The Finest Intimacy: Pastor and People

Not long ago, on a Sunday when I wasn’t preaching anywhere, I dropped in on a church service not far from my house. A luxury of being retired from pastoring and denominational service is that–with the okay of my pastor–sometimes I visit churches led by friends of mine.

That day, I saw something that struck me as precious and extremely rare.

During the sermon, listening to the preacher and watching the interplay between him and the congregation, it occurred to me how finely tuned the people and minister were to one another. In fact, I had the feeling that I was sitting in on a private conversation between the pastor and his flock.

It was as impressive as anything I’ve seen in a church in years.

I grabbed my pen and jotted down the following notes:


History. (They have a history together.)

Trust. (he has earned the right to talk straight to the people.)

The sermon is one part of a continuing conversation between them.

This is the best. It’s not a TV sermon.

So, today, I went to lunch with that pastor and picked his brain on the subject.

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An Easter Sermon: (Well, Why Not?)

Title: “What Does the Resurrection of Jesus Mean to You Personally?”

Since I’m not pastoring anywhere and the only preaching I do is either filling in for my pastor friends or doing revivals, I’m never called on for “special day” services. That is, a pastor wants to be in his own pulpit at Christmas and Easter seasons. Therefore, my outlet is to post a sermon here and trust that my “congregation,” mostly pastors and church leaders, will find it to be a blessing and perhaps even add it to their own files as a future resource.

I asked a fellow once: “What does the resurrection of Jesus mean to you personally?” He didn’t hesitate. “Knowing I can go to Heaven and the debt has been paid.”

Hard to top that.

My observation is that everyone will answer that question just a little differently. Mainly, that’s because we are different, our histories vary, our consciousness of our failing past and our blessed future will not be identical, and thus what Jesus means to one will be different from what He means to another.

Let’s bring out an array of New Testament characters and run that question by them. This, incidentally, is not all guesswork. We have a fairly solid record in Scripture of a number of people who encountered the risen Jesus and were transformed by the event.

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What False Prophets Do (II Peter 2)

Does this guy ever show up in your church?

He constantly complains about the state of the present-day church, he carps on the worldliness of Christians today, and he is dead-sure that modern preachers just aren’t as dedicated as they used to be. Recognize him?

One of his favorite lines goes like this: “What we need are a few New Testament churches!”

There is an answer to his hunger for a New Testament church. The fact is we have them all over the place.

The New Testament church was beset by inner struggles, doctrinal divisions, leaders on their own personal ego trips, preachers who were in it for the money, and false prophets.

Solomon was right. There is nothing new under the sun.

The troubles afflicting today’s church are not new. They’ve been a constant thorn in the flesh of God’s people from the beginning.

The second chapter of II Peter is not the only New Testament passage dealing with false prophets, but it’s about as explicit as any of them.

But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction.(II Peter 2:1)

In the old days, the Apostle Peter says, they had false prophets. Jeremiah 23 talks about them at length.

And in these recent days, he says, we have them too.

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The Final Exam: Getting Ready

“Pastor, my aunt Bernice would like you to visit her this week. There’s something she wants to talk with you about.”

I knew this young deacon’s Aunt Bernice. She was up in years and sickly, and while not a member of our church, she was related to quite a number. I figured with her years and health, she wanted to talk with the minister about getting read to see the Lord.

She did, but not in the way I had expected.

The next afternoon, as we sat in the living room of her small shotgun house, she said, “Pastor, I know I’m saved. I have no doubt about that. I remember being saved. But there’s something else bothering me.”

“Pastor, I haven’t done right by the church.”

She continued, “As a young adult, I got away from the church and quit going. I raised my son without the church and really came to regret it. And now I’m old and can’t even go. But if you’d let me, I’d like to put my membership in and become a member. I’ll pray for you all and send an offering from my monthly check.”

I assured her we would be honored to receive her, and took care of that the next Sunday.

