written by: Warren Wiersbe
Never have times been more conducive for cultivating a shallow and superficial ministry. When you consider population mobility, the short attention span of listeners accustomed to sound bites, the pervasive desire of many worshipers for “experience” and not truth, the stage is all set for preaching sermons and making visits that entertain but don’t edify. The availability of instant “preaching resources” on the Internet, as well as in books and on cassettes, makes it simple for the lazy preacher to find good sermons when he has nothing to say. Preparing sermons and lessons is very easy when your brains are in somebody else’s head.
Of course, there’s always the danger that somebody in the congregation uses those same resources. We heard about a pastor who was preaching his way through a book of messages written by a popular preacher of a former generation, not knowing that a man in his congregation owned the same book. After church one Sunday, the man said to the pastor, “That was a good sermon you preached,” and the Pastor thanked him. The man quickly burst his pastor’s ego balloon when he added, “Next week’s is good too!” To quote the ancient homiletical adage, “The preacher should milk many cows but manufacture his own butter.”
Depth, Not Obscurity
A ministry of profundity isn’t a ministry of obscurity. Just the opposite is true, for the best communicators don’t pull down the shades -they turn on the lights. Speakers who shoot off fireworks in a fog may hold a congregation’s attention, but they’re not likely to instruct the mind, move the heart or motivate the will. I once heard a preacher dazzle an audience with his vocabulary and oratorical pyrotechnics. After the welcomed benediction, a stranger said to me, “Wasn’t that wonderful?” I asked, “Well, what did he say? What are you taking home in your heart?” The stranger looked at me in astonishment and said, “Oh, that’s not important. It was a thrill to hear him! What a master of words!” That stranger needed to read 1 Cor. 2.
Our calling is to teach God’s Word in such a way that we make the profound things simple, the simple things profound, and all things personal and practical. We preach to express, not to impress. Jesus took the common things of life and made them luminous with spiritual truth. “The seed is the Word of God.” What connection is there between seeds and sermons? “You must be born again.” How does physical birth relate to spiritual rebirth? And why did Jesus say that to a well-born Pharisee (John 3) instead of to the sinful Samaritan woman (John 4)? When seen correctly, the simple things in Scripture are really quite profound, and the profound things can be made simple. Blessed is that preacher who takes time to study, pray and meditate so that the sermon launches out into the deep instead of staying moored in the shallow water. Growing Christians want to swim, not wade. To change the image, we need to come before our people with milk and meat, along with honey and water from the hardest rocks.
Digging At The Desk
In our Lord’s parable of the two builders, the man whose house withstood the storm was the man who “dug deep” (Luke 6:48). But what does it make to “dig”? Primarily, it means getting beneath the surface of the text and asking the right questions. If we simply want to tell a Bible story, our essential questions are “Who? What? Where? When?” But if we want to bring a helpful message from the Lord and give our people something to chew on, swallow and digest, we must add two more questions: “How?” and “Why?” To go back to the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13), we have to ask: “Why is God’s Word compared to seed? How do people come to understand the Word of God so the seed enters their inner being? How do we prepare the soil of our hearts for the Word? Why did the Lord give this Parable to begin with?”
We also need to put ourselves and our people into the passage as participants and not spectators. This doesn’t mean we have the privilege of giving our own interpretation of the text based on our own imagination, but it does mean we let the Word penetrate our own minds and hearts. How would I respond if I were Peter walking on the water in the storm, or sitting by the fire in the high priest’s courtyard, or facing thousands of people on the Day of Pentecost? We want to see our people in the light of the text and “exegete” the congregation as well as the passage.
If we want to get beneath the surface, word studies are very important, but we shouldn’t burden our people with lectures on Greek and Hebrew. It’s also important to track down the cross-references and discover what Scripture has to say about Scripture. The vocabulary of the text is also important. What words are repeated in the text? What words are changed as the passage develops the thought? Can we think of biblical illustrations of the material we’re studying? This is where the Holy Spirit ministers to us and reminds us of what He has already taught us. The prayer of the psalmist will help us: “Open my eyes that I may see wondrous things from Your law” (Ps. 119:18 NKJV).
Yes, this all takes time, but we’re digging into the rich mines of Scripture, not the sand piles of the playgrounds of this world. Charles Spurgeon used to warn his students, “Suddenness leads to shallowness.” That “great idea” that just popped into your mind – was it from the Lord or from the enemy?
Signs Of Shallowness
How can we determine if our ministry has depth or is only on the surface? (This includes not only our preaching but also our administration, pastoral work and devotional life.) For one thing, shallow ministry is routine and predictable. We’re comfortable with it because it doesn’t make any demands on us. We rarely if ever have to cry out, “Help, Lord!” We have a system: for preparing sermons, counseling people with problems and making hospital visits, and we don’t stop to ask whether the system is a good one. If we used this approach in relating to our mate or our children, the home would start to fall apart? When ministry ceases to challenge and stretch us, it’s possible that we’re living in a wading pool.
This leads us to another mark of surface ministry: Living on past experience. We try to make every challenge fit into a recognized pattern as we apply old approaches to new problems. Certainly past experience can be a valuable tool in any calling, but trying to make old keys fit into new locks only keeps the doors shut. If we don’t recognize the new features of problems and people and seek to discover what God is teaching us, we’re missing opportunities to grow and to help people grow with us. When it comes to facing and solving problems, one size doesn’t fit all.
