Saturday, July 15, 2006

A Preacher Too Popular For His Own Good

Being a reformer never is an easy task because, by definition, a reformation is trying to upset the status quo and blaze a new trail. Change demanded by reformation scares some people. Popularity of some reformers makes some preachers envious of their appeal.

Today we will examine a sobering account in the early ministry of John Wesley. On June 5, 1742 Wesley asked Mr. Romley, the curate of the Anglican church in Epworth, if he could preach or read prayers during the worship service. Romley flatly denied him the pleasure.

That afternoon, people stuffed the church building because a rumor floated around that Wesley would be preaching. He did not; it was Romley who preached. Specifically, Romley preached against "enthusiasm", a charge often laid against Wesley in his early years. (Some people became visibly upset when Wesley or Whitefield preached; they would quake, fall down, groan or cry.)

To understand the moment, one must understand the church's history; John Wesley's father, himself, pastored the congregation for 40 years. Therefore, Romley was denying the son's desire to speak in his father's old pastorate.

Wesley relates the following in his Journal:

"After sermon John Taylor stood in the churchyard and gave notice as the people were coming out, 'Mr. Wesley, not being permitted to preach in the church, designs to preach here at six o'clock.'

"Accordingly at six I came and found such a congregation as I believe Epworth never saw before. I stood near the east end of the church, upon my father's tombstone, and cried, 'The kingdom of heaven is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost' [Rom.14:17]."
(Copyrighted Picture Courtesy of Wesley Center Online. Used With Permission.)

I can't speak to Romley's motives; I don't know what was in his heart. He genuinely may have been concerned that the congregation at Epworth not be led astray. Nevertheless, Wesley had a powerful church service, ironically preaching atop his father's tomb.

It won't do us any good to pretend that all preachers are equally popular. We know better. Some draw bigger crowds than others. Some garner more attention than others. Some clergy write books that become bestsellers because the ministers themselves are famous. Obscure ministers may write better books but find it hard to land a publisher.

Tomorrow we will look further at popularity in the ministry; in and of itself, popularity doesn't mean a minister is in God's will and, well, unpopularity doesn't mean a minister is out of God's will.

What matters is God's will.