1490) What Do People Want?

What’s the number one thing we can do to fill our churches?  It’s probably not what you think.

By John Stonestreet, at www.breakpoint.org, May 9, 2017

      According to a new Gallup survey, the quality of the worship band isn’t the main reason people go to church.  Neither is it thriving kids’ programs.  Or even a dynamic personality behind the pulpit.  No; instead, respondents said that “Sermons that teach about Scripture” are the reason they show up on Sunday mornings.

     As Christianity Today reports, “Researchers found that 82 percent of Protestants and 76 percent of all regular worshipers consider sermons’ biblical lessons as a major factor that draws them to services.”  They also want application: “80 percent of Protestants and 75 percent of worshipers valued sermons that connect faith to everyday life.”

     Now it shouldn’t really surprise us that people are hungry for truth in this post-truth, post-fact culture, especially when it’s harder than ever to discern fact from fiction, reality from conspiracy theory.

     Scripture tells us that God has “set eternity” in our hearts.  Our first parents may have been expelled from the Garden of Eden, but we, their descendants, still cannot quite shake the memory of it.  Augustine knew something about this insatiable search for truth and beauty, writing in prayer to God, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”  As G.K. Chesterton once said, people are “homesick in their homes.”  Chesterton knew that every time we lay our heads on our pillows at the end of the day, we lay them down in a foreign land.

     Whatever our neighbors may say, whatever veneer they present, we know that many of them are hungry for what we’ve been given in Scripture— the Truth that is Christ Himself.  Pastor and editor Matt Woodley says in Preaching Today, “In a distracted, outraged, shallow culture, people begin to hunger for something rare:  the focused, balanced, and deep.”

     So it’s time to, among other things, abandon the therapeutic-driven, self-centered sermons that characterize too much preaching these days.  As researcher and pastor Ed Stetzer recently pointed out, Oklahoma-based Life Church is one of many congregations that has started beefing up its teaching in response to people we sometimes call ‘unchurched.’   “In other words,” Ed says, “those for whom sermons were being dumbed down aren’t dumb.  They are interested in the truth or else they’d be out golfing.”

     The goal of church cannot be to out-entertain the world.  First, we can’t.  In a world of instant gratification, 24/7 communication access, and virtually limitless glowing rectangles clamoring for our attention, the church just can’t win the entertainment battle.  Second, it shouldn’t try.  That’s not what church is about, nor is it what people need.  Gathering for worship, though it can be exhilarating— or, on some days, boring— isn’t about entertainment, because it’s not about us.  It’s about meeting with God as a community of His people, giving Him His due, and being instructed, admonished, equipped, and encouraged by Him to join in His work.

     As Pastor Jared Wilson recently tweeted, “Someone will always have better coffee, music, facilities, and speaking.  Showcase Christ and his gospel.  No one can improve on that.”

     We should encourage our pastoral leaders to prepare deep, biblical sermons and education offerings that rest firmly on the authority of Scripture.  This sort of thing requires hours of diligent study of the Word of God and prevailing, passionate prayer.  There are no shortcuts if we are to end the tragedy of a church too often a mile wide and an inch deep.

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II Timothy 4:1-5  —  In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge:  Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage— with great patience and careful instruction.  For the time will come when people 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.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.  But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

Romans 10:14…17  —  How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in?  And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?  And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?…  Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.

Mark 16:15  —  And (Jesus) said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to all creation.”


Almighty and Gracious God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, give us true teachers and ministers of Thy Word, and put Thy saving Gospel on their hearts and on their lips, that they may truly fulfill Thy command, and preach nothing contrary to Thy Holy Word; so that we, being warned, instructed, nurtured, comforted, and strengthened by Thy heavenly Word, may believe and do those things which are well-pleasing to Thee, and profitable to us; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord.  Amen.

Service Book and Hymnal, Augsburg Publishing House, 1958, page 225.

1000) Coming Up With the Words (a)

I was ordained thirty-six years ago today.  The following is from a sermon I gave when my congregation celebrated my first 25 years in the ministry.

