What the church forgot to remember

This notice appeared on the front page of the July 4, 2004, issue of the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader—

It has come to the editor’s attention that the Herald-Leader neglected to cover the civil rights movement. We regret the omission.

When that newspaper’s staff decided to prepare a special edition commemorating the 40th anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights Act, they began combing through their archives looking for local material. That’s when they discovered a complete lack of such information. The newspaper had simply not covered the civil rights movement, period.

A local African-American leader said, “The white community just prayed that rumors and reports (of the civil rights movement) would be swept under the rug and just go away.”

As odd as it is that a newspaper would fail to cover a world-changing movement going on throughout the world and happening in its own hometown, it will not come as a surprise to many of our readers that churches lived through the same revolution in this country without the first mention of it being made from the pulpit.

And we wonder why outsiders found our sermons irrelevant.

Churches are prone to forget the things they do not want to acknowledge.

In 1995 when Oklahoma City’s Murrah Federal Building was bombed, killing a great many people, this nation went into shock. Life in America changed that day. But not in one of our churches.

The next weekend I had to be out of town and had asked one of our staff members to bring the Sunday sermon. On my return, we had a letter from a lady who had been visiting in our church. She said, “Pastor, I cannot tell you how disappointed I was that not a single word was mentioned in your service last Sunday about the Murrah Federal Building’s being bombed. This was inexcusable.”

I had a quick meeting with our staff to share that letter and let them know how completely I agreed with the writer. Each of those ministers is now serving other churches in other states, but I hope they never forget that experience and the comeuppance.

Churches overlook movements and trends they do not understand and cannot appreciate.

Entire segments of the evangelical church in earlier years completely “forgot” that there is more to the Christian life than the salvation experience. In their zeal to get the lost into the Kingdom, they put all their emphasis and resources into conversion evangelism and none into discipleship of the saved (teaching the Word, instructing believers in the disciplines of the faith, doctrines, service, etc) and in the lifetime of good works to which Ephesians 2:10 informs us we were saved.

I know churches that have gone in the opposite direction, treating everyone as though they were the redeemed and gearing all their teaching and preaching toward obedience and discipleship but with no mention ever being made as to how people enter the kingdom in the first place.

In 1968, the Sunday after Martin Luther King was assassinated, I changed my sermon and preached to the congregation at Greenville, Mississippi’s Emmanuel Baptist Church about what our country was going through and God’s plan for His people. In the middle of that sermon, a member got up and walked out. She phoned me that afternoon to make sure I knew she had.

“What are you going to be preaching on in tonight’s service?” she asked.

I told her, then said, “May I ask why you ask?”

That’s when she informed me she had walked out that morning. I told her–and this is the truth–I had not noticed that she left.  (My wife used to say they could dynamite the back of the church and I would not notice, so intent was I on getting the message across.)

Then she told me why I was off base:  “We come to church for some peace and quiet. We get enough of the world situation on the news, and don’t need to hear about it from the pulpit.”

I could hardly believe what I was hearing. I said, “You… come… to… church… for… peace… and… quiet?”


My guess is there were any number of churches where she could have attended every Sunday for years without learning there was a civil rights movement going on all around her.  I was determined that ours would not be one of them.

I know a Baptist church that will not sing any hymn in their services which makes mention of the blood of Jesus. They find them offensive. You have to wonder what they do with the Bible passages on the Savior’s saving blood. Do they leave those out also?

There are churches which seem to have forgotten that our salvation has to do with the Lord Jesus Christ. Read their prayers, listen to their hymns and sermons, and it’s all about “God,” with never a mention of Jesus. I find this completely mind-boggling.

Those lapses–leaving out the blood, Jesus, objectionable doctrines–are not matters some churches have accidentally forgotten, of course, but purposefully erased from their minds. They will answer to the Lord for this.

The solution is twofold–

First, preach the whole Word of God.

In his final epistle, the Apostle Paul cautioned Timothy and the rest of us about the last days. “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (II Timothy 4:1-2)

Pastors who preach through the New Testament regularly do not have to fear omitting some unpopular doctrine, for it will all be there in one way or the other, sooner or later.

Second, stay alert to the world around you.

The image that comes to mind has the pastor standing behind the pulpit holding the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other. On the one hand, he carries the timeless Word of the Living God. On the other, he makes it timely.  The timeless word is always timely.

Pastors know this, but sometimes need reminding.

The Sunday after September 11, 2001, I suspect there was not one pastor in this country who failed to talk about what America was facing. It was on everyone’s minds and could not be ignored.

In New Orleans where we were living at the time, after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region in August/September of 2005, every preacher’s sermons for weeks and weeks related the eternal message of God with what people were facing. That’s how it should be.  (Okay, I’m making an assumption here.  While I lived there and worked as the leader of the SBC churches, I obviously did not hear all the sermons.)

I have a feeling that the doctrine of hell takes the gold medal for the most overlooked of all the Scripture’s teaching in our day. We don’t like it, we cannot explain it away, we’re embarrassed when outsiders throw it up to us, and yet there it is, throughout the New Testament. So, some of us simply choose to preach around it.

A pastor was having a tough time on a Saturday afternoon trying to finish his sermon. He said to his wife, “I just need that final illustration to tie it all together and really bring it home.”

She suggested they go for a drive in the country to rest his mind. Maybe something would occur. He took her up on the offer.

Several miles out in the countryside they came upon a burning farmhouse. Neighbors were arriving in cars and trucks and jumping out and rushing into action, bringing water from a well and throwing it on the flames. Off to one side stood the grieving family who were losing their house. People were hugging them, everyone in tears.

The pastor told his wife, “That’s it. That’s the perfect illustration for tomorrow’s sermon.” He would emphasize the urgency of the world situation and the life-giving message believers have to share.

The next morning, when he came to that part of the message, he told his story. He told how while he and his wife were driving into the country they came upon all the excitement–people crying, the cars and trucks arriving, the people running to help one another, building a bucket brigade, the neighbors all working as a team, and the sad family receiving the love and hugs from their friends. He did it with pathos and emotion.  Finally, he said, “This all reminds us how we are in this together and need to work with one another.”

Later, on the drive home, the pastor said to his wife, “You know, honey, somehow that illustration did not seem to work. The people just sat there staring. They didn’t get it.”

His wife said, “Well, dear, you forgot to tell them the house was on fire.”

Much of our preaching today has lost its sense of urgency because we have left out what our Lord had to say about many things, including the necessity of salvation, the provision of the cross, and the reality of hell.

We are trying to motivate people to do all the right things but without telling them that the house is on fire.

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