The Hardest Sermon I Ever Preached

(It was Sunday, June 21, 1997. After putting up with the immature rants and raves of a few church members for seven years of that pastorate, I decided it was time to air this dirty linen on a Sunday morning, something pastors are loathe to do. This became the watershed moment for our church. Afterwards, I remained as pastor another 7 years, and they became some of the sweetest years of my long ministry. Recently, I ran across the typed version of that sermon, and decided to reprint it here in the hope that it may help some other pastor who may be going through his own private hell in the church where the Lord Jesus Christ assigned him.)

The title was “Our Church is in Crisis–Just Like All Those Other Churches.” The text was Revelation chapters 2 and 3.

I want to say a word to you who are visiting with us this morning. Normally, pastors hesitate to ‘hang out the wash’ on a Sunday morning. If we have problems in the church, we deal with them at other times. On Sunday mornings, we have a lot of visitors and we naturally would like you to feel good about this church and come back, maybe even join us. However, we have some church members who never come to church except on Sunday morning and they are some who need to hear this.

In my last church, I learned that one of our deacons and his wife, Pat and Betty Hance, had witnessed a fist fight on their first day at our church. I found that hard to believe, and could not wait to ask them about it. Pat told how two men in the church had a grudge going and one was bullying the other. As the Hances sat in the Sunday School assembly, the bully walked by and made a snide remark about his opponent. With that, the man got up and knocked the daylights out of the bully.

I said to Pat, “Here’s my question. We pastors bend over backwards to impress visitors so they will come back. But on your first Sunday, you witnessed a fight–and not only did you return, you even joined the church. Explain that to me.”

He smiled and said, “Oh, we like an active church.”

I need to tell the visitors this morning, we have an active church.

Bernice Nicely was around 80 years old and sickly when she sent for me. She’d been in and out of hospitals, and I figured she wanted to talk about “last things.” But she had something else on her mind. She said, “Pastor, I know I’m saved. I know I’m going to Heaven when I die. But there’s something else troubling me.” She paused a moment and said, “Pastor, I haven’t done right by the church.”

The next Sunday she joined the church and began sending her tithe.

I need to ask each of you in this building, “Have you done right by the church?”

Recently, the ministers of the New Orleans area held a breakfast meeting at one of the downtown churches. This was an interdenominational and interracial group. As we shared prayer requests, a Black woman stood and introduced herself. She said, “Ours is a church in a crisis. We’re built on a toxic land fill. The area has been condemned and we have to move. We’re facing a lot of decisions.”

There is a sense in which all churches are built on toxic sites. This is a fallen world and Satan is called the ruler of the powers of the air and the prince of this world. We’re in hostile territory.

But there is a special sense in which our church stands on a toxic site. Nearly ten years ago, a major church breakup occurred here. Our church split in five directions: two groups left to start new churches, a third group of members joined other congregations throughout the area, a fourth group got disgusted with the whole business and went home and sat down and has not been to church since, and the fourth group stayed here. That was the group–about half the congregation–that called me as pastor in September of 1990.

Now, some of those who stayed with this church have continued to carry around the poisons, the toxins, of that explosion ever since. Some carry great anger over what other people did, and some are burdened with guilt for what they themselves did. These poisons have seeped up through the soil and are polluting all our relationships and now they are trying to destroy this church.

The church tries to protect itself from the poisons. We soundproofed this sanctuary to shut out the noise. (The New Orleans airport is across the street.) We sealed it tight to shut out the dirty air. We installed lighting outside and have asked the police to patrol the grounds to shut out the crime. But what about the SIN? Some of our members bring in a fresh supply every time they enter. That’s why we have an altar, so everyone can come and pray, can confess and repent and receive forgiveness.

Now, if allowed to go unchecked, poisons will kill a church. In Revelation 2 and 3, our Lord compliments the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia for their faithfulness. Then He warns the other five churches about poisons in their midst which are endangering their very existence.

For Ephesus, the toxin was a lack of love (Revelation 2:1-7). For Pergamum, the poison was faulty doctrine (Revelation 2:12-17). For the church at Thyatira, it was false teachers (Revelation 2:18-29). For the church at Sardis, it was wrong works (Revelation 3:1-6). And for Laodicea, it was complacency and lukewarmness (Revelation 3:14-22).

In the case of our church, the poisons that threaten us are anger and guilt. These toxins are polluting the water of life flowing from this well.

In our unresolved anger and undealt-with guilt, we often end up doing hurtful and foolish things.

I’m sure you know what the ‘duh’ factor is. It’s when someone does something so irrational, so completely unreasonable and foolish, you stand back in amazement that anyone could be so dense.

Here are some instances of this kind of foolish behavior I’ve noticed around here.

1) Here’s a fellow who doesn’t like the pastor, so he decides to hurt the church. Now, think of that–he criticizes and runs down the preacher and withholds his tithe, and all he accomplishes is that he hurts the church.

Friend, the Bible calls the Church the Bride of Christ. I need to tell you the Groom is coming back one of these days and I don’t think He’s going to appreciate people messing with His Bride. I know I wouldn’t.