     One day when my son was about nine years old, he and several of the neighborhood kids were playing in our yard.  I was also outside, working on the car.  I knew that one of the kids was a bit of a bully, so I had my eye on him.  Just as I expected, before long he was pushing the other kids around, causing fights, and making an all around nuisance of himself.  I went over and told him to quit.  He behaved for a while, but then was back at it.  So I talked to him again.  This time I spoke more forcefully and threatened to send him home.  He got the message and the kids then played together without any more trouble.  As I was walking away, I heard him say, “Gee, why is your dad such a crab?”  Without hesitating even a moment, my son said to him, “Well, he’s a minister, you know.”  What?

     I had to think about that.  I was used to people having many different notions of what a minister is and what a minister does, but that was a new one to me.  A crab?  With that in mind I would like say a few things about being minister, on this anniversary of my ordination.  I’ll try not to be too crabby.

     Martin Luther once wrote a little piece on what it means to be ordained in which he said:  “If we know of a godly man, we choose him and, on the strength of the Word which is ours, we give him authority to preach the Word and administer the sacraments.  This is what it means to be ordained.”

     On the strength of the Word, as Luther says, the church first of all ordained me.  Then you, as members of this congregation and the other congregations I have served, called me to be your pastor.  And then, it says, you gave me the authority to preach the Word.  WORDS; that’s what you want from ministers most of all, isn’t it?  Words.  In every church survey I’ve ever seen, and from every call committee I’ve ever faced, I have heard the same thing– what congregations want most of all is a pastor who can preach, who can put words together.  You want the right words at the right time, words that can inspire faith, words that can explain the faith, words that can make clear the difficult words of the Bible, words that can challenge you, and words that can give you comfort and hope.  You want words, don’t you?

     The reason you want that is because that is how God himself has set things up.  Have any of you ever seen God?  Neither have I.  But I believe God has called me to be ordained, called me to stand between you and God, called me to lead you in worship each week as we come into God’s presence, and called me to help you in your faith in God.  And what has God given me to work with in order to do all that?  Words.  Just words.  In the Bible, we read all over the place that we are saved by faith.  But how do you get faith?  Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes by hearing” the message, and “the message is heard through the word of Christ.”  Words.  We hear about God and are connected to God by words.

       Do you know what is the hardest part of this job?  The hardest part is when the words don’t come.  The words aren’t always there on command, and sometimes the more desperately I want just the right words, the less likely they are to be there for me.  I did not type these words into my computer until yesterday afternoon.  I was starting over on this sermon; starting over again.  And that was not because I waited until the last minute.  I had been working on this all week.  But my trash can was full of false starts and abandoned notes, and the delete button on my computer was almost wore out.  The words weren’t coming.  That’s how it goes some weeks.  

     If you are in a conversation and have nothing to say, you can just keep your mouth shut.  People might even appreciate that more than anything.  But whether or not I have anything to say, I still have to be up here every Sunday morning, with a whole bunch of words, ready to go. 

     Not only that, but there are other times in a pastor’s week when one searches for words that aren’t there:  at the scene of a fatal car accident, when someone tells you the grim diagnosis from the doctor that their cancer is terminal, or when told by a couple who have been active in the parish that their marriage is ending.  Pastors are called to proclaim the Word, ‘in season and out of season,’ Paul said to Timothy.  You have every right to expect words from me, but sometimes the words don’t come very easy.  This is the most difficult part of my calling.

      There’s more.  My words are not always appreciated.  You know the old line, “Talk is cheap.”  And there is another old line, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  The meaning is that words are unimportant and have no impact.  Words are important and they do affect us, but sometimes we do all we can to resist their power– especially if the words are in a sermon.

