Today I’m inviting you to read over my shoulder as we open Book 48 of the 56 Journals I kept from 1990 into the year 2000. Today’s excerpt comes from Tuesday, May 9, 2000….(Oh, so you’ll know, the comments in italics are today’s observations on the journal entries.)
This lady came up to me in the store this week and said, “We’ve met before. Ten years ago when you preached your first sermon at First Baptist Church (of Kenner, LA) we were there. And we heard you twice more after that. But, we haven’t been back since then.”
What I said to the lady is not what I was thinking. What I thought was, “Well, it’s obvious you didn’t care for my preaching.” But, I said some pleasantry and let it pass.
Five minutes later, she sought me out and said, “I just realized how that sounded. I know you think we must not have liked your preaching, but that’s not it at all. We liked you just fine. We just backslid.”
A vivid and quaint verb meaning to fall out of fellowship with the Lord, almost always accompanied by a slacking off or cessation of church attendance, Bible reading, meaningful prayer, and tithing.
(Backsliding is generally preceded by a growing love for the pleasures of the world–lots of weekend trips, Sunday football games, membership in a Mardi Gras krewe, etc–activities which are incompatible with solid biblical discipleship. The decision to “backslide” is almost never a well-thought-out choice. It just “happens.” We drift into it. One day, we look up and realize it’s been weeks, even months, since we have been to church or opened our Bibles. We are now bonafide residents in the Land of the Backslidden.)
Last night while washing my car I reflected on what she had said and what it meant.
She was exactly right. Going to church or not going to church is not about whether you like the pastor. It’s all about your relationship with the Lord.
“Oh no,” someone protests. “I quit going because of what the pastor did/said or did-not-do/did-not-say. My problem is not with the Lord. I love Him. I just don’t have any need or confidence in the church.”
My answer is: You are lying.
The problem is not the preacher.
You are in rebellion against God, and don’t have the courage to admit it.
Blaming your back-sliding on the preacher gives you carte blanche, a license if you will, to walk away from all your Christian duties and squander your time, your talents, your gifts, your influence, your very life.
That said, there’s not a dozen preachers alive who don’t feel complimented when someone says, “We joined this church because we like your good sermons.” And just as many feel hurt and take it personally when they hear that So-and-so quit coming to church because they aren’t getting anything out of your sermons.
But I have a word for the preachers, something I wish someone had given me forty years ago.
Pastor, it’s not about you.
They are not joining because of your good preaching nor leaving because of your poor ones. (I concede there are the exceptions. People join John MacArthur’s church because of his expository preaching, John Hagee’s church because they like his style and his prophecy, and Joel Osteen’s church because he makes them feel good about themselves with his preaching.)
It’s about their relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
With a minor bit of editing here and there, that’s from my journal of nearly 13 years ago. I stand by its thoughts and if anything, believe it more strongly today than then.
I’ve told on these pages (but not recently) of the time this truth hit home with me, that what some perceive as a preacher-problem is often more readily a spiritual problem. That is, the pastor is not the issue, but God is.
As a young pastor trying to get a handle on serving a large church in a county-seat town, I was always glad to welcome in any preacher who wanted to visit. (If you haven’t figured me out by now, I love preachers. Always have. Am so honored to have been called to become one.)
The pastor of a neighborhood church in a medium-sized town just across the state line dropped in one day. He told me a story that had just occurred in his town.
Pastor Jim, we’ll call him, served on the county board of education. One day, he spotted in his congregation a local banker who was a deacon in the larger First Baptist Church and was also a member of the school board. After the benediction, Pastor Jim greeted him. “Bob, what are you doing here?” To the point.
Bob the deacon/banker/board member said, “I’m angry at our pastor and thinking of joining your church.”
Pastor Jim said, “Okay, let me have it. What happened?”
The previous Sunday, just before the pastor of FBC called for a vote on the budget for the following year, Deacon Bob had stood to his feet and called out that he had a question on the budget. The pastor had ruled him out of order and proceeded to take the vote. Being a “somebody” in that town, Bob was embarrassed at the put-down.
Pastor Jim said, “My friend, your pastor did it the way we all do. We present the proposed budget one Sunday, discuss it the following Wednesday night, and then vote on it the second Sunday without discussion. That’s how it’s done. The preacher was simply going by the book.”
Deacon Bob said, “Well, he’s made me mad and I don’t intend to go back there any more.”
Pastor Jim said, “Bob, I do not want you in this church. You are not welcome here.”
That got his attention.
He continued, “My brother, you are in rebellion against God.”
Bob said, “I’m in rebellion against the pastor.”
Pastor Jim persisted. “No, it might feel that way to you, but it’s wrong. The pastor is God’s appointed leader for your church, and you are to submit to his spiritual authority. The fact that you are not doing so is an act of rebellion against God.”
I confess that line of reasoning was new to me. But the more I reflected on it, the clearer it became.
I have known many people whose opposition to their pastor had absolutely nothing to do with him. He, the preacher, must have lain awake countless nights wondering what he had done or failed to do to enrage a certain member who is out to get him. In most cases, it is not about the preacher. The individual is rebelling against God and he takes it out on the Lord’s most visible representative.
When a deacon dedicated himself to ousting me from his church, a man who had known him for twenty years said to me, “I’ll tell you what I think it is, Joe. Bill’s father was a pastor and so was his father-in-law. I think he’s still acting out his anger toward his dad. And, there’s one other possibility. I can’t prove this, but I believe God must have called Bill into the ministry years ago and he’s been running from the Lord and that call ever since.”
Strange way to run, I thought. Hiding inside the church, dominating every committee he ever served on, trying to call the shots with every pastor he’s ever had, attempting to shape the church in some kind of image he carries in his mind.
One final thing.Sometimes it is about the pastor. Not every pastor is God-called, Spirit-filled, Scriptural-based, and people-loving. Not every pastor is healthy in mind and soul. Some are misfits with no business being employed by a church to shepherd a flock.
That needs to be said.