May 19, 2019

Missed: A Perfect Opportunity

This is not personal. I do not know the pastor involved and I don’t want to cast any aspersions on him as a minister. Everyone has bad days, and perhaps this was one of his. All I know is that, IMHO, he completely missed something as he preached on Sunday that was as obvious as the nose on your face.

He ruined a perfectly good passage of Scripture. The words he spoke for forty minutes had absolutely nothing to do with the text, even though he was purportedly “expounding” it. His sermon was not consistent with the tone of the passage or the purpose of the Apostle Paul’s words. Nor did it fit with the theme of the season or the service, even though the occasion and other elements in the service complemented the text perfectly. His opening illustration would have been perfect had he applied it to the text, but instead he turned it in another direction.

As a result, this minister missed a perfect opportunity to give a powerful, affirming message of thanksgiving to his congregation. Instead, he essentially called them on the carpet and scolded them, even though the text of Scripture he used had not a word of instruction, challenge, exhortation, warning, or teaching in it.

I blame the common evangelical notion that a pastor must “preach for response.”

This homiletical approach says that the congregation should always be challenged to change, to do something, to be transformed in some way. It is part and parcel of the revivalistic heritage of evangelicalism — Prepare the people. Preach to the people. Persuade the people to respond.

What happens, however, when the text one is teaching in an expository fashion does not call for response (as we define it)?

Well, speaking from personal experience (oh, how many times I did this!) as well as observation — you find a way to make it call for the response you’re looking for. In the process, you usually ignore the passage in its context, and find pieces of it that you can use as springboards to challenge your listeners.

Which is exactly what this pastor did. It was painful to watch (and hear).

I can’t tell you how discouraged I was when I left that service.

So, let me set the stage for you…

It’s the Sunday before Thanksgiving — providing a ready made theme for worship and teaching.

We are visiting an evangelical megachurch that has a traditional service as well as some contemporary services. We attend the early, traditional service. A full choir and small orchestra fills the stage. The instruments play an opening medley of majestic praise hymns for the prelude. Then we sing several wonderful Thanksgiving hymns. My hopes are high that the whole service will sound this note of blessing, praising, and thanking our gracious and generous God.

New members are received into the church — an occasion for the congregation to thank God for additions to his family.

After some announcements, an appeal for giving (I will not discuss this here — it raises other issues), and the pastor’s prayer, the offering is taken, during which the choir sings an appealing Thanksgiving anthem. We all then stand and sing, “All Hail the Pow’r of Jesus’ Name.”

Then, the sermon. I have high hopes when I see the text. The pastor is in the beginning of a series on Colossians, and today’s passage covers the epistle’s opening greeting and thanksgiving, with the focus on the second part, verses 3-5:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints — the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel…

The pastor starts with a heartwarming illustration — the recent birth of his first grandchild, complete with pictures on the big screen of baby and family. As the text is read, my pastoral mind starts working. I immediately start thinking how one might preach on this message, in this service, on this Sunday, in the light of everything we’ve experienced so far. Here’s what I came up with:

  • In my study I would have summarized the meaning of this text (Col. 1:3-5) with this sentence: “Paul thanks God for the Colossians’ faith, love, and hope.” This text is part of a specific epistolary form (thanksgiving), it is directed by Paul to God for the believers in Colossae, and the reason for his gratefulness is that God, through the Gospel, has blessed their lives with faith, love, and hope.
  • My next thought is, what a great text for a pastor to have on Thanksgiving Sunday! As Paul thanked God for the Colossians, so this passage would give me as a pastor a perfect opportunity to express how grateful I am for my congregation.
  • As Paul thanked God for specific virtues he saw that God had worked in the Colossian believers’ lives, so I as a pastor could illustrate my sermon with examples of faith, examples of love, examples of hope that I have seen in my parishioners.
  • And ultimately, as Paul does here, I could give all the credit to God and the Good News he has brought us in Christ.

At the very beginning of the pastor’s message, these thoughts came to me. If what I just described had been the sermon, in my view it would have faithfully represented a plain and accurate understanding of the text at hand. Colossians 1:3-5 is a “thanksgiving” section — that is its function and purpose. The tone is completely positive, affirming, and joyous. It is warm, personal, and pastoral. There is no word of instruction or exhortation to the Colossians. It is all about Paul thanking God and praying and specifying the blessings of the Gospel in their lives for which he is so grateful.

However, that was not the sermon we heard.

Instead, we heard a challenge to have faith. We heard a warning that without love, one does not have genuine faith. We heard about how we must maintain a heavenly perspective. Word studies, cross references, theological concepts, illustrations — all were used not to bring out the sense and purpose of the text itself, but to build a case for challenging the congregation to action by examining themselves to see if they had faith, love, and hope and then taking steps to cultivate those qualities.

