The pastor must be able to teach

“And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged….” (2 Timothy 2:24).

I am a teacher.

When I was a senior in high school, a classmate gave me one of those unforgettable moments that lives in one’s mind forever.  Principal Andy Davis had summoned me to his office to help classmate Jerry Crittenden with a math problem. Now, Jerry was a big football player, lovable and kind-hearted, and a joy to be around.  But in math, the guy was lost.

Toward the end of our session, Jerry said, “Joe, you should be a teacher. I can understand it the way you explain it.”

Eighteen months later, following a frustrating freshman year of college that taught me one huge thing–I do not want to major in physics!–I realized that God wanted me to be a teacher. He had gifted me with a love for history as well as a delight in learning, and had surrounded me with some excellent teachers as role models.

At the time, I thought the idea was to become a history teacher in high school and later, after getting the necessary education, in college.  Then, a few years later, God called me to preach.  I’m confident members of my churches over these years would say that Joe never quit teaching.

And that’s good.

Able to teach.  What a strange thing the Apostle Paul did.  In the middle of calling his preachers to hold down the noise, to quieten the arguments, and still the controversies, he wants them gentle and patient and kind–and able to teach.

Pastor search committees would do well to put this skill high on their list of requirements when checking out preachers.

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Dumb stories we preachers love to tell

“Whatever was I thinking?”

I’ve said that. And I’ve sometimes thought it about other preachers whose sermon illustrations just got entered into the competition for dumbest story of the year.

By dumb story, we refer to an account of something that distracts from God’s message, or sucks all the air out of the room so that no one hears anything for the next 15 minutes, or overpowers the sermon so the story is all anyone remembers for the next week, or is mind-bogglingly offensive. Or is just plumb stupid, did we say that?

Most of us preachers have been guilty of telling one or two of those over the years. Or a hundred.

Consider this a call for greater discernment in selecting stories and illustrations, parables and news items for our sermons.

1) A story that overpowers the sermon and smothers whatever point you were making needs to be tossed.

Have you heard the one about the dad who went fishing with his son and the boy’s friend?

If you have not heard this one, where have you been? (smiley-face goes here)  The other kid was not a Christian, so when the boat capsized and the father could save only one of the two, he grabbed the unsaved child and let his son drown since he knew his son was saved and would go to Heaven. (The sermon is supposed to illustrate something about witnessing, I suppose.)

That is a truly terrible story. And, I can just about guarantee you two things….

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The young pastor is not yet ready to lead a bigger church. Here’s why.

“We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).

For good reason the Lord sends new, young pastors to the tiniest congregations. There’s so much to learn.

God bless all those little flocks which have to endure the green, inexperienced shepherds, many of whom go right on making the same mistakes as every pastor before them.

Their patience is amazing. (Sometimes I feel like going to the first three churches I served and saying, “Would you please forgive me?”)

Perhaps the biggest lesson which pastors have to learn before they’re able to do their best work for the Lord is this: You’re not ready to pastor a church until you get over yourself.

Being the God-sent leader of a congregation can be a heady feeling.  Suddenly people are looking to you for guidance, deferring to you as though you were somebody, insisting you take the honored place at the table.  You even find Scriptural justification for your occupying the pulpit and speaking for the Almighty God.  Truly amazing.

All for nothing you have done.

And therein lies the trap for the unwary.

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All indications are the Lord has been making plans for you for some time now.

“…the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34).

We don’t begin to have a clue.

God is doing a zillion things He has not deigned to mention to us mortals.

It’s not our business to know, for one thing.  He has reserved most of what goes on in the universe for Himself.  The secret things belong to the Lord our God…  (Deuteronomy 29:29).

All that we know about the operation of the created world is a sliver of the full story.

How can it be that before the world as we know it was formed, the Heavenly Father was already at work making plans for us to arrive and dwell with Him forever?

I do not know. Neither do you.

What unimaginable reality may we expect to find when we get to Heaven if Father has had all these eons to imagine it, design it, and put it in place?

What does this say about pre-history, the story of what God was doing before the Big Bang of Creation?

We hang our heads in humility.  We read the final verses of Romans 11 and say, “Oh yes.  Yes, indeed. This is how it is!”

