Just Jerry

Then the LORD said unto me, The prophets prophesy lies in my name: I sent them not, neither have I commanded them, neither spake unto them: they prophesy unto you a false vision and divination, and a thing of nought, and the deceit of their heart.
~ Jeremiah 14:14

And how to not be Just Jerry

Every preacher has heard excuses from people for not coming to church. Some are comical and some are just sad. I recently heard one where a person said they didn’t like coming to church on Sunday because Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest and it’s not very restful if they have to get up and come to church. You know the proper response to that excuse, right? The proper response is, “Purple polka-spotted brontosauricorns,” or some approximation thereof. As long as we are going to be arbitrary and just start making stuff up, my response makes as much sense as your excuse. Though we preachers have heard a lot, we occasionally hear a new one.

A couple of years ago I was reading an article where a writer attempted to answer an objection to attending preaching services. This excuse was a new one on me, so I was interested in it. In some ways, it is a more thoughtful objection than the typical dog-ate-my-homework type excuses we get most of the time. As I thought on it, I realized the objection does have some merit and thinking about it has something instructive for preachers. Let me paraphrase the objection.

Why should I go to church and listen to preaching. That’s just some guy named Jerry up there. He’s nothing special. He got beat up on the playground in elementary school. He couldn’t climb the rope in gym class. He barely passed algebra. He has worked at flipping burgers, selling mattresses, and now he’s doing this. Why should I listen to him?

The Point of Merit

As far as objections go, this one’s not all bad. The objection does raise a valid point. As long as a preacher is Just Jerry, there is no compelling reason to listen him. As long as a preacher is doing anything other than actually preaching the Bible, he is Just Jerry. If all a preacher does is tell stories, jokes, opinions, observations, random musings, give personal advice, helpful tips, or is ranting, airing grievances, grinding axes, riding hobby horses, etc., he is not preaching the Bible and he is Just Jerry. There is no more reason to listen to him than anyone else. If that’s the kind of preaching you’ve been invited to, you are better off not going to hear it.

The Point of Failure

The objection does have some problems and fails when the preacher is not Just Jerry. When a preacher preaches the word of God accurately and faithfully, he preaches with divine authority and all men everywhere should listen to him. Paul instructed Titus concerning the things of truth, the things of sound doctrine, that he was to “speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:15). Titus was to command, as indicated by the word for authority, the people in all things in the Word of God. Paul likewise told Timothy to “command and teach” the same things (1 Timothy 4:11). After speaking of the “inspiration” and efficacy of “all scripture,” Paul charged Timothy to “Preach the word” (2 Timothy 3:16-4:2).

Paul commanded these young preachers that they were to preach with authority by preaching the things Paul had written as well as all scripture. When we preach the Bible, we preach with authority. When we don’t preach the Bible, we don’t preach with authority. We are Just Jerry.

Preaching With Authority

How do we preach with divine authority such that the voice of God is heard in our preaching and all men are compelled to listen and will be called to account for what is preached? We might think the key is in boldness, so we must speak with boldness in order to preach with authority. Boldness would factor in our voice and presence as we preach. Boldness makes us think of fearlessness to say things that will be disliked and maybe even anger some. Preaching is to be with boldness (Ephesians 6:19-20), but that still doesn’t account for the authority of our words. I could be bold on a street corner to command people not to cross the street. Maybe some would listen, but I have no authority to give such a command and men are under no obligation to listen to it. They won’t be called before the magistrate to give an account of why they did not heed my command. Authority must go beyond the person of the preacher, or else the preacher is Just Jerry.

There are only two ways to preach with authority. First, to preach with authority we must receive a direct revelation from God and deliver that revelation as it was received. This would be like with the prophets of old who heard the voice of God and were tasked with telling the word received to the people. The prophet would often declare, “Thus saith the Lord.” God does not give us such direct revelation today because he gave us his final revelation in his Son and his apostles have written that down for us. So, we don’t preach with authority today by telling people what God spoke to us or revealed to us in a dream. We have only one way then to preach with authority.

