A little Time Travel

Oh, for a WayBack machine! This morning I took a little trip back in time, just over 28 years to be exact. I found myself sitting in the Founders Memorial Amphitorium at Bob Jones University listening to some men who are stars in my fundamentalist firmament. First, the rich, poetic speech of the late chancellor of BJU, Dr. Bob Jones, Jr. He was introducing the speaker for the Thursday evening service at Bible Conference, March 27, 1978. The speaker was the brilliant and blunt J. B. Williams, speaking on the subject of Maturing in the Faith.

I don’t recall exactly where I was seated in the Amphitorium that evening, it seems to me that it was a little to the right of the center aisle, about a third of the way down on the main floor. But I vividly remember this particular service. The message made a great impact on me. It is one of the few I ordered on audio cassette (you know, the technology of dinosaurs). I have listened to this message at least a dozen times over the years.

I have to admit, part of the appeal of Dr. Williams (and Dr Bob, for that matter) is their sense of humour. But J. B. Williams was an exegete of the first order, in my opinion. The content of this message is timeless because it is thoroughly biblical, opening up the Word of God in its full power and glory. The strength of the message is the Word.

Dr. Williams introduced his subject by talking about the great problem in the churches: not doctrine, but immaturity. The pulpits of the day, he says, are filled with men who entertain their people rather than feed them. Here is a sample, transcribed as accurately as I can:

“We have a real problem. I’m persuaded that much of the problem we have today stems from the fact that our people just haven’t grown. The average preacher (and I’m talking about the average now), the average preacher doesn’t even have a vision of the importance of the Word of God let alone the development of the people.

“We’re in a day when it is very popular to be a clown — use the pulpit to entertain. Whatever the audience requires, give it to them. Whatever will draw a crowd, give it to them. You can’t develop Christians by being a clown. Not even a sanctified clown!

“I don’t know where we get all of these weirdo ideas we have. Maybe it’s because we are putting weirdos in the ministry. We cannot develop good strong Christians that will stand sufferings and the of adversities unless we build them up in the faith.

“And you can’t do it with claptrap, with entertainment. The only way you can do it is to get somebody with their stupid nose in the Bible, and let’s develop some people.”

I suppose some will shudder in horror at Dr. Williams’ blunt eschewing of politically correct speech. I relish it. We live in a day when so-called fundamentalists are so infected by the spirit of our age that the preachers mince around dealing with problems with all kinds of euphemisms. I suppose people are just supposed to ‘get it’, but I much prefer the blunt, direct approach of Dr. Williams.

The thing that interests me in this sample, however, is how prescient it is. If the 1970s was a day of clowns and entertainment in the pulpits, what is today?

Dr. Williams proceeded to preach a message based on this outline:

I. The Stages of Spiritual Growth
II. The Mechanics of Spiritual Growth
III. The Benefits of Spiritual Growth to Maturity

The thrust of the message is that for stable churches and stable Christian lives, we need to have growing, maturing Christians. Dr. Williams pointed out that you can be a Christian for 40 years and still not be “out of the triangular pants stage spiritually”. The primary means of spiritual growth is the Word of God. You must be in the Word, thinking about it, hearing it, applying it, living it every day.

“Young people, if you develop in Christian life, in the maturity, you’ve got to get with it with the book and really live in it. Be taught in the Word. Understand it. And then when you do you will begin to increase your capacity for life. Increase your capacity for the things God would like to give you.”

I have often thought of Dr. Williams concluding remarks and have actually used them as an illustration in my own preaching on numerous occasions:

“Now you can’t … we can’t have a service tonight and I give the invitation and you come down and get matured here tonight. And [you] go out tomorrow and say, ‘Hey, a wonderful thing happened, I matured last night down there.’

“There are some dough balls that do it that way, but you don’t do it that way. You’ve got to get with it and stay with it. Two years, three years, four years, five years, whatever it takes, mature in the faith. You can stand all the adversities of life. You can stand in the devil’s world, this generation in which we live and be a real soldier of Jesus Christ. The greatest need in your life is to mature in the Christian faith.”

This message is simply a solid biblical exhortation to Christian growth. I have drawn on it personally again and again over the years. It really is a sample of most of the preaching I heard when I was developing and training as a young preacher.

