Often on Sunday morning, I’ll post something on Facebook to encourage pastors. I particularly love to encourage the ones who may be preaching to members of their congregation who despise them and are working to remove them from the pulpit.
I’ve been there, done that, in two churches. It’s a lonely feeling, one you would not wish on your enemy.
Today my little note encouraged pastors to remember why the message of Jesus is called “good news,” and to preach that.
That word was so elementary, such a no-brainer, that one might wonder why we said it or why it got such a large response from readers (aka, Facebook friends, many of whom are preachers).
Here’s why: We pastors sometimes feed our people fiber instead of protein, filler instead of nourishment. I suspect it’s not a conscious decision (“I will now cut corners on my preaching”), but something that develops as a result of neglect, fatigue, or discouragement.
Someone needs to recognize that this is happening and call us back to our God-given task of preaching the gospel. Again, you would think this would be a no-brainer. But I cannot tell you how many times pastors have told me they model their preaching after an Elijah or Jeremiah or Amos. One said his role model was John the Baptist. Personally, I don’t see it. We are called to proclaim the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 1:16), and not to address every sinful failing of Washington, D.C. or whoever happens to be the current occupant of the White house.
Having pastored for over 42 years, and having preached the message of the Lord for exactly a half-century, I am well aware of those substitutes for the gospel that have a way of creeping into our messages. Here are several I’ve seen in myself and noticed in you. (Consider that a friendly wink at the pastors who read this.)
1. Rather than give the gospel, we sometimes deliver theatrics.
Theatrics are the dramatics which often decorate sermons. Usually they involve bodily motions–walking, waving, pointing–and emotions: raising the voice, lowering it, getting tearful or excited or angry or compassionate.
A Supreme Court justice once said about pornography, “I may not know how to describe it, but I know it when I see it.” That pertains to theatrical preaching. Even if I cannot define it well, we all know what it looks like.
President Eisenhower was once asked if he hadn’t served under General Douglas MacArthur at one time. (He had.) Ike answered with a twinkle in his eye, “Yes, I studied dramatic arts under MacArthur for several years.”
One has the feeling that some of us preachers have been studying dramatic arts when we should have been digging through the Word.
As a child, I had asked my dad to go to church with us. He would sit by the radio for hours on end listening to sermons, but for some reason was reluctant to attend church. He answered, “Son, I like a preacher who really ‘lets go.’” I was unsure what that meant, but had seen our pastor get red-faced in his strong preaching and figured that was what he had in mind. The next time I invited him, I said, “Daddy, you’d like Brother Kennedy. He really lets go.”
An African-American pastor once described his style as “putting on the ‘rousements.”
No one that I know of minds honest emotion in a sermon. In fact, it enhances a message that is already strong in the Word and shaped by integrity. But to lay on the motions and emotions–the theatrics–in order to impress the audience is manipulative and unworthy of a gospel preacher. Anything artificial has no place in the pulpit.
The pastor who feeds his people theatrics without strong biblical teaching will soon discover he has raised a shallow congregation that runs on entertainment. The result will be church members who accept or reject a sermon based on its style and techniques rather than its God-inspired message.
Those who require grand dramatics in a sermon would not have appreciated Jesus’ preaching. He is rarely said to have raised His voice and usually sat down when He preached.
Try that one, preacher, and see how it goes over.
2. Rather than preach the gospel, we sometimes hand out our favorite stories.
The gospel is the story of Jesus and His love. It’s the message of the cross, of the shed blood, of John 3:16 and Romans 6:23.
A lazy preacher will sometimes line up his favorite stories, lace them together by scriptures and spiritual sayings, and feed them to the congregation as manna from on high. But spiritual junk food is still junk food. And we all know how unhealthy that stuff is to the body.
I love a good story. In fact, the only thing I’d rather do than hear a great story is be the one telling it. But no story of mine can rival or should substitute for the story of Jesus. When there is danger of that happening–when it seems that my story is drawing attention to itself and muddying up the message of the cross–then the story has to be dropped.
Story-telling can be another form of congregational ear-tickling (see II Timothy 4:3). The congregation that expects to be entertained every time the minister of God enters the pulpit is an embarrassment to the Lord, an indictment against the pastor’s ministry, and an admission of their own shallowness and carnality. The congregation that cannot take a sermon of “red meat” (see I Corinthians 3:1-2 and Hebrews 5:12) is a sorry example of a family of believers.
One of my professors used to say the poorest kind of preaching is whatever kind we do most. Assuming that to be the case, we story-tellers would do well to leave off all narratives and sagas once in a while in order to keep our people focused on what’s truly important in preaching.
3. Rather than preach the gospel, we preachers sometimes stroke our audiences and cater to them.
Guest preachers are notorious for this. Here’s how that happens…
The minister gets invited to speak before a convention of preachers or dentists or whoever. He travels a long way to get there and is overwhelmed by the honor of the occasion. He decides that so long as he communicates with the audience, he’ll be able to slip in some solid principles from time to time. So, he breaks out all his preacher stories (or dentist stories or whatever), pulls together all his pet convictions on the subject at hand, and weaves them together into a 25 minute presentation.
