How to Prevent "The Preacher is a Joke" Syndrome
- Joe McKeever
- 2011 16 May
It sounded cruel, but he was not a believer and his assessment of the former pastor was an honest statement of how he felt.
After hanging in with a church of their denomination for too long--watching the pastor drive people away by his lack of ministry, his poor leadership, and a neglect of everything that makes a church a church--the entire family reluctantly moved to a church a few miles away. What they found there was striking in its contrast.
The congregation was warm and friendly, the church was thriving, and the pastoral team was outstanding. The minister's sermons were powerful, biblical, and convicting. When a grandchild went into the hospital for surgery, the pastor left home before 5 am and met the family in the medical center. After praying with them, he stayed until the medical staff reported that the surgery had ended and the child was doing great.
After he left, the son-in-law, father of the child who had just come through the surgery, offered his assessment of the contrast between this new pastor and the old one who was still in the former church. "The other one was a joke," he said.
The family member who reported this to me observed, "We would not agree with Bobby that any minister is a joke. Remember, Bobby is unsaved and was not raised in the church. This is his honest reaction." Then she said, "But no one in our family can help but be struck with the contrast in the sermons of the two men."
How were they different? The former minister filled his sermon time with jokes and funny stories then ended with a short devotional thought. The new minister preaches a powerful message direct from God's Word, the kind of sermon that cuts and convicts and inspires and blesses.
When a conversation (or story or scripture or quote) lodges itself in my heart and will not leave me alone, I know the Holy Spirit has sent me a message. That's the case with this.
The contrast between those two preachers and those two types of sermons need closer investigation. Let's attempt to do that here.
The Pastor is a Joke
That brutal assessment stings, I admit. Having preached hundreds of sermons--thousands, probably--over nearly a half-century, no doubt I have delivered more than my share of messages that could be described as several funny stories ending with a devotional thought. I say that to my shame.
In defense of the "former" pastor, the one who earned this put-down from Bobby, I feel confident he preaches the way he learned. Perhaps the pastor he grew up under preached this way. If so, it means he has not had a good role model after which to pattern himself.
That's no excuse, of course. Unless the pastor has lived under a rock or in a vacuum, he surely has heard other men preach. These days, thanks to the internet, any preacher--almost any human on the planet--can find a thousand sermons at his fingertips which he can hear while seated at his desk.
So, my defense of him will not hold.
One wonders whether this "former" pastor is paying attention to the signs all around him that his ministry is not working out. And what are those signs? Not just one of these, but all together form an overwhelming indictment of his ministry: severely diminishing attendance, key leaders leaving for other churches, finances dropping through the basement, and several of the finest Christian people he knows informing him earnestly and humbly why they can no longer abide his ministry.
That pastor happens to be serving a church without a team of strong lay leaders, otherwise they would have taken action before things got to this point. Without strong lay leadership, the church began to die. From all reports, it's on life support at the moment.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy. (Proverbs 27:6)
Someone should have shown themselves a friend to that preacher years ago and talked straight to him. Instead, they let him drift lazily through a lifetime of ministry neglecting the flock, failing to evangelize, giving no direction to the congregation, and filling his sermons with straw.
The pay-off for their failure is a dead church in a city that desperately needs that congregation at its strongest.
The Pastor Can Be Someone to be Reckoned With
When I think of a preacher who is "a joke," to use Bobby's put-down, I remember something from the Old Testament. When Lot, Abraham's nephew, began to warn his family members to flee Sodom because it was about to be destroyed, his family did not take him seriously. To his sons-in-law he seemed to be joking. (Genesis 19:14)
To me, that statement should give caution to those of us who love a great story or a funny tale or even a fantastic joke and often drop one into our sermons. There is a very real danger there. If we do it much, we lose our spiritual authority with the congregation. We come across as an entertainer, not as God's man with His message.
In time, people have a hard time telling when we are kidding and when we are dead serious.
There is no worse indictment on a man's preaching than that.
In order to earn and then keep his moral authority with the congregation, a pastor must intentionally set out to do certain things:
1. He must be a man of prayer.
Why? Because to make a difference personally and through his preaching, the living God must permeate his being and anoint his sermons. It's that simple: Pray or fail.
2. He must be a man of the Word.
Unless he devotes himself to filling his mind with Scripture and then working to understand its meaning and seeing the application of it in his world, his sermons will be "I think" and "I believe" and "something I read in the paper the other day." He will tell the jokes he heard, and place his own thoughts on an equal level with Scripture. As a result, the sermons are shallow and ineffective, the congregation is bored out of their minds, no one is convicted or challenged or converted, and Satan's horde quietly dismisses him as a force to be reckoned with.
3. He must minister to the people during the week if he expects them to hear him on Sunday.
George W. Truett used to say he diagnosed in the homes during the week so he could prescribe from the pulpit on Sunday. Without a personal ministry that involves meeting individuals in need in some way during the week, his sermons will have little relevance to anything anyone is dealing with.
4. He must value the time he spends in the pulpit as the most important hour of the week.
By treasuring this time during which he represents the living God before his people, a minister will study the craft of preaching and devote himself to learning how to do it better and better. No one ever learns it all, but if he keeps at it, he will find how he personally works best, studies best, and delivers the sermons most effectively.
Many a pastor would be surprised to know that the congregation can tell the difference when he is prayed up and studied up and when he cut corners that week in his preparation. For me personally, I can tell it by whether the bucket I'm drawing from is almost empty or running over. The congregation can tell it by the ease with which the ideas flow, the aptness of each Scripture verse I share, and the power with which they hit home.
Recently, I was surfing the net looking for what preachers had written on a particular subject when I ran across a minister's website in which I could listen to his sermons. I selected one, clicked the appropriate places, and sat back in my office chair to listen.
Fifteen minutes into the sermon, I clicked it off. That minister had told joke after joke for 10 minutes, then launched into a pre-sermon prayer that seemed to be without direction or an end. By the time the sermon should have been half over, he had not started yet.
I do not know that man and so have no opportunity to say this to him publicly, nor do I wish to. But I find myself wishing Bobby would sit in his congregation long enough to tell him something I don't have the nerve to say: Preacher, you are a joke.
Sometimes, even a lost man can tell.
Dr. Joe McKeever is a Preacher, Cartoonist, and the Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Visit him at joemckeever.com/mt. Used with permission.
Publication date: May 16, 2011