Preachers - Ugh!
Was I like that?
On a recent newscast I saw two preachers haranguing a crowd with a despotic arrogance that sounded more like Hitler than God whom they purported to represent. They were on the left. The day before the same news cast featured another preacher with Bible in hand doing the same thing to his congregation. He is on the right. I shuddered wondering if I had ever sounded like that. If so, Lord forgive!
It's been a few years since retirement from the pastorate and a few more years since I last preached regularly every week. I now sit with my wife listening to others preach and go to work every morning at Home Depot thankful that folks don't get weird on me 'cause I'm a preacher. Few even know my background. I look back on a lifetime of preaching from a different perspective.
I've thought to myself, "Why would anyone want to go to church to listen to a sermon unless he's already a Christian and motivated by his relationship to God and to God's people?" It seems a fools errand to advertise to a godless public, "Come listen to Pastor Bob's sermon, 'The Power of Prayer.'"
Public speaking or preaching?
I am sure that since the beginning of time individuals have addressed their gathered peers to convey needed information. A general challenges his troops, a coach motivates her team, a teacher informs her class, a CEO instructs his staff. Then there are motivational speakers and comedians who speak to entertain. But none of this is preaching. Problem is that we preachers have tried to be all of the above and failed miserably.
By so doing we've left our congregations with confused expectations. I once had a woman stop by the office on the way out of Sunday morning service to announce that she and her husband wouldn't be attending any more. They were looking for a preacher who would "knock their socks off." I never was very good at the sock thing in seminary.
Jesus was a preacher
In fact that's one reason He came. “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” (Luke 4:43) Paul instructed Timothy, "preach the word." Faithful Christian preachers preach because their Master preached and because we are instructed to do so in his Word.
Congregations listen because their Lord calls them to hear his Word and to live by it. Jesus said, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!" (Luke 11:28) We understand that it is through hearing the Word that our faith is strengthened.
What is preaching?
Preaching is the communication of God's Word with the authority to call God's people to respond in faith and obedience. Let me break this down a bit.
Unless the preacher faithfully explains to his people what is already in Scripture he isn't preaching God's Word. He may be interesting and entertaining but he offers no spiritual nourishment. It is God's Word that builds faith, not what preachers say about it. Down through Christian history faithful preachers have practiced certain disciplines by which to ensure that they are faithful to God's Word. First the Scripture text is read to the congregation encouraging them to follow along in their own Bibles. Some pastors invite the people to stand when the Scriptures are read both as a mark of respect for God and to help distinguish between the Scriptures proper and their sermons. Usually, the Scripture reading is followed by a prayer for the Holy Spirit's illumination. Why? The Scriptures teach that unless the Spirit clears our heads and opens our hearts to receive God's Word there will be no spiritual profit.
Having spent anywhere from six to twenty hours in advance preparation the preacher now explains the meaning and application of what has just been read.
I can read the Bible for myself!
Of course you can, but do you? When you read, do you understand it as fully as you might? Faithful preachers will encourage their hearers to practice what's call the Berean habit. In Acts 17:11 you'll read of people in the town Berea who were commended for not only "receiving the word with eagerness" but also "examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were true." The Berean habit is to check out what the preacher says against what you read for yourself.
To help you do this, faithful pastors will structure their sermons so you can see where and why in Scripture he urges you to believe or do something. If you can't easily find the evidence in the text chances are the preacher is wandering off the Scriptures.
Suppose you hear a preacher urge you to look to Jesus as you would a warm loaf of bread. I don't know anyone who isn't delighted with the smell and taste of freshly baked bread. Not only is it a delight, it nourishes your body. OK, so your preacher has found a great analogy. But he's done more.
After miraculously feeding five thousand folk with just a few fish and loaves of bread, Jesus commented to his disciples, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst." John 6:35 The preacher has gotten the analogy from Jesus himself. Hopefully, he will fully explain the circumstances that gave rise to this comment. He'll then draw out the analogy so that by the end of the sermon you want to know Jesus with the same eagerness as you want to taste freshly baked bread.
What's this about authority?
This is the part many miss, even those who frequently listen to sermons. Because of the special relationship between a pastor and his people, the pastor has a right to expect his hearers to respond with faith and action and his people are ill-served if they are not held accountable by their pastor and leadership team.
When my kids were young I instructed them with the expectation that the would obey. If they didn't, there would be consequences. It never occurred to me to do the same with my neighbor's kids, unless in some sort of life-threatening situation. And they would rightly think it strange of me to expect their obedience.
So it is with the pastor/preacher and his people. When the pastor has visited in their homes, listened to their stories, married their youth and buried their parents a unique relationship develops. With that relationship in place preaching becomes an act of love and response to it becomes an act of respect. Both come with ease.
How often do you listen to a sermon?
Back to my question
Why would anyone want to listen to a sermon unless he's already a Christian and motivated by his relationship to God and to God's people? He wouldn't. And he or she shouldn't be expect to.
We've come to expect the Sunday morning sermon to be the major means of attracting outsiders. That's just plain wrong! Sunday morning (or whenever a local church chooses to have it) worship is a family gathering in which the pastor leads his people in an intimate and loving exchange with the Lord. That exchange features praise, prayers, readings and sermons which unbelievers should not be expected to appreciate.
How does the church reach outside itself?
Through the daily lives and words of her people. Sunday worship may last an hour or two. There remain 166 hours each week in which to live before family, friends and the public at large. If they don't see the Savior's love and justice and mercy in you, don't expect outsiders to see them in your worship service. On the other hand if they do, you'll have the opportunity to invite them as your guest to the Sunday service.
They come as honored guests, not as the targets of some religious sales pitch. So you prepare them in advance for what may seem strange to them. You introduce them to a few of your friends. You sit with them and make sure they know where the nursery and the bathrooms are. And don't forget the coffee bar. Your guests have come to observe you and your fellow believers as you worship and fellowship. They may or may not take steps to join you for permanent participation. That's between them and God. Either way they remain your friends.