What is the vital center of evangelical Christianity?

In spite of our efforts at lay evangelism, Christian education, prayer cells, and class meetings, the pulpit is still the sensitive center that reflects both the viability and the vulnerability of our witness. Attempts to bypass the pulpit are vain, because ultimately the fruits of our outreach and the products of our nurture will depend upon the quality of our pulpits. After all, the “foolishness of preaching” is still God’s method for communicating the Gospel.

The importance of the pulpit ministry, therefore, cannot be ignored. While we test a variety of techniques with which to reach the modern mind, the pulpit must keep pace. Frequently, however, because we know that the content of the Gospel is always the same, we also assume that the means for communicating the Word never change. The result can be a static pulpit in a jet-propelled world. But the facts are that changes in the field of communication have revolutionized the world. The spread of the Gospel began by word of mouth. Then we moved into the “Gutenberg galaxy,” which sped the message through movable type and the printed page until men could read the Word for themselves. The whole process then went through another revolution in the “Marconi galaxy,” when the radio message could be transmitted from voice to ear without the obstacle of the printed page. Even more recently, we have again multiplied the effectiveness of communications as we have moved into an “Electronic galaxy,” which sends the message from sight to soul without stopping at either the mind or ear. While the message may be the same, the speed and the impact of the delivery have been drastically improved.

If this analogy is applied to the evangelical pulpit today, it means that we must constantly be searching for the means to improve our effectiveness in getting the message through. For the preacher, this means a thorough understanding of the modern mind, a willingness to respond to changing needs, and an unflagging desire to “preach the Word.” In other words, when it comes to communicating the Gospel in a jet-propelled age, we must have a jet-propelled pulpit—one that is first century in content and twentieth century in communication.

American Directions

The jet-propelled pulpit is necessary because of three basic facts in American life that are determining the direction and character of our future. These facts are summed up in an article by Peter Drucker in the February issue of Harper’s magazine. Although he uses these facts to forecast the direction of American politics, Drucker clearly indicates that the ultimate issue is the quality of life in America. Therefore, these facts are of concern to the preacher as well as the politician.

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The first fact of the future is that 85 per cent of our population will be living in fewer than 200 metropolitan centers scattered across the country. Most of these people will be huddling together in the crowded strip cities from Boston to Norfolk, from Milwaukee to Cleveland, and from San Francisco to San Diego. The long-predicted shift from the farm to the city will have come true. We will be an urban people in a sprawling megalopolis.

The second fact is equally undramatic until you consider what it means for the future. One-third of all Americans will be full-time students in a school of some kind or another. Then, we will be just a few years away from the time when one-half of our young men will be educated and affluent citizens at the managerial level. As surely as we will have an Urban State, we will also have a Knowledge State with education opportunities that begin in the nursery school and end only in death.

To those of us who are over thirty years of age, the third determining fact in American life is quite disagreeable. Believe it or not, by 1980 more than 25 per cent of our population will be between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. This shift to the youthful population is occurring so rapidly that the average age has dropped one full year for each year since 1960. When John F. Kennedy was elected to the Presidency in 1960, the average age of an American was thirty-three years. But by 1968 the average American will be under twenty-five years of age. To the Urban State and the Knowledge State, we must add the hopeful fact that America is also the Youth State.

What are the implications of these three facts for communicating the Gospel? It is not the numbers that concern us now; it is the kind of people that these changes produce. Urbanites do not have the same attitudes as villagers; college graduates do not have the same expectations as high school graduates; and young adults do not have the same actions as middle-agers. Therefore, these changes in attitudes, expectations, and actions have a direct bearing upon the effectiveness of the modern pulpit. For the sake of description, I will characterize the urbanite as the Diffident Man, the student as the Discerning Man, and the young adult as the Detached Man.

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The Diffident Man

The urban man has been adequately described as a faceless creature in a grey flannel suit who commutes from the suburbs with an attaché case. Professionally, he is a well-oiled cog in the corporation machine. Socially, he uses the status of the crowd to hide his loneliness. Personally, he covers his anxiety with the sophistication of charm. Spiritually, he uses the church as a vehicle for acceptability but couldn’t care less about its message. In brief, the urbanite is a thoroughgoing and unapologetic secularist.

As a contrast to the outright sinner who declares his hostility toward the Gospel, the urban man is grandly indifferent to the vital purpose of the Church. You can glamorize your program, step up your advertising, bring in high-powered talent, enlist a calling group, organize a week of prayer, hold a series of meetings, and sit back to watch your efforts fail. You are dealing with the “diffident”—a man who is dazzled every day by the spectacular and a man to whom the Christian creed is only one among many.

