There has been an amazing change of mood within Christendom in recent years. Less than a decade ago a spirit of optimism and assurance permeated the life of the Church in America. A great interest in religion seemed to be abroad. Never had religious books and articles been more in demand. Newspapers were devoting more attention to stories of ecclesiastical events and movements than at any other time in our century, and most of the treatment was favorable. Belief was popular. Church membership was growing steadily, both in numbers and in proportion to the total population of our country. The supply of candidates for the ministry was at a record high; new churches were being erected all across our land. It seemed as if we might be on the verge of a great religious revival.

But something has happened to the Church. In many quarters today we find a spirit of discouragement and defeatism within its leadership. Growth continues but at a slower rate. We are constantly reminded that Christianity is becoming more, rather than less, of a minority movement in the midst of the world’s population explosion. The Church and its ministry are increasingly the object of criticism in the press, the literature, and the conversation of our day. There is bewilderment and uncertainty where formerly there was confidence. It is not so easy to arouse enthusiasm, to secure new members, or to sound the advance as it was.

Quite obviously the optimism that prevailed a few years ago was not well grounded, nor was a great triumph for the Church at hand. By the same token, there is no real reason for dismay. Our task is difficult, but it has never been otherwise. It is well that we should examine the situation before us, and that we should understand the nature of our tasks. It is neither necessary nor right that we should be depressed.

One of the accusations constantly made against the Church and the ministry today is that our message lacks relevance; that we are not dealing with the true problems and the real issues of life. Perhaps the accusation is just in its application to much of the preaching we have done. Nevertheless, the Gospel is eternally relevant. It is as applicable and as necessary now as it ever was and as it always will be. It is a Word of the Lord that teaches men how to live and how to die. That Word is our need—and the need of all men. We must learn how to preach it effectively in the troubled and chaotic society of this latter part of the twentieth century.

First of all, ours is a Gospel that teaches men how to live. It applies to all the problems of thought and of conduct today. Therefore, it applies to the problem that is never far from our minds in these times—that of racial relations.

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A Test Of Faith

Here is an acid test of our Christianity. As Dr. George M. Docherty has said, it is the crisis confronting the Church. Quite obviously the problems here are many and complex. Anyone who claims to have all the answers does not really understand the facts. Nevertheless, in our willingness and in our desire to solve this problem according to the mind of Christ is to be found a real indication of the nature of our faith.

The minister in the South is faced with a difficult task if he seeks to deal with matters of race. Emotions are high and tempers are short. Many people are unwilling to listen to any discussion of the subject that does not agree with their own ideas. What should the minister do and say? The question is not easy to answer, and many criticisms leveled at us for our silence are unfair. It would be a rather simple thing if one had only his own popularity or his own position to consider. I believe that most of our ministers are willing to suffer if need be. But love for the truth must be combined with love for one’s people and with the responsibilities of a pastor. How far should one go in interposing a barrier between himself and his people, so that there is no longer the possibility of ministering to the flock for which one is responsible? What should one do when loyalty to what one most surely believes will mean splitting a congregation? What if preaching the truth dries up the source of our benevolent giving and impoverishes the total program of the church?

There is no simple answer. My heart goes out to those who are constantly living with this issue. Certainly we must, if possible, retain the love and the confidence of our people. Otherwise we cannot hope to serve adequately as pastors. We must surely avoid the rending of a congregation when we can find proper ways to do so. At the same time, our ordination vow requires us “to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the Gospel and the purity and peace of the Church.” Purity is necessary to any peace that is real. There are things even worse for a congregation than controversy and division. It can be true for a congregation and for the Church as a whole, as it is for the minister, that “he that saveth his life shall lose it.”

One point seems basic. Whatever discrimination is practiced elsewhere, we have no right to shut any man out of the church and away from the preaching of the Gospel. The teaching of Scripture is clear. “Mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.” “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” “Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” “God is no respecter of persons.”

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“My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons,” writes the Apostle James. “For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; and ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?” It seems not to have occurred to James that, beyond being assigned to a low place, a man might even be barred entirely from the congregation of God’s people. Is the color of a man’s skin any better basis for such action in the sight of God than the nature of his clothing?

Yet, for so simple a thing as holding that everyone who comes to God’s house should be admitted, many ministers are suffering today. They have not harped on this subject in their preaching; they have not agitated the issue nor raised it unnecessarily. They have simply voiced their convictions when the question could not be avoided. For this cause men, and sometimes their families, suffer persecution.

Three concerns ought to move us deeply in this matter. One of them is concern for freedom of the pulpit—for the right to declare the Word of God according to conscience. We had better stand by our brethren in their struggles, whether we agree with them in their positions or not. If our brother’s freedom to preach the truth as he understands it is at one point taken away, our freedom to preach some other truth—vital to us—may be gone tomorrow. Moreover, if a congregation can silence a man on one point of conscience, how can it ever be confident that he will be faithful in proclaiming the Word of God in any other area? Peace secured in this way is purchased at too high a price—at the peril of men’s souls.

A second concern should be to assert that there is no area of the believer’s life that can be excluded from subjection to Christ. On the detailed applications of Christ’s teachings good and faithful men may differ. We have no infallible interpreter of Scripture. Neither the minister nor the Church can claim to have all wisdom, nor can we bind the consciences of men by our own dictates. One thing, however, we can declare with certainty: The Christian must earnestly seek to know and to do the will of Christ in every sphere of life. Neither personal desires, nor prejudice, nor tradition, nor experience can be chosen in preference to Him. We must seek to base our racial practices, as our conduct in all others matters, upon the revealed will of our risen Lord. We must say with Luther: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God; … to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” This is true for every realm of thought and of practice.