2) Several unhappy members get together. They feed off each other’s misery. They meet and share their complaints and agree to hold back their tithes. When the church gets in financial trouble, they say, “See? We told you God is not blessing this man’s ministry here. He needs to leave!”

I know a lot of people who are going to be surprised some day when they stand before the Lord and have to account for what they did to the Lord’s Body, the Church. I wonder, what are they thinking? Does it never occur to them that when they hurt His church, He takes it personally?

3) This fellow prays for God to send messages from Heaven to the congregation through the pastor. Then, when the pastor stands at the pulpit and delivers the very messages God has given him, the man rejects them and complains that he isn’t being fed, that he doesn’t like the pastor’s “style.”

I wonder if it has never occurred to him that the message he heard was the one God sent? And that when he rejects what God sends, he is rejecting the Lord?

4) My favorite complainer in the church is the guy who never comes to church visitation and never invites anyone to come with him to the services, then complains because the preacher’s sermons are not evangelistic.

Go figure.

I need to tell you something I told our ministerial and office staff this week. (1) Nothing about any of this is new. Some people have been angry and gathering in little groups to murmur the entire seven years I’ve been here. They’re just a little more public about it now. So, I don’t want you to let this upset you or worry you.

(2) I need you to know that I love this church. This is a wonderful church in a hundred ways. (3) And I’m dead certain of this, that this church loves its pastor. I do not have the slightest doubt about that. (4) And furthermore, I have no intention of leaving. I’m here for the duration. God sent me here and I’ll go only when He says.

I believe with all my heart God wants our church to learn to be more like Jesus. This means to become less a business and more a family, less a police force for the lawbreakers and more a hospital for the hurting, less a social club and more a spiritual ministry, and less worldly and more heavenly.

When I was 19 years old and a sophomore in college, I joined the most wonderful church I’d ever seen. There was joy and laughter, prayer and encouragement. People loved each other. I walked in and immediately felt that love. During those college years, I flourished in this environment that was so healthy and safe for young believers.

Then, I finished college and married Margaret, and we went off to pastor. Less than a year later, I heard that our terrific church was embroiled in a fight. They were having money problems and cutting ministries, which the pastor was opposing.

I asked a friend to fill in for me on the night that church was dealing with the matter in a church business meeting. I sat toward the back of the sanctuary and watched these wonderful loving people who had ministered to me so effectively turn harsh and ugly and vindictive toward one another. They said things in spite and left in bitterness. Soon the pastor resigned and the congregation called another. But nothing was ever the same. That old anger and guilt simmered just beneath the surface, and in a matter of months the new pastor was being criticized from all sides. When he left, it was to get out of the ministry. The church died. Poisoned by anger.

My friends, there are no perfect churches and no ideal pastors. When a man has been at a church for seven years, you can always find someone he failed and numerous areas in which he did poorly. I certainly confess to being weak in a hundred ways. The pastor is human, and no one knows that better than this one. But you don’t kill the church over that.

Protect the Lord’s church. It is the Body of Christ, the Bride of Jesus, the Family of God.

If you have anger for what another did or guilt for what you did, then deal with it in the way God has provided. Go to the person you hurt or the one who hurt you, and apologize or forgive or both. Then hug them, put it behind you, and go forward.

If you refuse to deal with the poisons in your heart, then I need you to know that our patience has run out. We have endured these outbursts and childish behaviors for all these years, and that is much too long.

I’m serving you notice that from now on, the pastor and leadership of this church will love you and listen to you, and then we’re going to ignore you. We’re going forward.

(A postscript to this sermon, written seven years later, toward the end of my 14 year ministry at this church.)

Looking back, seven years later, I see this sermon as the watershed moment in my own ministry here. A few people got mad over it–which was entirely consistent with the way they had reacted to everything else I had done, so it was not unexpected. But the church as a whole rose up and declared that this message was long overdue. One year later, in October of 1998, we paid the last note on our massive sanctuary debt and held a big celebration.

One by one, angry church members got their hearts right with the Lord. A few, however, who were unwilling to humble themselves, left the church.

Soon we began noticing that the Lord was re-making our church into a fellowship of encouragement. Worship services became joyful and business meetings became fun. The deacons decided God had put them in the church to serve and pray, not to “run the church.” Deacon meetings soon became Spirit-filled and uplifting. People began getting a real kick out of ministering to the needy, feeding the hungry, and taking the gospel to the trailer parks. They began coming to the altar to pray during the worship services, and over 150 signed up for an ongoing prayer chain, while another 50 or so spend time each week in our prayer room across the driveway from the sanctuary. We were becoming a house of prayer, as Jesus commanded.

People began trusting their leadership. These days, it’s been so long since we have had an argument in a business meeting, I cannot recall it. In fact, in the last five or more years, I have seen no obstacle to the Lord’s work in this church other than my own lack of faith. You and I belong to a church filled with loyal, supportive members.

David Cole of Slidell served on the committee that brought me to this church in 1990. We saw him recently at a recital and he had a comment on my longevity here. “Our church was in such dire straits back then, you could not have taken a bet that the pastor we would find would have stayed 14 years.”