Our pulpits are simply not geared for a ministry to the diffident. We assume that people are naturally interested in the Gospel and that our words will quicken a dormant hunger deep within the soul. But this hope arises out of our own experience, not out of the “live and let live” religious attitude of the diffident. The modern man in the urban world is better characterized as a spiritual pagan who lacks the essential elements for understanding, accepting, and responding to the Christian message.

He lacks, first of all, the background for understanding the evangelical message. Review the content of the last sermon that you heard and then put yourself in the place of a stranger who dropped out of Sunday school in the eighth grade, who has heard the Bible read only at formal occasions, and who has reserved religion for old wives and new widows. Without a background, the language would probably confuse him, the theology would confound him, and the point of the message would probably bypass him.

Secondly, the urban man is indifferent because he lacks the social pressure to accept the message. Although religious belief is not just a result of group dynamics, we cannot deny that social pressure plays an important part in that belief. In the urban world of today and tomorrow, the steam has been let out of the pressure cooker to be a Christian. Men lack the personal ties that make conformity at this level a survival factor; they are not caught in the trap of “conform or else.” They can move at any time—and do.

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The third factor in the making of the diffident man is his inability to define his personal need for spiritual response. In the simplest terms, the urban man acts indifferent to the Gospel because he does not know how to respond. Although he might admit that he is lonely, anxious, and insecure, he would not admit that religion would necessarily make the difference. He would first try to cure his loneliness by joining another club, his anxiety by a Southern vacation, and his insecurity by a boost in his life insurance. He doesn’t reject the Gospel so much as he ignores it. Without the natural interest in the message, he neither argues nor understands, disbelieves nor believes, rejects nor responds—he is the diffident product of a diffident culture.

The Discerning Man

Education has become the new hope for American life. It is the nation’s biggest and most serious business. The daily newspapers carry story after story dealing with its growth, its struggles, and its potential. But the stress is upon the means in education today—huge budgets, new buildings, faculty increases, student boom, and experimental teaching techniques. Tomorrow, however, we will be dealing with the end product of this educational thrust—the college graduate, the retrained worker, and the lifetime student in adult education. Usually we envision education as a means to the end of a better job, more money, and a step up in social class. It is this, but we cannot ignore its intellectual results either. An educated man is assumed to be a discerning man. He can raise questions, analyze problems, and draw his own conclusions.

How effective will your message be when a majority of your congregation have college experience? As we tend to assume that everyone is naturally interested in the Gospel, we also assume that our hearers will accept the authority of our message without question. For the discerning man it is just not that easy. Even though he may have the need to believe, he will first test the source of your authority and then make a decision. If, however, your authority is weak, your logic faulty, or your sources inadequate, then you can expect him to withhold his decision until he has further proof. To this discerning man, the overloaded emotional pull and the awesome fear response will simply not work.

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The reasons are clear. First of all, the man who is the product of our educational system today is a man without a supernatural orientation. He is the product of an empirical age when discoveries in truth are subjected to the rigors of a scientific method. This approach to truth is not limited to the sciences but pervades every field, from the science of behavior in sociology to the science of symbols in philosophy. Because the supernatural does not lend itself to this frame of reference, the man steeped in the scientific method may demand either empirical proof or pragmatic evidence that our religion works.

Secondly, the discerning man has no taboos against asking questions. In fact, the very essence of his education has been the stimulation of inquiry. Modern learning stresses dialogues, seminars, independent study, and tutorial sessions. These are no-holds-barred learning situations from which no area of life is exempt. To the contrary, we assume that questions are useful tools in many phases of life but not in religion. The nagging “Why?” of our children is met with the impatient statement, “Because God said it,” or “Because the Church believes it.” If you accept the authority of God and the Church, you can get away with this. But how do you respond to the man whose questions include the authority of the Word and the Church?

Thirdly, the product of modern education is without sanctions on his belief. The rewards of heaven and the fear of hell have been important ingredients in holding people to their beliefs. But in a secular age, neither of these sanctions on belief or behavior carries the same weight it once did. Furthermore, the educational environment has a built-in tendency to have a man fighting out his destiny in the present world. Existentialism, which is so popular on the college campus, is a religion without future sanctions. There is the will to believe, the reality of guilt, the hopelessness of man’s self-struggle, and the despair of a frustrated existence. Yet Christianity does not get through to these people because it hasn’t gotten over the shock of being jilted. The educated man who is discerning in his values as well as in his ideas is both our challenge and our enigma for the future.

