Ambassadors of Glory for a Beaten-Down Church

He was rushing out of the luncheon meeting with the staff of his church. Often at the end of a weekend conference, I will meet with the paid and volunteer leadership of the church, make a presentation, and answer their questions. It was about 2:30 p.m., and he was in a rush to get going because his sermon for the next day was hanging over his head. He had some errands to do, dinner with his family, and then sometime in the evening he would lock himself in his home office and try to put together his message for the next day. No matter what happened the rest of that day, no matter how much time he was actually able to devote to his sermons, and no matter how well his preparation went, and no matter how prepared he felt to deal with the text before him, he would get up and say something.

I wondered how many pastors were in the same place and had developed the same ministry habits. I wondered how many of them were throwing something together at the last minute; how many sermons were not given the time necessary for them to communicate what needed to be communicated. I wondered how many congregations around the world are plainly and simply being poorly fed by unprepared pastors. I wondered how many sermons end up being boring restatements of favorite commentaries or little more than impersonal, poorly delivered theological lectures.

I don’t need to wonder anymore. Having spoken at hundreds of churches around the world, I have experienced this Saturday afternoon sermon scenario over and over again. It has left me both sad and angry. No wonder people lack excitement with the gospel. No wonder they don’t approach Sunday morning with excitement and anticipation. No wonder they quit believing that the Bible speaks to the drama of their everyday struggle. No wonder they quit thinking their pastor can relate to what their life is like or answer the questions that tend to haunt them. No wonder so many people in so many pews sit there with minds wandering and hearts disengaged. No wonder it’s hard for them to push the last week’s problems or the next day’s duties out of their minds as they sit there on Sunday morning.

I am very concerned about acceptable Sunday morning mediocrity, and I am persuaded that it is not primary a schedule or laziness problem. I am convinced it is a theological problem. The standards you set for yourself and your ministry are directly related to your view of God. If you are feeding your soul every day on the grace and glory of God, if you are in worshipful awe of his wisdom and power, if you are spiritually stunned by his faithfulness and love, and if you are daily motivated by his presence and promises, then you want to do everything you can to capture and display that glory to the people God has placed in your care. It is your job as a pastor to pass this glory down to another generation, and it is impossible for you to do that if you are not being awe-stricken by God’s glory yourself.

High Stakes

The stakes are high. You could argue that every worship service is little more than a glory war. The great question of the gathering is, “Will the hearts of this group of people be captured by the one true glory or by the shadow glories of the created world?” As a pastor I want to do everything I can do to be used of God to capture the hearts of those gathered by the rescuing glory of God’s grace, by the insight-giving glory of God’s wisdom, by the hope-giving glory of his love, by the empowering glory of his presence, by the rest-giving glory of his sovereignty, and by the saving glory of his Son. But I know this is a battle. I am speaking to people whose hearts are fickle and easily distracted. I am talking to people who are seduced by other glories. I am talking to people who live in the light of God’s glory every day and yet are capable of being functionally blind to its splendor.

I am addressing the single lady who has set her heart on the affection of a certain young man she thinks will deliver to her the happiness for which she has been craving. Sitting before me is the teenager who can’t think beyond the glories of Facebook, Twitter, and the Portal 2 video game. In the congregation is the middle-aged man whose heart is captured by the glory of somehow, some way recapturing his youth. The wife is wondering if she will ever experience the glory of the kind of marriage she dreamed about, the kind she knows others have. A man sits in the crowd knowing that he feeds his soul almost daily on the dark and distorted glories of pornography and has become a master at shifting spiritual gears. Some listening are more excited about a new outfit, new home, new car, new shotgun, newly sodded lawn, new restaurant, new vacation site, or that new promotion than they are about the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Some gathered on Sunday morning are distracted by grief, anger, discouragement, loneliness, envy, frustration, despair, or hopelessness, because the glories they have trusted for their meaning, purpose, and inner happiness have failed them once again. They have blown up in their faces or dripped like sand through their fingers. And even when they were wonderful to experience, they didn’t in fact leave their hearts satisfied. The buzz was short and the satisfaction elusive. So they sit there empty, hurt, angry, and confused.

