THE ministry of the Protestant churches offers to-day a more diversified opportunity than it ever has offered before. Roman Catholicism always has been careful to put to use among its clergy a wide variety of talents. Taking any devoted and promising youth discoverable within its circle, Roman Catholicism has not only trained him, but has eagerly watched the development in him of special gifts. A remarkable comprehensiveness has characterized the Roman clergy in finding place for many types of ability, so that mystics and administrators, preachers and statesmen, financial experts, scholars, and skilled confessors of souls have all found scope for their several specialties.
The Protestant ministry has been commonly associated with a more narrowly defined function. Two forms of service, pastoral visitation and preaching, have occupied the centre of attention. To be sure, the clergyman in a Protestant parish has been supposed to exercise a wide variety of gifts, often extending the gamut from being janitor to being censor of public morals, and including among his many attempted functions money raising, religious education, expert recreational service, civic leadership, and organizational administration. Nevertheless, this diversity of endeavor has been centred in the minister’s chief business: being a preacher and a pastor.
In particular, the Protestant minister has been expected to preach. Here the contrast with Roman Catholicism is marked and significant. Only a few priests of the Roman church are supposed primarily to be preachers. The centre of Roman worship is the sacrament of the Mass; the centre of Protestant worship is the sermon. This difference has historical explanations into the theory of which we need not enter, but into the practical consequences of which any youth considering the ministry runs headlong. The call to be a Protestant clergyman has always been primarily a call to preach.
A decisive change in this regard is observable to-day. For one thing, the universal tendency to specialization has inevitably invaded the churches. No one man can be a scholarly theologian, an effective preacher, an expert in religious education, a practical administrator, and a skilled confessor of souls. In spite of their historical bent, the Protestant churches are bound increasingly to select young men with a view to particular gifts and to train them in the exercise of their specialties.
Furthermore, the pressure of our centralized population is slowly but surely forcing us to fewer but larger churches, with more diversified functions and with staffs of clergymen representing more varied abilities. This is marked in cities where means of rapid communication have broken down old parish lines and outmoded small local congregations. What with subways, buses, and automobiles, it is frequently easier to go five miles to church than it used to be to go five blocks, and in consequence the inevitable tendency is to combine local congregations into ever more centralized churches, and then to staff these larger churches with a diversified ministry.
While this tendency may be marked in the cities, it is, if anything, more significant in rural districts, where already community churches can be seen, displacing or combining sectarian congregations, and so making possible, instead of a half-dozen poor preachers, one or two good ones, with additional ministers whose function lies in various forms of communal service and religious education.
To be sure, there is plenty of resistance to this movement, but time and tide are with it and it cannot be stopped. Dr. Carroll estimates that last year there was an increase in the number of church members of 573,723 and a decrease in the number of churches of 1470, which, if it is correct, is a hopeful sign. Within the next few years we may expect, I think, an acceleration of this tendency, with fewer and larger churches doing a much more diversified business, and with forms of ministry other than preaching taking an increasingly important place in the régime.
What part the radio will play in this programme no one can foresee, but it seems destined to perform a real function. Nothing can ultimately displace the living voice or make a sermon from a stranger at a distance an adequate surrogate for the address of a friend at home, but that an increasing amount of the church’s preaching will be done over the air is certain, and already such preaching is being at least occasionally received, not simply by individuals in their families, but by congregations in their churches.
The upshot of all this is seen in our theological seminaries, where one commonly finds students, both men and women, preparing for the ministry of the churches with no idea of preaching. That is not their specialty. They are headed for religious education, child guidance, psychiatry applied to character building, recreational directorships, service for special groups such as students, pastoral oversight, religious journalism, teaching in the colleges, and various forms of organizational work from the financial superintendence of individual congregations to expert service in interdenominational coöperation.
It is true that in these fields the churches at present are not prepared to absorb and use the abilities that young men and women sometimes present to them. Nevertheless, the situation is developing and the prospect is hopeful. Many youths who feel neither the ability nor the wish to preach are going, as they supremely desire to go, into the service of their generation’s spiritual life. They will be ministers of religion and servants of the church. The result will be a far richer and more varied leadership for the forces of organized faith, and a far more satisfying career for many young men and women who, not commercially minded, desire above all else to make a contribution to religion.
