Jeff Johnson grips a rope rail and walks up the gangplank of Balsa 89, a cargo ship docked for the day in Port Canaveral, Florida. Seven thousand tons of road salt is being conveyed from the ship’s hold to a tall mound on dry ground. Johnson looks up, and the crew waves from the deck. After many days at sea, they are anxious to greet this guest from terra firma. Once inside the galley, Johnson unzips his backpack and begins to stack phone cards and magazines along with Bibles, evangelistic tracts, and In Touch Messengers on the table.
Mark and Jeanie Wodka in front of the ministry building.
Johnson is a Seafarers chaplain, serving with one of the more than 30 unaffiliated Seafarer ministries in ports across the United States. These ministers offer physical and spiritual support to cruise and cargo ship personnel as they dock and come ashore to shop, reconnect with the world outside, and rest. Today is Johnson’s first contact with Balsa 89’s new crew, which is composed of 19 men from the Philippines. The captain takes an immediate interest in the Messengers. Johnson explains that these devices have an audio New Testament and biblical lessons in Tagalog, the most widely spoken language in the Philippines. The captain is pleased. “When you hear it,” he says, “you can memorize easy.”
A crew member uses one of the many private carrels to phone family back home.
The ship’s chief officer eyes the items Johnson has placed on the table and asks, “Do you have a Tagalog Bible?” Johnson discovers that this man has been reading an English-language King James Version, but as much as he enjoys it, he’s been missing some of the richer meanings of the text. In fact, he prayed for a translation in his language just that morning. A smile breaks across the officer’s face as Johnson hands over a paperback copy of Scripture in Tagalog. Then the officer gathers up a handful of Messengers and goes to share them with the crew.
When he leaves, Johnson shuttles several crew members—now in shorts and sandals—to the Space Coast Seafarers Ministry, a spacious single-story building about a mile from the docks. Port Canaveral is the second-busiest seaport in the United States, and this Space Coast location sees a steady stream of visitors. The vans outside—with makeshift gold crosses affixed to the front grill—are a welcome sight to weary ocean travelers. Last year, volunteer drivers shuttled 35,000 of them from the port. The Seafarers also provide hot food, computers and Wi-Fi, and a ride into town for shopping. Sundays keep them the busiest, with about 200 people entering the doors. “It’s a complete ministry,” says Johnson. “We don’t charge them anything.”
Balsa 89 crewmen relax on the bridge.
People from over 80 countries are greeted by a team of domestic missionaries, mostly volunteers, who are honored to serve Christ by welcoming the stranger. And when these visitors from many far-flung places return to Port Canaveral, they are strangers no more. “We really want to work one-on-one,” says Johnson, “so we can build a relationship that goes past sharing the gospel and having somebody get saved. We want to disciple as well.”
FOOD FOR THE JOURNEY
When the crew of a cargo ship or a cruise liner enters the door of the Seafarers ministry, Jeanie Wodka is there to greet them warmly. She takes the guests on a tour of the facility and listens as they describe their life back home and the languages they speak. Visitors are all led to one of many bookshelves along the walls where they can find Bibles and resources in their heart language.
Daily life for those aboard these ships is an experience of being away from the things they know and the people they love. Jeanie and her husband Mark—the director of the Space Coast Seafarers—can relate: They chose ministry as their life’s work, at one point moving with two small sons to Indonesia, where they shared the gospel with new friends and neighbors.
Jeanie Wodka shows a first-time visitor the day’s shuttle schedule.
In fact, every member of the Seafarers’ team can relate to that sense of loss and unmooring. By using their experiences—uncertainty in a foreign land, hardship in the loss of a job, or loneliness—these believers are able to connect with all who visit. They know that working aboard the ships can be a challenge—endless days at sea, unforgiving contracts, and a life below deck that is fraught with temptation. Promiscuity and substance abuse begin to look like normal behavior, presenting a challenge for even a mature believer. Johnson learned this from someone who experienced it first-hand: A young man who went to sea as a missionary on a cruise line found the environment so oppressive that he barely got through his six-month contract.
Jeff Johnson shares the gospel with visitors.
