Pastor, when something doesn’t sound right

This has happened to me again and again. I’m sitting in some huge meeting with hundreds of the Lord’s people representing churches across our state or country. A large number of preachers are in the audience. The speaker is sounding forth on some subject of importance to us all.

Suddenly, the speaker comes out with a statement that gets a hearty “amen,” something that sounds profound and undergirds the point he is making. He goes on in the message and everyone in the room but one person stays with him. Me, I’m stuck at that statement. Where did he get that, I wonder. Is it true? How can we know?

If “Facebook,” that wonderful and exasperating social networking machine, has taught us anything, it’s to distrust percentages and question quotations.

A Facebook friend’s profile contained a quote from President Kennedy. I happen to know the quote and while I cannot prove JFK never uttered those words–how could we prove that someone never said a thing?–I know how the line got attached to the Kennedys. It’s a quotation from a George Bernard Shaw play.

Some see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’ I see things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’

In 1968, at the funeral of his brother Robert F. Kennedy, Senator Ted Kennedy spoke those words as applying to him. It’s a terrific depiction of vision. For most of us, I imagine it was our first time to hear the quote. The source was not given in the oration, which may have led some to believe Senator Kennedy made it up.

One thing we know, however, is President John F. Kennedy is not its source. Nor is any Kennedy. And yet, keep your eye out for that quotation. Half the time, its source will be listed as one of the Kennedys.

Accuracy is important for all of us, but particularly those of us called to preach the Truth to get people to Heaven.

Unfortunately, because we speak so often, our sermon machines devour a lot of fodder. It figures that sometimes we are going to get our stories wrong.

That’s why a statement from a preacher hit me so hard and drove me to do a little research.

“Billy Graham has said that 70 percent of the members of our churches are unsaved.”

A preacher friend on Facebook said that. I contacted him to ask for his source.

“It’s on his website,” the pastor said. “It’s common knowledge.”

A few minutes later, I replied, “Friend, I’ve gone to his website and there’s a ton of great stuff there. But if you can locate that quote, you’re a far better man than I am.”

He promised to look into it. That was the last I heard from him.

In the meantime, I began searching the internet for what Billy Graham “was said to have said” on the subject of how many church members are lost.

A preacher in Los Angeles said, “Billy Graham says 85 percent of the members of our churches are lost.” And a consultant with our Southern Baptist North American Mission Board said the number was 50 percent.

Unable to find more, I put out the call to my Facebook network for “research geniuses” among us to help me find what Billy Graham had actually said on that subject.

An hour later, Damon Olson, a pastor from Sand Mountain, Alabama, came back with this response which he received from the Graham organization:

“We appreciate your inquiry concerning a quote attributed to Mr. Graham. Unfortunately, though we hear this question from time to time, we do not have any further information confirming that Mr. Graham ever claimed that a high percentage of church members (as much as 85%) are not saved.”

According to the BGEA, Billy Graham never even mentioned it.

Snopes alive! What are we preachers thinking! Why would we utter such harsh statements when we do not know what we are talking about!

In my opinion, anyone with a “percentage of church members lost” should be challenged. Only God knows the human heart and only He knows how many are saved or lost.

No wonder some of the more inquiring minds in the congregation turn us off. We are feeding them hearsay and innuendo and gossip while expecting them to treat it as God’s Truth.

As the Lord said to the sham preachers of Jeremiah’s day in a not-too-dissimilar context, “What does straw (man’s ponderings) have in common with grain (God’s Word)?” (Jer. 23:28)

Another case of this…

I was attending a large denominational event in our state where the speaker was quoting Winston Churchill. He should have known that in his vast audience were some who knew as much about Churchill as he did. In his message, he completely misrepresented this man.

On the theme of faithfulness to our duty for which we will all give account to the Lord, the preacher told how during the dark days of World War II, Britain’s coal miners threatened to strike for higher wages. Were that to happen, it could cripple the war effort, weaken the economy, and leave millions of Britons in the cold. Churchill had to put a stop to the strike.

The speaker told how Winston Churchill met with the mine owners and a representative group of miners and delivered an impassioned speech that drove them out of the meeting hall and back into the pits to dig the coal.

