Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Religion: Warning to Preachers

from TIME | Monday, Jan. 19, 1953
A monstrance, in the Roman Catholic Church, is a finely worked vessel, usually made of gold or silver, which contains the consecrated Host. This, Catholics believe, is the Real Presence of Christ. The monstrance of Protestantism, however, is the preaching of its ministers, and the faith of the Reformers was based on the assurance that "God met His people in His word." Using this comparison, Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin, 76, longtime president of Union Theological Seminary and onetime (1943-44) Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., has written Communion Through Preaching (Scribner; $2.50), a short but striking book about the preaching sacrament of Protestantism —and how poorly a lot of Protestants understand it.

Currently, Dr. Coffin finds, there are few congregations which do not suffer from a surplus of "ministerial chat." "A talk on current events, or on some social evil, or on managing one's feelings, escaping one's worries, or overcoming fears, on 'integrating one's personality' ... is hardly the vehicle for the personal approach of Almighty God eliciting adoration, trust and love."

What should a sermon be? To Dr. Coffin, a sermon "exalts, God in Christ for worship that He may enter into personal fellowship with listeners." This is no figure of speech. Preaching is the essence of Protestantism. By hearing the Word preached, and receiving it with faith, Protestants get the Divine grace which Roman Catholics believe can come only through receiving Sacraments.

No true preaching is possible without the Bible. "It is no pulpit convention," writes Dr. Coffin, "which requires a text from Scripture. It is the effort to recapture for our messages today the supreme quality of revealing God."

The Fringes & the Weary. "To how many of us," he adds, "both in pulpit and pew, might the question be put : 'Received ye the Holy Spirit when ye believed?' . . .

Our congregation might reply: 'The Holy Spirit — why that is what they talk about in the fringe sects, not in proper congregations affiliated with the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.' Yes. and that is perhaps one rea son why these fringe sects keep springing up in place after place." Along with the fringe sects (and the founders of Protestantism), Presbyterian Coffin believes that the Spirit may and must come to those who preach His Word and hear it.

Dr. Coffin blames many ministers for making their sermons exhortations, instead of attempted acts of grace. "The curse of our pulpit is its bald moralism.

The ambassador of Christ forgets his embassy, says next to nothing of the Master he is representing, and spends his time telling those before him what they ought to be and to do ...

"Movements, crusades, campaigns, missions have filled the horizon. One sometimes wonders what there has been in public worship for the very large number of persons who were in no position to participate in these strenuous efforts . . . Our Lord's gracious invitation to 'the weary and heavy laden' has not been prominent in American preaching . . ."

"The Pitfalls & the Miracle. Even after a minister has mastered the fact that preaching should be an act of grace, Dr. Coffin admits, there are many technical pitfalls. Wide and averagely educated audiences must be held by simple, graphic language. ("A minister has to expurgate his vocabulary of ... words . . . such as 'expurgate.'") A good way to learn: try preaching to children or casual audiences. ("Nothing would be more educational for most ministers than to be asked to address chance audiences on street corners.") At the same time, warns Preacher Coffin, there are all too few pulpits today which can satisfy "educated and mature listeners."

Concludes Dr. Coffin: "A few skillfully chosen words—thoughts clearly in line with the mind of Christ—a man speaking earnestly of that which has mastered him, and there is something heard that all men with ears recognize as Divine. Think what it means: it is the power of letting God become manifest."


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