When it comes to sheep, the shepherd wants to protect them from wolves and other predators.
But when those sheep are the members of a church, the shepherd–aka, the pastor–has two groups to safeguard them from: predators who would take unfair advantage of the people and ruin a church and the dullards who would kill a good congregation by sheer boredom.
Protecting them from one group is as big a challenge as from the other.
Two stories today. One tells how on one occasion I determined to protect my people from a boring Bible study, and the second reveals how I learned that lesson the hard way.
David was a seminary professor whom we had invited to bring a Bible study to my congregation. He traveled several hundred miles and checked into the hotel in my town on Saturday night and we met for supper. I was excited.
This would be the second time we had hosted David in churches I pastored. Some 10 years earlier, my wife and I first heard him do a Bible study at the state conference center. We were blown away, to put it mildly. The way he grasped Paul’s Epistle of Ephesians and brought out insights from the Greek was thrilling. So, we invited him to travel to our church in northern Mississippi the following year. He came, did an outstanding job, and the congregation was strengthened by his ministry.
That’s why I invited him to my next pastorate.
That Sunday morning, he delivered a sermon on the epistle for the week. Sunday evening, we allotted him an hour and a half to begin the study in a serious way.
How to put this? He was unbelievably boring.
I was surprised. This was not like him. And I so wanted my people to hear him at his best.
The question was what to do. Should I bring this to his attention or not? And if so, how does one go about telling a guest speaker you are boring the pants off my people? How would he take it? Do I dare risk it?
If this had been the first time I’d been confronted with this dilemma, I probably would not have done anything. But I had been in this identical position a few years earlier.
As the brand new pastor of this same great church, I was eager to bring in the best guest speakers and teachers. For the study on Acts the following January, I knew exactly whom to call: Jacque, a retired pastor friend who had had great influence on my early life, and whom I knew to be an outstanding student of the Word and Bible teacher.
The study had begun on a Sunday evening, continuing nightly through Wednesday. My people arrived several hundred strong, all with their open Bibles and notebooks, ready to jot down insights from Jacque’s teaching.
He was terrible. One would have thought he had never read the 28 chapters of Acts. He chased all kinds of rabbits, told pointless stories, and lulled my people to sleep with empty talk. To say I was disappointed would be the understatement of the year.
Jacque went on like that night after night, while the attendance kept dwindling. On the final night, there might have been fifteen people present. But Jacque did not let on like he even noticed or cared. He kept right on with his pointless chatter, completely neglecting to teach anything remotely like the Book of Acts.
The benediction was said, we gave him a check, and he went on his way.
And I decided never again.
Never again would I allow this to happen to my people without my making an attempt to salvage the occasion. (Rereading this, I can hear readers asking why I had not confronted Jacque at the time. My only answer is that I was young and he had been one of my mentors. I was not able to bring myself to rebuke an elder, as the expression goes.)
So, now, a few years later, when my invited Bible teacher begins to disappoint, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to tell Professor David that his Bible teaching is terrible. I’m willing to risk hurting him in order not to abandon my people.
So, Monday, sometime up during the day, I called on him at the Holiday Inn. Inside his room, I pulled up a chair and the conversation went something like this.
“Brother David, I need to take up a matter with you. This is very difficult for me.”
He: “Well, let’s have it! Get it out. What’s bothering you?”
Let’s just say that David was as loud and bombastic in the hotel room as he could sometimes be in his pulpit delivery. It did not make my task any easier.
I said, “My friend, I’ve heard you teach the Word. There is no one better in the world. You are an excellent Bible teacher.”
Nothing from him. He knows I’m about to drop the other shoe.
“But you are not doing it here,” I said. “In fact, you have bored my people to tears.”
“With anyone else,” I continued, “I’d probably let it go. But I know what you are capable of. You know how to open the Word and show what it says and what it means. You are able to tell us the Greek that reveals so much of the content we had not seen before.”
He interrupted. “Oh! You want me to impress them with my knowledge of the Greek?!! I can do that, if that’s the problem!!”
I said softly, “No, David. That is not what I’m asking for. I want you to open the Word of God and teach them. And where you have an insight from the original language that would bless them, share it.”
He was quiet. I said, “I’m just telling you that these people are sharp. They are good Bible students. And they love to be fed spiritual red meat. So, I want you to put it out there.”
Give him credit. He did. And I never heard another word out of him in private about our little confrontation.
Paul told the elders of the Ephesian church, I know this…savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also, from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore, watch. (Acts 20:29-31)
Watch for the wolves from outside, pastor. Furthermore, watch for the enemy to rise up from among the congregation too. Killers can arise from either area.
But watch out also for those who would kill the sheep by boring them to death.
Sometimes the best people can do the worst work.
Help them out.
Do your favorite Bible teacher a favor when you decide he is insulting the intelligence of your people. Tell him to turn it up a notch. Tell him to feed the sheep, and not sedate them.
As a young pastor, when I was invited to preach a weeklong meeting in a church pastored by a friend, I was excited but anxious. I wanted so much to preach sermons that would feed the flock and give guidance to the unsaved that sometimes I overburdened myself with worry. As a result, my sermons were often woefully lacking.
Howard Taylor did me a favor. I was preaching a revival in his church, Calvary of Greenville, Mississippi. After hearing a couple of my sermons, he came by the hotel for a brief visit. “Joe,” he said, “may I make a suggestion about your preaching?”
“I would welcome any help you can give me,” I told him.
“Preach for decisions,” he said. And that’s all he said.
I knew immediately what he was telling me. I was giving good information, was probably being used of the Lord to bless some people, and might even have been entertaining some of them. But the point of a revival–most of them, at any rate–is to encourage people to step out and give their lives to Christ. My job as the visiting preacher was to urge them to do that, to give them good reasons and proper motivation, and to call on them to make this commitment.
Thank you, Howard (now in Heaven). A good word which I appreciated then and do now.
It takes courage to give a rebuke, gentle or not, to the visiting preacher. But far better to risk offending him than to abandon your people.