But the Seafarers also get to witness the wonderful encouragement God brings to the crews through their ministry. Like the musical entertainer who leads a Bible study on his ship and renews himself with visits to his friends at the Seafarers. Or the ship’s cook who is up early every morning, listening to his Messenger. He uses the teaching to help him lead a gathering of believers and unbelievers alike. And recently, from within this group, a Hindu man trusted Christ as Savior.
After the most recent crop of visitors has had a chance to visit the library and check in with relatives back home, Johnson steps to a microphone. “We’re going to go shopping in 29 minutes,” he says, as heads look up from cellphone and computer screens, “but I want to ask you about God, all right?” One man from India tugs at an ear bud, letting it fall limply away as he tries to catch every word. Johnson shares a brief explanation of the gospel and concludes by saying, “Any of us would be happy to talk with you. If you have problems or you’ve got a question, come to us.”
In this sanctuary of gentleness and hospitality, the love of Christ is on display. Each day, staff members and volunteers come prayerfully, following the opportunities God gives them. And when a Christian crew member reports that there isn’t a Bible study on his or her ship, Johnson says, “Here’s the deal: I’m not the Holy Spirit, but ask God to raise up a leader and see what He does.” Inevitably that person will come back, saying that God is leading them to start a group. And Johnson will lean in close, “Tell me what you need. I’m here for you.”
City tried to dictate speech of licensed therapists
A federal judge has torpedoed the city of Tampa’s attempt to block licensed counselors from helping patients overcome unwanted same-sex attractions.
Similar laws have been defeated in other jurisdictions.
In Tampa, U.S. District Judge William Jung granted summary judgment to Liberty Counsel in its lawsuit against Tampa’s ordinance prohibiting “licensed counselors from providing voluntary talk therapy to minors seeking help to reduce or eliminate their unwanted same-sex attractions, behaviors, or identity.”
The ruling, which permanently strikes the ordinance, was based on the fact that cities don’t have the authority to regulate health care.
“According to the city, the ordinance regulates medical professionals and ‘part of the practice of medicine’ within the city limits,” the judge said. “The city is unaware of any child every receiving proscribed SOCE [sexual orientation change effort] in the city. The city has never before substantively regulated and disciplined the practice of medicine, psychotherapy, or mental health treatment with city limits. Nor does the city possess charter or home rule authority to do so.”
The ordinance, the judge said, “is preempted by the comprehensive Florida regulatory scheme for healthcare regulation and discipline.”
Liberty Counsel defended marriage and family therapist Robert Vazzo and his minor clients, as well as New Hearts Outreach Tampa Bay.
The judge also noted: “Nothing is more intimate, more private, and more sensitive, than a growing young man or woman talking to a mental health therapist about sex, gender, preferences, and conflicting feelings. The ordinance inserts the city’s code enforcers into the middle of this sensitive, intense and private moment. But this moment is already governed by Florida’s very broad rights of privacy, something the ordinance ignores. … The Florida Constitution’s privacy amendment suggests that government should stay out of the therapy room. The Tampa Ordinance does not address this constitutional issue, and in doing so the city attempts to occupy a very private space, contrary to a strong statewide policy.”
The judge also pointed out the city’s move “eliminates” a “longstanding parental right without discussion or exception.”
Liberty Counsel chief Mat Staver called it a great victory for counselors and clients.
“The city of Tampa has no authority to prohibit counselors from helping their clients achieve their goals,” he said. “Regulating healthcare is above the pay grade of local municipalities. While striking down the ordinance, the court shredded the arguments used to justify these unconstitutional counseling bans. This ruling dooms every municipality in Florida and is the beginning of the end of more than 50 similar local laws around the country. This ruling also shows clearly why the other statewide laws will meet the same fate as Tampa. The First Amendment will wipe away every one of these speech-restrictive laws.”
A magistrate judge, ruling the city’s ban likely violated the First Amendment, recommended to the district court that the ordinance be killed.
I must admit that I’m easily distracted. Particularly when I’m struggling with a problem that I don’t want to talk about with anyone – even though I should. But I recently pushed past the distractions and sent out an email to a bunch of friends, letting them know that I was going through an especially rough time … and still am, to be honest.
I essentially told them that there was nothing going on in my life worth sharing. What surprised me the most was that almost every single one of them came back and said that they, too, were going through the same sorts of struggles.
While it did make me feel relieved that I wasn’t alone, I was also pretty frustrated. Why do we insist on pretending that life is OK when it just isn’t?