This does not mean that the preacher’s function will either disappear or be essentially diminished. It does mean, however, that it will cease to monopolize the attention of the church and that, more and more, preachers will be picked for their special skill. Protestantism has relied too much on preaching and has indulged in too large a quantity of it. Many of our churches have had reality pretty well washed out of them by the constant deluge of hastily prepared talk. From the minister’s point of view the resultant strain has often been intolerable and the consequences upon his own life disastrous. Nothing, I think, can stop the movement toward fewer preachers, delivering fewer sermons in larger churches, with the radio at the disposal of at least the pick of them.
This prospect ought to exert a powerful influence on many youths who are considering the ministry. Some who do not want to preach at all will be saved from the obsession that they must preach if they are to be ministers of organized religion. Others, who do wish to preach and to preach well, will be saved from the terrifying prospect of endless Sundays each with two scrappily thrown-together discourses appended to an immeasurable quantity of midweek religious talk.
Under this new régime which youths now entering the ministry should help to inaugurate, where fewer and better sermons are the rule, the preacher will once more come into his own. Indeed, the gist of the appeal to young men and women to-day on behalf of the ministry lies, here as elsewhere, not in asking them to serve the ecclesiastical status quo, but in summoning them to change it. No one has any business to go into the ministry who is satisfied with the churches as they are. We have too many complacent ministers now. We need more who are unwilling merely to sustain the routine of religious performance as the ordinary church has developed it, but who, for all that, believe in organized religion, in public worship, and in the possibilities of preaching.
A youth choosing the Christian ministry to-day, and planning primarily to be a preacher, should aim first at recovering the accent of reality in the pulpit. The parson used to be what the name implies, the leading person in the community. Preëminent in education and information, backed by the authority of his vocation from God, he held a unique and dominant position. To-day the minister is not preëminent in either education or information, and his opinions on any subject are accorded no more respect than in themselves they are worth. People look for light to books and magazines, to lectures and the drama, and the pulpit obviously faces a competition never before experienced. This fact is sometimes taken by churchmen as a discomfiting symptom, and is commonly proclaimed by the church’s enemies as a sure prelude to the minister’s downfall.
As a matter of fact, it is the best thing that ever happened to preaching. It forces the wise preacher to quit his reliance on ecclesiastical authority, to cut out cant, bombast, hokum, or whatever else represents the cheap substitution of wordiness for genuineness, and to make of his sermons a forthright endeavor to deal in a real way with the real problems of real people.
To be sure, plenty of preaching shows small indication of such beneficent consequence, and that is a major reason why, in many cases, church attendance dwindles. That also is a happy augury. People will no longer go as a matter of form where reality is not to be found as a matter of fact, and, while the immediate effect is troublesome to the churches, the ultimate outcome will be salutary.
What the young man or woman headed for the pulpit should remember is that preaching can fulfill an indispensable function in the community. The preacher can tackle the real questions which the people are asking about right and wrong, God, the soul, and immortality. He can face honestly the problems which perplex them in their loves and hates, prejudices, troubles, successes, and failures, both individual and social; he can meet their inward needs as genuinely as the grocer feeds or the physician heals their bodies.
Thus to cut through the conventionalities of homiletical tradition, to break away from slavish subjection to formal textual exegesis, and to make of the sermon a contribution to the thinking of the people about their spiritual problems calls for more than a standardized mind. In appealing for this type of ministry, therefore, one would insist that we do not need more preachers, but better ones. A preacher, even in his youth, gifted with some clear convictions about the meaning of personal and social life at their best can approach in a straightforward fashion the questions which people are asking, the problems they are facing, the experiences that perplex them in private life or social situations. He can speak out his honest thought with no pretense that he knows more than he does know, meeting fairly the objections that may be raised and endeavoring always to help the people to think and live their own way through. He can with intelligent, tolerant, and constructive intent genuinely make the most of his best for the sake of others, and bring to bear on real life the light and power of religion as Christ has revealed its meaning. If he does this he will find an eager following. He may even become to many what one layman recently called his minister — ‘our animated conscience.’
