Saturday, January 23, 2010

What's a Preacher's Job?

I receive the daily news summary email from the Christian Post called CP Today, and in today’s email there was a link to an article by Christian Today reporter Charles Boyd entitled: Survey: Sermons Fail to Inspire Change in Believers (see below for a link to the article). In that article he writes about a survey of 193 Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists and Baptists commissioned by the College of Preachers to commemorate its 50th anniversary. (The survey was conducted by the CODEC research center at St. John’s College in the U.K. so I assume it was not taken in America, but I don’t know that for sure.)

According to the survey, “Sixty-two percent of those questioned said sermons frequently gave them a sense of God’s love and helped them to understand Jesus; two thirds said they ‘frequently’ looked forward to the sermon; and 84 percent said the sermons should be rooted in the Bible.” But, and this seemed to be the main thrust of the article, the survey also found that of those surveyed, “. . . only 17 percent said sermons frequently changed their attitudes towards others or helped them look afresh at controversial or topical issues.” In fact, the article begins, “Congregations may look forward to the pastor’s sermon, but when it comes to bringing about a change in their attitudes or lifestyle, preaching appears to have little impact.” According to the research team, people want sermons that are biblical and relevant to contemporary life/issues, and over one quarter of the respondents indicated they wanted them to be entertaining, too.

If you know me at all you probably know that, if anything, I am too introspective—I spend a lot of time examining myself, what I am doing, what I am supposed to be doing, what it is all about, etc. So, it is fair to say, I am very willing to look at what a pastor/preacher is supposed to be. In fact, I do not want my job description to be formed by cultural expectations or traditions, but rather solely by what God has ordained it to be.

So, comes the natural question—what is a pastor’s job from the pulpit? Hebrews 10:24 says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,” and Ephesians 4:11–12 says, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” So, there is a Biblical role for “stirring up” others to action, and for equipping and building up the body of Christ.

But, I wonder, where does the ultimate responsibility for change in a person come from? I really wonder, in this day and age, if we are too dependent on preachers and teachers to entertain and grow us, when we are the ones who should be diligently studying God’s Word and investing in our relationship with God all week long. I have met many, many Christians who can, without a problem, spend hours watching a movie or sports and think nothing of it—but who will complain or question when the sermon goes 45 minutes—and who would never go to a mid-week study. I wonder, where does the true responsibility/problem lie in that equation when we can acknowledge a Creator who gave us life and sent His Son to die for us, but we resent having to listen to His Word being taught for an hour and yet we can watch a movie or TV for 3–4 hours without thinking twice?

As a pastor, yes, I want to inspire people to change. And, yes, as a human loving other’s approval, I’d love to be thought of as a “good” preacher. But, too often, it seems “good” really means entertaining or evoking emotion, and I believe that the real, deep change will not come from a sermon that fires up the emotions but from the repentant, deep meeting with God that comes in our quiet place. The College of Preachers concluded from the survey that sermons, as they stand now, “are better at helping people to reflect than challenging them to act.” I wonder, is that all bad?

I think, if I am honest, while it is exciting to see someone catch a fire during a sermon, that I would prefer, as a whole, to have people quietly leaving having been brought to that place of reflection where they can, in the coming days, meet at a deep level with God and transact a deep, true change that is fueled by love and relationship and not an emotional moment. I have, in countless trips with youth, seen the quickly fading effects of emotional decisions—even decisions accompanied by genuine tears and sorrow. Those decisions rarely have endurance. But, I have also seen the tremendous fruit of someone who has wrestled and struggled and fought their way in to a sacrificial decision to embrace God and live with Him as Lord. And while those decisions are rarely quick in happening, they usually carry with them great endurance.

So, in conclusion, yes I want to inspire people. Yes, I want to motivate people to look at things differently and to live differently. Yes, I want to teach people and equip people. But, I also know that it is truly only in that deeply considered and strongly weighed transaction between and individual and God, fueled by the Holy Spirit, that true, enduring change will occur. When Jesus is lifted up it is He that draws people to Him, and even Jesus says we are to count the cost before following Him—and that usually doesn’t happen in 40 minutes, it usually happens in the weeks that follow the 40 minutes. At least that’s what I think, but I’d love to hear what you think if you’d care to comment.

