Some time back, Tim Jack challenged our church staff by asking the probing question, “Are we truly equipping people, or are we just keeping them busy?” Recently, I have asked myself a similar question about my preaching. “Am I merely informing people, or are they being transformed?”
As I wrestled with the answer to that question, I came across the following story in Mark Buchanan’s recent book, Your Church is Too Safe: Why following Christ turns the world upside-down.
A young lady in our church moved to another city to attend university. I knew of a good church in that city—the word was preached there—and I recommended she try it. Her first Sunday, she arrived early and took a seat near the front. A few minutes later, a couple walked in and stood over her. She looked up and asked if she was in their seat.
She got up and moved three rows back. The next person just told her straight up, “You’re sitting in my seat.” She moved again, this time to the other side of the sanctuary and farther back. Shortly, another couple came, sat is the pew directly in front of her, and turned and glowered at her.
“Am I in your seat?”
“Yes, you are. That has been our seat for forty years.”
She got up, sat in the balcony, and thereafter never returned.
The good news: I know the pastor of that church and contacted him about what happened. The following Sunday, he put on his prophet hat and called the church to do better. And I told the story in our church, names disguised, and said to the people, “If ever someone is sitting in ‘your’ seat, consider it divine appointment: God’s given you a lunch date.” Afterward, several people told me how that one challenge opened up new friendships.
But I wonder about that couple who have sat for forty years in the same pew. This is a church renowned for its pulpit ministry. As far as I know, they’ve never had a mediocre preacher. All the pastors I’ve known who held that pulpit—I’ve known four—were or are masterful homileticians. They’ve handled the word of God correctly, and declared the word of God with vigor and passion.
Forty years of that. Forty years of the word preached. Forty years of gospel proclaimed. Forty years, Sunday after Sunday, of sermons that must have declared God’s scandalous welcome to the stranger among us. Had they not, many times, heard John 4 (Jesus meets a woman at the well) or Luke 7 (a woman anoints his feet with her tears) or Matthew 25 (Jesus divides us, as sheep from goats, based on whether we welcomed the stranger)?
Forty years, and still they’d not heard.
Personally, I don’t want to settle for informing people. I don’t want to preach for forty years and see people unchanged by the message. Oh, that God might pour out his Spirit and transform us!