Prophets or Engineers

Would we move the world, not earth but heaven must be our fulcrum.

IN the prevailing social unrest the clergy have received their share of the general criticism and condemnation. This criticism is not personal. There is little fault found with the average minister’s moral earnestness; he is not accused of laziness, selfishness, or ignorance. But there is a widespread belief that the minister has lost a large measure of his former influence, and is no longer the recognized leader in ethical advance. His attitude toward life seems to many lacking in moral purchase; he appears to fall short of real achievement; he apparently fails to meet the exigencies of the religious situation of to-day. For the manifest decline in church attendance, and more particularly the absence of men from the average congregation, he is held ultimately responsible; and he is criticised in general for the place he occupies in the world of men. There is a growing opinion that he is surpassed in moral and spiritual achievement by others who make no direct profession of ethical leadership, but who, free from the traditions and dogmas which shackle the clergyman, are the better able to direct the awakened national conscience into those channels of social righteousness through which the best spiritual energy of to-day flows.

That such criticism of the influence of the minister is largely justified, any candid observer must admit. Our age is one of great moral earnestness; books on ethics and religion are widely read, reform movements find enthusiastic support, philanthropy is becoming a science, missions, domestic and foreign, arouse an enthusiasm and are supported with a conviction of their supreme value unknown to the Christian Church since the apostolic age. But in the midst of this ethical and religious revival the minister has been steadily losing ground. Church attendance has fallen off, and the lack of candidates for the ministry has caused serious concern.

Where does the fault lie? Is it in the man, or in his environment, or in the way he has been trained for his work?

An explanation frequently advanced is that the education of the minister fails to fit him for his work. His training leads him too far from the ordinary life of men, leaving him unacquainted with their daily struggles and temptations. He is, therefore, unable to meet his congregation upon a common plane of experience, so that his admonitions fall short of the mark in quibbling over unessentials, or pass over the heads of his hearers in an aerial flight of speculative discussion. Thus a writer in a recent number of the Atlantic1 traces the minister’s declining influence to ‘the fact that there is no point of sympathetic contact between the two parties,’ and suggests that the minister’s theological training be supplemented by several years of practical business experience. Let the young man preparing to study for the ministry first engage in secular business for a year or two, thus becoming acquainted with the world, so that his theological training to follow may not pull him out of touch with life and lead him into the fatal error of asceticism in thought or personal experience. ' As a farmer or a merchant,’ Mr. Leupp believes, as ‘a clerk or a mechanic, he would learn more of the world, its burdens and temptations, in two years, than in twenty spent in theological study, or preaching, or even in paying the conventional parochial visits.’

This suggestion is characteristic of the attitude of a multitude of laymen, within as well as without the church. There is a popular belief that the influence of the minister would be greater were he to come into closer contact with those to whom he ministers; and clergymen with something of the politician’s tact are much in demand. Church committees insist that the candidate shall be a man of social dexterity. A clergyman, advertising in a church paper for a parish, recently referred to himself as a ‘good mixer.’

‘ His sermons are dull,’ is a remark frequently heard, ‘ but he is socially attractive and he is getting hold of the young people.’

Such a point of view has one vital defect; it assumes that the occupation of the minister brings him less into touch with the world than does that of a man of business. That this is so most laymen, unacquainted with the details of a minister’s life except, as he appears in church on Sunday, seem to take for granted. But such is not the experience of those who, like the writer, have passed from a business or professional life into that of the ministry. As a matter of fact a minister sees more of the comedies and tragedies of life, its temptations, problems, joys, and sorrows, than does the average man of the world. Indeed, no class of men sees so much of life, unless it be physicians. The minister needs no special course of training to make him familiar with the common experiences of men. If, like a true man, he wins the confidence of his people, his danger is rather that he will be overwhelmed by the flood of tragic experiences into which he is thrown. His difficulty is to keep his head above the flood, so that his vision remains clear and his enthusiasm undiminished. To add, as part of his training, practical experience in the difficulties of life would be simply to add to that of which he will soon have as much as he can bear.

It is true that the young minister, taking charge of his first church, has not had such experience; but in this he is not more handicapped than the neophyte in any other profession. In fact, his Jack of experience is less embarrassing than that of the young physician or lawyer, for in the majority of instances he is in a measure under the direction of his ecclesiastical superiors and has always the privilege of seeking counsel and guidance. He is in far more danger of exerting a merely negative influence than of doing harm through excess of zeal.

