This is from my journal of Tuesday, March 30, 1993. I had been at that church two and a half years…
At 2 pm, I had a visitor. A former church member who will go unnamed here wanted to apologize for his being so critical of me in my first year. He couldn’t identify why he was, except a certain resistance to authority.
I forgave him. The pain is that he is a minister of sorts, someone I had a lot of confidence in and did not know he was doing this. He said, “I hear from people in the last month that you have changed.” Why am I offended by that? I said, “I haven’t. I’m the same person I was then.” Which is true.
Reminds me of the pain in (my last church) when people would write and say, ‘We love you now, but for your first year here, we hated your guts. You were in our pastor’s pulpit.’ (The previous pastor had stayed only 3 years and had left for another church before they were ready to release him.) And these would be dear people whom I had valued. They got It off their chest but left me bleeding.
Anyone who begins to pastor a church should recognize two big things: There are lessons to be learned if you are ever to do this well, and most of them are learned the hard way. Your scars will attest to your education.
Most of this is counter-intuitive; that is, not what one might expect.
One. Bigness is overrated.
“It doesn’t matter to the Lord whether He saves by the few or the many” (I Samuel 14:6).
Most pastors, it would appear, want to lead big churches, want to grow their church to be huge, or wish to move to a large church. Their motives may be pure; judging motives is outside my skill set. But pastoring a big church can be the hardest thing you will ever try, and far less satisfying than one would ever think.
Small bodies can be healthy too; behold the hummingbird or the honeybee.
A friend says, “At judgement, a lot of pastors are going to wish they’d led smaller congregations.”
A friend and I were having a discussion about preachers. We both love our preachers, and years ago, I was her pastor, so we have a mutual understanding about a lot of things.
The conversation went like this.
She: “One of the things I’ve enjoyed in our church lately is an enhanced understanding of every phrase of the Lord’s prayer. So much so that I was offended recently at a funeral when the minister asked us to stand and ‘recite’ the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t think it’s something to be recited; it’s something to be prayed diligently!”
She added: “Now don’t go getting the wrong idea. I think that preacher is a delightful person, and I like him very much.”
I said, “Asking someone to ‘recite’ the Lord’s Prayer reminds me of something similar that drives me up the wall. You’ll be in a moving worship service, and the leader will say, ‘Now, let us have a word of prayer,’ or ‘I’m going to ask Bill to lead us in a word of prayer.’ I don’t know why that bothers me so much. I feel like calling out, ‘Hey friend, pray! Don’t just have a ‘word’ of prayer. Go to the Heavenly Father and pray!’ Somehow, it minimizes the importance of prayer, as though we’re all tipping our hats to the Almighty, then going on with the important stuff.”
We branched out to discussing how we preachers sometimes say foolish things without a clue as to how it’s being received. I told her about a recent internet conversation with a friend in North Carolina.
My favorite place in church is the altar area.
When I was pastoring, sometime in the middle of a weekday, I would slip in and kneel there and spend time with the Lord.
The question arises as to “Why? What makes that place special?” After all, even though we call it the “altar,” it isn’t, not in the Old Testament sense or even the New Testament sense. Calvary is the ultimate altar for believers. The only answer I can find is: “I don’t know. I just know I need it and love it.”
What I do not understand is believers who never come to the altar and pray. It seems that only the most spiritually sensitive do, and I sure want to be among that number.
I love, love, love those times in church when for reasons unknown the congregational singing comes together like never before and everyone is singing at the top of their voices, the hymns are circulating around the room, bouncing off the ceiling and coming back to fill us, and our souls are lifted. It feels like we have touched the hem of the garment of our Lord, and makes us long for Heaven all that much more.
What I do not like is when the worship leader tries to manufacture this on his own. I’ve seen them do that, and the result is fake, hyped, unworthy.
“Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure…. I have been stricken all day long and chastened every morning….. When I pondered to understand this, it was troublesome in my sight until I came into the sanctuary of God. Then I perceived their end…. God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73)
The most difficult place for any Christian pastor to serve may be next to a military base.
