The preaching of the Gospel is more than a mere utterance of certain historical facts with deductions therefrom; more than a declaration of certain doctrines with their applications. It is a highly complex intellectual, moral and spiritual act. Two men may deliver the same sermon. There may be similarity of voice, of manner, of delivery, but one of these men will preach the sermon, the other only recite it. The difference may be almost beyond definition, yet it will be felt. At the bottom it will be found to be this:—That one man is a preacher and the other is not.
So then the man himself matters? Indeed he does, and to the extent that it is not the declaiming of what may be called a sermon that makes a man a preacher, but the man who, through self-expression, by being what he is, makes such an utterance preaching. First the preacher, afterwards the preaching.
And in the preacher the first essential to effectiveness and success is what we have called designation, and designation is in part natural and in part spiritual. Natural fitness and spiritual calling, gifts, graces and a divine revelation made to his own consciousness—without these the occupation of the preacher's office, especially in the capacity of the separated ministry, can only be a perpetual misery and mortification to the so-called preacher. To those who come to him for guidance in the things of God the result of their absence may be incalculable and eternal!
And, alas! there are to be found, in the ministry of all the churches, men in whom natural and spiritual qualifications for their work are absent and have always been absent. Concerning such men but a few words, and those in reply to the reminders that we are continually receiving of the ineptitudes and inaptitudes of preachers. These things form a favourite topic with some people, to whom we will at once say, that while there may be misfits in the pulpit, probably they are there in no greater numbers than in other walks of life. We have known such misfits at the bar; in the surgery; in the shop; at the bench. The preacher's failure is of all failures the most public, and consequently more discussed than are such other examples as we have named. We have been so often told that "the fool of the family goes into the Church" that we find a natural satisfaction in pointing out that this particular fool is to be met with in every lane of life. Never a war which does not reveal his presence in the army; never a political campaign in which we do not see him being shouldered into Imperial Parliament. Never do men talk together of their experiences of bodily suffering, as sometimes even the least morbid of us will, but some one is found to recall afflictions at the hands of the physician of little wit. The "incompetent" is everywhere and if, sometimes, he finds his way into the pulpit, those who jeer at the Church on his account have little room for scorn.
But, true as is this reply to the oft-repeated gibe to which we have referred, it is also true that nowhere does the square man in the round hole do quite as great and as lasting injury as he does from the pulpit. The right man for the work—that must be the ideal of the Church, that man and no other, whatever be the consequence in the way of offending well-to-do supporters whose dream it has been that son of theirs shall "wag his head in a pu'pit," whatever be the disappointment caused to the uninspired ambitions of callow youth or the conceit of later years. The pulpit is not for sale! The honour of standing there is not to be dispensed as a reward or allowed as a compliment. Wealth has no rights and poverty no disabilities as to the occupancy of this high place. Only the preacher must be suffered there!