Why can’t we be honest enough to tell our buddies that we can’t do what they’re doing because the credit card is maxed out, or that the bank just rejected our mortgage extension again? And why do we struggle to tell our kids that we’re just not coping well right now?
It’s as if we are too scared to share our struggles because talking about them out loud would somehow make them worse. Or maybe it’s because others will see us as failures.
And it’s often the same thing in our relationship with God. We don’t take things to Him in prayer because we feel we have to keep going – through our own strength – rather than admitting to Him that we’ve grown weak and weary.
Yet Jesus told us that we should make our requests and prayers known to our Father in Heaven. Christ reminded us that His Spirit is with us, that He comforts us and that He takes our burdens from us.
The closing prayer from week six of The Family Project Devotional speaks to my heart because it is such an honest plea:
Father, You have told us to be anxious for nothing … Help us always to come before You – when we are alone, when we are with friends or family, and when we are in a great congregation – so that we truly learn to pray without ceasing.
And to that I say, ‘Amen!’
Learn more about God’s irreplaceable design in The Family Project® – a 12-session DVD curriculum that explores why God’s plan for families matters today. Take your small group on a life-changing journey to strengthen and encourage families! Get The Family Project® curriculum today.
Tim Sisarich is a storyteller, presenter and author. He directed Focus on the Family’s documentary film, Irreplaceable, and is the host of The Family Project®.
Gershon knew he was called to share Jesus with the people of Galilee, and God showed him how.
BY JOHN VANDENOEVER
He’s not a secret agent, yet there’s something agent-like about him. American by birth and using the alias Gershon, he lives embedded in the field, a key contact for short-term mission teams to Israel. Gershon keeps a home with his family in Galilee, in a nondescript maze of neighborhoods. And there, in a chamber of the cinder block basement beneath the living room, are Bibles, Scripture booklets, and gospel tracts in 30 languages, all stacked tightly on shelves.
At one time Gershon and his wife, an Israeli believer in Yeshua, wondered how to take the gospel to half a million people in their region of Galilee. They were new missionaries and, by their own admission, “stumbling along, trying to figure out what we were supposed to be doing.” Though prayerful, busy, and even on the lookout for opportunities outside the norm, they were continually distracted from their projects by visiting mission teams in need of resources and local know-how.
Then they realized something: God was sending these teams. And what better way to reach a multitude than with a dedicated legion of volunteers? So for a decade now, Gershon has collected missional resources and developed itineraries for as many as 48 visiting groups a year, from all over the world. He tells them, “You’re not here to help me; I’m here to help you. This is your outreach, but here’s my suggestion on how you can use your time.”
One project targets the 120 communities in the Jezreel Valley—an area about the size of Atlanta, Georgia. Workers have canvassed a third of the homes with prayers and literature, knowing that a seed sown by one team can be reaped by another the next week, or in years to come.
Gershon is excited that more Jewish people are coming to Christ. Though the total is still less than 0.5 percent, he has seen the number go from about 3,500 to 10,000 believers.
One section of his literature room is packed with boxes of In Touch Messengers, devices containing the Bible and select Dr. Stanley messages. Gershon is stocked with the most requested languages—Arabic, Hebrew, and Russian—along with plenty in Bengali, Nepali, and Hindi for these growing populations. People are thrilled to receive them, he says. “They never imagined there is such a thing,”
Like a good agent, Gershon stays ready—he maintains a low profile, knows where everyone’s headed, and keeps on hand what they need most.
Photograph by Ben Rollins
The In Touch Messenger is an indispensable tool in reaching the lost for Christ in places like Israel. Through your partnership, the good news of Jesus Christ is going where it’s needed most, helping missionaries like Gershon spread the gospel quickly, clearly, and irresistibly.
He used to get in trouble by dishonoring God. Now Demario Davis gets into trouble by honoring Him.
The New Orleans Saints linebacker was busted by the NFL with a $7,000 fine for wearing a headband that says, “Man of God,” in a Sept 22 game against the Seattle Seahawks for violating the NFL’s no-personal propaganda policy. The NFL has since reversed the decision on appeal.
“I was a guy headed in the wrong direction fast and God radically changed me,” he told The Increase. “I get to play this wonderful game of football and I’m blessed to do it but my life is so much more than that in God. That’s what I really want people to know about me.”