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  1. The answer is clear to me: The ultimate responsibility for change in a person lies squarely on the shoulders of the Holy Spirit. "The transforming power of the Holy Spirit is the birthright of every child of God." He uses many methods to accomplish the change, but His primary tool is the word of God . . . when I have spent much time in the word of God, almost any sermon can touch and change me because I am attuned to His voice.

    So, although it is His job to change us, each child of God is responsible for his/her side of the two-sided relationship with God. Your blog is right on . . . but I have a suggestion. Instead of admonishing your flock to "diligently study" Scripture, just tell them to read it a lot! We are not all intellects like you, my dear friend. Thinking they don't know how to or aren't smart enough to study Scripture might keep some from even reading it. Does that make sense?

    Most times, I do not "diligently study," I just ask the Lord to speak to me as I read. In response to that prayer, He impresses me with certain verses or words . . . impresses me with who He is and how He loves me and so on. For example, He lets me know that verses such as "I will never leave you nor forsake you" are spoken to ME from HIM, even if I don't know the history and context from which that quote in Hebrews came. For history and context (which is important and interesting) I rely on my pastors and Bible Study teachers. But if I never knew those facts, I would still know God has promised to be faithful to me.

  2. Thanks, Amy, for your thoughts and comment. I always value your feedback. I understand your thoughts about encouraging reading a lot as opposed to diligently studying. I can see where that might intimidate some people. On the other hand—food for thought—I wonder if we don't do a disservice by maybe watering down the need for diligence in our walk and seeking of God and studying His Word. I did a search for "diligent" and "diligently" in the ESV version and it came up with 39 times it is used in the Bible. It includes such verses as:

    De 4:9 "Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. And teach them to your children and your grandchildren,

    De 28:1 Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the LORD your God will set you high above all nations of the earth.

    Ps 77:6 I call to remembrance my song in the night; I meditate within my heart, And my spirit makes diligent search.

    Ps 119:4 You have commanded [us] To keep Your precepts diligently.

    2Ti 2:15 Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

    Heb 4:11 Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience.

    Heb 11:6 But without faith [it is] impossible to please [Him], for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and [that] He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.

    2Pe 1:10 Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble;

    Anyway, just some thoughts. I have found tremendous benefit in just reading and reading the Word, and I have also found some of the greatest revelation to come when I study out a topic in the Word. I know that I am tremendously privileged in my call as a pastor to be able to do that, but I don't think that would mean that it is not good for others to study as well (and I know you weren't saying that they shouldn't). Again, thanks so much for yours feedback and thoughts. I treasure when readers give them as it gives me food to "chew" on as well.

  3. Maybe you need to define for me what "study out a topic" means. If you mean what you just did with the word "diligently" -- right on! But sometimes if I'm reading commentaries or Bible Studies I feel like I'm getting too much of So and So's opinion or interpretation and not enough instruction from the Holy Spirit Himself. Does that make sense? And nowadays it seems like everyone's trying to put a new spin on old interpretations, which makes me just want to stick with the Bible and let God teach me.

  4. Erick,
    Most of my life I have been an advocate for preaching and its benefits. Two of my favorite books have been "preaching" books. Lectures to my students by Spurgeon and 'The Supremacy of Preaching" by John Piper. I must confess that in more recent days I would agree with the deductions of the survey. One of the problems with modern preaching is that it is an escape for many ministers from tackling the "real" ministry. They get to hide behind their pulpits and an excuse that they need to put in their 40 hours of studying to bring the life changing gospel to people. "Too many pastor's agree with the cliche "I love the ministry except for the people!" What they mean is, "I love to get paid to study God's Word and tell people what to do without getting to know them."

    Now there is certainly a need for correct thinking and an in depth look at God's word. But I think real change not only comes from the quiet time you suggested, but through a ministry of discipleship. Jesus commanded us to "go and make disciples" and he gave us an example in how pouring his life intimately into 12 men could change the world! The problem for ministers is that discipleship is messy and answers to problems and learning to walk the walk are more difficult than "3 points and a poem."

    If you think about it, preaching as we know it didn't come on the scene until the reformation and was "perfected" by the puritans and people like Charles Spurgeon. Preaching in the book of Acts was always evangelistic in nature and then small fellowships were established regionally as "follow up" to the conversions that took place. Even the teaching time at Synagogue was interactive and not directed by only one man.