The second way we preach with authority is by accurately explaining and applying the very words of God as they were given in his word, the Bible. As long as we are preaching the Bible, meaning we are explaining the contextual meaning of the word as given, we are preaching with authority. In Numbers 14:1-38, we read of Israel provoking God to anger by their refusal to hear his word through his servant Moses and their rebellion against him by their murmuring and desire to stone Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb. God promised and later brought his judgment on them because they would not hear his voice.

Centuries later, David referred to this incident in Numbers 14 when he wrote Psalm 95:1-11. He refers to it as an exhortation to Israel in his day and commanded them to hear the voice of God “today” (Psalm 95:7-8). Still many centuries later, the writer of Hebrews refers to the Psalm of David, which refers to Numbers 14, and exhorts those he was writing to to hear God’s voice “today” (Hebrews 3:7-19). To put it bluntly, both David and the writer of Hebrews used the words of Scripture to their contemporary audience and exhorted them to hear God’s voice. That is preaching with authority. That is preaching that must be heard and for which men will have to give account before God.

So, preach with authority. Preach the Bible. Don’t be Just Jerry with something to say.

The Preaching Secret

And the king of Israel said unto Jehoshaphat, There is yet one man, by whom we may enquire of the LORD: but I hate him; for he never prophesied good unto me, but always evil: the same is Micaiah the son of Imla.
~ 2 Chronicles 18:7

How to not lose friends and anger people.

If you set about the preaching task with determined assiduity, it’s going to happen. You are going to say something that upsets someone, and maybe many someones. After this happens, if you still have the ginger to declare, “Thus saith the Lord,” it will happen again. Just to be clear, I’m not referring to times when the preacher goes off script and pours out offenses on the congregation. I’m talking about when you are preaching a hard passage. If you are determined to preach what the Bible says, as the Bible says it, you will run into hard passages.

Preaching Hard Passages

By hard passages, I don’t mean passages hard to understand like Ezekiel’s wheels. I’m referring to passages that are hard to explain publicly for different reasons. Some passages are hard because they deal with delicate or sensitive subject matter, like some of the laws in Leviticus, events in Judges, the strange woman in Proverbs, the entire Song of Solomon, Isaiah’s ministry of nakedness, etc. Some passages are hard because they deal with a widely debated subject that the congregation could be divided over, like marriage and divorce, women in church, etc. Some passages are hard because they tip sacred cows and rebuke cherished traditions. Some passages are hard because they address some recent or historic problem within the congregation. Varying circumstances could make a passage hard to preach in that place and time. Of course, you have to allow for the outliers, like when you’ve preached some genealogy from the Chronicles and Sister Sally stomps out in a huff afterward. Sometimes you won’t know a passage is hard until after you’ve preached it, because it will step right on someone’s pet sin and they might accuse you of spying on them.

We need to know how to preach such passages without upsetting people. That’s the secret, but we will get to that in a moment. First, let’s think about some wrong ways of preaching hard passages that you’ve probably seen before.

  1. Evasive maneuvers
    This strategy simply tries to avoid hard passages. If you’re a random, shotgun preacher, you can pick your way around the Bible and avoid any passages that will cause trouble. The downside to this strategy is that any length of time using it will stunt the growth of the congregation by leaving them malnourished in the Word, and it will also not fulfill the ministry you’ve been called to for preaching all the counsel of God.
  2. Selective hearing
    This strategy relies on parallel passages in the Bible. Sometimes a passage has a parallel passage in another book and sometimes the parallel doesn’t have the troubling word or phrase. The preacher can select the innocuous version and still deal with the general subject while acting like that other passage doesn’t exist. One of the downsides here is that the congregation probably knows that other passage is there and their interest was piqued when they discovered the subject, because they wanted to know how the troubling parts were to be dealt with. The preacher who doesn’t even acknowledge the difficulty loses credibility with the congregation and his argument is weakened.
  3. Bait and switch
    This strategy involves warming up the crowd with strong expressions of how controversial your subject matter is and how hated you will be for daring to utter it publicly. You have to sell it, “Y’all will probably run me out of here after you hear what I have to say.” That’s the bait and the switch comes in when the preacher proceeds to preach something that congregation well knows and believes. Not only will they not be upset, but they will be cheering him on. The biggest downside here is that you’re not being honest. You’ve made it out like you’re playing the man before Bloody Mary, but really you’ve only preached to the choir and might get the fellowship hall named after you.
  4. The revelation
    This strategy involves properly setting up a message likely to offend by lengthy explanation that the preacher has been given a message from God and has no choice but to deliver it. Various phrases are employed: God gave me this message, God told me to preach this, the Lord laid this on my heart, etc. Effort is made to let the preacher off the hook for delivering a hard message because he was only the messenger. There are a few downsides here. The blow is never really softened in these situations and the preacher only sought to cover himself for a message designed to upset. Aside from this, the preacher has purchased cover for himself at the expense of preaching serious error. When he prefaces his message by saying God has given it to him in some way, he has denied the sufficiency of Scripture and the closed canon. He has dared to speak revelation to the people and the looming threats of Revelation 22:18-19 hover near.