The Detached Man

The youthful generation of Americans who will take over the responsibility for the quality of our life also disturbs us. According to those who know our youth best, they are a “detached” generation without political, social, economic, or spiritual commitments. Yet it is clear that they are searching for loyalties and meaning in their life. The best evidence for this search is in the mass response to the opportunities of the Peace Corps and the newly formed Job Corps. A recent radio announcement called for volunteers for the Job Corps. The announcer said, “Wanted: volunteers for hard work with low pay. You will work in slum conditions, live in poor housing, and have no job security. The pay is $50 a month plus living expenses. Join the Job Corps.” We know what the response will be. Youth will flock to the opportunity to become attached to a cause. This has already been proved in the Peace Corps program. A follow-up of the first volunteers who came home after a two-year term overseas shows them to be dissatisfied with the comfort climate of America. They would rather be back in the squalor of an African village where they can have the satisfaction of service than drift with the unattached in a culture that indulges their every need.

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In our ministry, however, we assume that everyone has some kind of prior commitment to the Gospel. But we forget that prior commitments in youth arise out of an allegiance to models—a hero worship—that creates aspirations for the future. Friedenberg, in his book The Vanishing Adolescent, tells us that youth today are moving through the teen years without the models against which they can sharpen their own image and prepare for their own commitments. This is why the Hechingers in their book Teen-age Tyranny say that we give our youth an “invitation to drift” when they need an “invitation to decision.” If the Church intends to reach outside its ranks into the vast army of youth who will set the directions for our future, it will have to abandon its assumption that everyone has a prior commitment to Christianity. In place of this assumption we will have to realize that our ministry is to be shared with those who have no emotional ties to religion, no loyalty to the Church as an institution, and no Christian models against which they can judge their own life.

Updating The Pulpit

In the discussion of the diffident, the discerning, and the detached men who will set the direction for American life, we may be at the point for diagnosing the frustrations that plague the modern minister. If you assume that when you step into the pulpit, the people who listen have a natural interest in the content of your message, an unquestioning belief in your authority, and a prior commitment to respond, you will probably sense a threat to your status and a limitation to your success. If so, your choices for the future begin to narrow down.

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You may choose to decrease the scope of your ministry to the smaller circle of people who are interested, who do believe, and who will respond. If you do, you need to know that you will be the object of the criticism that evangelicals spend most of their time “talking to themselves.”

Or you may choose to remain suspended in your dilemma of desiring to make your ministry relevant to changing needs but being unable to make a change without losing the vitality of your message. This, in itself, may be a major factor in the nervous fatigue and emotional disorders that plague the ministerial ranks.

On the other hand, you may choose to change your assumptions and test the power of the Gospel with indifferent, questioning, and uncommitted men. Whether we like it or not, these are the men who will determine the direction and the character, not only of the political, social, and economic life of America, but also of evangelical Christianity. Let me warn you, however, that if you choose to gear your ministry to those new power centers of our society, you will need a jet-propelled pulpit. Because I see no alternative to a daring move in this new direction, let me describe some of the characteristics of the jet-propelled pulpit.

First, the jet-propelled pulpit is centered in the claims of Jesus Christ. How do you preach to the diffident? According to a survey that Bishop Pike reports in his book A Time for Christian Candor, 85 per cent of all sermons are centered, not on the creed, but on the code of Christianity. If one were to venture a guess for the reason for this imbalance, it would be that we are more sure of our code than we are of our creed. Students in the Christian college who come from Christian homes also reflect this weakness. They are thoroughly versed in the “What?” of their faith but woefully weak in the “Why?” To the indifferent man in the impersonal city, our only claim for attention is the “new reality” of life in Jesus Christ.

Secondly, the jet-propelled pulpit speaks with the authority of the Word of God. When we shift our preaching from the code to the creed, we find that this is where our authority lies. One cannot but recall the first sermon of Jesus when he stood up in the synagogue, took the Word, and began to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. The response of the congregation was, “This man speaks with authority,” and the implication was that other preachers did not. That is one side of the problem. The other side is the idea that the authority which God gives us to preach generalizes to authority on any subject. This is where both the diffident and the discerning fall out with the preacher. A minister is a specialist in the authority of the Word, and his primary task is to give contemporary meaning to the revealed truth about the nature of God, the need of man, and the provision for redemption. Even the diffident will hear this ring of authority.

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Thirdly, the jet-propelled pulpit will communicate the message in modern terms. Once we have a re-established basis for our authority to preach the Word of God, we need to take some lessons in communications. I can never forget the description that an outsider gave of one preacher who stepped into the pulpit: he shifted from his normal voice into a “sonorous, funereal monotone that was punctuated by a guttural clearing of the throat and high-pitched ‘ohs’ for emphasis. Then he proceeded to build his sermon out of archaic pictures and mysterious cliches.” This is an indication that if the diffident and the discerning are not blocked out by our lack of authority, they surely will be by our jargon.

