A Morning in Thomasville with Ben Weeks
Recently I have spent a bit of time revisiting the Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. One of the things that Bunyan seems to stress during the story is the need for friendship and fellowship along the way to the Celestial City. Two of the more constant companions that Christian kept with him were two men, Faithful and Hopeful. The way is difficult but through the avenue of friendship, Christian and his companions find the way to be much easier. For more than ten years, I have been friends with Ben Weeks, pastor of Truth Harbor in Lake Park, Georgia which is just outside of Valdosta, Georgia. He is a Christian gentleman of the finest sort and he has a renowned preaching ministry that has been widely received in all sorts of national and international venues—conferences, camp meetings, marriage retreats, and pastoral anniversaries. For the last decade we have met at various times in Thomasville, Georgia, which is about half-way between Dothan and Valdosta to eat at Sonny’s BBQ and other little hole in the wall restaurants there to talk about the Bible, matters of theology and doctrine, preaching, church life and sometimes just the mundane insignificant things that take place in life.
The Great Responsibility of Biblical Preaching
Today was another one of those opportunities and I have decided to share a little bit of what we talked about. I think that with age there comes a heightened sense of responsibility to the normal matters of life that one is involved in. This is certainly true of a pastor/preacher who starts’ realizing that time is now of the essence and that our lives are indeed but a small vapor that soon passes away. With that clarity there is an ushering in of a higher sense of purpose. This is really pronounced in the area of the biblical content that we devote ourselves to in the pulpit. So today, Ben and I discussed the great necessity of doctrinal preaching in Pentecostal pulpits for our times. We both have come to the conclusion that as younger preachers we sort of fell into the mode of passion, text-driven messages that were usually very heavy on inspiration and motivation but not a lot of instruction or doctrine. Occasionally we would allow the sermons to venture into areas that moved the passage entirely out of its context. Some of that preaching style is due to our coming of age about the time that a variety of conferences were just beginning to start their rise in the 1980’s. Some of the greatest pulpiteers that the Pentecostal movement had to offer were just beginning to be recognized and a lot of young men were deeply influenced by what was taking place at the conference circuit. Some of the messages that we heard during the late 80’s and early 90’s still impact us when we think about them because they called us to a deeper life and deeper commitment. But the trap of conference preaching is that it does not really show what week-in and week-out pastoral preaching should look like. Revival preaching, faith preaching, or flash-bang preaching, however one would choose to define it, is meant for conference outlets but if you swing for the fences every time that you preach, it turns preaching into a form of religious entertainment for all who are involved. Furthermore, it will add to great doctrinal and spiritual shallowness in the life of the preacher and that trickle down effect finds its way into the pews. Churches that are not anchored by doctrine will be blown about by every wind of doctrine that comes down the pike. If a pastor/preacher neglects doctrinal preaching, he soon resorts to sensationalism or emotionalism that will move the crowd for all of the wrong reasons. Sensationalism in preaching is often that which hinges on stories of angel sightings, miraculous healings, reports of massive numbers of conversions, strange and ominous visions of the preacher, dramatic tales of the preacher’s prowess in various situations where the devil or a demon or a wild-eyed person was confronted or using the gifts of the Spirit as authoritative leverage and even theatrics for the preacher. These tactics of preaching soon come to nothing and it leaves far more of its hearers with a cynical view of faith and God than with a mature faith that will carry them through the fluctuations of life and the snares the devil places in their path. Great preaching is biblical preaching! Great preaching is doctrinal preaching! Don’t be afraid to give yourself to just taking the Book and preaching all the way through it!
Doctrine Can Make a Difference
Ben told me of a pastor who pastored in a single pastorate for more than forty years. During all of the time he was there much emphasis in preaching apostolic doctrine. This pastor said that over his years of service in that church that he had his share of people whom backslid and walked away from God and he always was alarmed by the losses. But several of the backsliders told him through the years that even though their lives were not being lived in a way that pleased God, they would never find themselves in a place that taught false doctrine. They may have tasted of the dregs of sin and the world but there was something in that old pastor’s voice that stayed with them about the necessity of having the truth no matter where they went to church.
One of the reasons that many preachers stay away from routine doctrinal preaching is because they feel like it might be a boring subject for their churches. However, I believe that as a preacher’s skill improves, he should really make doctrine to be so compelling that the Word literally moves with great authority through the pews of the church. Churches can be encouraged to love this kind of preaching and when it is done well, they will benefit greatly from it. When we say to preach doctrine we mean the elements of the absolute monotheism of God, the majesty, the holiness, and the power of God (i.e. His attributes). But there are other great matters of doctrine besides that, the new birth, heaven, hell, holiness, the power of Scripture (i.e. inerrancy, authority, inspiration, etc.), the church, man, angels and demons, eschatology, and a host of other things that can fit under the definition of doctrine. Ben brought to my attention the connection between Acts 2:38 and Matthew 28:19. Peter was indeed preaching the words of Jesus when the inquirers at the day of Pentecost began to question what was taking place. Furthermore when we come to Hebrews 2 and the urge to not let things slip from us is called out, the apostolic doctrine was what the writer was calling us to not let slip. The challenge with doctrinal preaching is that it forces preachers to immerse themselves in Scripture and a relationship with that old Book. When we have a wide fare of all kinds of books that would pull us away from the Bible, we allow books on leadership, sociology, pop psychology, history, and self-help to put poison in the pot that kills congregations. It will do so slowly until it finally robs the spiritual life out of both preacher and hearer. Keep this in front of you at all times, pastor/preacher. . . One of these days you are going to stand before our Savior and give an account of what you have done with the church you were called to pastor and to the ministry you were called to make full proof of. That will be the most terrifying moment of your existence when you render an accounting of your stewardship.
