The Ideal Ministry 6/11 (pt. 2)

In Memory of the 100th anniversary of the death of P. T. Forsyth this year (2021), I will outline his eleven points in the chapter entitled ‘The Ideal Ministry’ (as printed in The British Congregationalist, 18th October, 1906), in the book Revelation Old and New.

6. The Ideal Ministry: A FINISHED GOSPEL (pt.2)

Nothing strikes those who come much in contact with our ministry more than the general sense of unrest. A very great number which to change their sphere. What is the reason? I write off at once many local and outward reasons which need not concern us here.

I know that in a large church there are endless distractions for an earnest man; in a small there is not scope for him, and sometimes barely food. But I seem to find the real root of the matter in an inner unrest, a mental mobility, of whose real nature the victims themselves are not always quite aware. Some may have had no training; some no adequate training. Some may leave college without the love or habit of Bible study; or without the reserve principles which come out to settle things in the most dangerous period, which is middle life; and so they devote themselves to nothing beyond the weekly tale of work.

In due course comes exhaustion and the “sinking feeling.” They have nothing in which they can collect and possess themselves from the tension and distraction of the place and the hour. They never arrive. And what they read adds to the dissipating effect. It is largely the newspapers, religious or other, or it is similar fugitive products; which is like reading the commentaries before studying the passage. That is to say, their mind is being bombarded with tiny particles of fact or fancy in a constant stream; and the vibration, largely unconscious at the time, accumulates to a chronic and mysterious unrest.

How many would increase their peace and power of mind if they would eschew newspapers for a year. Yet to do it postulates the very power which is desired. Or if they were driven to more deliberate prayer in order to neutralize the atmosphere of criticism and mental dissipation in which a press age plunges them. For lack of it men may easily become dilettanti (sic) not in theology only but in soul, religious amateurs instead of spiritual masters, mere seekers, and experimenters instead of experts of the Gospel and adepts of faith. And our creed may come to suffer from what the doctors now call tea-ism – tremors due to the abuse of sedatives.

The ideal ministry must be a praying ministry in much more than in the coterie and convention sense, in the great and not frivolous sense, in the sense by which prayer with the Word is the chief pulpit power. It is no ideal ministry that does not impress people as thinking and working from the sure anchorage of Biblical prayer. And people are quick to feel that steadying, ruling power.

I have often found in my own case too, that the preparation of sermon after sermon, with a constant change of subject, produced an effect of unrest. The mind loses the continuity, the self-possession, that belongs to stability and power. I have found I was apt to prepare my sermons better that myself. Is that an uncommon experience – to spend more on preparing the message, and to spend least of all on preparing oneself for the total work of the ministry?

It is with the preaching as it is with the prayer – the great and hard thing is preparing not for the occasion but for the vocation. Should the message not be the overflow of the preacher’s life experience, and the sermon the ebullition of the message? If we have not a perennial message, if we have but an ideal or a programme, how can we avoid unrest? Do not even the politicians likewise? And if we do not live in the hidden riches of the Bible how can we have a varied and perennial message? But what can you do with churches that experience a positive disqualification for the ministry?

I am sure the real and general secret of the unrest is spiritual, whether my diagnosis in detail be accurate or not; whether it be the case with each individual or not. The disease is secularity of interest. We imbibe much of it from the quivering age. And I fear we sometimes do more in sharing the public volatility than in controlling it. The Church generally is laudably trying to face the social situation. But it can never do so with effect unless it is master, and knows its master, of the spiritual situation. And that situation we are not all facing, though it is our first problem as Churchmen.

How many are sure they have a real spiritual message? How many have the message? And of those who have it, how many deliver it, preach it, send it effectively home to life, instead of merely stating it, or taking it for granted? These are questions I cannot answer, but they are not irrelevant. They must be put by somebody. They are being put by many less sympathetic than I am. It is by our own preached message in all its breadth that we stand or fall, and by nothing else. No pastoral, social, theological work will ever atone for defect in that. Nothing will atone for neglect or inability to feed the flock of the plentiful pasture of Scripture, or to speak to the world the word of God so that they shall either love or hate, trust or fear, and shall listen either unto their perdition or unto their life.

Believe me brethren, as a son of my age I have found all that I blame in my own experience at various times quite as much as by observation. And I suppose there are a few faithful preachers in a time like the present that have not had to address to themselves more searching words on this matter than they would venture to speak in public.

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