How far, moreover, such lack of practical experience is from being the chief cause of ministerial failure is manifest when we recall the fact that it is the young man who is most in demand in the ministry to-day. When a minister is fifty years old, and has acquired a large experience, he is, too often, not wanted. May it not be that the prevailing ministerial defect is due neither to lack of experience of the world, nor to a training that holds the theological student for a few years aloof from the world, but rather to the absence of another kind of knowledge possessed by the young man, though in a cruder form, in larger measure than by the minister of mature years, — a knowledge which may grow less as well as greater as practical experience is acquired?

As a matter of fact, the minister is already in touch with the world to a degree quite unknown to the past generation. He cannot help it, for, from all sides, the practical aspects of his work are emphasized. The institutional church has, in the opinion of many, become a necessity as the only kind of church that will live in our larger cities; and the minister is fortunate who does not find the greater part of his time devoted to the various phases of applied Christianity. A clergyman who recently resigned from the charge of a large parish in Chicago explained his action by announcing his desire to devote himself to religion, declaring that it was quite impossible to be a religious teacher while preoccupied with efforts to run banks and employment bureaus, with the direction of clubs and athletics, and an endless chain of social engagements.

A man’s powers develop along the line of his tasks, and the modern institutional church is a poor school for prophets. It is not thus that the great preachers of the past have been made. The faces at a clerical gathering are an interesting commentary on the change of emphasis which modern conditions have forced upon the Christian ministry. One sees there the faces of men of action rather than of thought, types of the engineer or banker, the lawyer or promoter, rather than the mystic or philosopher, or even the teacher. They have been made by their tasks. The first work of a minister is still to preach; he is the interpreter of the will of God to men. In theory, at least, it is his task to comfort and inspire, to guide, strengthen, and warn. But he has been forced by the pressure of circumstances to place the emphasis in his work elsewhere. He must make it go; he must interest everybody by devising something for each to do, and each shortlived activity must be quickly followed by another, lest the members drift away. Instead of studying the will of God, he is forever prodding the wills of men. All this he does often in the face of his own conviction that these are not the things that count.

The difficulty with the minister of to-day is not that he lives too far from the common experiences of other men. Never before was he so close to them. But he is too far from God. His influence has declined because he speaks with less conviction of God’s will, and his hold upon the consciences of men has slackened because he is not himself able to draw clearly the line between right and wrong. He knows the problems that puzzle and distress his congregation, but he is in doubt as to what advice to give. He resorts, therefore, to what are called simple, practical sermons, but which are too often ‘tacks across a sea of pious platitudes,’ without any serious attempt to reach port. He knows at heart that every moral act is the result of antecedent thought, and that there can be no noble living without high thinking; yet he is unable to present Christian truth in a way that awakens that ‘admiration, hope, and love’ by which men live.

In all this the minister is largely a product of his age, but this fact — though exonerating him from blame — should not obscure the reason for his declining influence. It is not that the clergy of to-day are less eager to do God’s will, or less devoted in their search for truth. The uncertain note which characterizes their utterance is due rather to the breaking-down of the older sources of authority, and the consequent necessity for reliance upon personal experience. The preacher, finding that the statements of the creeds do not of themselves bring assurance, is driven more and more to seek for conviction by interpreting his own communion with God. The authority of church or book no longer suffices; but the thinking man still eagerly asks, ‘Do you know that these things are so ? ’

For the present age is one of eager questioning. There is a hunger for knowledge, and a thirst for the springs of spiritual life. This appeal for help the minister is too often unable to satisfy. He may give the traditional answers, but he finds them unsupported by an authority his hearers will accept; and just there lies his difficulty. He is helpless, not because he is unfamiliar with the mental and spiritual condition of those who ask, — he can enter very keenly into the situation, — but because he has himself had no convincing spiritual experience which has brought absolute conviction to his own mind, and become a passion of his own heart.

This change, this passing of authority, deeply significant as it is for the future of the Christian Church and one in which, I believe, we shall ultimately rejoice, has for a time thrown the ministerial ranks into disorder. For it means that if the minister is to regain his hold upon the wills of men there must be a revival of the order of prophets — that is, of men who speak because the word of God has come to them, who from out of their own experience can say, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’

But prophets are not trained by the hard knocks of practical experience, else had the world been full of them; nor has their influence been measured by their popularity or their skill in acquiring the facile art of good-fellowship. Moses, of old, was not popular with his brethren, nor did his efforts to mix with them meet with success. The word of God with which he was charged came to him in the wilderness, not while he lingered at the court of Pharaoh.

