shuffling of chairs as the patens and chalices were passed down the rows of communicants.

The final hymn, during which the alms were collected, was accompanied by piano and violin, played by members of the church’s music apprentice program.

As one might expect in a church in an area where there are few local residents, there were not as many children or elderly as we saw last week, and there did not seem to be the same personal relationship between rector and congregation. Taylor was once an army officer, and there was a bit of a ‘synchronise your watches’ feel to the service. But the pure word of God was preached and the sacrament duly administered, and I’d give up a lot of other things to be part of singing like that every week.

All Saints’ Crowborough is probably typical of evangelical parishes in small towns (about 25,000, among whom was, once, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). The vicar is Andrew Cornes, well-known to many Episcopalian Evangelicals because of a series of talks he gave here in the 1990s. Originally built by Sir Henry Fermor in 1744, the classical stone building has recently been enlarged, and the original church is now what architects would call the narthex. The additional space has preserved the 18th century emphasis on classical lines and plenty of natural light.

All Saints has four Sunday services, ‘quiet Communion’ at 8, Morning Service at 9.15, Morning Worship at 10.45, and 6.30 pm Evening Worship. Once a month there is an Evensong at 4.30 pm. Our holiday mindset ruled out anything earlier than the 10.45; the difference between the ‘service’ and the ‘worship’ turned out to be that the 10.45 was more contemporary, the 9.15 more classically (or ‘properly’ for our regular readers) evangelical.

In fact, the music at the 10.45 was not all what the word ‘contemporary’ conjures up (in my mind, at any rate). The ‘contemporary’ stuff  (three chords and lots of sighing) was played as prelude and postlude, while the hymns we actually sang were real hymns, although many of them recently written. The others were a new text to a traditional tune and a new tune to a traditional text. And the congregation sang audibly.

Neither the BCP nor its alternative, Common Worship, was used, and there were no liturgical elements in the service at all. The service was led by a lay person, who began by welcoming us, explaining that the theme of the day was the fact that Christians are God’s adopted children, and after a brief prayer introduced the person who would read the lesson, Romans 8.15–17. The lesson was introduced in her own words by the reader, who had obviously thought about it pretty carefully. The worship leader then reminded us of how easy it was even when in conversation with those we love and respect to get distracted, and that it wouldn’t hurt to read it again. So someone else came up and read the same passage. There was noticeably less rustling and shuffling, including that of your correspondent, during the second reading of it, and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that we were there to hear from God’s word! After a hymn Andrew went to the pulpit and expounded the text, making the point that the adopted children of a loving father can be as sure of the father’s love as his natural children, and that part of the Holy Spirit’s work is to enable us to be sure rather than hopeful of our salvation. Andrew’s careful, methodical exposition was a delight; he was constantly repeating ‘look again at v 15′ or look again at v 17’—there was no doubt we were feeding on God’s word rather than the preacher’s opinion.

After the sermon the children came in from Sunday School and acted out the lesson they had studied, with a most effective representation of Egyptian soldiers disappearing beneath what must have been one of the roughest seas the Red Sea has experienced!

Announcements made it clear that personal evangelism is a priority, with every member being reminded to look for opportunities to share the gospel during the coming week. A parochial mission of the sort described here is planned for the fall, and the person invited to lead it is preaching next Sunday at all services, so that people can invite their friends to the mission with the words “I’ve heard him speak and…’.

After the service the congregation was exceptionally friendly, but we had no sense that we were being ‘greeted’ by persons assigned to the task.

It was a wonderful morning.

A lot of Evangelical clergy resist following the lectionary, because it makes it so hard to preach through an entire book of the Bible, which is so necessary at least from time to time if a congregation is to become biblically literate. But the lectionary has its good points, too, in that it forcces the preacher to address, or at least listen to, passages he’d just as soon not bother with. Here‘s a good resource for evangelical lectionary preaching, based on the Revised Common Lectionary which is now the Prayer Book lectionary in PECUSA.

There’s other interesting material on the site, too, including an analysis of how Anglican Evangelicals have floundered in recent decades: ‘What has happened to Evangelical Anglican ministry? In the face of declining church attendance, we have come to doubt the worth of Anglican ritual and order and of the power of God’s word proclaimed. Our loyalty to the Prayer Book, commitment to parish ministry, open approach to occasional services, support of unviable congregations, all seem a faded memory. As for the ministry of the Word, we seem more reliant on the new technology, psychology and management techniques of our age, than on the power of the Word proclaimed.’ For some reason there’s no link to this on the home page, but you can find it here.

A bit more Wesleyan than I am (which surprised me in a Moore College grad), but well within the Anglican Evangelical tradition, and well worth using when preaching or running a lectionary Bible study.

I was in New York last weekend, and visited the Church of the Redeemer, where Tim Keller preaches. Redeemer owns no buildings, but meets in three or four different Manhattan locations each Sunday, with two services in the morning and three in the evening. Between them, they minister to four or five thousand Christians. Keller is one of a team of preachers who make the same points on the same passage each week, each in their own style. The location where Keller preaches is never announced in advance, although my student son was able to find out with a phone call to a friend the evening before.

Newsweek (or someone like that) recently described Keller as the new C. S. Lewis, but having recently read his latest book, King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus, I’d disagree with that. He quotes Lewis a lot, as well as some other good writers, but isn’t an apologist in the way Lewis was.  Keller is a preacher, not a writer, and one worth going out of one’s way to hear. He has a relaxed, engaging style, but is rigorously expository, determined to let no one leave until they have thought seriously about the passage he’s preaching on and applied it to their own Christian life. He preaches for 30–45 minutes, and holds the congregation’s attention the whole time. Which is not to say one’s mind doesn’t wander, but it wanders the way it should when God’s word is being expounded—it set me thinking about my own life and how I can be a more faithful follower of Christ, and I have continued to think about that in the days following the sermon.

If I were to describe Keller by comparing him to an earlier figure, Martyn Lloyd Jones is the one that comes to mind. He had the same ability to zero in on a single verse,  sometimes just a phrase in a verse, and press it home to the hearers in a way that held their attention and made a difference in their lives. Like Keller, Lloyd Jones had a large student ministry, John Stott and J. I. Packer being regular attenders.

I was too young to hear Lloyd Jones, although I’ve built up a good collection of his sermons on cassette over the years, and listened to them with profit. Keller’s sermons are online in many places, with this being the official site. But the next time you’re in New York, listen in person.

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