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Holy Saturday Reflections on Evangelical Preaching

Category Articles
Date May 5, 2004

Historic evangelicalism has taken its cue on the needs of humans from the Philippian jailer whose question it assumed to be universal: “What must I do to be saved?” It has followed the lead of the Apostle Paul in proclaiming “how to be saved”: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” However, a Holy Saturday survey, right here in the Bible Belt, of the mail and the religious ads in Huntsville Times, makes it appear that many evangelical churches and the people they want to reach are no longer interested in the jailer’s question or Paul’s answer.

The Brook, near my home invites me to hear a new series, in a contemporary or traditional worship setting, on Saturday evening or my choice of times on Sunday morning: “How to keep a good attitude even when things are going bad,” “How to teach yourself to see the best in everyone,” “How to stop doing the busy things, so you have time to do the best things,” “How to get up and try when you have failed.” Crosspointe Church, until recently was known as the Rocket City Bible Church, and which under new pastoral leadership has big aspirations, offers to teach me: “Learning to enjoy the People in your life,” “Learning to be joyful no matter what,” “Learning to reduce conflict with others,” “Learning to maintain your Joy,” “Learning strategies for reducing stress.” Or, I can drive across town to the pace-setting Willowbrook Church for a new series, “How to Get the Most out of Life,” which includes messages on “Building Lasting Friendships,” “Becoming a Success,” “Affair-Proofing Your Marriage,” “A Good Mom Never Yells & Other Myths of Motherhood,” “Living a Life of Joy.”

It appears that Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller have triumphed in persuading a large segment of evangelicalism of their understanding of what people need and what the church, therefore, should offer. Peale’s positive thinking philosophy and Schuller’s maxim “Find a need and meet it; find a hurt and heal it,” have shown evangelicals the way to success. No longer do evangelicals say. “Paul is appealing and Peale is appalling.” (I’d like to introduce another such saying for those of left who have not gone the way of so much of evangelical flesh: “Robert Schuller is a pain; the Hour and Power is a shame.”)

Can one imagine how those who flock to the “savvy” evangelical churches would respond to Jesus “how to be happy” sermon? “Here’s the way to blessing. If you know you are spiritually dead and have nothing to offer God, yours is the kingdom. If you mourn over sins – yours and the world’s – you will be comforted. If you submit to God and others, you will inherit the earth. If you hunger and thirst after righteousness, you will be filled. If you show mercy, you will get mercy. If you focus on God with a sincere and undivided heart, you will see God. If you make peace by proclaiming God’s terms of peace and by refusing retaliation when wronged, you will be called a son of God. If are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, yours in the kingdom.” That, I fear, as one sermon or series, will not be heard from the lips of today’s successful, seminar attending, seminar giving, evangelical preacher.

And, can you imagine Paul entering Philippi, where he ended up proclaiming a salvation that is personal and familial and announcing a series on “How to Have a Better Family Life”? Or, going to Corinth, where he ended up saying a lot about sex, good and bad, to the church and spreading the word that he would be speaking on “How to Get the Most out of your Sex Life”? Or, going to Ephesus, where again he would give his fullest teaching on marriage to the church, and putting up a sign on Tyrannus Hall offering classes on “How to Improve Your Marriage”? No, Paul preached everywhere Christ crucified, risen, ascended, reigning, and coming again. And, any “practical topic he addressed was from the unique perspective of the Christian’s union with this Christ.

Today one contemplates our Lord “descended into hell,” which reflects the Apostle Peter’s interpretation of Psalm 16 (“Thou wilt not leave his soul in hell, nor suffer Thine Holy One to see corruption”) to the effect that our Lord, having died on Good Friday, was buried, and continued in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day. But we know how this story ends. The Lord rose from the dead to immortal life. But what of those who will flock to hear the positive, practical how-to “evangelical” sermons? Will they rise to immortal life on the last day or be kept comfortable by evangelical churches in a state of spiritual death till they come to physical death to die eternally? And what of evangelicalism with its positive and perky successful ministers and churches and their how-to sermons? Shall it continue to die seeking life, and fail seeking success, or shall it rise again to Gospel life?

William Smith

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Huntsville, Alabama.

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