“Remind them of these things, charging them before the Lord not to strive about words to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers” (II Timothy 2:14).
The desire to be clever has tainted many a good minister, sabotaged many a fine sermon, and probably messed up a few marriages along the way.
Yesterday, for instance.
On the way home from somewhere, I was listening to a radio preacher. He was local, sounded “live,” and was clearly a biblical conservative, meaning I liked most of what he had to say. Then, he spoiled it all and said something that “got my goat.”
He mentioned a well-known Southern Baptist evangelist who once preached in his church. “I asked him, ‘Brother, how long does it take you Baptists to disciple a new believer?'”
“He answered, ‘I don’t know. We’ve never done it.'”
Then he, the radio preacher, said, “Shameful!”
From that launching pad, he proceeded to disparage churches for not discipling people while tellling how it ought to be done.
I found myself wondering two things.
Why would the evangelist say such a patently dumb thing–that Baptists have never discipled anyone!–and then, why would the radio pastor repeat it? Both are foolish statements, and reflect poorly on everyone involved–the speakers, the churches, and mostly the Lord Jesus Christ. (If Jesus commanded something no one of us has ever done, what credit is that to Him?)
I suspect I know why the evangelist said it and the radio preacher quoted it.
The evangelist said it for shock value. He got the reaction he wanted by making an absurd statement.
Had we replied, “Do you mean to tell me no one in any Baptist church has ever become a disciple of Jesus Christ?” I’m confident he would have back-tracked and said that was not what he meant, and turned it into something other than the moronic statement it was.
The pastor repeated it because it fit his thesis, that no one but he and his little group are getting it right. And again, had we held him accountable–“Do you really believe that?”–I’m confident he would have backed up and taken a reasonable position.
When you’re on the radio, no one answers you. No one raises his hand for a question. No one holds you accountable.
They just turn you off and walk in the house.
You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a preacher before he comes out with something this off-base, this Christian-bashing, Christ-dishonoring, and self-exalting.
I suspect that what rushes through his brain is a wave of self-love. He’s so proud of his insights, his grasp on truth, his willingness to publicly rebuke error, that he will now come out with a rash statement that shocks his audience and allows him to pontificate.
I understand the process. Any minister who has logged as many decades as I have knows how it feels to get carried away with one’s own words and come out with something that makes him wonder later, “What could I have been thinking?”
He wasn’t thinking.
Trying to be clever. To impress the audience with our unique grasp of the situation.
Lord, help us.
The church secretary once handed me a letter misaddressed to “Doctor Joe Clever.” The staff never let me forget that.
Lord, help me.
One more story.
On Facebook two or three years back, a pastor quoted Billy Graham as saying 80 percent of our church members are lost.
I challenged him. “I’d love to know your source for that.”
The preacher replied that it was in various Graham publications, but he couldn’t lay his hands on the exact piece at the moment.
And then, someone decided to do the responsible thing. A Facebook friend, another pastor who had followed our online conversation, contacted the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Charlotte. They responded something to the effect that, “We get asked that frequently. But we have found nowhere that Dr. Graham has given any statistics at all regarding how many in the church may be saved or unsaved.”
In short, Billy Graham didn’t say it.
So, why do preachers persist in saying that he did?
The answers are numerous: Laziness (we go through so much material, it takes effort to run down a specific statistic or quote). Sloppiness (no one will pay attention to this, no one will remember it, and if it’s wrong, no one will care). Presumption (Someone says, “Well, whether he said it or not, it’s true, and he should have said it!”). Weakness (to establish a weak point, it helps to cite some authority as having said it.).
I wonder also why some preachers want that number to be so low, for the percentage of the redeemed in a congregation to be pitifully small. Apparently they must, because again and again, we run into sermons in print and online which say the actual saved of modern church members is a tiny percentage.
I once pastored a wonderful, exciting, and very shallow church. The members were either new believers (accounting for the excitement) or sweet-natured but spiritually stunted older Christians. In both cases, they believed something that was in serious error. If some brother or sister in the Lord did not have his/her act together–they were still smoking or using profanity or displaying an attitude–the members concluded they had never been saved in the first place.
The solution was to “get ’em saved, and that’ll solve their sin problem.”
That church had members who had been baptized a half-dozen times as a result of this flawed thinking.
I think of a Southern Baptist evangelist–not the one in the story above–who has criss-crossed this globe preaching a favorite message of his on the Lord’s parable of “the wheat and the tares,” in which he unsettles a lot of church members about their salvation, and always comes away reporting that so many deacons were saved and the preacher’s wife got saved and such.
There is enough carnality in any church in the land to give underpinning to this kind of weak theology and that kind of faulty preaching. But if I read I Corinthians 1-2 correctly, Christians come in two varieties, the carnal and the spiritual. A believer who is carnal–the word means “fleshly” and would imply the individual still looks and acts unsaved–does not mean he has not believed on the Lord Jesus Christ and been saved, but needs to begin growing into Christlikeness and maturity.
Whatever else the Matthew 13 parable of the wheat and the tares says, it establishes that the saved and the lost may look alike, that none of us is gifted with discernment for telling which is which, and that the Lord will separate them at judgment. (And yes, it is critical for each person to settle their salvation, to know without question they are redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ. I’m not questioning that.)
The last time someone asked for my answer to the question, “What percentage of church members are truly saved?” I tried to herd him away from such pointless guessing.
No one knows. Speculating is a waste of time.
Not even Thom Rainer knows. (Smiley-face goes there. No one does a better job of speaking to these issues than Dr. Rainer through his books and articles and sermons. He heads up Southern Baptists’ Lifeway Christian ministries–a multi-pronged enterprise including publishing, stores, etc.–and previously directed a research center at one of our SBC seminaries. But there are matters even research, surveys, and polls cannot settle.)
A little humility in areas where we are outside our competence is always in order, fellow pastor.