And on this matter the Church must be jealous and alert. Sometimes the responsibility for the presence of the wrong man in the pulpit rests with her rather than with the man himself. It is open to question whether the Church always regards with quite sufficient seriousness this business of putting names "upon the plan." We have known cases in which an individual has been persuaded against his own knowledge of his qualities to set out upon a career which has brought to himself nothing but failure and to the churches and congregations to which he has ministered nothing but trial. We do well to be anxious to help men into paths of Christian service, but it is needful to study the adaptation of the man for the task. To send any man into the work of preaching, either as a minister or as a lay preacher, merely to "find him something to do," in order that he may be "encouraged in the good way," as has been done in many and many an instance, is simply to prepare difficulties for some one else to face. It is not sufficient reason for aiding a man's progress to the pulpit that his ambitions run in that direction, or that his relatives wish to see him in the preacher's office. We have hinted at the possibility of giving offence, and, of course, it is not pleasant to do this, especially when, as is often the case, that offence has to be given to people whom you love and honour for their works and character and sacrifices. In this world, however, unpleasant things have to be faced, and frequently the line of least resistance leads in the end to the greater trouble. It is even more unpleasant to have to disappoint the hopes, and discourage the desire for service, of some young aspirant whose piety and devotion you admire; but it is better to hold a man back from the very thing he longs for most than, by cowardly acquiescence in mistaken purposes, to contribute to place him in a position for which he was not born. Has this never been done? Have we never known officials vote a formal recommendation "rather than hurt the young man's mind," or "rather than estrange his parents who are such good supporters, you know," trusting, meanwhile, to Providence for a happy issue out of all their troubles? In the case of a local preacher the providential issue may be the man's own discovery, sooner or later, of his own unfitness. In the case of a candidate for the ministry some Connexional Committee sitting in some distant town "may take a stand we cannot take who are on the spot." These providences do not always come to pass. The brother concerned does not always discover his unfitness. He is frequently quite satisfied with himself, and remains so to the end of a career long drawn out, with a persistent contentment which would be amusing if its results were not so tragic. The Central Committee does not invariably "find out for itself" the facts we are afraid to communicate, and, as a consequence, the candidate goes successfully through, and in after years, as like as not, becomes a Conferential problem. Often the truest kindness lies in doing the thing hardest to do and most painful to bear, and in the doing of this thing the sacred obligation of the church may consist. Here is a lesson that needs learning and remembering. No man becomes a preacher in Methodism except with the assent and calling of the Church. This must not be forgotten when preachers are being criticised. Do you say that such and such an one ought not to be in the pulpit? It is probably quite true, but it is also true that some Church helped him up the stair. He, poor man! is not the only person to blame for your unsatisfied hunger; your unquenched thirst; your empty pews!
But, to look at this matter of designation more in detail:—We have said that it includes natural fitness and spiritual gifts and is made manifest in a divine revelation to the consciousness of the person concerned. Of this natural fitness, it may go without saying, the gift of public speech will form a part. This should surely be regarded as indispensable, yet how often do we come across instances in which the importance of this prime essential seems to have been altogether overlooked? It is not maintained that every pulpiteer need be a Demosthenes, or that a man must possess the golden mouth of a Chrysostom before he stands up to address his fellows on the concerns of the soul. In these days orators are not numerous, and, if no man be permitted to preach who does not possess this infrequent gift, preachers will be few, while some of the greatest forces of the day will be banished from the pulpit. What is needed is that a man be able to express himself in such a manner as to command and retain the attention of those to whom he speaks, and that, without outraging the just sensibilities of the hearer whom he is sent to bless, he shall be able to tell out the thing that is in him. Congregations are not generally unreasonable in their requirements; indeed, as a rule they are predisposed to indulgence, which has been well for some of us. They do not clamour for an exhibition of elocution twice every Sunday. They do not come to church demanding to hear in every preacher the wonder of his age. But they do ask that a man be audible; that his voice, if not melodious as a silver bell, be human; that his pronunciation, if not faultless, be distinct, and his delivery without painful hesitancy or torrential rush. Surely these requirements are reasonable enough, and it is, at least, open to question whether a man who, manifestly, can never be able to meet expectations so moderate should consider himself, or be deemed by others, as unmistakably marked out for a preacher of the word.
Along with the gift of utterance to be required in the man who is designated to the pulpit will, almost invariably, be found a mind studiously inclined. The days are gone when it was held that study for the work of preaching the Gospel involved dishonour to the Holy Spirit and unbelief concerning the promise of the divine enlightenment and guidance. The words of Paul to Timothy are now accepted as a necessary principle of pulpit preparation. "Study to shew thyself a workman needing not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth," wrote the Apostle; but it is not every man who is gifted for study. Books, to some, are irksome, and much study a weariness to the flesh. They "simply cannot do it," try as ever they may. Now we will not say that such a man can never become a preacher. We will not even say that he can never become a great preacher. There are some great students who read few printed books—unconscious students, you might almost call them. Again, some men arrive at great truths through intuition, and by natural endowment of words are able to express them with an artless art beyond the power of academies to teach. We must never forget that some of our greatest and most successful preachers have been "failures" at college and "hopelessly out of it" in examinations. Still, such men are exceptions, and exceptions who, in almost every instance, have, in various ways, given such proof of their exceptional endowments that there has been little danger of their lack of bookishness proving a barrier to their election for labours for which they were, from obvious evidences, designed. Notwithstanding all that may be said of these exceptional cases it should be wisely and carefully discussed whether the man who always prefers the street to the study, the crowd to the class, the newspaper to the treatise, was ever meant to spend his life in instructing his fellows in matters that call for the deepest thoughts of men.
It is, however, quite possible that a man may have gifts of public speech, and possess a studious disposition, and still be without the preaching mind. Such a mind will be more sensitive to spiritual truths and influences than the average intellect. It will manifest a talent for religion, a natural interest in things that are divine and heavenly for their own sake and not merely because they are to form the themes for appointed discourses. The "delight," as well as the life work, of such a mind will be in the Law of the Lord. Its possessor will not find himself hopelessly bored by the study of theology any more than the born physician will find himself hopelessly bored by the study of physiology or anatomy or pathology or materia medica. Again, to the preaching mind spiritual vision and spiritual hearing will commonly be attended with less effort than in the case of most men; though even the preacher will find that there are times and times. Spiritualism talks of its "mediums," some of whom are said to "see" while others are said to "hear." The preaching mind will be in the best sense both clair-voyant and clair-audient. Call the man a seer, if you will, and speak of preaching as prophecy, and you will describe as well as it can possibly be done the designated preacher and his work. It remains to be predicated that such a man will possess, at least, a more than ordinary endowment of tact and aptness in dealing with men, holding keys to their consciences and their hearts. He will have some special gift of natural power to move his fellows toward the action they would rather not perform. He will abound in that precious sympathy with humanity that feels the truth concerning other lives which it cannot always know. To express our meaning in still another tabloid phrase:—The man meant for the pulpit will possess a genius for spiritual things.
In these few, incomplete lines we have indicated some of the natural gifts whose possession should be held essential to the proof of a man's designation for the preacher's vocation. Before the Church suggests this service to one of her sons she should be satisfied of the presence of these qualifications; not, of course, as matured and perfected talents—that would be to ask the impossible—but as evidenced in signs visible to the searching eye. Before a man yields to such a suggestion, however kindly and urgently expressed, even if it only point to a place on the plan of some struggling rural circuit, he should know that nature has already in some degree fashioned the instrument for the work.
But natural endowments and indications are not—need we say?—the whole necessity. Our fathers talked not only of "gifts" but also of "graces" and of "fruits" as well. The work of religion should be realised by the preacher as a personal experience and prove itself in a life accordant therewith. It is perfectly true that every hearer ought to be as good as the preacher, but, paradoxical as the remark may appear, it is none the less true that the preacher ought to be better than those to whom he preaches. It is an absolutely sound instinct for the fitness of things—an instinct honourable to the preacher's office—which asks that he who discourses concerning the elements of piety, calling upon men to embody them in works of faith and righteousness, should prove his own possession of those elements in the same way. It was laid down of old time that "they must be clean that bear the vessels of the Lord." "Who," asks the Psalmist, "shall ascend into the hill of the Lord, or who shall stand in His holy place? He that hath clean hands and a pure heart, who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity nor sworn deceitfully."
So, before the Church sends out a man to preach let her search his life to see not only whether he is able, but, also, whether in his character and deportment grace and truth are so displayed as to give him authority in calling upon others to live the holier life. Let the Church look, too, for some signs of whole-heartedness in religion. Zeal must be regarded as indispensable. We have heard a Circuit Quarterly Meeting refuse to accept the recommendation of a young man for the plan because he invariably failed to attend the Sunday night prayer meeting in his own church. Would that every Quarterly Meeting had the moral and spiritual courage to take so wise and discriminating a course! Further, when the church has asked a man to assume the ministry of the word, let him see to it that he take the candle of the Lord into the secret places of his heart and search diligently therein lest, in going up, he take with him that which will spoil his labours and bring dishonour upon the truth! He had better a thousand times tarry for a more perfect work of God to take place in his soul than do that!
