I became a Christian in college. I remember the moment like it was yesterday. There was neither a moment before nor since that has changed me more than when the Gospel became true for me. Other moments have come close, but nothing has eclipsed the beauty that I beheld for the first time on that day back in 2008. Since then, I have had the joy of sitting under many Godly, gospel-preaching teachers who have helped walk me through the many different phases of my Christian life up to this point. My campus pastor in college, my church pastors, conference speakers, podcasts; I've heard a lot of sermons.
The Good and the Bad
There is no doubt that I have benefited in many ways from this. I can communicate gospel truth in a variety of ways, I can recall illustrations of how God encounters and shapes us through both ordinary and extra-ordinary experiences, and I can (usually) identify the difference between solid truth and mere opinion. But not every habit I've picked up has been good. Sometimes I find myself sitting unimpressed on a Sunday morning. Sometimes I even find myself basing the value (for me) of the Sunday gathering on the “quality” of the preaching. I often find myself thinking more about the man who is preaching than who he is talking about, comparing him to this-or-that other person or comparing his words to those from this-or-that other sermon.
I've noticed a posture that I’ve inadvertently adopted as I listen to sermons: I’ve become critical—very critical—of the preaching I have been blessed to sit under. And I don’t like it.
The hyper critic
This is a posture that you, if you’re reading this, are likely familiar with. From the very first word of a sermon until the last, I am critiquing. Weighing. Judging what I think is working, and what I think isn’t. Deciding what I would do differently if I was the one up there preaching. “That introduction didn’t have a strong analogy.” “There was no clear link between that statement and the scripture passage.” “There was no conclusion to that thought.” “I think he should have talked more about this-or-that part of the passage.” And so forth.
I even found myself using the bible to justify this posture. The bible tells us to “test everything,” right? Doesn’t that mean that we should always be critiquing the things we hear? Sure, that’s certainly important. “Test everything; hold fast what is good,” the apostle Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:21. This gives us a good principle to apply whenever we hear testimony about God: we should always test the words we hear to make sure they are indeed good—that is, that they are spoken in the Spirit of God (1 John 4:1-3 and 1 Corinthians 12:3).
But when Paul instructs us to “test everything,” he does not do so in order to give us a carte blanche for airing out our grievances. In fact, he puts some very necessary boundaries around it.
Notice that just a few verses beforehand, in verse 12, Paul writes these words: "respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. "Paul writes further that we should “rejoice always” (v.16), that we should “give thanks in all circumstances” (v.18), and he warns us to “not quench the Spirit,” (v.19). And he closes the section with a reminder that god himself will sanctify you completely (v.23) because he is faithful (v.24).
So long as a false gospel is not being preached, we have every reason to give thanks. God himself will sanctify us completely—even through disorganized, uninteresting sermons. And we are not to break from rejoicing—even in the midst of disorganized, uninteresting sermons.
Why do you go to church?
An English preacher named Leonard Ravenhill once posed the question, “do you go to church to meet God or to hear a sermon about Him?” When I heard that a couple of months ago, it hit me like a ton of bricks. “Do I go to church to meet God, or just to hear a sermon about Him?” Had I lost sight of the purpose of gathering with the church on Sundays, reducing it to fit my own desires?
Referring to his preaching, Paul once reminded the church in Corinth: “my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:4-5)
Was I approaching sermons on Sundays with my faith in the wisdom of men rather than in the power of God? Was I so concerned with how the word of God is handled that I was missing the God whose word it is? Was I missing the forest for the trees? I needed to learn from 1 Thessalonians 5, and I needed this reminder from 1 Corinthians 2. Do you?
God is faithful
As simple as it sounds, I needed to be reminded that God’s work in our lives will not be thwarted, even by bad sermons. In fact, it is even in these moments that his work is taking place. God will sanctify us completely, and for this we are to be thankful at all times, and particularly for the man who is laboring over us in the pulpit.
While preachers should always faithfully steward that which has been entrusted to them (2 Timothy 2:2), congregants should always be reminded that rather than gathering around a wise man who speaks with lofty speech and wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:1), we gather around a God who is at work whenever his church gathers in his name (Matthew 18:20).
Yes, we are to test what we hear, to ensure Christ is at the center of it. We test spirits to see whether they are from God (1 John 4:1). We test prophecies that we might hold fast to what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21). And we test our teachers, knowing that there are deceitful workmen who have disguised themselves as apostles of Christ that they might lead people astray (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
But we also rejoice in God’s providence for us in his church, at all times. We are to rejoice in our brothers and sisters who he has placed around us, and especially in those who labor over us for the sake of our souls. And when we come to gather with the church, the church that God has used to remind us over and over again of his faithfulness towards us, we are to lean in together, expecting to meet with the living God. Oh that we might gather in such a way, that we might see what the Lord is doing, despite us!
Paul Ramsay is a church planting resident at Sojourn Houston, preparing to start a new Sojourn church in a new neighborhood in Houston.