Pastor, I’m sorry to say it, but you blew it. You turned pure Gospel gratitude (with a focus on God and his work) into the development of a game plan (with a focus on me and my work).

This passage of Scripture was not written to challenge believers to that kind of response. It was written by a Christian leader to say “thank you” to God for the work he is doing in a congregation of believers. Period. Nothing else.

Is it somehow hard for preachers to justify standing before a congregation and simply saying, “Thank you, God, for these people!”?

What if the response we get from our message is a community full of people who are affirmed in their faith? Who know more fully that their pastor loves them and is grateful for them? Who are reassured by the fact that someone they look up to recognizes that God is working in their lives? Who learn that, in our encounters with one another, it is encouraging when we begin our conversations with words of positive praise and thanks? Who come to trust that their pastor is not always out to scold them, change them, motivate them, or get something out of them; that it is about love and fellowship and community, not just “the mission”?

Are those not worthy responses?

Of course they are, if we let the Scripture and the Gospel set our agenda, and not our revivalistic impulses.

On a perfect Sunday, with a perfect theme, and a perfect set-up, this preacher missed a perfect opportunity.

 

Comments

  1. Well… you did go to an evangelical megachurch. What did you expect? Not to be pessimistic, but there is absolutely nothing shocking about this whatsoever. I’ve lost all faith in “expositional” preaching whatsoever. The fallen human mind is simply not usually capable of separating our perspective from the plain meaning of the text. The idol factory of our heart keeps glorifying our opinions at the expense of respect for God’s word. Our best efforts can on occasion produce something of value, but ultimately, the Christian year and lectionary preaching are pretty much necessary features if one is to truly keep the essentials present. Christ centeredness in preaching will never happen on accident.

    • I went to a lectionary-following, hymn-singing church for two months. Every week, the pastor took the scheduled passage out of context and preached as he liked; I finally gave up on the church after he tried to connect an Ezekiel prophecy with a conspiracy theory about who really controls the oil industry.

      I’ve likewise gone to Evangelical megachurches where the preachers expounded on a scripture using proper grammato-historical exegesis. Sometimes a church isn’t big because it tickles itching ears; sometimes it’s big because when you finally find a church where the preacher shares authentic Jesus, crowds form.

      I know; it’s more fun to just knock the megachurches, but is that out of jealousy for the truth of the gospel, or because we’ve made a new idol out of iconoclasm?

      • I can’t agree more.

        However, what has kept me in the liturgical church is that I get way more actual Bible – in the readings and the prayers than I ever did in evangelically minded churches.

      • My issue isn’t so much with crowd size as it is the presumptuous attitude with which “exegetical, verse-by-verse” preaching is often approached. The historical-grammatical approach has its value, but was not used by Jesus or the apostles. Too often I get the impression that because a preacher uses the H-G hermeneutic and exegetical preaching, he is therefore guaranteed to arrive at the intended meaning of the text. It’s almost like they feel this approach is the silver bullet to eisogesis, so they are beyond the point of suspecting their own possibility of error. I’ve heard way to many sermons that zoomed in on the text with a microscope and missed the forest for the trees, including John MacArthur. Often, when we try too hard to be “exegetical,” the text is examined too closely to have a proper contextual understanding, and it becomes merely a springboard to jump into what the preacher wanted to talk about anyways. Preachers of all stripes are capable and guilty of this, but the “true exegetes” are the ones doing it while preaching against it. Lectionary preaching is by no means a silver bullet. It is simply a tool for which Christ-centeredness is the goal. I am dogmatic about the goal, not as much about the tool. However, unless you have a better tool, for the sake of the goal use the best tools available. I don’t know that we’ve got a better device than the Christian year for bringing a focus on Christ to worship services. If you don’t want to use it, fine, but I don’t see it being replace with anything more effective.

        • I was educated at a very well known seminary and taught that if one handled the text with the proper H-G hermeneutic, you would in fact arrive at the intended meaning of the text. My entire four years of study was built around that approach in every class, in evey area of theology. Miguel, I couldn’t agree with you more. amen and amen and…

          • my name is supposed to be ronh :~). I’m a bit challenged when it comes to computer technology.

          • rhoekstra, my education was similar — and so was this pastor’s. That’s why I was so disappointed. I mean, he missed the very first thing you look for: the genre of the text, in this case the epistolary form of thanksgiving. A thanksgiving is designed to give thanks. How hard is that? A message expounding a thanksgiving should reflect that.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Too often I get the impression that because a preacher uses the H-G hermeneutic and exegetical preaching, he is therefore guaranteed to arrive at the intended meaning of the text. It’s almost like they feel this approach is the silver bullet to eisogesis, so they are beyond the point of suspecting their own possibility of error.

          Not “silver bullet”, Miguel.
          The impression I got from that was more D&D:
          “I cast Read Magic!”

        • I totally disagree that you with the Christ-centeredness of every passage and every sermon you preach. The goal of the sermon is to teach the intended point of the text. It is not to read into the text what you want it to say because you believe every sermon needs to have Christ in it.

