“He never preached without telling stories.” (Mark 4:34)
Pastor, your people love a good story. Listeners who have gone on vacation during the first ten minutes of your sermon will return home in a heartbeat the moment you begin, “A man went into a store….” or “I remember once when I was a child….”
Those who have died early in your message will suddenly spring to life when you say, “The other day, I saw something on the interstate…” or “Recently, when the governor and I were having lunch at the local cafe…” (smiley-face goes here)
We all love a good story. We’re so addicted to stories, our television brings us hundreds a day. (Even on talk shows, the host wants his guests to tell a story!) Drop in on your local cinema and no matter which screen you’re watching, it’s all stories. And the book publishing business–well, you get the idea.
There are a thousand reasons for droppng the occasional story into your sermon, pastor. Here are my top three….
“Do not be afraid of their faces, for I am with you….” (Jeremiah 1:8).
A friend asked me, “Why is it taking our church so long to get a new pastor?”
I said, “Because your search committee is afraid. They know that certain members of your congregation are quick to pick apart any minister who isn’t like (a previous pastor, now in Heaven). And they don’t want to take that chance.”
What would you say if I told you most leaders of our churches operate from fear?
You would wisely ask me how I know and where I got such information or arrived at such a conclusion. And I would admit that I do not know this for a fact, that it’s something I’ve come to believe from observing churches and their leaders all these decades. Furthermore, as a pastor for over four decades, I am well-acquainted with the practice of operating from fear.
“Now, while the people were in a state of expectation….” (Luke 3:15)
To the Pharisees who joined the crowds emptying the cities and flocking to hear the rough preacher in the desert proclaim Heaven’s message, John the Baptist asked, “Who warned you vipers to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7)
What were they doing there, he wanted to know.
Long after John had been decapitated for his faithful proclamation of the Lord’s message, Jesus asked the crowds who had thought so much of his rough-hewn cousin:
–“When you went out into the wilderness to hear John, what were you looking for?” (Luke 7:24)
–“What did you go out to see?” (7:25)
–“But what did you go out to see?” (7:26)
Anyone see a trend here?
We preachers sometimes torture the faithful with our complaints about the unfaithful.
We don’t mean to do that. It’s just something that happens, usually as a result of our frustration.
Listen to the typical pastor or staffer addressing the congregation:
“A little rain never hurt anybody! And where is half our congregation? But oh no, they couldn’t make it today. They had no trouble sitting through the ball game yesterday in freezing temperatures! Or playing a round of golf in the rain. But let a little sprinkle drop out of the heavens and they can’t make it to church today!”
Or this one:
Recently, I was guest-preaching in a church where the choir and a visiting singer presented a wonderful special just before the sermon. As they were finishing, the singer, an older gentleman, had some kind of seizure and toppled from the stool where he had been sitting.
Immediately, two things happened: most of the congregation went into momentary shock and a half-dozen people jumped to their feet and rushed to tend to the man. They helped him out of the sanctuary and ministered to him in the foyer. (A subsequent note from a minister assured me the man is fine, that a few hours in the hospital to stabilize his heartbeat and he was on his way home.)
I asked the minister, “Who were the people who got up and came to help him?”
At 73 and no longer pastoring churches, I’m going hither and yon to preach as the Lord leads and the invitations arrive. It’s a satisfying life, the kind of retirement (if you insist on calling it that) I would have dreamed of had I known such was available.
Observing my host pastors as they lead the congregations, I remember so vividly experiencing the same life they know with its delights and demands, its burdens and blessings. My heart goes out to them. (In case anyone wonders, I do not arrive at a church handing out advice to host pastors, acting as some kind of inexhaustible fountain of wisdom to these good men. I come to do whatever they ask–to teach or preach or train, draw my pictures, or tell my stories–and if the Lord chooses to turn it into more than that, well and good.)
