One of the strangest, most unfortunate aspects of the modern church is often found in the expectation of what happens in the pulpit from those who sit in the pews (or, more commonly, chairs). Somewhere before I was saved in 1994, it must have begun its slow creep into local churches. I’ve been a Christian for almost three decades, and I have watched this nasty little element grow to startling proportions. I’ve encountered it in my own ministry from both those who were members of the churches where I served as pastor, and from those who tune in and watch our services via our various media streams. I’m not annoyed by it, nor am I intimidated by it. Frankly, I’m bewildered by it, and disappointed that so many people parrot it, and that so many pastors cave in to it.
To what am I referring? I’m writing today about this silly pressure on preachers to make people feel good about themselves at any cost. Pastors are now expected to churn out an endless spate of optimists from the ministries entrusted to them. The regular cry to the pastor sounds like, “Hey preacher, keep it sweet, keep it short, and keep us smiling.” I have never been very good at doing that. Encouragingly, Jesus was not successful at this either.
“And they were seeking to arrest Him but feared the people, for they perceived that He had told the parable against them. So they left Him and went away.” – Mark 12:12
Look at our Savior, friends, as He operates as the preacher. He’s initiating a visible ministry among the people that is aimed toward overhauling their temporary kingdoms for His eternal one. The clock is ticking, and Jesus only has three years of ministry opportunity to enlist as many followers as possible to make His vision a reality, right? Should He not be careful to avoid upsetting key people, so as to not offend them and drive them away? In Mark 12 above, the Master is speaking to highly influential listeners with PhD’s in religious affairs, and are also those who hold recognized clout in the community – wouldn’t it be prudent for Him to use a soft-touch approach in this setting? Clearly, Jesus never benefited from our modern-day church growth material, because He does not follow the pattern that has been established for churches of the 21st century. His message in Mark 12 was creative in that it utilized a parable, but I suppose that Jesus just wasn’t subtle enough for the tastes of those gathered to listen. As a matter of fact, both He and His audience knew that He aimed the sermon at some of the very people that were gathered there that day. Not only did the Lord refrain from the temptation to make people feel great about themselves, He actually targeted some of them, intentionally challenged them, and then dumped the whole parable right on their heads without regard to their desire to leave that day feeling special. Jesus Christ had the audacity to unapologetically confront the carnality, pride, self-deception, hypocrisy and sinfulness of those who felt that they had graced His ministry with their presence that day. Look at the undesirable results of His sermon: they knew He preached the message at them, they walked away from Him angry and indignant, and then they planned to arrest Him. Is Jesus’ approach of unapologetic truth-telling still a valid approach to a public teaching ministry today?
A word to those who have pastors: God expects that pastor to regularly challenge you. Your pastor is obligated to confront you. God has commissioned him at times to lovingly reprove you and boldly rebuke you as he teaches you God’s truth. If he is always pleasant, rarely confrontational, or never makes you uncomfortable, then he is in danger of being disqualified by God from his office. Unless you are without sin, then you should occasionally feel like your pastor has gone to meddling in your life when he preaches. There should be no reasonable expectation for him to always make you feel great about yourself. Hopefully, your pastor will be kind, but that does not mean He will always be accommodating. God doesn’t hold him to that unbiblical standard. Reverend Reallynice, Bishop Blessyoualways and Prophet Preciouspants are a figment of the modern church’s imagination. It’s time we wake up from the bad dream.
A word to those who are pastors: Love that flock that God has temporarily entrusted to your care. Give them valid encouragement as often as it is profitable to them. Affirm them as God affirms His children when they do well in His sight. The world tears down those who come to hear you preach, so your ministry should contain opportunities for intentional and genuine encouragement. But NEVER flatter them. Do not tell them that all is well when all is certainly not. Address sin and the need to press more deeply into Christ. Leave no room for being vague when God has called pastors to be precise. Don’t let the butter-lipped, soft-touch approach to pastoring become the template for you, and do not adjust your biblical approach when people walk away angry or misunderstanding you. They did it to the Master because He left no doubts in their minds that He was confronting them about their lives. If your motivation is that the people you shepherd would be provoked unto love and good works, then your confrontation is an act of courageous love, not heartless malice. The cultural pressure is on you, preacher, to dumb down your messages, and I project that this presumption in our churches is only going to become increasingly more difficult for us. Tell God’s people the truth. Don’t lie to them via fearful silence. Rest in God’s sovereign care and usage of you, and speak the whole counsel of God. If you don’t feel you can do that, then get yourself out of the pastorate immediately, because you are hazarding the lives of people for whom Christ died. You will make a difference in the lives of the humble and willing and, should you stop being lovingly bold in your pulpit, it is the humble and willing who will walk away to find a shepherd who loves them enough to continue to tell them the truth. Somebody is likely to eventually get discouraged because you shared words which, in their minds, cornered them. I promise you that they will walk away from your ministry. Would it not be better for the pastor to see those who have no appetite for Kingdom Truth abandon ship, than for the pastor to witness the departure of brokenhearted people who desired a man of God to lead them… but instead found a people-pleasing impostor?
Whether we are among the pastors in the pulpits or among the people in the pews, we have some constant choices to make in our churches. May God grant both the pulpit and the pew to be occupied by people with appetites for Truth and the clear communication of it.