      • I moved 3 years ago and still greatly miss the Evangelical Megachurch I went to then. I still vividly remember one Sunday a few months after I started attending regularly when the Senior Minister went up and said he was having a rough time and simply couldn’t preach that day. They just handed the mic around for anyone who wanted to speak, which was extremely out-of-character for this church. The following week he let us know that it wasn’t anything in particular but that life had just gotten to him for a while. I have never seen any church so accepting of human weaknesses in anyone, much less the Senior Minister. A few years later his son committed suicide and the church rallied to support him and the family again.

        Some megachurches have definitely reached that status for legitimate reasons.

        • What a story! It is absolutely possible to have loving community and numbers. I vote for more of that.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Now THAT was a good church.

          One where the “Senior Minister” (pastor?) can be having a hard time and can admit to it. And the others will take the burden while he recovers instead of making with Flesh-to-Pile-of-Rocks. I know one or two ministers, and they have told me about the burden of the Expectation of Absolute Perfection — after all, they’re the Pastor!

          • Our church is large (but certainly not mega by US standards) but that would be pretty normal for our congregation. Our pastor lost his wife to cancer a few years back and the whole congregation rallied round with food, childcare, physical and spiritual support – and are still doing so today, more than 3 years on. He’s had bad days and hard times and that’s ok – we understand. We don’t just do it for the pastor though – others in the same situation would get the same care. Sad that some folks here have obviously had no experience of what is actually normal Christian love in action.

        • Wow!! I never saw that in a large mega church. All I saw was a scripted entertianmentt venue… 😉

      • Richard Hershberger says

        “I went to a lectionary-following, hymn-singing church for two months. Every week, the pastor took the scheduled passage out of context and preached as he liked;”

        The lectionary is hardly a guarantee of quality preaching. What you describe is one form of lectionary-based bad preaching. That being said, following the lectionary has two strengths. One is that it forces the congregation to be exposed to a wide range of passages. One form of non-lectionary bad preaching is to constantly return to a comparative handful of favorite passages while ignoring the rest. The second strength is that the individual readings are long enough to include some context, making it more apparent when the preacher chooses to treat a snippet in isolation.

        • Oh, I’m not knocking the lectionary per se. Some preachers would never, ever look at certain passages (like lament psalms) unless they were obliged to. As the other folks noted, it’s simply not a guarantee of quality preaching. Bashing the megachurches because they don’t follow a lectionary is like mocking a man for not wearing a wristwatch. He can still be on time–or late–regardless.

          • Richard Hershberger says

            I don’t think the analogy works. Bad preaching isn’t the problem the lectionary is there to solve.

    • Well, whether I am foolish to think this way or not, even when I go to an evangelical megachurch — and this one is not of the “seeker” variety but has a much more conservative, teaching reputation — what is expect is that a pastor who claims to be “biblical” will at least handle the text with some sensitivity to what it says.

      • Well, I guess I’m guilty of a little “Lord, I thank you that you have not made me like THOSE evangelical preachers but have given ME the wisdom to see the PURE truth…”
        But aside from my own quirks and dislikes, the best you could ever expect from a Bible-believing evangelical megachurch would be a text centered sermon. A passage is read, the literal meaning clearly articulated, and then applied to our lives in meaningful and practical ways. Jesus is absolutely un-necessary in that approach, and it more often than not it leaves him out. This is acceptable, I suppose, under the banner of “teaching” or possibly even “discipleship,” but I agree with Spencer when he defined “Preaching” as “bringing people to an encounter with Jesus through the text” or something similar. I probably did exhaust myself attacking the Bible with power tools trying to decipher God, but I don’t want to understand the Bible anymore. I want to encounter Jesus through it. You can find competent exposition –> application teaching in evangelical churches, but it ultimately ends with a focus on self. It’s draining.

        • David Cornwell says

          “You can find competent exposition –> application teaching in evangelical churches, but it ultimately ends with a focus on self.”

          I’ve always loved good preaching. But sometimes it is easy to pick up a lack of real humility on the part of the preacher. And these days I have doubts about any preaching that makes a fetish out of a proper grammatical and textual dissection. It turns into a certain idolatry (bibliolatry) and can, as you say, take eyes off Christ. If a preacher is going to do this kind of analysis it should be in his study, not the pulpit.

          But it is inflating to ones ego when someone who hears that sermon walks out and says “what you wonderful sermon pastor, you are fantastic.”

        • In our fundamental churches a preacher will get Jesus out of any passages of scripture. He will bring a salvation message every time he preaches. He will preach Jesus and getting saved to the same 30 people he preaches to every Sunday. I have found that no acceptable.

  2. I pray that it wasn’t someone’s last chance to hear the gospel there at that service.

    That’s what makes this ‘Christian betterment’ “preaching”, so dangerous.