I once preached a sermon on the Spirit-filled life from which I purposely eliminated the words “sanctification,” “holiness,” and “second work of grace.” Afterwards, a minister came up to me and said, “You know, when you started this morning, I thought that you were going to preach a sermon on sanctification.” If we are that obligated to the use of standard words and phrases to convey the meaning of our faith to insiders, how confusing our language must be to a newcomer. The suggestion was made the other day that we hold a conference on communicating the Gospel in terms that men will understand. At times it seems as if everyone is getting through to the modern mind except educators and preachers. The obstacle in both cases may be an esoteric language that only the initiated can understand. What a tragedy it is if men have to battle through a complexity of words in order to find the simplicity of the Gospel.

Fourthly, the jet-propelled pulpit emphasizes the consistency between our creed and our code. Milton Rokeach, who has been doing major research in the area of religion, describes the paradox of religious belief. While our creed proclaims the concern for all men and the freedom from anxiety, studies show that believers have more religious prejudice and greater anxiety than unbelievers. The question then rises, “Is the creed unrealistic?” Further study tends to show that the creed is not at fault; it is the paradox between our creed and our code, between what is taught and how it is taught. The what of the creed is for the dissemination of the Gospel to all men, but the how of the code is to defend the Church from outside attack. Therefore, there is a contradiction between the what and the how. This contradiction becomes particularly acute when the code takes on the authority of an absolute. Then, deeply committed people show anti-religious feelings toward “outside” ethnic and religious groups. They also show the high anxiety of a defensive and protective religion.

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Here is an area where the discerning man can be kept outside the circle of faith because he has to be honest with himself as well as with God. He will be concerned about the consistency between what we believe and how we teach it. He will not close his eyes to those portions of Scripture where we are selectively literal and to those areas of life where we are selectively moral. If we are literal in our interpretation of Scripture to protect a tradition, the discerning man will see right through it. If we are rigidly moral in one phase of life while unethical in another, the discriminating man who is new to the faith will dare to raise the question.

My purpose is not to propose that we adopt the code of the new morality, which makes the individual and the situation the final standard for ethical decisions. Discipline and method are too much a part of a sound Christian life. Neither can we forget that a discerning man is a disciplined man or that an uncommitted youth will readily respond to a difficult challenge. Our code, however, must distinguish between moral expectations and traditional expectations. An issue with a moral base rooted in the Word of God must be firmly held. An issue that protects the identity of the group may be held for what it is, but not for the exclusion of the man who doesn’t understand it.

Fifthly, the jet-propelled pulpit responds positively to new spiritual opportunities. The cult of Christianity is the organizational structure of the Church. As a social institution, the cult has all the elements of formal machinery—titles, committees, lines of authority, chains of command, and units of power. That change in this structure comes slowly sometimes deters the Gospel from reaching a critical area at the opportune time.

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Our pulpits, however, must not be encumbered with the bureaucracy of official action or the protectiveness of a minister’s status symbol. The jet-propelled pulpit should be ready to respond to spiritual need when and where it arises. Although we all agree with this premise in principle, our practice sometimes belies our theory. A newsnote and an article from CHRISTIANITY TODAY bear witness to the problem.

First, a group of ministers met last summer to evaluate the effectiveness of Billy Graham’s ministry in mass evangelism. The particular point of concern was the long-range results of the new converts’ moving into local churches as active Christians. When the discussions were finished, Billy Graham and his methods were highly praised for bringing men to an initial encounter with Christ. The failure, however, was placed at the doorstep of the local churches that could not make the adjustment in their programs to assimilate new converts. They did not have a ministry geared to the needs of people who did not come up through their pattern.

A second example is the letter that you have probably read from Dr. John Alexander to his pastor, published in the January 15 issue of this magazine. As a professor who has caught the “harvest view” of the mission field in the state university, he pleads for the jet-propelled pulpit. When the local church does not attract the university crowd and the foundation house is only partially successful, another strategy is to adopt the campus as a mission field and send some church people into the harvest. The important question seems to be whether or not the pastor has an enlarged concept of the jet-propelled pulpit by which he can release these hometown missionaries from local church duties without insisting that they also leave the fellowship of the church. This is an important question that bears heavily upon the future, because the jet-propelled pulpit cannot be confined to the people who attend church.

This in a sense sums up my whole purpose in calling for a jet-propelled pulpit—a pulpit as up-to-date as the Word of God in its authority, as modern as the latest system of communications, and as contemporary as the newest opportunities for spiritual response.

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In the beginning we said that educated youth who live in the city will determine the direction and character of American life. Having the abundance of an affluent society behind them, they will turn their attention to the quality of life in our society. In their search, the diffident urbanite will discover an interest, the discerning student will come to a belief, and the detached youth will make a commitment. If we ride a jet-propelled pulpit into the midst of the groups that are vying for the loyalties of these people, the claims of Christ will still be heard. If not, we will be listening to the hollow echo of our own voices condemning the world for not coming to church.

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