Another essential quality of the effective and successful messenger of Christ is individuality.

The preaching of the truth is, after all, man's work for the sake of man, and the man is needful to the completeness of the definition. It has ever been God's way to work His will and reveal Himself to mankind through members of their own race. He does not speak to the nations in a supernatural voice rolling over the land. He does not write His word across the arch of the sky in any way plainer than in that language of which the stars are syllables. It is true that everywhere the inscription of His power and Godhead may be seen; but neither in nature, nor in history, nor in human instincts does He declare Himself on the deeper needs of the soul. His way is to use men whom He calls, trains and equips. Even Jesus, Himself, came in fashion as a man, that He might speak with the speech of a man to the generations for whom He was to die. One meaning of this must surely be that true preaching derives power from the man himself as well as from the truth expressed. In His infinite resourcefulness the Creator has made all men different. Wonderful it is, but true, there are no two men who are, in all things, each a duplicate of the other. Physically, mentally, morally, spiritually, every man is another man. We speak of the average man; really there is no such being. No average can be struck which takes account of all that every man is and includes every quality and peculiarity of body, mind and spirit. Each birth is a new creation. Here comes one into the world to occupy a new point of view. He will see things with other eyes; he will hear them with other ears. He will relate them in his own way, if only he be permitted to do so. Should he become a preacher, the message will be new in his newness. It will gather something for its commendation to the few or to the many, in that this man looks upon it from his own standpoint and expresses it in his own tongue.

It is sometimes complained that in these days the pulpit is in danger of losing that which the individuality of the preacher should bring into it, for the reason that such individuality is being improved out of existence. "There are few personalities that count nowadays," we are told. Time was when there were more. Names occur to all of us, each of which stands in our mind for someone who, as we put it, was a man of himself. All Churches have had such men; our own was rich in them. To-day, they tell us, we are all in real danger of becoming decorously, decently, conventionally alike. We have conceived a typical preacher and we try to approximate to our conception; a typical sermon, and we try to preach it. "He is a typical curate," "a typical Presbyterian minister," "a typical Baptist pastor," "a typical Methodist travelling preacher;" "he is a typical local" -- how often we hear these expressions!

It may be well to give to this complaint at least so much consideration as to ask whether it is true. At once we may say, if it is "the truth," it is not "the whole truth," neither is it "nothing but the truth." There are still among us, thank God! preachers who bring the aroma of individuality into their ministrations, and are a brand of themselves. Some turn of speech, some tone of voice, some distinctive way of putting a thing, some mysterious, but unmistakable, difference of flavour they have managed to preserve, and how grateful we are when we hear or see or taste or feel it. It is like the discovery of a new flower in the woodland, of a new star in the constellation! "It's no a'thegither what he says; it's the way on't," said the old Scots woman in eulogy of her minister. We could mention little traits, which, small as they are, have been on the human side the success of ministries familiar to us all. There was a message and there was a man. But while the complaint is not all true, it is not for us to say that it is made without reason. It is possible that what many a preacher needs, before the success he desires can be his, is to recover nothing more, nor less, than his own lost self. It may be that some of us present a ministry true to type, but false to our own personality.

The fact is that willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously, everybody (and everything) seems to-day to be combined in a huge conspiracy to crush out the individuality of the individual. This is seen in every department of life. It is the inevitable result of all highly developed civilisation. Before society is formed the individual is everything and "one of himself." After society is formed he is one among many; sometimes even rather less than one. In the police-force men are known by numbers. In the world of industry they are described as "hands." Civilisation brings infinite advantages, and life would be impossible without it; but we have to pay the price thereof, and it is part of it that the individuality of its subjects must be subordinate to the communal interest. It will be well if, in surrendering ourselves so far as is necessary for the public good, we do not go beyond this requirement to a degree of sacrifice which involves the loss of our own individuality.

From this danger the preacher has hard work to accomplish his deliverance. It is not only the peril of social life; it exists in the Church, and the more highly organised the Church the greater the danger. Referring again to our own denomination, there was a time, not so very far behind us, when the preacher was largely left to work out his own development. As a result, individuality had in those days every chance to assert itself. The tree grew much as it would, for there was no one to lop off a branch here, to bend one there, or to graft upon this stem a shoot from some other variety. Of course the growth was often very peculiar; luxuriant on the sunward side, starved on the northern aspect, disproportionate, maybe, though often on those curious branches fruit was abundant for those who sought. Probably we would train those oaks, and cedars, and apple-trees in the midst of the wood to more conventional shapes if we had them to-day. Hugh Bourne might have to overcome that habit of putting his hand before his face as he talked, and he would certainly have to use language much less lurid than he occasionally employed. William Clowes might have to abandon his practice of repeating a sentence over and over again in animated crescendo. Henry Higginson might be instructed not to lapse into impromptu rhyme in his Camp Meeting addresses. Joseph Spoor might be informed that if he wanted gymnastic exercises he must take them in private, and never by way of standing with one foot on the pulpit seat and the other on the book-board the while he illustrated, by means of a roll of bills, his conception of the trumpet call to the Last Judgment. These men and a host of others we might put into a correcter shape to-day.

Now it is not contended that gifts are not to be trained, or that it is undesirable to teach and practise a certain self-restraint. No doubt buffoonery has often masqueraded as originality; and the great results which have undoubtedly attended ministries in which extremely bad taste and irreverence have been prominent have not been in consequence of these things, but in spite of them, and by the power of a passion for souls underlying them all. "Other times, other manners," is a proverb we must not forget. That there are risks in courses of study imposed without distinction upon one and all alike cannot be denied, but abundant and convincing reasons support their adoption notwithstanding the risks. It is an old objection to ministerial colleges that they spoil able men and are unable to do much for feeble ones. We hear, often, that such and such a man "is not half the man he was when he left home to keep his terms." There may be truth in it all; but it is equally true that a polished instrument is better than a blunt one; that in the hands of a wise man every atom of knowledge means more than an atom of power. Moreover, it can never be proved that a man who comes from college to fail, would not have failed, even more terribly, without the training he there received. Again, it can be proved that out of our colleges have come men whose ministries have been of incalculable blessing to the Church. In the end, after all, the preservation of a man's individuality rests with himself. The fact is that often we lack the necessary courage to be ourselves, and as a result, we give in too soon and too readily, to what appear to us to be demands to sacrifice our soleness that, thereby, we may become something higher and better than we are. In this way men degenerate into imitators and echoes. Such a man is a power and has such a manner. He moves us deeply, shows us heights we have never seen and reveals to us visions of which we have not dreamed. We are not content to appropriate his donation of truth and rest satisfied with the intellectual and moral stimulus he bestows. God did not make two of him, but we think there ought to be another, and we try to be he. The attempt is always a failure. The worst of it is that in our effort to be another we have ceased to be ourselves, and after such a loss what do we still possess? Perhaps the disaster comes in another way. Conventionality has certain curious notions about the pulpit, the fulfilment of which it paradoxically despises as it demands it. The preacher is expected to speak in a different voice and wear a different expression in the "sacred desk" from his voice and expression in other places. In some churches he is expected to read the Bible in a strange, archaic sort of way, pronouncing the words which appear upon its pages with a pronunciation never employed under any other circumstances. The newspaper is read, the psalms are intoned. It is a crime to be natural. All the time men are sick of the whole fabric of artificiality, and long for that touch of nature which makes the whole world kin.

Another way of losing individuality is to allow oneself to be drowned in officialism, buried beneath its trappings, interred in its dignities. Many a man spends his life in a futile attempt to live up to some official tradition, even as he might pass his time in a family picture gallery cultivating the expression of some ancestral portrait on the wall. There is also to be remembered the possibility of a slavery to books. There is such a thing as the spell exercised by a great author through the printed page. We heard the other day of a contemporary literary man who is understood to pose as a second edition of William Shakespeare on the strength of some asserted resemblance to a bust of the poet. Certainly it cannot be on the strength of any intellectual inheritance. We could name men who have preached in a thousand times more pulpits than they have ever seen through the lips of others whom they have subdued to bondage by some famous volume. We could name the books if we cared to do so. Perhaps we could recall periods in our own life when such a spell cast its glamour over us.

To resist all these influences successfully, or, rather, to so appropriate what is good and helpful in them, which it is our duty to do, and still remain a full blooded, virile individual, will require resolution. To give due meed of homage to the great, due recognition -- and there is a certain recognition due -- to the conventions of our church life -- to realise the office of the preacher, to assimilate the book, to grind and polish one's gifts -- to do all this, and yet be at the end of the doing of it our own natural, unaffected selves, is far from easy. It can only be done as the preacher remembers two or three things which are all too often forgotten or ignored.

And the first of these is surely this: That each and every man's individuality is a gift from God, the basal talent on which the rest are built. It was of the wisdom of God that you were born you and I was born I. Here is the one and only possession which is our very own, and which none other can share, however ready we be to barter it away for something of less value. "Do you know who I am?" said the nobleman, swelling with importance, to the boy who failed to lift his cap in the lane. "I am the Marquis." "An' does yer honour know who I am?" said the lad. "I am Patrick Murphy from the cabin by the bog." Within that ragged jacket was an inheritance which could not be measured as could land, or counted as could money, or appraised as are titles and coronets, but which was as real as any of them and more valuable than all; an inheritance to be improved, perhaps extended, ennobled, but never changed into something other than itself. Let us remember this. With all humility, it is capital for pulpit business that we are what we are.

