Q. I’ve been looking for a church in my area for some time now and I’m starting to get discouraged. The pastors of the churches I’ve visited haven’t gone very deep in their preaching. I haven’t yet heard anyone preach exegetically through a passage, for example, and they often get sidetracked talking about superficial matters. Some of them actually seem to get their sermons off the Internet and then just adapt them with personal anecdotes. I’ve talked with some of them about my concerns and they’ve told me they’re “trying to keep it basic” for the sake of new believers. But it seems to me that this is just keeping everybody in perpetual immaturity.
My main point of frustration is that pastors either don’t seem to take their roles very seriously and seem to be just providing entertainment, or they teach really basic stuff super dogmatically but don’t really challenge their congregations. My understanding of what a pastor should be is someone who is there to equip and guide the congregation in terms of what the Bible really teaches, how to apply it to one’s life, and then how to understand our culture in order to engage it. As it is, half the time I stay home and listen to podcasts by people whose vision and style I appreciate such as Tim Keller. I know Christianity is about community and about giving back and being part of the change, but I don’t know where to begin.
In my first post in response to this question, I described what I thought was reasonable and fair for a person to expect from the sermons in their local church: that they be original (not pulled off the Internet and dressed up with a bit of local color), biblical (based on a passage carefully worked through), coherent, and challenging. Now let me share some thoughts about what a person shouldn’t necessarily expect from the sermons in their church, in the hopes that this will help you be more open to some particular churches near you than you might be otherwise.
Let me begin with a story. When I was no more than a few months into my first solo pastorate after seminary and graduate school, a longtime member asked to meet with me. She took a few minutes to describe how she listened to Charles Stanley on television on Sunday mornings before coming to our service, and then she got right to the point: “I wish you would preach more like Charles Stanley.” (I thought to myself, “I wish I could preach more like Charles Stanley!”)
But an interesting thing happened after that. Several months later, I was speaking with this same woman again, and she admitted, “For some reason, I now enjoy listening to your sermons just as much as to Charles Stanley’s, and I get just as much out of them.” I knew that the reason wasn’t that in those few months I had somehow caught up in preaching ability with this naturally gifted speaker who has years of experience before a national television audience. There was a different reason, which I’d like to explain by way of an analogy.
The classic definition of a sacrament is that it’s “the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” But there’s another definition that I find just as meaningful: “A sacrament is the community bearing witness to God’s work in an individual life.”
When you commit yourself to following Christ, for example, you don’t baptize yourself. You share your testimony of faith with the leaders and members of your local church, and when they are convinced that your commitment is genuine, they will baptize you. If you feel called to the ministry, you don’t ordain yourself. You make the case that you are called before the leaders of your church and of the other churches it is in fellowship with, and likely after a period of testing and training, they will ordain you. Similarly you don’t perform your own wedding, or eat the Lord’s Supper all by yourself. In all these sacramental instances the community of Jesus’ followers is bearing witness to God’s work in individual lives.
A sermon can be thought of as a “counter-clockwise sacrament,” that is, an instance when things flow in the other direction: A sermon is an individual bearing witness to God’s work in the life of a community. When preparing a sermon, or a series of sermons, the pastor considers carefully what God has been doing in the life of the community (discerned by walking as a shepherd among the people and sharing their journeys of faith), and then chooses a biblical passage or book that will speak to that activity, encouraging the people in the progress that has already been made and challenging them to press on further.
I think the woman who was such a big fan of Charles Stanley came to appreciate my sermons just as much as his not because they were delivered with equal polish and eloquence, but because she sensed that they were speaking to and about the life of faith we were all living together in our church. She saw her own journey depicted and addressed in my sermons, and she felt right at home in them.
I think this is what you can and should reasonably expect from the sermons in your local church. But you will need to become part of its ongoing shared life before you will hear your own story being told in the sermons. Perhaps there’s a church you’ve visited whose people and programs you really like, but you’re just not so sure about the sermons. Well, an awful lot of local church sermons will suffer by comparison with the Tim Keller podcasts you’ve been listening to at home. Let’s face it, there aren’t too many Tim Kellers or Charles Stanleys out there, and it’s not fair or reasonable to expect any given local church pastor to preach and teach at that same level. The purpose of preaching is not to give the parishioners a Bible school education from the pulpit—there are other times and places to get that kind of instruction.
So I’d encourage you to give such a church a fair try, particularly if the sermons seem to have the potential to meet the basic expectations I outlined at the beginning of this post. You may find before long that a “counter-clockwise sacrament” is bearing witness, every time you hear a sermon in this church, to the life you’ve come to share with those people, and you’ll feel right at home.