Tuesday, September 23, 2008

That Old Time Religion

I've never liked that song "Give Me That Old Time Religion." Something never struck me right about that line, "It's good enough for me." As if to say, "I'll settle for it," or "I know it's not much, but it's good enough."

I have never wanted to settle for "good enough." Maybe I'm an idealist. I've been called a perfectionist. I probably am, in some areas at least. In terms of the old time religion, that's probably true.

Take preaching, for example. I've never believed that the old time religion was good enough for me. Preaching has changed a lot through the years, from the days of Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards (pictured here) with his hellfire and damnation, to the milquetoast messages of this "feel good" era. It has changed in intensity, in focus, and style.

For centuries, preaching was full of cerebral arguments, philosophical propositions, and high theology that most of the common people could never understand. That didn't matter too much, because it was mostly in Latin, which nobody could understand either. Even once preaching moved into the vernacular, its meaning usually remained unattainable. Then, a couple of hundred years ago, things started to change. Revivalism and Great Awakenings took over, and preaching moved into a whole different arena. Suddenly, the message was brought down to a level that people could understand. Popular preacher Billy Sunday (pictured here in one of his wild preaching gestures) said, “Put the cookies on the bottom shelf where the little kids can reach them, and the old folks can bend over and get them.” This is how preaching should be!

So the old time religion had become the new-fangled religion of revivalists. But as the generations move on, this new-fangled religion has become the old time religion that so many love. What was once new has become the old tradition. "It's good enough for me."

But is it good enough? A lot of things have changed since the days of Billy Sunday. For one thing, technology has changed so that we can rely on microphones to carry our voices to thousands of people at a time. That's got to change your delivery. Research has been done regarding the different methods of teaching, to accommodate various learning styles. We now know that some people are visual learners, some aural learners, and some kinesthetic learners. School teachers know this, and so they use a blackboard for visual learners, laboratories for kinesthetic learners, and lecture for aural learners. Preaching is only recently being adapted to accommodate all these learning styles.

So I preach with a PowerPoint presentation (like this one)
flashing behind me. I've only been doing it that way for a couple of years, but I've been told that the sermons are much more visually interesting. I've also noticed that people retain what's in the sermons better. They quote the sermons weeks later, whereas before they were doing well to remember what I preached on, at lunch the same day. We're beginning to use video and drama in the worship service, as well as setting up 3-D visual presentations in the sanctuary from time to time. Preaching styles have changed, but the message stays the same.

This week, the saints at Antioch celebrated God with an old-fashioned tent service.
Our guest speaker, the Rev. Todd Brooking, gave messages that Billy Sunday would have been proud of. No PowerPoint, no Latin, no philosophical propositions. Just Gospel. And it was wonderful! Intelligent, and down-to-earth at the same time. Definitely spirit-filled. Believers were revived. One young man gave his heart to Jesus. I baptized five in the river, the old-fashioned way.

So I guess you can say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Methods of delivery change, but the Gospel stays the same. My prayer is that as we progress through the generations--as our children and grandchildren become leaders and preachers and teachers--we might not be so hung up on "that old time religion" that we refuse to be open to new methods of communication. My prayer is also that those young upstart preachers and teachers with all their gimmicks might not forget that it does us good sometimes to take a step back, simplify, and just preach the Good News, putting the cookies on the bottom shelf.

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