What is the Secret?

Now we’ve come to it. How do we preach hard passages without upsetting people? First of all, we must preach hard passages if we are to preach all Scripture, which is the duty of the faithful preacher. We must understand there is no getting out of it. Second, preaching the whole counsel of God will upset people. Have you read the Bible? God’s Word tends to upset people and when people are upset, they tend to lash out. Since there is a great gulf and they’re unable to grab and pillory God himself, they will do the next best thing. They will seize his preacher and do what they will with him. Read the lives of the prophets and apostles. People got upset when those men spoke the Word of God.

We do want to avoid unnecessary offense and we do want to help the people we preach to. What is the secret for preaching hard passages in the most helpful way? The answer is: expository preaching. Expository preaching is preaching the meaning of a passage in its context. Topical exposition is preaching a subject from selected passages that explains those passages in their context. Sequential exposition is going verse-by-verse through a single passage in a sermon, or through a book in a series of messages. Expository preaching seeks to make the meaning of God’s words plain. Expository preaching endeavors to show people what God has said and meant in the words he inspired to be written.

People will still disagree and get upset with the preaching of hard passages. However, when you demonstrate care for God’s Word and care for their souls in carefully expounding the Spirit’s words, you will have credibility and do the congregation good in the long run.

Coffee May Be Hot

For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:
~ 1 Corinthians 1:22

At least, I hope so.

Before iced coffee was a thing, there was a spilled cup of coffee and a lawsuit. Aside from millions of dollars, the lawsuit resulted in a more prominent warning label on cups: “Caution: Handle With Care I’m Hot.” The very cup that was spilled had a warning imprinted on it: “Caution: Contents Hot.” That warning was deemed insufficient, so a larger, bolder, more obvious warning had to be used.

I am referring to the 1994 Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants suit, perhaps one of the most famous product liability civil suits. The lawsuit became the darling of politicians stumping for tort reform and decrying frivolous lawsuits. It has been the subject of special reports and the butt of many jokes. The woman in the case was severely burned. She was hospitalized for over a week, followed by two years of treatments for her injuries. Nothing about the burn injuries suffered by a woman in her seventies is funny. It’s awful.

McDonald’s refused all attempts at settlement out of court, resulting in the court case and the large compensatory and punitive damages awarded, which made this case so famous. McDonald’s had not broken any laws that governed their coffee service. The case was about whether the restaurant chain had taken sufficient measures to ensure the safety of their customers and the extent of their liability in personal injuries resulting from the use of their product. That’s where the warning labels come in and warning labels can be funny.

Some labels seem too absurd to be true. Some signs make us wonder about the story behind them. You know somebody tried the ridiculous thing the sign tells you not to do. The packaging for iron-on transfers for t-shirts often includes a warning about not ironing clothes while wearing them. Somebody, somewhere, probably did that.

Not the Problem

Warning signs can be helpful, can be the result of self-protection, and sometimes can be an attempt to fix a problem without dealing with the real problem. The picture with this post is of a hand-written sign taped to the inside of the door of a small pedestrian bathroom in an office building. The author of the sign attempted to give instructions on locking and unlocking the door. The instructions were somehow not sufficiently clear, so trouble was taken to manually revise the verbiage.

