I was invited to present the opening address to the Grahamstown District Local Preachers Association 2009 Convention. Here is my address.
(PS: Hawk-eye'd readers will notice that this emblem is from the 2007 Central District LPA Convention in Pimville. I'm looking for an image of the LPA emblem - can anyone help?)
WHERE DO PREACHERS COME FROM, AND WHERE ARE THEY GOING?
21 FEBRUARY 2009
OPENING ADDRESS – LPA CONVENTION, BETHEL / DESPATCH
New Testament: Romans 10: 1 – 17
When I was about six years old, I came home from school one day and asked my mother that question that puts the fear of God into any parent: “Mom, where do I come from?”
Those of you who are parents know what I am talking about!
So my Mom sat me down, and tried to explain the whole “birds and the bees” bit, illustrating the whole story about sperms and eggs without going into too much detail about just how the little sperms were introduced to the little eggs! Come on, folks – I was six! There had to be some age restriction on this movie! Anyway, once my mother had finished, I was more confused than ever. When she asked me why I was confused, this was my response: “Because Maria who sits next to me in class comes from Portugal!”
This morning, as we open our Convention with its theme, “The Preacher’s Calling For The 21st Century”, there are two questions that we need to consider: Where do preachers come from? And – more importantly – where are we going?
So firstly, where did we come from? It all started with the early revival movement in eighteenth-century England, which later became the Methodist Church. Our founder, John Wesley, was an Anglican priest, and it was as an Anglican priest that he died. He never wanted to start a breakaway church, and because of this Wesley encouraged those who attended his revivalist meetings to continue to attend their parish churches. However, because they also attended Methodist preaching services, which were held elsewhere, and met in classes, or cells, or wards – call them what you will – it soon became necessary to build "preaching houses" where the Methodist meetings could be held.
These began to function as alternative churches, often depending on the attitude of the local Anglican clergy, even before the formal break with the Anglican Church as a result of Wesley's ordination of ministers to serve in the United States in 1784 following the American War of Independence. Before the split, Wesley only had a handful of fellow Anglican priests who shared his view of the need to take the gospel to the people where they were, as accredited preachers. Because they were only a few, they travelled around Britain like Wesley himself – quite similar to the way Court judges did in those days. Because these judges who travelled around the country to different courts were known as “Circuit Justices”, the name stuck with the travelling preachers as well. This is where we get the concept of a Circuit, which was used to describe a group of churches that was overseen by a single minister. Many Circuits still operate like this today.
As the Methodist movement grew, and because of the limited number of ordained ministers he could call on, Wesley appointed Local Preachers who were not ordained but whom he examined, and whom he felt he could trust to lead worship and preach, although they did not administer sacraments. This led to a pattern developing whereby ordained ministers would spend a short period of around five to seven years in a Circuit. The Circuit minister had pastoral oversight and administered sacraments, but the majority of services were led, and sermons preached, by Local Preachers.
In those days Local Preachers would regularly spend a whole day with a local Society, leading one or more services and doing pastoral visits. The distances were vast, and many travelled on foot. Talk about commitment!
There are of course other denominations that make use of lay people in the leading of worship, but none have developed the office of Local Preachers to the extent that we as Methodists have. The Anglican Church, for example, as well as the Roman Catholic Church, makes use of what they call “lay readers”, but their participation in worship is normally limited to reading the Scriptures and perhaps one or two of the set prayers. Many churches, including our own, also have worship leaders and even worship teams, but this is largely limited to music ministry. In Charismatic and Pentecostal churches, it is usually only the senior pastor who preaches the message. On rare occasions one of the other pastors might preach, but seldom if ever a lay person.
This puts you in a very privileged position as a Methodist Local Preacher! But no privilege comes without responsibility.
Why did John Wesley create the office of Local Preacher? It might have been for very practical reasons, but I believe that he was inspired by the Holy Spirit when he did so. The Wesleyan belief in the “priesthood of all believers” finds its expression through you. And we should not be surprised at this if we believe that God raises up people from amongst us to lead worship and preach. God acts for the benefit of the Church and for the fulfilment of God’s mission. The Church needs Local Preachers in order to hear the Gospel spoken from the context of the world. It needs to hear the expression of Christian faith tested and deepened in the home, on the farm, and in the workplace – in good times and bad. This is the way that Local Preachers complement the ministry of presbyters – that’s us with the Tupperware – in the worship and preaching life of the Church.
In the Methodist Church of Great Britain, they estimate that about 60 – 70% of all Methodist worship services on Sundays are conducted by Local Preachers. I wonder what the figure would be in South Africa. It might even be more.
One thing is for sure – we manage to reach far more people with the Gospel using our battalions of Local Preachers than many other churches that use ministers alone. Two years ago I went to a rural Circuit in the far North West province, called Atamelang. This particular Circuit covers an area about the size of the entire Nelson Mandela Metropole – that’s Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage, and Despatch put together! The settlements are about 40 – 50 kilometres apart. In this entire area there is one Anglican Church, two Zionist churches, and 32 Methodist Churches! Their ministerial staff consists of one ordained minister, who is the Superintendent, and two Phase One probationers. Who do you think does the bulk of the ministry? Local Preachers – that’s who!
Go into any rural Circuit around the country, and you’ll see the same thing. Pull out the Local Preachers, and you are pulling the Gospel out of hundreds if not thousands of communities around the Connexion.
This is an awesome calling – and an awesome responsibility.
