Every pastor deals with a certain reality every single week. I’ve heard it referenced as the “relentless return of Sunday.” You preach your heart out, pour yourself empty, and exhaust yourself physically and emotionally only to wake up on Monday or Tuesday and realize the process begins for another week. In many ways, it is equivalent to writing and presenting a research paper every single week.
Any honest pastor will tell you there are days when you stare blankly at a certain passage of Scripture and have the thought, “How do I preach this?” We question how to make it into an outline. We wonder how we can apply this to our people’s everyday lives. Sometimes we even wonder what in the world the passage means!
I’ve discovered a secret that has been more helpful to me in sermon preparation than any other principle. I also believe it’s the key to personal discipleship, to counseling burdened people, and even to sharing the Gospel with a lost friend. Here’s the principle: Just say what the Bible says.
That may sound overly simplistic. In fact, I bet when you read that statement, you thought it was an extremely elementary thing. I understand that. I really do. I also believe that sometimes we complicate preaching, discipleship, counseling, and evangelism. I want to encourage you to begin implementing this simple principle in your everyday life. Here’s how this statement affects the following areas.
There are passages that are difficult to preach. Shocker, right? Some texts are hard to understand, difficult to work into an outline, or tough to try to apply to a group of people. My guiding principle throughout this is to just say what the Bible says. I believe it was Paige Patterson who once said, “Expository preaching is getting your people to read their Bible.” There is perhaps no better way to implement expository preaching than to just say what the Bible says. No more, no less. It’s important to notice that the most important question in sermon preparation is not, “What does the commentary say?” God wrote a book. Let that book speak to the people of God.
What is successful discipleship? People would probably answer this in a myriad of ways. I believe all successful discipleship has one thing in common: an intensified passion and focus on the Word of God in the life of the person being discipled. If that happens, then it truly will affect all other areas of his life. In other words, if we can get that person to begin to just say what the Bible says, we have helped put him on the path toward an abiding walk with Christ.
The Word of God affects all of counseling. It doesn’t matter if it is a professional counseling environment or one friend counseling another over coffee. We have all had those difficult times in the midst of counseling someone else or simply giving advice to a friend where we have come to that line. You know, THAT line. Do I take a step out and tell him what he really needs to hear? Do I tell him what God’s standard is for his life? Or do I cower back in fear and just say something to appease him? We should maneuver through these times by simply saying what the Bible says.
The reality of heaven and hell are tough things for a lost culture to grapple with. If we’re honest, it is a difficult message to deliver to people who don’t believe the same way we do. Some, in an attempt to be loving and inclusive, change what the Bible says to make it more palatable to a lost person. How unloving! The most loving thing we could ever do is say what the Bible says. The Bible speaks of repentance, of faith, of surrender, of taking up your cross, of following the Lord Jesus Christ. Those words are life. Just say what the Bible says.
I truly believe that if you’ll begin to practice this principle in your everyday life, you’ll see the Lord do some amazing things. God loves to work in the lives of those who hold His Word as the source of life and truth in the world. Will you take God at His Word? Will you just say what the Bible says?
With my semi-retirement coming up, I have been reflecting on the journey God has taken me on. In 1973, when I was 22, First Baptist Church of Wyaconda, Missouri, called for my ordination.
In those days, ordination was taken seriously, and a church would only call for your ordination if you had demonstrated real evidence of God’s calling on your life. I don’t mean to downplay modern ordinations, but it seems to me that the church is ordaining people as fast as the copier can print. I am of the old school that says there should be a period of testing and examination of those who feel called.
I also understand the struggle of that calling. It is hard to tell if the feeling you have in your heart is from God or the hot sauce at Senor Fajita’s restaurant. In either case, you need the Lord.
Back in those days, ordinations were far and few in between. I was nervous about the whole process. On the Sunday of my ordination, the church set aside an entire afternoon to examine my doctrine. A chair was placed in the center of the platform, and the auditorium was full of ordained deacons and pastors from all over the county. I took the hot seat, and the examination began.
The first question they asked was about my testimony and how I came to saving faith in Christ. I told the story of how I was lost, without hope and unable to save myself. I told of how I called upon the shed blood of Christ to cleanse me and asked Jesus to become the Lord of my life, promising to follow Him the rest of my days. They asked me to quote Scriptures to back up each of my points.
