My thinking about this was sparked by a meeting I attended while in the US recently. The preacher was a fairly young guy (younger then me anyway!) but his preaching was of a style that seemed to belong to an older generation. It was very stylized – with lots of shouting, sweating and ‘huh’s. I have to admit that it was so alien to my culture that I sat transfixed by the spectacle. I felt like an anthropologist observing some kind of fertility rite in a newly discovered tribe in the jungle.
Some ministers that I respect enormously were sitting near me – and they were loving it! They were shouting encouragement, waving their hands, standing to their feet on occasion – and I’m asking myself if I am just plain unspiritual or a ungodly heathen because it was all leaving me cold. At the end of the meeting another friend whom I really respect said, “Well, we really had some preaching tonight, didn’t we?”
I didn’t know how to answer so I just kept my mouth shut. Evidently my friend had experienced what to him was ‘real preaching’ – but I just felt like I had experienced a cultural performance – interesting, but not something that helped me sense the presence of the Holy Spirit.
I find it supremely ironic that an Irishman would make this observation, because this style of preaching is at the core of the very Celtic Scotch-Irish and Southern culture that is at the core of American Evangelicalism in general and the Church of God in particular. As Thomas Sowell points out in Black Rednecks and White Liberals:
Those Northerners or foreigners who visited the South found the style and manner of religion among most white Southerners distinct–and distasteful. These visitors “viewed with contempt people who whooped and hollered, chewed and spit tobacco in church.” Many Southern religious gatherings were not held in churches but at outdoor “camp meetings”–a style that went back to practices of these Southerners’ ancestors in Britain. So too did the oratorical style of Southern preachers and the behavior of their congregations, whether in churches or outdoors.
Frederick Law Olmsted’s description of a typical preacher in the antebellum South noted that “the speaker nearly all the time cried aloud at the utmost stretch of his voice, as if calling to some one a long distance off,” that “he was gifted with a strong imagination, and possessed of a good deal of dramatic power,” that he “had the habit of frequently repeating a phrase,” and that he exhibited “a dramatic talent” that included “leaning far over the desk, with this arms stretched forward, gesticulating violently, yelling at the highest key, and catching his breath with effort.” Similar scenes were described a century earlier in Virginia and at a camp meeting in Scotland, where the preacher was “sweating, bawling, jumping and beating the desk.” (p. 25)
Well, at least we lost the chewing tobacco. (Finney complained about that, too.)
Readers of this blog know that I’ve spent a good deal of time on the Scotch-Irish (whom I count in my own ancestry as well) in pieces like this. Although they have strong points and have contributed to American concepts of freedom of religion and sanctity of private property, the weaknesses of the whole Scotch-Irish scheme were revealed in that disaster called the Confederacy, where a militarily superior force was fatally undermined by an underindustrialised nation that had the bad taste to fight the first major modern war.
We need to recognise two things.
The first is that our own culture has its peculiarities, and has required a very specific approach to evangelise it. That specificity has been intensified by isolation. After the Civil War the South went into an Ottoman-Balkans kind of cultural sleep for almost a century, when its much belated general evangelism took place.
The second is that, if we’re planning to communicate the Gospel effectively to other cultures, we need to do so in a mode that is comprehensible to them. Our isolation has lulled us into a false sense of security that everyone else is exactly like us. The fact that we can’t get away with operating like that the way we used to due to changes in our society is what is causing the current crisis in our church and others.
I’m glad that Nick Park–and I should congratulate him on his election to our Executive Council–has brought this issue up. I recently pointed out that Jonathan Edwards started the Great Awakening when he read (the custom of the time) “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” You can start a revival with a whisper. You can start it with a shout. But you can’t start one without the Holy Spirit.