      Sermons are not the best-loved form of communication.  If someone is going on and on with too much unwanted advice, we might say to them, “Don’t go preaching to me.”  I even get this from my wife once in a while.  Yesterday morning she asked me a question.  It was one of those questions that pushed all the wrong buttons.  So I started in giving her a whole bunch of words about what I thought on the subject.  And what did she say?  She said, “I just asked for your opinion; I did not ask for a sermon.”  Yeah.  A sermon.  Who ever wants one of those?  Not only that, but ‘Silence is golden,’ says an old bit of wisdom, and that is backed up by the Bible itself.  Ecclesiastes 5:2 says “Let your words be few,” and Proverbs 10:19 says, “When words are many, sin is not absent; but he who holds his tongue is wise.”  But how is a preacher supposed to manage that?  We have to talk.  Like I said, the toughest part of this job is coming up with all those words.  (continued…)


I Timothy 4:1-5  —  In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead,and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge:  Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage— with great patience and careful instruction.  For the time will come when people 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.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.  But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.


O Lord, you see  how unworthy I am to fill so great and important an office.  Were it not for your counsel, I would have utterly failed in it long ago.  Therefore, I call upon you for guidance.  Gladly indeed will I give my heart and my voice to this service.  I want to teach the people.  I myself want constantly to seek and study your Word, and eagerly meditate upon it.  Use me as your instrument.  Only, dear Lord, do not forsake me; for if I am left alone, I will most certainly ruin everything.  Amen.

–Martin Luther  (1483-1546)

320) Jay Leno and Me (part two)

     (…continued)  Let’s apply this (from part one) to another setting.  Imagine yourself at the doctor’s office.  Your doctor is a good doctor, but a rather bland and boring person.  He never smiles, doesn’t have time for a joke, and he always has the same dull look on his face.  One day he says to you in his most boring and uninspiring voice, “The tests came back and the cancer is gone.  You are going to be okay.”  At that moment will you be thinking about what a dull personality that man has and how you need to find a doctor with a little more zip?  Or, will you walk out of there thanking that doctor, and praising the Lord that you are all right?  What matters there is the content of the message.  You were listening close for that message you needed to hear, the message that you would be okay.  What you hear in church is more like that kind of message than like an entertaining routine by a stand up comedian.

     As I said, what we hear in church is out of an old script, and someone might reply, “Yes, I hear you, and God’s Word is good news, but I already know it.  Does one really need to go to church every week to hear the same old thing over and over?”  There are a couple responses to that.  First of all, weekly worship is what the Bible commands.  The third commandment says “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy;” Jesus himself worshiped at the synagogue every week ‘as was his custom’ Luke tells us; and, there are many other places in the Bible where that ongoing, regular contact with God’s word is commanded.

     The second response is the practical reason that makes the Biblical command necessary.  As in all of God’s commandments and laws, God commands it because it is good and necessary for us.  “Faith comes by hearing,” says Romans chapter ten, and if we keep ourselves within hearing distance of where God’s Word is read and proclaimed, the Holy Spirit will take care of the rest and we will be all right.  In I Corinthians 2 Paul described how the Holy Spirit works through his words, unpolished and imperfect as they are, to reveal to us the power of God, in order to work faith in our hearts.  The third commandment says ‘remember,’ because if we don’t make it a point to take the time to remember, we are surely going to forget God.  It happens to folks all the time.  Without that ongoing contact with God’s Word, people tend to forget all about God, and faith will, in time, whither and die.

    Robert Coles spent his life teaching at Harvard, and wrote more than twenty books; good books, down to earth books, books about the connections between his area of expertise, psychology, and, my main interest, religion.  Robert Coles is an intellectual, but one time Coles wrote an article about how much he has learned from an old, uneducated, black tenant farmer in Alabama, a man named Joshua Travis.  The professor Coles interviewed the farmer Joshua one time for a book he was doing, and then kept in touch with him over the years.  Joshua Travis always had time to sit and visit, but Coles was always in a hurry.  One time Joshua said to him:  “You know, Mr. Coles, you can get yourself going so fast that you lose your way.  Jesus told us he’s ‘the way,’ but if we forget that, we can starting thinking we’re the way, and that is what you call being lost.  Don’t you get lost, Mr. Coles, with all your being so busy.”

