The Preacher’s Second Greatest Temptation

My pastor friend and I were talking about his new assignment. I said, “I cannot tell you how to succeed. But I can tell you how to fail–try to please everybody.”

He laughed, “That’s a problem. I’ve always wanted to please everyone around me.”

That trait, I say to myself and to my colleagues in the ministry, can be fatal.

I’m tempted to say here that the desire to please everybody is a characteristic of all ministers, but that is not the case. In fact, some preachers I know are quite the opposite and feel affirmed only when someone is mad at us.

In between is the road. Stay out of the ditches.

The time was the 8th century B.C. and the preacher was Isaiah, a man who apparently could function well even with his approval rating from the congregations he served dipping below zero. He and Jeremiah had that in common. It’s a rarity, believe me.

I sure don’t have it.

Isaiah sees that God is about to pour forth judgment on the Northern Kingdom of Israel. In the South, Judah would get her comeuppance from Babylon a short time later. But for now, Israel’s time had come and the pagan juggernaut of Assyria would be the instrument in God’s hand. The prophet’s assignment was to try to get through to the people, to call them to repentance, to warn them of what lay ahead, and to steer them away from the liars and con-men surrounding the king who were passing themselves off as preachers of truth.

But lest anyone get the wrong impression, the people in the pews were as self-centered and pleasure-mad as the self-appointed prophets in the pulpits. Here is what Isaiah said….

“This is a rebellious people…who refuse to listen to the instruction of the Lord; who say to the seers, ‘You must not see visions,’ and to the prophets, ‘You must not prophesy to us what is right; Speak to us pleasant words, prophesy illusions….Let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.” (Isa. 30:9-11)

So, the judgement lying just ahead the people are bringing on themselves. They asked for it and they’re about to get it, Isaiah says.

I’m struck by his phrase, “Speak to us pleasant words.”

Surely that short sentence was embroidered on something and framed and hung on the wall in the studies of the sham prophets.

The temptation to speak nice things, to entertain and amuse from the pulpit, to give the congregation a little thrill, show them my cleverness–that seduction has been with us from the beginning.

Paul warned the church in Rome of preachers who “by their smooth and flattering speech…deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (Romans 16:18).

Later, Paul warned his young protege Timothy of the root problem: the people in the pews like it this way. “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires” (II Timothy 4:3).

The people in the pews want it sweet and the preachers want them to be happy.

In the 6th century B.C., when Jeremiah was taking the Isaiah role with the Southern Kingdom of Judah, he spotted a similar characteristic of God’s people who were rushing headlong into oblivion just as Israel had done 150 years earlier:

“The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule on their own authority, and my people love it so!” (Jeremiah 5:31)

The people like that stuff.

So, if your style is to preach flattering, easy, sweet, positive messages that do not tromp on toes or confront people with their ungodliness or call backsliders to repentance, you can always find a job.

Plenty of pastor search committees are looking for you.

If you can dress up those “pleasant words” with quotes from the famous and devout, if you can sprinkle in the occasional scriptural allusion (without doing any in-depth study; they will not stand for that!), and if you can make the message sound weightier than it is, you will never be without a job.

Here are five methods I recommend for those who want to preach “pleasant words” to their congregations and no longer wish to try to please the Heavenly Father with their sermons and ministry:

–refer to the problem of sin in your sermons, but never get specific. So long as you keep saying you are against sin, you will massage that nostalgia and satisfy that longing in the hearts of the weakly devout for red meat and solid truth from God’s word.

–give pulpit recognition to heavy contributors and celebrity visitors, making them feel special just for having shown up today, as though the Heavenly Father is honored by their condescension.

–read scriptures in the services, but either do so without analyzing and exegeting the text or pile on lots of unconnected verses and leave the congregation to figure out their application if any.