And frankly, looking back over my own lengthy pastoral ministry, sometimes my heart aches for the young McKeever, the pastor I was in my late 20s and 30s. I wish I could go back and give that eager young man a good pep talk, a needed bit of advice, a big hug, and a swift kick in the pants. The young Joe needed all of these at one time or other. (A few friends who have stayed with us from all those years will read this and smile and think, “At last, he gets it.”)
1) I wish I could tell that young pastor (which I was) to quit living and dying by the numbers from each Sunday. You know about those numbers–our attendance today, what the offerings were, did we have any additions, and how all this compares with last year.
(I’ve worked on this piece for several weeks, can’t get it right, but keep coming back to it. Maybe I’m having trouble because the subject itself is depressing. A friend of mine, Dr. Larry Kennedy, once wrote a book he titled “Down With Anxiety.” I loved Larry–he’s long in Heaven now–but could not help but think the title itself was a downer. At the moment, I’m almost through reading George Orwell’s first book “Down and Out in Paris and London,” a little paperback novel in which he tells how it felt to be desperately poor in the 1920s in those major cities. I am so ready to be finished with this book and to watch a Marx Brothers movie or something! Anyway, on this Saturday, for what it’s worth, I am sending this little article on its way with a prayer that it will connect with someone who needed its word.)
Saturday is the worst of all possible days for a preacher to be down emotionally. He is about to tackle his heaviest assignment of the week–to stand before the flock and declare the counsel of the living God–and for that he will need all the strength and energy he can muster.
To prepare himself for tomorrow’s challenge, he needs his faith intact, his vision clear, and his confidence strong, and he needs it today, Saturday. He needs to be free of pain if possible, free of worry if practical, and free of stress if that is achievable.
But what if he has the blues? What if the preacher is down in the dumps, is sad, feels something called an angst, which I take to mean a free-floating anxiety?
Responding to something we had written, a pastor said, “My problem is finding the necessary time to study for sermons. Tell us how to do that.”
I’m tempted to say you have the same 24 hours in your day the rest of us have in ours. But in addition to being obvious, that might also come across as uncaring.
So, herewith a more thoughtful (and I hope, considerate) answer to the question of finding time to study….
Learn to say no to lesser things, unnecessary things, and even good things in order to elevate sermon-study to a higher priority in your life.
Turn loose of some outside activities that are time-killers, energy-drains, and mind-troublers.
Lately, my son Neil and I have been slugging our way through a couple of heavy books on the 1863 Vicksburg campaign in the Civil War. When we finally figure out what happened and where and who did what to whom, we plan to spend a couple of days in the area walking the battlefield park.
Winston Groom, known to most as the author of “Forrest Gump,” is a well-respected writer of historical stuff including “Vicksburg 1863,” the second of our books (the other being Jeff Shaara’s “The Chain of Thunder”). What makes Groom’s book a tad more enjoyable is the stuff he occasionally drops into the narrative. Like these, for instance….
ONE. Rebel General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a case study in a hundred things–ego, confidence, brilliance, foolhardiness, etc–caught up with Union Colonel Abel Streight near the Georgia line. Flying a flag of truce, Forrest invited Streight to surrender. At the time he did such an outrageous thing, Forrest was out-numbered over three to one.
Streight agreed to surrender if Forrest could convince him that he had a completely superior force.
Forrest was ready.
It was July 4 in our Mississippi town–possibly in other places too–and I was doing what we pastors often do, even on holidays, heading to the local hospital to check on a church member in crisis. Along the way, I flipped on the radio and found myself listening to a patriotic rally being aired by the station in Houston, Mississippi.
A candidate for sheriff was speaking.
“One morning recently, I was driving the back roads in the southern part of the county looking for voters. All morning long, I kept passing the same little yellow car. I figured it was another candidate out trying to scare up votes.
“At lunchtime, I stopped at a country grocery and bought a soft drink and took my sandwich outside under the shade tree. A few minutes later, that same yellow car pulled up. The driver got out, went inside and bought some lunch, and came out and sat down under the same tree.
“Making conversation, I said, ‘What office are you running for?’