An All-Round MinistryWritten by C. H. Spurgeon Reviewed By C. Peter White
At yet another reprint this has got to be one of Banner’s faithfuls and at £1.75, it is good value for money.
The background to the book is moving and significant. In 1855—when Spurgeon was but 21 and had a thousand people seeking admission to New Park Street Chap—one T. W. Medhurst began to come weekly to him for instruction in theology. Mrs. Spurgeon practised ‘the most rigid economy’ in the household to enable Spurgeon to support Medhurst out of his own salary. In 1857 a second student was added; finally there were between 70 and 100 students taking a two year course in the ‘Pastors’ College’. In 1865 Spurgeon inaugurated an annual conference for his past and present students; during his lifetime he gave 27 presidential addresses at it. ‘An All-Round Ministry’ contains twelve of them, delivered between 1872 and 1890, and also an excellent introduction by Iain Murray. The result is obviously not a systematic treatise, rather a series of addresses that are sometimes methodical and sermonic, sometimes extremely wide ranging so that ‘peradventure some sentence may come with power to this man and to that’.
It is not, therefore, a ‘how to’ manual on what sort of meetings to have and how to divide your week, nor a tool box containing the principles of preaching and pastoralia. The one thing it really does do comprehensively is to describe the sort of men we need to be if we are to make sense of the manuals and use the tools aright.
His audiences being who they were, Spurgeon could make many assumptions without needing to argue for them. Some of these are identified in the introduction. All were agreed upon the need for a preacher to be both humanly fitted and divinely called to that office, on a biblical, puritan theology, and on a training which combined dogmatism with fervour, with the aim of producing plain, powerful preachers.
Chapter headings are predictable: ‘Forward!’ … ‘The Preacher’s Power and the Conditions of obtaining it’ … ‘How to meet the Evils of the Age’, and the like. The style, needless to say, is totally Spurgeon: witty, pithy, devastating, incredibly sane and alive with apt illustrations.
There being no systematic theme, it is of interest to note what features of ministry this giant highlights. First and foremost on my list is the quality of pluck or expectation which Spurgeon gives to faith. Time and again I have the margin note ‘courage’. For example we have faith that ‘difficulties are but stepping stones to grander results’. What true pastor has not found them to be so—but how many of us take such an attitude to the next resignation, the next period of vandalism, the next disappointment from a beloved child in the Lord letting us down? Again, he describes the ‘weak faith’ minister who expects no results from his preaching and disbelieves any results God does give, and goes on ‘we have not so learned Christ. We expect to take fish in our nets, and to reap harvests in our fields. Is it not so with you my brethren? Let it be more so.… Believe your own doctrine! Believe your own Saviour! Believe in the Holy Ghost who dwells in you! For thus shall you see your heart’s desire, and God shall be glorified’.
Then, he’s so plain and practical! Daydreamers beware. ‘Be not so taken up with speculations as to prefer a Bible reading over an obscure passage in Revelation, to teaching in a Ragged School or discoursing to the poor concerning Jesus … we want facts—deeds done, souls saved.’
Spurgeon is gloriously unstereotyped. Be yourself. We don’t all have to have—thank God—the rhetorical genius of a Lloyd-Jones or the taxonomic brilliance of a Stott. Your ministry is the Lord working through yourpersonality, not your better endowed neighbour’s. What a relief!
A repeated theme is ‘how to meet present evils’ and it brings out Spurgeon’s uncompromisingly high standards at every level: in hard work (‘kill yourselves with work, then pray yourselves alive again’), in ministerial integrity (‘he’d have been a great winner of souls if he had believed in souls, but he believed in nothing’), in standing for the Truth whatever the cost (‘we mean to win for the grand old cause of Puritanism, Protestantism, Calvinism’), in mental acquirements, moral qualities, spiritual qualifications. Words like urgent, endure, zeal, aim high, great holiness, intense piety—these are of the essence. Also, how his great heart of love challenges us. ‘Having lovingly preached the Gospel to them, if they will not repent, we must break our hearts because we cannot break their hearts.… I do not know how a preacher can be much blessed of God who does not feel an agony when he fears that some of his hearers will pass into the next world impenitent and unbelieving.’
If I were to take issue with him it would be over the causes of apparent failure in ministry. Spurgeon would be pretty sure that the real reason is normally lack of faith. That might often be so; I don’t know. But I’m equally sure that in many other cases quite different factors are operating. There are times when whole communities resist the Gospel for generations despite no apparent lack of faithful ministry. What of the many Muslim mission fields where perhaps forty years of faithful but apparently fruitless ministry is followed by a surprising receptiveness a generation later? There is more here than the minister’s faith (as indeed he begins to concede in the 1888 address).
If the greatest challenge comes from Spurgeon’s courage, the greatest healing flows from his weakness. He too trembled as he climbed the pulpit stairs. He too knew the bodily sickness and terrible fears which so often precede preaching, and the darkness which can occur during it. He too knew the fear of drying up and the doubts which God allows to accompany growing maturity. He also reminds us why they come, namely, on account of others. Vividly he recounts one such dark experience during preaching and how God used it to reach a man in the depths of despair. ‘By God’s grace I saved that man from suicide and led him into Gospel light and liberty; but I know I could not have done it if I had not myself been confined in the dungeon in which he lay’.
Finally, Spurgeon is quite clear as to the means of obtaining power in ministry: the prayers of the people and the prayer life of their minister. Whence came the power in his own ministry? The prayers of his people. What did he want for his men? ‘May the Lord give you a holy, pleading people, whom He can bless!’ And what of ourselves? ‘We cannot all argue, but we can all pray; we cannot all be leaders, but we can all be pleaders; we cannot all be mighty in rhetoric, but we can all be prevalent in prayer. I would sooner see you eloquent with God than with men. Prayer links us with the Eternal, the Omnipotent, the Infinite; and hence it is our chief resort.’
Methods and structures are not everything. If we are to be fruitful for God, nothing is more important than the people we are. It is to this that Spurgeon speaks in ‘An All-Round Ministry’. It isn’t a ‘sell your shirt for it’ book; but most readers will rise from reading it brighter, humbler, more determined people.
C. Peter White
Minister of St. David’s, Broom-house Parish Church, England