The Epidemic of Amateurism

by Glenn Conjurske

The title of the present article is culled from the last page of the little book by A. W. Tozer, recently reviewed in these pages, on The Menace of the Religious Movie. Tozer writes, “I heard the president of a Christian college say some time ago that the Church is suffering from an ‘epidemic of amateurism.’ This is sadly true.” Tozer’s book was written at least two generations ago, and if this was “sadly true” then, it is much more so today. This is now a doctrine and a principle. Everyone is encouraged to assume places for which they are not fit. People are encouraged to write poetry, who could not write a poem to save their lives, and they will likely find somebody eager to publish their amateur productions also. I have seen pieces take the prize in national poetry contests which were not poetry at all, but only ill-written prose. Everyone must write, and print too, though he has nothing of value to say, and no ability to say anything. The church today absolutely groans under a load of shallow and mediocre books and magazines and “newsletters,” and boys and girls must write for them. Pulpits are filled with “preachers” who cannot preach, and Sunday schools with “teachers” who are no more fit to teach than they are to fly. It is just the same with music. Every boy who can whistle a string of notes, or every girl who can hum one, can now be a composer, and some church will be found which is happy to sing these juvenile productions, and praise them too, and so encourage the epidemic of amateurism.

Indeed, it is looked upon as a great offense to discourage it. We might wound somebody’s “self-esteem.” That must be avoided at all cost. Better to have a dog-catcher conducting a symphony orchestra, than that his precious self-esteem should be wounded. Better pass the whole class than wound the self-esteem of those who cannot make a passing grade. This is actually done in public schools all over this country. But this is directly against the way of God, and the way of the Bible. The Bible says, “Be not many teachers.” The Bible says, “to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.” Where does the Bible ever exhort us not to think of ourselves more meanly than we ought to think? If this is all the danger, as modern psychology would have it, why is this great danger never addressed in the Bible? Where does the Bible warn us of “low self-esteem”? Do our modern psychologists know better than God? The fact is, we suppose that modern psychology comes from the devil. Most of our self-esteem is a good deal too high, and we may thank God for whatever lowers it.

But it is as hard for me as it is for anybody else to wound people’s self-esteem. I have never enjoyed this, and never will. But then my business is not to make people feel good, but to help them to be good. To give them to believe that they are something, when they are not, is the surest way to prevent their ever becoming anything.

And this is but one of the evil effects of the epidemic of amateurism. Whatever evils it may occasion in the amateurs themselves, its effects upon others are no better. The flooding of the church with inferior publications, and the filling of the pulpits with inferior preaching, is a great loss to the whole church of God. It is no better than a waste of time to read most of the modern publications, or to listen to the most of modern preaching, and all this stands directly in the way of the edification which might be, if the pulpit and the press were left to men of stature. We speak nothing here of the unsoundness of modern ministry. Even supposing it all sound, the prevailing incompetence stands in the way of the good which might be. A great man today could scarcely gain a hearing in the midst of the babble of the voices of the incompetent.

But these are only the immediate effects, the short-term evils, of the epidemic of amateurism. Wisdom looks to the long-term effect, and sees this to be still worse. The final effect of the epidemic of amateurism is an end of all greatness. Only caress and promote the incompetent, and there will soon be no other kind to promote. Any and every system which makes it easy to excel marks the beginning of the end of all greatness. It destroys initiative. It renders toil and tears useless. When the incompetent are promoted, there is no reason to be competent. The public school system, which routinely passes those with failing grades, and lowers the standards to the level of the students, has destroyed the intellectual prowess of the nation. In the name of education, it has created a nation which cannot think, and which can scarcely read, to say nothing of writing correct grammar or literary English. And in the names of liberty and democracy, amateurs of every description have been caressed and encouraged and promoted till the only examples men have to follow are the amateurish and the mediocre, and the whole nation has thus been reduced to mediocrity.

America has no great men—-neither in church nor state. What little I hear from time to time of the speeches of congressmen or Presidents—-or candidates for those offices—-what little I hear of the leading preachers of the church—-is all the veriest mediocrity, or worse. Dull, dry, sterile, shallow, artificial, witless, and passionless. Empty rhetoric and shallow platitudes, without substance and without heart. America calls itself the greatest nation on earth, but the greatness is all past. She reaps today the fruits of her former greatness, but it is all physical, material, and commercial. In the realms of the soul and spirit, she has no great men today.

But what is infinitely worse, she wants none. She has no use for them. They stand in her way. The light of the sun is fatal to the ambitions of the glimmering stars. Who would care to admire the soaring of the eagle, when he might flutter to the top of some fence-post himself, and be admired by a dozen clucking hens? And as in the nation, so also in the church. It is too hard on modern pride to sit at the feet of greatness. Every man would rather preach himself, than to sit at the feet of a great preacher. Every man would rather write his own book, than to read the book of a great man. He would rather produce a shallow and mediocre magazine himself, than to read solid substance in another man’s. The real root of the reign of mediocrity is nothing other than pride—-and thus it is that a proud nation is reduced by its own pride to such a condition that it has nothing left to be proud of. Yet the pride remains.

Now to anyone who will think, it must be perfectly obvious that to encourage this system of amateurism is to discourage all achievement, and so to put an end to all greatness. To publish the books and the articles of the amateur is to dwarf his advancement. To set the amateurs up to preach is to keep them amateurs for ever. Public recognition of every kind ought to be reserved for the worthy. Public ministry belongs to the qualified and the competent. The public platform ought to be extended as the reward of merit. To give it to anyone else is the surest way to discourage worth and merit and competence.