  3. David Cornwell says

    You, as usual, have touched on several issues. But, being 1:40 a.m., I’ll mention just one: Why did he bother to even read a scripture lesson? He seems to ignore it once he started preaching. Right now I’m headed to bed!

    • True it’s 1:40 AM but anytime is a good time to discuss theology David!!! 😀

    • Probably because the schedule said they were starting a study on Colosians. He had something he wanted to preach on so he worked the text to preach on that topic just like the lectionary preacher mentioned by K.W. Leslie.

  4. I don’t know why but I’m hearing so much about Colossians these past few monthes by numerous people. And in the cozy, comfortable abode I have listened to a couple of sermons on Colossians. Maybe its the drug of choice for the reformed…and neo reformed.

    There is always that push for change. In evangelicalism there is always that drama demanding change. The downside is that it leads people to be dishonest, becuase when you are a recovering alcoholic this type of setting that CM describes establishes a tragetory where there has to be a quick, long term healing where there is no more problems. Come on…who are WE kidding? 😯

    Then there are other issues which I think are relevent.

    1. There can’t be a talk about being thankful for the moment or where you are at in life. You can’t be thankful for your health. You can’t be thankful for your family or having shelter. You can’t be grateful for a job especially when so many can’t get one. This part is lacking in evangelicalism.

    2. As you said people always have to be pushed. All too often the Pastor has to push and focus on making everyone there being like busy Marthas, instead of being like Mary where they can sit and rest at God’s feet. This is also highly legalistic. But why are some surprised?

    3. It also shows how many fundagelicals are addicted to the stage, spotlight and attention. Once again Christians must bow to the God of “naricssism”. I find this ironic because this is relativley easy to spot, other faith traditions seldom treat their leaders like fundys treat their mega church pastors. No in this game Christians must bring another sacrifice to the pastor. Christians leave God out of the picture n this system.

    • Glenn A Bolas says

      Drug of choice for the neo-reformed? I thought that was Romans (with its spokes revolving around the hub of chapter 9).

    • Eagle, you really are a gift, I hope you know that !! 🙂

      #2 point go and shout it from the housetops and church-tops !!

      • Daisey…when you are no longer a Christian and outside the faith; things become really clearer. 5 years ago i would have toted the party line and screamd “HERETIC!!”. But after being outside the faith I see things from a whole differnet perspective.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      other faith traditions seldom treat their leaders like fundys treat their mega church pastors….other faith traditions seldom treat their leaders like fundys treat their mega church pastors.

      You mean as gods come in the flesh?

      (Funny thing is, with the Neo-Reformed and Truly Reformed’s mania with the Perfect Abstract Theology — or should I say Purity of Ideology — I would expect their God to be their Perfectly-Parsed Theology/Ideology, not a physical god-king raised up before the proles. Either way, Christ gets thrown under the bus — again.)

      • Interesting that is mentioned today. I had just seen this earlier today from at study by Leadership Network:

        “The leader at the helm makes all the difference. Seventy-nine percent say the church’s most dramatic growth occurred during tenure of current senior pastor.”

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Just like a lot of startup companies with Immediate Runaway Success.

          The real test is how long they survive when “Our Founder” is gone.

          And isn’t it Cults (TM) where everything revolves around The Cult Leader? And usually doesn’t survive them by long? Not every Joseph Smith pulling a startup has a Brigham Young for a successor.

          • As many of the orignal megachurch leaders are reaching certain ages, they are having to face those concerns.

            One interesting question will be how multi-site churches are impacted. Will the satellite locations have an easier time adapting, since they are distant from that figure and perhaps closer to their campus pastor; or will they have a tougher time since the image on the screen seems larger than life?

          • That’s why I doubt that many places such as Mars Hill, Bethlehem Baptist, Grace Community Church, etc.. will not survive the death, retirment, of their celebrity status, narcesstic pastors

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            As many of the orignal megachurch leaders are reaching certain ages, they are having to face those concerns.

            As did Crystal Cathedral (now the property of “The Roman Catholic Bishop of Orange and his Successors”, probably to become the Real Cathedral for the Diocese). I understand CCs meltdown began as a succession crisis/inheritance feud when its Founding Pastor Schuller aged into retirement. Didn’t even wait until he was dead for everything to go BOOM!

    • Aidan Clevinger says

      It’s terribly ironic that you’re encountering these problems anew through your experiences with how people handle the book of Colossians, a book that was written to celebrate the all-availing and all-powerful grace of Christ. Sorry, Eagle.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Eagle, Aidan, someone once told me that a passage from one of Paul’s Epistles (don’t remember which one) which is quoted by the Rapture Ready types to PROVE Ye Ende is Nighye was originally written by St Paul to talk a church down FROM an End-of-the-World freakout. Go fig.

