Pollution is news. For at least ten days last summer the great cities of the Atlantic seaboard suffered from unusually stagnant winds and humid heat in the high nineties. Millions of smog-choked city-dwellers began to feel, as Time stated it, “like canaries in coal mines—obliged to perish in order to warn others of potential disaster.”
As the filthy air hung like a curtain along the entire Atlantic coast, from Boston south to Atlanta, other cities throughout the world were facing similar calamities. In Tokyo, a long rainy season was broken by a surge of windless warm weather that made the poisoned air more deadly. A photochemical miasma called “white smog” rested over the city, and in five choking days more than 8,000 people were treated for smarting eyes and sore throats. Australia was in the news as well. Sydney residents were outraged by a smell like that of rotten eggs, which turned out to be a gigantic belch of hydrogen sulfide. In Toronto, where I am writing, the pollution index climbed so high on certain days that all factories were ordered to stop emitting smoke or exhaust of any kind. On a clear day, we can see City Hall ten miles away from home. For fourteen days we saw no trace of City Hall.
The problem is global. In Saigon, the ubiquitous military vehicles are emitting gas that is turning the once leafy shade trees of French-built boulevards to something like skeletons. The pines on the Appian Way out of Rome are in a similar plight. Sweden and Norway were recently coated with “black snow.” In Germany, the stone sculptures of Cologne Cathedral are slowly rotting away.
I recall preaching in Glasgow during one of its famous November fogs affectionately known as “pea-soupers” and not being able to see the back rows of the church. And that recollection, along with the recent realization that world pollution has become an instrument of death, has made me think of the problems the evangelical preacher faces today in trying to proclaim the Word of the Gospel. In many ways, for him it is like preaching in smog.
First, we preach today in the midst of an omnipresent permissiveness. This has settled on young and old alike. Commandments that once were thought a matter of life or death are now on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. The old landmarks that clearly marked out the pilgrim way have become obliterated or sanded over. Carte blanche and laissez faire have been substituted for categorical imperatives of Christian belief. Morality has in multitudes of cases become an item of expediency, not of personal creed. It is considered right for parents to be indulgent, complacent, eager to please; and the result is a coddled and spoiled generation of young people, ready to frown at the least evidence of an ethical standard that says “Thou shalt not.”
A few weeks ago I was surprised by a question from a young man at the close of the morning service. “Can you show me from the Bible any definite reason why I should not sleep with the girl I hope to marry less than a year from now?” For me it wasn’t difficult to do this. But he could not be persuaded. I sent his question to a friend in Europe and asked for comment. He replied: “This is a spirit that has become quite world-wide. I find it on every campus, and members of the evangelical organizations on campus share quite fully in this kind of conduct.”
All this creates smog. Spiritual vision is beclouded. As in Santiago, the capital of Chile, a pall of smoke from incinerators, cars, and industries often obscures the snowy peaks of the towering peaks of the towering Andes, so does this kind of moral permissiveness blot out the vision of “the Holy One, who inhabits eternity.”
A second pollutant is an underlying spirit of syncretism. Modern man tends to unify differences when he thinks theoretically about religion. His preference is for inclusivism rather than polarization, and he shies away from “intolerance” like a frightened horse.
But Christianity is nothing if not intolerant. As James Denney says: “That alone is the Gospel which is an intolerant Gospel.” Denney is now out of date in many religious circles. I have found it common for groups of young people to ask me why we lay such stress on the absolute uniqueness of the Christian faith. “Isn’t this the kind of thing that turns people off?” they ask. When I say that there is no rival to Jesus Christ, immediately the names of other great religious leaders are raised in protest. What about Socrates? What about Buddha? And (most frequently of all) what about Mahatma Gandhi?
A little bit of this and a little bit of that, and don’t exclude any real seeker after truth from your pantheon—this is the prevailing attitude in our syncretistic age. And with listeners who follow this kind of reasoning, one finds himself battling on a dozen fronts at once. As a result, the essential supremacy of Christianity, the basic glory of the sovereignty of Jesus Christ, is lost. Dark clouds hover over the horizons of thought, and it is increasingly difficult to convince people that there is only “one Way,” only “one Truth,” and only “one Life.” Like Isaiah we say: “If one look unto the land, behold darkness and sorrow, and the light is darkened in the heavens thereof” (5:30).