I don’t know the story behind this sign, but it amuses me to speculate about it. The door knob has a push-button lock. It is not a safety knob, so a key is required on the outside to unlock it. My three-year-old can operate push-button locks, so why do we need written instructions for adults? Most push-button locks operate only one way. You push the button in to lock the door and twist the knob to unlock the door and open it.

This particular doorknob is a little different. If you push the button straight in, it operates like all normal push-button locks. However, if you push the button in and turn the button to the right, the door will open when you turn the knob from the inside, but will stay locked. You then have to use the key to open it from the outside. I’m sure this happened quite often and is why the sign was made, put on the door, and later revised for clarity. I imagine the author of the sign grew tired of going to the door and finding it locked, though no one was inside. He probably also tired of interruptions when people came to him about the locked door. He wearied of hearing everyone’s complaints about the door, so he made a sign.

That sign, after the edits, may have purchased him some peace, but does it really address the problem. What is the real problem? Office workers complaining? Needing to use the facility and finding the door locked? While those are problems, they are not the real problem. The real problem is that door knob. The additional feature of turning the button to keep it locked is unnecessary and makes the lock confusing to operate, or at least easy to leave locked by mistake. The sign is not a real solution. It’s like covering a hole in the wall with a picture. A real solution to the real problem would be to change the doorknob to one that works the way that is needed.

Churches and Pastors

If some piece of furniture is in the way and people are always bumping into it, you could paint a yellow boundary around it on the floor and hang up signs warning people to be careful. This would reduce the number of bumps and if anyone still bumps into it, you can at least rest easy knowing you’ve warned them about it and it’s their fault if they get a bruise. Or, you could step back and try to get to the root of the problem. Maybe the piece doesn’t need to be there and could be moved out of the way. Maybe the walking traffic could be re-routed some other way away from it.

Problems abound in churches and too often we attempt artificial fixes like signs, and not the kind usually accompanied by wonders. Maybe the spirit of our services is too dull, our evangelism is lagging, our people are apathetic, the attendance is down, participation is down, etc. We are doing nothing more in these cases than tacking up a sign when we just spruce up the service with lively songs, make emotional appeals for more giving, or implement programs. Churches love to hang a program over every hole in the wall.

As pastors, it’s easy to be so wearied that we just want the problems to go away. It’s tempting to find quick fixes or go ahead and grease that squeaky wheel. Pastors need to be able to get to the root of problems and address them appropriately. Maybe evangelism is waning because the church has drifted away from a Gospel focus and centeredness. The answer is not a shiny new evangelism program to get everybody excited, but rather a return to Christ and him crucified. Maybe the church needs a clearer Gospel presentation and permeation of everything the church does.

It would have been easy for the Apostles to just want the complaining to stop in the problem with the widows in the Jerusalem church. Instead, they got to the root of the problem and addressed it at the root in Acts 6:1-6. Rather than just easing their headaches, the Apostles led the church in actions resulting in the growth and better health of the church (Acts 6:7). The real problem was not that widows were being neglected, though that was a problem. The real problem was not that Hellenists were complaining. The real problem was that the Apostles were so overworked with what they were trying to do, the congregation was not being served as it needed to be (Acts 6:1-2). The solution was to appoint other men over that matter and free up the Apostles to focus on the ministry they were called to (Acts 6:3-4).

Just because somebody is complaining about something doesn’t mean that something is a problem. Pastors must not only deal with symptoms and hang up warning signs. Pastors must get to the root of problems and address them in ways most beneficial to the long term health and growth of the church. Pastors must also remember they have been given to the church to mature the saints and equip them for serving (Ephesians 4:11-12). Sometimes we really do need to be careful because the coffee is hot, or the knife is sharp. Sometimes we need to change the doorknob, or rearrange the furniture. We always need to find the real problem and apply the appropriate solution that keeps the church being about what the church is supposed to be about.