The greatest opportunity any pastor may have in a long lifetime may be serving next to a military base.
As the Apostle Paul said, “A wide door for effective service opened to me; and there are many adversaries” (I Corinthians 16:9).
Jim and Patsy told their story to some of us not long ago. I have never forgotten their testimony and want to continue lifting them to the Lord.
Background: they are from the U.S. and pastor a church near an American military base somewhere overseas. They’ve been there two years.
(For this article, we enlisted the aid of our Facebook friends. We’re quoting them here, but not verbatim. They will recognize themselves. Thanks, guys.)
“The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul… They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb…. In keeping them there is great reward.” (Psalm 19:7-11)
The Bible loves the Bible.
From one end to the other, God’s word tells us how wonderful is God’s word. Better than gold and sweeter than honey it is. Job said, “I have esteemed the words of Thy mouth more than my necessary food” (Job 23:12).
We preachers believe this. And we say those words to our people. We like our people to bring their Bibles to church, open them as we read and preach, and use them when they return home.
There is nothing wrong with our aspirations in this regard.
However, when it comes to connecting our people with God’s word personally to the point that they will become ardent readers and diligent students of Scripture, we should give ourselves a C-minus. And sometimes, an F.
You’ve heard them, I’m sure. Some well-intentioned but thoughtless man of God stands 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!”
Invariably, especially if the audience is made up almost exclusively of preachers, the statement will be met with a chorus of ‘amen’s.’
The only problem with that is while it sounds good, it is not so.
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.
Sometimes a pastor finds a neighboring pastor is sucking all the air out of the room. The new preacher is dynamic and exciting and crowds are flocking to his church. He’s a media star. He’s pulling people out of the other churches.
Sound familiar? It’s not a new phenomenon.
“Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in Scriptures, came to Ephesus.” (Acts 18:24)
Sometimes you’re Apollos, sometimes you are Paul. Early records indicate Paul was short and bald, nothing much to look at. And some said he wasn’t much to listen to. See 2 Corinthians 10:10.
What do you want to bet Apollos was gorgeous to boot. A real hunk. Articulate in the pulpit. Wore these cool suits and had a trendy haircut.
Named for Apollos–a god of both Greeks and Romans, the champion of the youth and the sharpest thing on Mount Olympus!–this preacher would have made a great television evangelist. He made an impact wherever he went.
What’s more, he was good. He was spiritual and godly and not shallow at all. Not a flash in the pan.
A friend on the staff of a large church emailed about a family basically living in the ICU ward of a local hospital in our city. Doctors had told the parents nothing more can be done for the daughter. So they were standing by, waiting for God to take her home.
The friend asked if I could visit this family.
An hour later, I was in their hospital room.
The patient lay there heavily sedated, while family members and friends were seated around the room, talking softly. They greeted me warmly, having been informed that I was coming.
Two things about this family I found amazing. They had lived in the intensive care units of their hospital back home and this one in my city for over 40 days. And yet, there was such a steady peace and beautiful joy about them.
The question I face
That brings me to my dilemma, one I have frequently encountered when calling on the families of Godly people going through various kinds of crises: Do I enter into their joy or remain outside?
I was going to Italy to be the featured speaker for a pastors-and-wives retreat. Those attending are all English-speaking serving churches across Europe as well as a few other countries. I was excited.
My host, head of the International Baptist Convention, pointed out a few things to keep in mind.
While everyone at the retreat will speak English, they are not all Americans. Therefore, I must be careful not to use idioms and references that only those from the USA (or even worse, the Deep South) will understand.
So, I started thinking over some of my choice stories. I have tales of growing up in rural Alabama, of small church preachers and narrow-minded Baptists and Southern ways. I could see I was going to have to revisit all my messages and stories and illustrations. Once we begin in Italy, there would still need to be some fine-tuning and tweaking.
When a preacher ignores the cultural divide between himself and his audience, he could mess up royally.