Fit Your Sermon to Your Congregation

PASTORAL PRINCIPLES AND PROCEDURES: Fit Your Sermon to Your Congregation

Teach you how to preach the gospel more effectively

Pastor, College Church, Loma Linda, California

The unsolved problem is the basic disturbing factor in human personality. The problem itself may be large or small, but the very fact of its existence produces inner conflicts that engender all sorts of abnormal behavior. It is a well-known fact that most of the neuroses and many of the psychoses from which modern men suffer are the results of the inability of the individuals concerned to solve their problems.

The minister of the gospel most know how to help people solve these problems. When Jesus announced the purpose of His ministry He declared that He was sent "to preach the gospel to the poor; ... to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised." In essence Jesus was announcing that He had come to help poor, frustrated, blind, bruised people find release and deliverance. The ambassadors of Jesus are sent to carry on the same mission.

In order to help people solve their problems, the minister must first solve his own, Karl R. Stolz, in his book The Church and Psychotherapy devotes a chapter to "Vocational Neuroses of the Minister." (Abingdon Cokesbury Press, 1943.) He points out some of the unsolved problems that may ruin a minister's personality and destroy his usefulness. Among them are:

The Minister's Vocational Neuroses

1. "Egocentricity through pampering." The minister is, in many ways, a privileged person. He enjoys immunities and opportunities that are denied the average person. Self-centered- ness can develop that will cripple his influence and service.

2. "Competition with members of his own profession." The minister whose primary interest is rank and position in his profession will not be able to contribute much to the lives of other people.

3. "Temptation to indolence." The minister is not governed by whistles and bells. He does not punch a time clock. He may lose the art of self-discipline, and thus impair not only his effectiveness but also his influence.

4. "Indeterminate goal." The laborer on a construction crew may have a very hazy idea of the building he is working on. The minister, likewise, may fall into deadening routine without seeing his large objectives.

5. "Emotional isolation." It is possible for a minister's world to contract until it is very little larger than his study room. Wide interests and large sympathies are essential to a problem-solving ministry.

Sensible Remedies for Neuroses

Dr. Stolz lists some sensible remedies for these and other "vocational neuroses." Among the remedies are private devotions, public worship, inspirational literature, association with and service to all sorts of men, professional improvement, and recreational therapy. The dangers he has listed are real, and the remedies are sound. We as ministers must not succumb to the pitfalls of our profession.

But solving our own problems is only a beginning a foundation. We are not ministers until we can effectively help other people solve their problems. Our first approach to this great work, I believe, is to preach more problem- solving sermons. This principle holds good both in evangelistic and pastoral work. The evangelist will win more souls if he can help his listeners find Christian solutions for their everyday problems. Why should not the one who is leading men to Christ show them how Christ can help them solve the problems that cause them anxiety?

The pastor's great opportunity comes at eleven o'clock on Sabbath morning. For thirty minutes each week he has the attention of nearly all his flock. This is his golden opportunity to help them unravel the tangled threads of their lives.

If problems were tangible entities, the pas tor would be able to see a flock of them roosting on the shoulders of nearly every per son sitting in the pews. Why should he not preach so helpfully that, one by one, these pests that are annoying his people will fly out of the' church door as the sermon progresses ? What inspiration this type of ministry will bring to the people! What strength will come to them if, when they leave the sanctuary they can say, "Now I know how to meet that problem that has bothered me for weeks"!

What are these problems that follow our people to church like the birds that follow the wake of a ship? Personal sins loom large. Family troubles are prominent. Quarrels, worries over children, misunderstandings, and estrangements are common problems. Several years ago, at a camp meeting, a speaker asked how many of those present had children not in Christ. The majority raised their hands. As an observer, I thought, "What a reservoir of dis appointments and heartaches those upraised hands represent!" Business problems are serious for many. Poverty and misfortune bring their perplexities. Loneliness, hopelessness, fear, regrets these human heartaches are in every congregation. Our sermons must be planned to meet such needs.

We as ministers must ask ourselves: Can we afford to spend Sabbath morning hours on subjects that do not touch life when such serious problems cry at us from the pews? Can we run the risk of having the same troubles and perplexities that they brought with them to the house of worship burden our hearers when they go out of the church doors? How often we spend much precious time in promoting worthy causes! If people's personal problems are solved by our ministry, mere mention of our financial needs will be sufficient. // we lift their burdens, they will help us carry ours. When a minister faces the question, What shall I preach about next Sabbath? His answer should be based on an understanding of the most pressing needs of the individual members of his flock. How can he learn these needs? No one has ever discovered a better way than intelligent personal visitation. "Filling one bottle at a time" is still the most effective way of ministering to individual needs.

The minister must solve problems not only from the pulpit but in the study and in the homes. If the minister preaches problem-solving sermons, his people will come to him with their individual problems. If his sermons are confined to theological theories, pious platitudes, or organizational promotion, his people will not select him as one who can help them live. An attitude that shows the preacher himself to be well adjusted will pave the way for worth-while, personal counseling. A neurotic preacher cannot help the neurotics; a worried preacher cannot relieve anxiety; a moody preacher cannot build stability. Underlying all his good qualifications must be a love for people and a desire to help them.

The minister must be sure that he does not create problems for his members. This can easily be done by advocating unsound restrictions and unnecessary sacrifices. The gospel calls for purity, for separation from the world, for sacrifice. But we do not serve an unreason able Master. In our zeal we often emulate the Pharisees, and "bind heavy burdens" on our people. We set up standards of recreation, of dress, of eating, and of giving that go beyond Scriptural standards. We do this, we say, "to be on the safe side," forgetting that it is just as damaging to prohibit that which is not wrong as it is to allow that which is wrong.

Our insistence on these synthetic "standards" confuses people. They are conscientious; yet they cannot see the reasons for our proscriptions. Inner conflicts result; hypocritical practices may develop; unhealthy comparisons with other people are sure to follow. Thus we create problems, serious problems "burdens grievous to be borne" that destroy the spiritual health of our people. If ministers will stick to the basic Biblical principles of morality and right living, avoiding the "twilight zone" of personal hobbies and "works of supererogation," fewer perplexing problems will plague the people in the pews.

Finally, what is the therapy that we can use in the pulpit and in the personal interview to help people solve their problems? We are neither psychologists nor psychiatrists; we are ministers of the gospel. The gospel is our rem edy for human problems. This gospel includes faith in Christ, the grace of God, trust in Divine Providence, the fellowship of the church, the Christian hope, and the Christian commission.

The gospel is adequate to help every person solve his problems, provided it is mediated intelligently. In order to apply this great solvent of men's problems, we must know something about the human personality with which we are dealing, and we must have common sense. If we are not thus equipped for our task, we will be like novices prescribing potent drugs. We can so misuse the gospel powerful and vital as it is that positive harm will follow our endeavors to apply it. The needs of men call for an intelligent ministry, a balanced ministry, a Christlike ministry, who will mediate the saving, healing gospel of Christ in a way that will bring happy and permanent solutions to the personal problems of men.



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Pastor, College Church, Loma Linda, California

May 1950

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