Growing up without a father figure, Demario looked up to the older, tough guys who were drug dealers and career criminals in his neighborhood.
“They were my heroes,” he proclaimed on a YouTube video. “I wanted to show them that I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t afraid to be a bad boy. I just wanted to impress them.”
At 14, he was already using marijuana, alcohol and sex. When he tried to steal a wallet from another kid at school, he got expelled.
“Demario, what have you done?” his mother implored on the phone. “You have messed up your life.”
The quavering voice and deeply troubled emotion from mom shook him.
Still he persisted in sin. He and some friends were breaking into cars and Demario punched a window out. The shattering glass gashed his arm severely. He is still scarred today from the wound. Had the cut slit his wrist, he might have died, he says.
That night he heard an audible voice from God: That’s strike number two. The first strike was you getting kicked out of school. The second strike is you almost killed yourself tonight.
“That scared me to the point that the rest of my junior and senior year, I cleaned up my act.”
While he indulged in devilry on the streets, he excelled in football. As a freshman in high school, he scored 50 touchdowns as a running back.
“I knew then that football was a possible avenue for success for me,” he says.
He won a scholarship to college, but felt like a “small fish in a big pond” who needed to prove himself by drinking, smoking and partying. Stealing groceries at Walmart, he got arrested and landed in jail. He was a freshman and still hadn’t played a single minute of a game — but was at risk of being busted by his coach and possibly sent home with his scholarship rescinded.
He begged his coach for a second chance.
Graciously, he was granted one more opportunity.
That’s when the team’s chaplain fortuitously began to take a personal interest in Demario and share scriptures with him.
Demario had gone to church and knew about the Bible, but the chaplain really opened his eyes to truths that he hadn’t seen clearly before. Specifically, Demario had believed that while he participated in shenanigans, he “had a good heart.”
But the chaplain shattered that deception. “A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit,” he said, showing the verses that talk about it.
Then the chaplain explained to Demario that God could give him a new heart.
This is what Demario longed for. So he prayed.
Instantly, he was delivered from alcohol.
Marijuana smoking stopped some time later.
Fornication came to an end a few years later.
Little by little, he tried to submit to God and was becoming a “man of God.”
So he wore the headband “Man of God” and was busted by the NFL.
On Instagram, Demario asked his followers: “Should I continue to wear it, or nah? Should I continue to wear it because of the messaging or would I follow the rule? Which would bring ultimate glory to God?”
A second violation would result in a doubled fine.
Ultimately, he pledged to follow the NFL rule, reasoning that the Bible tells believers to submit to every governing authority. The NFL canceled the fine.
In the meantime, he began selling “Man of God” and “Woman of God” bandanas online, at $25 each, with the proceeds donated to St. Dominic Hospital in Jackson, Miss., where he grew up. So far, $40,000 has been raised. When the NFL handed him back his fine, Demario donated that towards the charity.
“Y’all helped me turn a $7,000 negative into an almost $40,000 positive benefiting people who truly need it!!!” Demario posted on social media. “Do y’all see how that worked?? Let’s gooooo. That’s crazy! Ya’ll are a part of this journey too!! I can’t thank ya’ll enough either.”
Demario is married with four children.
“No matter the case, whether I’m wearing a headband, or whether I’m not wearing a headband, whether I’m talking about a headband, I’m not talking about a headband, I’m always using my platform to glorify God,” Demario said. “And that’s never going to change. Because I believe he’s the one who gave me this platform for that purpose to make his name known. So I’ll always be about that.”
At the recent Caring Well conference, J. D. Greear said the denomination mistakenly saw abuse claims as “attacks from adversaries instead of warnings from friends.”
ABBY PERRY IN GRAPEVINE, TEXAS OCTOBER 07, 2019
Southern Baptist Convention President J. D. Greear acknowledged that while sexual abuse survivors have pleaded with leaders for years, the denomination had failed to act on their claims and in some cases, sidelined them as attacks.
“It is wrong to characterize someone as ‘just bitter’ because they raised their voice when their warnings were not heeded,” Greear told the crowd at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC)’s Caring Well conference last weekend. “Anger is an appropriate response, a biblical response, in that circumstance.”
