Sermon illustrations. Fresh off the press! Get ’em while they’re hot!

First story: “We humans are a mess, aren’t we?”

A woman was sharing with her weight-loss group: “I had cooked a cake, my family’s favorite. Later, I saw they’d eaten only half of it. So I sat down and ate a slice. And another. Soon the entire cake was gone. Now I began worrying about what my husband would think. He liked the cake but he’d really be upset if he knew I’d eaten the entire half.”

So, we’re going to pause here and ask our audience a question. Whether you get this or not will reveal your grasp of human nature.

What did the woman do? And what do you think her husband did when he got home and found the cake gone?

She said, “He never found out. I made another cake and ate half of it.”

Human nature is a corrupt, self-destructive thing, isn’t it? We are often our own worst enemies. The consistent message of Scripture is not only that “God loves you,” but that “He loves you more than you love yourself, did far more for you than you’ve ever done for yourself, and is far more ambitious for you (in the right sense) than you ever were for yourself.” Romans 8:31-32 is a favorite statement of His being for us.

Second story: “We’re sent to be fruit-bearers, but of a particular kind.”

A fellow I was reading enjoys telling something that he and his brothers did as children (my notes did not record his name; sorry).

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Be patient with them, pastor. They don’t understand.

“But we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves….” (II Corinthians 1:8-9)

Something inside the hurting pastor thinks, “If I could just make them see what I have to deal with, the people would understand and might be a little more sympathetic, instead of making their endless demands on me.”

Good luck with that, pastor.

Paul tried it. Several times in his epistle we call “Second Corinthians” he attempted to get across to that ever-needy congregation what he was going through, the price he was paying to extend the gospel of Jesus, and the ongoing burden of shepherding the people of the Lord.

They. Did. Not. Care.

They wanted their needs met and wanted it done now. Whatever Paul was going through was his own personal business; they had their own problems, they reasoned.

So, shepherd of the Lord’s people–I’m referring to you!–the next time you are considering taking a few minutes of the Sunday service to let the congregation in on your personal travails in the hope that they will call off the hounds and become more supportive, take a lesson from Paul.

First, he gave it a good try. “If they only know,” he must have reasoned, “they’ll stop this foolishness.” Yeah, right.

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This lady came up to me in the supermarket….

Today I’m inviting you to read over my shoulder as we open Book 48 of the 56 Journals I kept from 1990 into the year 2000. Today’s excerpt comes from Tuesday, May 9, 2000….(Oh, so you’ll know, the comments in italics are today’s observations on the journal entries.)

This lady came up to me in the store this week and said, “We’ve met before. Ten years ago when you preached your first sermon at First Baptist Church (of Kenner, LA) we were there. And we heard you twice more after that. But, we haven’t been back since then.”

What I said to the lady is not what I was thinking. What I thought was, “Well, it’s obvious you didn’t care for my preaching.” But, I said some pleasantry and let it pass.

Five minutes later, she sought me out and said, “I just realized how that sounded. I know you think we must not have liked your preaching, but that’s not it at all. We liked you just fine. We just backslid.”


A vivid and quaint verb meaning to fall out of  fellowship with the Lord, almost always accompanied by a slacking off or cessation of church attendance, Bible reading, meaningful prayer, and tithing.

(Backsliding is generally preceded by a growing love for the pleasures of the world–lots of weekend trips, Sunday football games, membership in a Mardi Gras krewe, etc–activities which are incompatible with solid biblical discipleship. The decision to “backslide” is almost never a well-thought-out choice. It just “happens.” We drift into it. One day, we look up and realize it’s been weeks, even months, since we have been to church or opened our Bibles. We are now bonafide residents in the Land of the Backslidden.)

Last night while washing my car I reflected on what she had said and what it meant.

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The inside dope on some search committees and some preachers

“So, pastor, why are you looking to change churches right now?”

“I’m not. I’m simply making myself available to the Lord for whatever His will may be in my life.”

Short answer. To the point. The simple truth.

Even if it’s not the whole story.