Another man stood up and asked me to testify about how God called me into the ministry. I told the story of how I was going my own way when God tapped me on the shoulder and whispered in my ear that he wanted me to preach the gospel. (I left out the part about the hot sauce; these were very serious men.)
Still another man asked me to explain what my spiritual gift was and how it had manifested itself in my life. Again, I responded with Scriptures and testimonies of God using me in teaching for the church.
For the next three hours, I sat there, sweating, as they grilled me on every possible doctrine: salvation, justification, sanctification, the Second Coming and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. These men were just warming up. Even though many were laymen, they knew the Scriptures backwards and forwards and could preach the gospel at the drop of a hat.
They were almost through when one of them had another question for me: Would I always preach in a Baptist church?
“No, sir,” I said simply.
There was a collective gasp and a rustling in the pews as they turned and looked at each other. Did they hear correctly? In their mind, I had just gone from being a Baptist to Badtist.
The man who asked the question looked stunned. “Maybe you didn’t understand. Will you always preach in a Baptist church?”
Again, I answered simply, “No, sir.”
“Where do you think you’re going to preach?” he asked.
I explained to him that my calling was not to be a Baptist but a defender of the truth, preaching hope to the lost, those in need of a Savior. I would preach “in season and out of season” (1 Tim. 4:2). If no one came, then I would do what the Lord said in the book of Luke: “Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that My house may be filled” (Luke 14:23, KJV). I told him if God allowed me, I would keep going until I had preached to the uttermost parts of the earth. “Yes, I am a Baptist, and I will probably be asked mostly by Baptists to come and preach,” I explained. “But if God opens other doors, I will step in and proclaim His Word.”
After I finished, the men dismissed themselves to convene a council to discuss my answers. It seemed to take forever, but after an hour, they came out, laid hands on me and presented me to the church. I was glad it was over. And almost 45 years later, I still feel the same. The author of Acts says it best: “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24, NIV).
Since retiring from the active pastorate on July 31st, 2012, I have been preaching in many different and varied places. It has been a real joy to be able to be among the people of God in various churches. It is truly a blessing to be able to minister to people by preaching God’s Word to them. I have been impressed by how many good, Godly people are members of our churches, especially the smaller ones.
I am encouraged by the great Christian people I have met, I am also concerned by what I see and hear in many churches. While I hate to say it, I think that based on what takes place in the vast majority of our churches, Christianity is being weakened and its churches are in trouble. I know that the church will survive until the coming of Jesus but I am afraid that it is growing weaker by the day. It is not in trouble based on its beliefs and doctrines. They are sound and secure even though the world is trying to alter these as well. But, the church is in trouble because she is basically doing nothing based on my observations as I travel around and preach. This is not a new revelation to me, but it has been confirmed as I have been exposed to different congregations. I have often said that I do not understand why the people keep coming back each Sunday with no more enthusiasm and energy than is being experienced in our churches. To put it bluntly; they are dead, dead, dead. There is no excitement and energy about being in God’s House on His day. When the preacher takes the pulpit to bring God’s Word, he has to generate any energy that is in the room in order to be able to preach with enthusiasm and power. It should not be left up to the preacher to generate the energy in the worship service. He should find the people energized and expectant to hear what the Lord has to say. In addition, Sunday School is not functional because of a lack of organization and teachers who are unprepared to teach the lesson. Discussions tend to be centered on topics which have nothing to do with the purpose for coming to church. So, how can we expect the people to be committed to Sunday School if the main topic, the Bible lesson, is not given proper consideration while football, hunting, fishing, family and professional careers are fully discussed? As I was waiting to preach in one church, I happened to look down and observed a folder laying on the front pew. It was rosy pink in color and written on the front of it in bold Marks-A-Lot print were the words: “Sunday School Stuff.” I think that explains why many don’t want to come to Bible Study. If it has no more priority than being referred to as “stuff” then there is a serious problem.
