The church needs laymen like John H. Converse far more than it needs another celebrity preacher. Imagine what would happen if every business leader had John Converse’s zeal for evangelism. As President of the Baldwin Locomotive Works, Converse became a very wealthy man, but unlike most, he determined to put his fortune to work for the kingdom during his own lifetime. He was a founding member of the International Y.M.C.A., served on the Board of Trustees of Princeton seminary, donated to missions on every front, and convinced Wilbur Chapman to launch his national evangelistic crusades that swept across America. In this address recorded in the Princeton Seminary Bulletin in 1907, he lays out an agenda that is, at once, both practical and visionary, although including no small number of “sanctified” opinions. Lord, give us such men as these.
The subject upon which I am to speak is “What the Layman in the Pew Needs from the Minister in the Pulpit”.
I assume that I am at liberty to discuss this topic broadly, indicating various particulars of what the layman has a right to demand of the minister in all the various relations involved in the latter’s office.
First. Character. The minister should have the personal qualities and attributes which will compel the respect of the community. He should be an example of holy living. His personal character should be above reproach. He should be faithful in all the duties which become an ambassador of Christ-charitable so far as his means may permit; sympathetic, unselfish, patient, upright in the discharge of his business obligations, a loyal citizen, and an exemplary member of society. He should be in the world but not of the world. The days of wine-bibbing and fox-hunting parsons have passed, and a higher type of manhood is demanded of the minister to-day, so that he may be an example to his flock.
It does not, however, follow that in the matter of proper and reasonable recreations, he should not do as other men do. He may indulge himself, for the sake of his physical well-being, in all healthful and invigorating sports. Tennis and golf, rowing and horseback riding, and even base-ball, if he is so inclined, and can slide to a base, may be appropriate pastimes. I confess, however, that I draw the line at football. Moderation in all, nevertheless, is desirable. You will not, I am sure, emulate the Scotch minister who was so fond of golf that, in the choice between that game and the ministry, he decided to give up the ministry.
Second. He should be a leader. His position inevitably places this responsibility upon him in his church. He should, however, carefully distinguish his duties of leadership. Preeminently, he should lead in the spiritual activities of his people, inspiring and instructing them in the service of the Master. He should endeavor, if possible, to find work for all. In business, he is a wise man who can train his subordinates to do his work. Much more is he a wise leader in spiritual affairs who can induce his members to do their share of spiritual work. In the material affairs of the church it were better that he have as little concern as possible. He should leave such to the trustees, throwing all financial responsibility on them. He should avoid being forced into the position of a canvasser or money-raiser. His time can better be employed in ministering to the spiritual needs of his flock and in leading them in all good works done in the name of the Master, for first, and obviously, among the duties of the layman, is the attention to the material and business interests of the church. This should go without saying; but, unfortunately, it does not. In our church organization, as a rule, the spiritual work is distinct from the financial interests. But this distinction is too often disregarded. Trustees who are incompetent or unfaithful to their trusts are not uncommon. If there is anything which is clearly the duty of the layman, it is the responsibility for material affairs. The pastor should be absolutely free from all care in this respect. Is there anything more saddening and disgraceful than to see, as is often the case, the pastor staggering under the burden of the church’s finances? The raising of money for interest on mortgages, for floating debt, for salaries and running expenses, is frequently all laid upon his unfortunate shoulders. Certainly this is not as it should be. Trustees, prudential committees, vestrymen, or whatever they may be called, can do no less than bear promptly and fully all the financial burden and responsibility. The pastor should be free to devote himself to the spiritual needs of his congregation and the extension of Christ’s Kingdom.
But right here we are in danger of running on the shoals. Church business is not vital piety. There are those who find in the finances, the care of property, the renting of the pews, the policing, ushering and canvassing, the sum of their Christian experience. We may credit them literally with the preference only to be door-keepers in the house of the Lord. They have no higher spiritual ambition. Church politics, questions of office holding, the affairs of the denomination in all the lesser and greater courts of the church, engage all the energies and enthusiasm of some, and they persuade themselves that these constitute vital religion.
Third. He should be a pastor. He should know every member of his flock as intimately as possible. He should cultivate their acquaintance
socially, so that at the proper time he may approach and influence them spiritually. If his people are too many to make this possible, he should have one or more assistants, and should, in addition, bring the elders into service in visiting, counseling and instructing.