By Any Other Name

A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold.
~ Proverbs 22:1
(Though Solomon probably wasn’t referring to sermon tiles.)

What should we call it?

Sermon titles is not a riveting subject. Let’s just admit that up front and get that out of the way. In terms of what is important about a sermon, the title is not high on the list. But, with that said, often the title of your sermon is the first thing people are going to encounter. If you publicize your sermon titles in advance, or if you publish your sermons in written, audio, or video form, the title is the first thing people see. Bad titles probably discourage people from clicking the link when other interesting things appear in their feeds.

Titles are not that important to the congregation you stand before week to week. They are live in-person in front you already. Your introduction is typically more important at that time to gain their attention. Titles are more important on the outside. If you release your sermons into the wild, I’m assuming you do so with the hopes they will be heard. Here is where good titles can interest and encourage people to listen and bad titles can put up a barrier to listening. If you truly view online sermons as outreach, then your target demographic is made up mostly of people who do not know they need your message or even why they need it.

Think about this in marketing terms for a moment. If you are trying to sell a product or service, you have to reach your target audience. If people don’t know what you’re selling, they can’t very well buy it. In order to sell anything, your product has to fit into one of two categories. First, it must meet a need or want that is known to potential customers. In this case, they know what problem they have and are looking for a solution. So you need to get their attention in a way they immediately recognize you have what they are looking for. Second, your product must meet a need your potential customers don’t realize they have. In other words, you’re trying to sell a solution to a problem people have but they don’t realize they have. This is generally some technology or service that makes some task easier for them. They don’t realize there is a better way to do it, so you have to educate them to the problem. Ideally, once they’ve recognized the problem and the validity of your solution, they’re ready to buy.

Selling to the first group is easier than selling to the second. If people are already looking for what you have, you just need to ensure visibility so they find you. However, if people are bouncing about on their merry way, watching cat videos and reading the latest gossips available online, you have to get their attention and quickly get them to understand they have a problem and need your solution. If you’re putting out sermons, your potential audience is some in the first group and many in the second. I realize people will not be comfortable with the marketing comparison I’ve used, but if something as simple as a published sermon title could result in more people hearing God’s word, isn’t it worth some attention?

Titling Do’s and Don’ts

I don’t know any hard and fast rules, but I can give some personal observations. I’ve talked with some who agonize over titles for lengthy times and tinker with subtle things endlessly. I can’t recommend this. Titles deserve some attention, but I still think a good sermon with a mediocre title is better than a mediocre sermon with a good title. You want people to listen and you want them to come back and listen again. Titles can help or hurt. I think about this more than I used to, so here’s my list in no particular order.

  1. Informative
    Titles should give listeners some idea about what they are going to hear. I have used titles like “Colossians #3” in the past. Such a title is not very informative. It could be worse, but not much. A person seeing that knows it is the third message in a series of messages on the book of Colossians, but they don’t have any idea what the message is about. I could have improved the information by rather using the title, “Paul’s Prayer for the Colossians.” That’s still not great, but it would be better than the first one.

    You want to avoid titles that are overly technical, confusing, or too long. You want a brief title that informs the potential listener what the sermon is about. In terms of the information conveyed, you want to keep it simple.

  2. Accurate
    Titles should match the sermon content. Not only do you want to inform, but you want to accurately inform. The title should accurately describe the content of the sermon and the sermon should deliver on the title. If you over-hype or get too flashy with the tile, the sermon will be disappointing. You can also lose credibility so people will not come back to hear more. You want to avoid being too clever so that your title plays on something so subtle that people listen and cannot make the connection.

    In a way of thinking, your title is a promise you are making to the listener. Keep your promise and deliver on it. You want to maintain accuracy, but understating is probably better than overstating. You don’t want to be clickbaity with your title.

  3. Interesting
    Titles should pique curiosity and/or invite people in. You want interesting along with informative and accurate. The title can convey some sense of how the sermon will help the listener. Avoid narcissistic titles. You should not be the hero of your sermons and neither should you be the hero of your titles.

