Teaching the Bible makes me nervous, especially when I am invited by a church to preach on a Sunday morning. The pulpit is a scary place. While I can deal with life and death situations in the office without batting an eye, I approach every sermon opportunity with a healthy dose of concern and anxiety.
I am nervous because I take teaching the Bible seriously. The thought of making a mistake, of leading people astray or causing them to stumble, brings significant fear. It is a tremendous privilege and honor to teach God’s Word and I want to do my very best. I spend hours in preparation, typically going through 8 drafts of a sermon before I feel ready to teach. Even then I am often making adjustments the morning of the message.
My preparation is not limited to the content of the message I deliver. I spend time preparing myself on the outside as well. When invited to a church for the first time one of my first questions is, “What is the dress code?” I do not want anyone to be distracted by what I wear and I want my attire to communicate seriousness and dignity. I always wear dress slacks and a collared shirt and have worn coat and tie on several occasions. I want to respect the pulpit and the congregation. When in doubt I error on the side of formality.
The seriousness with which I approach the pulpit appears to be outdated. Dignity and respect seem to be viewed by many current pastors as negative attributes. In many cases it seems little thought is given to the feelings of those in attendance. At times I feel as if the feelings and attitudes of the congregation, particularly older members, are treated with disdain. Casualness in dress and informal speech are badges of honor, a statement that the speaker has broken free from meaningless traditions. If there is a line marking the boundary between appropriate and inappropriate speech or appearance many modern preachers appear to have the goal of walking as close to that line as they possibly can. Edginess, hipness and relatability have surpassed dignity, integrity and respect in the hierarchy of pastoral values.
The words of James in his letter to the church at large hundreds of years ago seem to have been forgotten. He cautioned, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Because we are often the face of the church, teachers need to be better than everybody else. We need to be examples of excellence, grace and decorum. Instead of living on the edge we need to be raising the bar.
I have heard some express concern that such formality may be harmful, that church services and sermons need to be accessible and relevant to young people. These concerns lead to some pastors sharing stories and jokes of questionable taste in the name of accessibility and authenticity. What is missed is the fact that those who want maturity and decorum from the pulpit are not out of touch or out of date. They are correct!
Consider the instructions given by the Apostle Paul to his very young pastor protégé Timothy. Paul gave Timothy specific advice on how he was to handle himself in the church. “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” Paul’s words strike a powerful contrast to the positions of many modern preachers. According to Paul, the young man should act like a mature man, not the other way around.
With this in mind, I offer some advice to those who feel called to preach. Be afraid. Be fearful of dishonoring your calling, of being a poor example, and of disrespecting those you serve. A stricter judgment awaits you.
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