“Sheep counting,” wrote Claire Cox, “is an age-old remedy for insomnia, but not when it comes to clergymen. It only serves to keep them awake” (The New Time Religion, p. 25). Not since the Depression have ministers had so much cause for sleepless nights as they have in 1968. Like Little Bo Peep they are wondering where all the sheep are. According to surveys conducted by Dr. Laurus B. Whitman of the National Council of Churches, last year’s gain in church membership was 9 per cent, the lowest figure in three decades. “The churches had better begin to run scared” was Whitman’s interpretation of the facts; “the overall image suggests that the church really has to begin to think of herself in danger.” Protestantism is in an “evangelism crisis.”
This is surprising, because many of the Protestant churches of America developed from evangelistic movements. The Disciples trace their ancestry to the revival preaching of the Campbells; the Methodists originated in the Wesleyan Awakening in Britain and America; the Baptists owe their strength to missionary labor along the American frontier; the Society of Friends emerged through the inspired witness of George Fox; and the Lutherans, Anglicans, and Reformed stem from what was perhaps the mightiest evangelistic movement of modern times, the Reformation of the sixteenth century.
The Reformation was an eminently successful spiritual movement. It started in Europe’s most heavily populated region, the Empire; it swept the large cities and urban areas; it captured the imagination of the young generation; it transformed all aspects of social life; and it resulted in a reformed and renewed Church. There is much for the twentieth-century Church to learn from this evangelistic movement. What, then, would be more appropriate this year than to observe October 31, the anniversary of the Reformation, as an “Evangelism Festival”? This observance could remind us of five factors that caused the Reformation to succeed.
First, the Reformation shows that evangelism begins in a rediscovery of the Gospel. Nearly all the Reformers started their careers with a conversion experience born out of a direct confrontation with Scripture. Luther lingered in doubt over his salvation until he read Romans 1:16, 17. Then he could write that “at this I felt as though I had been born again, and had gone in through open gates into Paradise itself.” Zwingli had a similar experience in 1519, when for months he hovered near death during the Great Plague that swept away nearly one-third of the population of Zürich. Professor Preserved Smith reported that “suffering and the fear of death made the claims of the other world so terribly real to him that for the first time he cried unto God from the depths and consecrated his life to service of his Savior” (The Age of the Reformation, II, 122). In 1533, after reflection upon the Scriptures, John Calvin experienced what he described as a “sudden conversion.” Menno Simons, the patriarch of the Anabaptist movement, recorded how in 1535 his “heart trembled” as he “prayed to God with sighs and tears that he would give to me, a sorrowing sinner, the gift of his grace.…” Through such personal appropriation of the gospel promises, the Reformers were reborn as men with a message for a needy world.
Second, the Reformation reveals that evangelism requires a revival of biblical preaching. The rebirth of preaching was one of the outstanding features of this great spiritual movement. Luther and Calvin restored the sermon to its rightful place in Sunday worship. Luther also replaced the eight daily canonical hours of monastic devotion with matins and vespers observed as preaching services. In Calvin’s Geneva, preaching took place in all the churches every Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and after 1560 there were daily services and sermons. Calvin himself preached daily every other week.
Preaching, though frequent, was quite popular. Luther’s sermons attracted large crowds. In 1522 at Zwickau, more than 25,000 people heard him preach four sermons, one of them from the Rathaus window. When Luther preached in Erfurt, the old Cloister Church was so crowded that a cracking sound was heard in the balconies, and many, fearing the church was about to collapse, began to scramble out the windows. Luther calmed the congregation by assuring them that they heard only the devil playing pranks. William Farel, the fiery red-haired associate of Calvin in the reforming of French-speaking Switzerland, turned whole towns into his church as he preached in the marketplace, at the city gates, and through the streets. John Knox, father of the Church of Scotland, drew enormous congregations as he preached in the open air under what were later named “gospel oaks.” The English preacher Chaderton once spoke for two hours and then decided to stop, fearing he would tire his congregation. Instead the cry arose, “For God’s sake go on! We beg you, go on!” So he preached for another hour.
Sermons, even of three hours’ duration, were well received because they dealt with basic biblical realities. Luther’s sermons followed the Epistle and Gospel selections of the historic church year. Zwingli’s were textual expositions of the New Testament books in sequence. Calvin developed his sermons around the skillful exegesis of biblical texts. By returning to revelation, the Reformers preached sermons that were relevant to man’s eternal problems: sin, fear, death, and guilt. The common people heard them gladly, because in these sermons they found a Word of the Lord that uplifted their hearts.