        • Could be 1 Thessalonians 4? Whatever Paul says (or doesn’t say) about the rapture, he ends with this: “Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

  5. Prepare, Preach and Persuade…….

    Sounds like leaving God out of the picture, as Eagle says above. Where is the WORSHIP focused on the Creator of the Universe? The thankfulness for His unmerited grace? The response of our souls in love?

    When I teach my (adult student only) class, I do “tell them what I’m going to tell them, tell them what they need to know, and tell them what I just told them”. But I am trying to stuff information into their brains, not change their hearts and souls like a Pastor should……

    • Hi Pattie,

      I’m thinking the role of a Pastor is like that of a shepherd, to lead, to guide, to encourage which includes teaching and that it is the Holy Spirit who has the role of changing hearts and souls. We can plant the seeds and water them with love but God gives the growth….

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Prepare, Preach and Persuade…….

      The Aliiterator Strikes Again!
      (twirl mustache and evil laugh…)

  6. Maybe take a risk and (if you haven’t already done so or decided to do so) mail or email him this post, with a link to it so he can read the responses. Pray it will so unsettle him that instead of resenting or ignoring your criticisms, he’ll repent for what may have been a lapse in judgment, or for what may be a larger issue – I.e., a misguided and deficient and earthbound (versus Godward) view and understanding of the Gospel and what church is or can be.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Or have him denounce you as Lukewarm, Apostate Backslider, and/or Heretic.

      • Aidan Clevinger says

        I don’t know, HUG, I’ve heard stories of pastors who (surprisingly enough) took criticism with genuine humility and repentance. Maybe Chaplain Mike’s will, too. Never say never, Papa!

      • This is what I saw happen…many Christians have thin skin and can’t process or take criticism. Even constructive criticism is ignored. So what happens is that they really have no one to bounce off ideas. Thus they become more insular and in their own world. In their mind they have convinced thesmelf they are so correct that they arn’t open to admitting that they are wrong. It’s pride on steroids. But in this “brand” (You have to use marketing lingo with this stuff…) you continue to sell the product. It’s just not tested as it lacks objective criticism,

        Its kind of like driivng around in a Pinto waiting for the fuel tank to burst when its in an accident,.

  7. One pre-Thanksgiving Sunday, I heard a Baptist pastor preach from Acts 4:32-35… “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. ”

    His sermon was intended to incite a large Thanksgiving offering. I was incensed…At numerous times, he mentioned the people selling all they had, and laying it “at the apostles’ feet for the good of the church”…At no time did he acknowledge that the money was used so that “there were no needy persons among them”, and that the money “was distributed to anyone who had need”. Instead, he focused on using the Thanksgiving offering to build two new bathrooms. Inspiring stuff, right? He expressed that he had “been praying all week for $30,000”, and of course, “I know there’s someone here today who could easily write a check for that amount all by themselves.” The previous year’s Thanksgiving offering had been almost exactly $30,000, in a congregation of about 250.

    They raised a little more than $10,000 that Sunday. I kept my check in my pocket. The insincerity resounded throughout the congregation, but no one spoke of it. This same pastor had told me just the week before that he was about to break ground on a new $300,000 home, custom designed around his baby grand piano. Come to think of it, he had told a lot of folks that…probably not a good idea right before you’re going to use an illustration of Christians selling their homes and land in hopes of a big offering…In a community where the average household income is about $43,000 annually (His salary exceeded the average household income for the area, by the way).

    Now, that rant being complete, I’m thankful today to be a part of little, country, sacramental church that has good community. Last Sunday’s Thanksgiving offering was a little over $5000, which is pretty impressive for a congregation of 100. The money will be placed into the Benevolence Fund of the church, and used to help folks who are behind on utilities, rent, mortgages, and need food. That, friends, sounds like Acts 4:32-35 lived out.

    • David Cornwell says

      Amen.

    • One more Mike says

      I sat through a Christmas Eve Service in a very large, Independent Baptist Church last year. After the requisite singing of Christmas Hymns and a reading of the Christmas story, the preacher preached a sermon from Galatians 1:13-16. Somehow, we are all, like Paul, called to preach the son among the heathen (KJV interpretation, of course), and this is the real Christmas Story. Jesus as precursor to Paul, I suppose, in some twisted logic. I walked out into the cold when the altar call (of course there was an altar call) began, shaking my head and saying “Never again.”

    • Amen again

    • Only a baby grand? The pastor was lacking in faith! 😉

      When Jesus himself said, “Sell what you have…” he finished with “and give to the poor,” not “and give to my church.”

      • Ha! Yeah, Ted. He actually boasted from the pulpit that he bought the piano from a little old lady for “just $7000”. At the time I was making a little less than $16000 per year to do ministry full-time. I was not impressed.

  8. The Previous Dan says

    “Pastor, I’m sorry to say it, but you blew it. You turned pure Gospel gratitude (with a focus on God and his work) into the development of a game plan (with a focus on me and my work).”

