I’m a veteran.
A veteran minister. I received the call to preach in April of 1961, which means we have recently passed the half-century mark for that anniversary. I began pastoring in November of 1962, and was ordained on December 2. I served 6 churches as pastor for 39 years and one as a staff minister for 3. Does this qualify me as a veteran?
“Veteran,” at least to me, is a better term than what originally came to mind: “old.”
I’m not nearly through preaching, although, best as I can tell, I’ve pastored my last church. And that’s just fine. I do not miss the day-to-day grind of the pastoral ministry at all. If I never attend another deacons meeting, never preside over a monthly church business meeting, and never sit in on a finance committee meeting, it will suit me just fine. The preaching part, I love.
So, as the Lord wills and host pastors continue to issue invitations, I’ll keep preaching wherever He sends me.
The other thing we retired veterans do–in addition to trying to stay active and useful–is to look back and rethink what we did. We reflect on what we wish we had done. Not, hopefully, in a morbid sense. No one wants to do an autopsy on himself, to second-guess every decision he ever made. To do so would fill today with all of yesterday’s pains.
But there is value to thinking of the ministry behind. And wondering what we could have done better.
For the purposes of this article, let’s not make this a Joe-confessional. Let’s raise the question and confine ourselves to: what sermons most of us veterans wish we had done differently “way back when.”
For what it’s worth, this is the list on my mind today. As always, it’s fine to disagree. But it’s never all right to be unChristlike in the way we disagree.
1. Prophecy sermons.
A high percentage of prophecy sermons have been a waste of time. Not all, thank the Lord. But those devoted to predictions and charts-that-had-everything-figured out (that turned out to be wrong), identifying the antichrist, dissecting every tiny happening in the Middle East as a sign of the end–were worse than worthless. They were an insult to God and a blight on the church.
I’ve preached through Revelation a few times, but was never big into Bible prophecy. I have read enough history to know that most of those who did and received great acclaim for their efforts got a lot of it wrong. Those same preachers usually came down so hard on what they were proclaiming that they brought the ministry into disrepute when it became apparent they were wrong.
I’ve known pastors whose entire ministry was built around their so-called expertise on Bible prophecy. (I cannot think of them without Paul’s comment “knowledge puffeth up” coming to mind.) They were forever holding conferences, preaching through Revelation and Daniel as though they had an inside track on future events, and turning their church family into exponents of certain eschatalogical positions.
And for what, I wonder.
A great deal of what has been taught our people through the years under the heading of “Bible prophecy” has been wrong. Perhaps it was done with the best of intentions, but you have to wonder.
The worst effect of this was to divert God’s people from the tasks which the Lord gave them (us). Nowhere in the Bible are we told to gather God’s people and teach them one’s views on prophecy. We are instructed to go into the world with the gospel, to be witnesses to all nations, to minister to the poor, the needy, the imprisoned, the fallen, to be salt and light and ambassadors for the Lord. And yes, we were indeed instructed to “teach the Word,” and yes, prophecy is a part of that Word. But a small part.
The Book of Revelation has some glorious passages about Heaven and some amazing insights for our daily encouragement. The problem comes when we start proclaiming as fact our opinions on what the signs and seals and such mean. It’s possible to be sure and confident about what is obvious without having to be adamant on what is not.
Did the prophecy preachers waste the time of the members? Did they get them off their main job of spreading the gospel? Did they fail God? Did they neglect the greater portion of the message of Scripture?
Not all, but many did.
2. Soulwinning sermons.
We preachers have exhorted our members to go into the fields of the world with the gospel, we have pleaded with them to go next door with an invitation to church, we have instructed and commanded them to share their faith.
Anything wrong with that?
If that’s all we did, it was wrong. Far better to show them how to win souls, to do it ourselves, to lead them one by one to share their faith. A class on “how to share your faith” is a hundred times more effective than a sermon on the same thing. In a classroom setting, you can teach the finer points and people can interact. You can role play, discuss, practice, and even go into the community and put into action what was taught.
Over the decades, Southern Baptist preachers have attended state evangelism conferences with all the ardor of revival meetings. Well-known ministers have brought hundreds of messages on the need to spread the word, the command to do so, the burden, the rewards, the seriousness, and the joys of telling others.
We’ve done everything possible to get our people to share their faith with the world except one: get out there and do it ourselves.
Most of the sermons on soulwinning and evangelism simply added to the guilt and frustrations of our people. What was needed was not sermons on the subject, but action. Not guilt for not doing it, but gentle instruction on how to do it. Not denunciation, but encouragement.
3. Sermons on the Church.
I wish I’d preached on the church more.
