Not-so-stuffy after all
Written by Barbara Brown Zikmund
June - July 2006
July 1, 2006

Frontier Christians urged fun, inspiring worship

"Sermons should be so delivered as to attract, interest, instruct, please, rest and refresh the hearer. . . .Long hymns, long prayers, long sermons, long sighs, long faces, are not the natural accompaniment of piety."

These are the 150-year-old words of a frontier Christian pastor concerned about making Christianity more attractive to "unchurched" or "turned off" Americans. His 1866 article about effective preaching appeared in The Herald of Gospel Liberty, a newspaper founded in 1808 that is generally considered the first religious periodical in the country.

The "Christian movement" was a grass roots reaction against traditional religion. It emerged after the American Revolution "when political liberty had been won, when churches were readjusting themselves to meet the needs of the time, when denominational rivalries were high and earnest souls sought the realities of the Christian life."

Christians affirmed the right of the individual to interpret God's truth. They insisted that Christian character, not creedal or doctrinal statements should be the test of fellowship. They called themselves "Christians" because it was a label that was "undivisive, unsectarian and expressive." They looked to the Bible to guide their faith and practice. They asserted that Christ was the only head of the church - not popes or bishops. And fi nally, they promoted Christian unity, rather than perpetuating denominational conflicts.

Christians made religion attractive and even fun. When longstanding denominations settled for stuffy and dense preaching, Christian preachers in small congregations and revivals met people where they were. They welcomed everyone. They ridiculed preaching in established denominations, insisting that "the minister who intends to drag out his days in long preaching, would better go to fighting steam, electricity, and civilization." That preacher would never win.

"Long dry sermons! It makes one sigh to think about them, but the thought is paradise compared with the hearing. Long sermons, brethren nodding, sisters dozing, boys snoring, babies crying, Satan laughing - magnificent specimen of Christian worship! . Sermons must interest, and not disgust; rest the hearer not weary him [her]. The benediction should be pronounced upon smiling hearers, and not upon frowning ones. The audience should leave the house desiring to return again rather than preferring ever to stay away."

The Christians were a small group, and after they united with the Congregationalists in the 1930s, many people lost track of them. Yet in UCC history the Christians remain an inspiration. They would be delighted with the current "Still Speaking Initiative," because the Christians knew how to critique with satire and offer anyone who was put off by traditional religion an appealing alternative. May we do the same?

The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, editor of The UCC's Living Theological Heritage, writes a monthly online column on UCC history. Read her commentaries regularly at news.ucc.org. 

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