Samuel Moor Shoemaker (1893-1963) was rector of Calvary Church, New York, from 1925 to 1951 and of Calvary Church, Pittsburgh, from 1952 to 1961. A graduate of Princeton and the General Theological Seminary, Shoemaker was a popular radio preacher, a missionary in China, and a major 20th-century evangelical leader both inside and outside the Episcopal Church. He is sometimes credited as a founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, but this is not accurate; rather, his work with the Oxford Group movement for “moral re-armament” inspired the founders of AA, and Shoemaker supported their early efforts.
17 years after this essay for TLC, Shoemaker reported on a later effort at organized evangelism: “The Episcopal Church and Evangelism.” He is commemorated on January 31 as “Priest and Evangelist, 1963” in Holy Women, Holy Men.
The first part of his essay appeared last week. Below is the second part.
“Why some evangelism peters out,” from The Living Church (April 26, 1930).
By Samuel M. Shoemaker
NOW, I should like to try to make some positive suggestions about the way in which we might expect to have a genuine evangelistic revival in the Church.
And first we must take a look down the long corridor of history, beginning with our Lord. Did He begin His movement by choosing out the religiously eminent, the spiritually “likely,” bring them together artificially and try to weld them into a committee, and tackle anything on a country-wide scale at once? I think we know very well that He did not. His movement began in the lives of His workers, drawn together from different walks of life, most of them obscure, gathering to Himself only those who were attracted to His austere but deeply adventurous type of life, men incapable of impressing the great of their own day; them He fused together in an unbreakable unity till finally leaders emerged from the crucible of disciplined and arduous fellowship who were leaders indeed. There was, so far as we can see, nothing which even remotely corresponds to our scheme of first legislating, and then organizing an evangelistic movement out of those who were already religious leaders. I do not believe that this was because the leaders of His day were so thoroughly rotten, but because they were so set in their ways, while He could mould the unprofessional as He wanted them, and they had far more appeal for other outsiders than did the already professionally religious. And “the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.”
And ever since, as we peruse true movements of the Spirit of God in Christian history, something like this seems to have been the case. None of them ever began with being sponsored by the ecclesiastically respectable. They were never the result of the concurrence of a committee. They generally began in the lonely travail of one man’s divinely discontented soul, who saw the sham and futility of the conventional religious life about him, felt the desperate needs of his own life, and flung himself utterly upon God’s mercy; who gradually discovered his mission and his message through his experience; who gathered about him a little handful of heterogeneous followers, not for a two weeks’ mission, but for a lifetime — men who only slowly found themselves willing to ally themselves with him at all, sometimes disagreeing among themselves, and some finally falling back; who stubbornly clung to his convictions when the religious world, as well as the secular, was against him; who predicted no lines along which his work should go, and confined it to no places or groups; who nourished a little fire in a comer for a time and later saw it spread from place to place by spreading first from life to life; and wrung from the world at last the grudging admission that he had hold of a great truth, saw the travail of his soul, and was satisfied. Now that seems to me, with certain minor modifications, pretty much the history of St. Francis, John Tauler, George Fox, John Wesley, George Whitefield, William Booth, and Dwight L. Moody.
I realize the discouraging element in this, because we cannot produce a John Wesley at will. But that brings me to something which I think wants to be said, and that is that none of us can produce an evangelistic awakening at will, either. I suspect that so long as we think of ourselves as sufficient to produce one, we are yet far enough down for God to send us one. I am told that Dr. McCosh of Princeton once heard that there was a revival going on at Yale, and he said, “We’ll have a revival at Princeton!” Now, unfortunately, we cannot commandeer the Holy Spirit, who is, the Author of these fresh fires. I think that we need to realize that very deeply, and to give a much larger place in our evangelistic thinking to the transcendence of God; for I fear that there are not a few of us today who think that if only we could get the conditions right, we could surely guarantee that God would manifest Himself. When we have done our utmost, we must wait and remember that God’s ways are not our ways.
Nevertheless, we can do our utmost, we can be ready for a new manifestation of the Holy Spirit, and we can un-blind our quantity-loving American eyes as to the probable course of an awakening today.
Because we do not know who the man may be through whom God may send His arousal, all of us need to be ready. A little piece of it can come through most of us if we are ready. We can, if we will, seek out those who know how to communicate it, come by a richer and deeper and more demanding and adventurous experience of Christ ourselves. And I ask you to bear with me if I say to you that I am not making just the ordinary “spiritual appeal:” I mean that something further, something disturbing, something drastic has probably got to happen to a good many of us here before we will be shaken out of our Protestant Episcopal dignity and caution, and set free under God’s Holy Spirit for action in the lives of men and women. For in our present experience there is nothing sufficiently acute or crucial to make any impression upon the average present-day unbeliever, to attract him, to give him a “pain in his mind,” or to give him spiritual hope about himself. It means somewhere greater self-giving to Christ.
