By Monte Shanks
The Difference between Sermons
Last Christmas I got the best backscratcher ever! It is made of aluminum, it has a rubber handle, and best of all it is retractable! Consequently, it takes up very little space in my desk, which is a big draw back with a lot of other backscratchers. Most backscratchers are long and awkward, so people inevitably put them in out of the way places where they are usually forgotten and lost. Consequently, many backs go unscratched, which is a problem since people love to have their backs scratched. A lot of today’s pastors are in the business of back scratching. Pastors are called to be heart surgeons, but regrettably, a lot of us have turned into backscratchers. There are several reasons why pastors become backscratchers. One of the main reasons is that some congregations won’t tolerate a pastor who is passionate and has conviction, so over time some pastors learn that they better start scratching backs or lose their “jobs.” When this realization occurs some pastors simply keep their cushy jobs, while the good ones leave and find real ministries. Some pastors are backscratchers because they like being liked, so it comes naturally to them. Others are backscratchers because they think it’s their job to mesmerize and entertain their congregations. These pastors are essentially showmen. They aren’t really backscratchers per se, but rather they are ear ticklers. Nevertheless, the impact of their sermons is functionally the same, hearts are not renewed and spiritual arteries remain clogged.
Many backscratchers appear to be very successful because their churches are often filled with a lot of “listeners.” So the question is this: how can you tell the difference between a backscratcher and a pastor how knows God, understands His word, and applies it to our modern lives? A good test is to look at their impact on the hearts of those who hear them. In other words, are people convicted and are lives changed. We can see this kind of impact from the messages of great preachers in the Bible. Look at Jesus, he once preached a message that caused so much consternation that the audience in the synagogue grabbed him and led him to a cliff in order to demonstrate the effects of gravity (Luke 4.28-29). Luke actually documented that Jesus’ audience was “filled with rage” by the things that Jesus had said. In full disclosure I must confess that I’ve never preached a message that had that kind of impact, so I’m preaching to myself here as well. I guess you can say that Jesus wasn’t much of a backscratcher. Then there is Stephen, in his very last message he gave an exceptional survey of the entire Old Testament that ended with him proclaiming the truth that his very audience had crucified the very Messiah that they confessed to be waiting for. And what did they do? The promptly carried him out of that same meeting and stoned him. I guess you could conclude that he didn’t tickle many ears. The passage actually describes their dispositions as being “cut to the quick” (Acts 7.54). A lot of people, however, don’t really know what that means; in today’s vernacular it would be like saying that they were “shot through the heart.” And then there is Paul, he once gave a message where the audience was quiet and listened intently, they were hanging on his every word you could say—that is until he spoke of God’s mandate to share the gospel with everyone, it was at that point that a riot broke out (Acts 22.22-25). The text states that after Paul told them about the great commission that those in attendance literally threw their coats down and started throwing dirt in the air. Now I’ve preached people into comas, but I’ve never started a riot. But not Paul, what he said pricked their hearts so much that they began acting like a bunch of crazed chimpanzees. The Roman soldiers present were so stunned that they immediately began preparing Paul for a scourging. I’m not convinced that they even fully understood why they were about to scourge Paul, they only knew that something bad had just happened and something had to be done about it. So in typical Roman fashion someone had to be beaten and everyone knows that scourging a single person is a lot easier than beating an entire mob. Again, I’ve never been threatened with a whipping for anything I have said in a pulpit. Someone may have wanted to punch me, but I never knew about it, so who knows. The point is that Paul wasn’t in the ministry so that he could scratch backs and tickle ears; he was gunning for hearts.
I bring up these 3 events not because they are good examples of well-groomed “sermons,” but because they are excellent examples of impactful “messages.” And there is a difference between the two. The difference is that same as the difference between Cicero and Demosthenes. There is a famous quote concerning these two great ancient speakers, which loosely goes like this: “When Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, ‘How well he spoke.’ But when Demosthenes had finished speaking, they said, ‘Let us march!’” And that is the point, isn’t it? Are we supposed to be about sermons or messages? A sermon is what a pastor prepares and then speaks to a listening audience. A message is when spiritual shepherds have the guts to proclaim the truth about what Lord desires to do in the hearts of those who are actually “hearing” the word of God. And if people hear God speaking to their hearts through your message, then people will be brought to a point of decision. Sometimes they will weep, or repent, or worship, or be strengthened, and then they will serve; and if not, then they will begin picking up stones. Either way, they will not have had their backs scratched or their ears tickled. And isn’t that what the church needs? The church doesn’t need more backscratchers, it needs more heart surgeons.