The reason many of us pastors keep returning to the same few quotes is that they are definitive for us. They so imbed themselves in our consciousness that they manage to define who we are.
Somewhere I read–wish I could remember where–of a friend who accompanied Abraham Lincoln to church. Afterwards, the friend asked how he had liked the sermon. The future president’s answer was something like: “He may be a good man, but he’s not a good preacher. A good preacher would have asked us to do something great, and he didn’t.”
(If I’m able to run down the exact quote, I’ll insert it here.)
Sometimes a preacher needs a comeuppance like that from a layperson–calling us back to reality, insisting we remember our calling, that we not get so caught up in the minutiae of our work that we forget to issue the clarion call to God and righteousness.
It might even be appropriate to call Lincoln not a layperson, since that implies he’s an active member of a church other than the clergy, but an outsider. He never joined a church, claimed to have a deep reverence for God and Scripture, but always seemed to see no personal need for involvement in a local church. So when we analyze a critique of a preacher from him, it’s coming more from the outside than within the body.
But this is not about Lincoln. It’s about his comment, and his excellent statement that a good preacher calls on people to do great things.
I completely agree, and am betting most pastors would also.
Now, my opinion is that the typical pastor does not call on people to do little things in place of “great” ones. That’s not what Lincoln heard, I’m guessing. The pastor did not issue an invitation for people to sign up for janitorial work, volunteer to teach the 3rd grade boys, or bring casseroles on Wednesday nights.
Instead of being that specific, that detailed, and that minor, the preacher did something else.
He issued a broad invitation to do general things without ever making himself clear on what they ought to be doing.
One of the cardinal sins of sermons is to issue fuzzy calls for people to do nebulous things.
Somewhere I heard of a visiting preacher who delivered several sermons in a row on patriotism and the threat of Communism (back when the USSR was in full flower) to America. Toward the end of the week, he lamented to the pastor that he could not understand why the altar call was not getting more response.
The pastor said, “What do you want them to do–join the FBI?”
Growing up, I cannot count all the sermons I heard in which pastors told us that we were to share our faith with others, to win souls, to evangelize the world, to reach the lost. If a single one ever gave us instruction on how to do that, I’d be surprised. In my mind, they didn’t.
Only when I was in seminary preparing for a pastoral ministry did I come across a booklet by the delightful title, “Here’s How to Win Souls.” Texas Pastor Gene Edwards was sharing through photos and text precisely how a believer could knock on someone’s door and lead them through the steps of understanding the gospel of Jesus and through the prayer of commitment. It was like a feast to a starving man. I read it, devoured it even, and went forth to practice it. I found it on target in every way, and am indebted to Pastor Edwards to this day.
Generality is the curse of modern sermons.
I speak as one who has been there, done that.
As a young pastor, I dutifully bought several file cabinets and folders and began amassing clippings for illustrations that would adorn future sermons. In time, the files bulged with items under every conceivable topic. But the thickest folder, the one filled with more illustrations and stories than any ten of the others, was labeled: “Dedication.”
When I couldn’t think of a subject a particular story fit, I’d drop it into that file.
Whether that was the cause or the effect, my early sermons all seemed to issue in one broad invitation for people to “dedicate yourself to Jesus Christ.”
Anything wrong with that? Not as far as it goes. The problem is, it doesn’t go far enough.
Jim, the fellow in the pew sitting beside his wife Darlene and daughter Brandi, takes in my sermon, hears the invitation, and thinks, “Okay, fine. I want to dedicate myself to Jesus. Now, tell me how I do that, why I should, and what it means in the daily operation of my life.”
The pastor knows Jim. He knows Jim manages a retail furniture store, that he loves classical music, and has a deeply inquisitive mind. Jim loves a great challenge and enjoys doing new things.
But Jim and Darlene are sitting close to Bryan and Rebecca, in front of Bo and Oleta, across the aisle from Rudy and Elizabeth, and not far from James and Ann. Every one is different. Every situation is unique. Some have been believers for ages, some are new to the faith. Some are deacons and teachers, others are spiritually in grade school.
No one prescription fits all. And that’s why the preacher tends to shy away from specifics. Bryan is the youth minister, Bo runs a competing furniture store, Rudy operates a plant nursery, and James is a professor at the local university.
Darlene is a college student, Rebecca a stay-at-home mom, Oleta is in New York City one day and San Francisco the next, and Ann is a counselor.
Try to make one sermon fit all of those people, Mr. Lincoln!
That’s the preacher’s challenge. And it can be done.
What a preacher does is to tell a story.
He brings the sermon to its climax in which he calls on God’s people to “present your bodies a living sacrifice.” Yep, he asks them to “dedicate themselves” to the Lord.
But he doesn’t stop there, which is what I did for the longest.
When you are nearing the interstate exit ramp is no place to be stopping. It’s okay to give a turn signal and begin slowing down, but don’t stop here. If you do, the audience is stranded.
Get them off the highway and onto the lane where they live.
Bring it home.
What an effective preacher does here is to tell what happened when one person made such a commitment.
He tells a story. One they can relate to, can understand, appreciate, and learn from.
I had brought a sermon on tithing from Malachi 3:10. In it, I emphasized that this may be the only place in Scripture where God calls on people to “prove me” or “put me to the test.”
I did not just challenge people to tithe their incomes to the Lord through His church. I did, but not in the usual way.
What I did was issue a call for people to try tithing for the three months of the summer, June-July-August. “And see what a difference the Lord makes in your life.”
At the end of the summer, I told them, if you do not believe that tithing your income has made a great difference in your life, that you have not been blessed in a hundred ways as a result, if you will tell me and ask for it, we will refund every dime you contributed.
You may believe I had cleared that with our church’s lay leadership before making such an announcement. They were all willing to give it a try.
I emphasized to the congregation that I’m not predicting or promising material blessings from your tithing this summer. They may or may not come. But there are hundreds of other kinds of blessings promised to those who are faithful stewards and generous givers worth far more than money in your pocket.
We came up with a name for this prove-the-Lord three-month-period: “Summer Blessed.” In the church bulletin or from the pulpit, we would urge our people to “make this a summer blessed by the Lord.”
Jokesters teased that, “Well, summer blessed and some aren’t!”
When that summer ended, one man asked for his contributions back. I told a couple of key leaders and the financial secretary checked the man’s records and wrote him a check.
Many, many others in the church wrote notes glowing with appreciation for what God had done in their lives as a result of their getting priorities straight and investing in spiritual matters.
One couple wrote a letter which I still keep and read from time to time, telling how they had gotten married just a year before, burdened with debts and owning two old cars. By tithing their income and being responsible, now, one year later, they had paid off all the debts, had upgraded their vehicles, and were about to relocate to another city where they had been offered better jobs.
Okay, now. See what we did here?
We were at the exit ramp of this article, ready to shut it down. However, it needed an example to get us home, a story that illustrates one way to do the very thing we’ve been talking about here.
What I did not do was to try to encompass every situation pastors will encounter. Every church is different, every pastor is unique, and the makeup of your congregation is unlike anyone else’s.
So, I picked one example out of my own past and told that.
I had asked something great of the people–that they prove God’s faithfulness to His promises by doing something hard for themselves.
The challenge is to stay general enough and to get specific enough. To find the balance.
Never forget that you are engaging in big things, matters involving Almighty God and the beloved, fallen Creation from His own hand, people for whom Jesus Christ died.
“Now unto Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be the glory in the church and in the Lord Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)
“Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring,
For His grace and power are such
None can ever ask too much.”
“Ask ye what great thing I know
That delights and stirs me so?
What the high reward I win?
Whose the name I glory in?
Jesus Christ, the crucified.”
(Johann C. Schwedler)
Thanks for the words today. When I would share with people what I appreciated about your sermons was – when I left “preaching” I always felt challenged to do something specific for the Lord and felt able to meet the challenge. Many times we leave “preaching” defeated not challenged and equipped. Have a great week.