They come into worship in the middle of a war that they probably don’t recognize. It is a war for the allegiance, the worship, of their hearts. In ways they probably don’t understand, they have again and again asked creation to give them what only the Creator can provide. They have looked horizontally for what can only be found vertically. They have asked people, situations, locations, and experiences to be the one thing they will never be: their savior. They have looked to these things to give them life, security, identity, and hope. They have asked these things to heal their broken hearts. They have hoped that these things would make them better people. So a war rages, and wounded soldiers sit before you. It is a glory war: a battle for what glory will rule their hearts, and in so doing, control their choices, words, and behavior.

Real Enemy

The Enemy will do anything he can with lies, seduction, distraction, and deceit to keep my heart from focusing on the glory for which I was created to live. So it is a high and holy calling to step into the middle of this glory war with the commission of being one of God’s primary tools to recapture the wandering hearts of battle-scarred and battle-weary soldiers.

For many, following this God of glory has seemed to be anything but glorious. They were expecting joy and blessing, and they got pain, sadness, and trial. It is increasingly hard for them to believe those glorious truths that say God is near—that he hears, that he cares, that he is faithful, that he is wise, that he exercises his power for the good of his children, that he is loving, kind, gracious, and patient. They feel forsaken. They feel they’re being punished. They are being tempted to conclude that what they were taught isn’t really true after all. They wonder why they have been singled out for suffering. They wonder why they pray and nothing seems to happen. They have quit reading their Bible because it doesn’t seem to help, and they find that the songs on Sunday morning seem to be describing a very different reality from the one they live in. They’ve quit asking for prayer for the same things over and over again in their small group because it just makes them feel like a looser. They feel that the glory before them has eluded them completely, and they don’t know what to do about it. So without being conscious of it, they have begun to offer their hearts to other glories, hoping somehow, some way, satisfaction will be found.

Pastor, has familiarity caused you to settle for a mediocrity that keeps you from putting God’s shining glory before the glory-blind week after week after week? To these beaten-down ones, you have been called as an ambassador of glory. You have been called to rescue those who are awe-discouraged and awe-confused. You are called to represent the One who is glory to people who by means of suffering and disappointment have become glory cynics. You have been called to be God’s voice to woo them back. You are placed in their lives as a divine means of rescue, healing, and restoration. You have been called to speak into the confusion with gospel clarity and authority. You have been called to give glory-bound hope to those who have become hopeless. You are called to speak liberating truths to those who have become deceived. You have been called to plead with disloyal children to once again be reconciled to their heavenly Father. You have been called to give glorious motivation to those who have given up. You have been called to shine the light of the glory of God into hearts that have been made dark by looking for life in all the wrong places. You have been called to offer the filling glories of grace to those who are empty and malnourished. You have been called to represent a glorious king who alone is able to rescue, heal, redeem, transform, forgive, deliver, and satisfy. You have been called.

  • Joshua Bolaji

    Thank you for that Professor Tripp. I will not say that, “I know of pastors who do last minute prep sermons”, why? Because I have been one in the past. It’s a terrible thing to do. This is a big issue among ministers of the word in the church. Once again, thank you!

  • Mike Francis

    Thank you!

  • Yvonne

    It is also discouraging for some very hard working people when pastors are always flying off to this conference or that conference and taking six month sabbaticals every couple of years and posting how much fun they are having on fb pages during their sabbaticals. I am speaking generally since I have seen this a few different times in the past few years with different pastors. In the meantime, I see my husband struggle how to bring God glory in a job that is a toxic environment with few positives and is very hard work with little time off.

    • Glenn

      My heart goes out to you and your husband, Yvonne (your name was Candy when I originally posted this, how did that change?). This is precisely the burden any pastor worth his calling faces. However what most people do not realize is that a pastor carries in his heart this responsibility/burden to care for and love hundreds of people like you and your husband; and it carries an emotional toll 24/7. You and your husband can come to your pastor or listen to his sermon to receive grace/help/hope/encouragement, but where does a pastor go to receive that every week? No doubt some pastors are perhaps excessively selfish in this regard, but for many of us our desire is to go away and return better equipped and prepared to help folks like yourself. It is a difficult burden to carry because we know so many of the hard-working people do not get to do these things, but on the other hand most people can leave their place of work and have weekends and evenings free in addition to vacation time – that is not always true for most pastors. Also most of us “normal” pastors are not what you describe, we certainly have our own unique sets of faults/failures/temptations/sins, but I’ve been in a pastoral ministry 20 years and had one 3 month sabbatical and generally go to only one or two conferences per year (and sometimes none). There are hard-working people in our congregation who struggle to make ends meet and have very little time off too, my heart aches for them too, but we carry our own burdens unseen by others, and often when we are “off” we are still praying for and carrying our congregations in our hearts; and as happened to me last week, talking people through crisis while away on vacation. May God’s grace be sufficient to help you and your husband in your struggle, and I hope you find a shepherd who will feed and care for you.