The whole story may be that you, the pastor of First Church of Embattlement, are having the dickens of a time where you are, that this divided congregation is about to be the death of you, that they have run off the past five pastors in a row and a little group is hard at work to make you number six. But since you are willing to stay where you are now if the Lord leaves you here, you give this answer and hope it satisfies them.

If it doesn’t, you gather up your gear and return home while telling yourself the Lord “wasn’t in this move.”

They don’t teach this stuff in seminary.

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What “church fellowship” cannot do

“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42)

I thought I knew something vital about church fellowship.

I’ve just realized something huge I was overlooking.

For years, I have preached that “fellowship”–the “body life” of your congregation, the way your people love and interact with one another, work and play together–is what attracts people to your church, it’s what newcomers are looking for when they visit, and what they are hungering/thirsting for.

It is all that. As far as it goes.

The sermon outline–pastors might be interested to know–went like this:

After looking at the text above from Acts 2, I introduce the sermon with a story from Dr. Bob Anderson that ends with this line: “I’ve come for fellowship!” When the laughter subsides–it’s a great story–I tell the church, “You could print that line out—I’ve come for fellowship–and pin it on 95% of the first-timers who enter your church. They are looking for a church with great fellowship. By that, we mean where everyone loves the Lord, enjoys being with one another, and welcomes the newcomer into the family.

Then, on the basis of that truth (that visitors are looking for fellowship), the four points of the sermon are:

1) They don’t necessarily know it. In fact, when you ask what they are looking for in a church, the visitor will name a hundred things before this. But when they join a church, it will be the one with the best fellowship.

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If you’re using Facebook to promote your church

Most of the world seems to be on Facebook. I’ll be somewhere really remote, drawing people following a church service, and as I hand the finished product to the (ahem) victim, will say, “Now, this is your new Facebook picture.”

No one has ever said, “I’m not on Facebook” or especially “What’s that?” Usually they say, “Good idea” or “You’ve got it!”

Now, I recognize that being a Southern Baptist preacher, most of my FB friends are like-minded with me about the Lord and church and the Bible–you know, spiritual things. It’s the nature of these things. So, on a Saturday night or Sunday morning, the “posts” from many of my buddies all seem to say similar things….

–“Join us for church at Shiloh this morning at 9:30 am. You’ll receive a blessing.”

–“Today I’m preaching on Hezekiah’s tunnel.  We’ll see if we can find the light at the end of that thing.”

–“My little granddaughter is singing today at Cornerstone. You won’t get good stuff like this on American Idol.”

–“Have you ever wondered what happened to the Jebusites? Be at Riverside Church this morning and find out.”

These are great folks, they want to reach people, and I wish them well.  However, they desperately need to sharpen their posts if they would increase the effectiveness of these invitations to church.

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Blindsided by opposition. Welcome to the ministry, pastor.

(In our experience, most of the Lord’s people are wonderful and most of His churches are filled with sincere and godly workers. But once in a while, pastors come upon sick churches led by difficult people who seem to delight in controlling their ministers. When they find themselves unable to do this, they attack. Pity the poor unsuspecting preacher and his family. What follows is written just for them.)

“But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to the courts, and scourge you in their synagogues….” (Matthew 10:17)

You and your wife–please adjust gender references herein as your situation demands–went into the ministry with heads high, hearts aglow, and eyes wide open, idealism firmly tucked under your arm, vision clear and focus solid.

As newly minted ambassadors for Christ, the two of you were ready to do battle with the world, eager to serve the saints, and glad to impart the joyful news of the gospel.

Ministry was going to be great and noble and even blessed.

That’s what you thought.

You expected the work to be hard, the hours long, and the needs great.

What you did not expect was to be blindsided by members of your own church leadership–to be slandered by people you counted on as friends when you took a courageous position, criticized for something you did well, even lied about.

You knew there would be vicious people “in the world,” outsiders who do not believe in God, cannot discern spiritual things, and will not subject themselves to moral absolutes.

You were ready for that.

