Please Pass the Meat

The sermon was a rough one. The visiting American pastor never had us turn to a specific text. Instead, his half hour encouragement was a creative string of allusions to bible stories, anecdotes, and illustrations. Everyone in the gathering who had gotten out their bibles eventually put them away.

I sighed and looked around the room. Once again, half a dozen locals were attending the international church service. It was bad enough that the expat community was being served the equivalent of spiritual yogurt water (in case you’re not familiar with yogurt water, it’s not very much by way of sustenance). But locals tend to view Western pastors with a kind of awe, and often accept any content or form of teaching as faithful and worthy of emulation – simply because of the category of person who is delivering it.

I grimaced, seeing that a couple of our church-plant’s English-speaking local guys were in attendance, Darius* and Alan*. They seemed to be focusing intently on the sermon.

My wife and I shifted in our seats uncomfortably and I reminded myself that the mission field is merely a reflection of the state of evangelicalism in the sending countries. It’s not realistic to believe that our corner of Central Asia will somehow be isolated from some of the West’s more unfortunate Christian-ish exports. Joyce Meyer has already been translated into the local language, anti-Trinitarian cults have made their appearance (and are allegedly financing one of our former leaders-in-training), and the satellite TV channels are full of Benny Hinn-styled preachers. At least this sermonette’s main point was to encourage us to not be discouraged in sharing the gospel. Not a bad aim at all. But alas, the method and modeling were definitely lamentable.

After the service was finished, Darius made his way over to me.

“So, what did you think of the sermon?” he asked.

I bit my lip and half-smiled/half-grimaced, not sure what I should say. Darius has not always been the strongest when it comes to discernment, and tends to be quite drawn to the novel and the exciting. But he leaned in.

“That guy didn’t even have a text!” Darius whispered loudly, gesturing wildly with both his arms in the expressive body language of our locals (I have often maintained that our people group’s intonation and hand gestures make them the Italians of Central Asia). “He just told a bunch of stories… and he even added some details that aren’t there!”

My eyebrows rose in welcome surprise. Darius was not taken in by the creative delivery. Instead, his new – but apparently growing – convictions of ministry alarm bells had been going off.

“Darius,” I told him, “I’m very encouraged that you were concerned about that sermon. You’re right. He didn’t have a text he was explaining. He never asked us to open our Bibles. He did mess up some of the details of the Bible stories he told. Take note, when we have an opportunity to feed the people of God, we should attempt to prepare a feast, not merely pass out some snacks.”

Darius smiled and threw up his hands again. “What can I do? I learned from you guys about preaching.” Then he made his way over to the table where the sunflower seeds and chai were set out.

This final comment was particularly encouraging and humbling. My teammate and I who serve as temporary elders of our church plant are not eloquent preachers in the local language. Perhaps we will be five or ten years down the road, but right now we make it our aim to simply be clear, and to model basic expositional preaching in a second language – that is, preaching that makes the main points of the text the main points of the sermon and which seeks to faithfully explain the intent of the author. I’m still too tied to my manuscript. My colleague has more freedom in this way, but faces his own unique challenges while preaching in the local tongue from an English outline to our small group of believers. We often make comical language mistakes.

“We are insane,” instead of “We are not complete yet,” and “What should you do if you have a heart attack when you want want to give an offering?” instead of “What if you have a divided heart…?” have been a couple of our more recent bloopers. May God bless the long-suffering ears of these local believers who sit under our teaching week after week.

We have deeply invested in the simple method of steady, weekly, regular proclamation and explanation of God’s word. No flash, no bling. We sit in a circle of chairs and the preacher sits with another chair in front of him to serve as his pulpit. We took a couple years to get through Matthew and are currently taking a couple years to get through John, interspersed now and then by pressing topics or a recent series on the characteristics of a healthy church.

At times we are tempted to feel as if this steady sowing of God’s word is not accomplishing much. Much contemporary missiology calls into question the act of preaching altogether, alleging that it is a Western form import from the Reformation and not as effective as things such as DBS – Discovery Bible Studies. We don’t really buy those arguments though. Most of them betray a woeful ignorance of global church history (historically, preachers always, always emerge when new peoples are reached or awakenings take place), not to mention an under-baked understanding of the centrality of proclamation throughout the Scriptures.

The hardest doubts to handle have to do simply with how slowly people grow and change. After five years of this kind of unpacking of God’s word, how is it that more has seemingly not sunk in? How is it that character is not maturing more quickly and knowledge taking deeper root? Are we doing something wrong?