It’s no credit to me. It’s all because so many of you who loved us and prayed for us and persevered with us in your service to the Lord. Many of you joined this church during those troubled years, not because this was the ideal church you were looking for, but because the Lord led you here and you were obedient. Your coming has made us better and stronger. Thank you. Thank you for your faithfulness.

Finally, we need to recognize one thing. This church has never been static. No church is. A church is continually in a state of change. As a living organism, the Lord’s church must keep growing and adapting to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Never fear where the Lord is leading; it is His church and He makes no mistakes. Trust Him and go forward boldly into tomorrow.

I will forever thank Him for allowing me to walk with you this short piece.

10 thoughts on “The Hardest Sermon I Ever Preached

  1. Joe,

    I know of several churches with members who need to hear this sermon. A few years ago, I supplied at a church, and sat through a business meeting and watched and listened as church members destroyed their church. With all the in-fighting going on in our churches, it is no wonder we are not having an impact on our lost world. Thanks for the message. Keep up the good work.

    Clyde Wright

  2. By the way, this sermon reminds me of a sermon I preached years ago when pastor of a small church in Mississippi. I preached on “Seven Things Satan Likes about this Church.” I told them plainly what was wrong and what needed to change. They loved the sermon, and responded with respect that I told them like it was.

  3. Joe,

    They never told me you pastored here at my church for 14 years!! What a surprise. LOL. I guess churches are a lot alike, aren’t they. Even the devil doesn’t have the creativity to be original, he just cooks up the same old sludge in every congregation.

    You wrote:

    3) This fellow prays for God to send messages from Heaven to the congregation through the pastor. Then, when the pastor stands at the pulpit and delivers the very messages God has given him, the man rejects them and complains that he isn’t being fed, that he doesn’t like the pastor’s “style.”

    I wonder if it has never occurred to him that the message he heard was the one God sent? And that when he rejects what God sends, he is rejecting the Lord?

    Well, great minds think alike. And so do mine and yours. I almost blogged that same thought for my Thursday blog. Probably will wind up with some form of it in Monday’s entry. I have one deacon of mine in mind who I have heard pray for God to bless me and give me wisdom as I lead our church. But does not want to follow the leadership I present from Jesus.

    So apparently he has no confidence in his own prayers. Amazing.

    Thanks for the reminder that my trials are not unique. And thanks for the shining example of strength and grace under fire. You are a blessing to the Kingdom, brother.

  4. Thanks, Joe, for once again “hitting the nail on the head!” I appreciate what I read from you here…keep it up. It’s amazing how one can be a help to so many when one has first “gone through the fire…” God is good, and able. Blessings to you & yours in BAGNO.

  5. God bless great men of God like you for speaking the truth with boldness. The enemy loves to sit in our pews and cause anger and resentment to boil in our members by whispering nonsense in their ears.

  6. What strikes me the most is that you endured in patient love for 7 years before delivering this sermon. I know there’s no magic number of years for something like that, but from your example and others, I can see that it takes time.

    I recently was having a conversation with a church member who was basically criticizing me for not leading the church into needed changes quickly enough. I was almost exasperated when I listed some of the changes that we had made in the last 10 MONTHS of my pastorate. When she said, “You haven’t been pastor here for more than a year? I guess we have made a lot of changes since then.” I took that as a major victory. She’s been quite supportive since then.

  7. It was after a Sunday morning sermon and I was requested to meet with the deacons. I had been there for 3 years and had a measure of success. I graciously attended the meeting and listened to a list of criticisms about my ministry…I went past 12 o’clock…I mentioned missions too much…I criticize cults from the pulpit…I wasn’t loving nausem, infinitum. My heart was broken and I told them there that they had my resignation. I filled out the 30 days and intended to just take some time off and plan my future. Within 2 weeks, I was called to a church and stayed for 26 years. God works in various ways to accomplish His purpose and oftentimes, we simply do not recognize His leadership. What a JOY.

  8. Dear Pastor Joe,

    I appreciate the courage that the Lord has put inside of you and the great strength that he exhibited through you and through your ministry.

    I pray that you would uphold this your humble servant in your personal prayers that the Lord may prosper me and give me a big congregation to look after.


    Pastor Arvind Mantode

    Free Methodist Church in India

  9. Good stuff, Joe. Relative to the guy who prays for his pastor but won’t listen to him, I have this story:

    My first pastorate was a church plant, and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Of course, there were a few people who regularly affirmed that fact. One was a very old guy who greeted me every Sunday morning with “Pastor, we have a problem.” Then he would tell me something I was doing wrong.

    Well, I was preaching a text once where Paul was asking for prayer, and I said something like, “I’m not the best pastor in the world, and I know that. I appreciate that you love me anyway (most of them did). But I’ll tell you this, the best way to get a better pastor is to pray for the one you have.”

    About two weeks later, that dear old man approached me and said, “Do you remember when you told us that the best way to get a better pastor is to pray for the one we have?”

    “Yes,” I responded.

    “Well,” he said, “I’ve been praying every day, and I haven’t seen any improvement.”

    I just had to laugh.

Comments are closed.