Let me say up front that no church can long endure a steady diet of negative preaching. No Christian, no matter how faithful, can withstand an unending barrage of sermons directed toward straightening them out. On a regular basis, we need messages reminding us we are loved, God is faithful, heaven awaits, and there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.
But sometimes the minister enters the pulpit with a burdensome task: to attempt a diagnosis, surgery and amputation, all in a 25-minute message. At those times, the sermon must cut deeply.
At those times, the message hurts. How the Lord's people ever came to expect their pastors to declare the riches of His Word without offending wrongdoers is beyond me.
It cannot be done.
"Offenders will take offense." Remember that. As columnist Dear Abby put it, "You throw a rock in among a bunch of dogs. The one that hollers got hit."
Delivering the commands of Scripture on how to live and think, how to re-prioritize our lives and change our behavior, and bring every detail of our existence under the Lordship of Jesus Christ without treading on anyone's toes is expecting a little much of the preacher.
George Whitefield, the great British preacher of the 18th century, gave us an unforgettable line on this ...
"It is a poor sermon that gives no offense; that neither makes the hearer displeased with himself nor with the preacher."
We preachers are a strange lot.
We will know this—that preaching is supposed to challenge the status quo and disturb the complacent and upset the pretensions of the hypocritical—and then turn around and feel like a failure when someone gets mad at us for doing it well.
"Where did I fail? Someone is angry with me!"
What a crybaby. C'mon, warrior. Gird up your loins. Be strong in the Lord.
The deacon had no appointment because this urgent matter had robbed him of sleep through the night and surely demanded the preacher's immediate attention.
"Pastor, that sermon yesterday."
"Yes. The one on materialism."
"Are you aware that some in the congregation were offended by it?"
"Ha. I wouldn't be surprised."
"Well, to be specific, pastor, Mr. Crenshaw, the owner of the big plant out at the edge of town—you know he employs half the givers in our church, the people who pay your salary—told Deacon Johnson that he felt like getting up and walking out when you said what you did."
"What did I say? What are you referring to?"
"You know, when you said that the man who stored up wealth was a fool."
"I didn't say that, my friend. Jesus said it."
"Well, that's one way of putting it. I know it's there in the Bible somewhere."
"Not just 'somewhere,' deacon, but here in Luke 12:20. God called the man a fool. I was just quoting Him."
"Well, that's not how Mr. Crenshaw took it."
"So, what are you suggesting?"
"Some of us think it would be good if you went to see Mr. Crenshaw and apologized. We need influential people like him in our church."
And the pastor said, "Why?"
That is the question that has no answer.
Why do we think we need carnal people in the church just because they exercise power over men and control wealth in the world? Is God weak and in need of their assistance? Should the church apply for welfare? Go on disability?
Jesus did not soften His approach and sweeten His words to the Pharisees. "With your tradition, you actually violate the command of God" (Matt. 15:3). "Your tradition nullifies the commands of God" (15:6).
He called them names.
"You hypocrites, Isaiah well prophesied of you, saying: 'These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. In vain they do worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men'" (Matt. 15:7-9).
That kind of preaching is not carefully calculated to impress the influential and draw in the powerful.
One of the worst things ever to happen to the Lord's church was when it decided to tone down its preaching in order to attract the world's crowd. As though the Lord needs them and as though the size of the crowd validates either the message or the messenger.
Lord, help us.
The Lord Jesus Christ is not insecure, not powerless, and not suffering from low self-esteem. He does not "feel better about Himself" when a bigshot condescends to show up in church and honor Him with his presence.
The Lord does not need anyone and the size of the crowd proves nothing. Anyone doubting this will benefit from reading John 6:60-66. Jesus actually dialed up the intensity and sharpened the offense of His preaching to drive out the unbelievers and enrage the fence-straddlers.
Pastors do two very foolish things in this regard, both of them Christ-insulting.
1. They present insipid, uninspired, safe, offenseless messages designed to please everybody with their sweetness and pleasantries. We call it "positive thinking" and even "good news." (But good news is only that if it addresses and remedies a bad situation. Otherwise, it's meaningless.)
2. When they get it right and someone gets mad at the truth they preached, they feel that in some way they have failed in their assignment and want to go apologize to the Pharisees.
Sometimes the sermon is wimpish and sometimes the preacher is the wimp.
Consider this a call for preaching that tells the truth and offends the untruthful, that is sharper than a two-edged sword and just as dangerous, and that lays it on the line Sunday after Sunday without regard to what this does to the pastor's job security.
If I am hoarding God's money or spending it on my own pleasures, let the pastor preach a ringing sermon condemning materialism even if it angers me. My anger proves he hit his mark.
If I am afraid of the world and cower in my home rather than go down the street to witness to my neighbor, let the pastor call us to "rescue the perishing" and make us feel guilty when we do not. If I take it personally, then good. I should not feel good about cowardice and disobedience.
If I am neglecting my family in order to carve out a bigger piece of success in the world, let the pastor preach God's Word on the father's responsibility to husband his wife and nurture his children and protect his home. If it offends, so be it. He has been fingered by the Almighty; let him hurt a little; it's good for him.
If I am devoting my energies and investing my wealth on foolish pursuits like supporting ball teams and traveling to distant cities for meaningless sport, let the pastor ask us "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" And let him care not one whit whether half the congregation gets angry at him. In eternity, they will rise up and bless him.
Pastors have bigger goals than pleasing a congregation, larger aims than job security, and a higher priority than a great reputation. The Apostle Paul who "got" this, said, "If I should please men, I would not please God" (Gal. 1:10).
Every pastor has to choose.
One final word. Consider this a call to churches to grow up and free the preacher to declare the whole counsel of God, letting the chips fall where they may.
Let the deacon leadership keep reminding one another and the entire congregation from time to time: "If a preacher does his job well, people will sometimes be offended. If you get offended by our minister's preaching, do not come running to us with a complaint. We thank God for such a faithful pastor."
Every church has to choose whether it is willing to hear from God or to be rocked to sleep by the Lord's messenger. The first can be painful, the second is scandalous.
"Lord, bless Your church please."
After five years as Director of Missions for the 100 Southern Baptist churches of metro New Orleans, Joe McKeever retired on June 1, 2009. These days, he has an office at the First Baptist Church of Kenner where he's working on three books, and he's trying to accept every speaking/preaching invitation that comes his way.
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