And then we must learn to discover the universal elements in our own experience, so as to make it pertinent for others. This means that you and I must learn to evangelize in the scale of one. Drummond used to say that the true worker’s world is the unit. I have an uncomfortable feeling that there are some today who are thinking of evangelism in terms of hundreds and thousands, who do not know how to carry it out in terms of one: and this is like the privileged youth who enters the business too high up, and is never secure because he does not know the initial stages. I dare to say that anybody can learn how to win individuals for Christ: but they won’t learn by being told to do it by parsons who they know perfectly well are not doing it themselves. Do you know how, as Drummond says, “to draw souls one by one, to buttonhole them and steal from them the secret of their lives, to talk them clean out of themselves, to read them off like a page of print, to pervade them with your spiritual essence and make them transparent?” That is the task of personal evangelism. It takes prayer, and time, and patience, and knowledge, and skill, and faith. But I insist again, any reasonably intelligent person can learn how to do it.
Third, I am convinced that the center of gravity in religion is the human will — that the way to the will is through the imagination — and that the first thing to secure is the attention of the person you are working with by letting him see a type of spiritual experience which makes him divinely jealous. You ought to have spiritual personalities which will interest him, to whom he may be exposed. Increasingly I find myself at a loss to argue with a man’s mind about the type of religious expedience in which I believe: my very terms are more apt to conceal than to reveal to him what I mean. But give me a walking parable, a man or woman who talks his language and knows his problems, and has worked out of them into an enthusiastic experience of Christ, and you have whetted his appetite. It is fatal to try to feed people’s souls when they are not hungry.
Fourth, I believe that we have got to deal with human sin. And you can always say, even to those as yet without a theological basis for sin, that they may begin by defining it as their own wilful barriers between themselves and the ideal which they see incarnated in others and would in their heart of hearts like to realize in their own lives. Then sin is not just a bugaboo and a shibboleth of another generation, but a concrete wall between them and what they want. I feel reasonably sure that one reason why evangelistic movements are evanescent is that before people make their decisions for Christ they have not, in the presence of a priest or a consecrated lay person, “exteriorized their rottenness,” to use a phrase of William James’: and that this is in many cases both the price and the means of spiritual release and power.
Fifth, we must aim for genuine conversion. And the handle by which the ordinary man takes hold of conversion is surrender, which, I think, is our part in conversion. You can help him to itemize the several elements in his surrender so that he knows just what it involves. And you can get down on your knees with him, when the time comes, and pray with him as he gives himself to God. This is a very different matter from deciding to come to church, or from signing a card; this is a spiritual transaction between a man and his God with you as a witness. How many of us shudder and grow cold at the very thought of asking a person to decide for Christ, or of praying with him about his sins, or of daring to appear so officious as all this indicates — yet we are quite calm about sitting on an evangelistic committee and giving large directions which we hope will incline somebody else to do what we are frankly afraid to do ourselves.
Sixth, we have got to provide spiritual fellowship for those who are thus won to our Lord. We think automatically of the Church’s means of grace, and we are thankful for them. But if the means of grace are not to grow stale and dry, unable to sustain any higher life than in many quarters they are sustaining; if, in other words, we do not want to go on producing a lot more tame people like ourselves, they have got to be made vital by the element of a deeper spiritual fellowship. A group of these people meeting, say, once a week, gives encouragement to the fearful and failing, corrects the perspective of those who would go off on individualistic tangents, coaxes out the shy, and in a spirit of good-natured pooling of mistakes and successes raises the sense of spiritual possibility and encourages everyone to go forward. There is only one thing to keep such a group from staleness, and that is continuously fresh experiences, and the frank hushing up of those who say the same things over and over again. If there are growing experiences of guidance, of answered prayer, of moral victory, of others won for the Master, the meetings will be filled with Life, and it will be safe to bring in new people and expose them. It is the want of concrete ways to follow up evangelistic efforts which, of course, has made so many of them abortive and even harmful.
But one comes back at the end to the conclusion of the matter; “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” You cannot give what you do not have. You can cheat at preaching and praying, but you cannot have results with individuals unless the whole thing is fresh and personal and vital to yourself. Modern evangelistic movements grow pale and die because people like you and me do not pay the price for spiritual power in our own lives. Technique will come later if only the great experience comes first. But we shall go on getting nowhere if we take ourselves and our fellow-Christians for granted, and think that we can legislate a revival by getting the approval and the coöperation of enough men and women, instead of facing at the outset that the crux of the matter does not lie in the stubborn resistance of the unbelievers, or the complacency of the Church members, but right down in that deep place of our own soul “where we dwell alone with our willingnesses and our unwillingnesses.”
Richard Mammana is the archivist of The Living Church.
“True movements of the Spirit of God in Christian history were never the result of the concurrence of a committee.” Since this is also true of heresies, “committees” (a.k.a. Ecumenical Councils) do have a place (although as we have seen in recent years Ecumenical Committees/Synods/Conferences can also go terribly wrong).