Everybody has moments he would characterize as his highest and greatest. One of mine is that Sunday morning when I preached my first sermon.
It was in the little Methodist church at Walpole, Mass. I was a seminary student at the time, and I wanted that sermon to be a gem of scholarly eloquence. So I tried to put into writing all that I knew of theology and literature. But it just wouldn’t jell, and I became confused and discouraged.
In despair I telegraphed my father, a Methodist district superintendent, asking help. He replied: “Just tell the people that Jesus Christ can change their lives. Love, Dad.” That message has been engraved in my memory ever since.
I arrived early at the little church and went to a room which was bare of everything but an old red couch and a cluttered table. Here I paced up and down, trying to fix my sermon in mind. Then I looked out the window and saw people beginning to gather. My inadequacy swept over me; my sermon left me. I fell to my knees by the couch, praying frantically for some message that would help those people.
Suddenly I had a great sense of peace, and then a very moving impression of God’s presence. It was as if He said to me, “Do not be anxious. Simply tell the people that I will help them if they will give their lives to Me.”
This experience was so overpowering that I feel its reality to this day. Exalted and inspired, I then and there vowed to do everything I possibly could to get everybody, everywhere, to know what Christ could mean in their lives. I arose from my knees and almost ran to the pulpit. It was a short, immature sermon, but everything I had went into it.
When in memory I go back to this little church and its experience of profound dedication, the old excitement comes over me. I know better than anybody else how imperfectly I have kept that vow, but it still stirs my soul and calls me back to the kind of preaching that really matters.
After my first year at seminary I returned to my home in Ohio for the summer. When my father told me that a country church was without a preacher for the following Sunday, I eagerly offered to “supply.” I was imbued with everything I had heard in the classroom back at seminary; we had been studying the atonement. Therefore I prepared a ponderous sermon on that topic which I thought I would try out on the “country folks.”
Sitting on the front porch Saturday afternoon, I read the sermon to my father. He sat with his feet perched on the porch rail, listening patiently. Then he said, “Well, Norman, there are several things I would do with that sermon if I were you. First, I would burn it up.”
This rather startled me, but he went on to explain: “It’s a good thing to write out a sermon, so that your thoughts are organized. But never preach from a manuscript. Get yourself so full of your message that you can stand before your people and pour it out to them, looking them directly in the eye.
“Then,” he said, “I would simplify it. Scholarship isn’t the use of obscure words or high-sounding phrases. True scholarship takes the greatest principles and makes them so simple that a child can understand them. Tell your listeners in simple everyday language that Jesus Christ died for them, that He can save them from themselves and give them joy and peace. Above all, tell them what you personally know.”
The sheer common sense of this advice impressed me. I went out the next day with his words ringing in my mind.
I can see that country church as though it were yesterday. It was a still, beautiful Sunday morning. Looking down at the waiting congregation, I was scared, as usual. But I prayed silently, and an inner voice seemed to say, “Go ahead, tell them about Me.” So I rose and began, without fanfare or flourish, to talk about what Jesus Christ had come to mean to me.
Afterwards I went home for dinner with a farm family. My host was a big, heavy-set man, his face weather-beaten, tanned and strong. While the menfolk were waiting on the veranda for dinner to be ready, he put his big hand on my knee and said quietly: “You did all right this morning, son. Your sermon was simple, and everybody could understand it. Stick to that style wherever you go. Just keep telling people that all their failures, their faults, their sorrows and their weaknesses can be lost in Jesus. Just tell them that — the same old message, the old, old story.”
I noticed there were tears in his eyes. He pulled out a big handkerchief and blew his nose. Then he slapped me on the back and went in the house.
There was a silence on the porch. Finally one of the men said, “Maybe you ought to know that man once had a lot of struggles with himself. And he went sort of bad for a while, until one Sunday, in that little church, he was converted. Ever since then he has been quite a remarkable person, as you can see.”
These experiences convinced me that the one great objective in preaching should be to make people acquainted with Jesus Christ, so that the defeats of their lives may be turned into victories. Having done that, the next step is to tell them that they cannot keep this experience unless they give it away, share it with others. That is the message that should come from every pulpit in the world, Sunday after Sunday, week after week.
I decided early that I was going to preach evangelistic sermons, aim for a decision, try to get people to accept the Saviour. It was the custom in those days to invite people to come to the altar and accept Christ publicly. (It is still good, I believe, to get people to step out courageously before their fellows and say, “This is the way I am going to live!”) So, in my first church, in a Rhode Island mill town, I suddenly decided during an evening service to give the invitation.
Five people came forward and knelt at the altar. Some of these people, I knew, had been struggling against all manner of defeat. I was so excited that I literally did not know what to do. I knelt with them and simply said, “I don’t know much about this, but all you need to do is say, ‘I give myself to Thee, O Lord,’ and mean it.”