As a young pastor, I heard a friend exhorting his radio audience to come to the Lord. I will never forget, however, the way he did it: Friend, if you are struggling under a load of guilt and anger, if you are in darkness and need light, if your soul is hungry and you are crying out for help, you need a new relationship… with the church.
“The Church?” I thought. “No, with Jesus Christ.”
And so, I fear I must have over-reacted against that type of wrong emphasis. The church (or, The Church) is not our Savior. Jesus Christ is. The church did not die for our sins; Jesus did. The church is not the answer; Christ is.
The church is the family of God gathered for worship or sent out for ministry. One receives a “new relationship” with the church only after being born into the family of God by faith in Jesus.
What I wish now is that I had stressed the importance of the church to the church. That I had told the people of God just how special their relationship within this body actually was.
I wish I had come down harder on how the church is the Body of Christ, how He takes personally whatever we do to it, good or ill, and how it is to the church and no other group that He has committed the word of salvation. I wish I had preached the importance of unity within the fellowship and had trained deacons to protect that unity and why that should be their chief occupation. I wish I had taught my congregations that submission is one of the wisest things any of us will ever do within the church, that it has power to conquer in the name of Christ, and that by loving the unlovely (the mean-spirited, the harsh, etc), we place ourselves in a great spot to be used by the Lord.
I wish I’d preached more on the Church.
4. Sermons on the Life and Ministry of Jesus.
Only in the last few years of my ministry have I begun to see even slightly the wealth of material given us in the various acts and teachings of Jesus’ work. Now, this is not to say I neglected preaching through the gospels. What I neglected, what I often missed, was the depth of the wisdom and insights to be mined from the simplest, the best-known, of Jesus’ acts and teachings.
Take the overstuffed first chapters of Mark and John’s gospels. Mark chapter 1 is bursting at the seams with a dozen or more stories and episodes from Jesus’ early ministry. One could camp out in that chapter alone for weeks and never plumb its depths. Likewise, in the teachings and events of John 1, a dozen or more names and titles of Jesus are given. That alone is food for many hours of reflection and inspiration.
There is so much in the gospels which I missed because I was hurrying through, trying to finish, I suppose, in order to get to the good stuff. But this was the good stuff.
I severely regret that I did not know this early in my ministry.
5. Sermons on the great texts of the Bible.
As a young minister, I would search the Bible for texts that might yield a sermon for the following Sunday. I remember as though it were last week my reaction every time I would come across a well-known text such as Ephesians 2:8-9 (“For by grace are you saved through faith…”), John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world….”), or II Timothy 3:16-17 (“All scripture is given by inspiration of God…”).
I would say to myself, “Everyone knows those verses. They’ve been preached into the ground. There’s nothing more to say about them.” And I would continue my search.
I was looking for something that glistened and tossing aside golden nuggets.
Throughout my long ministry, at various times the Lord taught me lasting lessons, profound ones even, on the best-known and best-loved texts such as “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” and “When you pray, say, ‘Father.'”
How does that old line go: “Too late smart, too soon dead.”
6. Sermons That Tickle.
While overlooking the great texts in my hunt for sermon material, I was attracted to exotic, catchy verses, the kind that made me conclude, “Bet no one has ever preached on this one before.” All too late I realize if they hadn’t, it was for good reason: there was little there.
One of my first sermons came from Isaiah 1:8, “And the daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city.” As an Alabama farm boy, the image of “a lodge in a garden of cucumbers” made me think of a house I’d once seen in a kudzu patch. The quick-growing vines had completely covered the house to the point that nothing was visible except the massive shape under the greenery. The connection between that image in my mind and that verse was too close not to seize. That was one of my sermons. Don’t ask for specifics; some things are better off forgotten.
I’ve written in other places on my need in those early years for a mentor. Nothing would have corrected my attraction to the esoteric better than a solid teacher across the table reminding me to “stay with what feeds people, Joe; skip the fluff.”
This is probably one reason I react swiftly when young pastors ask for my input on issues they are dealing with, sermons they’re working on, doctrines that puzzle them. I remember.
There is a reason the great texts in Scripture are well-known: they do the job so well. They are known and remembered, treasured and understood. They feed the flock, they address the questions, they speak to searchers, they rebuke the opponents.
“The just shall live by faith.” That little line changed the world. Martin Luther seized on Habakkuk’s use of it and Paul’s repetition of it, and realized the Spirit was speaking to him through it. It changed Luther’s life and provided the spark for the Reformation.
Why in the world did I not preach that golden truth many times over the years? Well, be that as it may. I didn’t, but I will now. After all, this old vet is still on the front lines, still preaching the word, and still searching for God’s message for today’s people.
(a work in progress. I’ll be back)