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. I do not want to give ammunition with which to judge cynically the person God has placed in your life to spiritually lead you. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls…” However, there are particularly unhelpful contexts in which these statements have been used, and awareness can be fruitful.
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).
Why do we have such a tradition? Some pastors will 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 will often not 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,” or “Gathering.” So it seems a bit odd that the goal of church is to gather 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. 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 weekend gatherings 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 of the Holy Spirit in 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, that’s when you can stir my 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 said. 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’ll chalk it up to nervousness. Call it the proverbial, “I don’t know what to do with my hands” syndrome. But I have heard many preachers give an application for scripture and immediately follow it up with, “I’m preaching to the choir here, but…” or sarcastically say, “This isn’t for our church, it’s for the church down the road,” (wink, wink). It’s just a joke. And it’s said with the intension of implying the opposite–that this really does apply to this church. But making the application of scripture a flippant and lighthearted thing is not leading your people well.
You do not know the spiritual condition of every person in your church. Someone who might have felt convicted about what you just said, now knows it isn’t a big deal.
5. Joking about sins you do not struggle with.
Roughly nine years ago, deep in the woods of Baton Rouge, LA, I attended a Christian retreat. As seems to have become retreat tradition, the guys and girls separated for a message about purity. Spread across an almost shimmering hardwood floor sat an imperfect circle of black metal folding chairs. Two leaders began a discussion with a group of about 15 college guys on lust.
At that point in my life, it was one of the most helpful messages I had heard on the subject. But for at least one person, it was ruined from the start. The session speaker began his talk by saying, “We are going to talk about sexual temptation. Looking at women with lust is a daily battle for all of us… unless you have a different struggle. In that case we need to have another conversation.”
He was talking about homosexuality, and he was trying to be funny. But what he did not know is that a friend who sat next to me had a daily battle with the sin the session speaker had just singled out.
You do not know who is in your congregation. You may think you just told a harmless joke, but you actually just told someone that his or her sin is worse, or weirder, or more shameful than that of the rest of us.
You have to think before you speak. Your job is to preach the gospel of grace, repentance, and forgiveness; not to shame people and ostracize sins you don’t understand. Remember, “Teachers will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). Please stop joking about sins you do not struggle with.
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