Part Two of a Two Part Series (part one)
Many Christian sects, and certainly every evangelical sect, believe that pastors are called by God to preach the gospel. Pastors are ordained by the particular church or denomination of which they are a part. Through their ordination, the church or denomination is saying we recognize God’s calling in your life.
According to Evangelicals, the Bible is a supernatural book given to us by a supernatural God. God calls pastors to read and study God’s inspired, inerrant, infallible Word so they will then be able to stand before their congregations and proclaim “thus saith the Lord.” These men of God are often viewed as people who have a direct line to God. When a church member is confused about what the Bible says, he or she most often seeks out the pastor for clarity. Like mythical oracles, pastors are expected to have ready answers for any question they might be asked.
Most Evangelicals believe in the priesthood of the believer. This means they believe that every Christian has direct access to God. However, as with many things in the church, the stated beliefs are often contradicted by what actually goes on in the church. Instead of directly accessing God, many Christians expect their pastor to be an intermediary between them and God. After all, the pastor is a mature Christian, a font of wisdom and Biblical knowledge, right? Or so many congregants think.
The pastor’s supposed intimate connection with God plays a big part in how parishioners view his sermons. In their eyes, the sermon is a direct message from God. The pastor is just God’s mouthpiece. God could have used an ass to speak as he did in Numbers 22, but he used the pastor instead (that is, until the pastor upsets them, at which time he is an ass). When the pastor stands before the congregation the people have an expectation that they are going to hear from God. The pastor expects God to use his sermon to speak to the heart of every person. He desires God to use his sermon to reclaim the backslidden and save the lost.
Preaching is not just an intellectual exercise. There is a huge emotional component in preaching, not only for the pastor, but also with those who are listening to the sermon. Emotion is often ascribed to God moving, God working, or God calling. I have preached in numerous services where it seemed evident God was in the midst. The emotional levels were high. People were weeping. People were coming down the aisle to the altar to pray. It was evident to everyone that God was using my sermon to bring repentance, renewal, and revival.
Any cursory reading about the First and Second Great Awakening will reveal that emotions played a huge part in the success of these campaigns. The Evangelical movement can trace its lineage, to some degree, back to revivalist machinations of the 18th and 19th centuries.. Emotions have always played a momentous part in any significant move of God (as revivals, awakenings, and movements are called). This should not be surprising since we are, by nature, emotional beings.
What we have here is a perfect storm. A supernatural God, a supernatural book, a God-called, church-ordained pastor, and a congregation of emotional human beings. If the pastor is good at his craft, he knows how to use all of this to his advantage. The pastor is not necessarily manipulating the emotions of the congregation on purpose. Most pastors grew up in the church. By the time they start preaching they have sat in countless church services and heard hundreds of sermons. Their understanding of how to preach is shaped by the church environment and religious culture they grew up in.
The longer a pastor is in the ministry the more he is keenly aware of what “works.” He becomes more discerning about what his congregation “needs.” What “works” is coupled with what the congregation “needs” and the result is often described by parishioners as God speaking to their hearts. The fundamental problem here is that it is impossible to know whether the “feeling” a person has is God. The deeply affected person believes it is God but must accept such a claim by faith.
A commenter on a different post wrote:
I don’t believe in Jesus because of arguments for the trustworthiness of the Bible. I believe in Him because I have a relationship with Him-I have heard His voice and I feel His presence. And I am aware that sounds vague and illogical, but I also know that no one can invalidate my experience.
This comment goes to the heart of the difficulty in trying to present an alternative viewpoint to Christians. They know what they have experienced. They were there when Jesus saved them and they know that their experiences are real. It is almost impossible to move people away from their subjective experiences. Rarely do objectivity and facts win a battle against religious subjectivity and faith.
As I look back on the 25 years I spent in the ministry, I have come to see that I used my sermons to manipulate people (and I am not necessarily using the word manipulate in a negative sense). Spend enough time with a group of people and you will learn their strengths and weaknesses. Eat meals with them, pray with them, visit in their homes, and educate their children and you will certainly know a lot about the people you pastor. With this knowledge at hand, sermons can be crafted to help the congregation (sermons are never preached in a vacuüm). It should come as no surprise, then, that people think that the pastor is preaching right to them. This is not God speaking to the particular parishioner as much as it is a human being who has good discernment skills, skills finely tuned by interacting with thousands of people over the course of many years.
Do I think God used me to speak to people? At the time I did. However, I now know that what people were responding to was a well-crafted sermon preached by a sincere man who knew the needs of his congregation. I knew the power of emotions and used them to
God’s my advantage. I heard preacher after preacher do the same thing. I was not an anomaly. I was a young man raised in an environment that put a premium on powerful, emotional preaching. I was encouraged to study the great preachers of the faith, men like Charles Spurgeon, DL Moody, Billy Sunday, John Wesley and Charles Finney. When I became a Calvinist, I studied the great Calvinist preachers, men like Jonathan Edwards, Martyn Lloyd Jones, George Whitefield, and Rolfe Barnard. The way I preached was a result of the environment I grew up in and the men I considered my role models.
Because of the power ascribed to sermons, there is a real danger of abuse. The sincere pastor can quickly turn into a huckster who desires to advance his own agenda. Even well-meaning pastors can do this. Have problems in the church? Have people upset with a decision you made? Preach on pastoral authority. Offerings down? Preach on tithing. Want a raise? Preach on the laborer being worthy of his hire or an elder being worthy of double the salary. Better yet, get an evangelist to come in and preach on these things. That way you can blame the evangelist if people are upset about the sermon subject matter.
Liberal or mainline pastors find discussions like this quite amusing. For the most part, they see the ministry as a profession, one used by God, but not in the way Evangelicals think it is. Most liberal/mainline pastors have far more education than their Evangelical counterparts. And, as a rule, their sermons reflect it: dry, boring, meaningless exercises in intellectual nothingness. What happened to their passion, their emotions? Preaching without emotion and passion is not worth listening to. A preacher ought to give 100% of himself to the sermon. I can admire a pastor’s passion without necessarily agreeing with his message. I don’t believe God exists, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a well-crafted, passionately-delivered sermon.
From 2002 through 2008, my wife and I visited over a hundred churches. Most of the sermons we heard were forgettable, and sadly a lot of them were downright awful. We did hear a few pastors who took their calling seriously. It was evident that they worked very hard to deliver a good sermon. Regardless of what I believe about Christianity, I admire any person who works hard at his craft. I may despise the message, but I can still appreciate the way the messenger goes about his work.