In the winter of 1850-51, two young men walked out of Cambridge on the Newmarket road, heading for a village named Teversham. One of them was deep in silence, having received one of the biggest surprises of his young life.
A keen member of St Andrew’s Street Baptist Church and an active teacher in the Sunday school, he had been approached by James Vinter, a seasoned member of the church and the president of the lay preachers’ association.
He explained that a young man with very little experience was going to preach at a cottage meeting in Teversham. Would he mind going along to provide some support? As they left Cambridge, he told his companion that he hoped he would have some help from the Lord.
‘Oh, but I’m not preaching’, said the other, ‘I came to support you!’ Later that evening the young Charles Spurgeon, not quite sixteen years old, successfully completed his first sermon, taken from 1 Peter 2:7: ‘Unto you therefore which believe he is precious’.
Looking back on this incident from a distance of a century and a half, how do we view James Vinter’s willingness to take a risk on an untried youth?
Learning on the job
I ask this question partly because I recently overheard a ministerial colleague say, ‘the young men don’t seem to be coming through’. I have heard similar comments a number of times and read articles that address the same issue. My colleague saw this as further evidence of the dearth of the times, but I caught myself wondering whether I wasn’t at least partly to blame.
The apostle Paul’s familiar charge to Timothy – ‘the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also’ (2 Timothy 2:2) – envisages the gospel torch being passed on through four successive generations.
Training the next generation, it seems, is part of the pastor’s job description. And surely this involves providing not just sound theological education but opportunities to learn ‘on the job’?
Might we have erred out of a commendable desire to give our people nothing but the best? We guard our pulpits to ensure that no taint of heresy curdles the ‘pure milk of the Word’ – but do we thereby inadvertently ensure that everything is a little too stitched up?
Willing to identify gifts
Rawness and inexperience are pardonable in a nineteenth-century beginner whose name is Spurgeon, but shouldn’t modern congregations be spared such gambles? No, for those of us who have been in the ministry for decades were once young and inexperienced! Someone was willing to take a risk for the gospel’s sake and congregations were willing to be patient and forgiving to encourage our first steps in preaching.
Of course, not every enthusiastic young man is a potential Spurgeon. For every beginner with the makings of a faithful preacher there will be another who is full of himself and whose lack of mature spirituality will be cruelly exposed.
Even so, I wonder whether we need to rediscover James Vinter’s willingness to identify the kind of gifts and graces that make a potential minister – and then back our judgement by finding opportunities to use them.
Some congregations might be a little mutinous: ‘We called our pastor to preach to us. We pay his stipend. We want to hear him’. But part of a pastor’s calling is to ensure that his own succession is being prepared.
Benefits of wisdom
When I was a raw young preacher, nothing would have pleased me more than to have my own pastor listen to one of my efforts and give me the benefit of his wisdom and experience.
Yet I fear I might end up denying others this opportunity unless, as well as preaching myself, I also make room for the young men under my ministry to test their gifts and calling under my supervision.
If I do not, they might feel so stifled that they seek opportunities to serve in less doctrinally responsible settings. That, I fear, would be worse than occasionally exposing a congregation to a rough-edged sermon by a young man still learning his craft.
Letting an inexperienced preacher loose in a pulpit will mean that the pastor or other elders in the church will have to offer regular feedback. There may be faults that need correction, whether in the exegesis of the Scripture or the delivery of the sermon.
But then, a beginner’s willingness to accept judicious criticism will tell its own story about his spiritual maturity and future usefulness.
As for the young Spurgeon, there is no doubt that his gifts and graces would have blossomed sooner or later, but at a crucial stage in his spiritual development someone was willing to take a risk.
Is it possible to err on the side of being too safe? Has James Vinter anything to teach us today?