    Sometimes it’s good to use applicational titles. Such titles speak directly to the listener. For example, I recently used the title, “Will You Hear?” I’m not saying it’s the greatest title ever used but it does speak immediately to the listener. The message was an expository message on part of Isaiah 28, but one of the applications of the passage was a challenge to hear God’s word. Again, it’s not the greatest title ever given to a sermon, but it fits the criteria of being informative, accurate, and interesting. It’s definitely a better title than, “Isaiah #42.” Any time you can speak directly to the needs of the listener, you can invite them in to listen.

It’s worth giving time and attention to titles, but not too much. You’re not trying to do everything with a title. I think you’re simply wanting to improve this aspect of the sermon and remove hindrances so more people will possibly listen.

Faded Jean Blues

“Take heed unto thyself”
~ 1 Timothy 4:16

On being your own man

Spurgeon urged his pastor’s college students to “throw away the servility of imitation and rise to the manliness of originality.” 1 He never wearied of telling them to be themselves and warned them against any imitation or pretense. Preachers should neither be copycats nor men-pleasers. Be your own man. Be an independent thinker. Be yourself. Don’t be a slave.

Was Spurgeon consistent, though? You have probably heard or read another of Spurgeon’s well-known quotes: “The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted.” 2 The first quote is from a lecture to his students and the second is from a sermon he preached from his pulpit in London. In the one, he said to be original and not an imitator. In the other, he said to read and quote other men. The two statements are least in tension, if not in conflict. How do you be original and quote others? How can you be an independent thinker and read the thoughts of others?

The statements can be resolved, and resolving them answers the pertinent questions for us: How do you be yourself, an independent thinker, truly your own man? Part of the problem lies in misconceptions of what being your own man is. Misguided attempts at being one’s own man range from comical to sad. Let’s explore the wrong road for a moment.

On not being your own man

Examples of getting this wrong are crowding in my mind like shoppers at the doors at Walmart waiting for Black Friday to begin. However, I am going to restrict admittance so as to keep this manageable. One way to get this wrong is like the angsty middle school girl. She wants to be her “self” so she goes goth, dyes her hair pink, or otherwise adorns herself in outrageous fashion. She seeks society among outcasts, isolating herself and always bewailing the fact her lot in life is all because she doesn’t “fit the mold.” She never considers that her ostracism is mostly self-imposed, or due to the fact she’s not nice or not a very good friend. Maybe she never considered that her attitude stinks worse than the fourth-hand military jacket she got from Goodwill.

If we look across the landscape of American Christianity, we see that preachers trying to be themselves doesn’t look a lot different. Some wear jeans and t-shirts, have their hair a little longer, and eschew churchy talk for grittier street words. Whatever difficulty they face, they quickly blame it on other people oppressing them for being “different.” They don’t “fit the mold” either, and they repeatedly tell everyone about it. They don’t seem to consider their conflicts with people might have more to do with their own attitude and pretensions than it does other people’s backward ways. In fact, other people don’t seem to be as hung up on their clothes as such preachers are.

I could get up in the morning and put on cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, but that doesn’t make me a cowboy any more than faded jeans makes you your own man, or any more than putting a tie on a duck makes the bird a preacher. Being your own man is not that way. You cannot be an independent thinker by simply changing your shirt. It’s not about crafting an image or affecting a persona through something we can put off or on.

One other way we get sideways on being our own man is thinking we are islands, off to ourselves. We don’t read or listen to other men. I’ve heard numerous boasts to that effect through the years. As it turns out, that sort of thinking for ourselves is actually only thinking of ourselves. It’s sitting in our own personal echo chamber where we only admit those who already agree with and support us. This was certainly not Spurgeon’s ideal of originality, whether in his counsel or in his practice. He was known for reading several books a week throughout his life. He urged preachers and all Christians to be reading. You remember the earlier quote from him about reading and quoting? Directly after that statement he said, “He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own.” 3

Aside from that, Proverbs identifies the man as a fool who will not receive counsel and instruction from others (Proverbs 1:7; 10:8; 12:15; 15:5). Thinking that being your own man means having no regard for the thoughts of others is thinking you are the wisest person in the world. It is thinking there is no other human being that can teach you anything. To be an independent thinker, you have to first be a thinker. Spurgeon said that kind of thinking proves you have no brains of your own.