  • Kathy

    Thanks for this insightful post. God used it to identify a glory war in my life. When I think I’m too small or insignificant to come boldly and enjoy God, that is making me take some creaturely thing as a sustitute, which will never satisfy. God means for us to see His glory. 2 Cor 4:6

  • yvonne

    Thanks Glenn for your thoughtful response. I changed my name to my actual first name instead of my middle name, because I did not want anyone to feel like I was specifically pointing a finger at them, since I know many pastors who visit this site. We do have a good shepherd who cares extensively for his flock. I just see these things a lot on FB and other places and it is discouraging to my husband who is trying to figure out how to glorify God in his difficult job culture. I understand how the emotional toll that pastoring takes because I am an educator who loves the day after school lets out for the summer. But…you did state that some pastors may take their time off to an extreme, and I am addressing that instead of someone like you who seems to take your responibility very very seriously.

    • glenn

      O good, I am truly glad you have a faithful shepherd! I shall pray for your husband and for you as you uphold and encourage him, I pray he will be strengthened with hope and joy in the Lord and a nearness of the Lord’s presence to sustain him in difficult times. Grace & peace to you both.

  • Patrick

    I not only understand what you are saying but wholeheartedly agree with it. I am ministering now in my fourth church. This is the first time as the Pastor. The difficulty I have is that I have been called to a very small church. I must work a full time job outside the ministry. Add to that my family, I have 5 daughters, and I have very little time to prepare. I spend, literally, all day Saturday getting ready for the Lord’s Day. Sunday morning is spent in final prep and prayer. I pray for the day when I don’t have to “cram” for the next day. This is where I am called now. It can be discouraging in itself. I don’t get to to go to conferences, or take sabbaticals, I keep on keeping on. I do so because I am called. My sermons are not the best. I will never be on the speaking circuit, but I keep preaching because these people need to hear the good news of God glory every week. They need to hear from their Lord. They need to know that He is mighty to save. They need to know that He has given us that pertains to life and godliness. In fact, because I am the kind of Pastor I am, I need to hear it every week too. I thank God for the ministry He has given me even though, as it stands today, I must work outside the church to pay the bills so that I can do what God has called me to do on Saturday and Sunday.

    • Mark

      Thank you for your post and honesty. I’m a church planter and can say that your situation is somewhat similar to mine … bivocational, large family, small church, etc. My takeaway from this insightful post is that while our Saturdays are by necessity filled with preparation for Sunday, I must faithfully gaze on God’s glory throughout the week and allow His greatness to propel me into Sunday morning ministry. Not only that, but there is a “glory war” in my own deceitful heart. I know my weaknesses and don’t want the train wreck in my life while trying to juggle so many balls on behalf of others. May the Lord bless and sustain you and your family in this high calling.

  • Patrick

    Thanks Mark. Yes, that is the goal. To live all of life for the glory of God. We must be examples of holiness, 1 Peter 5, right? In all things, the love and glory of God is our motivation, guide, and joy in life. I think the discouragement, for me, comes when I hear about the problem mentioned in the article. I search for extra minutes through out the week when I can read an extra 10 pages. I look for those extra 15 minutes when I can get away and pray. I wonder what the “too busy” Pastors are doing with their time. Perhaps I am discontent with my own situation and therefore jealous. I love this church I am in. I love the people that God has brought here. I praise Him for calling me to the ministry. I love doing His work, even with all of the other things in my life. Please pray for me, that I would be thoroughly content and passionate for this work. Thanks again.