And another thing is written in our experience for our reflection, and it is this: -- That it was for what we were that God called us into this preaching work. He had discernment of natural qualities in calling even us, and counted upon them to be serviceable in His Kingdom. There is surely no need to deny our manhood, or become ashamed of this being that is "I" when He chose it for employment in ambassadorship. It was for what Peter was as Peter, dashing, impetuous, impatient, full of driving power and combative energy, that Jesus called him from the fishing of Galilee into the ministry of the word. It was for what John was as John, intense, clear-eyed and trustful that he, too, was called. Thomas was also called -- that Thomas who found it hard to believe but easy to love, and whose faith, when once achieved, brought a whole heart's devotion to its gracious object -- even he was called, not as another, but as himself. Very different from them all was Saul of Tarsus; logical, incisive, proud with the pride of ancient lineage and of high culture, descendant of armoured kings, citizen of the first of cities -- he, too, was called for he, for himself, was needed. So through the ages -- what contrasts we behold, what differences as between a Chrysostom and an Augustine, a Calvin and a St. Francis of Assisi, a Wesley and a Fletcher of Madeley; as between William Booth and Charles Haddon Spurgeon, called, every one of them, because he was what he was.

Then let us remember that if He chooses a man for what he is, it is because He knows that the work needs just this very man. Many tools will be called into service before the brown pebble hidden away in the blue clay beneath the South African veldt becomes the glorious star of a monarch's crown. One will tear it from its age-long concealment; another will test and prove its value; others will grind; others polish, and by others will it be set in its place of pride. Very mysterious, again, are the correspondences and affinities existing between human souls. It is very curious how one hearer will respond to an appeal which would never touch another. "There is something about him that always gets at me," remarked a hearer, adding, "and I cannot tell what it is, or how it does it." The "something" was individuality. Why it did it, was because, somewhere in the soul of the hearer was a chord tuned to some string in the preacher's nature. Such ships are reached by a given set of wireless apparatus as have their instruments tuned to that apparatus. There is something between men reminding us of this. Again, for a man's own sake it is a pity to surrender this individuality of his. For in holding on to it with grim resolve lies the only possibility of full self-realisation. Let a man cultivate himself along the line of what he is if he would come to his best and achieve any genuine success, any real happiness in life. The world is full of men who have failed, simply because they left untrained what they were, to try to be what they were not and never could become. Nowhere is this more true than in the pulpit. Many an excellent Brown, or Jones, or Robinson has been spoiled by his attempt to become a Beecher, a Joseph Parker, an Archdeacon Farrar. Many a David, less wise than he of history, has failed against his Philistine because he discarded the sling he knew so well how to use, the smooth stones from the brook he knew so well how to aim, for the panoply and ordnance made for the greater limbs of Saul. Along one line, and one line only, was victory possible to the son of Jesse, and from that line he would not be diverted. It was a shepherd who came from the hills as a shepherd armed. It was this same shepherd with this same weapon who, resisting temptation, went out to the apparently unequal conflict from which he returned bringing the head of his adversary. This history is surely written for preachers that, for their own sake, they may be encouraged to give exercise to their own spiritual genius. Along one path alone lies, if not greatness, at least usefulness for every truly called messenger of Christ. It is along the path of faithfulness to self in the development, the polishing, the use of his own gifts in his own way.

Only one other word remains to be added: -- That, as already hinted, the pew hails always with respect the man who is brave enough to be himself. Let no one imagine that he can try to be someone else, or even that, without trying to be anyone in particular, he can surrender himself to a conventional ideal of clericalism without discovery and loss of the esteem and reverence of men and women of sense. The pew is very quick to see through disguises, be they worn never so skilfully. No voice rings true in a man's throat excepting his own. The people are sick of the cleric in the pulpit; they want the man. They had rather hear you when you are planned than any one, or anything, you may try to be.

Here then is the true originality by which the gospel is made new by every new preacher of it and by every new telling of its wondrous story. The old truths may be repeated in almost the same old words, but here and there will come a new tone, a breath of new influence, a new personal aura. Oh, for the individual in the pulpit, the preacher who is not an echo, but comes to relate the evangel as it has been unfolded to himself! Oh, for the brother who will bring us, not a sermon only, but a man -- a man discovered, saved, cleansed, polished by God; improved into value and profitableness, but still a man! In these words we express one of the greatest needs of the hour, and define a quality absolutely essential to the successful and effective preacher.

chapter iii the need for
Top of Page
Top of Page