So let me remind you what it means to preach. In Mark 16: 15 we read that Jesus instructed His disciples to go into all the world and preach the Good News to all creation. But there are three parts to preaching:
• Firstly, we preach by mouth, being witnesses to Jesus Christ according to Acts 1: 8 in Jerusalem, all Judaea, Samaria, Despatch, Uitenhage, Port Elizabeth, in our churches, in homes, in our workplaces, and to the uttermost parts of the earth. None of us have any problem in sharing the Gospel from our pulpits. But what about outside the Church? Have you told someone about Jesus in your workplace? Or in your home?
• Secondly, we preach by our lifestyles. “By this shall all people know that you are My disciples: if you have love, one for another”. St Francis of Assisi said that “we must preach the Gospel at all times – and if necessary, use words as well”. According to the National Lottery website, tonight’s Lotto jackpot is expected to be around R6 million. Will you be in the queue for your ticket? Are some of you hoping that today’s sessions finish before the bottle store closes? Did any of us give a taxi driver a “middle finger salute” this week? Are these things consistent with being preachers of the Gospel?
• Thirdly, we preach by our actions. James 1: 22 tells us to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. An unknown author wrote this poem: “I'd rather see a sermon than hear one any day; I'd rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way. The eye is a better pupil, more willing than the ear; Fine counsel is confusing, but example is always clear, And the best of all the preachers are the men who live their creeds, For to see a good put in action is what everybody needs.”
We are here in this room today because we believe that we have a calling to preach. But do we truly understand that calling? Rev Dr Ross Olivier, president of the new Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary in Pietermaritzburg, reminds us that for John Wesley, “doctrine, spirit, and discipline were all located within a burning passion, deep, faithful, unbounded passion for the authentic Christ. Not the cheap emotional brand of hysteria or dislocated cheap versions of ‘pie in the sky when I die’ that masquerade as the Gospel. Wesley’s passion led him onto the road of hardship, deprivation, sacrifice, and suffering. His passion caused him, in his own words, to obey not an ordinary call, but also an extraordinary call.”
What is this call? To what are we called as Local Preachers in the 21st century? I want to read further from Ross Olivier’s chapter in this book, “Rediscovering Wesley for Africa”. You should get this book. In fact, all of us should be reading regularly. How can we grow – how can we enrich our preaching – if we don’t read? John Wesley went so far as to say that “a preacher who does not read, shall not preach”. If we applied that today, some of us would never get planned! Maybe we should make this one of the questions at our Local Preachers’ Quarterly Meetings: “Has every Preacher read at least one spiritual book, other than the Bible, in this past quarter?”
Let’s have a look at this call, quoting from Ross Olivier.
• First, it was a call to proclaim Christ in all His offices: The Christ of Bethlehem, the Christ of Galilee, the Christ of Calvary, the Christ of Jerusalem. A call to declare the incarnation of Jesus, the ministry of Jesus, the atonement of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus. Not a Jesus confined to the church, nor even a Christ for Christians, but the cosmic Christ; a Christ who declared that God so loved the world.
• Second, it was a call to declare the fullness of saving grace: Christ before us, Christ for us, Christ in us and Christ through us.
• Third, it was a call to proclaim and manifest holiness. We are reminded that for Wesley all holiness had to be measured in terms of social consequences. There is no such thing as private religion. In Wesley’s own words, ‘Christianity is a social religion, and to make it into a solitary one is to destroy it.’ It is no wonder that on the occasion of the first sermon that he preached, he selected this text: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor; He has sent me to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.’
• Fourth, it was a call to simple living and just lifestyles. This is why Methodists built chapels and not cathedrals. I wonder what Mr Wesley would make of the fact that the Methodist Church of Southern Africa has a property portfolio of three billion Rand, especially when we compare that to what we spend on mission. Mr Wesley would probably also have something to say about our lavish funerals and weddings, especially when our so-called “culture” imposes this burden on those who cannot afford the expense that goes with it. Not to mention the amounts of money that we spend on Conventions, while our Circuit assessments go unpaid and our ministers don’t receive their stipends! God measures our faithfulness, not the fittings we build or possess. What are we actually trying to prove?
• Fifth, it was a call to ministry alongside the poor. Wesley’s theology was formed among the poor and the marginalised. This call ultimately defined ministry for Wesley. It shaped his preaching and determined the priorities for the Methodist movement. It’s time we got back those priorities. For the church is no longer the Church of Christ when it fails to be the church of the poor, for the poor, with the poor. We neglect our calling if we stop going “not only to those who need us, but to those who need us the most.” John Wesley wrote in his journal in January 1875: At this season we usually distributed coals and bread among the poor of the society. But I now considered they wanted clothes as well as food. So on this and the four following days I walked through the town and begged two hundred pounds, in order to clothe them that needed it most. But it was hard work, as most of the streets were filled with melting snow, which often laid ankle-deep; so that my feet were steeped in snow-water nearly from morning till evening. I held it out pretty well till Saturday evening; but I was laid up with a violent fever, which increased every hour, till, at six in the morning, Dr. Whitehead called on me.” When Wesley made this entry in his journal, he was 81 years old!
Are we being true to this calling?
Are we proclaiming Christ? Do we declare the fullness of saving grace? Do we not only proclaim holiness, but also live holiness? Are our lifestyles a reflection of the Gospel, and do we seek justice? And are we following Jesus’ example by ministering to the poor and marginalised, and not just pandering to those who have money and influence?
If being a Local Preacher in the 21st century means that we are prepared to do these things, then we can say that we are called by God to be preachers. But if being a Local Preacher is only going to be about position within the Church, wearing a uniform, and attending conventions, then this is all a waste of time. Let’s rather pack up, go home, and watch the cricket, than waste God’s time pretending to be preachers of the Gospel.
It’s my call. And it’s your call. What would Jesus Christ want that call to be?
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