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The Elephant in the Sanctuary

Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season… (2 Timothy 4:2, NIV)

There’s an elephant in the room at church.  We don’t talk about it and we pretend it isn’t there, even though his peanut-breath is hard to miss.  When I’m hanging out with other pastors, we talk about it, we just don’t bring it up to our congregations.  It makes us uncomfortable.

The issue is preaching.  Preaching God’s word is one of the great joys in my life.  It is the most humbling thing a person could do, but it is also exhilarating.  Jeremiah called it a fire in his bones that can’t be quenched.

It is a learned skill.  I took preaching classes in seminary. I’ve read countless preaching books. But nothing takes the place of standing behind the pulpit and doing it…doing it well or doing it poorly…having prepared adequately or being ill-prepared.  While trying to speak authoritatively about God’s word, the preacher must stand under the authority of God’s word.  It is a challenging task, and it is only learned over time.  So I appreciate the many New Lifers who, through the years, have sat through so many bad sermons I’ve preached, and still had a smile and a pat on the back for this young preacher-boy.

Preaching God’s word has been an important part of Protestant worship services ever since Martin Luther took a pulpit…but it’s not all we do.  We sing, we raise our hands, we shout praises, we enter God’s holy presence, we pray, we give, we greet each other in the name of the Lord, we minister to each other, we serve children.  We do a lot of things on Sunday that aren’t preaching.

So back to the elephant…there’s more to church than preaching! It therefore frustrates a pastor when he takes a much needed vacation with his family and church attendance drops because someone else is preaching.  When I discovered this reality, I was flattered at first.  That’s quite an ego stroke: “These people need me!”  So, for the first years of our church we didn’t take vacations.  I was in the pulpit 52 times a year.  It almost killed me (literally).  So we started taking some breaks…but we kept quiet about them.  We’d sneak out of town in the dark of night so no one would know.

We don’t do that anymore.  For one thing, I have discovered I’m not that good that people need my particular take on a passage.  No one’s that good!  But also, New Life has grown up and matured as a church…we know there’s more to Sunday than a sermon.  In other churches I still see attendance drop when the big wig isn’t there – those churches that are video-feed churches and where the preacher is the draw…but that’s not us.

What I mention above about the elephant is only annoying…but there’s something dangerous here, too.  When a Sunday becomes all about the message, it isn’t long until Sunday is all about the messenger.  When the messenger starts to believe his own press releases…when he starts to think, “maybe I really AM great?”  That spells trouble in a church.  If he can preach contrary to the Word of God and get away with it, the church really IS in bad shape.  That’s why the rest of Paul’s command to Timothy includes: For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. (2 Timothy 4:3, NIV)

It is healthy to hear other voices.  Besides, the same diet over and over is boring!  And, although he won’t admit it, there will come a time when the super-preacher is no longer relevant.  Who will fill the pulpit then, if no young preacher (like Timothy) has been trained to do it?

I’m out of town this weekend.  Go to church!  You’ll hear a great message from a dear friend who pastors at Gateway.  He knows God’s word and lives it, he’s got some preaching chops, and he’s funny. God gave him the message and it is exactly what we need to hear.

And if you think about it, pray for Christine and me as we drop off our baby girl at college…

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