Greear praised the outspokenness and ongoing courage of SBC abuse survivors, naming from the stage both those who spoke at the event in surburban Dallas as well as others who have continued to critique the denomination’s response.
After hearing his remarks, “I actually choked up,” tweetedTiffany Thigpen, whose story of allegedly being attacked by pastor Darrell Gilyard in the early 1990s was recently featured in the Houston Chronicle.
She wrote on Friday, “Yet there is no apology for [church leaders not rushing to defend abuse survivors from the start]. There are hundreds of victims out here in great agony from the secondary abuse & you still haven’t said, ‘We all have taken part and we all failed greatly, and now we are going to show you.’”
At the three-day event, more than 1,600 Southern Baptist pastors, leaders, and laypeople gathered to hear abuse prevention experts and survivors share on topics from how to screen church employees and volunteers to how to recognize grooming behaviors and respond to abuse disclosures.
Sexual abuse survivors Megan Lively, Mary DeMuth, and Susan Codone took the stage along with prominent leaders who are also survivors themselves, such as Beth Moore, Kay Warren, and Jackie Hill Perry.
Greear’s statement came during a Thursday night keynote to address myths about abuse in the church. He called out the idea that “Sexual abuse in the church is not really a problem; it’s simply the latest leftist attack against the church,” saying:
Friends, you understand that the problem of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention did not begin in February with the publication of an article in a newspaper.
Survivors and advocates have been calling our attention to this for years. And many, like Megan [Lively] just now, have shown great courage in doing so. Honestly, [it’s] courage they should not have needed to show.
Believing this myth has caused us as a convention to miscategorize the words of people like Christa Brown and Tiffany Thigpen and Mary DeMuth and Anne Marie Miller and Dave Pittman and Jules Woodson and Megan Lively and so many other victims as attacks from adversaries instead of warnings from friends.
It is wrong to characterize someone as “just bitter” because they raised their voice when their warnings were not heeded. Anger is an appropriate response, a biblical response, in that circumstance.
Survivor Christa Brown, whose memoir This Little Light of Mine documents her account of sexual abuse and subsequent coverup in the SBC, tweeted, “For me, the only truth resides in the reality of their deeds. Action is what matters. Action is what will protect kids and congregants. Action is what shows care. I think my view is similar to what [Greear] himself acknowledged.”
Author Anne Marie Miller—whose abuser, Mark Aderholt, went on to become an International Mission Board missionary—tweeted, “Thank you, @jdgreear. As I told you and @ToddUnzicker last year, I will choose to believe the best about what you say. I’m grateful you acknowledged many of us by name, and hopefully you see the thousands of other survivors that walk with us. #CaringWell.”
Southern Baptist Bible teacher Beth Moore led a session where she brought up the question of whether complementarian theology fosters abuse.
“The answer’s no,” she said. “Sin and gross selfishness in the human heart cause abuse. Demonic influences cause abuse.” However, she added, complementarianism shaped “a culture prevalent in various circles of the SBC” that has contributed to abuse.
“Complementarian theology became such a high core value that it inadvertently … became elevated above the safety and well-being of many women,” she said.
Sexual abuse wasn’t the original theme for the ERLC’s annual conference. But after the Houston Chronicle reported on over 700 cases of sexual abuse in the SBC, convention leaders changed the theme.
The SBC passed a resolution at its annual meeting in June that names pastoral sexual abuse as grounds for disfellowshipping an SBC church. It also released a 52-page report detailing the failures of the denomination to adequately respond to abuse allegations.
Earlier in the year, Greear requested internal investigations of ten churches, but a subcommittee determined that all but three did not have credible claims of wrongdoing to investigate in the first place. Survivor and advocate Rachael Denhollander said at the Caring Well Conference that this response “undermined everything [Greear] had done … and no one said a word.”
While attendees received a copy of the Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused guidebook, which accompanies the free, video-based Caring Well curriculum, many survivors have also voiced frustration that the resources are provided by an institution that is itself inundated in scandal.
“Behind every statistic, there is a story,” said Phillip Bethancourt, ERLC executive vice president, during his message at Caring Well. According to survivors, the time to listen to each and every story is now.
Abby Perry is a freelancer writer. Her recent Prophetic Survivors series at Fathom Mag featured profiles of survivors of #ChurchToo sexual abuse. She lives in Texas with her husband and two sons.
