Once upon a time a pastor stepped into the pulpit of the church he had served for the last ten months and preached against the sins of pride and lukewarm-ness. He noted how people in the community described his church in those terms and loudly proclaimed, “I want to see those things kicked out of our church!” No one said, “Amen.” A few men cleared their throats. A couple of women quit looking at the preacher. The sermon continued and ended without any compliments.
Rather than wait for the next deacons’ meeting three weeks later, the deacons called an emergency meeting without the pastor. They agreed their preacher didn’t really know them and had no business being so angry in his preaching. They adjourned and two of them went to visit him in the pastorium. They informed him it was time to look elsewhere, because he wasn’t being effective at their church and was making people upset. The pastor resigned the following Sunday with a mixture of sadness and madness. Wasn’t God’s church supposed to treat him better than this?
This fairy-tale story isn’t from a make-believe world of what-ifs but rather a real-life account that could be told by many preachers. In light of such events, some pastors leave the ministry. Others go on to another church, but they become a soft-spoken preacher, losing the boldness they once had.
If you have been a pastor for more than a few months, you will regularly face the temptation to preach softly—without conviction, confidence or boldness. Much of the fear lies with wanting to be liked so you can remain employed and pay your family’s bills. Step on the wrong toes, and you can find yourself out on the street.
So how do you revitalize a church if such a threat exists? How do you preach with boldness when that very boldness may get you fired? Let me offer a few suggestions.
First, love the people. Visit them in their homes, at their jobs, in the hospital or at the ball field. Eat with them. Talk with them. Laugh with them. Cry with them. But most importantly, love them. When problems arise (and they arise at every church), people will deal with you differently if they know you love them.
Second, mix love and truth, grace and judgment. Too many preachers hammer their people over their darkness without showing them the light. Have you ever read through the Prophets? If you are like most people, you avoid them, because you assume their message is nothing but doom-and-gloom. But it’s not. There’s plenty of judgment in what they say, but each one offers rays of hope. Yes, Paul wants us all to “speak the truth,” but to do it “in love” (Ephesians 4:15). We must preach on sin and the judgment to come, but not without providing those wonderful words of the gospel of God’s grace in Christ.
Third, plan to stay. The work of the pastor is not easy and a difficult church won’t turnaround overnight. Many struggling churches are in their predicaments because they have had a string of short-term pastors. Sure, some were forced out but others left on their own, long before they should have. You must make a commitment to endure and persevere. Eugene Peterson once defined perseverance as “long obedience in the same direction.” That’s what pastors need.
Fourth, listen to the Lord. Sure, I could have listed this one first, but too many guys abuse it. They say things like, “I’ve prayed about it and the Lord wants me to deal with such-and-such an issue,” hardly caring how insensitive or uncaring it will sound. Don’t hear me say: “Don’t address the big issues in a church,” because I’m not saying that. What I am saying is the people need to know and experience your love for them before you tell them what’s wrong with the church they’ve been part of for years. And you need to tell them that. Just make sure you are telling them God’s Word for their lives in love.
Fifth, find the right time. You cannot say everything you need to say in any given setting or sermon. You also don’t want to unload all the problems on your audience in one setting. If you do, they will feel overwhelmed, defeated and hopeless. They will also probably get angry. Address an issue or two at a time, including ways to make the changes they need.
Think of it this way: if you go to your doctor every year and he never challenges you to eat better or exercise or take vitamins, you go away feeling pretty good about yourself. But one year you show up and he says you are overweight and are low on vitamin D and need blood pressure medicine and should start exercising extensively and more. You will wonder why he hasn’t said some of those things to you before so your health wouldn’t have gotten into such a mess (I actually had a dentist do something like that to me once after I had religiously visited her for a few years. I found a new dentist who shoots straight with me every visit). If we can feel that way from a visit to the doctor, why would we expect our people to take it all at once in a sermon?
Sixth, preach through books of the Bible. You are probably wondering how this fits with the other advice I’ve given. It’s actually pretty simple: preaching through books of the Bible will force you to deal with a myriad of sins and problems in life. You can address them in a timely way, as well as the way the Lord addressed them to the original hearers. And you get to spread them out so you aren’t dumping them on your people all at once. Expository preaching has a way of declaring the whole counsel of God over time and that’s exactly what we all need.
Finally, say what needs to be said. After you have shown love to the people, read God’s Word, prayed and looked for the right time, follow through and say what they need to hear—not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. Tell them about their pride or about their greed or about their lukewarm-ness in appropriate messages. They may not like to hear what you have to say, but if you do it out of love and mix grace with judgment, they will most likely listen.
And if they don’t change right away, your plan to stay can help them with that. And you and your church can do your best to “live happily ever after,” at least as you preach boldly with a view toward eternity. So may it happen and may you preach with boldness—by the grace of God and for the glory of God and the good of His people.
Joel R. Breidenbaugh, PhD