    Kudos CM! Perfect summary of what we too often do at church. Maybe it’s because deep down we feel that restless guilty. It’s hard to just accept grace and so it’s hard to give it to others. I know my own guilt has usually been the motivator of me laying that same burden on the backs of others.

    God, open our eyes to your glorious grace!

  9. How can we know that he preached the wrong sermon for this passage to this particular congregation on this particular day? How do we know for certain if this wasn’t the Spirit’s prophetic word spoken to this congregation through this passage, even if seemingly obscure?. How do we know if it wasn’t the Spirit’s word to this congregation but if it was the “weakness” or ignorance of this pastor not to use a more appropriate passage to preach this message? How can we know with any certainty that this pastor is falling into the same trap as we/I have done in the past with ignorant or misguided motives?

    My concern is this is much more serious (and potentially dangerous) than armchair quarterbacking. I know you know this but when we critique the message, style, intent/motive, content, etc, we are in danger of also critiquing the work of the Spirit through the cracked pots he uses – whether that is our intention or not. There are times when the Holy Spirit does reveal these things to us and also what we are to do with his revelation. Even so, there is at least the message/content, the vessel and the Spirit at work in Gospel. It’s not as clear as I used to think to separate the one from the other since God is working in all three with greater grace given and needed on our end of participating in Gospel work.

    I agree with what you say as a general tendency that can be an error in the modern evangelical church. I know you didn’t mention specifically this church. But in a sense you did, and maybe rightly so. I just find I’ve been on both sides of the fence on this issue. I am an observer by nature, and perhaps, a discerner by gifting. But as I look back I see that I have not been as thoughtful (and humble) as I might in my observations (no matter how accurate they may have been), my assessment of the motives and intentions behind them, and myresponse to what I see or what the Spirit has revealed. God certainly calls some to this ministry of discernment and correction in practicing the faith, I’m just afraid it can be hijacked by an American tendency to critique everything.

    • Mick
      You have a point, but do you think that maybe the Pastor could have chosen a more appropriate passage to demonstrate his point?

      I was not there, but if what CM says is a true representation then why use ‘the spirit led me’ as an excuse for poor exegesis?

  10. A good sermon is one you could preach to someone on their deathbed.

    What good is it to tell a dying man or woman they they ought to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get busy? Or that they ‘should’, ‘ought’, or ‘must’ be doing…something?’

    The preacher is a dying man/woman, preaching to dying people.

    Dying people need forgiveness, love, comfort, and assurance that One has already died for them and that He will raise them again to everlasting life with Himself.

    • So the author of Hebrews should perhaps rethink his telling the people to strengthen their faith and their weak hands and feeble knees and run the race set before them and do the things he/she is exhorting them to do so they can receive the inheritance?

      • We do these things by trusting in what God has done, is doing, and will yet do for us.

        And not by anything that WE DO.

        We need a Savior, not a life coach.

      • That’s the great thing about not being a biblical literalist.

        We can preach the gospel, and not the text.

        • That’s the great thing about taking the Bible as it is and not as one wants it to be or makes it be to fit one’s pigeonholes. We can accept the Bible as it is and don’t have to resolve all the tensions in it, like those between works and faith and election and free will, etc.

        • Aidan Clevinger says

          I’ve heard some pretty good Gospel sermons from biblical literalists. I hope to preach a few despite having some strains of biblical literalism myself.

          • Biblical literalists certainly can preach good sermons. But their proclivitity to venture into legalism is a given, because there is law language in that book also.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Problem with biblical literalism is it’s easy to drift into a form of tunnel vision on “the literal meaning of the text”, what C.S.Lewis called “That dog-like state of mind” where you point to Something and all the dog can percieve is the literal finger.

          • The problem was not that he was a literalist, but that he did not stick to the (literal) meaning and intention of the text!

          • The trouble with biblical literalism was once put to me as ‘you spend so much time figuring out what the text means, you never get to think about what the author meant’.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            ‘you spend so much time figuring out what the text means, you never get to think about what the author meant’.

            That anything like the Doom of the Baby Boomers, who “Spent so much time trying to ‘Find Themselves’ they never had the time to HAVE a Self to Find”?

    • I’ve heard some sermons that made me wish I was on my deathbed…

    • A wise man once said: “If Christianity is not a dying word to dying men, it is not the message of the Bible that gives hope now.” People need hope, not help!

  11. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    However, that was not the sermon we heard.

    What you heard was a beatdown to despair for a Great Response at the Altar Call.

  12. I see the problem, he wasn’t using the liturgical calendar, and instead was off doing his own thing – he should have been preaching Christ the King ; )

    I agree with you Chaplain Mike, there is so much positive one can do with the theological virtues, faith, hope, and love. Hopefully he was having an off day and a missed moment because if he is pushing all the time he must have one exhausted congregation….