Third, the Reformation shows the interdependence between evangelism and education. Evangelism and education do not compete with each other but are instead complementary aspects of a total Christian witness.
Through the ages many have felt that there is some incompatibility between Christ and culture, inspiration and intellect, zeal and knowledge, church and school. Back in the third century Tertullian asked what connection there could be between Jerusalem and Athens, and this question has often been present among American evangelicals. Too often they have assumed that good intentions can suffice in the absence of instruction. This assumption has no basis in the history of the Church or the Reformation.
Jesus, the Master Evangelist, was also the world’s greatest Teacher. Paul, who labored more than all others to spread the Gospel in the ancient world, taught the intellectuals on Mars Hill, Athens, and lectured for three years in the School of Tyrannus at Ephesus. The monastic missionary movement of the Middle Ages created academies, and the university was born in the Church. The Great Awakening in colonial America produced schools such as Princeton. Many of the nation’s denominational colleges owe their origin to frontier revivals.
In return, Protestantism was born in the university. Luther became a Protestant as he struggled with the Scriptures while preparing lectures in his tower study. He always linked prayer and study, saying, “Prayer begins the study of Theology, meditation continues it, and experience confirms it.” Protestantism was first taught in the lecture hall and was disseminated by professors and students. Wittenberg University, with such teachers as Luther and Melanchthon, drew students from all Europe. It was so popular that Shakespeare presents Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, as a Wittenberg student.
Calvinism gave birth to many universities, including Harvard and Geneva. To Geneva came persecuted Protestants, as John Knox from Scotland, the Marian Exiles from England, and the Huguenots from France, who eventually returned home devout Calvinists. The process of instruction became formalized with the founding of the Geneva Academy by John Calvin and Theodore Beza. From this school educated evangelists went out to Italy, France, the Low Countries, and the British Isles. Its influence cannot be measured.
The Reformers also stressed education for the clergy. Because they taught the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, they could not minimize the importance of a professionally trained corps of ministers. For if every believer was a witness, then the laity needed instruction from well-trained pastors as never before. Luther became more convinced of the need to educate the clergy after the Saxon Visitation of 1529 revealed that some preachers were so religiously illiterate that they were delivering sermons on such topics as how to brew beer. Calvin emphasized education in Geneva by restoring the office of doctor or teacher in the church alongside the roles of pastor, elder, and deacon. Both Zwingli and Calvin delivered “extension course” biblical lectures to the clergy. In the sixteenth century, therefore, education and evangelism worked together to give a positive witness to all Christendom.
Fourth, the Reformation discloses that evangelism must use every available means to spread the Gospel. The Reformers, alert to the communications revolution of their era, made full use of the printing press. Tracts, pamphlets, sermons, Bible translations, hymnals, catechisms, broadsides, and confessional texts flowed from the presses. The recently literate middle class was supplied with suitable spiritual literature. Debate, dialogue, sacred drama, paintings, drawings, and stories were used to spread the message of the Reformation. The Reformers were creative and adventuresome in their witness. Have evangelicals today been good stewards of the fruits of the technological and electronic revolutions?
Finally, the Reformation shows that evangelism means every believer is an evangelist. The Reformation succeeded because it rested on the loyalty and labors of the laity. Philip Melanchthon, author of the fundamental witness of the Lutheran Church, the Augsburg Confession, was a layman. It was laymen—princes and statesmen—who presented that document to Emperor Charles V, prefacing it with a text from Psalm 119, “I will also speak of thy testimonies before kings, and shall not be put to shame.” Calvin was still a young law student when he wrote the first edition of his Institutes. As the Reformation spread, men of widely varied occupations gave their testimony—such men as Hans Sachs, the cobbler-singer of Nuremberg; Nicholas Manuel, the poet of Bern; Albrecht Dürer, the artist; and Gustavus Adolphus, the soldier-king. Thousands across Europe bore witness to their faith. Every Christian became a priest, an ambassador of God to his brother.
Some early Protestants celebrated Reformation Day on the Sunday after Pentecost to follow the birth of the Church with the anniversary of its rebirth. In 1968 we could observe an Evangelism Festival on Reformation Day, to beseech God to give us a revived Church in our century.
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