The reason many of us pastors keep returning to the same few quotes is that they are definitive for us. They so imbed themselves in our consciousness that they manage to define who we are.

Somewhere I read--wish I could remember where--of a friend who accompanied Abraham Lincoln to church. Afterwards, the friend asked how he had liked the sermon. The future president's answer was something like: "He may be a good man, but he's not a good preacher. A good preacher would have asked us to do something great, and he didn't."

Sometimes a preacher needs a comeuppance like that from a layperson--calling us back to reality, insisting we remember our calling, that we not get so caught up in the minutiae of our work that we forget to issue the clarion call to God and righteousness.

It might even be appropriate to call Lincoln not a layperson, since that implies he's an active member of a church other than the clergy, but an outsider. He never joined a church, claimed to have a deep reverence for God and Scripture, but always seemed to see no personal need for involvement in a local church. So when we analyze a critique of a preacher from him, it's coming more from the outside than within the body.

But this is not about Lincoln. It's about his comment, and his excellent statement that a good preacher calls on people to do great things.

I completely agree, and am betting most pastors would also.

Now, my opinion is that the typical pastor does not call on people to do little things in place of "great" ones. That's not what Lincoln heard, I'm guessing. The pastor did not issue an invitation for people to sign up for janitorial work, volunteer to teach the 3rd grade boys, or bring casseroles on Wednesday nights.

Instead of being that specific, that detailed, and that minor, the preacher did something else.

He issued a broad invitation to do general things without ever making himself clear on what they ought to be doing.

One of the cardinal sins of sermons is to issue fuzzy calls for people to do nebulous things.

Somewhere I heard of a visiting preacher who delivered several sermons in a row on patriotism and the threat of Communism (back when the USSR was in full flower) to America. Toward the end of the week, he lamented to the pastor that he could not understand why the altar call was not getting more response.

The pastor said, "What do you want them to do--join the FBI?"

Growing up, I cannot count all the sermons I heard in which pastors told us that we were to share our faith with others, to win souls, to evangelize the world, to reach the lost. If a single one ever gave us instruction on how to do that, I'd be surprised. In my mind, they didn't.

Only when I was in seminary preparing for a pastoral ministry did I come across a booklet by the delightful title, Here's How to Win Souls. Texas Pastor Gene Edwards was sharing through photos and text precisely how a believer could knock on someone's door and lead them through the steps of understanding the gospel of Jesus and through the prayer of commitment. It was like a feast to a starving man. I read it, devoured it even, and went forth to practice it. I found it on target in every way, and am indebted to Pastor Edwards to this day.

Generality is the curse of modern sermons.

I speak as one who has been there, done that.

As a young pastor, I dutifully bought several file cabinets and folders and began amassing clippings for illustrations that would adorn future sermons. In time, the files bulged with items under every conceivable topic. But the thickest folder, the one filled with more illustrations and stories than any ten of the others, was labeled: "Dedication."

When I couldn't think of a subject a particular story fit, I'd drop it into that file.

Whether that was the cause or the effect, my early sermons all seemed to issue in one broad invitation for people to "dedicate yourself to Jesus Christ."