     So for once, Professor Coles forgot about his busy schedule and sat down for an unhurried visit with Joshua Travis.  Joshua said, “You know, it is only a short time that God put us here on this earth, and we can’t be expected to remember every day why we are here and be thinking about Jesus all the time– only once in while.  I get busy around here too, and mostly my mind is on the weather, and my land, and the crops.  I’ve got a lot to think about.  But come Sunday, I do go to church to pay my respects to Jesus, because I’ll bet you one thing– no one’s fooling him, including Joshua Travis.  Do you think He’s going to be fooled if I just show up in church every once in a while when I need a good soaking rain, or to ask for the price of cotton to go up, or the price of fertilizer to go down?  No, sir, God is not mocked, and he is not fooled by any of us down here just showing up, saying we are ready to pray and be good, when all we want is a few favors.”

     Both men were quiet for a minute, and then Joshua said, “So every Sunday I go to church, and I thank God for another week of strength to be working my burden, and I thank Jesus Christ Almighty for the chance to do it.  And I will work my burden until Jesus says enough is enough and its time to come home…”  (Harvard Diary, page 44f)

     I don’t think Joshua Travis got paid anything for that conversation, but there is more wisdom in those few words to Robert Coles, than in anything you will get from Jay Leno on March 12th for $75.  Every once in a while it is good to ask what it is we are doing in church every week, and why we need to do it, and there it is from Joshua Travis; we go to worship to remember God, as we remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.
It is sometimes said in baseball that a pitcher is only as good as his last game.  I have often felt that as a preacher; that I am only as good as my last sermon.   But the effectiveness of God’s Word is not dependent on me or on my feelings about my self-worth or ‘performance,’  but on God; and God is faithful, using that spoken word to accomplish his purpose, as the preacher Isaiah has proclaimed…
Isaiah 55:3…10-11   —   (The Lord says), Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live.  I will make an everlasting covenant with you…  As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.  
1 Corinthians 2:4-5  —    My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power. 
Exodus 20:8  —  Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 
Almighty and everlasting God, we pray first for the spiritual kingdom and the blessed Gospel ministry.  Give us devout and faithful preachers who will bring forth the treasure of your divine Word in its truth and purity.  Graciously guard us against heresies and divisions.  Look not upon our great ingratitude, for which we have long ago deserved that you should withdraw your Word from us.  Do not chastise us as severely as we deserve.  Let other calamities befall us, rather than deprive us of your precious Word.  Give to us thankful hearts that we may love your Word, prize it highly, hear it with reverence, and improve our lives accordingly.  May we not only understand your Word, but also meet its requirements by our deeds, live in accordance with it, and daily increase in faith and good works.  Amen.

319) Jay Leno and Me (part one)

From sermon / March 2011

     On March 12th, Jay Leno, host of the Tonight Show, will be performing at Mystic Lake Casino near Shakopee.  Tickets for the show are $75.  Think about that.  In many ways, what I do for a living is the exact same thing as what Jay Leno does.  He, and I, stand up in front of a group of people and talk.  It is as simple as that.  We both, of course, have other things to do besides that, but pastors are called primarily to preach and teach, getting up ahead of people and talking; the same as Jay Leno.  Now I have never attempted it, but even if I did, I don’t think I could get a gig like that at Mystic Lake Casino for that kind of money.  I know Leno doesn’t get to keep all $75 of every ticket sold, but I am sure a good share of it goes into his pocket.  After all, he makes $30 million a year, and that has to come from somewhere.  Most preachers earn less than that.

     I do have to admit, though, it is simply a matter of supply and demand.  There is only one Jay Leno, whereas preachers are a dime a dozen.  Jay Leno is one of a kind because he truly is such an excellent speaker– his timing is great, he interacts well with people in the audience, he is great off the cuff, and he has good material, some of which is a bit too crude for me, but really funny stuff, right out of today’s news.  His material is always fresh and current and has to do with what is happening right now.

     But like all preachers, I am always using old material, out a 2,000 year old script, preaching on words and stories you’ve all heard dozens of times before.  “Hey, have you heard the one about how Jesus walked on water?”  Of course you have.  It was a great miracle, to be sure, and there are important lessons to be learned from it; but you know the story, and you’ve heard all the lessons.  And I’ll be the first to admit that my sermon delivery is anything but smooth and polished.  I always have to have my notes ahead of me and my posture can be a little stiff, whereas Leno is such a natural that he gives the impression that he is making it all up as he goes.

    However, as a preacher of God’s Word, I have something that Jay Leno doesn’t have.  I have a message that matters.  Preachers are a dime a dozen because what we do is not dependent on who we are, or on what skills we have, or on how brilliant we are, or on how polished our delivery is.  What we do, and what we have to proclaim is a message from outside of ourselves, from God; and unlike anything you will hear on the Tonight Show or the Late Show or from Larry the Cable Guy or on Saturday Night Live, unlike any of those entertainment options, what you get from one who proclaims God’s Word is a message that matters, and it matters for all eternity.

     My wife and I used to watch the opening monologue on the Tonight Show almost every night.  These days, however, neither of us can stay awake even through the entire 10:00 news, so we hardly ever see the Tonight Show anymore.  And do you know what?  It hasn’t mattered!  We don’t miss it, and we are no worse off because we never see it.  Hearing Johnny Carson’s jokes, and then Jay Leno’s jokes, four or five nights a week made us laugh for a few minutes, but then that was it.  Missing it has not changed our lives at all.

     But if you were to take the Bible away from me, that old script that I read each day and preach out of each Sunday; if you were to take that away from me, I would be lost.  Without that Word of God, and the hope and the promises and the love of God there revealed, I would be hopeless, and you would too.  There is much in my past that I regret and am ashamed of, things that I should have done differently, should have said, or, should not have said.  Do you have any such regrets?  God’s Word tells us that Jesus Christ died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, and we need that.  And this is a dangerous and sad world, and there is much to fear, much to worry about.  I see my little grandchildren, and I am afraid for them.  I’m on the downhill side of my life now, but they have to put up with this wicked world for a long time yet, and I fear for them.  But the Bible says in 366 different places, “Fear not.”  “Fear not, for God is with you.”  “Cast your cares upon God, for he cares about you.”  Even though we may now suffer for a little while, Peter tells us, the Lord will be with us, and will sustain us, and will make us strong, firm, and steadfast, if not here, then in his eternal home, where he will set us on our feet again.  Therefore, even in the face of awful death, that death of a loved one that can shatter our lives like nothing else, even then we have a word, an old familiar word:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life…”  Not perish.  Have everlasting life.  That is a hope that can sustain you no matter what.  You take that away, and we are lost.

    With this in mind, look at what Paul says in I Corinthians 2.  I will be paraphrasing a bit, and using words from a few translations, but this is the gist of Paul’s message in those verses:  “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words, or in excellence of speech, or in profound wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.  My speech was not polished, and it was without enticing words, but it was with a demonstration of the Holy Spirit and of God’s power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom and skill, but on the power of God.”

     What Paul is saying is that we must focus on the message, and not on the messenger.  What matters in worship is the content of the message.  Church is not Mystic Lake where what matters is the name and the fame and the skill of the celebrity delivering the message.  The church is God’s house, and it is the one place in your life each week that you will hear a word from the Lord, a word that matters, a word that you must not ignore.  (continued…)
1 Corinthians 2:1-5   —   When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.   For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.   I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.   My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.   
Dear God, I have begun to preach and teach your people.  It is a difficult task.  If it offends here and there, may there be no harm done.  Since you have commanded me to preach your Word, I will not cease to do so.  If it fails, it fails for you.  If it succeeds, it succeeds for you.  Amen.
Lord, what you do not do remains undone.  If you will not help, I will gladly give it up.  The cause is not mine.  Therefore, I seek no glory in it.  I will cheerfully be your mask and disguise if only you will do the work.  Amen.