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Still a little better than Grinning Ed Young delivering his Seven-Day Sex Challenge (from a bed replacing the pulpit) on the Feast of Christ the King…

  13. The all-too-common tendency of some preachers to hijack scripture and then fly it to their own chosen destination is one reason that I greatly prefer tackling scripture in the context of open group discussion — so long as such discussion is well facilitated and wisely moderated. It’s much harder for one person to hijack something if everybody gets to take a turn in the pilot’s seat.
    This idea that some person with a religious title has to engage the congregation with 20 to 45 minutes of solo oratory every darn time the doors of the church building are open just invites bad and sloppy sermonizing — or, as is often the case, some very bad theology wrapped attractively in expertly delivered public speaking.
    I guess what I’m saying is that the necessity (or the perceived necessity) of filling a time slot, combined with a general public value of eloquence over substance, might not be the best recipe for good, Gospel-solid preaching.

  14. There are sometimes I think that once you’re involved in something, observing someone else do it becomes a very tricky thing. I’ve never been a full-time preacher, but I did preach regularly when I was a campus pastor. I now find it hard to listen to many sermons, honestly. I am constantly thinking to myself things like, “well that’s not how I would have explained that” or “I wouldn’t have made that point”, etc. Now, there are some exceptions. There are preachers I know who are simply gifted and I kind of am able to just listen.

    I guess it’s analogous to being a musician. There are times when I’m watching a band that I just have to remind myself to just listen, don’t be a critic. I’m not saying that this article is simply doing that. But I’m just saying that personally, it’s something I struggle with. It’s hard for me to draw a line sometimes between not liking something simply because of personal taste or for more objective reasons.

  15. I blame the common evangelical notion that a pastor must “preach for response.”

    I must agree! And never let the truth get in the way of a good story if you can get a response. For the first thirty years of my life there was a continual call to do something. It took a long time to realize that everything in our church services were done to bring someone to a point where they would walk an aisle, make a decision, and do something. After a while you become very fatigued or very arrogant. Or both.

    In the epistles the exhortation to “do” things is almost always preceded by a proclamation of what Christ has already done. In the book of Romans eleven chapters of Gospel preaching precede five chapters of exhortations to serve, obey rulers, love people, remain pure, etc. . . I do not mind being challenged to greater deeds, but without the assurance of Christ’s love, kindness, forgiveness, and mercy backing such commands there is no gasoline to run the engine.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      In the epistles the exhortation to “do” things is almost always preceded by a proclamation of what Christ has already done. In the book of Romans eleven chapters of Gospel preaching precede five chapters of exhortations to serve, obey rulers, love people, remain pure, etc. . .

      i.e. Laying the foundation first.

      I wonder if the parable about “houses built on sand” applies to “preaching for response”?

      • I think that the “sand”, in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, is the Jews’ self-righteousness, their misinterpretation of the Law, and their earth-bound focus. I would agree with you whole-heartedly that the metaphor of a sandy foundation could be applied to the concept of preaching for the sole purpose of a “response”.

  16. Richard Hershberger says

    Not your point, but I did a double take at this:

    “New members are received into the church — an occasion for the congregation to thank God for additions to his family.”

    This might merely be poorly expressed, but it comes across as very One True Churchy. People being _baptized_ is an addition to God’s family. People coming from other churches to join this one is a bit of reshuffling of how God’s family is organized. I can easily imagine my church receiving new members and celebrating the additions to the “church family” where “church” is understood in the sense of “local congregation”. But unless there were baptisms involved, to celebrate this as additions to “God’s family” implies that they weren’t really Christians at their old church. Feh.

    • I didn’t mean to make a theological point with that statement, just a comment that welcoming new people into the church family was an occasion for thanksgiving.

  17. This is pretty standard fair in the protestant circles I ran in, especially the more fundamental ones. I’ve been through series that got so dark, I debated if going was even worth the effort. Life’s hard enough without the preacher taking the opportunity to beat down the flock a little more each week. Add a little glossing of guilt to the top, and you can get the most saintly of your congregation down for the altar call for any number of perceived failures. Week after week of this calling out, wears out ones faith until one day you find being Apostate is the only solution you can stomach.

    I one time overheard an SBC pastor exclaim that their praise of an individual for a job well done, led them to a fall from grace, and that they would never do that again. I’ve worked at businesses that have that same philosophy that any kind of praise makes people complacent. it’s utter nonsense…

    To be sure there are places where the Gods word is hard and unmoving, and we need to hear that. But for crying out loud, we are supposed to be going to heaven, can’t we act like it once in a while?

    -Paul-

  18. Randy Thompson says

    If you preach for response, and you’re a really good speaker, you’ll get an emotional response, and that usually has a shelf life of forty-eight hours.

    If you preach for response, and you’re really bright and really know your theological package well, you’ll succeed only in making a lot of people feel guilty, because whatever it is you want them to do, they can’t, because they don’t particularly want to. Or, know they ought to want to, but just can’t generate any genuine motivation.