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Pastor, your audience is always changing

Al Maury pulled the old beat-up Volkswagen bus into the bank parking lot on Decatur Street and killed the engine.  As the six seminary students bailed out, he opened the rear door and took out a microphone-on-a-stand and flipped a switch, turning on the transmitter.  “McKeever, you’re preaching tonight!”

Oh my.  A baptism by fire. Thrown into the deep water without a life preserver.

We were preaching on the streets of New Orleans’ fabled French Quarter.

The very thought struck terror into my heart. And yet, I had volunteered for it.

The year was 1964 and I was a new student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.  All first-year students were required to participate in one “field mission” ministry.  Each Tuesday, the student body gathered in Frost Chapel for a report and testimony time.  Choices for these ministries included helping start-up churches, hospital and nursing home ministry, the New Orleans Seamen’s Service, neighborhood mission centers, after-school tutoring, and such. Determined to rise above my fears of cold-turkey witnessing, I had chosen the scariest thing on the list.

Street preaching.

Yikes.

As the other seminarians took a handful of religious tracts and spread out to talk with people on the streets–a prospect fraught with its own brand of stage fright–Al Maury took me aside.

“Joe, listen to me closely.”

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Fear not? Ha! Sometimes fear is the right response!

“And the angel said (to the shepherds), ‘Fear not.’  And the shepherds said, ‘Are you out of your mind? We are frightened out of our skulls!!’

Okay, I made that up. But it makes sense to me.

Sometimes being frightened is the right reaction.  Being scared is not always wrong.

What scares people the most?  You might be surprised. It isn’t terrorism, earthquakes or tsunamis.

According to one report, it’s walking alone in the dark.

I remember a time when I was fifteen, walking home from my uncle’s house, maybe a half mile. The darkness was absolute.  I had to feel my way along the old country road. Trouble is, halfway home, I had to pass George Lawson’s house and he had a massive dog that was beyond frightening.  As I was approaching the general area of that house, I walked as quietly as I could.  Then, without warning, suddenly the dog was there, not more than five feet from me, splitting the night air with a howl that could be heard in the next county.  You’ve heard of “jumping out of your own skin”?  If it was possible, that’s what I did. I ran the rest of the way, taking my chances on staying in the road.

So, yes, walking alone in the dark can be a fearsome thing.

The Sunday Parade magazine, the insert that accompanies the Sunday paper, for January 18, 2015, outdid itself this time.  The cover article by Maura Rhodes asks in large letters no one can miss, “What are you afraid of?”

The article provides extensive insights into the effect of fear on the human body.  When we are frightened, a lot of things happen....

–Your heart pumps to arms and legs more quickly and forcefully, priming them to fight or flee, and spiking your blood pressure. Blood flow may increase by as much as 400 percent..

–The extra tension in your poised-for action legs can literally cause you to shake in your boots.

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The fine print in the gospel

That morning as I was getting ready to face the day, I noticed something on the television.  An ad for “hair club for women” was running.  Photos flew by with before and after shots of women. Most had been afflicted with bare spots or thinning mane and the “after” photos showed them with gloriously full tresses.

Then I saw it.  Down in the corner the small print said, “Results may vary.”

Ahh.  Yes, indeed.  Results may vary.  The old “caveat emptor.”

The ad might as well say “these are not typical,” as advertisers are forced to do by truth-in-advertising laws.

Sadly, in our culture we’re used to such come-ons and slick sales spiels. No one expects the used car salesman to tell you why we should be cautious in buying this particular car.  We’ve learned to turn a suspicious eye toward the seller of the house who cannot quit raving about all its fine points.  What, we wonder, is he not saying?

Which brings up another point…

The fine print of the gospel

Has anyone ever found “fine print” in the Lord’s offer of salvation? Is there anywhere that we are told things such as:

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How pastors can mistreat worshipers

“….they treated the Lord’s offering with contempt” (I Samuel 2:17).

The first rule of worship leadership should probably be stated as Try Not To Get In Their Way.

When  people come to worship, if you cannot help them, at the very least try not to interfere with what they are doing.