–you will want to sound intellectual as much as possible. In time, your people will develop a sense of superiority over those Bible-thumpers in the pulpit and camp-meetings at the altar. Walking the aisle and praying on their knees? Not for them, thanks. They are beyond such emotional displays.

–cut out the altar calls (“invitation times”) altogether. These times of decision can be excruciating to people who are hardening their hearts against God, and a people-pleasing preacher will find ways to soften their impact or eliminate them absolutely.

The old-time pastors said it for a joke. You would meet a minister who had stayed at a church for several decades and ask for the secrets of longevity in his pastorate. “Always let them get to the cafeteria before the Methodists.” I have heard that line on several occasions.

It was a weak joke, but it held a clue.

Some pastors did just that–bent over backward to do whatever it took to please the congregation–while, let us emphasize, others were more highly fixed on pleasing the Heavenly Father. (So, I am not saying long-time pastors were all people-pleasers. Some were; some were not.)

What we are saying is that the temptation is a great one and has been with us from the beginning. It’s still around, lurking outside every pastor’s study, and sooner or later every man of God must come to terms with it and decide who his master is going to be.

Jesus said, “I always do the things that please the Father.” (John 8:29)

Paul said, “So we speak, not as pleasing men but God, who examines our hearts.” (I Thessalonians 2:4)

Final thought: if the congregation adores you, pastor, and if everyone there thinks you hung the moon, that does not mean you are doing something wrong. If the people are godly and have a hunger for the Lord and a love for His word, and if you are preaching the solid message of God’s truth, they should appreciate you and support you.

Just watch that their approval does not become more important to you than God’s.

4 thoughts on “The Preacher’s Second Greatest Temptation

  1. Amajor advantage of preaching through a Bible book is that it helps insure that you deal with warming and troubling messages. Isaiah said “Comfort ye my people,” but he also said “you don’t know Me.” Of course, you gotta be honest and not skip the hard parts or the ones you don’t like.

  2. Joe: Good writing! Recently I was in a meeting at Campbellsville University. Talking with a friend of mine about his work I heard the following. My friend in an area Director of Missons in his state. He has around 76 churches to oversee. They are not SBC churches but Baptist in name.

    Recently he went to one of the churches and most of them are small or have dwindling congregations. He went to the church, the music was fine and then the Pastor spoke. He preached for an hour on “Salvation”. He closed the sermon and did not offer an invitation. He,the Pastor, stated that if anyone wanted to talk further on salvation he would see them as they left.

    My friend replied when I asked how the churches were doing, his reply ” They are dying”. Any wonder. They are not interested in missions or reaching out even in their communities. The director said he heard several “sighs” before the sermon was finished.

  3. Great and timely word, Joe.

    As for the invitation, I use it, but it’s really a modern invention–from the 1800’s mainly made popular by Charles Finney. One of the fastest growing denominations in the last 30 years or so is the PCA, and they as a rule don’t use altar calls. Some churches with invitations are dying, and some churches without invitations are thriving. I think you’re spot on, Joe, in that it goes back to the preacher. Are we faithfully preaching the Gospel? I mean really preaching the Gospel. I’m not talking about telling people all they have to do is say a prayer or “invite Jesus into their hearts.” I mean the real Gospel about the God who died a cruel death to satisfy His Father’s wrath for our well deserved sin. Are we calling them to repentance and faith? I try, and I probably come up short too often. But when we try to tickle ears, people dont’ come to Christ, and Christians don’t grow in grace. We don’t need to be angry or condemning, but we do need to preach the whole counsel


    Invitation or not, it’s the Gospel that is the power to save. Therefore, when we do offer the invitation, we don’t need to manipulate emotions or sing all 142 stanzas of “Just As I Am.” We also don’t need to try to improve the Gospel by making promises the Gospel never makes. I’m talking about the message that coming to Christ will make your family better, or that every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before. Even Christians hurt and struggle, and we need to be honest about it. Simply, we need to preach the Gospel and watch the Holy Spirit work.

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