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Let Us Love

A third concern must be that in all our efforts to-know and to do the right the spirit of love prevails. We must preach the truth as God gives us to see it, but we must preach it in love. Congregations similarly should hear the preaching in love. Anger, name-calling, and bitterness have no place in the church. We must strive to understand those with whom we differ, avoiding pride in our own positions. None of us is fully Christian; we are only seeking to become so. Scorn and ill will toward those with whom we disagree will not advance our cause. Let us pray with and for one another, that together we may more perfectly understand and do the will of Christ. Let us love one another.

But there are other pressing issues that confront us in teaching ourselves and others how to live. There is the matter of purity and chastity. Sexual license is increasingly prevalent in our world. Impurity of thought, of speech, and of action is encouraged by the literature, the movies, and the other amusements of our day. Seldom if ever in history has there been such an outpouring of filth and such an effort to destroy standards of sexual morality as now. My hat is off to the Roman Catholic priest who recently went on a fast in New York to compel enforcement of the law against the traffic in pornography. This is a traffic that is corrupting the minds and destroying the souls of youth. We may not adopt his method, but we would do well to emulate his spirit. Let us combat the evil of impurity with all the power we possess—beginning with ourselves. In the atmosphere of our day no man is safe. “Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall.” We must indeed beware lest when we have preached to others we ourselves should become “castaways.”

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We can only mention some of the other areas that demand our prayerful thought and our preaching. There is the question of honesty in all our personal and business relations. There is the need for teaching about temperance, or Christian abstinence, in a day when the use of alcohol is wrecking millions of individual lives and destroying countless homes. There is the respectable but deadly sin of covetousness in a day when most Americans seem almost persuaded that a man’s life, after all, does consist “in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” This temptation to covetousness is one of the most insidious dangers confronting us in the ministry. It can make us soft and unwilling to sacrifice. It can rob us of all spiritual power.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ has much to say about all these matters. Not its irrelevance but its everlasting relevance troubles our souls.

And this Word that teaches men how to live contains the only real answer as to how they can die. This also is an aspect of the truth much of our preaching has neglected. One wonders sometimes whether the Church really believes its own message on this subject. Certainly we have not declared it with the urgency and the conviction the issue demands.

The world does not like the subject of death. Men put it as far out of their thoughts as possible. If they face it at all, it is seldom in the light of God’s Word. Like Omar Khayyám they are inclined to “take the cash and let the credit go,” assuming that God is “a good fellow and twill all be well.” When death intrudes to take a loved one or a friend, it is the popular custom in some of our civic clubs and assemblies or in private to declare the merits of the person gone and to express the belief that one so decent must assuredly have entered into a better life. The philosophy of our day in the matter is expressed in the inscription over the entrance to a popular American cemetery—“Dedicated to Belief in a Happy Immortality.” This soft and easy philosophy of escape is based upon nothing whatever but wishful thinking and an unwillingness to face the ugly reality of sin.

Does the Church believe its own message? Do we know that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”? Do we really accept the teachings of Christ as to the eternal consequences of sin? Do we heed his words: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me”?

If there is another way, if all is really well with those who forget God and live as they please, then we need not be overly concerned about the state of the Church or of the world. In this case our faith may be a pleasant luxury, but it is by no means essential. There is no reason for us to be any more concerned about evangelism and missions than we have been. We can be comfortable in our present attitude that suggests we are more than half-way convinced that the world is right and that it does not really matter how we live or die.

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We must re-examine our convictions. We must recapture the sense of urgency our Lord teaches. In a world of dying men we must be concerned that so many know nothing of him who is the Resurrection and the Life. We must heed anew the Great Commission of our Lord. We must learn to preach again that “the wages of sin is death” but that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

The Gospel is supremely relevant. There are other teachers who have shown men fairly well the way to live. There is only one who can show them how to die. There is no other way but Christ.

Let us not be discouraged or become weary in well doing. The task of the ministry has never been easy. It will not be easier tomorrow. But God is on the throne.

It is popular in many quarters to speak of ours as a “post-Protestant” and indeed as a “post-Christian” world. I dare to assert that it is not so. On the contrary it is a “pre-Christian” world. The world has never been Christian. It never will be fully Christian until our Lord returns to reign. But the world is in his hands. The future is as bright as his promises. We may fail, but he will not fail. His is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory. His will shall be done, despite the folly and the rebellion both of men and of devils.


Jerusalem’s streets had never seen

Anxiety at such a race

As that which whirled through morning mist

At reckless pace.

In fear, in hope, in unbelief

Scarce knowing whom or what they faced

Competitors from Galilee

Set out in haste.

An eagerness born out of love

Was impetus enough for them

To speed—impatient for the truth

Toward Joseph’s tomb.

They ran. The younger finished first,

But stopped short of the victor’s view.

The older persevered to find

The news was true.


James McDowell Richards is president of Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia. He holds the B.A. degree from Davidson College, the B.A. and M.A. from Oxford University, the B.D. from Columbia Seminary, and the D.D. from Davidson College. In 1955, Dr. Richards served as the moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U. S.

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