by Gary D. Robinson
The first time I stood up before a congregation to preach, I was 15. I was one of four young men our youth minister had recruited to talk for five minutes each on the subject of stewardship. I batted cleanup.
Afterward everybody said, “You oughta be a preacher!” But I didn’t want to be a preacher. I wanted to be a cartoonist.
The second time I preached, I was 16. This time I flew solo. After much sweat and toil, I came up with a sermon called “Four Fools.” I wish I still had a copy of it. Everybody said, “You oughta be a preacher!” But I didn’t want to be a preacher. I wanted to be a cop. (Dad hit the ceiling.)
And on it went. A singing group from Kentucky Christian University formed an organization they called Operation Evangelize. They made their headquarters at our church. They kept saying, “Go to Bible college. Don’t go to Marshall. Don’t go to Morehead. Go to KCU!” My preacher said, “Go to Bible college, Gary. Be a preacher.”
Remaining unsure, I nevertheless enrolled in Bible college. If nothing else, it pleased Mom and Dad. Mom had quit high school to go to work. Dad didn’t go to high school. Naturally, both were very proud. Not only was their son going to college, he was studying to be a preacher!
For the next few years I preached here and there, now and then, to this church and that one. I graduated from KCU, married a girl named Barbara, and we moved to Lincoln, Illinois so I could work toward a Master of Divinity degree at Lincoln Christian University. I didn’t look for a preaching ministry while we were there. Frankly, I was afraid to do so.
Thinking I could use more training, I engineered an internship with a former professor of mine who was then preaching in Chicago. Barb and I lived in four different places that summer, including the attic of the church building. When we got back to Lincoln, I said, “Lord, if you want me to preach, I’ll take a church.” The next day one of my professors approached me: “Gary, are you interested in taking a church?” Uh, could be! We started at Alvin Christian Church, Alvin, Illinois, in October 1980.
That was 30 years ago. I’ve learned much in that time, including several lessons in preaching. I’ll mention two of the most pungent.
First, with the possible exception of a grocery list, there’s probably no more forgettable communication people receive in a week’s time than a sermon.
In fact, sometimes people can’t even seem to remember what the preacher’s doing while he’s doing it. Once, a woman raised her hand during my sermon. I thought she thought I was the apostle Peter and was about to ask, “What must I do to be saved?” When I called on her, however, she said, “Can you help me find my coat?” I’ve stopped in the middle of a message to call kids down for talking (these days, talking isn’t the problem; texting is!). I’ve preached with babies crying at full volume. Then there are the folks who say, “It’s just like you said in your sermon”—before relating something I never said in my sermon; that, in fact, had nothing whatsoever to do with my sermon.
That’s the funny part of the job. The not-so-funny part is reflecting on the fact that, while many have listened to sermons for decades, it doesn’t seem to have left so much as a scratch on their thinking or behavior. Believe me, I’ve puzzled over that!
I quote from an essay by a fellow preacher on the phenomenon:
People sleep through and nod through and talk through sermons. They are predisposed to ignore the message, and usually only react when they are angry or feel the message violated some silent agreement to leave their personal sins alone . . . . People do not remember sermons. They do not talk about them over dinner unless you made some gaff worth recalling for a laugh.
One good thing about all this, though, is that it keeps you humble.
I take comfort in the fact that this has been a common problem with congregations—and a common complaint from preachers—since, well, forever. And God seems to have noticed it. He told Ezekiel, “To them you’re merely entertainment—a country singer of sad love songs, playing a guitar. They love to hear you talk, but nothing comes of it” (33:32, The Message).
Preaching Makes a Difference
Preaching has always had its detractors. Every few years a new crop of critics appears. Lately, I’ve been appalled at the vitriol from online pundits. They won’t be happy until we tear the church house down, the congregation goes to Tim Hortons to talk about God over coffee, and the preacher’s selling used cars—the way God intended. The criticisms seem to boil down to: It makes little difference in people’s lives, so what good is it?
What they forget is that God talked constantly through Moses and the prophets—and nobody listened to them either. In fact, God expected it: “So you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call to them, but they will not answer you” (Jeremiah 7:27, New Revised Version).
I don’t know why God wants to talk when nobody will listen. I imagine that, like a lot of things God does, it’s for his own glory’s sake. He comes to us like a child comes to our door on Halloween in an absurd, plastic mask asking for candy. He comes to us wrapped in the ridiculous garb of a man with thinning hair and thickening waist and less-than-commanding voice. I don’t know why preaching. I only know I, for one, have to do it. It’s the point where my deepest gladness meets the world’s deepest hunger.
And sometimes, mysteriously, like the wind that tosses the trees, usually when you least expect it, people listen! For example, I was preaching last summer on money. Conventional wisdom says you don’t talk about money from the pulpit. People get nervous and anxious; they start to sweat and their feet start to itch. And certainly kids don’t want to hear about that stuff!
So why did I get this Facebook message from an 18-year-old? (I offer it in all its ungrammatical glory.) “Today’s sermon hit me in the heart today because I have been dealing with tithing and you helped reassure that when I give to the Lord everything will be ok thanks for the sermon.” I got similar reports from a 21-year-old and a 28-year-old.
A lot of people are worried right now because 20-somethings are leaving the church in droves. I’ll tell you right now, if we lose this generation it won’t be because we didn’t feed them candy! They’re not looking for that. They may or may not want to live it, but they want it told straight.
This, then, is the other thing I’ve learned about preaching. It’s what keeps me going at it after 30 years: Somehow, preaching makes a difference.
No Greater Joy
A couple of weeks ago, after her long battle with cancer, we buried a sweet, active member of our congregation. Her widowed husband conveyed a message from Maudedella that once again encouraged my belief in the power of the Word on the humble heart. He told me how she’d been estranged from her brother. Yet, she said, she needed to forgive him because that’s what she’d been hearing from the pulpit.
Thirty years of foolishness. That’s what a brother preacher called his own career. Yet he was speaking with the irony of the apostle Paul: “For since in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21, RSV).
I drove through a blizzard to attend a ministers’ retreat led by two legends: Bob Russell and Ben Merold. We were a mixed bag. Some of us had been at it a long time. Some of us were just getting started. On the first night, Bob asked us to tell our stories. He wanted to know the worst thing that had ever happened to us—and the best.
Some of those guys told horrendous stories of cruelty and injustice. For my Worst Thing, I told them about being forced out of my last church because I wasn’t the clone of my predecessor.
“And what’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you, Gary?”
I didn’t hesitate: “The best thing that’s ever happened to me happens to me every Sunday when, knowing who and what I am, I mount the pulpit to preach. To me, there is no greater privilege and no greater joy.”
I meant it then. I mean it now. Brothers and sisters, I still believe in preaching. And you can quote me on that.
Gary D. Robinson is a preacher and writer living in Xenia, Ohio. He blogs at www.garydrobinson.com.
Have you ever put yourself in your preacher’s shoes? Imagine standing in front of a group of people every week, trying to share God’s Word but wondering if anyone is listening.
Think of ways you can encourage your minister.
• Tell him about a time when a sermon made a difference in your thinking or actions.
• Write him an e-mail, call him, or send him a card and thank him for his work.
• Volunteer! Be specific about things you can do and ways you can take things off his plate.
• Pay attention when he preaches.
Try these and other encouraging actions this week!