Anyone who reads my stuff on this website knows I am a preacher and am pro-preacher. I’ve seen so much mistreatment of God’s servants over nearly a half-century in the ministry that it weighs heavily on my heart. I want to do anything I can to encourage these beloved friends and anything I can to help churches and church leaders know how to relate to them.
Periodically, someone will write, “Yes, but what if the preacher is in the wrong? What if he is—” and you fill in the blank. What if he’s a bully? a dictator? a flirt? a heretic? a liberal? a nut? an abuser? a molester? a criminal? a thief? a liar?
Let me emphasize that I am under no illusions about human nature. We are all sinners and daily in need of God’s mercy, Christ’s forgiveness, and compassionate understanding from one another. I know also that some men in the pulpit have no business there.
There are times when godly lay leaders in a church absolutely must rise up and deal with an out-of-control preacher.
Those times and occasions are rare, thankfully.
More often, the problems are smaller, subtler, safer (if you will), and less of a threat. Even so, every church needs a system for speaking to the pastor who needs a rebuke, even if it’s only a gentle one.
If you thought I was leading up to a story, you’re right. Several, in fact.
On this website, I have told of sitting in a church earlier this year where the interim pastor preached a sermon on friendship. Two-thirds of the way through his message, it dawned on me what was wrong with it. It was true, but not Truth.
The sermon was well-presented and the preacher was capable and almost eloquent. His thoughts were solid and helpful, but it was not Gospel. It was not biblical, there was nothing of God in it. It was “true” but not “Truth.”
The preacher could have delivered that sermon in the local atheists union hall. In the sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist church. In a public school which forbids prayer or any reference to God.
The first time “Jesus” was mentioned came in the prayer before the invitation. In fact, as the preacher extended the public invitation, I found myself wondering what he was asking us to do–sign up as pen pals?
This bothered me to the point that I felt I would be doing him a favor by calling it to his attention. For the final ten minutes of the service, I sat there in a silent battle within myself. “I do not want to confront this man! I don’t even know him and he doesn’t know me. I don’t have a right.” “You may not have a right but you have the responsibility if the Lord tells you to do it.” “Lord, are you telling me to confront the man? If so, you’re going to have to make this doubly plain.”
As the struggle continued, I finally settled on a plan. If the preacher walked to the rear of the auditorium to greet people on the way out, I would linger behind and have a private word with him. However, when the service ended he never strayed more than a dozen feet from the pulpit. (Which was one more failure of his in that service, I decided. The church was remarkably negligent in reaching out to newcomers.)
Frankly, I was more than a little relieved that I’d not have to confront him.
And to this day, I cannot tell you whether the strong urge within me that morning originated from my natural tendency to overanalyze sermons or from the Spirit of God.
Another Sunday, I dropped in on a church service while traveling. Once again this church (not the same church as above; in fact, it was a different state) had an interim pastor in the pulpit.
The preacher–like the one referred to above–was handsome, gifted in speech, and enthusiastic. He had a presence and a great deal of confidence.
Several things I found puzzling, however.
The video clip which they ran–and which brought tears to the eyes of the young mother in the pew in front of me–had nothing to do with the sermon.
The scripture read in the service was completely unrelated to the sermon.
When the preacher announced his text and asked us all to turn there, he did not read it. No one read it. He preached it as though he thought we all should know the story.
Then, in the body of the sermon, the preacher did two things which I find completely puzzling.
One, he said, “This story (that is, the Bible story which formed the basic of his message) is recorded for us in Matthew, Mark, John, and Acts.”
“Acts?” I thought. “I don’t think so.” And checked quickly to see that the story is found in all four gospels, but not at all in Acts.
Later, he repeated that the story is found in those three gospels and Acts.
Two, he kept referring to the high priest at the cross of Jesus, and how he was reacting to what he was seeing. The scripture he cited mentions “chief priests” but not the high priest.
There is not a word in the Bible about the high priest–either Caiaphas, the current high priest, or his father-in-law Annas, the “god-father” of the high priests–standing anywhere near the cross. In fact, it would have been far beneath their dignity to have ventured into the area.
Am I nit-picking?
Let me point out that I did not mention these omissions to the preacher. In fact, he was nowhere to be found when I was leaving the auditorium. Even if he had been, it’s doubtful I would have said anything.
I might have said something like, “Can I ask for your reference on–” such and such? “Because I couldn’t find it.”
Here’s what I hope….
1. I hope that church has a strong chairman of deacons or chair of the interim-pastor-committee (if there is such a thing) and that he/she will bring this to his attention. Only someone who knows what a worship service should be and knows the Scriptures is going to have the courage to bring this subject up to the visiting preacher.
Remember, now, that man was the interim pastor. If he was supplying the pulpit for one service only, you do not mention anything to him. You hand him the honorarium, thank him, and send him on his way with a mental note not to invite him again. You want someone who is more careful about what he says from the pulpit.
2. I could wish that someone–maybe the preacher’s wife–would say, “Honey, that video clip had almost nothing to do with your sermon. And you didn’t even read your text.” God gives preachers wives for good reason.
The only way a wife has the ability to say such a thing is if she has shown her man repeatedly that she is supportive, on his team, his number one encourager. If she is, she is in the ideal place to point out something he did wrong or failed to do.
3. I could wish that pastor would get a DVD of the service and look at it. By reviewing it critically–particularly a few weeks after the event–he will find the omissions himself.
Alas, too few pastors go back and listen to their own sermons. And those who do often make the mistake of listening to them too soon after they preached them. The problem with that is it’s like editing an article immediately after drafting it: I tend not to see it as it is, but the way I intended it to be. Best to let it “set” for a day or two and then return to view it more objectively.
4. Finally, I hope we preachers will always be receptive and appreciative to those who venture to call our attention to something we got wrong. I cannot tell you the times someone approached me following a service to point out that “You kept saying Jonah when you meant Noah” or “You told us that verse was in Mark 28 but it’s Matthew 28.” Oops.
Early in my ministry, a deacon said to me, “Pastor, you keep telling us in sermons that we need to ‘accept God as our Savior.’ Now, I know what you mean, but remember that a lot of people believe in God but not in Jesus. Don’t you think you ought to say, ‘Accept Jesus as your Savior’?”
I’ve been grateful to that deacon ever since.
No one enjoys being corrected. But often it’s the sincerest form of love.