I never forgot her statement—“I haven’t done right by the church”—and have had occasion over the years since to tell her story, then ask my hearers, “Have you done right by the Lord’s church?”

A man in our congregation was dying. On one occasion as I visited in his home, he asked to speak to me privately. I felt it coming: he wanted to confess something that was bothering him before he went to meet the Savior.

I was right.

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Looking Like a Winner

Saints Coach Sean Payton gets it.

Watching a football game on television the other day, I noticed the camera showing a dispirited player on the bench with his head hung low. He had clearly had a bad game–interceptions, fumbles, something–and his team was losing. The problem is, his facial expression and his bodily posture were signaling to both his team members and opponents that he was finished here. The game was over as far as he was concerned.

I called out to the screen, “Get your head up, boy! The game’s not over! Do you have any idea what you are doing, looking that way?”

In this morning’s Times-Picayune, sportswriter Jeff Duncan tells how Coach Sean Payton stresses the same lesson to his players.

As I watched San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers throw a conniption fit at midfield in Kansas City last week a thought occurred to me. This would never happen with the New Orleans Saints.

I can’t remember the last time a Saints player lost it on the field. Of course, there’s not a lot to get upset about when you start a season 13-0 and win the Super Bowl. Still, the Saints, by and large, are as demonstrative and emotional as snipers when they take the field. Their insides might be bubbling cauldrons of emotion but it rarely shows.

There’s a good reason for this, Duncan says.

Body language is a big part of Payton’s coaching curriculum. Maybe more than anyone in the NFL, Payton believes in the power of nonverbal communication. He talks about it in team meetings, preaches it during practice and demands it during games.

When Dwight Freeney beat left tackle Jermon Bushrod for a sack in the Super Bowl and the Saints’ left tackle trotted off the field with his head down, Payton stormed into his face and barked, “Get your head up!”

When Garrett Hartley missed a late field goal attempt against Tampa Bay last season, Payton upbraided him for sulking on the sidelines.

“He harps us on all the time about it,” Bushrod said. “If something goes wrong, he doesn’t want us to show it.”

Let’s talk about this business of our posture and demeanor when things are going badly. The lesson has unusually strong applications to the believers’ life and ministry.

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Tactic for Pastoral Success: “Make a Mistake”

In his book, “Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them,” John Ortberg makes a confession. You get the impression that it was not easy in coming.

Here it is in his own words:

The church where I work videotapes most of the services, so I have hundreds of messages on tape. Only one of them gets shown repeatedly.

This video is a clip from the beginning of one of our services. A high school worship dance team had just brought the house down to get things started, and I was supposed to transition us into some high-energy worship by reading Psalm 150.

This was a last-second decision, so I had to read it cold, but with great passion: “Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament!” The psalm consists of one command after another to praise, working its way through each instrument of the orchestra.

My voice is building in a steady crescendo; by the end of the psalm I practically shout the final line, only mispronouncing one word slightly:

“Let everything that has breasts, praise the Lord.”

Ortberg tells what happened next.

A moment of silence. The same thought passes through four thousand brains: Did he just say what I think he did? In church? Is this some exciting new translation I can get at the bookstore?

Then, everybody in the place just lost it. They laughed so hard for so long, I couldn’t say a thing. It was zygomatic. I finally just walked off the stage, and we went on with the next part of the service.

I have been teaching at that church for eight years. Of all the passages I have exegeted and all the messages I have preached, that is the one moment that gets replayed before conferences and workshops. Over and over.

That moment forever endeared Pastor John Ortberg to the congregation of Willow Creek Church.

In fact, the power of that moment was so strong, it would have been worthwhile for him to have planned the flub.

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“We’re Going to Heaven!”

The other day Oprah made 300 guests mighty happy when she announced plans to take everyone of them with her to Australia. Seven days and nights. All expenses paid.

The youtube video of that has received a lot of traffic as people relived that moment with the lucky audience.