    • Mark Shaeffer

      I really resonate with your godly passion for the church and His glory. I’ll be praying that the Lord strengthens you to do all that He commands you to. And that, in 90 hour weeks and this is-a-piece-of-cake weeks, you would know the secret of being content knowing how to abound with plenty and how to be content with little. “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Philippians 4:19-20 ESV)

  • Doug

    As a pastor for 35 years here are my observations:

    1) There is NO excuse for not spending at least 10 hours on a message.

    2) Pastors, you have way more time than you think. The amount of time a pastor wastes doing stuff that has little kingdom purpose is unbelievable. Ask yourself this before you do something,”How does this fulfill the great commission? Is this really the best use of my time?”

    3) Disengage from all the committee work. There is NO reason for you to be in on every decision. It will get done, and if it doesn’t it wasn’t that important anyway.

    4) And this is a word to churches: Value solid preaching. The reason why we have Saturday night specials is because churches let it happen. If your pastor isn’t spending time studying and preparing find out why. Are you asking him to do things that the congregation should be doing?

  • Mike

    Some of the casual prep for Sunday meetings is a reaction against the tradition which says, ‘Only the best is good enough for God’, where ‘best’ means 17th Century English, Bach played by superb musicians, clergy who like dressing up etc. In this tradition anything modern, straightforward or spontaneous is considered trite, uncultured and therefore ‘unworthy of God.’
    Add to that the claim in some quarters that to be ‘led by the Spirit’ necessarily means to be unprepared, and you’ve a got what some would consider to be a rationale for unpreparedness.
    In small churches there may also be a reaction against the kind of nonsense I heard from one megachurch megaspeaker who said, ‘These days every church must have professional musicians.’ For the vast majority of churches this is unhelpful, unrealistic nonsense, but it can lead to pastors saying to themselves, ‘What’s the point in trying?’

  • paul cummings

    I’m blessed to be on staff at a church with multiple pastors, so I can take time to study, pray and ponder the scripture, and then “get after it” in earnest on Sunday…but my heart goes out to the pastor who is THE pastor with little to no help on staff. The counseling, visitation, administration and planning would be quite a load to handle.
    …and I know…I know…you are supposed to train and equip people to do those things too…but in my 20 years in the ministry most church goers feel like they’re getting 2nd fiddle if someone other than the pastor calls, mails or visits.

  • Pingback: The Pastor and the Glory War « Sententia()

  • Andy

    Sometimes pastors are ill-prepared because of the anxiety accompanied with preparing and preaching a sermon. It could be a matter of anxious avoidance. While the Bible certainly presents a majestic, awesome view of the preaching task it was also quite ordinary. The Apostles preached all the time in season and out of season. I sense that if pastors had a more ordinary view of preaching they would probably approach their task with more preparedness and with strong conviction that God can use them to teach his Word effectively. Just a thought.

  • Pingback: This Week on TransĀ·formed (8/11)()

  • Joe Rutherford

    What most people do not understand is that the least in the kingdom of God is greater than all the prophets up to and includeing John the Baptist. Modern Church involves traditions of men which were never given by God in the beginning of the Church, or at any time since. Even though the commandments for the Churches have been written and are clearly in the text of the New Testament, few understand what needs to be done. A case in point would be Pauls 1st letter to the Church at Corinth. What ever happened with that Church? They were told how to conduct Church meetings. All things were to be done for the building up of the Church. They were to practice and pursue the spiritual gifts in such a way which would build up the Church unto love. How many Churches today even allow the practice of those spiritual gifts? How many Churches, which do allow those gifts, do so for the pursuit of love? How many Churches require women to be silent at Church meetings? Hey preach a sermon like that next Sunday and then wait for the board members to call you to the carpet. You’ll be despised and rejected. However, we must work for the building up of the Church, right? OK then we should do what the Bible tells us to do. Pursue prophecy, let 2 or 3 prophets speak/prophecie, well it is all written in the Bible, so let’s do it. Or Churches can keep doing like they are doing and keep having troubles like you have described in your article. Actually the Churches today need understanding even in the foundational princibles of Christ. First things first. Start at the beginning, get it right, and keep growing. Ask God for revelation.

  • Pingback: Weekly Commentary (August 17, 2012) | A Modern Exile()

  • Pingback: September…around the web » Habits for a Happy Home()