I guess that was all that was necessary, for their lives thereafter were changed.
I shall never forget walking home under the stars that clean, cool November night. I walked on air, for I had seen the power of God at work in lives. Since that time I have developed an unbounded conviction that there is nobody whose life cannot be changed who will let Christ change it.
A few years after graduation from seminary, I came to a church in a university community, Syracuse, N.Y. The congregation was composed of university professors and their families, businessmen and professional people. Young and inexperienced, I fell into the hands of some of the most wonderful people I have ever known.
On the first Sunday I was introduced by the late Hugh M. Tilroe, director of the university’s School of Public Speech. He said to the congregation, “You have a very young man here as your new pastor. You can make him a good pastor, or you can make a very ordinary man of him. It depends on you.”
It was a curious kind of introduction, laying the responsibility upon the congregation. They took him seriously, for they gave me wonderful support and counsel. It is amazing what the members of a church can do for a minister if they have a mind to, and if he will let them.
Being in a university pulpit, I thought I had to preach a baccalaureate sermon every Sunday. I read heavy books and quoted learned authority. One day one of the most outstandingly intellectual members of the faculty took me out to lunch. “I would like to make a suggestion,” he said. “You think that we, being college professors, want an ‘intellectual’ sermon. But you must remember that, while we may be experts in our fields, you must be an expert in the field of spirit. We’re just poor sinful people who need and want the Gospel. Preach to us the same as you would do to anybody else.” I followed his advice.
We ministers are sometimes accused of being too concerned with full pews. I plead guilty. I freely subscribe to the notion that we must capture the world with Christianity, not just rescue a small remnant. From the pulpit of this magnificent Syracuse church I could look up into the balcony and see a huge ladder lying across the pews. The sexton explained, “Nobody ever sits in those seats. It’s the best place to store the ladder.”
Every Sunday that ladder annoyed me. I didn’t want to preach to a ladder. I wanted to preach to human beings. So I invited a different fraternity from the university to come each Sunday and occupy a reserved section. Soon the fraternities began to vie with one another to have the largest turnout. The church began to fill up, the balcony too, and the ladder had to go elsewhere.
I had learned this: that if you stand in the pulpit and tell people in plain language that God can help them overcome their difficulties and make something of their lives, and illustrate it out of life, you will always have listeners who will want to hear that message, no matter how poorly or haltingly it is delivered.
The winning of men to the church has been another of my prime concerns. From boyhood, as a preacher’s son, I had asked myself why the women far outnumbered the men in the congregation. I decided that maybe the minister was largely to blame. One could not help noting the attitude of men in the street toward the preacher, or miss the sigh of relief when the servant of God took himself from their midst.
I told the Lord that, if He would guide me, I would make the recruitment of men one of my life’s aims. Before long I was offered an opportunity to appear widely, under lecture-bureau auspices, before business and industrial conventions. I have continued doing this for a great many years. I am convinced that if we can get men in business, in the professions and in labor to fill their daily occupations with religious zeal and spirit, we can effect a deep religious revival in this country.
In 1932 I became the pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. At the time, the nation was at the bottom of the depression. Men were jumping out of windows, having nervous breakdowns and heart attacks. People were frightened, discouraged and in many cases utterly defeated. The very times compelled me to address myself to human needs, telling brokenhearted, frustrated people that there was healing and renewal in the simple principles which Jesus taught.
Now, I have never preached that material success would come to anyone through the practice of the Gospel. But it is a fact that if one conditions his life to right thinking, right doing and right relationships with other people, the old failure tendencies fall away, and there is a new creativeness in his life. And gradually people began to listen to this message. Then they came with personal problems seeking private interviews to learn how they might overcome difficulties and frustrations.
Here I realized my own deficiency. I had never been trained in psychological or psychiatric understanding. Therefore I sought out a man who has since become my great friend and associate, Dr. Smiley Blanton. We began to pool our therapy — the therapy of Christianity and the therapy of psychiatry. And we soon proved that when people begin to live the healthy, wholesome principles of Jesus, feelings of bitterness and frustration and fear fall away.
We worked out a series of simple techniques from the Bible itself, explaining in formula fashion how one could go about overcoming fear, or getting hate out of his system, or defeating an inferiority complex. These principles I outlined simply in books and sermons, radio talks, TV appearances. I was interested in only one thing: changing people’s lives. I merely employed new methods.
The fact that faith-finding has been reduced to simple formula does not mean that religion has been made “easy.” There is no such thing as easy religion. Always it is necessary for the person, in the application of this method, to evaluate scrupulously and honestly his own life and make a definite break with anything in his experience that is wrong and incompatible with the spirit of Christ. Let him try it who thinks that it is easy!
It is within every man’s nature to want to make the most of himself, to do the very best he can with his life. I have found that by constant daily surrender to God, the Divine Power is available for my life. God can work in every life.

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