I decided to write down my reflections after a testing experience of having some young people laugh right through a message I gave.
One Saturday morning Nelun and I did a seminar on the Christian family to adults at a regional gathering of a denomination. Most of those there were converts from other faiths and the Christian lifestyle was very new to them. I was told that some of them were still wife beaters and some still had problems with drink and lying. As this was a new situation, we prepared a completely new seminar. I was up preparing till 3.30 a.m. and then after about three hours of sleep I went for the seminar with Nelun. I think it went very well.
In the afternoon I spoke to the whole group which included children and youth. At the start of my talk I saw a few young people laughing. The laughter grew as the sermon progressed, and they looked right into my face as they laughed. I had preached this same message three days before to over 500 youth at a camp of another denomination and the Lord had richly blessed it. As I was coming home after the meeting I began to reflect about what had happened.
- I was speaking from 2 Cor. 5:9-11 on how the prospect of judgement motivates us to obedience and witness. It was an urgent theme and I was quite urgent in my delivery. It was in a very big hall and there was no PA system, so I had to speak loud in order to be heard. As the laughter grew, my urgency was becoming anger! Angry thoughts were racing through my mind. “Don’t these people appreciate the sacrifice I have made to speak to them?” “Don’t they realise that I am speaking about a matter of life and death?” I found myself becoming more explicit in presenting the stark contrast between heaven and hell. My voice was also getting louder. After some time, sense prevailed and I decided to ignore these people and proceed with my message without looking at them.
At the family seminar, when I was talking about living at peace with our neighbours, I had presented the principle outlined in Proverbs 12:6: “A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult.” Now I was having an opportunity to practice that same principle. I realised that if laughers and hecklers do not disturb others it is best to ignore them. I have taught young preachers that they must not get louder and faster when they encounter resistance to their preaching, and here I was doing the same thing!
- John Wesley, whose journals I am reading these days, often had crowds heckling so loud that sometimes he had to stop preaching. Sometimes people would throw stones and mud at him and at the audience. What I experienced was nothing in comparison. So I did not need to get angry, though I think I should have been very sad that these young people seemed careless about eternal realities. I think I was sad, but there was unnecessary anger too.
- I was upset that these young people were trifling with eternity and expressing this attitude of carelessness in public. But as I thought of some of the things I had done that same week, I realised that I too had displayed the same attitude, though not in public. I had acted without the careful vigilance that characterises those who know that they could be called suddenly and unexpectedly to stand before the judgement seat of Christ. How easy it is for us to apply some truths to our audiences without applying them to our own lives!
- Preachers are heralds of the good news, of the most important message that people need to hear. Some will listen to it, and that will bring great joy. Others will reject it, and that will bring much sorrow and sometimes anger too because they are squandering an opportunity to discover the reason for which they came into this world. We mustn’t take this as a blow to our egos. Instead we must do all we can to present this message in as clear, relevant, appealing and challenging way as we can. Our aim is to see hecklers becoming believers. This is what happened to some (though not most) of John Wesley’s hecklers.
- While most of the people in the audience were poor people, originally from non-Christian backgrounds, those who were laughing were well dressed, middle-class people probably from Christian backgrounds. The great danger with such is apathy. Perhaps heckling is better than apathy. Perhaps the message was uncomfortable, and that caused them to try to brush it aside with laughter. If so, they must have been listening, even though they were laughing!