The youth headed for the pulpit should also rightly appraise his immense opportunity as a director of public worship. The Protestant minister, in particular, should take account of the limitations to which overemphasis on the sermon has subjected the evangelical churches. The Roman Catholic goes to church to worship, and the centre of that worship is a sacrament. Now, the value of a sacramental symbol as a centre of worship lies in part in its inclusivcness: all sorts of people, from the very ignorant to the very learned, can get something out of it. The philosopher and the longshoreman may kneel together at the Mass and each extract from the performance what each brings the capacity to see and feel. But, while philosophers and longshoremen may thus be included in the benefits of a symbolic act, they rarely can be seen together listening to a sermon. A sermon is selective; it appeals to a certain mental stratum; it automatically excludes from its range of interest other types of mind than the kind from which it comes. This is one reason why Protestant churches in America, centring their worship in a sermon, have so largely become class organizations — religious clubs appealing to a narrowly selected group of ideas and traditions.
So long as patriotism is expressed by saluting the flag, everybody can indulge in that symbolic act and each can find in it his own meaning. If, however, patriotism’s expression should be thought of as listening to discourses on the Constitution, that would eliminate wide ranges of the nation’s population, whoever was engaged as the expositor.
I do not mean that preaching can be or should be minimized, but alongside the sermon the present renaissance of beauty in worship should be recognized as one of the chief concerns of the ministry. There are three main avenues to fellowship with God: goodness, truth, and beauty. Protestantism has been strong on the first two. Goodness — the ethical stress of evangelical Christianity has been untiring, and, while at times belated in its forms and perversely directed in its tendencies, its zeal and determination can be counted on. Truth — the doctrinal interest of the Protestant churches has been tremendous, and, while often blinded by fanaticism and ignorance, the evangelical interest in religious truth is ineradicable. Beauty, however, has had no such place in the Protestant tradition. Yet for multitudes beauty is the major roadway to fellowship with God.
To recover this lost accent in our churches, to make religion not simply moral and intelligent, but beautiful, an affair of joy and festival as well as of goodness and truth, is crucially important, and the man in the pulpit can further this movement and direct it.
To many youths public worship has largely lost serious meaning, simply because the actual worship of the churches has been so abominably conducted. Our public prayers would often be blasphemous if they were not ridiculous instead, and the ugliness of much of our church architecture is carried out with appalling consistency in the corresponding ugliness in the conduct of the service. Public worship, however, can be and sometimes is exhilarating, exalting, cleansing, and ennobling. It does actual business in human souls. It causes people who have been looking down to look up. It reorients life, redirects energy, freshens ideals, restores equilibrium, and liberates spiritual resources.
A minister may well recall each Sunday the words of ex-President Eliot of Harvard, who, speaking of the days when Phillips Brooks led the worship in Harvard chapel, said, ‘Prayer is the greatest achievement of the human soul.’
Again, the preacher should magnify his opportunity for intellectual leadership. The present distaste of university communities for conventional religion, the common abstention of students from religious practices, the familiar professions of agnosticism to be heard on the campuses, and the still more common confessions of utter bewilderment, are often written upas disconcerting and dangerous symptoms of a wayward age. As a matter of fact, they constitute a great opportunity to the minister.
If he is alive to the situation he will quit his reliance on creedal authority, and, instead of standing outside the turmoil and confusion of this generation’s endeavor to find an intelligible religion, he will get inside. There is little in the situation that can be called unprecedented. This generation, like others before it, but in accentuated fashion, is facing a new world-view. The cosmos in which we live, with its size, its evolutionary process, its lawabiding uniformity, both physical and psychological, its unity of structure, making incredible the old discriminations between natural and supernatural — such major matters, with many attendant factors, have outmoded our old formulations of religion and have forced us to revise and enlarge our conception of God.
