We have entered into a new season of ministry. It is not that the church has never faced pandemics before, but that she has never faced it with the kind of technology at her fingertips. COVID-19 has forced pastors everywhere to reconsider how to shepherd their flocks online.
To be honest, when all of this began I expected congregations of all sizes to increase online presence. That seemed like a no-brainer. But what has been surprising is how many smaller churches quickly acquired a camera, made a YouTube account, and joined in. Some weeks ago, for the first time, I had the privilege of viewing sermons from almost every Protestant congregation in our town. Prior to COVID-19, many of them did not even record their sermons! Again, it is an unprecedented season of ministry, and for that reason I think that there is much to learn.
But who will teach us? Who will be our instructor? Who will help us to understand and approach this world of online preaching? The most obvious choice would be those who understand the online platforms and culture, and have been producing online content for a while. Instead, I want to suggest a far less obvious choice––the 18th-century English evangelist, George Whitefield.
Whitefield’s massive ministry was largely given to open-air preaching, which means he stood in public and unthreatening spaces, outside of brick and mortar buildings, and declared the truth of God to all who were in ear shot. He preached in neutral places, where massive amounts of people could come and go as they pleased. I think there is no place that more resembles Whitefield’s platform than the world wide web today. The internet is the open-air of our century. Preachers today need to turn to Whitefield for some help.
If there was one consistent characteristic of George Whitefield’s life and ministry, it was humility. In the beginning of his ministry, Whitefield realized in his prayers that “I am undone, I am unfit to preach in thy great name!” After a lifetime of ministry and popularity, he signed his last letter, “Less than the least of all, George Whitefield.” From the start of his ministry to the end, Whitefield’s eyes were constantly turned away from himself and fixed on heaven. Amidst an unimaginable amount of fame, where just in America alone over half of the total population of Colonies had heard him preach, he never seemed to stray from seeing himself as a servant of all, and foremost of Christ.
But before we start to think that this humility was a unique gift to Whitefield, we must note that this man constantly sought the Lord. His eyes were fixed on heaven because he daily fixed them on God. In a journal entry early in his ministry, he wrote, “I began to read the Holy Scriptures upon my knees, laying aside all other books and praying over, if possible, every line and word … I daily received fresh life, light and power from above.” He practiced this throughout his life. Even at the height of his ministry, Whitefield would ask himself daily if he had “been fervent in private prayer?”
The internet can be an extremely self-centric platform. Every page seems to be about acquiring “likes,” “views,” and ‘subscribers.’ And particularly behind video-content stands this unspoken hope of “going viral.” The temptation for preachers to become popular is huge, and if it is gone unchecked, it will be their ruin. We need learn humility from God’s servants like Whitefield.
Whitefield was not a stranger to opposition. By bringing his sermons into the public square he exposed himself to every hearer and to ever kind of hostility. People often hurled insults, stones, buckets of water, mud, and even threatened to murder Whitefield and his co-labourers. On one occasion Whitefield setup his pulpit in a field just across from a wild circus. He described twenty to thirty thousand people drumming, trumpeting, putting on shows and exhibiting wild beasts. Quickly Whitefield’s sermon began to draw people away from the events and shortly thereafter, from the hands of the performers, stones, dirt, rotten eggs, and pieces of dead cats came flying towards Whitfield’s head.
Despite the stones and dead cats Whitefield persevered, and because of his perseverance many came to seek the Lord. It was a common report during Whitefield’s ministry that by the end of a sermon his “persecutors” had become believers. One such persecutor wrote to Whitefield, saying, “I came to break your head, but through you God has broken my heart.” As with his humility, the source of Whitefield’s courage is not a mystery; it was a work of God’s Spirit. Whitefield wrote in his journal shortly after running from an angry mob: “I have very little natural courage, [but] strength and power [were] being given us from above.” Later still he wrote, “By the help of God I shall still persist in preaching.”
If you have ever read the comments on YouTube or Facebook, then perhaps you will agree that dead cats are not too far off from the kind of insults that await preachers online. Your content will surely attract the opinions of people that do not appreciate what you have to say, and who will gladly give you scathing summaries of their thoughts. And yet if the Lord has called you to this medium for this time than you need to persevere. It is time to admit your weakness and fear, strap up with the power of the Spirit, and say with Whitefield, “by the help of God I shall persist in preaching.”
Whitefield was not one to waste time. The obvious proof of this is the eighteen thousand sermons he preached over the course of his ministry. It was often the case that for the majority of hours of the day Whitefield was preaching. Yet even in between those sermons, Whitefield was conscious of how he spent the passing moments. He constantly thought about what was a profitable use of his time. Early in his life he wrote in his journal regarding his fellow students, “It has often grieved my soul to see so many young students spending their substance in extravagant living.”
Unlike many of his classmates, Whitefield sought to “redeem the time,” and he did just that. As a college student, it was said that Whitified filled his waking hours with devotion to the Lord. And even as his itinerant ministry and popularity grew and as his schedule got more spontaneous, it does not seem that anything ever changed. At the height of his ministry, when Whitefield was not preaching, he was pouring himself over God’s Word, seeking God in prayer, imparting spiritual direction to individuals or preparing sermons. He practiced early mornings, long devotions, and strict self-disciplines, as he always kept his eyes fixed on the prize of taking the gospel to all mankind. As a result, among other triumphs, Whitefield avoided unknown amounts of worldly temptation, could recall Scriptures at will, became a prolific sermon writer and always appeared to walk in a deep and personal relationship with the Lord. Truly, he redeemed the time.
It seems to me that the temptation for pastors to waste time has never been stronger. For many of us this pandemic has given us more “free” time during the week, or at least more time alone in our big empty church buildings. And bringing church online has given us more reason to be online and on social media, which is a great time-wasting platform. I wonder for how many of us online-preaching will result in more hours than ever being wasted away in our churches or home-offices.
So, let us look to George Whitefield, who did not find his lack of an office, his unconventional preaching platform or his unusual schedule to be an excuse for sloughing off. Let us prepare for our messages with no less time and effort than if we were preaching live. Let us preach more than the “normal” Sundays, realizing that this new platform allows us to become stronger preachers! As Whitfield said, “The best preparation for preaching on Sundays is to preach every day of the week.” And let us care for our families and seek the Lord, always remaining in control of the internet and refusing to let it take control of us.
All That to Say
There are more similarities than you might think between open fields and the open web. We are in a difficult and unique season of ministry and yet there is nothing new under the sun. So, take heart fellow preachers. The times seem uncertain and the ways unknown but the Lord has left us a path of examples to help steer us through.