I have an announcement. An even better one.

(Drum roll please.)

“Ladies and gentlemn, we are going…to…HEAVEN!!!!”

And not just for a week. For eternity.

And not just a few of us. All who are in Christ.

And we’re never coming back.

And it’s free. All expenses paid. “Not by works of righteousness we have done but according to His mercy He has saved us.” (Titus 3:5)

That is the glorious hope of all believers. It is the solid promise of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the consistent testimony of Scripture. It is the eventual destiny of all the saved.

It’s my eventual destination. It’s what the Lord Jesus meant when He told the thief on the cross, “Today, you shall be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

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You Just Wait–You’ll Get Yours!

We don’t like to wait. We want what’s coming to us now.

Financial people are telling us that Americans are buying fewer Certificates of Deposit at banks, preferring rather to have low-interest-bearing checking accounts so their money is always available. We don’t like to wait ten years. (One wonders if U.S. Savings Bonds are selling. I never hear of them any more.)

This weekend in Jackson, Kentucky, a man was upset with his wife because she had cooked his eggs wrong. So, he got his shotgun and shot and killed her, then turned the gun on her daughter (his step-daughter), and killed three more neighbors before ending his own life. Someone said the eggs were cold and that is what set him off.

Aside from the ridiculousness of that happening as a result of cold eggs, I want to raise the obvious question here: Where is the justice in this?

A man takes five lives and pays for it by ending his own life. Is that fair? Not in any book I’ve ever seen. So, where is the justice?

There are only two possible answers that I can see: either there is no justice in the universe or there must be an accounting after death.

It’s the latter choice that Bible-believers hold to, and with great determination and fortitude. Those who know and believe God’s revelation through His Word believe strongly that after this life ends will come a time of standing before the Lord when judgements will be handed out for all eternity–some for eternal reward, some eternal damnation.

Otherwise there is no justice in the universe.

That the ungodly will face a judgment in eternity is the position found in Psalm 73. So it’s not a new revelation, but has been a part of our faith’s framework from the beginning.

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I Mystery-Shopped Your Church

Have you ever been a mystery-shopper?

Some years back, a college classmate contacted me to say he worked for a marketing firm and needed a mystery shopper for Seiko watches in my town. He sent along a script and the addresses of several stores carrying displays of those time-pieces.

I would walk into the store, and tell the clerk, “I’m looking for a man’s watch in the medium-price range.” If he or she took me first to the Seiko display, I announced, “Congratulations! I am the Seiko mystery shopper, and you have just won 10 dollars.” (It’s probably more now, with inflation.) They signed their name on my form, I handed them the money, and went on my way.

That was a fun thing to do.

I’ve known of pastors to invite a friend with a love for the Lord and skills in discernment to mystery-shop their church. They drive up to the church as a typical visitor and take notes on every aspect–the appearance of the campus, the availability of parking, whether it was obvious which door to enter, whether greeters were on hand, how they were greeted, and a hundred other things.

Not long ago when our association did a self study and complete reorganization, one of our pastors made it abundantly clear he wanted us to form such a task force that would be available on request (stress that!) to mystery shop churches.

The task force has not been formed and I’m retired from the leadership of the association, so the decision is in the hands of others, but here’s what I’ve been doing.

I’ve been mystery-shopping every church I have spoken in over the past year and 3 months of retirement.

Here is my report, pastor.

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Thanking Someone

The other evening, my wife came into the den where I sat watching a baseball game on television. “Thank you for doing the dishes and cleaning the microwave,” she said.

I had not told Margaret I did that, and she didn’t see me do it. And yet, she thanked me. Why? Because there’s no one else at our house.

You and I see the brilliant sunrise and drink in the wonders of the night sky and we thank God. Why? We didn’t see Him do anything. We only saw the work.

Answer: There is no one else. He is all the God there is.

When we look at our Lord and say “God,” we have exhausted the category.

The implications of this are enormous.

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