Preaching in Britain Today: Believing or Belonging? (Part 1)

14 Jun


It hardly goes without saying that in Britain today, the situation facing those who preach regularly is vastly different, especially when compared to that which preachers experienced within the last few centuries. Some legendary preachers from the past enjoyed almost rock-star or celebrity status, and occupied positions of immense authority both within their churches and in British society.

For example, the famous Victorian preacher Charles Spurgeon was a close friend and supporter of the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, and the two frequently exchanged letters.[1] Gladstone even attended Spurgeon’s church, the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, at times also.

I highly doubt that our current Prime Minister, Theresa May, is exchanging letters (or emails, or even Tweets) with any famous preachers today! Moreover, these great British preachers attracted crowds of tens of thousands of people, and through their preaching, greatly influenced the moral condition of the nation.

Famous British Preachers from the Past

For us to gain an understanding of the differences between the preaching and church contexts both then and now, let us briefly look at four examples of famous British preachers from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

First, only a few miles from where I currently live, in June of 1752 John Wesley made his successful preaching debut in Chester, located in the North West of England. A plaque on the exterior of the Wesley Church in Chester can still be seen today that commemorates this event. In his diary, Wesley recounted his experiences as on his second day there he preached his third sermon in the city.

John Wesley

Wesley stated: “I preached at six in the evening in the Square, to a vast multitude, rich and poor. The far greater part, the gentry in particular, were seriously and deeply attentive: though a few of the rabble, most of them drunk, laboured much to make a disturbance. One might already perceive a great increase of earnestness in the generality of the hearers.”[2]

One might argue that in the intervening two-and-a-half centuries since Wesley preached in Chester, not much has changed. There are still drunken revelers out on a Friday or Saturday night going from club to club! It may still prove to be just as problematic to try and preach to that “rabble,” as Wesley called them, today.

The second example of a great British preacher is also drawn from the eighteenth century: the Anglican priest George Whitefield, who was a contemporary of Wesley. From the early days of his preaching ministry he experienced great success.

Churches that had stood nearly empty for years suddenly overflowed with people who came to hear him preach, and his printed sermons sold out as soon as they came off the presses. As a result, many jealous church leaders and ministers closed their pulpits to him.[3] ]

Following the earlier example set by the Welsh preacher Howell Harris, who preached in fields throughout Wales, in 1739 Whitefield turned his back on preaching in churches, and instead began preaching out of doors. He found a much warmer reception preaching largely to working-class listeners in the open air. Wesley began his outdoor preaching ministry in the coal mining communities near Bristol; just a few weeks after his first sermons there, he drew attentive audiences of up to ten thousand colliers.[4]

In 1742, Whitfield became part of a revival that had started in Scotland, and there preached to crowds of twenty thousand until as late as 2 am.[5] Whitefield also travelled to the American colonies many times, taking part in the “Great Awakening” revival that had begun prior to his arrival in the late eighteenth century. He teamed up with his fellow-ministerial colleague, the American Puritan preacher, Jonathan Edwards, whose famous (or perhaps infamous) sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is still discussed today as an example of a “terror sermon” that brought about a revival. Whitefield’s outdoor preaching in the American colonies drew crowds of up to thirty thousand people,[6] including Ben Franklin (who reportedly was not overly impressed).

The third example is taken from the nineteenth century: the towering figure of the great Victorian preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Only four years after his conversion experience, in 1854 at the tender age of just nineteen, the young Spurgeon accepted the call to become the pastor of the New Park Street Church in London, which later became the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Although the press mercilessly criticized his preaching when he first began his ministry, by the age of just twenty-two, Spurgeon was the most popular preacher of his day.[7]

Charles Spurgeon

The Metropolitan Tabernacle could be considered the first true “mega-church”; as the largest church in the world, it could comfortably seat up to six thousand people, and typically ran at full capacity each Sunday. It is even reported that on certain Sundays, when the building was filled to overflowing, Spurgeon asked his regular attenders not to come to church the following week–so that newcomers and visitors could find a seat!