The sons of Eli the High Priest were nothing but trouble. Hophni and Phinehas–who doesn’t love those names!– “were wicked men; they had no regard for the Lord or for the priests’ share of the sacrifices from the people” (I Samuel 2:12-13).

God literally calls them SOBs.  “Sons of Belial” is the Hebrew expression translated as “wicked men” or “corrupt.”

Scripture has not a single positive statement about these miscreants.

These men stand as warnings to every kingdom worker to tread softly and serve honorably.  We are stewards and not owners; servants, and not lords.  We should encourage worship and not place obstacles and burdens upon the worshipers.

We are to help people worship and not divert it into our own purposes.

The people can worship God without you, O thou shepherd of the Lord’s flock.

If we cannot help them do it better, we should back off and remove ourselves from the picture.

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Pastor, if you could go back to your earlier churches…

If you’re a pastor, here’s an interesting game to play. And that’s all it can be, unfortunately–a game.

If you could go back to the churches you have served, what would you do differently?

Some people say, “If I could live my life over, I wouldn’t change a thing.” I hear that and think, “What? You never made a mistake? Never really blew it? Never did anything stupid?”

We all did, let’s face it. And surely, if we went back and knew what we know now, we would do many, many things differently.

Here’s my take on this subject.

The first church I served was a tiny congregation 25 miles north of Birmingham, Alabama. It was my first attempt at preaching and pastoring and I did poorly, I’m afraid. The good folks at Unity Baptist Church of Kimberly, Alabama, were patient with me for the 14 months I served them. At the end of that time, I resigned and for 6 months served as part-time associate pastor of Central Baptist Church in Tarrant, Alabama. We were living in Tarrant and I worked down the street from the church at the cast iron pipe plant as secretary to the production manager.

If I could do the 14 months over at Unity, the one thing I would do is seek out a mentor.

I would call up a pastor or two in Tarrant or Gardendale and ask if they would let me buy them a cup of coffee. As we sat across the table from each other, I would say, “I’m lost. I have to prepare three messages a week and don’t have a clue how to get started. Give me some advice.”

And, if the advice was something that worked for me, I would have asked if we could meet regularly for a while until I got this figured out.

The folks at Unity would have appreciated the effort and the congregations of subsequent churches would have benefited. As it was, by going alone, I took the far more arduous way to find out to make sermons and lead a congregation.

What would I do differently at Central Baptist of Tarrant City, Alabama, during my six months there? Very little, probably. My duties were to call on people who had visited our services and help Pastor Morris Freeman with anything he asked. For this, no money changed hands, but we received free use of the old parsonage, thus saving us rent.

The one thing I wish I had done was to take a layman with me visiting. It would have done me good, blessed the layman, and made a statement to the people we were calling on.

Both of those churches came in my pre-seminary years, 1962-64.

From 1965-67, while in seminary, I pastored 25 miles west of New Orleans. Paradis Baptist of Paradis, Louisiana was situated on Alligator Bayou. I took what I had managed to learn from Unity and Central and what I was trying to learn in seminary, and did some things right. The church almost tripled in the less-than-three-years we were there. (Note: That church relocated and is now West St. Charles Baptist in Boutte, LA.)

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Why I’m angry at some preachers

You’ve heard them, I’m sure. Some well-intentioned but thoughtless man of God will stand before a gathering of the Lord’s people and in urging us to evangelize our communities will overstate the case.

“Jesus told us to become fishers of men! He did not tell us to be keepers of the aquarium!”

And, almost invariably, the statement will be met with a chorus of ‘amen’s.’

The only problem with that is it is not so.

In fact, it’s totally wrong.

Jesus did not send His disciples just to reach lost sheep–He certainly did that–but commanded that we are to “feed my sheep.” In John 20, He gave that command to Simon Peter three times.

In Acts 20:28, Paul tells the pastors of Ephesus that they are to “shepherd the church of God which he purchased with his own blood.”

And here’s another one, the one that set me off this morning.

In trying to motivate church members to get into the community with the gospel, the WIBT preacher* will say, “The Bible in no places commands the people of the world to come to church. It does, however, command us to go into all the world with the gospel.” (*Well-intentioned but thoughtless)

That’s so true, it’s almost totally true. But it’s missing something critical.

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