In 1857, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–92) officially founded the Pastors’ College, a training center for gospel ministers that revolved largely around the preaching genius of its founder. Between 1857 and 1892, Spurgeon oversaw the training of 863 pastors, the planting of nearly 200 new churches in Britain alone, and the sending of dozens upon dozens of missionaries overseas. The cumulative membership of the churches founded by these ministers numbered into the tens of thousands.
Undergirding the Pastors’ College was a particular vision of the ideal preacher, a vision that Spurgeon carefully crafted and zealously promulgated. Spurgeon was not interested in producing detached scholars or ivory tower theologians, but popular preachers who themselves emerged from among the masses of ordinary people, and who possessed the requisite gifts and experience to reach the common man. Spurgeon wanted preachers of the people. He once wrote,
It seems to me that many of our churches need a class of ministers who will not aim at lofty scholarship, but at the winning of souls;—men of the people, feeling, sympathizing, fraternizing with the masses of working men;—men who can speak the common language, the plain blunt Saxon of the crowd;—men ready to visit the sick and the poor, and able to make them understand the reality of the comforts of religion…. It was the primary aim of this Institution to help such men, and this is still its chief end and design…. Whether the student be rich or poor, the object is the same,—not scholarship, but preaching the gospel,—not the production of fine gentlemen, but of hard-working men.
Spurgeon’s ambition was to produce hundreds of popular preachers who would embrace the masses and speak directly to the lives and concerns of the people. “Our men … seek to preach efficiently,” he wrote, “to get to the heart of the masses, to evangelize the poor,—this is the College ambition, this and nothing else.”
Spurgeon was greatly concerned to minister to the working classes of England who he believed remained largely under-reached by the churches of his day. What was needed more than anything, he believed, was qualified men from among the working classes who were truly in touch with the lives and concerns of ordinary people. As many among these classes lacked educational and pecuniary means to pursue ministerial training, Spurgeon sought to remove every potential barrier to pursuing a course of study at the Pastors’ College. Education, lodging, and board were provided free of charge, academic standards were relaxed for those who showed real promise, and remedial education was freely offered to those who lagged behind. Spurgeon made every possible accommodation to provide training to men from poor and working-class backgrounds. As for the curriculum at the College, Spurgeon opted to focus on a wide array of practical and theological subjects accompanied by an emphasis on robust churchmanship as well as experience in practical Christian work.
In his efforts to train preachers who could reach the masses, Spurgeon encouraged his students to give significant attention to their speech and manner in the pulpit. Spurgeon criticized the preachers of his day for being too contrived, high-sounding, and grandiloquent in the pulpit. He cautioned his students to “Avoid everything which is stilted, official, fussy, and pretentious.” Instead, he urged them to “speak plainly.” This, he believed, would help enable his students to connect broadly with ordinary people. Spurgeon taught this style of preaching both by example and precept. He said,
The next thing we need in the ministry, now and in all time, is men of plain speech. The preacher’s language must not be that of the classroom, but of all classes; not of the university, but of the universe…. the language spoken by men around the fireside, in the workshop, and in the parlor…. We must have plain preachers.
As Spurgeon sought to produce preachers for the masses, his primary aim was to develop men who possessed true sympathy with the people. Spurgeon believed it was essential for preachers to be authentically connected to their congregations. The audience had to be convinced that the preacher truly understood their unique trials and burdens, and that he could relate to their experiences. The surest way of reaching the masses was to put before them men who understood them. Spurgeon said, “The more our hearts beat in unison with the masses, the more likely will they be to receive the gospel kindly from our lips.” This is one of the reasons why Spurgeon intentionally drew men to the College from among the working classes of London. Such men, he believed, could truly sympathize with the people. He said,
We require men of popular sympathies; men of the people, who feel with them…. Unless a man is a lover of the people in his inmost soul he will never be greatly useful to them. The people do not require more of those gentlemen who condescend to instruct the lower orders…. London’s millions spurn the foppery of caste, they yearn for great hearts to sympathize with their sorrows; such may rebuke their sins and lead their minds, but no others may lecture them. The working classes of England are made of redeemable material after all; those who believe in them can lead them.
As Spurgeon himself was a man of the people, determined to reach the common man, so the College under Spurgeon’s leadership purposed to produce preachers for the masses. Spurgeon’s close friend, the great social activist, Lord Shaftesbury, commented on the sort of men trained by Spurgeon, saying, “They had a singular faculty for addressing the population, and going to the very heart of the people.” Spurgeon successfully marshalled a generation of preachers who brought the gospel to the people with unparalleled zeal and effectiveness.
Some Lessons for Pastors
1. Pastoral ministry is people ministry. Pastors themselves should be lovers of people and should cultivate true-hearted sympathy with them as they seek to care for their souls. Pastoral ministry does not represent a scholastic retreat from the mass of needy humanity, but rather a head-long plunge into the lives of the sinning and the suffering. Pastors can never allow themselves to become removed from the real burdens, concerns, and experiences of their people. The men who fill pulpits should be those who love ordinary people, can enter into their lives, and can bring the Word of God to them with real effect and genuine sympathy.
2. Pastors should endeavor, as much as possible, to be men of practical life experience. There is a credibility gap that often exists between the man who fills the pulpit and the man who sits in the pew. It is far too easy for the man in the pew to view the man in the pulpit as inexperienced and unfamiliar with the everyday concerns of ordinary people. This has the effect of blunting the pastor’s preaching and hand-cuffing his ministry. The solution to this problem is not necessarily to seek the next generation of pastors exclusively from among those with working class and blue-collar backgrounds. Nonetheless, we should want pastors to be men of practical life experience, and therefore they should be men who are sensible, industrious, and hard-working. The best pastoral candidates should be proven in household management, should evidence some measure of financial competence, and should at least possess a basic level of experience in the typical workaday world. Such men will be better positioned to connect with their flocks, and will likely be regarded as more accessible to ordinary people.
3. Pastors should preach directly from the heart to the heart. As Lord Shaftesbury commented, Spurgeon’s men had a way of “going to the very heart of the people.” Preachers should preach with genuine earnestness and a sort of urgent plainness to their people. The preacher’s calling is not casual. They are not called primarily to provide social commentary, principles for self-help, or bite-sized bits of practical wisdom. They are called to preach plainly the oracles of God. Their manner of address should reflect this direct and urgent mission. They should endeavor to preach from the heart to the heart. God is often pleased to own such preaching.