Elijah, Isaiah, Micah, and the other prophets of the olden time, were men of God rather than men of affairs. They had seen visions of God,

— quite a different experience from that which would have come to them had they concentrated their thoughts upon the affairs of men. Where lay the source of Paul’s influence? Was it due to his experience as a sail-maker, or to the vision on the road to Damascus? So of Augustine, of Luther, of Wesley, of Brooks — men who had experienced what Tennyson longed for when he wrote, ‘My greatest desire is to have a clear vision of God.’ We recall how Phillips Brooks failed utterly as a school-teacher because he could not maintain discipline, and how throughout his life he was unfamiliar with the ways of the business world. But Brooks’s influence was vast, and his achievement real and permanent, because he was able to give in large measure that which men are ever seeking — a word from God, born of a vision of his being and beauty, and uttered with conviction because it was attested by his own personal experience.

Another danger besides loss of influence on the part of her clergy besets the church. While her ministers are developing into good parish-workers and centres of social attraction, rather than seers and interpreters of the will of God, she is in danger of being outstripped spiritually by philosophy. There is a notable tendency toward spiritual emphasis in the deeper thought of to-day. Such work as that of Rudolf Eucken and his enthusiastic disciples is significant. His answer to the ‘Problem of Life ’ is the assertion of the supremacy of the spiritual. While the church is fondling her institutions, secular philosophy is turning toward God. It behooves the church to be careful of her spiritual leadership. The great problem before her is the problem of a Christ-centred philosophy. On her ability to hold this ideal clearly before men her influence depends. Her ministers must be men trained to think with Christ. But thinking with Christ is very different from thinking about Christ. We have a great deal of the latter. If the Christian minister is to be a leader of others, he must be a man of one great idea. He must offer an ideal, a philosophy of life, to which his own life is wholly given. Concentrated attention on some absorbing purpose is necessary to any effective leadership. The present weakness is due to divided attention. The average minister lives the life of an executive officer, and the absorbing passion of the prophet has no time to grow strong.

The manner of life of the minister must change with the changing order, and his special training should be continually altered to meet the intellectual and moral demands of his day. The monastery as a school for the clergy, and the old text-books on systematic divinity, are now both out of place. Many theological schools are encumbered with dry bones, and from the pulpit are still heard contentions over the body of Moses. The minister is not infrequently deaf to the spirit of his age, and fails to perceive that ‘the times call to him as the winds call to the pilot.’ But these defects are on the surface. The underlying source of weakness is the absence of spiritual leadership. The cure is to be sought, not in a more intimate acquaintance with affairs, but in a clearer vision of God.

The thinking layman, so often unattracted by the message of the pulpit, is not moved by a sermon hastily thrown together after a week of strenuous activity in the business of a modern church. He knows before the text is announced that, save for a few commonplace appeals to the emotions, the speaker will have nothing to offer to his hearers. He may be persuaded of his earnestness; but unless earnestness is based on reasoned conviction its effect is but transitory. There is no more difficult task than to portray clearly the moral aspects of some complex social situation, or to renew hope and enthusiasm in depressed and discouraged hearts. Such tasks are not for the remnants of a man’s efforts. No physician or lawyer could hope for success who made his study of medicine or law a side issue, nor can a minister be a spiritual leader save as he gives himself wholly to the things of God.

It is the recognition of this forced division of attention which is, I believe, a prevailing cause, if not the chief cause, of the falling-off in candidates for the ministry. The young man of moral earnestness, casting about for a life-work where he can render the most effective service, turns from the ministry because the work demanded of him there involves a division of purpose and effort which invites failure. He may believe in the value of Boys’ Clubs and Friendly Societies, of afternoon calls and church suppers, of playing billiards to the glory of God, and finding church work for everybody — he probably does believe in these things, for they have real value. But he is eager for spiritual leadership. He has fitted himself by long years of study to do the work of a thinking man. He turns from the ministry because he knows that he will be required to do all these other things for which he is not fitted. Moreover a demand creates a supply, and the ministry is being filled more and more with men who are fitted for the church’s social work, but who, alas, are not prophets with a message born of long and intimate communion with God.

There are in the church to-day true spiritual leaders. But what the average minister shall be, a man of affairs or a man of God, depends upon what is demanded of him by the congregation which he serves; and the training of the minister will also be determined by his conception of the work he will be required to do. It is for the church to choose whether she will be guided by prophets or by engineers.

  1. Francis E. Leupp: ‘The Minister and the Men.' July, 1910.