Superficial servants try to stay isolated from anything new. Some of them spend the first three years of ministry in a new church trying to make it operate like the last one they served. This usually means changing the constitution so they can do things the way they’ve always done them. Officers who are gifted sometimes get in the way of the shallow pastor because they see new challenges and opportunities that demand that the pastor “launch out into the deep.” The fear of change paralyzes some servants of God. They don’t realize that there’s more calmness in the depths than on the surface.
The sad thing is that the congregation may go right along with a superficial ministry and settle for business as usual. Many church members don’t know the difference. But the consequences of a shallow ministry are tragic: the pastor doesn’t grow, the congregation becomes stagnant, the leaders have to go it alone, and the church doesn’t fulfill the purposes the Lord ordained for it. “There’s no friction in our church,” the members boast, but they forget that “no friction” could be a sign of “no motion.”
A busy program and a crowded schedule aren’t necessarily signs of spiritual health and growth. The church at Ephesus was very busy but had abandoned their “honeymoon love” for their Lord (Rev. 2:1-7), and the church at Laodicea thought it was rich when it was really very poor (Rev. 3:14-22). In contrast, the suffering church at Smyrna thought it was poor but was actually rich (Rev. 2:8-9).
There Is A Cure!
The key word here is honesty. God’s servants must be honest with themselves, with the Lord and with their people. To be complacent about a shallow and sterile ministry is to invite the chastening hand of God, for He wants us to be alive, fresh, bearing fruit and growing in spiritual power. We don’t measure God’s blessing only with statistics, although Jesus did talk to His disciples about “fruit, more fruit, much fruit” (John 15:l-8). Where there’s life, there surely ought to be growth. The danger is that we start living on substitutes and don’t recognize “the real thing” when we see it.
The most important part of life is the part that only God sees, so let’s start with our daily devotional time with the Lord. How easy it is to read our assigned passages in the Bible and work our way through our prayer lists! We jot a few ideas into our journal and we’ve met the Lord. But have we? Was their new light on the pages of the Bible? Did we have true spiritual warmth as we prayed? Do we leave our desk with our “hearts burning within us” (Luke 24:32)? George Muller said that the purpose of our daily prayer time is to become more and more satisfied with God’s will for our lives, and he was right. You might add to this that we also grow in faith and become more like Jesus Christ, whether we see it or not.
Once we’re right with the Lord, then we make sure our priorities are in order. Our first priority is our personal walk with the Lord, for if that isn’t what it ought to be, nothing else will be right. Our second priority is the care of our family, for nobody can take our place there. Then we look at church priorities, and first on the list is the preparation of the messages. After that comes the pastoral care of the flock. When these two matters are taken care of, then we can read and answer the mail, attend the important meetings that help keep the machinery running, and get involved in matters denominational and civic. Pastors who major on committee meetings and seminars are often people who are running away from spiritual responsibilities. They fail to realize that activity isn’t always ministry.
Start reading material written by people you disagree with – that will shake you up! Tackle the study of a difficult and important doctrine. Really dig! Study the outline of a sermon you preached five years ago and make it better by making it deeper. Dare to face and get rid of the short cuts you’ve leaned on that have kept you on the surface of your ministry. Get into dialogue with a friend who isn’t afraid to disagree with you and who will call out the best in you. Perhaps a ministerial study group is part of the answer, meeting once a week and devoting a couple of hours to serious Bible study. Look for creative relationships where iron sharpens iron, not pillow dents pillow.
Once we get started on a ministry of depth, each task become a challenge and an adventure in spiritual growth. Difficult people and problems become opportunities to see what God has planned for us and will do for us. We find ourselves being stretched and discovering daily that God does supply all our needs and enable us to minister as He desires. We no longer find comfortable safety in the old routine, but instead eagerly accept the right changes and challenges as a normal part of life. Confident that the Lord is with us, we move ahead by faith, sometimes (like Abraham) not knowing where we’re going!
Today is a good time to begin.
©2002 WWW Used by permission. This article is copyrighted by the author and is for your individual use. Reproduction for any other purpose is governed by copyright laws and is strictly prohibited. This material originally appeared in a small booklet entitled “Meet Mr. Moody” and is no longer in print.
Dr. Warren Wiersbe (1929-2019) was an internationally known Bible teacher, author, and conference speaker. He graduated in 1953 from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. While attending seminary, he was ordained as pastor of Central Baptist Church in 1951 and served until 1957. From September 1957 to 1961, Wiersbe served as Director of The Literature Division for Youth for Christ International. From 1961 to 1971 he pastored Calvary Baptist Church of Covington, Kentucky south of Cincinnati, Ohio. His sermons were broadcast as the “Calvary Hour” on a local Cincinnati radio station. From 1971 to 1978, He served as the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago 1971 to 1978. While at Moody Church he continued in radio ministry. Between August 1979 and March 1982, he wrote bi-weekly for Christianity Today as “Eutychus X”, taught practical theology classes at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and wrote the course material and taught a Doctor of Ministry course at Trinity and Dallas Seminary. In 1980 he transitioned to Back to the Bible radio broadcasting network where he worked until 1990. Dr. Wiersbe became Writer in Residence at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids and Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. In his lifetime, Dr. Wiersbe wrote over 170 books—including the popular Be series, which has sold over four million copies. Dr. Wiersbe was awarded the Gold Medallion Lifetime Achievement by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA).