Pastors, Tell Us How!

My family has begun the search for a church.  We had the most wonderful church experience for the last six and a half years, but we’re now in a new city and are looking for a new fellowship.  We’ve visited a few places and have largely enjoyed ourselves.  Our expectations aren’t very unrealistic, I don’t think, in that we don’t really have any.

One thing, however, has struck me.  The sermons that we’ve heard have been left, for the most part, in the abstract.  They didn’t “land” in the real world of our lives.

I think I’ve agreed with pretty much everything that I’ve heard over the last several weeks.  It would be difficult to disagree.  We’ve heard that we need to “let God carry us” and that we should “seek to serve God and not ourselves.”

But we didn’t hear much about how we could do these things.  We were given little help with envisioning concrete embodiments of these abstract principles.

What does it mean that Jesus has broad shoulders, and that when life gets tough we need to let him carry us?  When I hear this, I tend to think, “yes, pastor, I agree that Jesus has broad shoulders and I have confidence that if I needed carrying, he is up to it.  But this last week I had a very stressful encounter and I would have loved to let Jesus carry me through that.  I really could have used Jesus’ shoulders at that moment.  But how would that happen?  How do I access that dynamic?  Is there a button?  A series of hand signals?  How does that reality break into my situation and reconfigure it?  I don’t doubt that I need God’s help and that he can give it, but how do I go about getting it?”

Now, I don’t want to pile on pastors.  Ministry is tough and it’s too easy to be critical.

So, here’s my question: When have you heard a sermon that interpreted your life theologically, transformed your vision with hope, and did this in a way that gave you insight in how to act redemptively?  Has that ever happened?  What was it about that sermon that was helpful?

14 thoughts on “Pastors, Tell Us How!

  1. thebareden

    I think one of the reasons this doesn’t happen is because of the mixed up way we view church at most places. We have sermons that use words only the Christian community knows, and yet we compel people to invite non-believers to service to hear “the gospel”. Sermons and pastors can’t decide if they want what they say to be edifying to believers or conversionary for non-believers. So much like a jack of all trades, sermons tend to be okay at a lots of things, but excellent at not much of anything.

    The church we go to now is one of the better places we’ve been so far in this regard, in that there is a reconciling of both of the realities I mentioned, mostly coming from the belief that gospel realities should be edifying to believers and relieving to a burdened soul who is visiting and doesn’t have faith yet. Our pastor does a decent job of recognizing, I think, that a church gathering is mostly for the body, and points out ways we can love and serve each other and the community by using examples from our congregation, highlighting places we can serve if our heart is pricked, calling for those who need serving to make themselves vulnerable to those who can help, and talking about how the whole dance we’re doing is the realization of Christ’s kingdom. Not perfect, but way more encouraging than anyplace we’ve been in a long time.

    Looking forward to hearing some stories about you guys’ place when you find one!


    1. timgombis

      Yeah, M, as I thought more about it while cutting the grass yesterday, there are so many factors that go into this dynamic, involving pastoral pressures and congregational expectations, etc.

  2. thebareden

    Not to monopolize your comment section, here, but one more thing I am thinking: There should be a difference between “what” and “how.” What I mean is, we’ve been to several churches that broke us down with all their proscriptive/ telling of WHAT you should be doing, like you’re an infantile idiot and you needed someone to plan your day for you. This is different than what you’ve asked. WHAT leaves no room for nuance, or for variation in people. WHAT is cold and hard and black-n-white. HOW, on the other hand, is illuminating, not proscriptive. HOW recognizes that it’s not going to be the same for all of us, but allows all of us to nonetheless work within the spirit of Christ. I think if pastors focused on explaining how things are more often instead of what we should be doing, it’d make a big change.


  3. Craig Benno

    I don’t think there is any place in the pulpit for abstract ideas. I recently preached on “Being an agent of hope in a pain filled world” which you can find here if your interested.

    On a personal note..I believe that the role of the church is not to be pastoring its congregation so much as it is to be pastoring its community. Within this framework of thinking; the pastoring emphasis will be on engaging with, equipping for and releasing into the ways in which we are to live in every day life.

  4. Aaron

    Dr G,
    I wonder if a sermon, as a 45 min, or heaven help us an 1hr and a half speech, can even deliver what we expect it to. I have been inspired, engaged, and have downloaded knowledge through sermons, and they have in many ways formed new and good thoughts (and some bad thoughts) about God, Jesus, and his kingdom, but for me anyway, my life is interpreted theologically when I am engaged in a community of believers where healthy, spirit-filled dialogue (where we as a group wrestle with scripture and have honest, vulnerable moments together where truth is spoken and received) takes place, and my vision of hope is rooted in God’s dream for our city, and have gotten insight into how to act redemptively when my tendencies to act unredemptively are brought under the contrsast of knowing which kingdom I am pushing for by my action (which my wife or close friends can point out unnervingly fast). I guess to answer your question, it is possible for a sermon to do that, but as for me, I couldn’t deliver that every week, I would feel it a disservice to my pastor to expect that every week, meaning he would spend much time nosed in study rather than engaged with people, all for a hit or miss hour.

    Thanks for the honest thoughts, Dr G.

    1. timgombis

      Good thoughts, Aaron. You’re right. The pressure to do that week in and week out is a lot! I have a friend who preached Sunday mornings and then after a meal Sunday nights, his church discussed how to put into practice what they talked about Sunday morning. That’s one big way of doing it.

  5. athanasius96

    I agree that all Bible study (preached, read personally or otherwise) should have clear application most of the time. I would rather disagree with someone than have nothing concrete to discuss in the first place. My impression is that some teachers are hesistant to “put it out there”. But if we aren’t leading, then we aren’t serving as we should.

  6. greekUnorthodox

    I don’t know if a sermon is really the right mode for delivering the ‘how’ so much as the ‘what’ because of the fact that it is one person speaking to a number of people all coming from different places. ‘How’ is a question to be asked in response to the ‘What’ while considering all the intangibles of the person applying the directives being offered.

    I think more intimate gatherings provide a better solution to your question, be they small groups, Sunday classes, or just one-on-one discussions.

    That being said, Tim Keller is the best I’ve seen/heard at providing application with his declarations. He’d even say he’s too quick to move towards application. But, without being too specific so as to isolate a portion of his congregation, he gives great generalized ways to apply the sermon each week.

  7. joey

    The best sermons I’ve heard have not had a “here’s the practical application” moment. They have been transformative by the bold telling of the Story: Here’s what God is up to in the world and this is who you, the Church, really are in relation to what God is doing. The Story in these sermons is cosmic in scale and the shaping that occurs from such lessons is not by the force of my own will to “apply” anything.
    I am sick to death of the ceaseless psychobabble sermons on how to have financial peace, nice marriages, raise nice kids and how to sin less. Tell us a word from GOD. Tell us his STORY! Tell us we’re part of something truly amazing – something that is distinguishable from the multitude of secular, charitable, service organizations. Who ARE we?! What is God actually doing? The few snippets of sermons that we have recorded in say, Acts, are Stories.

    1. timgombis

      Interesting, Joey — I do think story has much to do with preaching that connects and fires the imagination. Steve Guthrie’s book sparked some thoughts on this that I’m trying to get some time to put together.

  8. brianfulthorp

    I actually started preaching your book on Ephesians before we had to leave the Grand Canyon National Park – it was so practical and easy to improvise off of and put into practical terms – I loved and and it was transforming for me to read, still is… 🙂

    but I agree pastors should not get too abstract – I prefer a blend of theology and practicality, but that is more ideal than real.

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