When I attended church the first time, the things I wanted were very different from what I want now.
I wanted to get in, get out, and move on. I only agreed to attend church in an effort to appease a bible-thumper I couldn’t seem to shake. Additionally, I was curious about Christians, because I didn’t really know any, and I wasn’t sure if they were anything like the picture I had of them.
After a few months of sneaking in and out of my mega church every Sunday, my desires changed. The sermons were usually titled something like, “How to Love Your Family Well” or “How to Make Time for the Important Stuff”… and even though it seems like I’m about to say that the pastor took verses out of context and pieced together a message of blasphemy, that wasn’t actually what he did. There were inevitably some verses taken out of context, but for the most part, the pastor was preaching through the Old Testament and its stories. Of course I heard about Mr. Nebuchadnezzar a time or two too many, because our Pastor Man was obsessed with the first appearance of swamp cooling in the desert (which he attributed to a certain Babylonian King), and I got really tired of that video clip from The Dead Poet’s Society that he showed every other Sunday, BUT that pastor of mine also did something pretty cool: he used biblical stories to build life principles. Okay, so you think that’s not all that special? I concede that I’ve probably done something similar to what he did in my subconscious ever since the first time I heard (and understood) a story… but I’d never seen a pastor draw such a clear connection between what happened in a story, and how I ought to be living.
So I came to expect that church and faith were really just about following the “how to” secret code of the Bible.
But I was a baby Christian; I can’t quite say that I wasn’t a Christian, but neither can I say that I truly knew God. Because I wasn’t trying to know Him.
A few years later, I’d read the Bible through-and-through, and was pretty sure I’d figured out how to do this weird life thing. I landed at a new church, and the sermons were really different, because none of them were “how tos” and when I asked my new pastor for advice, he’d rarely tell me what I should do as if he’d read it from a manual. I read Knowledge of the Holy and started listening to Matt Chandler sermons, and all of a sudden I wanted church to be about God. I wanted to know His behaviors, His motivations, His words, His affections… everything. And I thought sermons should be about describing Him.
So.. “Lafou, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking.”
“A dangerous pastime.”
What do pastors try to do with their sermons?
Do they try to tell us how to live? Do they seek to describe God? Or do they set out to do something else entirely?
I’ve read blog posts before, written by pastors to pastors about the unfair expectations their congregations have of their sermons, and it makes me wonder what my expectations are and whether they’re fair or not. I like to think I expect pastors to do exactly the thing they’re trying to do: use words, emotion, body language, media, examples, and every other part of their existence to create a 30-50 minute vision of the Almighty.
That’s quite the assignment, you say? Well, sure. And we’d be fools to begrudge our pastors for falling short pretty regularly when they attempt to describe something they won’t experience fully until they’re dead, but the more I think on it, the more I’m haunted by that crazy mathematician-scientist who occasionally rode a bicycle, about whom Charles Misner wrote, “The design of the universe…is very magnificent and shouldn’t be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion, although he strikes me as a basically religious man. He must have looked at what the preachers said about God and felt that they were blaspheming. He had seen much more majesty than they had ever imagined, and they were just not talking about the real thing. My guess is that he simply felt that religions he’d run across did not have proper respect for…the author of the universe.”*
Do you think Einstein had unfair expectations? And were his expectations those of everyman or were they the extraordinary thoughts of a brilliant mind?
Sermons that are heavily weighted with life instructions are my roots… and yet, I look upon them now knowing there’s better, and I question whether the true obstacle facing a teaching pastor is his congregation’s unfair expectations. I don’t require that my shepherd be entertaining, clever, or even practical, although I appreciate it when he is those things. I’d much rather he attempt the impossible and fail every time, because it is a far greater favor to his sheep when he stumbles over the vast magnificence of the Almighty with them watching.
I believe that my expectations of sermons have grown as my vision of God has grown, and maybe that’s true of others as well. Of course there are demoralizing meanies who critique pastors when they’re bored, but I think most of us yearn for sermons that prompt our visions of God to grow. We want to see that our pastors know and preach of a God who is infinitely greater than what we’ve seen of Him, and to feel confident that we haven’t outgrown our instructors.
Perhaps those things are unfair… I certainly can’t imagine anyone being up to the task, but neither have I ever known a good pastor who thought he was.
What do you think? Do we have unfair expectations of our pastors and their sermons? What does a good sermon even include?
*I took that quote from Let the Nations be Glad by John Piper.