There is a third painful source of spiritual darkness—a lack of expectant faith. Perhaps one of the saddest experiences of a preacher’s life is to preach in a church where the Christians have ceased to expect God to work. The “God is dead” philosophy that had its little dance in theological clubs soon passed; but in the case of the Christians of whom I write, God might as well be no more. They simply have stopped believing that God is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
This is very tragic—and very common. Many men and women who would never dream of staying away from church on any Sunday nonetheless by their conduct and life give no evidence of an expectancy that God could break through today and change everything. The result is deadening. There is no hope, no vital faith, no upsurging confidence, no joyous anticipation. Instead of being confident—“always confident,” in the words of Paul—and instead of being sanguine, buoyed up, expectant, and believing, they sit in their pews as though the judgment day had come. They lack assurance, they don’t have the faith of the anguished father at the foot of the Mount of Transfiguration: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” They worship as if they were at a funeral. They stand to sing but there is no song in their hearts. They close their eyes for prayer; but they do not know the prayer of faith.
It is hard to preach with such a coldness in the air. Dr. Alexander Whyte once asked Arthur Gossip where he had preached the previous Sunday, and when a church was named, he asked, “How did you find it?” “Very cold,” was Gossip’s reply. “Have you ever preached there, Dr. Whyte?” “Preached there? Yes! Twenty years ago—and I haven’t got the cold out of my bones yet.” How many of our churches today are benumbed by this frigid air of unexpectant worship!
There is more. I have found after preaching in many different parts of the world, to all kinds of congregations, through scores of interpreters, that one of the greatest causes of spiritual obscurity is plain ignorance of the Bible. No longer can we make references to the Bible and expect our people to recognize them. They simply don’t know the Bible. Things were very different a hundred years ago. Then the Bible was taught and known, the catechism was drilled into malleable young minds, and though they may not have understood this teaching at the time, eventually it became living bread from heaven to them. The ignorance of the Bible is nothing short of appalling in our times. Try it and see. Take a group of young people and ask them to find the Gospel of St. Matthew in the Bible. You will see many looking for the index.
This is a sorry state. The preacher almost never dares to presume a knowledge of Scripture on the part of the worshippers before him. The TV guide is much better known than the Sermon on the Mount. As a result of this ignorance of the divine Word, there is lack of the spirit of prayer. These two go hand in hand; if one is lacking, so is the other. The preacher who stands to speak forth the truth of God must be sure that he personally is saturated with the Word of God. Nothing else will counteract this deadly miasma of biblical ignorance and spiritual illiteracy. He who preaches must be “rooted and grounded in the truth” if he is to see the truth dispel the mists of darkness and sin.
Other pollutants that contribute to smog-filled churches could be cited. But the ultimate cause is this: ignorance of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. I suppose it would not be exaggerating to say that in hosts of churches, the absence of the Holy Spirit would make no difference whatsoever. Seldom is the blessed Person of the Spirit mentioned. A word in passing when the benediction is said may be the only mention of the Spirit in the entire worship hour.
But he alone can clear the darkness and bring light. “He will lead you into all truth.” He alone can dispel the murkiness and mistiness from our eyes and make us see aright. “God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” This is the wonderful ministry of the Holy Spirit—“He shall glorify me”; “he shall take of the things of Christ and reveal them unto you.”
Our need is for the Pentecostal power. On the Day of Pentecost there “came a rushing as of a mighty wind, and it filled the place where they sat.” Finally last summer we watched Toronto’s smog disappear across the lake as fresh winds from the North in gathering force blew away the darkness, the murk, and gloom. So it is when the Spirit comes. He clears away the pollutants that fill the Church, and the Word begins to “have free course and is glorified.” He lifts the depressions from our souls and we see “the bright and morning Star.” He commands that “his Word shall not return void … but prosper to fulfill the will of him that sent it.”
The way to preach amid smog, then, is to preach in the power of the Spirit. It is to this end that God makes “his ministers a flame of fire.” They transfigure every service in which they preach. The drowsy are roused from their lethargy. Souls are quickened into newness of life. The vision of God is granted anew, and a great hunger and thirst after righteousness is born. Let this be the quest of every true preacher in the seventies. The day of preaching is not done. God’s methods do not change. Preaching is miracle. When we really preach faithfully, with humility, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, something always happens. And that something is always to the glory of God.
William Fitch is minister of Knox Presbyterian Church in Toronto. He has the Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow and is the author of several books.
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