Like all important matters, the consequent bewilderment can be taken hold of by one of two handles. It can be approached as a disaster or tackled as an opportunity. The intelligent and adventurous minister will certainly see in the religious questions being asked and the religious problems being faced by earnest minds to-day, not a catastrophe, but a chance for leadership and an open door to a more credible faith. This generation is not irreligious; it is intensely concerned with religion; but it will not, in its intelligent areas, be content with creedal conventionality. It cannot patiently harbor a modern worldview on one side and on the other a formulation of religion which contradicts it.
The present rebellion against religion is, therefore, in a deep sense a confession of concern for religion. The outstanding need is light and leadership. Give us more first-class brains in our pulpits — nothing can take the place of that!
Instead of using the well-dug channels of commercial life as river beds for their lives, let high-grade men set themselves, as many of them are initially minded to set themselves, to the task of honest and constructive thinking on religion. If one type of church will not have them, let them shake the dust of it from their feet and turn to another. There are free churches where no ecclesiastical overlordship spoils the autonomy of local congregations, and even in more highly articulated denominations there is much more liberty than is usually supposed. Certainly there is as much freedom as the average editorial writer, college professor, lawyer, or politician enjoys, and often much more. Freedom to express one’s self in all these fields is commonly a matter of the individual himself, his strength of character, his courage, his ability of mind, his personal quality of wisdom and fair play. If some churches are closed to intelligent thought, the argument is not that they must be left as hopeless, but that they must be opened.
One way or another, the man who has something to say will be heard. And the crying need, which constitutes one of the most challenging calls to the ministry, is for first-rate minds to help clarify and reconstruct the thinking of the churches.
No youth should enter the ministry to-day without a clear intent to help harness religious dynamic for the solving of our social problems. The opportunity is very great. Say what evil one may about the churches, they are still the reservoirs of moral enthusiasm and serious ethical interest to a degree not true of any other institution. These enormous resources of spiritual power often lie dormant or, when aroused, are misdirected, but they are there. Few matters of such moment face American civilization as the unleashing of this power and its sensible and effective guidance to some good purpose.
While, therefore, many high-minded youths of the new generation should and will go in for the engineering side of philanthropy, economic reform, politics, and internationalism, others must deal with the question of spiritual dynamics. In the churches, with their faith, their ideals of the Kingdom of Righteousness, their millions of well-intentioned and morally earnest people, lie resources of power without the impulsion of which no great cause can be brought to victory in this country.
Here, again, the great need is leadership. The mass of our church members are neither bad-spirited nor willfully reactionary on social questions, but they are often uninstructed. They have done too little thinking on the major problems of our economic and international life; they have not seen clearly the relationship between these problems and the religious ideals which they profess; they have never had the social implications of Christianity made concretely real to them in terms of their attitudes toward militarism, war, racial prejudice, and economic injustice.
If they only knew it, preachers have it in their power to work so salutary a change in the whole social ethic of America that the consequences would run out to the ends of the earth. But no third-rate preachers can do this. The opportunity calls for high-grade men. The pulpit supremely needs teachers. And in no realm is patient, constructive, kindly, courageous teaching more needed than in the application of the Christian ethic to our social, economic, and international affairs.
Altogether, the pulpit is one of the most crucial points in the whole line of civilization’s advance. That the churches are in a very unsatisfactory condition this paper has taken for granted. They cannot and they should not stay as they are. But, so far from taking that as an excuse for the white feather, a clear-eyed churchman must surely see it as a critical problem and a challenging opportunity. We cannot permanently evade the problem of the church. Some kind of church or other there is bound to be. If we allow the churches to be dominated by ignorance, bigotry, sectarianism, and a perverted ethic, our entire American society will suffer irreparable loss. Such churches will even put laws on our statute books denying freedom of scientific teaching, and in countless ways will hamper freedom, discourage idealism, drive spiritually-minded men into atheism, make religion a byword among the intelligent, and cripple the most hopeful movements of philanthropy and social advance.
To build at the centre of American life the right kind of churches, homes of the best spiritual life of our communities, and power houses for human service, is a task without the fulfillment of which American life can never develop its possibilities. And the man who must lead in this reconstruction of organized religion is the preacher.