Today, a good deal of the carping criticism towards fundamentalism is given by a vocal set of young men who level many charges against fundamentalism including a failure of expository preaching. There are bitter men of my generation that join in this chorus. I am astounded that they do so. I don’t know who they were listening to back then. I suspect they weren’t listening to anyone, except their own rebellious hearts.

While a student, I was exposed to the preaching and teaching ministries of some of the world’s finest expositors and Bible teachers. I was taught a love for the Word of God and a philosophy of ministry that put God’s Word first and careful exposition and application at the heart of biblical ministry.

Was every preacher like this? Well, of course not. There are all kinds in the ministry, and God can use the fellow who is mostly topical just as well as the more expository preacher, if that man is surrendered to God and faithful.

But overwhelmingly, if your heart was given to hear it, the message of faithful expository preaching was available in the 1970s. Believe it, brother, it was there. Better yet, dig up some of the tapes and give a listen. You will find in those long ago pulpits men who were concerned about building the spiritual lives of the people who heard them.

I suspect that most of this complaint that fundamentalism lacks “expository preaching” is a complaint centered around a slavish devotion to the preaching of certain evangelicals who happen to espouse the latest theological fad. The fundamentalist movement is full of men who spend hours in the Word of God and then faithfully deliver it in their pulpits, Bible studies, home visits, and coffee shop fellowships. The charges against fundamentalism in this regard are baseless. Those who make them should repent of their belligerence and open their ears to the solid preaching that is available in the fundamentalist pulpits of the world.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3


  1. Chris Anderson says:

    A “WayBack Machine”? Man, you’re old. :-)

    I agree that there are a number of strong exegetes in the ranks of fundamentalism. And I agree that it’s not a new thing. However, I do believe that the criticisms of the preaching of fundamentalists (esp. in chapel services, etc.) are not all baseless. For instance, I’ve heard a number of messages from prominent fundamentalists in the last several months–some in person, some via mp3’s dating “WayBack” to Bible Conferences from 30+ years ago. Often, I’m underwhelmed by the content or lack thereof. Often.

    Now, I think the criticism is unjust in this sense: poor preaching is not a “fundamentalist” problem. What I mean by that is, comparing a hack of a preacher with JMac–as if either were representative of any movement–is inaccurate. Poor preaching transcends movements. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not a problem we should address. Thankfully, I think we are. But I still hear too much story telling & meandering. Sometimes I want to should, “Teach us the text, Man!”

    Disclaimer: the author of this rant only wishes he could claim that he has mastered the ideals he puts forth.

  2. Don says:

    Hi Chris

    I think that the standards some are trying to set today are impossibly high. The fact is that only a few sermons are stellar. How many sermons will you remember thirty years from now? How many sermons of your own will you ever remember?

    That is the nature of preaching. And I am not against story telling as a methodology. I think that many are overly critical of this as well. The reason is this: if a man is faithful and his themes and teachings are biblical, the preaching will produce disciples. It always does.

    The way it does it is line upon line and here a little, there a little.

    The standard of judgement for God’s servants is not exceptional exposition or stellar sermons but faithfulness. I think that is what folks miss.

    But besides that, I just don’t buy the argument that there is a dearth of expository preaching and that is what is wrong with the fundamentalist world. The emphasis has been there for many years. Some guys get it better than others, granted. But I reject the notion that we are lacking in preaching.

    I can remember sitting in chapel and being smarter than the preachers. I could tell which ones were great and which ones were knaves. Then I got into the ministry. The hyper-critical spirit in the pew is a bigger problem than the men who are labouring in the ministry.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  3. Chris Anderson says:

    Hey, Don.

    I just see the centrality of the text as a non-negotiable. Illustrate it? Sure. But don’t tie anecdote to anecdote & call it preaching. I think that happens a lot, regardless of the movement one is considering. So I’m not saying that the grass is greener anywhere else; I’m just saying ours should be greener than it is.

    Not everyone will be a Minnick. But everyone should be conscientious about explaining the text and making the main point of the passage the main point of the message.

  4. Don says:

    Oh, I agree with you as to how we ought to do it, but I have gotten a lot more careful about criticising other men and their styles as I have gone along. Who am I to judge another man’s servant?

    BTW, I really can’t stand Blogger and the way it does comments. I can’t wait till I graduate to a better server and a different setup. Still a couple of months away, I am afraid.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3