Watered-down sermons

Are modern pastors preaching like Ellen White?

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About seven-and-a-half years ago, I started work as a minister in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I was determined to grow the church that had been placed under my care.

After 12 months working very hard in a small congregation, I was dismayed to see that our membership had dropped! One night I was complaining and pouring my heart out to God saying, “Lord! What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I grow my church?”

I was amazed as an answer from God came and impressed on me so very clearly, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18, emphasis added). Overwhelmed that Jesus had rebuked me by reminding me that the Church was His to grow and not mine, I meekly enquired, “Well Lord, what do you want me to do?”

The impression came just as powerfully, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2).

Since that time, I have endeavoured to do just that: to preach the Bible. Perhaps I haven’t always been faithful or prayerful enough, and perhaps my homiletic skills have not always been on point. Sometimes I’ve been tired or rushed and my sermons haven’t exactly gone to plan, and sometimes I’ve done OK. I often feel guilty after preaching that I have not been clear, or that I haven’t dug deep enough, or that I have dug too deep. Yet I always know that, for better or for worse, I have preached the Bible because that is what Jesus Himself called me to do.

I also like to think that my brothers and sisters, both pastors and lay preachers, who are called to preach in local Adventist churches all over the world have a similar experience to myself.

We ask the Lord in prayer to impress a message on our hearts, and then, as we spend time in personal relationship with Him, He gives us a Bible topic or a verse, passage or story from the Scriptures that we then get up and preach about on Sabbath. When every church in every place is declaring a different section of the Scriptures it means that, as the Church, the Spirit leads us all together to proclaim “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27, NKJV).

I guess that’s the reason why it bothers me a little bit to hear people negatively criticise the preaching in their churches. Don’t get me wrong; I believe in the power of positive criticism. As preachers, we ought to be open to growing and responding to helpful suggestions so that we can be better communicators. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the kind of comments and snide remarks that suggest people who have been called to speak in Adventist churches don’t preach what they are supposed to be preaching. That there is too much stuff about love and grace, and not enough about conspiracies in the Roman Catholic Church. That preachers have watered down the sermons and aren’t delivering the three angels’ messages the way Ellen White wrote that we ought to do. Perhaps you have heard someone make a remark like that after a sermon in your church? I have.

It makes me wonder, What did Ellen White actually preach when she was in our part of the world?

"The whole counsel of God must be preached, and His love and grace must be the centre of it."

In addition to being a prolific writer, Ellen White was a regular preacher and was often invited to speak wherever she travelled. In her biographies, Ellen White’s grandson Arthur L White chronicles her time Down Under, in the volume entitled The Australian Years (1891-1900). Here we get an almost blow-by-blow description of what she did. Most interestingly, he highlights the subjects in her sermonic menu. Here are just a few of many notable examples:

Her first sermon in Australia happened to be at a Conference session on December 24, 1891. “Since the next day was Christmas, Mrs White delivered an appropriate message on ‘the birth and mission of Christ, illustrating the love of God and showing the propriety of making gifts of gratitude’” (p 23). At a Week of Prayer in 1893, “she spoke on the publishing work; and . . . on tithing” (p 58). A little later that year she “spoke with great freedom on John 14 to an audience that filled the house” (p 70). The very next Sabbath she said, “I spoke from the words of Christ in Matthew 13:12-17. I showed them that those living on the earth are favoured above all people in the possession of precious advanced light” (p 71).

Later on, Ellen White was travelling by ship and stopped in Napier, NZ, where “she presented her favourite theme, ‘The Love of God,’ to an attentive audience” (p 77). At the New Zealand camp meeting “Ellen White spoke on phrenology* and its perils” (p 78). At the same camp “she spoke on Sabbath observance, at another time on John 14 and the Christian’s heavenly home, then on sanctification and transformation of character. The subject of ‘dress’ was presented, and one evening the school in Australia” (p 79).

After this, she stayed in Palmerston North and “led out with words of comfort and encouragement for the little few who had met together to worship God”, especially the young people there of whom she later wrote, “I addressed words to them, to instruct and help them in doing right, in loving Jesus in the early years of their life” (p 90). Meeting on the Sabbath in Petone, she wrote “The Lord gave me words to speak to the people. John 14” (p 92).

At a camp meeting in Wellington, “she took great pleasure in ‘showing our colours on which were inscribed the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus’.” She wrote, “I told them that we were Seventh-day Adventists, and the reason of the name which distinguished us from other denominations” (p 109).

I know there are some of us who might think that list of subjects is a watered-down message. But as I read this I was deeply impressed by the great theological balance that pervaded Ellen White’s preaching. She was a straight, conservative Christian preacher. She did not mince words or compromise the truth. However, her preaching was liberally tempered with the grace, the love and the words of Christ, and all of it was built on a solid foundation of holy Scripture. Her grandson records that “her favourite theme . . . was
‘the Love of God’” (p 77). Therefore, themes like love and grace are not a watering down of the truth. The whole counsel of God must be preached, and His love and grace must be the centre of it.

Sometimes our churches remind me of the time I took my kids to a buffet restaurant for dinner. They complained to me that I didn’t give them a lot of the stuff they really wanted (the unhealthy food), and I instead gave them a lot of the stuff they really needed (the healthy food). If only they knew I was doing it for their good! Is it possible that in this YouTubing, podcasting, pick-what-you-want moment in history, we can fall out of theological balance if we don’t pay heed to the messages God’s servants have prepared for us in the pulpit?

For myself, despite what people say, I want to be both a preacher and a listener who is more faithful to the call of Jesus. In order to get there, as Ellen White did, I know the answer is not to move my preaching further away from the Bible, but rather closer to it. Whether we really know it or not, inside we are all hungry for God’s Word.

The truth is that we need to hear God’s Word, all of it. Not just the parts that interest us. It is my prayer that, despite the human vessel, we can enter our churches to listen to every sermon with an open heart and this prayer on our lips, “Lord, please minister to my spirit through Your Word today.”


Pastor Daniel Matteo is youth director for the Tasmanian Conference and chaplain of Hilliard Christian School.

*Phrenology is a pseudoscience that involves the measurement of bumps on the skull to predict mental traits.