I wrote this about five months ago and titled it, “5 things preachers should stop saying.” I could not post it then because I believed the title was communicating something other than what I intended. I need to give two warnings before you read on. First, everything in moderation. Each of these has a particular context that is not harmful in any way. Second, please respect your pastor. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls…” I do not want to give ammunition with which to judge cynically the person God has placed in your life to spiritually lead you. However, there are particularly unhelpful contexts in which these statements have been used, and awareness can be fruitful. Evaluation is always a good thing. So let’s evaluate the implications behind these crutch statements that many preachers say.
1. Bow your heads and close your eyes.
When I was a kid I wanted to be a preacher, because he was the only one who knew everyone else’s business. “Thank you for that hand, thank for that hand.” For a particularly nosey kid like me, the task of keeping my head bowed was problematic. Sometimes I would peek (sometimes I still peek). But why do we have such a tradition? I have heard some pastors add, “We do not want to embarrass anyone.” If embarrassment is the hump you cannot seem to get over, then Christianity may not be the best fit for you. I imagine Jesus was a little embarrassed when he was hung publicly, naked on a cross. The Bible tells us to “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Where there is no open confession, no transparency, and no risk, there is not often true repentance. The redemption Jesus brings to our lives is such that our past sin is no longer our shame and disgrace, it is our testimony and Jesus’ glory. When you tell your church to bow their heads and close their eyes you often unwittingly create a model for nondisclosure and privacy that isn’t Biblical and cannot bring true healing.
2. Don’t think about the person next to you, just focus on the Lord.
The word Church in Greek literally means “Assembly.” So it seems a little odd that the goal of church is to “assemble” together as the “body of Christ,” only to be focused on “me and Jesus.” Somehow we have come to believe that the most spiritual people among us are the ones who are totally oblivious to anyone else around them because they are occupied thinking about Jesus. Worship, most often in the Bible, is corporate. “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you” (Psalms 22:22). In Isaiah 6:3, Isaiah sees a vision of four creepy looking angels called Seraphim flying around God’s throne: “And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’” Ephesians 5:19 says to, “Address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” In our pseudo-relationally-connected, social-media-driven, yet totally isolated culture, the last thing we need to hear in our “corporate worship service” is that if we truly want to be spiritual, we need to forget about the rest of the people around us, and just think about Jesus.
3. This verse does not mean…
I love clarity. I have been accused on more than one occasion of “over-clarifying.” But my love for clarity is birthed from a passion to be faithful to the scriptures. Sometimes the best way to teach the Bible accurately is by not immediately clarifying what it says. Hebrews 6:4-6, to give an example, says, “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance.” I am fully persuaded that the Bible is abundantly clear that you cannot lose your salvation. I am also persuaded that when the author of Hebrews wrote these verses he did not think to himself, Hopefully the church understands that when I speak of ‘falling away,’ I really mean that falling away is impossible. Yet I have heard countless preachers read scripture, and immediately follow with, “Now this verse does not mean…” When you quickly clarify what a verse does not mean, more often than not it takes away from the conviction that the Holy Spirit is speaking to someone’s heart. While you may not be incorrect in your clarity, what you communicate is something other than what that scripture is communicating. When you read John 10:28 where Jesus says no one can snatch us from his hand, then you can stir our confidence in God’s saving work that cannot be undone. But when you read Hebrews 6:4-6 be faithful to what it says, not what you wish it clarified. Have your people ask themselves if they are sure they truly have faith, and if that faith is bearing the fruit of obedience. That is what the author of Hebrews intended.
4. This is for the church down the road [wink, wink].
I have heard so many preachers give an application for scripture and immediately follow it up with, “I’m preaching to the choir here, but…” or “[sarcastically] This isn’t for this church, it’s for the church down the road (wink, wink).” The second one is usually said facetiously, as if to imply, “This is applicable to this church, and all of us know it.” It is said with good intentions. But making the application of scripture a flippant and lighthearted thing lets your audience off the hook. The truth is, you do not know the spiritual condition of every person in your church, and someone who might have felt convicted about what you just said, now knows it isn’t a big deal.
5. Please stop joking about sins you do not struggle with.
I remember being on a retreat where the leader was talking to a group of college-age guys about how to deal with lust. It truly was a helpful message. But at the beginning he said, “We all struggle with lusting after women… unless you have a different struggle [chuckle chuckle]. In that case we need to have another conversation.” He was just trying to be funny, and the rest of the message was very insightful and practical. But what he did not know is that a friend of mine was sitting next to me who was really struggling, trying his best to give up homosexuality. You do not know who is in your audience. That is why God says, “Man looks on the exterior, but God can see the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). God sees things we do not see. You may think you just told a harmless joke, but really you just told someone in your church that his sin is worse, or weirder, or more shameful than others. You have to think before you speak. Your job is to preach the gospel, offer grace, share Jesus’ forgiveness, and confront sin, not to shame the sinner and communicate that he and his sins are not welcome. Remember, “Teachers will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). Please stop joking about sins you do not struggle with.