In order that he may do effectually his pastoral work, he should not allow himself to be too much absorbed in church business and ecclesiastical politics. Some duty of this kind, necessarily, devolves on every minister, but he should give the preaching and pastoral work the chief place.
Fourth. But you will consider the most important division of my subject the question of the kind of sermon to be preached, and I venture first, to express my conviction that every sermon should have distinct evangelistic object, either guidance of the professing Christian, or the call to the unconverted.
The time has passed when the minster in the pulpit is the oracle on ordinary topics. In the early years of our history, such was undoubtedly the case. The great majority of men educated in colleges were those who were trained for the ministry. Both Harvard University, founded in 1636, and Yale, founded in 1718, had as their chief objects the education of men for the Christian ministry. It was not surprised, therefore, that the minister in those days occupied the position of a leader of thought. It was natural that his hearers should expect from him discourses on important topics of the time; on themes connected with civic conditions, or even on scientific subjects. This is no longer the case.
Many of the occupants of the pews are to-day as thoroughly educated as the minister in the pulpit. It would be a work of supererogation for the latter to attempt to instruct them in science, in civics or in history. He has his own field in which he is supreme, and that is the Gospel Message.
As to the character of sermons, I have personally, a very definite opinion. All sermons, in my judgment, should have, for their chief object, the saving of sinners and guidance in the Christian life. I would put everything touching these two topics under the general heading of Evangelistic. This need not in any way interfere with expository preaching or occasional doctrinal sermons, or other discourses on miscellaneous subjects. All should, however, have the one object, and, obviously, expository sermons fail in their object if they do not apply the Word of God to an evangelistic purpose.
In the same way, doctrinal sermons, very occasionally, may be used for a similar purpose. There are those who find a great obstacle to their acceptance of Christ in some of the doctrines of the church, and, therefore, some explanation should occasionally be made.
I think if I were a pastor, I would preach a course of doctrinal sermons occasionally, or else give a series of talks on doctrines at the mid-week meeting.
I have no desire, however, to give you only my own personal opinion. I have considered the subject to be of such great importance that I have written to over one hundred Presbyterian laymen, asking their votes as to the kind of sermon which they prefer. For convenience, I divided sermons into six classes, as follow: Doctrinal; Expositor; Critical; Current Topics; Guidance in Christian Life; Evangelistic—the call to the unconverted. The result of the vote is most interesting. It is as follows: Guidance, etc., 93; Evangelistic, 63; Expository, 51; Doctrinal, 22; Current Topics, 16; Critical, 5. Thus it is obvious that the consensus of opinion is decidedly in favor of evangelistic sermons; placing under this head, as I suggested previously, both guidance and a call to the unconverted.
Guidance in the Christian life is all-inclusive. It is not only the application of the Sermon on the Mount, but it is the adaptation of Christian principle to the every-day duties and obligation of the professed follower of Christ.
Under this heading may appropriately come instruction by the pastor to his people as to their obligation in giving for Christian work. There are many good men and women who have never been trained to give and who do not realize that this is one of their obligations. The duty of stewardship should be inculcated. The great work of the church can only be accomplished by an outlay of money. The payment of the pew rents or the envelope contribution for the support of the church is not sufficient. The 100 millions of heathen to whom it is estimated the Presbyterian Church is responsible for sending the Gospel Message, cannot be reached by the agencies available from the ordinary church collection. A systematic plan to this end is necessary, and it is a part of the pastor’s duty to instruct his people in this obligation and privilege.
Another important feature in the matter of guidance is to impress upon the average Christian his duty of personal work. The occupant of the pew usually consider that this part of the professional business of the minister. It is not realized that the obligations rests as well upon him or her as upon the main in the pulpit. The minister can render the most important service by training his people to do their duty in this respect.
I think it is safe to say that a timely word by a layman to a friend or relative, or business associate, will be sometimes more effective than even the word from the minster, for the latter will be considered more or less professional.
In the evangelistic movement in our church of late years, it may be said that this subject of personal work—of “Individual Work for Individual”, as Dr. Trumbull put it in his admirable book, has been brought to the front with renewed emphasis. More attention has been paid to this kind of evangelistic work within the last few years than for a long time before. The minister who will not only do this work himself, in his pastoral visitation, but train his people in such service for Christ, is fulfilling his highest duty.