A Natural Disposition Toward Shallowness: the Preacher’s Occupational Hazard


“I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness.  I now work as a pundit and columnist.  I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am. I have to work harder than most people to avoid a life of smug superficiality.  –David Brooks, “The Road to Character”

We preachers have a great deal in common with “pundits and columnists.”

We are constantly driving ourselves to produce the next sermon, develop the next church program, write the next article, and find the perfect staff member–no matter whether we feel up to it or not.  We work to appear confident.

Never let ’em see you sweat.  That’s how the commercials phrase it.

As a result, we tend to gravitate toward superficiality and shallowness.

It goes with the job, I suppose.  An occupational hazard?

Once in a while there comes along a great quote with wonderful insights into the Scripture, better understanding of Christian principles, and a clearer handle on the facts of life. We gladly queue up to drink at the fountain of such deep thinkers. My personal favorite is Clive Staples Lewis.

Elizabeth Elliot called C. S. Lewis, “That wonderful man who seems to have thought through everything.”  I have found myself quoting both Lewis and Mrs. Elliot, not only because of the great sound bytes, but because they are often clear on a matter I’ve not thought through. So, it’s easier just to quote someone else.

Shallowness: A way of life for many of us in the ministry.

There is a reason for this sad condition:  When you are under the gun to turn out several sermons a week in addition to all the other tasks pastors must attend to, you simply do not have the time to pursue most subjects to the depth you should and would like. (That’s one reason I have treasured retirement. Finally, I have the time!)

I criticize pastors who plagiarize, but I understand how it happens.

Our congregations are not unlike the Athenians of old, who “spent their time on nothing else but telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21).

The typical congregation resembles a ravenous animal which must be fed relentlessly, voluminously, scripturally.  A preacher friend calls it “the relentless return of the Sabbath.”

Pastors must be the model of self-discipline.  Unless we can make ourselves get up early, leave the phone on the charger, and turn our attention to the Lord and His Word–and then, to do the hard work of thinking about the Lord and His Word–we will feed our people on “the milk of the word” for our entire ministry.

Unless we make ourselves say ‘no’ to a hundred lesser calls for our time and energy in order to do the harder work of listening to the Lord, we will remain spiritual dwarfs ourselves and fail to grow disciples.

Self-discipline is the key to everything, I suspect.

I think of a farmer going into his field and snipping off runners of a watermelon vine in order to allow the plant to channel its resources for greater production.

In a similar metaphor, our Lord said the farmer “prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit” (John 15:2).

Pruning away the unnecessary, the lesser important, the outdated–that is the work of self-discipline.

We make ourselves do the harder thing for the greater good.

It’s why preaching students should take Hebrew and Greek and work at learning to read their Bibles in the original languages.

It’s why seminarians should take systematic theology whether their particular degree requires it or not. They need to think about these matters and consider how they fit together, and whether what they preach is biblical.

It’s why budding theologians must study church history. So many modern detours and diversions opening before God’s people have historical precedents in heresies that the church has suffered from, faced up to, and dealt with.

It’s why we must become students first, and then thinkers.

A thinker is not necessarily a deep thinker.  This is not a plea for everyone to become particularly profound, but rather especially thorough.  And nothing accomplishes this like simply thinking these matters through.

Studying takes isolation and focus. Thinking takes time and quietness.

I’ve sometimes wondered about Abraham Lincoln.  Here was a man whose reading material for much of his life would occupy only a few shelves in my library. And yet, reading his speeches, one comes away knowing here is a learned man, an educated one. How did this happen? And why did it not happen to me?

My answer, for what it’s worth, is that Mr. Lincoln lived in a quiet world and had much time to himself. He had none of the modern diversions that simultaneously attract us and destroy us:  television, computers, phones, automobiles, and such.

So, while Lincoln worked and walked, he thought about what he read.

“Upon that law doth he meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:2).

Meditation: What a novel concept.

Often, I will read a great article or inspiring book, but when it’s over, I walk away and retain very little of it.  Lincoln read and thought about it, then thought about it some more.  And thus he retained it, and it shaped his character.

I suggest to pastors they take long walks and reflect on their texts.  On long drives in the automobile, they should turn off the audio system and talk to the Lord and to themselves about the scriptures they are planning to preach, the stories they plan to tell, the points they need to make. Talk, then pray, and then be quiet and listen.  Then, repeat the process.

One reason Winston Churchill appeared so eloquent in his off-the-cuff remarks, we’re told, is that they were not impromptu.  He had rehearsed his ad-libs time and again.  Pastors would do well to imitate that practice.

After all, even if on the surface it appears the congregation wants something new all the time, pastors do well to get clear on the proper nutrients that enable God’s people to live healthy and effective lives of faithful discipleship, and then feed the flock accordingly.

Those “proper nutrients” will turn out to be the essence of the scripture’s message, and the basics which the Holy Spirit has taught this pastor.

There is no shortcut to arriving at one’s own understanding of that.  We must “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).


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