(NOTE: The following article was found among the papers and effects of the late Dr. Smoothly Softpedal, Professor of Dilutics in the Unitopian Divinity School, located at Wishful Vistas, N.G. Realizing its timely and challenging character, I herewith present Dr. Softpedal’s article to the public. – J. G. Vos.)
How shall we go about making the church attractive to those not interested in religion? Some suggestions that have been made are far too radical. It is not necessary to substitute motion pictures for preaching on Sabbath evenings, nor need we introduce games, sports or social times on the Sabbath Day. Those who claim that such radical methods are necessary lack vision; they are blind leaders of the blind. A great deal can be accomplished without resorting to such compromises with worldly methods.
We should realize that people will be attracted to the church if they find that it provides them with some form of satisfaction. In the case of those who come to church to worship God, there is of course no problem. They are attracted to the church by their conviction of conscience, as a matter of obedience to the Word of God. We shall concentrate our inquiry, therefore. on those who are not concerned about worshipping God. Surely the church should offer them something worthwhile, too. It would be narrow-minded to limit our church program to what can appeal to members who know and love God. We must be more broadminded than that. What can we provide for those members who do not particularly care about worshipping God? Surely something can be done to make such people feel that they have not come to church in vain, that they have received some benefit and should come again.
At this point some old-fashioned soul will probably say that people who have no desire to worship God are probably unconverted and what they need is the old-fashioned Gospel of sin and salvation. “Let the preacher preach the guilt of sin, the need of the new birth and repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, the offer of free salvation to all who believe in the Savior,” such people will say. While of course all right-thinking Christians will agree that there is a place in the church for preaching sin and salvation, surely it would be going to an absurd extreme to assert that this should be the sole message or even the main message of the Church to those who are not interested in religion. To overdo such themes by constant stress is the surest way of offending the very people we are trying to help. They might even get the unfortunate impression that they are sinners just like those who are not church members, and need to be saved from eternal ruin. Needless to say, such an impression would he extremely unfortunate and should be avoided at all costs. Above all things we want to make the religiously indifferent feel at home in the church. We should always be careful not to offend them by too much plain talk about sin and salvation, and by all means we should avoid giving the impression that the church is intended to be a company of converted and spiritually alive people. To make the church attractive to those not interested in religion, we must avoid antagonizing them in any way.
The preacher should also carefully avoid attempting to teach the people anything that they do not already know. He is to be a preacher, not a teacher. People do not attend church to learn; they attend church to be stimulated, if not spiritually and morally, at least psychologically. The minister who attempts to teach the people is likely to give the unfortunate impression that there are important truths of which they are ignorant, or at best have only an inadequate knowledge. Such an impression is damaging to people’s self-esteem, and is not likely to attract them to the church. Besides, there are certain dangers involved in the minister attempting to teach the people, which can hardly be avoided. If he explains such ideas as “salvation,” “repentance,” “atonement,” in simple language so that all can understand, he will be called “too dry.” On the other hand, if he tries to provide something that will profit those with a little more than the minimum of knowledge, the rest will say that he is “too deep.” Above all, let the minister avoid giving the impression that the Christian religion involves a body or truth that can be grasped and understood only by conscious effort and persistent attention.
We must be all things to all men; to the religiously illiterate, we must provide a church program that will attract them without making them feel that being a Christian involves effort and self-sacrifice. The motion picture industry well understands how to make people feel comfortable and satisfied; no conscious effort is required to watch a “movie”; a person can relax in a comfortable seat and allow his consciousness to be played upon in effortless case. Of course the church has a higher mission than mere entertainment; but who shall say that church services should be less attractive to the public than “movies”? Surely the church should provide something worthwhile for those who want to relax and do not feel the need of doing any thinking. Let no one say that such people are spiritually and intellectually lazy. Who are we to call names? It is merely a matter of temperament, and certainly the church should welcome those who want to be enthused without effort on their own part. I repeat, we must be all things to all men. people’s tastes differ; what appeals to some is only boredom to others. It would be narrow indeed to hold that all church members should know and understand the doctrines of the Christian faith.
To come to the positive aspect of the mater, what can the church, and in particular the minister, do to make the church attractive to those not interested in religion? There are a number of things that can be done which will produce excellent results.