In addition to the things discussed above, I believe that the main problem in many our churches is related to the Pastor. The people in the pew know very little doctrine and are spiritually immature because they are not being equipped to live a dynamic Christian life much less to be a part of a church which functions properly. The primary work of the ministry is to be found in the preaching of the Word. Churches will properly function in direct proportion to the level of Biblical preaching they experience. A pastor must spend the proper amount of time studying and preparing to preach. His primary function is not to be found in counseling. It is not in visiting the sick. It is not in eating crumpets with the little ladies and having coffee with the boys. His primary function is to be found in preaching. If he is not willing to spend the proper time to prepare a sermon which is informative, inspiring, interesting and edifying, then he should find himself something else to do. I believe that if God calls a man to preach then that should be his focus. Visiting the sick and other pastoral duties must also be done but they should not be an excuse for not having enough time to prepare to preach. The people in the vast majority of our churches are being cheated out of a deeper and more dynamic relationship to the Lord because the sermons they are hearing are “sermonetts for Christianetts.” They are empty, vapid, insipid. They are not the “meat” Paul speaks about but they are nothing more than the “foam” on a latte. When God calls one to a particular task then He equips the person to perform that task. Everyone has talents to a different extent but everyone called to preach should give it his best so that God can speak through him and edify His Saints.
I recently asked two different churches if they knew the definition of expository preaching. Only one man in one of the churches raised his hand. Two congregations, gathered for Sunday morning worship, could not tell me what expositional preaching is. They said that as far as they knew, they had never heard an expository sermon. They did not know what it is suppose to seek to accomplish. They were ignorant of the term, expository preaching. Most of these people have been in church for thirty years or more. These people knew very little doctrine but they absorbed it like a sponge. Suddenly the Bible became clear to them. They loved to learn the deeper truths contained in a passage. Expository preaching is work. It does not come easily as one has to do extensive word studies and research. It is the work of the ministry that God has for everyone He has called to be a preacher. Teaching the people the doctrines of the Bible will solve most of their problems. The more they learn the more peace and prosperity they will experience. The little problems that trouble most churches will vanish as the people learn the doctrines which apply to various situations. Expository, doctrinal preaching cannot be replaced and should be the focus of the pastor. We are In Trouble in our churches today primarily because the people have not been taught the Bible from the pulpit as they should have been. In addition to this, the majority of preachers today are afraid to tell the people many things they need to know in order to keep them properly informed. They are too afraid of the ACLU, the IRS and People United for the Separation of Church and State. Preachers today have been “muffled” very effectively because of the threat of law suits or the loss of the church’s tax exempt status. Political correctness has silenced the one person in society which should be warning the people about things they are dealing with. The only place in our society which does not have total freedom of speech is the one place that should be totally free and that is the pulpit. Preachers are being held hostage at the price of the tax monies they fear they might lose if they speak on certain issues. Obedience is being extorted from them under the threat of losing their tax exempt status. If the preachers knew the law and understood the freedoms they actually possess then they would discover that they can do and say much more than they have, so far, been willing to do. In essence, God’s spokesmen are being cowered into a corner for the sake of a little tax money. This should not be.
So, I observe that the reason for so many weak churches is to be found in the failure of the pulpit to preach the Word to the best of the preacher’s ability and the failure to lead their people with enthusiasm and energy. People will do far more than they are being asked to do. My philosophy is that we should ask them to do things. The only thing they can say is “no” and if they do give a negative answer then the pastor is no worse off. Plus, he can’t be accused of not trying to lead his people. Most churches today are doing nothing. The people have to be either very, very dedicated or totally habited to keep showing up every Sunday. My observation is that most are totally habited. They are going through the motions in order to do what they think is right before God. They are good people who want to please God but they are accomplishing very little and reaching almost no one with the gospel.
Sadly, most of our churches are not doing much more than existing. They possess very little that would make a person decide that they would like to be a member. It doesn’t take hype, loud secular sounding music, popular little choruses and modern innovation to make a person decide they would like to identify with a particular church. It takes solid Biblical preaching, serious study of the Word, a functioning outreach program, good well-grounded music which is presented in a sincere and well performed manner. The music should not sound like “a dying calf in a hailstorm.” If a church would do these things well, then the Lord will be able to bless them and grow them as He desires.
Many of the churches I have seen are within only a few years of closing their doors unless something is done to revitalize them. Most are filled with members who are in their last decade of life. A lot of these churches have only thirty people or so. Within five to ten years they will cease to exist. Our Southern Baptist Convention is loaded with the kind of churches I have described in this piece. It is sad. We are In Trouble.