Thinking Out Loud

October 25, 2016

Sermon Topics in the 1950s

The Peoples Church was Canada’s first and for many years only megachurch, and this long before the term existed. The Toronto church was also independent, a rarity in its time. It was founded by Oswald J. Smith whose ordination was Presbyterian and had also founded an earlier church with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Smith had been turned down by several missions agencies because of his health, but ended up living to 96 and traveling all over the world.  You can read more at Wikipedia.  (As a young child, I attended Oswald Smith’s funeral, where Billy Graham spoke.)

Yesterday we were going through a number of family photographs and papers related to my father’s sister, Audrey Wilkinson who died on the mission field in India before I was born and was a missionary of The Peoples Church. Oswald’s son Paul B. Smith had succeeded him as pastor and continued his father’s tradition of colorful, topical and even controversial church services. Critics referred to the place as “a three ring circus.” (At a later age, Paul Smith baptized me.) But I had never seen the advertisement below.


The thing is, you could preach this sermon today as well. There are, among more conservative Christians, people who would not be caught dead in the cineplex watching certain genres of movies, but have no hesitation to own them on DVD (or more recently, stream them on Netflix.) Add to that the current proliferation of faith-based movies in national release, and for many Christians, the theater has become a second home. (I don’t think I am exaggerating to say there is one new title a week at

But back to the premise of the sermon, there are many cultural things the church refused to embrace — ballroom dancing, bridge and other card games, drinking wine or beer, etc. — which later became more acceptable. Only one thing, the conservative Christian acceptance of Halloween, seemed to run the opposite way. The sermon teaser also raises the question of context. Is it more acceptable to have an alcoholic drink in a family restaurant than in a bar? Is there a stewardship component in waiting for the DVD release as opposed to paying the money to see the film on its release?

You can have a lot of fun with this one.



  1. I worked at a thrift store briefly, and I was always slightly shocked when Hutterites (who were daily customers) would buy DVD’s – not just the fact that they were, but also the types of movies.

    Comment by joshgaudreau — October 25, 2016 @ 8:15 am

    • Well if it’s a thrift shop then it doesn’t count anyway because they’re not really spending much on it. Sometimes that is sufficient justification to buy something you would never support financially in a movie theater.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — October 25, 2016 @ 11:06 am

      • Oh, I wasn’t even thinking about the money, but more the content of the movies that would be “sinful” to watch in the theaters.

        Comment by joshgaudreau — October 25, 2016 @ 11:48 am

  2. I remember a controversial sermon Paul Smith preached following the death of John Lennon. He played some of his songs on a Sunday night service. He then preached a message entitled The Gospel Song John Lennon Never Knew He wrote. I cannot recall a lot of the sermon but I remember it made the Toronto Star headlines and many many young people came to hear that message. The Peoples Church was seeker sensitive before Bill Hybels was born

    Comment by Ralph juthman — October 25, 2016 @ 10:49 am

    • Exactly. The attractional church. And seeker sensitive.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — October 25, 2016 @ 11:07 am

      • ‘Seeker Sensitive’ … which is not a bad thing if the service is set up for non-Christians. I’ve always thought there should be two services – one for the seeker crowd and one for the faithful in Christ. Trouble is, the Psalmist is on target when he laments, ‘there is no one who seeks God’. It is not innate to start looking for God. We only start looking when He draws us in to do so. So, who would come out to a brick and mortar church to begin with – an institution some regard as an embarrassment of delusions and riches? Not too many, unless a) God is, a aforementioned, drawing you in and b) the topic being spoken about – like a visiting apologist on a University campus – is provocative and near-volatile.

        My best ‘seeker-friendly’ experience was a bible-study where a secular song was being analysed and the message therein was contrasted against the message of the bible. So I think a catchy tack like the one noted above, ‘The Gospel Song John Lennon Never Knew He Wrote’ might have been interesting (providing that song isn’t that horrid bit of nonsense, ‘Imagine’.) and have pulled in a few souls who might never have thought to embark on a trip to church.


        Comment by Flagrant Regard — October 25, 2016 @ 3:53 pm

      • In reply to F.R.: We were part of a church that did this.
        9:30 – Deeper Life Service
        11:00 – New Life Service

        Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — October 25, 2016 @ 5:30 pm

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