Sunday, June 20, 2021

When Are We Going To Finish?

My wife and I had just concluded a successful Marriage Joy seminar in a church on the Gold Coast in Queensland where, as the tourist brochures remind us, the weather is beautiful one day and perfect the next.
I was the invited speaker at the Sunday morning service of the host church, a young and growing Uniting Church congregation with a Methodist heritage. I decided I would speak on revival and tell some little-known stories of early Methodist revival in Australia, and in Queensland in particular.
It was a beautiful, warm morning and the sanctuary was crowded. The church was obviously reaching families as there were many children in the meeting. The program was jam-packed. There was an extensive song service. Children and young people performed items. There seemed to be endless announcements and news reports. It was a busy church with activities happening all round. This was good to see and I was delighted with the way the church was growing. But I was not so delighted with the way the program was also growing. It was time to conclude the service and I hadn’t yet said a word. It was obvious my speaking time was going to be seriously eroded.
Finally, the moment came. ‘Take your time,’ the minister whispered in my ear. ‘The people want to hear what you have to say.’
Emboldened by this, I decided not to shorten my address but to share everything I had prepared. It was never easy going. The children were restless and some parents were distracted. A little brown-haired girl persistently broke away from her mother and escaped triumphantly down the aisle. A couple of small boys were playing with toys on the floor, their shirts hanging out and their hair tousled and untidy. In spite of frequent exhortations from their parents to ‘Sshh’ they continued to make car noises and sounds of collision.
A handful of teenagers sat reluctantly towards the back, doing their best to demonstrate their disinterest, slouching in their seats, with vacant expressions on their acne-pocked faces.
But I pressed on, regardless. I was about two-thirds of the way through when I came to what I thought was the best part, the story of the great Methodist pioneer minister, Rev William Taylor.
In 1876, at the young age of 31, Taylor had been appointed to the Methodist Church at Toowoomba, Queensland. Here, in this community of 4,700 people, he had found a ‘contented’ congregation of about 80 members, who were, in his opinion, ‘too contented by far.’ He managed to persuade them to shift to the local School of Arts hall for one Sunday and some 300 people turned up in the morning. The number grew to about 500 at night!
For the next 18 months they continued in that hall. By ‘a gracious and wonderful visitation of the Holy Spirit a blessed revival swept the town,’ recalled Taylor and a new church building was erected. It was Toowoomba’s ‘first baptism of fire.’
Taylor spared no energy in his pursuit of spiritual revival. In Taree, NSW, in the three years from 1879-82, he preached 463 sermons, conducted 350 class meetings, baptized 130 children and travelled nearly 15,000 miles, mostly on horseback or by rowing boat.
In one series of special services, he preached to full churches, sometimes with people standing outside. At times, he could hardly be heard because of ‘suppressed sobs and cries of “Glory!”’ There were 180 professions of faith. This was all, he said, ‘absolutely… the result of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.’
In 1884, he was appointed to the languishing York Street church in Sydney. Here he used innovative means and an emphasis on prayer to revive the flagging fortunes of the church. Ultimately, it became the Central Methodist Mission and later Wesley Mission, with its numerous congregations, its extensive welfare program and its nation-wide influence.
Taylor’s passion for revival was well expressed in a sermon he preached to the New South Wales Methodist Conference in 1912. He pleaded with them, ‘Back to Wesley! Back to the upper room! Rekindle the waning fires of the Church’s inner life! Give the Holy Ghost an opportunity, even yet, to make us the great soul-saving force of the twentieth century!’ He challenged the ministers. ‘Put fire in the pulpit, and you will soon get fire in the pew.’
I was well into this story, powering along with enthusiasm and verve, as I warmed to my subject, when a man in the congregation raised his hand. I thought he must have wanted to know something about Taylor. But his concerns were quite different.
‘When are we going to finish?’ he asked politely. ‘I reckon we’ve been here long enough.’
This was not what I had expected! I was caught completely off guard. I looked to the pastor for guidance and he had his head down as if in prayer. I glanced around the room searching for elders or stewards who might come to my rescue. No one moved. No one gave any indication of moving.
So I mumbled something about being almost through, finished my story promptly and wrapped things up.
I learned afterwards that this man had never attended the church before. He had come for the first time that day looking for some spiritual encouragement. Furthermore, his wife had just had a baby and he was anxious to get away from church so he could visit her.
I thought later of George Bernard Shaw’s line in his play Major Barbara that you can’t talk religion to a man with bodily hunger in his eyes. And how that Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon advised his students that it was no good preaching long sermons to farmers who had cows waiting to be milked.
Less sometimes is best. Or putting it differently, genuine ministry addresses the whole personality, not just the soul.
I don’t know what the congregation learned from me that day but I learned something from them. A man whose wife has just had a baby does not want a long sermon.
What’s that? The same applies to stories as well? OK. Point taken. I’m through. Amen.

Barry Chant

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Barry Chant is a regular speaker at church services, seminars, conferences and conventions. Hundreds of thousands of his books have been sold around the world. He has degrees in arts, theology and ministry, a diploma in education and a PhD in history. He was the co-founder and former president of Tabor College, Australia.

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