The Church Fathers ABCs
Meet Joel Osteen's Forefather, Charles Finney
It's easy to criticize Lakewood—or Saddleback or Willow Creek or any of their thriving clones—as having caved into American culture. Walking into their services is not that different from walking into any entertainment venue or shopping mall. But aren't these super-megachurches merely following the dictates of the apostle Paul himself in 1 Corinthians 9? "I have become all things to all people so that by all means I might save some." Why should the church not employ every tool at its disposal if the result can be a more populated kingdom? Shouldn't we pull out all the stops in order, as Paul put it, "to win as many as possible?"
I used 1 Corinthians 9 as rationale for starting a contemporary worship service. Back then, few among our church leadership could imagine permitting the devil's rock music inside our historic sanctuary. Guitars and drums? Marketing surveys? Multimedia? Sarcastic sermons? Just bury me now! But you know, it worked. Church attendance increased more than twenty fold—just like Charles Finney said it would.
On October 10, 1821, Charles Finney was a 29-year-old upstate New York lawyer wrestling internally over the status of his soul. America was in the throes of what has since become known as its Second Great Awakening, a period of religious fervor during the antebellum years of the 19th century. Finney decided that he needed to square things with his Maker, so we went off into the woods in search of a divine encounter. He knocked and the door was opened to him. "The Holy Spirit seemed to go through me body and soul," Finney later reported. "I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed it seemed to come in waves of liquid love, for I could not express it any other way." The next morning, Finney shocked a client whose case he was scheduled to argue in court. "I now have a retainer from the Lord Jesus to plead his cause," Finney said, "so I cannot plead yours."
Finney the lawyer became Finney the evangelist, though he maintained his dramatic courtroom flair. Eyes blazing, denunciatory voice booming, Finney's theatric preaching came off (according to one account) "like cannon balls through a basket of eggs." Finney would issue his altar call and folks would both stand up and fall over, groaning, weeping and bewailing their sin. "There can be no revival," Finney said, "without Mr. Amen and Mr. Wet-Eyes in the audience."
In addition to the altar call, Finney was responsible for other self-styled "new measures." He revamped the anxious bench—a front pew that functioned like a witness stand where wavering sinners sat and squirmed as Finney lit into them. He made it a practice of saying "you" instead of "they" when speaking of the wicked—often calling out reluctant sinners by name. He prayed in colloquial language, which many considered vulgar when addressing God. He was the first to use publicity and mass media to promote his nightly meetings where he gallingly let women pray out loud.
Jonathan Edwards, the noted New England preacher at the center of the first Great Awakening, described revivals as something that had to be "prayed down." Finney, however, believed that revivals had to be "worked up." He expressly denied that there was anything supernatural about revival. "It is not a miracle or dependent on a miracle in any sense," he insisted. "Revival is a purely [scientific] result of the right use of constituted means—as much as any other effect produced by the application of means."
Daniel M. Harrell is Senior Minister of The Colonial Church, Edina, MN and author of How To Be Perfect: One Church's Audacious Experiment in Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus (FaithWords, 2011). Follow him via Twitter, Facebook, or at his blog and website.