He’s introduced, he gets up, acknowledges the welcome, and has a fine old time with his audience for a half-hour. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was a comedian or professional after-dinner speaker.
People listen to him, they laugh hard, they respond to his stories and jokes and his putdowns of the present administration in Washington (that seems to be standard fare), and he includes a challenge of one type or the other. When he leaves the podium, he’s exhausted and spent, just as thought he’d been preaching from his pulpit back home. In fact, it feels a lot like he has preached the gospel.
But what he did was stroke his audience. In no way did he deliver a gospel sermon. He entertained them. They probably paid well, the compliments were many, and his stories will be retold to the point that he will be convinced he did a great job.
That night, lying in the motel bed and reflecting on his day, he will ask himself what exactly it was that he accomplished. What, indeed?
If one is called by God as an entertainer, then by all means entertain. But if our callling is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus, we should stay the course.
4. Rather than preach the gospel, some of us decide to condemn all our favorite enemies.
The bad guys du jour–at least in the circles that I run in–include new agers, liberals, compromisers, homosexual activists, and corrupt politicians. Some years back, that list included Jane Fonda (for her activities in Viet Nam), Bishop James A. Pike (for his messing around with the occult), Thomas Harris (for his book “You’re O.K., I’m O.K.”), and Shirley MacLaine (for her spirit-channeling and promiscuous lifestyle). Before that, it was Dr. Spock for his liberal child-rearing books, Madalyn Murray-O’Hair for her atheistic activism, and such.
My judgment is that preachers who major on attacking those with whom they disagree are neglecting time with the Lord in prayer and before the open Bible. They toss out fodder to their congregation and hope no one notices it’s 99 percent fiber and that its food value is almost nil.
Recently, I was reading a book by a well-known author whose ministry to Christian men is widely acknowledged and whose books sell in the hundreds of thousands. As he called men to stand up for the Lord, to be good citizens and loving husbands and strong fathers, he devoted a section to all the things he found wrong with the government in Washington, D.C. There is no question in my mind that he got off his subject and detoured onto one of his pet peeves. It detracted from the message he was preaching, undermined the thrust of his impact, and cheapened the entire presentation.
Preachers are not called to proclaim their convictions. “Preach the Word” (II Timothy 4:2). Preach Jesus (Acts 8:35). Preach the gospel. Preach Christ.
Pastors often encounter church members who urge them to “preach against sin.” In almost all cases, this does not mean they want the pastor to take a stand against cheating on one’s income tax, lying to the boss, looking at pornography, or withholding their tithe to make the payment on the new car. By anyone’s definition, those would qualify as sin. What the member is requesting is that the preacher wax eloquent against the direction the federal government is taking, the corruption in politics, the false promises the occupant of the White House has made, the ignoring of the Constitution, and such. Such members want the preacher to lambast gay activists, liberals, socialists, and humanists.
It’s easy to do. There is plenty to fault these people on.
The problem is they’re not sitting in our congregation. Why should we preach about them when we could preach on the sins of the very people sitting in front of us? Our love for sermons on the sins of others is one of our greatest sins. (There is indeed a place for preaching against sin. But it should always be relevant to the congregation sitting in front of us, and not something to feed their addiction to the National Enquirer.)
The pastor who feeds his people a constant diet of sermons against his favorite sinners will raise a congregation of scavengers, one that is negative, fearful, and immature. They will not know the Word, not do the work, and not appreciate real worship.
Every person who enters the pulpit should be required to answer this question: “Why is the message of Jesus Christ ‘good news’ and can it be found in your sermon today?”
The Gospel of Jesus is the best news ever given to this planet because….
–It deals with the basic, root problems of mankind: rebellion against God. That is, it deals with real issues, the black plague which is destroying mankind. The Bible calls it “sin.”
–It offers the best remedy for sin ever devised or imagined: the cross of Jesus where the Son of God gave His life as a ransom for us. Jesus “canceled out the certificate of debt against us, and has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14).
–The blood of Jesus Christ “cleanses us from all sin” (I John 1:7) and does so in the fullest way possible.
–In Jesus Christ, there is no longer any condemnation (Romans 8:1). Our sins are gone forever (Hebrews 10:17). We shall not come into condemnation (John 3:18).
–The invitation from Heaven goes out to everyone everywhere (Acts 1:8), inviting people to repent and trust in Christ and receive the blessings of Heaven for now and always. Revelation 3:20 says it so beautifully.
–In Christ, we become children of God eternally, without the possibility of losing this great gift. (See John 10:28-29 and I Peter 1:4.)
–And, wonder of wonders, it’s all free. The invitation is “whosoever will.” (Romans 10:13) That’s as wide a door as it’s possible to open.
Pastor, there is no message on earth to rival this. No story can compete with it for relevance or interest or mass appeal. This is the word you and I were called to proclaim. This is what people are dying to hear. Let us tell them about Jesus.