The facts about George Whitefield’s preaching as an eighteenth-century itinerant evangelist are almost unbelievable. Can they really be true? Judging by multiple attestations of his contemporaries — and by the agreement of sympathetic and unsympathetic biographers — they seem to be so.
From his first outdoor sermon on February 17, 1739, at the age of 24, to the coal miners of Kingswood near Bristol, England, until his death thirty years later on September 30, 1770, in Newburyport, Massachusetts (where he is buried), his life was one of almost daily preaching. Sober estimates are that he spoke about one thousand times every year for thirty years. That included at least eighteen thousand sermons and twelve thousand talks and exhortations. The daily pace he kept for thirty years meant that, on many weeks, he was speaking more than he was sleeping.
Keep in mind that most of these messages were spoken to gatherings of thousands of people. For example, in the spring of 1740, he preached on Society Hill in Philadelphia twice in the morning to about six thousand and in the evening to nearly eight thousand. The next day, he spoke to “upwards of ten thousand,” and it was reported at one of these events that his expression of the text, “He opened his mouth and taught them, saying,” was distinctly heard at Gloucester point, a distance of two miles by water down the Delaware River (George Whitefield, 1:480). And there were times when the crowds reached twenty thousand or more.
Add to this the fact that he was continually traveling, in a day when it was done by horse or carriage or ship. He covered the length and breadth of England repeatedly. He regularly traveled and spoke throughout Wales. He visited Ireland twice, where he was almost killed by a mob from which he carried a scar on his forehead for the rest of his life. He traveled fourteen times to Scotland and came to America seven times, stopping once in Bermuda for eleven weeks — all for preaching, not resting.
Whitefield was a phenomenon not just of his age but in the entire two-thousand-year history of Christian preaching. There has been nothing like the combination of his preaching pace and geographic extent and auditory scope and attention-holding effect and converting power. J.C. Ryle is right: “No preacher has ever retained his hold on his hearers so entirely as he did for thirty-four years. His popularity never waned” (Select Sermons of George Whitefield, 32).
Eloquence and Anointing
Where did such power and popularity come from? At one level, Whitefield’s power was the natural power of eloquence, and at another it was the spiritual power of God to convert sinners and transform communities.
On the one hand, there is no reason to doubt that Whitefield was the instrument of God in the salvation of thousands. I do not doubt that his contemporary Henry Venn was right when he said, “[Whitefield] no sooner opened his mouth as a preacher, than God commanded an extraordinary blessing upon his word” (Select Sermons of George Whitefield, 29). Thus, at one level, the explanation of Whitefield’s phenomenal impact was God’s exceptional anointing on his life.
But at another level, Whitefield held people in thrall who did not believe a single doctrinal word that he said. In other words, we must come to terms with the natural oratorical gifts that he had. How are we to think about these in relation to his effectiveness? Benjamin Franklin, who loved and admired Whitefield — and totally rejected his theology — said,
Every accent, every emphasis, every modulation of voice, was so perfectly well turned, and well placed, that without being interested in the subject, one could not help being pleased with the discourse: a pleasure of much the same kind with that received from an excellent piece of music. (The Divine Dramatist, 204)
Whitefield: “Let my name be forgotten, let me be trodden under the feet of all men, if Jesus may thereby be glorified.”
One of Whitefield’s contemporaries, Alexander Garden of South Carolina, was not optimistic about the purity of Whitefield’s motives or the likelihood that his effects were decisively supernatural. He believed that Whitefield “would equally have produced the same Effects, whether he had acted his Part in the Pulpit or on the Stage. . . . It was not the Matter but the Manner, not the Doctrines he delivered, but the Agreeableness of the Delivery,” that explained the unprecedented crowds that flocked to hear him preach (“The Grand Sower of the Seed,” 384).
In one sense, I do not doubt that Whitefield was “acting” as he preached. That is, that he was taking the part of the characters in the drama of his sermons and pouring all his energy — his poetic effort — into making their parts real.
Making Reality Seem Real
But the question is, Why was Whitefield “acting”? Why was he so full of action and drama? Was he, as biographer Harry Stout claims, merely “plying a religious trade” for the sake of fame and power (The Divine Dramatist, xvii)?
