Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the best known American pastors during the first half of the twentieth century, described preaching as “personal counseling on a group scale.” The longer I preach, the more I agree with him.
Every Sunday morning every pew has at least one broken heart. Financial planning gone awry, family relationships deteriorating, personal energy ebbing, emotional stability slipping away – these problems and more plague the people in the pew every Sunday. They come to church on Sunday morning not wanting to know how to be saved but wanting to know how they can make it through the next week. They don’t need us pastors to beat up on them. Instead, they need us to bring healing to their bruised psyches and to their battered spirits.
How can we provide this pastoral care from the pulpit? That is the subject of this session of the work of the pastor. Let me walk us through three steps.
Step # 1: RECOGNIZE THE NEED
The church has been infected today with the “health and wealth gospel” that says in essence: God wants Christians to be healthy and wealthy. Believe in God strongly enough and we will be. All of our problems will evaporate if we just have enough faith. That is the message of the “health and wealth gospel.”
The problem with this so-called “gospel” is that it stands in stark contrast to the message and models of Scripture. For example, near the end of his first epistle Peter warns: “Don’t be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you . . . as though some strange thing were happening” (1 Pe 4:12) and James opens his epistle with the announcement: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials” (Jas 1:2). Not “if” these trials come but “when” they come.
No more dedicated Christian ever lived than the Apostle Paul. Yet, he went from one crisis to another. In fact, someone has suggested that the way Paul knew if he had a good day on Sunday was to count his bandages on Monday. Some modern day preacher might say to Paul, “If your faith were stronger, you would not have to suffer these things.” In contrast to that, God told Paul: “Suffer these things and your faith will be stronger.”
Read the New Testament and the point is clear. Christians also suffer. And it is still true today. We Christians are not isolated from the pain and suffering of life. All of us are a part of the fraternity of the brokenhearted. As the old quip puts it, “Everyone either is a problem, has a problem, or lives with one!”
Pastoral care from the pulpit begins with the recognition of the pain that our congregation brings with them to church every Sunday morning.
Step #2: GAIN THEIR ATTENTION
Once we have acknowledged the needs in the congregation, how can we gain their attention in order to communicate God’s message of hope to them? Two factors are essential.
First, our congregation must be convinced that we understand what they’re going through. This is the special benefit of what we call “confessional preaching.” Confessional preaching, in which we openly share our hurts from the pulpit, provides a chance for our congregation to see our humanity, an opportunity for our church members to realize that we go through the same hurts and heartaches they do and therefore we understand.
We find one of the most remarkable descriptions of Jesus in Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are.” In other words, Jesus understands what we are going through because he went through the same thing. Our congregation needs to sense that about us.
Then, the congregation must be convinced that we care. The old quip is right: “Before they care how much we know, they want to know how much we care.” Comprehension is not enough unless it evokes compassion.
Compassion marked the great preachers of the past. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), the most effective preacher during the Great Awakening, often wept when he delivered his sermons. George Whitfield (1714-1770), the gifted colonial preacher, seldom preached without tears. One of the greatest of the Scottish preachers was Robert Murray McCheyne (1813-1843). When someone asked the sexton of his church the secret of McCheyne’s success, he said that McCheyne let the tears flow. Of course, tears are not necessary to communicate our understanding and our compassion. Some preachers today weep tears of convenience rather than tears of compassion. Yet, the truth remains. We must communicate to our people that we understand what they are going through and that we care.
Step #3: APPLY THE SCRIPTURE
The point is not that we have the answer to everyone’s problem but that we know where the answer is to be found. God’s Word has a word for every person with every problem if we will just apply it.
Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Church in California, grew up in a pastor’s home and he heard lots of sermons. As he listened to sermons in his earlier years, he said he would write down the letters: YBH. What do those letters mean? They mean: “Yes, but how?” We are to love the Lord with all our hearts. Yes, but how? We are to be Christian fathers and mothers. Yes, but how? We are to rise above our depression. Yes, but how? That is the question we must answer if we are to provide pastoral care from the pulpit to our congregation.
Proclamation must be followed by application. “This is what it means” must be followed by “this is what we should do.” How can we make our sermons practical like that? Rick Warren suggests three keys. First, we need to tell our congregation what they should do. Aim for a particular action. Then, we need to tell them why they should do it. That is, give them a reason for change. Finally, we need to tell our congregation how to do it. We must give them a plan.
Our aim should not be to preach good sermons as much as it is to preach sermons that do good. Every Sunday morning every pew has a broken heart. It is impossible to touch the lives of each one of them through one-on-one counseling. We simply do not have enough time. Yet, we can touch all of them with an encouraging word from God if we will develop the skill of providing personal counseling on a group scale. That too is a part of the work of the pastor.