I read a fair amount of church history. And one of the things that amazes me is how effective was pulpit evangelism in days gone by. In other words, there have been seasons of history in which both the lost and the saved were quite ready to come along and listen to the preaching of the word of God. A capable evangelist could arrive in a city or town, with comparatively little notice (and with nothing like modern advertising or showmanship), and people would show up in droves to the meeting house, or the village green, or the tent set up in a vacant lot to hear the word of God preached. And again, the attendees would not just be the church folks, who had been urged for a few weeks prior to come along to the public meetings … but miners, and drunkards, and washer women, and businessmen, and housewives who had, as yet, no real connection to Christ or His church.
My great-great-grandfather, in the early part of last century, was able to plant several churches in Oklahoma by means of holding tent meetings which would attract all sorts of locals … many of whom evidently came to Christ and were ready to form local congregations. And I know, personally, a still-living preacher who was once able to preach to large crowds in tent meetings all over our own region of the country.
But today such widespread interest in gospel preaching is rarely seen. And the crowds that do gather for such meetings are, I suspect, much smaller than in days of old … and largely comprised of church folks who have been urged to come along and support the evangelist.
Why is that? Well, there are a number of factors, I am sure. The most obvious is that mankind, in every era, is born in sin and naturally averse to the things of God. But, in addition to that, the church’s own poor moral testimony in many places might be a second reason why preaching no longer attracts great crowds of the unchurched. Many people do not see us as God’s holy band any more. And so our message falls on deaf ears. A third reason is that our neighbors have, throughout the course of their lives, been systematically trained (in school, in the media, and in liberal churches) to discount the veracity of the Bible, and the ugliness of sin, and mankind’s desperate need for the new birth and for Christ. And so again, their ears are deaf to our supernatural message. And then a fourth reason it is hard to gather a crowd around a preacher is surely our modern entertainment culture. I have no doubt that the lack of televisions, smart phones, and the internet in days past gave people a little more natural interest in going to hear the evangelist on the town square. He may not have been there to entertain, but for the townsfolk there was an entertainment value in the whole affair nonetheless. And some who merely came to see a spectacle came away with a whole new way of seeing the world, because they were born again by the Spirit’s application of the word of God to their souls!
But people today do not need a tent meeting to help them pass the time. And why should they come and listen to all these things that have been ‘discounted by modern science’ anyway? And, well, ‘my church-going neighbors are really no different than I am.’ And, with all these obstacles, we are absolutely right to realize that we must earnestly give ourselves to personal evangelism; to sharing Christ as individuals with individuals into whose lives we have inroads. And, of course, this has always been one of the church’s chief means of proclaiming Christ.
And yet it has not, by any stretch, been the only means! There have been periods when pulpit evangelism was much more successful than it is today. And, in some cases at least, it was successful in places and periods in which the evangelists were faced with at least the first three of our modern obstacles! The Wesleys and Whitefield, for instance, preached with an evangelistic success probably not seen since the times of the apostles. And yet they lived in an era of religious formalism, dead churches, and skepticism about the necessity of the new birth. Their hearers, in other words, were not naturally in the evangelists’ constituency! England was in a very dark place, spiritually. And yet the crowds came in droves to hear Wesley, Whitefield, and many other lesser known evangelists as well.
And the question is: Why? What was it that created such a stir in times gone by? Why is it that a red and white striped tent, with gospel hymns emanating from under its awnings, could attract such a crowd to hear sermons about sin, and hell, and Jesus, and the cross? The answer is not to be found in any cultural or socio-economic studies … but simply in God. He stirred an interest in the hearts of the people in times gone by. People who had, a few weeks earlier, had little notion of, much less interest in, the things of God now found themselves standing on tip toes to get a sight of the preacher whose voice was wafting good news across the fields! And it was God who did that! Supernaturally!
In his biographical sketch of Adoniram Judson, John Piper describes how, after years of slow labor in Burma, thousands of people in South Asia suddenly began, in 1831, to be eager and desperate for the truth of the gospel. Some embarked, Judson reported, on a 2-3 months’ journey to his station in Burma, because they’d heard he had writings about hell, and they were desperate to know how to escape it. Others came from the interior of the country, asking for literature that would tell them about Jesus Christ. And these were not Christianized westerners who had grown up their whole lives with a church on every corner – but 19th century Asians who were hearing whispers, many for the first time in their lives, of the gospel … and who simply had to know more!
And I say to you that, if God could create such hunger in the religious coldness of 18th century England, and among the spiritual vacuum of 19th century Asia, then God can create what Judson called 'the spirit of inquiry' in the spiritually blank 21st century west. God can make people put down their phones, and lay aside their skepticism, and come in droves to hear the preaching of the word of God. God can make it, as in times of old, so that we have to begin preaching the gospel on the front lawn because the crowds are too large to fit in the pews. And this should be our prayer!
Yes, let us keep sharing Christ as individuals with individuals. And let us rejoice when they come into the kingdom in ones and twos. But let us pray for an outpouring of the Spirit, and a spirit of inquiry and spiritual hunger such that the preachers of this land would be forced into the open air, and have their services requested at the town festivals and the county fairs, and have their churches full and their offices packed with people who simply must know more about heaven, and hell, and Jesus, and the new birth! God can stir up a spirit of inquiry once again, in spite of all the obstacles that we see. Let us pray that He would!