I think the most penetrating answer comes from something Whitefield himself said about acting in a sermon in London. In fact, I think it’s a key to understanding the power of his preaching — and all preaching. James Lockington was present at this sermon and recorded this verbatim. Whitefield is speaking.
“I’ll tell you a story. The Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 1675 was acquainted with Mr. Butterton the [actor]. One day the Archbishop . . . said to Butterton . . . ‘Pray inform me Mr. Butterton, what is the reason you actors on stage can affect your congregations with speaking of things imaginary, as if they were real, while we in church speak of things real, which our congregations only receive as if they were imaginary?’ ‘Why my Lord,’ says Butterton, ‘the reason is very plain. We actors on stage speak of things imaginary, as if they were real and you in the pulpit speak of things real as if they were imaginary.’”
“Therefore,” added Whitefield, ‘I will bawl [shout loudly], I will not be a velvet-mouthed preacher.” (The Divine Dramatist, 239–40)
This means that there are three ways to speak. First, you can speak of an unreal, imaginary world as if it were real — that is what actors do in a play. Second, you can speak about a real world as if it were unreal — that is what half-hearted pastors do when they preach about glorious things in a way that implies they are not as terrifying or as wonderful as they are. And third, you can speak about a real spiritual world as if it were wonderfully, terrifyingly, magnificently real — because it is.
Outacting the Actors
So if you asked Whitefield, “Why do you preach the way you do?” he would probably have said, “I believe what I read in the Bible is real.” So let me venture this claim: George Whitefield was not a repressed actor, driven by egotistical love of attention. Rather, he was consciously committed to outacting the actors because he had seen what is ultimately real.
His oratorical exertion was not in place of God’s revelation and power but in the service of them. He acted with all his might not because it took greater gimmicks and charades to convince people of the unreal, but because he had seen something more real than actors on the London stage had ever known.
I don’t deny that God uses natural vessels to display his supernatural reality. And no one denies that George Whitefield was a stupendous natural vessel. He was driven, affable, eloquent, intelligent, empathetic, single-minded, steel willed, venturesome, and had a voice like a trumpet that could be heard by thousands outdoors. All of these, I venture to say, would have been part of Whitefield’s natural gifting even if he had never been born again.
But something happened to Whitefield in the spring of 1735, when he was 20 years old, that made all these natural gifts subordinate to another reality — the glory of Christ in the salvation of sinners.
Whitefield Born Again
On a break from school, Whitefield’s friend Charles Wesley gave him a copy of Henry Scougal’s book The Life of God in the Soul of Man. When he read Scougal’s words about true religion being “a vital union with the son of God, Christ formed in the heart,” a new world opened to him. “Oh what a way of divine life did break in upon my poor soul,” Whitefield later testified. “Oh! With what joy — Joy unspeakable — even joy that was full of, and big with glory, was my soul filled” (Revived Puritan, 26).
Whitefield: “I am the chief of sinners, and therefore fittest to preach free grace to a world lying in the wicked one.”
The power, depth, and supernatural reality of that change in Whitefield is something Alexander Garden — and others who reduce the man to his natural abilities — did not sufficiently reckon with. In the new birth, Whitefield was given the supernatural ability to see what was real. His mind was opened to new reality. This means that Whitefield’s acting — his passionate, energetic, whole-souled preaching — was the fruit of having eyes to see “life and light and power from above” (Select Sermons of George Whitefield, 15). He saw the glorious facts of the gospel as real. Wonderfully, terrifyingly, magnificently real. This is why he cries out, “I will not be a velvet-mouthed preacher.”
None of his natural abilities vanished. They were all taken “captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). “Let my name be forgotten, let me be trodden under the feet of all men, if Jesus may thereby be glorified” (George Whitefield, 2:257).
New birth, however, did not make Whitefield perfect. In fact, one of the effects of reading history, and biography in particular, is the persistent discovery of contradictions and paradoxes of sin and righteousness in holy people. Whitefield is no exception, and he will be more rightly honored if we are honest about his blindness as well as his doctrinal faithfulness and goodness. By far the most glaring blindness of his life — and there were others — was his support for the American enslavement of blacks.
