Venturing into Boringland: How preachers can steer clear of the dreaded dead zone.

“Then an expert in the law stood up to test Him, saying, ‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Luke 10:25)

Holly, a 7-year-old in a church I pastored, once turned to her mother in the middle of my sermon and said, “Mother, why does Doctor Joe think we need this information?”

Every preacher should have such a child listening to every sermon and giving such feedback.

What boring preaching does–universally, no exceptions–is answer questions no one is asking.

It may do more things than this–dead oratory violates a thousand sound principles–but put it down in huge letters, pastor: the sermon which is sedating your congregation is seen as completely irrelevant to them.

Whether it is or not is another matter.

My job as the pastor may mean making my audience see that this subject is one they should be dealing with and asking questions about.

On a typical airline flight, passengers ignore the instructions of the attendant as she talks about the use of the seat cushion as flotation device or how to inflate the life vests. However, if, at 30,000 feet the pilot announces the loss of an engine and the attendant begins to give instructions, she will have the clear and undivided attention of her audience.

One reason I suggest previewing the sermon with one’s spouse and children is that invariably one among them can be counted on to ask, “What is your point?”  “What is this about?”  Or, as Holly put it, “Why do we need to know this?”

In Scripture, we are left with the impression that Jesus’ best preaching was done on the spur of the moment as a result of questions.

Continue reading “Venturing into Boringland: How preachers can steer clear of the dreaded dead zone.” »

Watch out for the bad guys…and also the good ones.

“And one will say to him, ‘What are these wounds in thine hands?’ Then he will say, ‘Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends’” (Zechariah 13:6).

Recently I was guest speaker at a men’s meeting held 70 miles away from the host church at a retreat center owned and run by the Baptists of that part of the state.  My drive there required 115 miles–up the interstate, onto the U.S. highway, followed by a state road, county road, and finally something resembling a pigtrail.

That night, as we left the large room where we had held our evening session, I asked one of the leaders, “Will someone lock up?”  Our materials still lay on the tables.

He said, “This place is so remote that thieves would never find it if they were trying.”  We laughed.

He was right, except for one thing.

Sometimes, the thieves are among us.  We bring them in with us.

Continue reading “Watch out for the bad guys…and also the good ones.” »

Be careful about the little things

“A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough” (Galatians 5:9).

Take care of the little things.

In art, the difference between mediocre and masterful is often attention to details.

In wartime, attention to the little things can mean surviving.

I wonder if Goliath thought something like this in that millisecond before he expired: “This cannot be happening.  A giant like me, a champion of warriors, massive and mighty, undaunted and undefeated–taken down by a kid with a rock in a sling.”  He must have thought, “I hope my brothers never hear about this.”

Up in your state penitentiary you will find quite a number of good guys, people with impressive credentials and strong convictions and good records of achievement.  But mixed in with their outstanding accomplishments was the leaven: a single habit they could not control, a friendship out of bounds, a secret vice, a weakness.

At this moment, the Christian community is discussing a prominent pastor for whom the world was his oyster, as the saying goes. He was a star among the ministerial heavens.  He built a great church, wrote popular books, was in demand for every program and conference.  And now, look at him.  Felled by such a little thing.  No one is more shocked than he.  “How could this be?” he’s wondering at this moment.

Who am I talking about? Which preacher with what problem? Take your pick.  There are so many to choose from.

I’ve been reading “In Your Face: Cartoonist at Work” by Doug Marlette, the Pulitzer-Prize winning artist for newspapers such as the Charlotte Observer, the Atlanta Constitution-Journal, and Newsday.  At the time he did editorial cartoons for these papers, he was also turning out “Kudzu,” a syndicated daily strip with wide distribution.  He published many books and received all the awards and accolades a cartoonist could hope for.

Doug Marlette was younger than me and should still be around doing what he did so well, satirizing our foibles and turning out books about Will B. Dunn, the cartoon preacher. His clippings adorned refrigerators and professors’ doors far and wide.   Marlette, who would have turned 65 later this year, would probably still be with us except for one little thing.

Continue reading “Be careful about the little things” »

The wimp in me hates to be criticized.

“Behold, my son who came out from me seeks my life; how much more now this Benjamite?  Let him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him” (2 Samuel 16:11).

There’s something about us preachers that loves compliments and runs from criticism.

We preachers can be the biggest wimps on the planet.

Maybe it’s that way with everyone, I don’t know.

Let a preacher receive an anonymous note outlining what he’s doing wrong or a phone call dissecting last Sunday’s sermon and he is done for the week. He will be needing the attention of a good therapist.

We could learn a lot from politicians and others in the public arena. I’ve read that President Eisenhower enjoyed something like a 65 percent approval rating all eight years of his presidency, the highest of anyone since.  This means 35 percent of the America public thought he was a failure.  And yet, he is lauded as a winner.

Let 35 percent of the typical church give their preacher a vote of no-confidence and he’s enduring sleepless nights, unable to focus on anything, and scheduling himself for career counseling at his denominational headquarters.

All of this was prompted by two things.

Continue reading “The wimp in me hates to be criticized.” »

When the pastor finds an opportunity too enticing, a temptation too overwhelming

“Enjoy your glory and stay at home” (2 Kings 14:10).

In 1994, Joel Gregory wrote a book about his short-tenure as pastor of Dallas’ First Baptist Church.  He gave it the ominous title: “Too Great a Temptation: The Seductive Power of America’s Super Church.”

The title will make sense to many pastors reading this as it surely does to me.  When that mega-church came calling, begging Joel to become their pastor and follow the likes of W. A. Criswell and George W. Truett, there was no way he could turn them down.

He could have, of course. But he just couldn’t.  That’s because the temptation was too great.

I came close to taking the pastorate of a great church about 10 years earlier than Joel, one that would have ended just as disastrously for me.  As it turned out, the former pastor had two spies on the search committee, men who reported every action and every interview, and he was the one who vetoed me.  When I get to Heaven, I intend to seek him out and thank him.

Assuming he’s there.

My story of “too great a temptation,” however, is not about a church that came calling but a denominational opportunity that opened up and I could not resist.

Continue reading “When the pastor finds an opportunity too enticing, a temptation too overwhelming” »

Staying on time and up to date

“Felix became frightened and said (to Paul), ‘Go away for the present, and when I find time, I will summon you’” (Acts 24:25).

What are you putting off which you should have done today?

It happened to me again tonight.

A Facebook friend texted asking for a drawing of him for use in his ministry of speaking and entertaining.  I said I’d give it a try.

A half-hour later, he had the drawing in hand, both in black and white and in color.

Two things come into play here.  One, he caught me when I was not busy, and two, I hate to agree to do something and then have it weigh on my mind.  Let’s get it done.

When I was pastoring, I hated to have something on my mind that I needed to do–a visit to make, an article to write, studying to do, a staff project to get underway–and kept pushing onto the back burner.

Continue reading “Staying on time and up to date” »

7 things newly retired preachers need to do.

(Do not miss the post script at the end.)

Don’t let anyone tell you there is no retirement in the Bible.

Church people will say that, of course, mostly in fun. “Preacher, the Bible doesn’t know anything about retirement.”

But they’re dead wrong.

Numbers 8:25 says, “At the age of fifty, (priests) shall retire from service in the work and not work any more.”

There it is, in black and white. I have no idea why the Lord stopped the service of these men so early, unless to give others a chance to serve.

Not that any servant of the Lord I know today is trying to play that card.  These days, fifty is just the far edge of youth. You’re just getting started at fifty.

However, we post it here as a good-natured response to the smarties who insist that “retirement is not in the Bible.”  (Be sure to smile when quoting Numbers 8:25.)

At any rate, it is entirely possible to retire from pastoring a church but to remain in ministry. In fact, that’s how it’s done.

We are always on duty for the Lord, whether anyone employs us or pays us a salary or not.

Continue reading “7 things newly retired preachers need to do.” »

Perhaps the most profound thing our Lord ever said

“Except you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

What’s lacking in the great majority of religious experts–of all tribes, all beliefs, all everything!–is a childlike humility.

I’ve sat across from the salespeople hawking Jehovah’s Witness and Mormon doctrine door to door and been amazed at the sheer gall and arrogance of these know-it-alls.

I’ve sat in the auditoriums and classrooms when prophecy teachers were spreading out their charts and telling far more than they could ever know, pronouncing their anathema upon anyone daring to believe otherwise and taking no prisoners in the process.

I’ve sat in massive conferences among thousands of my peers and heard ignorance spouted as truth but camouflaged with alliteration and pious phrases and encouraged and affirmed by thundering echoes of “amens” and “hallelujahs”.

In every case, I longed to hear someone say, “We see through a glass darkly….”  (I Corinthians 13:12).

To hear someone say, “I have not arrived. I press toward the mark….” (Philippians 3:12-13).

To hear someone say, “We do not know how to pray as we should….” (Romans 8:26)

To hear someone say, “That which I am doing, I do not understand.  I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).

Where is the childlike spirit we hear so much of in the Word?

Continue reading “Perhaps the most profound thing our Lord ever said” »

The easiest texts are often the hardest to preach

“Be ye kind to one another” (Ephesians 4:32).

For good reason, young beginning pastors do not take the standard old texts for their first sermons.  Few feel qualified to produce a full sermon on such subjects as:

John 3:16.  The Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12). Salvation by faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).  Love one another (John 13:34-35). Forgiveness. The home. Kindness (see above).

That’s why beginning preachers almost always gravitate to the exotic texts.  They find those strange little metaphors, unusual verses, and unfamiliar images and light on them.

Perhaps it’s easier to get their minds around such, I don’t know.  One of my first sermons was suggested by “a house in a cucumber patch,” from Isaiah 1:8.  That image had brought to mind an old bungalow where some relatives of ours used to live far out in the country, but which was later abandoned and soon completely covered by kudzu vines.  Eventually, a massive mound of green vines stood there, hiding what used to be a house. What point my sermon made from that has long been forgotten.

Why didn’t I preach on grander (and safer?) subjects like the incarnation of Jesus, His miracles, His amazing teachings and sinless life, and of course, His death, burial, and resurrection?  Answer: Any of those subjects would be so huge and I felt so small.

I could no more preach a full-length sermon on John 3:16 than swim the Atlantic.

Continue reading “The easiest texts are often the hardest to preach” »

Preacher: You’re a speaker on a full program. Find out whom you are following.

Among the recent tributes to the late comic genius Robin Williams was a story he told about the time he preceded Bob Hope on the Johnny Carson show.

For reasons unknown, Hope was late arriving. Instead of Robin Williams following him, which had been the plan, Williams went on stage first and did his hilarious knock-em-dead routine.  People were beside themselves with laughter.

Bob Hope arrived and had to follow that.

Robin Williams said, “I don’t think he was angry, but he was not pleased.”

As Bob Hope was introduced and settled into the chair to the right of Carson, Johnny said, “Robin Williams. Isn’t he funny?”  Hope said, “Yeah. He’s wild. But you know, Johnny, it’s great to be back here with you.”

No one in his right mind would voluntarily follow Robin Williams on the program.

Sometimes preachers find themselves on the agenda in a meeting where multiple speakers are doing their thing.  Woe to the one who has to follow the most popular preacher in the land.

Continue reading “Preacher: You’re a speaker on a full program. Find out whom you are following.” »