Sooner or Later, Someone Has to Sell the Product

I remember it like it was last week.

My older brother came home from a meeting all psyched up. He had attended a sales promotional meeting in the days before Amway, Avon, Shaklee, and a host of others had developed that layered-sales-technique into the world class system it became.

Ron must have been 25 years old, and his enthusiasm was understandable. The marketers told of a food supplement that would soon make vegetables and fruits and meats irrelevant. This would take the country by storm. To make sure they were not missing out on nutrients, everyone in America would be buying this product.

But that was not the big attraction.

By signing on early as a partner (or associate or who-knows-what-they-called it back then), you could enlist others who would work under you. You would make a percentage off all their sales. But even more remarkably, every time they lined up people to work under them, you raked in a percentage from their sales, too.

You could get rich in a hurry. (As, no doubt a lot of Amway and Avon partners eventually did. But alas, not all. But that’s another story.)

I recall Ron saying that Hollywood superstar Robert Cummings was a partner in this great undertaking. It had to be all right!

All you had to do was present the sales plan to your friends and family and start signing them up. Everyone was going to be rich beyond their wildest dreams.

There was one little hitch to the plan, as far as this 20-year-old skeptic could see: Sooner or later, someone had to sell the product to the consumer. Success would depend on meeting an actual customer and convincing him or her to purchase the supplement. Without that, it mattered little how many hundreds of underlings one lined up from which to skim off a portion of their earnings.

That early marketing blitz which Ron was so enthusiastic about came to nothing. Within a few weeks, it disappeared from the scene.

I’m tempted to tease my wonderful brother (who reads this blog) with something like: But Ron found another way to get rich quick; he became a preacher. The joke would be funny only to the two of us, however. Ron and I have preached for nearly 100 years altogether, but we’re both a long way away from wealthy. Which is as it should be.

Frequently over these years in the Lord’s work, I’ve seen pastors frustrated because their congregations do not respond to their pulpit pleadings to get into the community with the gospel.

I have an opinion as to why they’re not responding.

Typically, what happens is this: Convicted that Scripture teaches believers should share the gospel with their friends and neighbors, and concerned that his church is not reaching outsiders as they should, the pastor decides to address the subject from the pulpit. He might even work with his staff and devise a program of community infiltration in which they go door-to-door sharing the Word and inviting people to church.

The pastor preaches it, the staff promotes it, the newsletter and mailouts announce it, the church funds it, someone organizes it, and the calendar schedules it.

But nothing happens.

Someone concludes, “Christians today just aren’t interested in sharing their faith the way they used to be.”

Or worse: “Non-Christians are not as responsive to the gospel as in former days.”

The problem is neither of those things.

No pastor can motivate people to do what he himself is not doing. Conversely, nothing empowers him like preaching what he himself is practicing.

There’s a little trap we pastors easily fall into. We see pastors like John MacArthur and Charles Stanley build great ministries around their teaching of the Word, and we want to be like that.

Now, bear in mind, we have no idea whether these mega-pastor “stars” (you’ll pardon the term) actually do any hands-on ministry or not. I’m confident they have people on their staff for pastoral counseling, and doubtless they have staffers for the routine work of congregational ministry. But do they themselves–do John and Charles–ever check the hospital list and drive down to the medical center and walk in to a room and visit a member? Do they show up at Monday night visitation and go into the neighborhood with a deacon to follow up on Sunday’s visitors?

The image we have is that they don’t.

And that has led countless numbers of young pastors in particular to see that as their goal: to build a great church without getting their hands dirty in actual ministry.

The pastor who wants to build a great work without actually ministering is treading on quicksand. He has taken the wrong men as his role models. He is reneging on his call into the ministry (we may assume the Holy Spirit did not call him into the starring role of a church production). He may be building a monument to his ego.

The word “pastor” is akin to our word “pasture” for good reason. The pastor is a shepherd who devotes himself to his sheep. He pastures them. He protects them. He feeds them.

But before any of this, he does one thing more: He knows them.

I am the good shepherd, and I know my sheep, and am known by My own (John 10:14).

How, I ask you, can one be a shepherd if he doesn’t even know his sheep?

I find myself wanting to ask a question of mega-pastors who are building clones to their church all over their city as well as in other cities too.


What do you have, pastor, that other pastors do not have?

Does this pastor have a unique understanding of the gospel that other ministers are not privy to? Does he have a doctrine, a style, a technique, a personality–anything!–that supersedes what the other churches in those communities are doing and makes them outdated and irrelevant?

Let’s say that a city has a hundred good churches of all sizes, from the tiniest to the largest. Then, Pastor Star comes in and builds a church that soon sucks the life out of half of them. We end up with a Star Church with (let’s say) 10,000 members and the 50 remaining churches.

My question is: Have you done well? In what way?

Why is having 10,000 members in one church better than having them in fifty churches?

Another question: At the end of the day, pastor, when you account for what you have done, what exactly have you done?

My observation about those who wish to build megachurches around their teaching ministries run the risk of failing Jesus and their brethren in several ways:

–They pull in members from the smaller churches, effectively putting them out of business. Only the most egotistical would conclude, “Those little churches weren’t doing anything anyway and should have been put out of their misery.” Only the Lord of all churches knows what each is doing and which should be “put down.”

–They perpetuate the image of a successful pastor as a star who does not get his hands dirty. We envision the celebrity pastor as getting to sit in his study parsing the Greek all week before entering the pulpit on Sunday to hand out the gems he has unearthed. This is a far, far cry from the kind of ministry pictured in Scripture.

–They discourage faithful ministers laboring in the smaller churches in their town. Their members are attracted to the latest pulpit hot-shot who carries star-power, while they themselves are the ones who will visit them in the hospitals, bury their dead, and deal with their wayward youth.

Are there exceptions to this image we’re presenting here? Sure. As the old adage goes, every rule has exceptions including this one. There are (again, pardon the expression) celebrity pastors who are pastors in every sense of the word. But–second old adage–the exception proves the rule.

George W. Truett was for half a century pastor of the SBC’s first mega-church, the First Baptist Church of Dallas. He used to say the pastor must be in the homes of his people during the week diagnosing so he could stand in the pulpit on Sunday prescribing.

We run the risk today of having pastors who are prescribing for patients they do not know and have not examined (to retain the metaphor).

I’m not against big churches. I am against men in the pulpit calling themselves pastors if they are not to some degree doing the hands-on work of ministry in the lives of people.

What makes a pastor a legitimate shepherd is not that he knows how to preach. Rather, it’s that he knows the sheep, loves them, and takes care of them.

My personal opinion, preacher, is that some of the best sermon preparation you will ever do will take place in the intensive care waiting room as you minister to the family of the dying patriarch, in the old folks’ home as you sit and listen to an elderly saint speak of former days, and in the bungalow down the street as you pray with a teenage boy who is inviting Jesus to be his Savior.

If your concept of leading a church does not allow you to do such things, call yourself anything you please. But do not call yourself a pastor.