Not such a problem after all

If you think about the two different pieces of advice, the answer is there. On one hand, Spurgeon said to read others and use the thoughts of others. On the other hand, he said to be original, not a slave, and not an imitator. How do you do both of those things? You do it by reading or listening thoughtfully for understanding. Someone who reads or listens to someone and then simply reproduces them verbatim, hasn’t learned nor understood anything. Your own thoughts haven’t been sharpened or informed. You could be a lazy plagiarist or a thoughtless plagiarist, but you would still be only a plagiarist. With practice, you could recite Shakespeare, but that doesn’t mean you understand it.

Reading thoughtfully for understanding means a sort of reverse engineering of what you read or hear. You must follow the argument, or the train of thought, to see how the conclusion was arrived at. If you hear a good sermon, don’t just get up and preach it. Examine it. Reverse engineer it so you understand why it was good. If a preacher makes a great argument in the pulpit or in print, work to understand why it is a good argument. If you hear an apologist give a good refutation of error, work through it to understand why it was good and why it was effective. Just because something sounded great or affected you, don’t turn around and use it on others. You have to study it. You have to make sure it is true and the logic of it sound.

This is reading or listening on another level. You are not only hearing what someone thinks; you are also understanding how they think. You will detect blindspots and prejudices. Doing so sharpens your own skills and thinking. Working at this will improve your own thinking and make you a more independent thinker. It will grow your discernment to where you’re not as easily wowed by a charismatic or persuasive speaker.

Being able to get to the bottom of things is critical for independent thinking. This post is not about properly attributing your sources. That is a good discussion but not the topic at hand. You could come across a well-put statement and recite it with proper credit, but still not understand it. What does the quote mean? Why did the author say that? How did he come to that conclusion?

Pastors must refute error (2 Timothy 2:24-26; Titus 1:11, 13). Refuting error requires having a reasonable understanding of the error. You must get to the bottom of things with error in order to understand how and why it is error, and to fully refute it. Are your people to avoid error simply because you told them so? Will you convince and instruct anyone by simply saying, “Trust me, that’s wrong.” Though some may trust you in the situation, without showing them how and why the error is wrong, you have not helped them mature. It takes more than “I say so” to keep yourself and your people from being tossed about by every wind of teaching (Ephesians 4:14). Pastors must be independent thinkers so they can model independent thought and equip their people to think independently. It’s not jeans and t-shirts that guide and guard people away from error. And, if you leave this post thinking I’m talking about what preachers wear, you haven’t got to the bottom of it.

Notes:

  1. Spurgeon, Charles H.. Lectures to My Students Volume 1 (Kindle Location 2342). Kindle Edition.
  2. Quoted from Spurgeon’ sermon, “Paul—His Cloak and His Books,” from 2 Timothy 4:13, delivered on Sunday Morning, November 29, 1863.
  3. ibid.

Over the Hill

Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.
~ 1 Timothy 4:16

I sat in the small, mostly white room. You could say it had a mauve accent. It was cold, though I wasn’t chilled. But, it was cold enough that everything felt almost damp. The cleanliness of the room was not in question, but I still wanted to touch as little as possible in there. Directly across from the straight, vinyl covered chair was a wall poster of a blackened lung that belonged to a longtime smoker. It reminded me of warnings against smoking from junior high.

I would again be reminded of junior high when the doctor came in and asked me questions I didn’t want to answer and scolded me about stuff I didn’t want to do. At least there was no paddle. The doctor came in and spent more time looking at the infamous chart and typing on the computer than making eye contact or giving me visible assurance I was being heard. As the doctor shuffled the file and the computer, I glanced at the chart. I don’t know why I felt so guilty about it, as if I were cheating on a test or something. I noticed my chart with my name on it was marked, “Prime of Life.” I almost laughed. I wanted to ask, “Does that mean this is the best it’s going to get for me?”