    So though I don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, I confess pulpit preaching largely falls flat and its because pastor's aren't getting outside their doors and into the lives of the devoted. It is this combination that is a part of "shepherding the church." When that happens across the board, you'll see the national statistics change because people will begin to be transformed as disciples and will arrive in church "craving the pure milk of the Word that we may grow by it."

    That's my two cents!


  5. Thanks Amy and Jason for your thoughts. This is the kind of dialogue and growing each other that I crave. I used to love to just discuss (and argue) simply for the fun of it (as an end in itself) but now, as I have grown, I find arguing and "devil's advocating" for its own sake a turn off. What I crave, and what you are giving me, is discussion and tackling issues with a true heart to grow closer to God's truth---with a hunger to be more of who He calls us to be and less of who the world says we are supposed to be. So, to both of you, "thanks"---I know you both hunger to grow closer to Him and aren't just out to be "right" and I find that an exciting dialogue to be in to! Some of my thoughts to both of your comments follow:

    Amy: By studying out a topic I mean truly endeavoring to find God's truth on it---across the full breadth of His Word and not just in an isolated, out of context verse that seems to justify our stand/hope on something. I mean meditating on His Word, chewing on it, examining it, searching it, and seeking the counsel of others on it, as well. My personal Bible does not have commentary in it because I want God to speak to me before man does. I try to chew on His Word, work through it, pray about it, and let the Spirit be my teacher on it. Then, when I feel it is time, I value turning to others and commentaries I respect and seeing what else God has shown others about it. This is valuable to me, as is listening to teachers on the radio, CD, etc. I value being taught by others whom God has already taught, as long as His voice has primacy in my life. I believe what I am describing is accessible to most believers in America, and I believe it is Biblical. I think you and I are on the same page, and maybe just not understanding each other's word choices. I am so grateful that the Holy Spirit stands ready to open up the eyes of my heart to His truths as I stand eager to understand them!

    Jason: I couldn't agree more with you. I have been afraid of isolating myself from people as the church grows. I remember being very surprised as I met with a pastor of a large church and asked him how he kept in the lives of the people he was shepherding as the church grew. I was surprised because he seemed surprised and said that many pastors liked the growth because it allowed them to simply study and administrate and leave the "getting dirty" to others. I do have to be honest---there are times I am tired, selfish, running low on "fuel," burned, disappointed in others, or whatever when the last thing I want to do is answer the phone or go to someone's house or pour out in to someone. Just curling up by the fire, studying, and teaching is all I want to do. But I try and fight that because I know that while my "calling" is to teach at the church, I am also, and first, God's child and I always have the call to love others and be in their lives as He was, whether I am a pastor or not. I have struggled with establishing effective discipleship, though I absolutely know that to be a core/key element in true growth. I don't think we can overestimate the value of deep level discipling and mentoring and modeling on a small group or one-on-one level, I am just struggling to figure out how that looks in the dynamics of our fellowship and my own life.

    Thanks, again, both of you. To anyone else reading, feel free to jump in with your questions or your prayerful thoughts!

  6. I am posting a comment below from Debbra which I received by email instead and asked her permission to publish:

    Having just returned home in great reflection after church, your blog resonated with me. Even now, though, I can feel that sense of deep reflection dissipating with distractions back at home. This is probably why a week later, most Christians can't tell you what the sermon was about. As I read your comments I thought, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink."

    Perhaps that is the preacher's job - to lead to the water... 1 I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: 2 Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. (2 Tim 4:1-2) The passage goes on to say what eventually the people will do, which isn't very encouraging. But you are there for the ones who are willing to drink, to let the sword "penetrate even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.(Heb 4:12-13) And there is the key - the One to whom we must give account - not the preacher, but the Lord who sees all.

    (I'm thinking out loud here, processing and reflecting and just sharing it with you, as a teacher myself...)

    The world demonstrates a speaker giving a presentation and the audience responding to the speaker. But the Word of God shows the speaker or preacher, laying forth the Word and the people responding to God. The speaker may not ever get to see the response.

    I agree with what you are saying about the responsibility for change is on the individual and their transaction with God through the Holy Spirit. Some will press in for that change, others won't. And I agree, that doesn't usually happen in 40 minutes!


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