    If you preach for response, and you’re politically minded, you’ll only succeed in making most of your hearers mad, or, at the least, annoyed.

    If you preach grace–that God loves you even though you have a dead heart–anything can happen.

  19. Randy Thompson says

    By the way: I’ve been listening to a series of talks by Tim Keller on preaching, which he gave at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary some years ago. They are stupendously good (!!!), and address many of the concerns expressed here. I commend the series (very!) highly. Check the GCTS website, or, their Ockenga Institute. (By the way, I am not an employee of either Gordon-Conwell or Tim Keller, and I am not getting a cut on CD sales!)

  20. I suspect his sermon reflects his theology. If you believe that our wills are not bound and that internally generated faith leads to “accepting, making a decision for Christ”, then all sermons should be about the quality or strength of ones faith. However, ………………. If you believe that the will is bound (we cannot and do not choose Christ) and that by Gods grace in Christ only, He creates faith unilaterally (a “decision” is a result of Gods action, not our action) in a fallen, broken creature then he should have preached the beauty of grace alone.

  21. This got me thinking, what’s the point of preaching?

    As with most things, I never really thought about it growing up, but the idea that a sermon is supposed to challenge you in some way, to get you to change or reconsider some aspect of your relationship with God (either practically or theoretically) is the reason we sit and listen for 40 minutes every sunday.

    So what should it be about?

    • I would say that in that pastor’s opinion, the purpose of the sermon would be to teach God’s Word faithfully so that people might be fed spiritually and their lives transformed.

  22. >>>I blame the common evangelical notion that a pastor must “preach for response.”

    In a former church it was common fodder for the preacher to expound on a text or passage and go off on some tangent to use the text to illustrate the pastor’s latest theological itch or rant. What is to sadly true in many evangelical/reformed/Lutheren/(fill in the blank) pulpits is the pastor’s failure to reley on the Holy Spirit to do the work the Holy Spirit does, Such an approach to preaching puts the preacher in the place of trying to be the “holy spirit” in the lives of the people of God. Way to often the preacher brings his own agenda into the text or passage instead of being submissive to the contextual intent and historical redemptive purpose of the passage. I am so weary of that kind of preaching and have little tolerence for it. Thankfully the preaching at the local church we now attend gies much more respect to the text and context wihtout a lot of personal agenda attached. Walter Kaiser’s “Toward an Exegetical Theology” was a real help to me in understanding these issues.

  23. I think I’ve mentioned before that I was raised Methodist but left them for nearly 50 years. I was involved in music programs in Baptist, Non-denominational, Charismatic, and classical Pentecostal churches — all evangelical — before returning in 2010 in my late sixties to a little Methodist church as pianist and selector of congregational songs. Last year we had a full-blown Thanksgiving service (“We Gather Together”, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come”, “Bless This House” as a special, that sort of thing. Only since then have I become more aware of the liturgical year and have attempted to follow it more closely. Which brings me to my point, Chaplain Mike.:

    Except in a purely American cultural sense, this past Sunday was NOT Thanksgiving Sunday. I would have thought that with your Lutheran leanings you would have mentioned that this past Sunday was Christ the King Sunday (last year I wasn’t even aware of it). The sermon by our assistant minister was centered on the kingship of Christ. The congregational hymns were “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” and “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” and “Crown Him With Many Crowns” and someone sang “The King Is Coming”. Maybe a few Methodist churches are still listening to the Holy Spirit. And more people went to the altar for prayer during the closing hymn than at any other service all year (without a lot of prodding from the pastor, I might add).

    I’m just saying.

  24. Is this an example of Reformed/Calvinistic covenant of covenant of works? Are there any Calvinists out there who can correctly explain the covenant of grace vs. the covenant of works? I don’t think Calvin meant to teach that after being saved by grace alone that we finish the job with our works. I can see the temptation to go down this road by misinterpreting Paul’s exhortation to make ones election assured.

  25. Jonathanblake says

    All too familiar scenario for me and it’s ironic that I’ve been thinking of this very dilemma recently- the pressure for every sermon to be molded into a challenge or to just preach the passage in context even if it yields no challenge it is still Scripture being preached and heard, seed being cast and planted and watering being done. I guess it takes more faith sometimes to trust in the unseen growth than a visible altar call attempt. I’ve been going with the latter decision when I preach and though I feel like an outcaste somewhat for not molding it into a provocation I still think exegesis and expository preaching is better than whatever you want to call what else is out there. My Greek teacher likes to say “Context is king” when interpreting GNT passages and so I apply the same hermeneutical approach to see what the context reveals about what is happening in Scripture rather than eisegeting and molding Scripture to my purposes in preaching.
    Thanks for encouraging me in this. Glad I stopped by for the first time in a while. Need to make it a habit again.