It was a cool fall Sunday morning in 1865. A black man, slight of build, entered a fashionable Virginia church in downtown Richmond. The ushers made themselves busy with narthex projects and acted as though they did not notice him. No one extended a welcome or offered to lead the visitor to a seat in the sanctuary.
Quietly and unobtrusively, he seated himself on the next to the last pew, near the center aisle. As more people made their way into the sanctuary, hushed whispers moved across the large sanctuary. People who had ostensibly come to worship, perhaps trying to be as polite as they thought Christians ought to be, tried hard not to stare. Some found that too hard to do and they could not resist the urge to turn around and look back at the next to last pew where that dark-skinned worshipper was sitting.
“Fine,” some thought, “so long as he is here only to worship we can put up with it this one time.” But then, communion was served, communion with a common cup no less! That meant that all worshippers must drink from the same goblet or not drink at all at the Lord’s Table that Sunday.
When the communion invitation was given, the man waited reverently for a few minutes before quietly joining the line that formed down the center of the sanctuary. As he did, a resentful silence fell across the gathered congregation. Some who were about to join the line suddenly stiffened in their places.
“How dare he!” a few intimated by their looks towards their neighboring pew sitters. For several minutes, no one joined the line behind the man. It was, to say the least, an awkward moment.
After a deafeningly silent minute, a distinguished layman stood up and stepped toward the altar with a pace that was quickened a bit so that the dark-skinned worshipper would not reach the Table alone. As the visitor bowed before the Table to receive the bread and the cup, the distinguished looking worshipper bowed his head beside him.
Those people recognized that man who bowed now with the stranger at the altar. When the visiting worshipper drank the cup, the tall, handsome worshipper sipped right behind him.
This tall man of distinguished appearance was the one they spoke of as “The General.” Robert E. Lee, the Confederate Army’s most celebrated soldier and a member of the Virginia aristocracy, set an example for all to follow that day. After that, the awkwardness of the morning dissipated and the whole congregation fell into line. Such was “The General’s” example.
“Set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). Three pastoral priorities form the crux of what it means to be a true minister of the gospel of Christ Jesus. Call them, if you like, “the axis of true preaching,” for ultimately they determine the shape and the long-term impact of every preacher’s ministry. They are prayer, the study of God’s word and setting an example for the flock we are called to lead.
When God called me to preach, I was on a successful career track, destined, some said, to become a major executive, perhaps even a president, with what was at that time the world’s largest retail organization. I liked that business. It was all about bigger numbers, and I seemed to have an affinity for it. Alas, when Christ took hold of me, that gold grew dim quickly.
As I contemplate much of what I see, hear and read about in the contemporary church, it sometimes seems that the temptation for pastors and preachers to transmute into something resembling spiritual storekeepers is all too present. Too often, we as pastors are being encouraged to become little more than pseudo-religious retailers. In architecture, programming and marketing, our churches are becoming more and more like department stores. Numbers, it seems, are more and more the sole standard by which we measure success. However, when one takes that standard to its natural conclusion, Sun Myung Moon ends up being one of America’s most successful pastors!
We have even adopted some of the concepts and the lingo that I learned in my retail business training. Somehow, the whole idea turns the ministry of the gospel upside down. Consider this from some recent teaching I’ve heard: “We try to keep people happy by giving them what they want whatever the cost for fear that we might lose some.” That is a call to impossibility. If Jesus had managed to pull that off, there would never have been a Calvary cross. If He cannot do it, I know that I cannot.
Someone else said, “We plan our advertising campaign specifically to target folks away from the other large churches on our side of town.” What does that have to do with winning the lost to the Savior? Are there so few wild fish outside the church that we will measure success by becoming fishers of other people’s fish?
The foundational problem with such thinking is its focus: We’re not called to be followers of this world. Ours is a call to stand in the gap, demonstrating a better example by lip and lifestyle. God judges our success by things that are far larger and far longer lasting than mere numbers.
“Set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” Paul’s advice to young preacher Timothy perhaps has special merit. Make it your first goal “in all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works; in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility” (Titus 2:7). Don’t be a spiritual storekeeper. Be an example worth following. ?
Leslie Holmes is Pastor of Saxe Gotha Presbyterian Church in Lexington, SC. His latest book is When Good Enough Just Isn’t Good Enough (Ambassador Intl.).