And now comes the greatest and most vital question of all. To a man may be given gifts many and acceptable; he may have received grace for grace; he may have known deep and wonderful experiences of heavenly things, and yet it may not be the will of God that he shall be numbered with the preaching host. There are other noble kinds of work demanding all the qualifications already named, and his powers may be given to be expended in one of these. The preacher's designation, therefore, is never complete until the Holy Spirit has spoken in his soul the direct command of God. This must be clear and unmistakable. Personal desire and ambition so often lead men astray. "Beloved, try every spirit whether it be of God." This is a word to be followed here. If only it had always been remembered how many tragedies had been averted!
For God does directly call those whom He will for this office, and those whom He so calls will certainly recognise His voice. This is assumed everywhere in the Scriptures. This is proved in the experience of the ages. How often in the Old Testament do we find the record of such a revelation? Samuel in the Temple, in the darkness and silence of the night, hears with the ears of childhood the word that invites him to his destiny. To Isaiah, "in the year that King Uzziah died," comes in the Holy Place from "a throne high and lifted up" the question, "Whom shall I send and who will go for us?" and he answers, "Here am I, send me." In the terms of these histories is enshrined the story of the vivid way in which the Almighty revealed His will to the conscience of men of old time. The narratives of the New Testament still further illustrate the manner of the divine compelling. How urgent His call may be, is heard in such a cry as this; "Woe is me if I preach not the Gospel!" Here was a man to whom preaching was no personal ambition, no mere means of livelihood, who, indeed, "wrought with his own hands that he might not be chargeable to any." To Paul this ministry was a divine compulsion; a duty only to be escaped at the cost of spiritual peace, of the serenity of perfect obedience. In all generations this experience has been repeated. Read the life stories of those who have wrought great works with the hammer of the word, and in every such record you will certainly light upon a page upon which will be told the story of the call that could not be disobeyed. The older biographies of our own preachers abound in accounts of how they were spoken to from on high. In those days there was little earthly advantage to be gained from the work of a Primitive Methodist preacher, itinerant or local. Persecutions were many and the labour was hard—very hard. Often do we read of men struggling to escape from the order which had come unto them, and only yielding at last, because, for love of Him who entreated them, they could do no other. "Sent by my Lord," they cried, "on you I call!"
And this clear word which came to men of old time, which has always come to the man whose work was to lie in the breaking of the bread of life—this clear word must still be regarded as essential to a perfect designation. Of course, there is but one man to whom this supreme indication will be apparent, the man to whom the voice has come; so that with the preacher, himself, lies the final responsibility of his presence in the pulpit—a sent, or unsent, man. Do we say that it is to ask a hard thing to insist that no one shall preach who cannot say confidently that he knows himself to have been moved of God to this place and labour? Hard, perhaps, it may seem, but "strait is the gate and narrow is the way" into this excelling service. There are many hard things in the ordinances of the Kingdom, and, perhaps, it has not been well that we have so often sought to broaden the path, to widen the gate. Possibly there might be fewer preachers if all we have laid down were insisted upon, but there might be more power; there might be more success.
Designation made plain by gifts, graces and an inward sense of Divine election—this then is the first essential in the man. The recollection of this will prevent the office of the preacher from being regarded simply as a profession. When a man enters the ministry "for a living," or because, forsooth, he has social aspirations, he has taken a downward, and not an upward, step. When he comes into the work because all his nature, all his experiences, all the results of religion in his heart and life urge him on, the Lord saying "Go thou and I will be with thee," then glorious is his calling, and glorious will be his record when the day is done!