In the first place, sermons should be filled with little stories and anecdotes. The wise minister will purchase the volume entitled “Ten Thousand Choice Sermon Illustrations,” so that he will always have an ample supply of this type of material at his disposal. The term “illustrations” is, however, unfortunate, as it seems to imply that these little stories are intended to throw light upon some doctrine or principle, thus making it easier to grasp or understand. Such is not their real purpose or course, an illustration may have a bearing on some religious teaching, but in ordinary cases this will be merely incidental. The real purpose of illustrations in sermons is to entertain people; it is not necessary that they throw light on any truth or teaching beyond the general idea that it would be nice if everybody would be good.
As a matter of fact, the sermon should be constructed around the illustrations. Some noteworthy sermons have consisted almost entirely of illustrations, and if they had the desired effect of making the religiously indifferent feel at home in the church, who shall say that they were not worthwhile? Surely it is time we got away from the stuffy notion that every illustration should make some truth clearer than it would otherwise be. Let m he honest with ourselves: the illustrations in a sermon are the main thing; the doctrines, if any, are only incidental.
In the second place, people who are not interested in religion can be made to feel comfortable and “at home” in the church by the minister preaching emphatically against sins of which they are not personally guilty. It gives people a comfortable feeling of spiritual well-being to hear stirring denunciations of sins in which they are not themselves involved. Let no one presume to brand such people as “self-righteous”: far less let them be termed “Pharisees.” It is always a good thing to condemn sin; it is always virtuous to feel satisfaction in hearing sin denounced. Let the minister blow a trumpet blast against the greed of the capitalists in Wall Street; let him ring the changes on the perversity of Soviet Russia; let him pronounce judgment on the loose moral standards of Hollywood; let him speak his mind in no uncertain terms on the evils of race prejudice in other parts of the nation. All this will he welcomed by the religiously indifferent and will tend to make them feel really “at home” in the church.
On the other hand, the minister should be careful not to offend hi hearers by plain speaking about the sins of which they are personally guilty. If some of the young people are spending evenings on the dance floor, the minister should not risk of[ending them by preaching against the modern dance. If some of the members are spending their Sabbath afternoons in fishing, picnics, auto trips and similar recreations, the minister should he careful to avoid pointed preaching on the sin of Sabbath desecration. If the church is being torn asunder by carnal feuds, grudges and gossip among the members, let the minister beware of saying so plainly from the pulpit. Remember, we must never antagonize people. Besides, there is a better way, by which the minister can do his duty and yet avoid the risk of offending those not interested in religion. It is this: let him denounce sin, not in the concrete, but in the abstract. Instead of naming particular sins such as “Sunday” picnics and excursions, let the minister simply stress the importance of “righteousness”; instead of saying that it is wrong for a Christian to participate in the modern dance, let him extol “the beauty of moral purity”; instead of branding gambling as sinful, let him impress on the people the importance or “honesty and integrity.” In a word, let the minister do his duty in condemning sin and exhorting to virtue, but let him do this in general, abstract terms, thereby avoiding needless offense to those of his hearers who are not interested in religion. Besides, the abstract terms are better because they are more inclusive. By preaching against “iniquity,” for example, the preacher has the ad vantage or being able to condemn all forms and shapes of sin in one grand stroke without hurting anyone’s feelings.
There are also certain terms available for use in the pulpit which are of great usefulness in that they have a highly religious tone and yet convey practically no mean ing to the hearer. Such terms are “vision,” “challenge,” “inspiration,” “spiritual values,” “high ideals.” These and similar terms have the inestimable advantage that, since they convey no definite meaning to the average church member, they cannot possibly offend anyone. At the same time they have an important: sound. Let the minister shout forth the need for “men of vision”; let him stress “the challenge of our times”; let him urge the need for “inspiration” and the importance of “spiritual values”; let him proclaim earnestly “the beauty of high ideals.” If all of these terms can be used several rimes in one sermon, punctuated by a vigorous pounding of the pulpit desk, the church members who are not interested in religion will go home feeling that they have heard a “great” sermon. They may even meditate on it during their Sabbath evening picnic or auto excursion.