You are the pastor. Next Sunday and for a few days the first of the week, you are turning over your pulpit to a visiting minister. He’s either a full-time vocational evangelist or a pastor of a church somewhere or a retired minister. You do this for a lot of reasons, the main one probably being that the church expects it of you.
These meetings go by names such as revivals, spiritual renewals, awakenings, Bible studies, and such. As the pastor with a number of years and several churches “under your belt,” so to speak, you have heard all kinds of visiting preachers and experienced the good/the bad/and the ugly of these meetings. You know about what to expect, you feel, and by now, you have learned to choose your guest preacher carefully. They’re not all as responsible as they ought to be and some are more concerned with the large numbers of CAO they can report afterwards (“converts, attendance, offerings”).
These days, I’m that guest preacher. I see you sweating, pastor. I remember how you feel.
I pastored six churches over a period of 42 years. I know the pastor’s heart, his hopes, and his fears.
As the pastor, you want to have great expectations for this meeting. However, having been disappointed so many times in the past, you are afraid to elevate the hopes and expectations of your people–and yourself–too high. Those lows at the end of disappointing meetings can be mighty deep. Explaining to the deacons why the church invested several thousand dollars into a meeting which accomplished so little is no fun.
That’s the reason for this letter. I’d like to put some things on the table here. Let’s see if we are talking the same language, pastor.
See if this is not what you would love to have happen in the meeting when the guest preacher comes to your church.
You want God to show up.
Not that He wasn’t there before. He’s there every Sunday when you preach; you know that. And yet, there is a special sense in which the Holy Spirit is more present at some times than at others. We can’t explain that, but we believe it.
Jesus told His people, “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). Doubtless, the Lord is with each individual–we have His word on that–but He is saying there is something unique about the way He is present when several of His people come together.
During the revival in which God called me into the ministry, Pastor Bill Burkett remarked to the congregation that the presence of the Lord was so real night after night–as many as forty people were being saved nightly!–that he felt sometimes he could reach out and touch Him. “It’s almost scary,” he admitted.
That’s what you want: The convicting, transforming presence of the Almighty God. You want to see lives changed, no matter whether it’s the lost saved or weak Christians revived or faithful believers getting recharged. Preferably, all.
You want the services to be Christ-honoring and not people-manipulating.
To your chagrin, many in your congregation cannot tell the difference. A charlatan comes in and works his magic on them. The members seem to never notice that he has just done a number on them. He got them to make impulsive poorly-thought-out commitments and to write large checks to his ministry (usually signing up for longterm involvement with his organization) and he leaves them feeling they have done something for God. Only later, when the fog has cleared, do they realize that they have been taken for a ride.
They’re angry at you, the pastor, for inviting the guy. And well they should be. You are in charge of your pulpit, pastor. If the speaker preaches heresy or if he abuses the responsibility of a shepherd, the burden falls on you. If you are wise, you will end the meeting on the spot. But, that’s a subject for another time.
What you want is an entire service–music, prayers, offering, words, sermon–that exalts the Lord. You perhaps more than any person in the building have a deep need to leave church after such a service feeling that, “It is good to have been in the house of the Lord tonight.”
You want the leadership of your church to get a new vision of God and His purposes.
It’s one thing to have a meeting in which, say, a dozen people come to Christ for salvation, and another thing when no one gets saved but several church members get awakened to God and His call upon their lives. Most pastors would prefer the first kind–everyone wants to see people come to Christ!–but in the long run, the second kind might end up being far more fruitful.
When I am invited to guest-preach in a church–a single time or for a series of meetings–I go with a five-fold prayer on my heart: that Christ will be glorified, that the church will be strengthened, that people will come to the Lord, that the pastors will be encouraged, and that–honest admission coming up–I will not do or say anything that would embarrass my mama or my daddy.
Strengthening the church is a big deal with me. So many are sickly, weak, divided, discouraged, just marking time, stuck in a rut of sameness day in and day out. I pray that God will do a new thing there, that He will infuse some of the people with a new vision of Himself, His love and grace and power, and of His program for them.
If I drive away knowing that a few leaders of that church are praying better, reading their Bible with a new interest, and loving each other with a greater devotion, I feel like God has been there and done something special.
You want to see lives transformed, in every way imaginable.
I sat in a session of our state convention once and heard the preaching of an evangelist who so inspired me, I skipped lunch that day and went out onto the streets around the state capitol to witness for the Lord. As I recall, several people prayed with me to be saved.
I long to be that kind of preacher, the kind who inspires people to action–loving, giving, witnessing, praying, worshiping, serving.
A deacon came to me once and said, “Pastor, I’m so ashamed of the way I have treated the Blacks in this town. God has convicted me of that, and I’ve asked Him to forgive me. I’m going to be a different person from now on.”
While that testimony was good news, as a youthful pastor I did not have a clue what to tell him to do. Looking back, I wish I had said, “Great. Now, may I make a suggestion? Go down to the African-American church and tell the pastor you want to tell his people the same thing. I guarantee he’ll let you do it.”
Changed lives. It’s what we live for in the ministry.
You would like to get a renewed sense of your own calling to that church, while we’re at it.
Pastors get discouraged, too. They get burdened down by the multiplicity of the tasks, many of them trivial and boring and burdensome. One pastor told me he felt he was being eaten alive by a school of minnows. When I laughed at the image, he said, “Stoned to death by popcorn.”
What would give a pastor a renewed sense of his calling? Answer: God.
Perhaps the Lord will use something in my message (I pray that all the time). Or it could be the preacher will see others responding and that will inspire him. I’m not particular how the Holy Spirit chooses to bless the pastor of my host church, only that He does it. And if I’m any judge, the pastor wants that too.
And, you would like for the visiting preacher to leave with a deep appreciation for you, your people, and your sacred assignment.
Confession here: there have been times I have driven home after a meeting with a heavy burden for the preacher and the congregation where he is serving. You can tell when a church is dead and the members are determined that no new life–no fresh breath from the Spirit–is going to be allowed to permeate their space. In such times, I pray for the Lord to move that pastor to a congregation that will respond to his leadership.
Few things thrill me more than exiting a church with excitement in my soul for the preacher and his people. They are focused on their assignment from the Lord, they are loving each other, good things are happening there, and the devil is beating his head against the wall in frustration.
I wish that for your church, preacher. Almost every visiting pastor does too.
It’s a courageous thing you did in inviting someone else to take over your pulpit, even if just for one service. You pray they will hand it back to you in better shape than they received it.
That’s what we pray for, too, pastor.
Thanks for the privilege of being a tiny part of your ministry.