For those who could not attend services in person, they could easily read the text of the sermon literally within days of it being preached, right across Britain. Printed editions of Spurgeon’s Sunday sermons were quickly distributed throughout Britain during the week, and sold an average of 25,000 copies weekly.[8] At one point, Spurgeon was so popular that newspaper editors took advantage of the new technology of the telegraph. Spurgeon’s Sunday sermons were wired across the Atlantic to the United States and were reprinted there in secular newspapers in time for the Monday edition.[9]

Later in his ministry, his sermons were translated into other languages, and thus his fame as “the prince of preachers” spread all over the world. There is no question but that he cast a large shadow: today, Spurgeon’s College in London still trains men and women for ministry; and the Metropolitan Tabernacle church still holds regular Sunday services. Scholars still discuss his voluminous writings and sermons, and he is still venerated as one of the greatest preachers ever produced by Great Britain.

Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones

The fourth and final example, taken from the twentieth century, is of the famous Welsh preacher Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who served as pastor of the Westminster Chapel in London from 1939 to 1968. Following World War II, attendance increased under his preaching ministry; up to twenty-five hundred people attended Sunday morning and evening services to hear his expository sermons, and twelve hundred attended Friday night Bible studies.[10]


Although I could continue to give examples of other famous British preachers from the past, I should think that to anyone who observes the current society, whether in Britain or North America, it is patently obvious that today’s situation is vastly different.

For example, take a stroll through the streets of the city of Chester today. On a regular basis, typically on Saturday mornings, one encounters street preachers vigorously holding forth in their attempts to preach the gospel message. Somewhat ironically, perhaps, many of these preachers may not even be aware that their efforts are taking place not far from where Wesley himself preached a few centuries ago to large crowds.

Other than encountering drunks on a weeknight as Wesley did, that is where the similarity ends! Intent on their shopping or errands, most people pay scarce attention to the preachers, walking by without a second glance. Others laugh at the foolishness of a man or woman who dares to proclaim what appears to be an irrelevant message, delivered in a seriously outmoded form; and accompanied by the enthusiastic singing of old-fashioned hymns, most of which many in the crowd are most likely not even familiar.

But what exactly has changed in Britain since the days of the amazing numerical successes of preachers such as Wesley, Whitefield, Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones? Why aren’t preachers experiencing the same levels of numerical success in their churches today, as did their predecessors? Where are the crowds of tens of thousands, listening attentively to the preacher’s every word? In fact, what we are witnessing today is the phenomenon of many thousands of Christians leaving the church, but not necessarily giving up their faith in God.

Thus clearly, not only is there a major gap between “the pulpit and the pew,” in the sense that preacher’s aren’t connecting with their listeners, but there is also a series of major gaps between the church and the wider society. Most people today, it is said, would not turn to the church for help or guidance, even in the event of personal or national tragedies. This clearly has not always been the case, so what has changed?

To address those questions, this series of articles will investigate briefly the status of religion in Britain today, and will conclude by offering a few suggestions regarding how preaching can move forward in ways that may connect with people today. This is especially relevant, considering our current increasingly postmodern situation.

In the next article, I’ll examine the last fifty or so years of preaching in the United Kingdom, and compare church attendance then with current numbers. I’ll also begin to explore what has changed in British society since then, and trace the trajectory of preaching in light of those shifts within society.

Read the next article in this series: Part 2


[1] Drummond, Spurgeon: Prince of Preachers, 568.

[2] Bretherton, Early Methodism in and Around Chester 1749-1812, 36.

[3] Hannula, Trial and Triumph, 195.

[4] Stout, The Divine Dramatist, 70, 73.

[5] Ibid., 149.

[6] Gallay, The Formation of a Planter Elite, 30,

[7] Buckland, “Spurgeon, Charles” in Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900, 433.

[8] Larsen, The Company of the Preachers, 583.

[9] Drummond, Spurgeon: Prince of Preachers, 25.

[10] Larsen, The Company of the Preachers, 776.

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