What caught you completely off guard was to find members of that sweet pastor search committee which brought you to this town with glowing recommendations and high hopes now turning on you, accusing you of misrepresenting yourself to them, blaming you for the ills inside their church family that were present long before you became their shepherd.

Some you loved best are now leaving your church, saying unkind things about you and your family.

You are stunned, puzzled, frightened, and more than a little angry.

Questions bombard you and rob you of sleep.

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Those intangibles pastor search committees are looking for

(What follows has reference primarily within our Southern Baptist Convention and possibly a few other denominations. If this counsel does not work within your ministerial framework, please ignore it. Thank you. –Joe)

Pastor, this one is unusual in two respects. 1) I’m going to suggest that you and your wife read it together and discuss it. 2) It comes from my wife and me. (I wrote it, then read it to Margaret and added her comments, sometimes changing what I’d said for clarification.)

I think it was Freud who said no one has ever successfully answered, “What does a woman want?”

Maybe so. But what concerns many a pastor in our denominational framework is: “What is a search committee looking for?”

The answers will depend on who you talk to. Experience, age, college, seminary, glowing references, and denominational service are some of the mainstays on their lists. The joke is they want a 30-year-old preacher with 25 years of experience, someone with a loving wife and two-and-a-half children who adore him even though he spends 80 hours a week doing pastoral calling and 40 hours in sermon preparation.

That is overstated. Slightly.

They want the usual: a good preacher who knows the Bible, believes in it absolutely, has a warm heart and great pulpit manner, and can administer a staff. They want a man who can project a vision for a church, but not force it on the congregation, leading by consensus. They want a pastor who can select a staff of winners, then see that they do a great job and that they stay with the church for many years. Oh, and they would like the pastor’s wife to be lovely and charming without letting on that she has the slightest idea she’s lovely and charming.

Nail this down and you’re on your way, preacher.

Then, there are a few other things. What we call the intangibles.

My wife and I were talking about this just today, how that young pastors get their training and experience and send out their resumes in hope that the big church will come their way but often without a clue as to what they still do not have just right.

May I start the discussion on those other things which pastor search committees want in their new pastor?That means nothing here is meant to be the final word on the subject. Perhaps it can get you to thinking and even provoke a discussion around the breakfast table or over the table at McDonald’s the next time you and a couple of your preacher buddies meet. Even better, you and your wife invite another preacher-couple in for couple and discuss it. Whether you agree is not the point. Just talking about it will be a start in the right direction.

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It’s all right to let some people leave your church.

“As a result of this, many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” (John 6:66)

“They went out from us because they were not of us.” (I John 2:19)

Sometimes the best thing to happen to your church is for a few people to leave.

Not long ago I ministered in a church where a few longtime leaders had just left. From the little I know, these were the ones who had controlled that church for decades, who dominated pastors and drove them away whenever it suited them, and who resisted anything remotely looking like change. The pastor’s greatest surprise was that they had left. He was one happy camper.

My seminary professor used to say, “People measure the effectiveness of a revival by the additions to the church. Sometimes, a better gauge is the subtractions.”

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10 things I like about you

“My little children, let us not love with word or with tongue (only), but in deed and in truth.” (I John 3:18)

When our younger son was eleven, he was going through a difficult time for some reason. One day he sat in his room, alone, quiet, deep in thought. Suddenly, he got up and came into the kitchen where his mother was preparing dinner.

“Mom,” he said, “I’ll bet you can’t tell me ten things you like about me.”

Margaret thought, “Ten! Most people would have said one!” As she began reciting the qualities she treasured most about this beloved child–a sharp mind, his sweet personality, etc.–she kept sending up a panicky prayer, “O Lord, please help me to think of ten!”

She did, he gave her a big hug, and then went on with his day.

We all need a little reinforcing now and then. Most do not verbalize the need though, but squelch the sensation and suffer through the moment. I wonder if we don’t all lose something as a result: the child in us missing out on the loving affirmation and those around us bypassing the opportunity to make a lasting difference.

Remedy: Make a constant practice of telling those big in your life how special they are.

Christian author Tony Campolo says husbands can put new life into their marriages by following two simple rules:

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