Have you ever noticed a lot of doctors don’t have much of what us civilians call a sense of humor. I suppose it’s the rigors of the work and all that. Once again, I’m back to junior high when the principal has serious concerns about my actions and I try to point out the funny in the business. Inevitably, they, and I quote, “Failed to see the humor.”

Middle Age is Also Middle Danger

Prime of life sounds nicer than middle-aged, but it doesn’t soften the realities that come with it. We could also say I’m at the top of the hill looking down the other side. I appreciate the attempts at positive spin, but I’m not bothered by it. Middle age frightens me, but not because of reduced energy levels, increased blood pressure, gray overtaking what’s left of hair, or more time spent in that little room with the doctor. Middle age is dangerous, particularly for a preacher, because being over the hill means it’s effortless to coast down the other side. The allure of easy chairs, TV sports, warm beds, and food and drink becomes stronger, or maybe the man is weaker.

As a young preacher you cannot easily see this fork in the road coming up. You’re full of fire and energy and can never imagine having to make a choice between leisure and work. You have so many things to learn and do you can’t imagine a strong desire to relax and do nothing. What’s unimaginable at 25 can become a daily battle at 45. Several years ago an older preacher asked me what hobbies I enjoyed. I don’t remember my reply, but the one in my head ran on this wise, “Hobbies? I ain’t got time for no hobbies. I got work to do.”

Young preachers all know older preachers they do not want to be like. They’ve seen the preacher who might as well advertise, “Have sermons, will travel.” He has his kit of sermons he’s preached hundreds of times and has warmed over so many times he could deliver them comatose. Young preachers see the cranky, bitter, ill-spirited old preacher who can instantly rain on any parade. They’ve seen the greasy salesman preacher always buttering everybody up and, as C. S. Lewis once said, if the biblical text had smallpox, his sermons would be in no danger of catching it. They’ve seen the politicking old preacher who is always calculating and being in the right place at the right time with the right people. They’ve seen the weeping preacher who’s not like Jeremiah, but rather is weepily pouting in the corner and continually licking his thirty year old wounds. They’ve seen the Elijah-under-the-juniper-tree preacher. He’s convinced he’s the only one faithful left and all these whippersnappers ain’t much.

Young preachers see these older specimens and don’t want to be like that guy. I doubt most of those older preachers started out that way. They probably weren’t so different from the young preachers today. I venture to guess that decisive turn came in middle age for them. That’s the time when it’s easy to think you’ve laid up enough goods that you can relax and live off the store. That’s the time when it’s deceptively easy to stop making progress in the ministry.

A Call to Preach is a Call to Work

In the interest of Fair Use, I disclose I’m about to paraphrase and fool about with something John Stott said somebody else said in his book on preaching, Between Two Worlds. When men stop making progress in the ministry, stop reading and thinking, it begins to show around the age of 45, or middle age. Their coasting typically deposits them on one side or the other. They become a bigot or a sentimentalist. The bigot resorts to the points of his dogma and hammers those nails until the heads are shiny at first, but soon they’re worn clean off. The sentimentalist is a widower who can’t let his deceased wife named Tradition rest in peace. He’s always digging her back up and bemoaning how they don’t make ’em like they used to.

Whatever you or I think about Stott’s thoughts about somebody else’s thoughts, there’s something there. A call to ministry is a call to serious, strenuous work marked by progress (1 Timothy 4:15). Paul told Timothy to give himself “wholly” to this work and continue to do so (1 Timothy 4:16). Paul explains what it takes to be “a good minister of Jesus Christ.” Spoiler alert: it takes a whole lot of continued, really hard work (1 Timothy 4:6-16). Just like the guy riding the pine wants to the be the star of the game but doesn’t want to practice, everyone wants to preach well when in the pulpit, but not everyone wants to work hard every day in the study.

Middle age comes and brings a lot of dangers, but it should not be the top of the hill for the preacher. He should continue to climb and make progress until death comes, or he is no longer physically able to climb. Young preachers will face this Hill of Difficulty at some point. It will be tempting to coast. Remember the warnings and persevere, brothers, persevere.

Next Page »