Something preachers keep forgetting

For this reason I remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you…. (2 Timothy 1:6). 

I was sitting on the platform, ten feet to the left and rear of the pulpit, studying the 300 people in the congregation. In five minutes, I would walk to the podium and, as the guest preacher, bring the sermon. The thoughts running through my mind were not helpful.

“They know all these things. My sermon is about the church. And these people are at church on a Sunday night, of all things. I might as well go into a diner and speak on the joys of eating. Or to a gym and talk about the need for exercise.”

Then, sanity returned. I knew this was not the case at all.

I thought about the times when I sat where they sit.  I often needed a strong reminder of the proper value to be placed on the church, of how solidly God feels about it, of the price Christ paid for it, of the assignments He has given it, and yes, reminders of the sorry way the church is being treated by some of its friends.

There was a genuine need for this message, and on this night I would deliver it as strongly as I knew how.

I gave it my all. The response at invitation time–not always the best barometer, I know–indicated the sermon had hit its target.

The best barometer, and one I’m not privy to, would be the behavior of the members of that congregation over the next few weeks and months.

It’s easy for preachers to fall into that little sinkhole which had opened up just in front of me, and think, “These people do not need this; they already know it.”

In such situations, it’s good for the man of God to remind himself of three facts:

1) Not everyone in the congregation knows the most basic facts of the Christian life and biblical doctrine.

A college professor friend sat at my dining room table and shared some of his recent experiences in teaching. He said, “Our standards are high and our kids are all excellent students who graduated at the top of their high school classes. And yet, you would be amazed at their ignorance in certain areas.”

One day, just to make the point, he asked one class, “How many states are there in the union?” A hand went up. “Fifty-three?”

In the next class, the first student to answer gave a tentative, “Fifty-four?”

One day he asked a class, “During World War II, was the United States of America bombed and its major cities leveled by Nazi planes?” The student he called on said, “Sir, history is not my strong suit.”

“They’re even worse in geography,” he said.

We laughed at these examples of ignorance in smart people. But I wonder if we would laugh as heartily at the spiritual and biblical ignorance of those occupying the pews in our churches week in and week out.

The pastor must never assume the members know more than they do.

2) And, even if they do know these things, that does not necessarily mean they are living by them. We all know more than we are doing.

Jesus said, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17). The object of a lesson or a sermon or any training we do in church is never simply to transfer knowledge. “Knowledge puffs up,” said Paul in I Corinthians 8:1.

The end result of a sermon or a class is to change behavior. Over and over in Scripture, our Lord puts the premium on doing the will of God–never on knowing it or loving it or finding it or hearing, studying, teaching, or praying for it. “He who hears these words of mine and does them may be compared to a wise man who built his house upon a rock” (Matthew 7:24).

3) Finally, even those who know and do them faithfully will appreciate the occasional reminder.

“Put them in remembrance of these things” (2 Timothy 2:14).

As a tither, I enjoy a good hearty sermon on giving. As one who prays daily and often, I love hearing a sermon on prayer. As one who loves the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, I appreciate a message on the role of God’s people in the world.

There’s always more to be learned, deeper insights to be gained, ideas to be shared on how to serve the Lord better.

I have sat in stadiums on several occasions when Dr. Billy Graham would be the preacher of the evening. Walking around and talking to people, observing the church groups arriving and listening to their conversations, reading the t-shirts and banners, it was clear that an extremely high proportion of Dr. Graham’s audience were solid believers and active members of churches. And yet, the sermon we would be hearing would be evangelistic, directed toward only a small percentage of the audience. And we were thrilled to be there and to hear that message.

The people of God–those born of the Holy Spirit, who love the Lord Jesus and are serving Him–tend not to be highly critical of the messages they hear from the pulpit. They can enjoy hearing George Beverly Shea sing “How Great Thou Art” for the one-thousandth time. They hear the preacher of the hour–whether his name be Franklin Graham or Chip Stevens or Carl Hubbert–proclaim the love of God for the fallen and their spirits soar. Tears flow, hearts are filled, praise ascends.

As a young pastor, a major failing of mine was to constantly search for something new in Scriptures, themes I’d not heard “preached to death,” facts and insights I thought the people would find fascinating.  I shied away from preaching texts like Ephesians 2:8-9 (“salvation by grace”) or John 3:16 because, “Everyone knows those.”

Bad wrong. Not everyone knows those truths, and even among those who do, they need the reminder. The rest of us–those who know and abide by these wonderful texts–enjoy hearing them preached again.

One day I made a discovery that brought me up short. The second missionary journey of Paul brought him and his team to Athens, Greece. Luke gives us this insight: “Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21).

It was the pagans who were addicted to new doctrines.

That was a needed comeuppance for me.  I  began to think of how often the Old Testament prophets would say things like “ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it” (Jeremiah 6:16) and “remove not the old landmark” (Proverbs 23:10).

A hymn I first learned to love as a small child in that tiny church in a West Virginia mining camp said, “I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.” One line goes, “Tis pleasant to repeat what seems each time I tell it more wonderfully sweet.”

The pastor must never give in to the congregation’s clamor to hear new things. There is much in the “old, old story” which will be new to many of his hearers, and that must be preached.  But even those “born and raised” in the church need to hear the old message again and again.  In fact, those who hear it most seem to love it best.

Every congregation has its share of those with heads so thickened and hearts so dulled by worldly living that only the fiftieth hearing of God’s message will penetrate the layers of resistance and touch the tender part of the heart.

So, preach it preacher. Keep telling yourself, “They need this. I have a message they are dying to hear.”

But then, you knew this, didn’t you?

I thought you’d appreciate the reminder.

3 thoughts on “Something preachers keep forgetting

  1. As a lay person I would add 5 stars to this post. Please pastors,, preach the basics of the faith. Preach on prayer, the meaning of the Lord’s supper, the great books and authors of Christianity, and the imperative of love and self sacrifice-including giving to the church. Great post, Pastor Joe.

  2. Grace and Peace Pastor Joe

    Yesterday I preached in Matthew 5:13-16, and before the preaching my feeling was this, to preach what the brothers already knew.
    But I didn’t let this feeling discourage me, I preached like it was the first time I’d done it in this text.
    To my surprise a deacon came to me and said that the message had spoken a lot to him.

    Thank God for your life my dear pastor, I have learned a lot from you.

    Elias Marcelino
    Shalom Baptist Church, São Paulo – Brazil

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