[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church. The title is "Jesus Defines Discipleship", and you can get the audio by clicking on the title.]
One of the great benefits of preaching, teaching, or studying your way through a book of the Bible is that you get to deal with every passage in that book. One of the challenges of this same approach is that you have to deal with every passage in that book. There is no skipping things that are difficult to comprehend or communicate...instead, you must wrestle with them. The "hard sayings of the Bible," as they are often called, cannot be avoided.
Let's face it...every preacher wants his message to be well-received week by week. A pastor may adamantly proclaim, "I don't care what anybody thinks, I preach the Bible straightforward and tell it like it is." However, the truth behind this bold exterior is that he wants his congregation to like that he doesn't care what anyone thinks and 'tells it like it is.' On the opposite end of the spectrum, the same desire to be well-received may drive a pastor to water down what he says or avoid passages that may be too counter-cultural.
In Mark 8:34-38, we come to a counter-cultural passage...a 'hard saying of the Bible' as Jesus says that His disciples will be marked by denial, death, and devotion. They will deny themselves, renouncing allegiance to themselves and being fully loyal to the will and work of Jesus Christ instead. They will take up their cross, accepting the rejection and suffering that Jesus would experience...even to the point of death. They will follow Jesus, meaning His gospel message will be their gospel message, His ethical teachings will guide them in making decisions, and His life will exemplify to them what it means to glorify God in this world. Jesus' disciples will deny, die, and be devoted...that's counter-cultural. That stands contrary to much of what is taught in the evangelical church today.
Sadly, a call to these difficult things from a pulpit in the United States makes a church unique. So, what is the temptation for the pastor who wants his message to be well-received? Well, for our previously mentioned "bold pastor", the temptation is to hammer away at the text in a way that can come across as harsh and uncaring. For our other pastor friend, he may speak about denial and death and devotion, but he may speak in a way that changes the meaning of Jesus' teaching completely...so that denial isn't really self-renouncing, and death isn't really painful.
Now, you must know that I am not immune from these temptations. How does one battle against this? Well, I think the best strategy is to change one's perspective in two ways. First, it is not a bad desire for one to want his message well-received. If one is preaching the gospel, then the reception of that message means salvation for the lost and the edification of the saints. A pastor who is apathetic as to whether that message is well-received by his hearers in this way should examine whether he should be preaching at all! This would be like a shepherd working hard to lead his sheep to green pastures and then not caring if they ate...even though not eating would mean malnutrition and death. Would such a shepherd be considered one who actually cares for his sheep? No. Likewise, no pastor should be uncaring about whether people actually eat from the green pasture of the gospel each week.
Second, when many of us talk about our message being well-received, we are usually talking about people's approval of what has been communicated. A preacher typically wants to know that his content was biblical, that his words were clear, that the message was powerful, or...if we dig deep enough into the inner recesses of the preacher's heart...that people just liked the message and like him a little more as a result. Here, we see the desire to please others and be applauded...yet, "if I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ" (Galatians 1:10).
Now, before I suggest a shift in our perspective, I want to make sure I'm balanced in what is said. Every preacher needs to be growing in his call and gift...I know the one writing this blog does. This often takes the honest, gracious, sometimes difficult feedback of trusted counselors. Within the last 12 months, I was exposed to a counterproductive aspect of my preaching ministry. I went back and listened for myself, and I asked others for insight. Through this difficult and humiliating process, the Lord convicted me deeply. I wept as I thought about how my deficiency could have been a stumbling block to those listening to the gospel. As a result, and by God's grace, I believe I have experienced growth in this area and will continue to do so. This is not the only place where I need to grow as a preacher, but it's a tangible illustration of how pastors sometimes need input from others to grow.
With that in mind, I'll continue. A preacher may want his message to be liked...to be acceptable. Yet, the perspective that needs to change comes in answering this question: To whom do we want our message acceptable? The answer must be that we want our message to be acceptable to God, for ultimately, it is an act of worship to preach the Word of God to the people of God in the presence of God. We do not just sing and pray and give in response to who God is and what He has done. We preach in response to who God is and what He has done. Our hearts overflow with musical praise, prayerful praise, financial offerings of praise, and with sermons that exalt our God and His Son, Jesus Christ. As much as we want our music to be acceptable to God and our attitude in giving acceptable to God, we want our preaching to be acceptable to God.
So, the pastor must always want his message to be well-received. For the men and women listening week by week, he must long for the message to be received as the gospel...as the Word of God...as the authority that must change and shape the lives of God's people. As an act of worship, he must long for his message to be well-received by God...as a fragrant offering. It is not wrong to verbally encourage a pastor in his work, but the greatest encouragement a pastor can have is to see his congregation walking according to the teaching of the Scripture. "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth." (3 John 4)