By Luke Holmes
How many sermons has your congregation heard?
Quick math reveals more than 7,000 sermons have been preached from the pulpit at my church. Over the last seventy years, that accounts for two sermons a week—one on Sunday morning and one on Sunday night.
There’ve been a few closures for weather, but not that many. And that doesn’t even count the Wednesday night lessons, the revival meetings, or the funerals.
Perhaps over 10,000 sermons have been preached from the stage of this church.
No church member has been there for every sermon, but a few people have been there for a large majority of them.
When I step into that pulpit on Sundays, I know I don’t stand alone. Surrounding the pulpit is all the baggage left from 70 years of church life.
Every pastor who’s filled that pulpit has left a little piece of himself with the hearers. As the current pastor, I need to be aware of that baggage as I enter the pulpit.
Baggage from the Past
There might’ve been a pastor who used the law to beat down the congregation and make them feel unworthy without preaching the grace of the gospel. Or there might’ve been a pastor who only preached grace, never showing them the hardness of their hearts without God.
Some pastors might’ve been too relaxed, telling jokes and using the pulpit to make themselves feel good. Others might’ve been impersonal, preaching to their people without really knowing them.
A pastor might’ve been a skilled preacher but then had to leave after moral failings. Or maybe they didn’t have a pastoral heart or preached in anger instead of grace.
It’s not all bad either.
There might’ve been pastors who faithfully preached God’s Word week after week, and now that’s what the people expect. Maybe the congregation had the perfect mix of a preacher/pastor—one who didn’t just preach on Sundays but also shepherded the flock throughout the week.
Whatever the situation, when a pastor of an established church stands in the pulpit to proclaim God’s Word, they’re surrounded by the baggage of the many pastors who’ve come before.
It’s foolish to ignore the reality that the words we preach have to make it over, around, and through all that baggage to reach peoples’ hearts and minds.
The Baggage We Carry
What’s more, we carry our own baggage into the pulpit. Every pastor has said words they wish they could take back and made decisions that didn’t go forward as planned. The general burden of just being a leader can also contribute to the baggage we carry into the pulpit.
Things we can control (like our leadership styles) and things we can’t (like our age) affect the way people hear us. The mistakes we make, the arrogance we carry, and the successes we have are all types of baggage that follow us into the pulpit.
How can pastors be sure the words they preach will reach the hearts of those listening?
I believe there are three ways.
1. Preach God’s Word, not yours.
This seems like a no brainer, of course, but it’s worth remembering. It’s far too easy for a pastor who’s gifted with eloquence and a great mind to turn inward for wisdom.
Man’s wisdom might serve good purposes for a while, but it will bounce off the baggage and come right back as empty.
When we preach the Word of God, we can be sure God’s Word never returns void (Isaiah 55:11). God’s Word can bust through any baggage for it’s sharp and effective, even dividing between thoughts and intentions of the heart.
2. Preach to your people, not someone else’s.
A shepherd who knows his sheep will know the trials they face, the burdens they shoulder, and will recognize over time some of the baggage they carry. As pastors labor in their studies, the names and faces of their people should flood their hearts and minds as God guides them in crafting the message.
Mark Dever has said that a pastor’s most important book after the Bible should be his church membership directory. Well, I think the third most important book for a pastor can be the history of the particular church they serve.
The ups and downs of a church over the years shapes the way the congregation hears a message. Pastors need awareness of the history of their church so they know where the church is coming from and where it’s going.
Peter advised his hearers to “shepherd the flock of God among you” (1 Peter 5:2), not the flock down the road or the flock they wish they had. This also includes being aware of the history of the place where you pastor.
By taking the time to know our flock, we tell them they have value, and God can more easily guide our hearts and minds as we prepare our sermons.
3. Leave it in God’s hands.
The sides of my pulpit are worn smooth from years of pastors leaning on them as they preach, much to the chagrin of our preaching professors, I’m sure.
The very fact my pulpit has seen seventy years worth of sermons reminds me that the fate of the church doesn’t rest in my hands. The church existed for 113 years before me and will exist after I’m gone should the Lord tarry.
When I preach, I don’t have to worry if I have a down week or wonder if I’ve been persuasive enough. My job as a pastor is to preach God’s Word and then let God’s Word do its work.
Over the years, this pulpit has seen far more gifted preachers than I and far better leaders. There’ve been better preachers stand there for sure, but, to paraphrase Charles Spurgeon, there’s never been a greater gospel than the one I get to proclaim.
My job as pastor is to plainly present God’s Word and leave it up to Him to do the work of getting to peoples’ hearts.
You Can’t Avoid It, But God’s Word Can Overcome It.
Pastors might feel as if they’re preaching from behind a wall of baggage every week to people who are surrounded by their own baggage. But regardless of how high or how hard the barrier is, we know that God’s Word can get through.
Baggage in the pulpit is unavoidable so a pastor must learn to stand on the Word of God so that the faith of those listening might rest in the wisdom of God and not the wisdom of men.