On Saturday, February 17, 1739, George Whitefield resolved that he would commit himself to the task of evangelistic preaching to the coal miners in Kingswood. It was well known that the coal miners were uneducated and spiritually ignorant members of society. Nevertheless, stories of tears running down the coal-blackened faces of these men circulated quickly–peaking the interest of those from the surrounding cities. Arnold Dallimore, in George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century, wrote,
“He had the hearing of the coal miners of Kingswood…and they understood his message. John Foster states that his preaching ‘…had the effect of giving his ideas a distinct and matchlessly vivid announcement; inasmuch as ignorant and half-barbarous men, seemed in a way that amazed even themselves, to understand Christian truths on their first delivery.’ He was equally as understood by children as he was by adults, as Howell Harris tells of going ‘to hear Bro Whitefield preach to little children, many hundreds of them, in their own infant language. ‘”1
This, it seems to me, also ought to be one of the important goals for preachers in our day. Ministers should strive to both preach the word to a diversity of people groups as well as to our our children in the context of the local church. In this post, I wish to focus particularly on the latter group, as it seems as though we have lost something of the importance of having our children under the influence of the ministry of the preached word in our context.
My parents kept my sister and me in the worship service from birth. I grew up in a Reformed Episcopalian church (think Presbyterians with a prayer book), as well as in a number of Reformed Presbyterian churches. I only remember the content of one sermon from my early childhood. A pastor in a small Presbyterian church outside of Philadelphia was preaching on a passage about the triumphal entry. In the middle of the sermon, he emphatically declared, “This was God on the donkey! This was God going to the cross to die for sinners like us!” For whatever reason, the Holy Spirit caused that to stick out in my young mind. When I was 15, I started acting out the depravity of my heart in my rebellion against the Lord. I went to church a few times in my late teens, while living in deep, dark rebellion. It was on one of those occasions that I distinctly remember sitting under a sermon on 1 John 1:6: “If we say that we have fellowship with Him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.” Those words cut me to the heart. Though I wasn’t converted for another 6 years, God used that in my conversion. I began knowing then that I was lost in spiritual darkness and that my profession of faith in Christ was highly questionable.
After I was converted, I observed how many parents kept their children out of the worship service (or dismissed them prior to the preaching of the word). I am in no way whatsoever against a time of worship training for young children during the service. However, after I was converted, I began to think back on the benefits of sitting in the whole service as a boy. I learned the great hymns of the faith. I recited the great creeds of the Christian church. When the Lord gave me a new heart, I sang those same hymns in worship with a loud voice with grace in my heart to the Lord; and, I confessed with fervor and joy the great truths of the faith that I had learned as a boy. I remembered the way in which those ministers my family had us under preached God’s word week after week, book by book and text by text. I longed for the expository preaching I sat under as a boy–understanding it to be the best way for a pastor to minister the whole counsel of God.
Pastors ought to have a deep confidence that the word of God works in all those in whom God intends it to work. Ministers are aware of the fact that there are different soils upon which the seed of God’s word will fall; and, that the word will only bear fruit in the hearts of those in whom the Spirit of God is working. Nevertheless, pastors are confident that God’s word is His appointed means for the salvation and sanctification of His people. The WestminsterDirectory of Public Worship makes this point so well when it says,
“Preaching of the word, being the power of God unto salvation, and one of the greatest and most excellent works belonging to the ministry of the gospel, should be so performed, that the workman need not be ashamed, but may save himself, and those that hear him.”
I often hear parents complaint that their five or six year old can’t sit through an entire service. Then, on Monday morning, they send their children off to school, where they sit in classes for 6 hours a day with very short breaks in between each class. I have listened to parents explain why they don’t believe their children will get anything out of the sermon because it is too much for them to grasp. Granted, ministers of the Gospel must labor to make God’s word clear and understandable to the children from the pulpit, as much as they do for the adults. Again, the Directory of Public Worship states,
“The servant of Christ…is to perform his whole ministry…Plainly, that the meanest [i.e. most uncultured or uneducated] may understand; delivering the truth not in the enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect; abstaining also from an unprofitable use of unknown tongues, strange phrases, and cadences of sounds and words; sparingly citing sentences of ecclesiastical or other human writers, ancient or modern, be they never so elegant.”
However, we must also remember that it is just as important for our children to be under the influence of the ministry of the word of God as it is for them to understand what they are hearing. There may be many years between the fruit that is born in their hearts and the influence that God’s word was having on them. While I did not recall so much of what was preached during my childhood, I remembered the example of faithful men standing before the people of God, having diligently prepared each week to feed us with the unadulterated word of God and the Gospel.
One of the greatest joys I have had as a father is getting to sit with my children in corporate worship when I am not leading or preaching. It is the highlight of my week to look over and see my boys sitting under the ministry of a man who has faithfully prepared to open the Scriptures and preach God’s truth to the hearts of His people for the salvation of their souls. Another joy has been debriefing with my sons after I have had the privilege of preaching–to hear them recite the truths they have just heard. I don’t know what my boys will grow up remembering. I can’t change their hearts or see what is happening within. The Holy Spirit has to grant that inner illumination of the Scriptures by His power and grace. Of course, my prayer is that they will remember far more than I did as a boy. But, of this much I am confident: They will remember the example of the gathered assembly coming together to worship the living and true God. They will remember the faithful expository ministry of the word of God from the pulpit. They will remember sitting under the rich liturgy of calls to worship, psalms, hymns, prayers, confessions, assurances of pardon, preaching and benedictions. They will remember witnessing the communion of the saints, as God’s people together feed by faith on Christ as they feed on the bread and the wine. Most importantly, they will have been under the influence of the ministry of the word of God throughout; and, there’s no more important place to be!
1. Arnold Dallimore George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990) p. 199.