They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading.—Nehemiah 8:8
“Muddy water is no sign the spring is deep.”—W.T. Conner
Education was not highly valued in rural Cooke County, Texas, in 1970. To make matters worse, Phil Young needed to help his father on the family farm. So he decided to drop out of high school after his sophomore year. He became a Master Plumber later in life—a career he pursued for just over 40 years. In May 1984, Phil married Angie—a single mother with two young sons.
And that is how I came to be raised by a plumber—a plumber who insisted I pursued formal education.
When I was in high school, similar in age to my step-father when he decided to discontinue his education, he took me to work one day. We dug ditches for hours that day in the hot Texas sun. My back was sore; callouses were forming on my hands. As I stopped to rest, leaning against my shovel, I looked at him, and he grinned.
“Are you having fun?” he asked.
I was honest in my reply. “Not really,” I said.
“Good,” he shot back, “then get your education.”
So I did.
I majored in Bible as an undergraduate at Hardin-Simmons University—a small but strong Baptist school on the edge of the West Texas plains. There I learned terms like “Heilsgeschichte” and “demythologization.” I learned more about the Scriptures than I knew possible. Soon I found myself able to carry on theological debates and conversations with students I respected. It was exhilarating.
I recognize now that my theological education did me great good, but it also uncovered a deep darkness in my heart. It led me to a place of spiritual snobbery. I found myself able to hold forth on a great number of theological topics, but I had no fruit of the Spirit in my ministry. In doing so, however, I found my sermons became confusing. In attempting to avail myself of theological headiness, I was losing the power of the gospel.
I soon realized—and repented of—my problem. I realized I must take the deep truths of the faith and the education I had received, and I must communicate them in a simple way.
I needed to preach to plumbers.
And so I made a resolution. Early in my ministry—and again once I had completed graduate school—I resolved to make certain every one of my sermons could be understood by blue collar workers like my father.
I found inspiration in Spurgeon.
At the height of his popularity, Spurgeon’s star shone brightly over London. His influence was rivaled perhaps only by the Queen—on both sides of the Atlantic. Thousands crowded Metropolitan Tabernacle to hear him preach—those of the highest education and those who were of the lowest status within Industrial Age England. Factory workers and farmers sought to hear the great preacher, along with the most well-heeled individuals of the Empire.
What was it that drew those less fortunate souls to his pulpit? Was it the expansive social work done in the poorest neighborhoods by Metropolitan Tabernacle? Perhaps. But by all historical accounts, it appears to have been crowds flocking to hear Spurgeon’s preaching that drove the work of Metropolitan in the city, not the converse.
His preaching, it seems, was a direct assail upon class division. In fact, in his collected Lectures to My Students, Spurgeon lands repeated verbal blows against any pastoral approach attempting to raise the minister higher than the people of the city. One lecture in particular—“Lecture 12: The Minister’s Ordinary Conversation”—is a haymaker against any pastor who would believe his position or his education make him superior to his congregation.
His opening jab is direct: “First and foremost, let me say, let him give himself no ministerial airs, but avoid everything which is stilted, official, fussy and pretentious.” In Spurgeon’s day—as in ours—pastors faced the temptation to become something more than a man. Pastors might feel the need to act more righteous than their neighbors, or they may think that in acting in such a way, others would think more highly of them. Spurgeon categorically rejects such thinking, stating, “There is such a thing as trying to be too much a minister, and becoming too little a man.”
In fact, Spurgeon argues, to attempt to become more than a man is, in essence, an act of idolatry, for it attempts to place the minister above the station Jesus himself chose—that of humanity. Spurgeon explains, “Let not the ambassador of heaven be other than a son of man.”
How serious was Spurgeon about attacking pretentiousness among the clergy he trained at his Pastor’s College? Each of these withering critiques come in the opening paragraph of the lecture. He pounces on the topic with gusto, pummeling any perceived pride away.
With such passion on this topic, one can only assume he strove to embody a democratic ideal with regard to this neighbors and congregants. He strove to accept the plainest of people, and he strove to make pastors who would do the same.
In conjunction with such an attitude towards pride, he also worked tirelessly to make certain that his preaching was faithful to his audience. Spurgeon’s secret? He insisted on sticking to the Scripture, and making certain that those who heard it understoodwhat was said.
Like Chrysostom and Calvin before him, Spurgeon knew that if the Scripture became formative in the language and thought of the preacher, people would come to know Jesus, for the Bible would be on continual display to the congregation. He explained:
We might preach ’til our tongue rotted, ’til we exhaust our lungs and die—but never a soul would be converted unless the Holy Spirit uses the Word to convert that soul. So it is blessed to eat into the very heart of the Bible until, at last, you come to talk in scriptural language and your spirit is flavored with the words of the Lord, so that your blood is Bibline and the very essence of the Bible flows form you.
Baptists, like Spurgeon, have long been populists. We have ministered and preached to the masses, and, for most of our history, they have been the uneducated masses. The Southern Baptist Convention started churches throughout the Western frontier of the United States from a conviction that the gospel must be preached in the furthest flung geographic regions. While many of those fledgling congregations had formally educated pastors, the demographics of the region were far more rural, far less educated, and much more impoverished. Along with area physicians and judges, pastors were often the most educated individuals in frontier communities. In true Spurgeon spirit, those pastors could not afford to put on pretense in their community. Instead, they worked faithfully in their communities. In doing so, they practiced the Incarnation.
Today, Baptists in the United States have buildings and institutions. They have publishing houses and conferences.
But there is no substitute for being present. There is no greater gift than helping another understand the Bible.
Jesus told stories about seeds and trees and fields. He ate and drank with his friends and his followers. He participated in the cultural events of his time. He did this so that he could help the masses understand the grace of God.
This ought to be the model of the pastor.
Both the plumbers and the professionals in your congregation are hungry for the bread of Scripture. If you faithfully read it, study it, memorize it, and teach it, they will be encouraged.
If you, like Spurgeon, speak its truth plainly, the Spirit can work. Spurgeon’s preaching was a work of removing confusion. Just as Ezra read the Law before the people so that they might understand it (Nehemiah 8:8), Spurgeon was a master of making complex concepts clear.
W.T. Conner, long-time professor of Systematic Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, was once asked why he wrote in such clear language while other academics seemed to opt for more dense prose.
His reply is fitting for preachers today who may be tempted to use unnecessary language: “Muddy water is no sign the spring is deep.”
May we preach and live clearly—as Spurgeon did—so that all might understand His Word.