Charles G. Finney (1792-1875) was the leading figure in America’s “Second Great Awakening.” He began his evangelistic preaching in central New York State, and his revivals became larger and larger, leading to many conversions all over the northeastern United States. Finney was a passionate and charismatic communicator, and his persuasive personality was a big part of his effectiveness. But he was also very creative in developing what he called “New Methods” that helped close the deal for people who were considering taking a step of faith. One of these was the “anxious bench” in the first row of the audience, where people who seemed to be ripe for conversion could sit close to the preacher’s (and the Holy Spirit’s) influence. There, surrounded by praying believers in a strongly emotional atmosphere, they were more likely to be pushed over the line to a positive decision to submit to Christ.
Finney’s techniques have been used by evangelists since his time, from Billy Sunday and Billy Graham, to in-your-face TV evangelists in our day. John Williamson Nevin, a contemporary of Finney, challenged the manipulative potential of his “New Methods” in a very effective publication, “The Anxious Bench — A Tract for the Times” (1843). This was instrumental in shaping an anti-revivalist movement among established church leaders. Nevin pointed out that such persuasive techniques can result in fake conversion, based on superficial understanding, that can disappear like a vapor a short time later, leaving the new “believer” even more disillusioned. On the other hand, it’s undeniable that many lifelong disciples of Jesus began their spiritual lives on an anxious bench at a Finney revival meeting.
I have my own personal anxious bench. It’s the chair behind my office desk. I spend a lot of time here being anxious — about next Sunday’s sermon, about reports I have to put together, about people who weren’t in church last Sunday. I know worrying is supposed to be a bad thing, but I’ve found that when I don’t worry, I mess up a lot more. There’s definitely an unhealthy kind of anxiety, in which a person is worrying instead of acting, where the anxiety immobilizes the person. That’s certainly bad. But I see my anxious bench worrying as a gift from God, a tool to keep me sharp and focused.
Our preaching and teaching at ABC ought to make us all a bit anxious. Are we as open to God as we should be? Are we listening for his voice? Are we ready to obey if we hear a clear challenge from him? There are no grounds for self-satisfaction. We haven’t arrived, and there’s always a challenge to do more, to do better.
We’re approaching our beginning-of-the-year week of prayer (see announcements), starting next Monday. We’ve tried not to lay a guilt trip on people to drive them to pray longer and harder, but there’s room for some healthy anxiety about giving God our best in our prayer time. Whether you’ll be joining in the early morning prayer gatherings at the church or setting aside some minutes at your home, let’s try to invest some quality thought, energy and effort into our prayers each day. Let’s not just tip our hats to God when he gave his Son for us.
Just a few words from my anxious bench.
— Associate Pastor George Van Alstine