“Pastor, why can’t you just preach the gospel and stay away from all this controversial stuff?”
It’s likely your pastor has heard this question dozens of times in recent years, yet he or she may be reticent to speak about it for fear of calling out certain members of the congregation or appearing to respond to specific criticism of recent sermons. If you’ve already been criticized for your sermon, however gently, you sure don’t want to make the situation worse by writing a column like this.
Since I’m not a “preaching” pastor (call me if you need a wedding or funeral, though) no one can criticize my Sunday sermons on this basis. So maybe I can address this concern on behalf of my many friends across the country who do stand in pulpits week to week and declare the word of the Lord.
What congregants seem to mean when they ask pastors to “just preach the gospel” is to avoid the things that make them uncomfortable and cause them to leave worship with something less than a warm glow in their hearts. They want Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday sermons, not Ash Wednesday or Good Friday sermons. They want seven-ways-to-live-a-happier-life sermons, not seven-ways-to-suffer-like-Christ sermons. This is not an evil desire, nor is it unreasonable – in part because the Christian church in America for most of my lifetime has conditioned us to leave worship feeling happy and sometimes smug about our personal piety.
For some, this complaint may arise from feeling like everything around them is “too political” today. They hear it on TV, on the radio, in the newspaper, at work, at home, at parties. Couldn’t church be a sanctuary from things that feel so divisive?
“Jesus upset the status quo, undermined the religious and political leaders of his day and called people to sacrifice what made them feel safe and secure.”
We must remember that the “gospel” got Jesus killed by an angry mob. All our pretty, sanded-down crosses belie the fact that Jesus was lynched and hanged on rough-hewn timbers in an act of public humiliation. Jesus upset the status quo, undermined the religious and political leaders of his day and called people to sacrifice what made them feel safe and secure. By the way, Jesus also didn’t need to raise a multimillion-dollar budget every year, which probably is a good thing.
The essence of the gospel is announced by Jesus in Luke 4:18-19: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This was Jesus’ agenda.
In today’s climate, pastors who stand in the pulpit and declare help for the poor, release of captives and health care for the blind can easily be accused of “being political” or “soft on crime” or “socialists” or worse. Were Jesus to mount the pulpit in your church this Sunday, it is doubtful anyone would leave feeling warm and fuzzy and self-righteous. Challenged, yes. Inspired, yes. Self-righteous, no.
If it’s not the words of Jesus people are seeking, then maybe “the gospel” is the rest of the New Testament, beyond the red-letter stuff. The bulk of those other words were penned by the Apostle Paul. Like Jesus, he died a martyr’s death and gave his life in service to others. He was not about self-preservation. Throughout the Pauline epistles, we hear that the most important thing is to “preach Christ and him crucified.” Again, not an invitation to a country club luncheon.
Paul is always calling the early church to greater action, greater commitment, greater sacrifice, greater devotion. His mission is to lead people to follow Jesus in radical discipleship.
There’s a word that ought to resonate with Christians of all stripes: “discipleship.” Whether from Jesus or Paul, the gospel message calls us to lives of being disciples, of following Jesus by trying every day to be more like Jesus. Conservative Christians had it right years ago when they embraced the WWJD bracelets asking “What Would Jesus Do?” That’s a discipleship question.
Sadly, the WWJD question has been replaced in many Christian minds by WMMC – What Makes Me Comfortable? That’s the wrong question, the wrong measuring stick, whether you’re following Jesus or Paul.
“WWJD has been replaced in many Christian minds by WMMC – What Makes Me Comfortable?”
So if “preaching the gospel” isn’t about Jesus, Paul or discipleship, maybe it’s about something else. The other things pastors hear a lot is this: “You should preach more evangelistic sermons.”
Where to begin? First, evangelistic sermons are more effective when there are people in the room who need to be evangelized. That requires members of the church inviting their friends and neighbors and family and coworkers to church to hear the gospel presentation. (See the discussion on discipleship above.) Most churches in America today are filled with people who already believe. And not many of the people who complain about the pastor’s sermons are bringing inquirers to church with them.
But there is another meaning to evangelism, which is to renew faith in the good news of Jesus Christ. That involves reclaiming those who have fallen away or strengthening the faith of those who are faltering. Maybe that’s what people mean when they want pastors to “just preach the gospel.” And that could pull in some of the warmer stuff Jesus said, like, “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”
That’s it: We want to come to church to lay down our burdens and be comforted, to find rest from the troubles of the world. But, as before, there’s a problem. That warm and comforting line from Luke’s Gospel is followed by this sentence from Jesus in the same breath: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.”
Preaching the gospel authentically calls us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, to turn the other cheek, not to consider ourselves better than others, to live at peace with all people, to model a winsome faith, to bind up the wounded, rescue the perishing and bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. That’s the gospel, and that’s the end-game of evangelism.
Not all pastors are brave enough to preach the gospel these days, because it’s upsetting and dangerous. But I fear even fewer people are willing to hear the gospel preached – because it’s upsetting and dangerous. To paraphrase Thomas Paine: These are the times that try men’s and women’s souls. The “gospel” just doesn’t go down as easily today; nor should it ever.
The next time you think your pastor is being “too political” or “not evangelistic enough” or should “preach the gospel more,” give yourself a simple test: How does what your pastor preaches line up with the words of Jesus, the red-letter portions of the Bible? When a pastor declares the red letters, it may leave a congregation red in the face. And that says more about the hearer than the preacher.
Editor’s note: As the year-end approaches, we are republishing several of our most-read opinion articles from 2018. This article originally appeared November 1, 2018.