Even if one argues that the biblical way to move beyond the institutionalization of slavery (which in the New Testament is tolerated, but implicitly contested, Luke 4:18; Acts 17:26; 1 Corinthians 7:21; 2 Corinthians 3:17; 1 Timothy 1:10; Philemon 1:16; Ephesians 6:9; Galatians 3:28; 5:1; Colossians 3:11; Revelation 5:9) is to adjust to the eighteenth-century institution, but ameliorate it with kindness (as Whitefield did), one must still reckon with the fact that Whitefield did not, so far as we know, come to terms with the institution itself as biblically challenged. Nor did he seem to see that the racially dehumanizing effects of Southern slavery called the “peculiar institution” into question. This is what I mean by “blindness.”
Before it was legal to own slaves in Georgia, Whitefield advocated for legalization with a view to making the orphanage he built more affordable. In 1752, Georgia became a royal colony, slavery was legalized, and Whitefield joined the ranks of the slaveowners. That, in itself, was tragic but not unusual. Most of the slaveholders were professing Christians. But in Whitefield’s case, things were more complex. He didn’t fit the mold of wealthy, Southern plantation owner.
Whitefield said he was willing to face the “whip” of Southern planters if they disapproved of his preaching the new birth to the slaves (The Divine Dramatist, 100). From Georgia to North Carolina to Philadelphia, Whitefield sowed the seeds of equality through heartfelt evangelism and education — whether or not he felt any contradiction in his views.
“Whitefield was consciously committed to outacting the actors because he had seen what is ultimately real.”
Whitefield’s preaching to slaves infuriated many slaveowners. Almost all of them resisted evangelizing and educating the slaves. They knew intuitively that education would tend toward equality, which would undermine the whole system. And evangelism would imply that slaves could become children of God, which would mean that they were brothers and sisters to the owners, which would also undermine the whole system. One wonders if there was a rumbling in Whitefield’s own soul because he really did perceive where such radical evangelism would lead.
He went public with his censures of slaveowners and published words like these: “God has a quarrel with you” for treating slaves “as though they were Brutes.” If these slaves were to rise up in rebellion, “all good Men must acknowledge the judgment would be just” (The Divine Dramatist, 101–2). This was incendiary. But apparently, Whitefield did not perceive fully the implications of what he was saying.
What seems clear is that the slave population, in great numbers, loved Whitefield. When he died, it was the blacks who expressed the greatest grief in America. More than any other eighteenth-century figure, Whitefield established Christian faith in the slave community. Whatever else he failed in, for this service they were deeply thankful.
Phyllis Wheatley (1753–1784), the former slave and first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry in America, eulogized Whitefield in a popular poem of the time. It contained these lines:
Ye Preachers, take him [Christ] for your joyful theme:
Take HIM, “my dear AMERICANS,” he said,
Be your complaints in his kind bosom laid:
Take HIM ye Africans, he longs for you;
Impartial SAVIOUR, is his title due;
If you will chuse to walk in grace’s road,
You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to GOD.
However seriously Whitefield erred, God took the good he did, and the Christ he preached, and made Christ to the “Africans” an “Impartial SAVIOUR” and means to being sons and kings to God.
Fit to Preach Free Grace
So, the greatest preacher of the eighteenth century, perhaps in the history of the Christian church, was a paradoxical figure. There was, as he himself so freely confessed, sin remaining in him. And that is what we have found in every human soul on this earth — except one. Which is why our lives are meant to point to him — that sinless one. Christ’s perfect obedience, not ours, is the foundation of our acceptance with God. If then, our sin, as well as our righteousness, can point people away from ourselves to Christ, we will rejoice even as we repent.
“Whitefield’s daily pace he kept meant that, on many weeks, he was speaking more than he was sleeping.”
“I know no other reason,” Whitefield said, “why Jesus has put me into the ministry, than because I am the chief of sinners, and therefore fittest to preach free grace to a world lying in the wicked one” (Revived Puritan, 157–58). Yes. But as we have seen, God would make not only his unworthiness redound to the grace of God, but also his passionate oratory, his natural dramatic giftedness, and his poetic effort. This too, imperfect as it was, no doubt contaminated as it was with flawed motives, God made the instrument of his supernatural work of salvation.
No eloquence can save a soul. But the worth of salvation and the worth of souls impels preachers to speak and write with all their might in ways that say, “There is more, there is so much more beauty — so much more glory — for you to see than I can say.”