A certain fellow of the Open Brethren persuasion once assured me that the young men must learn to preach by preaching. If so, let them go out and preach to the corn fields, as Gipsy Smith did. The corn stalks have ears enough, and they will be none the worse for the hearing. But let him spare the church of God. John the Baptist did not learn to preach by preaching, yet he was one of the greatest preachers ever to walk the earth. Meanwhile, this fellow who assures me that men must learn to preach by preaching has been at it for a quarter of a century, and has not learned to preach yet. Give the pulpit to an amateur, and, unless he be a rare bird, he will remain an amateur.

The epidemic of amateurism damages the amateurs themselves, it damages those who must be the readers and hearers of their amateur productions, and it leaves the church destitute of examples worth following. The latter, we suppose, is the greatest of the evils. Men who follow mediocre examples will remain mediocre, while a constant exposure to greatness has a natural tendency to reproduce it. In the first place, the presence of true greatness tends to move men to humility. When the sun shines, the moon pales. The stars fade away. In the presence of greatness, men find their own level. Tyros and novices keep their seats when George Whitefield is preaching. It dispels their illusions of their own abilities. But further, it moves them to aspire, and gives them a pattern to follow. But alas, modern pride has grown to such proportions that the greatness which ought to move men to humility and aspiration is more likely to provoke their envy and resentment. They would rather hear no greatness, see no greatness, and do no greatness—-and the modern church will give them their wish.

But when we turn to the Bible, we find just the reverse of all this. The Bible is not a handbook of mediocrity. Greatness pervades the book. It passes by the inferior. It is a record of the giants, devoted in general to the greatest men, and limited for the most part to their greatest acts. It is full of the powers of Samson, the triumphs of David, the exploits of his mighty men, the faith of Abraham, the translation of Enoch, the sublime powers of Abigail, the courage of Esther, the patience of Job, the victories of Moses and Joshua, the grand acts of Elijah and Elisha, the devotedness of Paul—-whatever, in short, is worthy of emulation—-this, along with the failures of these men, and whatever may depict their character, for the Bible is a moral book. But the insignificant men it passes by. The record is devoted to Elijah, and tells us nothing at all of the seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal—-nothing but the fact that they existed. There was nothing in them to emulate. We suppose they were good men, but they were not great men, and inspired biography passes them by.

Has this nothing to teach us? Whatever the Bible teaches us, it is not to exalt the mediocre, nor to promote the unqualified, nor to nurse the “self-esteem” of the incompetent.

But I have been told that I discourage people. I set the standard so high that few can attain to it. And no doubt I do discourage some people. Indeed, I do my best to discourage everybody from thinking more highly of themselves than they ought to think. I tell the ten-cent poet—-as softly and gently as I can—-that his poem is a dime, not a dollar. But why should this discourage him? He has either missed his calling, or failed to do his work. If the latter, he ought to thirst, and aspire, and labor, and toil, and do better. If the former, he ought to abandon his poetry, and aspire to something within his reach. Ah! but this is too hard on his pride. It is his dear “self-esteem” which is wounded. Yet if he would take that self-esteem to God, he would find it more peremptorily wounded than ever I would dare to do.

We suppose Spurgeon may have discouraged some folks also, when he said, “Oh, poetic brother, do try your hand at prose!” But we must perhaps discourage him further still, for he may be as unfit for prose as for poetry. We may have to tell him to put his pen away, and try his hand at disciplining his children, or being diligent in his business, or shoveling his sidewalk. We may have to tell him to silence his tongue, and try his mind at thinking, or his soul at feeling. We may have to tell him to cease his writing till he learns English. We think it a positive sin to flood the church with shallow and mediocre writing, whether prose or poetry.

We suppose John Wesley may have discouraged Joseph Benson (then only about thirty-three years of age), when he wrote to him, “I have no objection to your printing a few copies of those two sermons to oblige your friends in the neighbourhood.” “A few copies”!—-”to oblige your friends in the neighbourhood”! This looks rather insulting, and was doubtless a little softer method of telling him not to print them at all. We suppose that Wesley discouraged another young man also, who had sent him a manuscript to read. Wesley told him, “Before I read it I cannot but mention a little remark which I have frequently made. There are many good-natured creatures among the Methodists who dearly love to make matches; and we have many other good-natured creatures who dearly love to make authors. Whereas it is the glory of the Methodists to have few authors. And a young man can hardly be too slow in this matter.” This was a none-too-gentle hint, and doubtless discouraged the young man. It was no doubt intended so to do—-not to dishearten him, but to discourage him from what he had no fitness for. Wesley was a wise man, and this was solid wisdom. It is the glory of any people to have few authors. On that plan the great men are able to gain a hearing, and the people may find solid worth in what they read. It was the glory of ancient Israel to have few authors, but what those few wrote was worth something. God has never, in any age, called many to write, nor is he ever likely to do so, until he aims to call the whole populace to waste their time and their money on the shallow, the unsound, and the unprofitable. Many prophets and apostles never penned a word. Elijah and Elisha never wrote a page. Perhaps they had no ability to do so, or no call of God for it. But they so lived that others have written about them from that day to this. Here is true greatness, and this is every way above filling reams of paper with mediocre chatter. Modern technology and modern wealth make it easy to write, and easy to print too, but has God called you to this? Has he gifted you for it?—-or has the “epidemic of amateurism” rendered the gifts and calling of God superfluous?

Yes, we discourage the amateur from affecting to be somebody. We discourage the amateurs from aspiring to be “published authors.” We discourage the novices from preaching. We say with James, “Be not many teachers.” Hold your pen, and your tongue too, till you have something to say. Watch the eagles soar for a while. Delve into the masters—-the old masters—-of theology, and poetry, and history, and biography. Walk among the giants. Fill your mind with the great and the renowned, flood your soul with the illustrious and the superior, and you may assimilate a little of it. You may never soar so high as the eagles, but you may soar a little higher for studying them.

Glenn Conjurske