I hope that you are able to have a rest this summer. I have just returned from a brief holiday on Jersey. My wife and I love the island, with all its beautiful bays and quaint lanes.
While on holiday heard a sermon on 1 John 4:1–6 by the pastor of Jersey Baptist Church. It was a bold sermon talking about the need to exercise discernment when listening to those who claim to be Christian teachers. We are all just internet clicks away from what can do us immeasurable good, and irretrievable damage. We need to be careful who we choose to speak into our lives. What we hear determines how we think and shapes the way we live.
The pastor also made the intriguing statement that in his opinion, George Whitfield, the 18th Century evangelist was the greatest preacher in the English-speaking world.
Creating a league table of great preachers is a tricky busines. Where do you begin?
Is it the one who has preached the most sermons, reached the most people, seen more converts to Christ, or the one who has made the Bible most clear?
I guess that George Whitefield has to be a candidate: his preaching ministry was like Bob Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour. Whitfield would sometimes preach multiple times on the same day. He is reckoned to have preached at least 18,000 times to a total of perhaps 10 million hearers. He had a global impact, preaching in every part of Great Britain and in the United States.
‘Whitefield was the first internationally famous itinerant preacher and the first modern transatlantic celebrity of any kind. With apologies to the Beatles, George Whitefield was the first “British sensation.”’ (Thomas Kidd)
Whitefield also made the bold step of taking up open-air preaching to reach people, when the established church closed their doors to him.
Whitefield pioneered the use of print media to widely promote his sermons.
He preached effectively to people of all classes from coal miners to members of the aristocracy.
He had a clear commitment to preach a simple gospel.
His sermons are very basic in structure, often adapting his sermon outline from Matthew Henry’s commentary.
Whitefield was not primarily interested in information transfer but rather life transformation.
He focused on preaching but also had a clear social conscience, raising awareness and funds for his orphanage in the US.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Whitefield’s preaching was his ability to move his hearers. His preaching was dramatic and emotionally charged. It inspired gasps, tears and led some to be physically overcome by the weight of the message. This is an aspect of his preaching that caused the most controversy in his own day, and still divides opinion today.
This is of course the challenge of any preacher, whose personality could allow them to sell sand to the Arabs! All preachers want to move their hearers. We want to move our hearers by changing their thinking, touching their emotions and stirring their wills. The challenge is to reach the emotions without descending into emotionalism. How did Whitefield manage to do this? He sought to do this with the power of biblical truth rather than the fireworks of oratory.
If you were going to choose the greatest preacher in the English-speaking world, who would it be, and why?
Drop me a line with your suggestions.