You may know a lot of things. Maybe you can diagram Greek sentences with your eyes closed. Perhaps you’ve even memorized entire books of the Bible. I’m sure that all of that knowledge helps you when you stand before your congregation to preach. But here’s something that you don’t know.
You don’t know what’s going on in the pew.
You don’t know that they guy who slipped in at the last minute was himself a minister before he picked up an addiction to alcohol.
You don’t know that the couple that started going to your church 30 years before you came to town will go home and work out the final details of their divorce.
You’re very familiar with the husband and wife who are coming to grips with losing both a son and a grandson in the span of three years. But what you don’t know is that they have very serious questions about the goodness of God in the face of their suffering.
There is a broken heart on every pew in your church. Regardless of how they may look or how fine they tell you they are doing, there are people who are being crushed under the weight of cancer, divorce and doubt. They need hope.
And if all you give them on Sunday morning is part six in a sermon series called 50 Shades of Grace, they’re not going to get it. Not at your church at least.
The Church is powerful. It is the living body of Christ. At it’s best, it is a vehicle of hope to the hurting and a deliverer of good news to the lost. It really is that simple. But at it’s worst, the local church is a factory full of gimmicks where leaders who are too smart and culturally savvy for their own good obscure the gospel with yesterday’s trends and hot topics.
The last thing that a man who is being tempted to abandon his wife and kids for the woman at work needs to hear on a Sunday morning is a message on how to kick your sex life up a notch with a couple of Bible verses sprinkled in.
The last thing a woman who just lost her granddaughter needs to be reminded of is how relevant her pastor is.
The last thing a kid who’s contemplating suicide needs to hear is a sermon about how Easter reminds us that we can rise up to the next level of financial blessings.
But, for some reason, that’s what many churches keep offering.
For far too long, far too many churches have built their foundations on the sinking sand of gimmicks rather than the solid rock of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So they manipulate messages and numbers and people to reach ridiculous man-made baptism goals for Easter weekend. Out of fear of sounding too much like some old school preacher, their pastor abandons sermons dealing with sin, death and punishment for generic conversations about living life at the next level.
I’ve spent almost two decades in ministry. In that time I’ve seen too many young kids who have grown up in the church eventually walk away from whatever faith they had. Much of that is due to the fact that their church was nothing more than a giant entertainment center and their faith was an invisible rabbit’s foot that was given to them by a pastor who cared much more about being hip than being a disciple maker. We are feeding our kids a diet of Nickelodeon and we wonder why they have no answers for the CSPAN questions that come their way in adulthood.
Ultimately, we know that the Church wins. But the same can’t be said of every local church. Some of them will lose because they’re too busy fighting with one another to fight against the devil. Others will fail because they’ve worked so hard at being like the culture that, whether they know it or not, they have replaced their salt and light with Kool-Aid and cookies. And not even the good cookies. Sugar cookies.
Pastors do themselves and their churches a favor when they remember that it’s not their style or cutting edge approach to ministry that changes lives. Only God can do that. And his primary instrument of doing it in the church is a man with the boldness to preach what God says rather than speculate about what he thinks the culture would like for him to say.
I’ve preached a lot of sermons. A lot of them have been bad. Real bad. I hardly ever preach a sermon without walking away thinking what I could have done better. It’s different after a really bad sermon. I usually walk away from those thinking about how I should have just stayed in bed. Inevitably, someone will come to me and say how much my bad sermon helped them to understand the gospel better as they go through some difficulty. I think to myself, “That! How?” And then God reminds me. He doesn’t need pastors to be his marketers, public relations gurus or style coaches. Rather, he chooses to use us simply as his instruments. Broken, imperfect instruments carrying a powerful message and serving a perfect God.
When a pastor sets his sights on the gospel, God works in the lives and through the pain that no one knows anything about. When a pastor sets its sights on relevance, it’s just him that’s working. And, for the church at least, nothing could be more irrelevant.