Freshness In Preaching
Ben and I discussed the demanding schedule that good preaching calls for. Good preaching calls for being alone with God almost to a point of holy isolation. You must get control of your schedule if you will really dig into the Word. A recent Tweet from Don Carson has inspired and convicted me. He said, “There is no long-range effective teaching of the Bible that is not accompanied by long hours of ongoing study of the Bible.” This is a challenge for our highly distracted age and it is especially true of the pastor/preacher who at times feels more like a fireman than a man called of God to preach the Word. We are chained to smart phones that imprison us. Social media is leading to incredibly superficial relationships that provide little human stimulation at the deepest levels. But perhaps the biggest thing with our age is that it hinders the ability to be alone with God. To stay fresh with preaching means you will have to spend time as a workman in the study. Ben told me that one of the ways that he has put a little bit of a challenge into his own preaching is to change up the final process of the actual preaching the message. What he meant by this was changing up the way you work with your notes. If you are an outline preacher, then move over to a word for word manuscript. If you are a manuscript preacher, then change up to an outline. For those who like neat notes that are printed out or viewed on an iPad, go with handwritten notes. If you always handwrite your notes, change it up and type it out and have it in your Bible. Lastly, he said that one of the things he has started doing is putting his notes in the back of his Bible and not referring to them as he preaches. He has studied the notes thoroughly prior to going into the pulpit but when it comes time to preach, he does not use notes. When you do that you are preaching with a focused heart and mind that adds to more spontaneous preaching. Another way to create freshness in preaching is to listen to preachers that you might not normally listen to. I think that all preachers have favorite preachers that they sort of gravitate to but break out of that paradigm and venture into some new regions. Although Ben did say that he has one mainstay that he has listened more than any other over the years and that has continued until now. He listens to a lot of messages that Pastor Larry Booker preaches.
Feed the Sheep
Some years ago, Ben was with a group of preachers around a table at a restaurant when one of them spoke up and said, “Ahh you guys know how we Pentecostal preachers are. Most of us get our sermons together when we are driving our cars on the way to church.” Ben said there was a lot of laughing and admissions from others that they had fallen into that damnable trap (my words, not his) of no preparation. Finally one of the men noticed that he wasn’t having a lot of input or wasn’t laughing about it. When one of them asked, “Brother Weeks, isn’t that what you do it?” He said sort of quietly, “No, that’s not how I do it.” He said it was a little awkward when he said that but he told them that he took very seriously the matter of feeding the sheep. To really feed the sheep he felt like that if he did not spend the necessary time in study and prayer that he was shortchanging God and the people who attended the church he was pastoring. There was an embarrassed silence that followed his response. We have to make sure that we are feeding the sheep! You are not going to be able to feed the sheep by listening to a sermon on mp3, You Tube, or apps that stream sermons. It will not come by reading little blurbs here and there of scintillating online stories or even billboards, that sort of thing creates trivial so-called sermons. We both talked about the discipline that is necessary to go into the study and do the hard work. Move to a place where you can sit down and stay in your seat, at your desk, silenced phone, open Bible, open books, open journal, and whatever you write with. The people you pastor will come to greatly appreciate the time and effort you spend on putting together messages that makes sense and is biblically driven.
The Preaching of Pastor John Harrell
Toward the end of our time, I had mentioned to him about some great messages from the years gone by that he had come to appreciate. He mentioned three of them by Pastor John Harrell in Bridge City, Texas. One of them has been profiled before on my blog, A Perceived Slight. But there were two others that I haven’t heard and he mentioned them. The Significance of the Usual, which was about the ordinary means of grace, that works its way into our lives. The path that we follow can seem so mundane, routine, and ordinary but God has a way of using those zones to create some of the greatest and most powerful qualities in our lives. Don’t push against the monotony of life because it is the habit of doing things over and over that makes us strong.
He also mentioned another one, The Sanctification of Motives. This message was about how that early on we come to God in a somewhat selfish manner. We want God to fix us, mend us, and build us up. The prayers in the early years are for God to really do something greatly magnificent with us. But as spiritual maturity beckons and the trail upward narrows, that selfishness gets washed out of us and we move away from being so self-focused to more God-focused and others-focused. That is because of the sanctification or purification of our motives. It takes time for our motives to be set right but once they are set right we look back on the early immaturity with a repentant embarrassment but that is the path of great saints. Woe to the soul who never gets his motives sanctified.
Thanks for reading these ramblings. . .
May they be an encouragement to you. . .