Man Dies During Sunday Sermon

By: Stephen Hightower
Sunday, May 9th, 2010

I was almost born in church…literally. My mother went into labor during the Sunday night service (yes, when I was born most churches still had those). This had the makings of a really cool story of how God called me to pastoral ministry, but my parents managed to make it to the hospital (after the service). As a pastor’s kid, I was in church pretty much whenever the doors were open. When I became a pastor, the same held true. For all my time in church, though, I didn’t imagine dying in church…until a few weeks ago.
About ten minutes into the pastor’s message, I began to shake – and it definitely was not a Pentecostal experience! My skin went cold, but I was sweating. My heart was racing and I began to hyperventilate. I have to interject here that I like to consider myself an intellectual, so I was trying to think through things carefully before reacting. In this case, I forced myself not to make a scene (thankfully I was sitting in the back row), and to think about what was happening. I came to the conclusion I was having a panic attack, and that some deep-breathing and desperate clutching of the pew would soon relieve my symptoms. Sure enough, within a few minutes, I was breathing normally and my mind was rehearsing the event, trying to figure out what triggered it. Here’s what I came up with…
I was mad–so mad that I felt like I was having a heart attack. Why? Because the pastor had managed to take the living, active, powerful Word of God and turned it into something so boring and irrelevant that anyone who wasn’t asleep seemed to be doodling on the bulletin (or having a panic attack). There were more than a dozen passages of Scripture in the sermon notes, so the preacher was bouncing from one to another with no obvious link–all the while adding references and points he couldn’t fit on the double-sided, single-spaced sheet. More than being mad, I was helpless to fix what made me mad because I was just a guest at this church, and had no means of venting or offering an alternative.

For several days after my (would-be) near-death experience, I gave a lot of thought to the situation. I’m hard-wired as a fixer; when I see something out of sorts, I want to set it right. However, if I feel like I’ve seen something that needs addressing, it isn’t usually my place to complain about it. Rather, I feel somehow God has pointed something out and said, “Ok, it makes you mad. What are you going to do about it?” With regard to the specific situation that caused me to panic, I’m still praying through what God would have me do, but as one who has been involved in churches of a dozen denominations all over the world I can say this is not an isolated issue.

There’s an awful lot of really bad preaching happening, albeit with really good intentions. For many believers, the good intentions outweigh the bad preaching. I haven’t gotten to that place yet. Others see bad preaching as a sign to go somewhere else, or even to start their own church. But to me, neither of these work because they don’t address the root problems. Besides, if my main reason for not attending a church is my discontent with the preaching, I seriously need to consider my spiritual maturity. That said, I believe preaching and teaching is a vital aspect of the church (note my earlier panic attack). One of the things that drew people to Jesus and distinguished his teaching from other religious leaders of his day was he taught “as one who had authority” (Matt 7:29).

What does “with authority” mean? Is it a special gift? A unique anointing? Would that mean that preaching that seems not to connect with hearers is not anointed? We could discuss that from now till Jesus comes. For now, I just want to offer three thoughts that might improve the level of preaching in our churches.

1. Bigger and louder doesn’t mean better or more authoritative. You can yell into the mic all day long, and have the best lights and graphics in the background, but it doesn’t help if your message is shallow. When you claim “the Bible says…” consider the weight of that statement. In a certain translation a verse may sound like it says something, but does it align with the rest of Scripture?

2. Relevance stems from fluency. Today we hear a lot about being relevant, but I contend the most relevant preaching stems from deep fluency with Scripture. The more you know the Word, the more you can connect elements and draw from its endless store of spiritual food for yourself and others. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many preachers spend more time on the PowerPoint slides than on studying the text(s) from which they plan to preach.

3. Communicating with people is different than talking at them. Jesus had every right to just say, “Listen to me; I have something important to say,” but did you ever notice how much of his teaching comes directly from someone asking a question? He taught a lot through dialogue. He involved people. He asked them questions. No wonder they flocked to hear Him – they had a part in their own learning!

How do these thoughts help the problem of poor preaching? If nothing else, I hope they motivate us to start asking questions and being more involved in the process. Maybe we could start by turning the question of what we can do about bad preaching into “What can we do to provide our pastors more preparation time?”

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Stephen Hightower
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3 Responses to “Man Dies During Sunday Sermon”

  1. Marc S says:

    Pertaining to #3, it is clear that many ministers of the gospel are reluctant and fearful to enter into the realm of dialogue with their audience (and I know that the Sunday morning sermon in larger churches would not necessarily be the best context for such interactivity). But I know some pastors who survey their church regularly to find out what questions are stirring in their souls or what their thought are about a particular passage or topic–and these pastors will address these questions from the pulpit (instead of imposing his questions and answers upon them).

    I know how difficult it can be, in certain contexts, to “open up the floor to questions.” By doing so, I relinquish control–and open myself up to questions I just don’t have answers for. It’s been said that “confidence is a byproduct of predictability.” And when you pass from a monologue context to a dialogue one, your confidence may get shaken real quickly, because you cannot always predict the flow of the conversation. So there’s often a real esteem & pride thing going on within the preacher. But you make a good point when you express the value in allowing people to take part in their own learning…may we gravitate in this direction.

  2. Stephen Hightower says:

    The larger the congregation, the more difficult it becomes to interact with the pastor(s). This definitely requires intentionality. I have worked with churches in which the small group leaders serve as the communication pathway between congregants and staff. In that case, part of the week’s small group meeting can be a discussion of what was preached that week, and questions can be asked. The leaders can relay to the pastor what was asked – and hopefully what was complimented – so pastors can understand how effectively they are communicating and what might need clarifying in the next message. That said, Jesus did interact with large crowds. However, he is the Son of God, so he has a bit of an advantage on the rest of us. That is one way I’m still striving to be like Jesus, so I’l admit there have been a couple Sunday mornings where I was a little nervous when people were asking questions that I thought would totally derail the service.
    I do want to say a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t going to work, for many factors besides congregation size. The concept, though, is not to always open up the floor for questions, but to always be aware that communication is a two-way street. I believe a pastor who is conscious of that will be more effective in developing and presenting messages than one who usually has a “Listen to me” approach.

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