One of these days, we will all stand before the Lord Jesus Christ at the final judgment. He will turn to the fighter pilots and ask, ‘What did you do?’ and they will say, ‘We gave our all in the defense of liberty.’ He will say to the soldiers, ‘What did you do?’ and they will answer, ‘We faced the enemy and risked everything for our nation.’

Then the coal miners will come before the King of Kings, and He will ask, ‘What did you do?’ and they will say, ‘We cut the coal.’

Something about that did not sound right. I have many Churchill books in my home and while I had heard that story, I was fairly certain he had never spoken of anyone standing before Jesus Christ at judgment.

The next day, on returning home, I went straight to the large volume of Churchill’s wartime speeches. I found the one in question.

The date was October 31, 1942. Churchill was addressing a conference of coal-mine operators and miners in Westminster’s Central Hall. A brief speech, it can be read in five minutes. As Churchillian rhetoric goes, it wasn’t all that much. No brilliant oratorical flourishes, nothing really memorable until the final paragraph.

We shall not fail, and then some day, when children ask, ‘What did you do to win this inheritance for us and to make our name so respected among men?’ one will say, ‘I was a fighter pilot,’ another will say, ‘I was in the Submarine Service,’ another: ‘I marched with the Eighth Army; a fourth will say, ‘None of us could have lived without the convoys and the Merchant Seaman; and you in your turn will say, with equal pride and with equal right: ‘We cut the coal.’

At least the preacher got the last line right.

I come from a long line of coal miners. My dad and all his brothers were miners, and their father and uncles before them labored in those dark, unsafe pits. I suppose that accounts for why I remembered the story in the first place. This is holy ground, so to speak, for me.

A good thing for ministers to do…

Knowing that someone in his congregation will know more about any subject than he does should drive the preacher to get his facts right and keep his story straight.

But even if they don’t–even if he is preaching to a congregation of fifty souls in the backwoods of Louisiana’s swamps or Alabama’s hills, people who may not have read a newspaper all week or a book all year–even so, he still ought to be sure of his quotes and his stories and his numbers.

The pastor is dealing with two precious commodities when he stands in the pulpit: the precious Word of God and the fine China of people’s lives.

Handle with care, faithful servant of God.

Churchill aside, friend, you and I really will stand before the King of Kings at judgment and give account.

8 thoughts on “Pastor, when something doesn’t sound right

  1. Thanks for that word in a day when preachers make saints out of foul-mouthed, arrogrant, and dishonest politicians who are their heroes; when preachers twist the Word of God by using proof texts out of context to prove their opinions; when preachers shy back from telling the whole truth for fear of retaliation from wicked church leaders with the morals of alleycats.

  2. Great points Joe.
    I often hear a quote, and want to use it. If I can’t confirm attribution, I will say things like:
    “this is not me and I’ve heard it said that ….”
    “I understand that (name) has said … but I can’t confirm if they actually did”
    “This might be urban myth, but even if it is, it speaks to the point I am making …”
    Or something similar.
    If you’d heard this, would it have assuaged you?

  3. So I was listening to this Pastor at a conference talking about firemen and he told this story that a regular citizen was running in the building saving lives while the firemen were doing nothing. Well I am a fireman and I told him that firemen are required by OSHA to put their gear on. They were busy getting ready to go in safely

  4. Would love your opinion and also others on this issue: I’ve used a great illustration about love that I got from a very famous preacher who died a few years back. If I mentioned his name you would know it. At the end of a message I was asked my source because the person was writing a book and wanted to include it.
    I told him I got it from a sermon given by this person and that I would give him a call. I asked and he said he could not remember it was so long ago. Again, this was a GREAT illustration, in fact it was so good, I think it was made up. I’ve since searched in vain for the source and have been unsuccessful. Is it proper to use such illustrations? Joe, I love your writings and would value your opinion.

    • What I suggest, Brother Douglas, is that your friend use the illustration and simply say he got it from you. Period. I heard Adrian Rogers say once “I got this from someone who got it from someone who got it from the Lord.” That’s one step above anonymous, I figure, but it works for me.

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