In faith, we believe that an unrelenting teaching and preaching ministry will eventually result in faithfulness and fruitfulness. But it sure is encouraging when we get to see a glimmer of that future. Darius noticed some very important things during that English church service. That noticing was evidence of growth in spiritual discernment. And spiritual discernment – that comes from soaking in the Word of God.

Preachers and teachers, keep on preaching and teaching, in season and out. And if by chance you ever get to preach on the mission field, please, for our sake, preach the Word. Don’t dumb it down either for the missionaries or for the locals.

Pass on serving mere yogurt water. Instead, serve them up a feast of some good solid meat.

*names changed for security

Photo by DJ Johnson on Unsplash

Angler Fish, Howling Mice, and Trusting God With The Excess

I’ve been in a season of more teaching and public speaking than usual. This has been good for me, as presenting or teaching in public – once easy and enjoyable – has been for a long time now a battle against anxiety and panic attacks. That struggle is getting easier, by the grace of God. Though I still long for much greater freedom in this particular area of ministry.

These opportunities to teach have reminded me of one dynamic that teachers know all too well – that the overwhelming majority of your prepared content doesn’t stick in the minds and hearts of your listeners. I find myself praying as I begin, “Lord, by your Spirit, allow those particular truths that we need to actually stick onto our minds and hearts today.”

As a freshman in college, about to embark on an intense yearlong worldview, history, and missions course, I remember John Piper encouraging our cohort in this area. “You’re only going to get five percent – tops – of what I teach or what your other professors teach you in a given lecture. What do we do with this? Should we despair?” The small percentage I remember from his conclusion is that we shouldn’t worry about that ninety-five percent that falls by the wayside. If the affections have been engaged by God’s truth, then that person has momentarily seen more of Christ, and it has been worth it.

That’s quite a sacrifice. Ninety-five percent of prepared and taught content being sacrificed for the five percent that might stick and engage the affections. An entire sermon spent for the sake of that one sermon idea, point, off-hand remark, or illustration that a listener holds onto. Hours and hours of preparation so that a listener might remember a few convicting words and might move a few millimeters toward faithfulness. In the end, the vast majority doesn’t stick. It melts away, like a snow dusting on our Central Asian street as soon as the sun rises.

Thinking of this can be a bit discouraging. It leads some missionaries to scoff at lengthy lessons and sermons as Western and ineffective, not reproducible and a waste of precious time. But does the amount lost – the amount that doesn’t stick – actually mean we are doing something wrong?

I have found encouragement recently in reflecting upon how very “wasteful” God seems to be in his secondary book of revelation – the book of creation.

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork – Psalm 19:1.

Creation – all of it – is preaching about the glory of God. It is constantly doing this. And it is doing it everywhere, whether we are paying attention or not. It simply proclaims and keeps on proclaiming, even when there is no one around – no humans anyway. God, and the creation itself, don’t seem to be bothered by this great “waste.” Rather, it seems as if they revel in it, like it’s some kind of fun secret that we are the poorer for not being in on.

Was it a problem that creatures like the angler fish (horrifyingly fascinating and bio-luminescent) and the grasshopper mouse (eats scorpions, immune to their venom, howls like a wolf after eating) weren’t discovered by humans until 1833? What about all their “sermons” they were preaching in the previous thousands of years about the glory, creativity, and unexpected artistic flourishes of God? Was there an exasperated sigh in heaven when these bizarre creatures were at last discovered? Or… perhaps rejoicing? “Ha! They finally found that one! They never saw that one coming!”

God, it seems, delights in all of this excess. He does not seem concerned that we are getting such a small percentage of the rich homilies pouring out of nature day and night. He is beyond lavish in his sermons, and knows that most are not being retained by our limited minds and attention spans.

Perhaps this is because we were never the primary audience in the first place. Those angler fish and grasshopper mice were intended primarily for the pleasure of the king. The songs of the stars? The same. They exist as an overflow of the love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Their purpose is first God-ward, and then after that we are invited to listen, learn, and join in.

This then leads to an encouragement for the discouraged teacher or preacher. That sermon or lesson was never meant to be primarily for your hearers. Instead, it was an act of worship to the king of the universe. And the hearers might hold onto that one random sentence for years to come. What a bonus!

I am regularly encouraged by the seemingly random things that do stick. “You took away that from my teaching? Huh.” And I am even learning to find joy in the parts no one seems to remember. Those parts, like some bizarre creature not yet discovered, are a secret between me and heaven.

The king sees and delights in them. And that is a stunning thing.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons