The Problem with the One-Directional Preacher

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If you’ve been following along in the last couple of columns (see here and here), I’ve described the need within evangelicalism for leaders who can fend off threats coming at the church from multiple directions. We’re trained to spot threats that only come from one side (usually the left or the right) and because we miss the bigger picture, we leave our congregations vulnerable to dangers that arise from other points.

In the previous post, we considered the role of the internet and social media in making it harder for leaders to issue warnings to their own “tribes” about dangers relevant to their particular context. So, what can be done? If we need “multi-directional leadership” (that is, leadership that engages challenges coming from multiple directions, not just one), what can we do to push against the forces that make these skills so rare?

Suggestions for Church Leaders 

If you’re a pastor, you’re a leader. You may not have influence all over the country or around the world, but as a pastor, you exercise authority in the sphere in the field and for the flock God has given you. As a shepherd, you’re responsible for protecting the sheep from dangers, and even if your eye is trained to spot wolves that may approach the flock from one corner of the field, you should want to be the kind of shepherd who can see dangers that might threaten your flock from other entry points.

As leaders, whether we have larger or smaller spheres of influence, we should want to get better at multi-directional leadership, and the way we will do so is by recognizing and resisting a number of temptations. Here’s the first.

Temptation #1: Ignore the real needs of people in favor of their preferences.

The first temptation is that we prescribe the medicine our congregations prefer rather than the medicine they need. We get used to diagnosing a narrow set of spiritual sicknesses, mixing a narrow set of prescriptions, and being alert to a narrow set of potential dangers. The flock may be happy, but they’re not safe.

Different Prescriptions

In 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul exhorts the family of God to “warn those who are idle, comfort the discouraged, help the weak,” and “be patient with everyone.” Four different prescriptions. To know when you’re supposed to warn, comfort, and help, you need God’s wisdom and guidance.

Notice that Paul doesn’t give a blanket “Here’s how you treat everyone” type of command. Why not? Because we don’t always need the same thing. It takes wisdom to know what your congregation needs. It may be that an idle and lazy person needs a tough word of warning about spiritual drift. It may be that someone else needs the encouragement that comes from a pastor who knows how to comfort people well. It may be that someone physically or spiritually weak needs help in other ways. Different problems require different remedies.

Matt Smethurst puts it this way:

“Paul is a physician of souls, prescribing different medicines for different maladies, and he expects ordinary church members to do the same.”

Variety of Threats, Variety of Needs

Multi-directional leaders recognize threats that come to the flock from more than one direction. They also recognize the variety of needs among their people and, with the Word of God as their medicine, they issue different warnings and prescriptions. The opposite of this approach is to just give people whatever they want—the flavor that will make them feel better in the short term or that will make them feel affirmed in whatever direction they already prefer.

Don’t Reinforce Itching Ears 

In another letter, Paul warned Timothy about the temptation to satisfy itching ears. We may think that “hard preaching” is the way to avoid that temptation. But remember, it’s possible to issue strong warnings about specific dangers and yet still be an ear-tickling preacher. How? Because itching ears want teachers who will tell them what they want to hearAnd, sadly, many congregations hope to hear a preacher who every week will tell them what’s wrong with everybody else.

An Example from the Past

One of the famous revivalists of the past century, Billy Sunday, was known for his fiery preaching against various sins of immorality, personal vice, and his strident opposition to alcohol. He wasn’t afraid to take on people’s sins. Certain sins, that is. Curiously missing from his litany of evils was the racism of the era that provided cover for the resurgent KKK and would lead in the following years to the Great Migration.

Before Sunday’s visit to Washington, D.C., in 1918, pastor Francis Grimké urged him to speak prophetically about racism. Sunday chose not to. Reflecting later on the event, Grimké wrote:

The members of our white churches are now, doubtless, patting themselves on the shoulder, chuckling in their sleeves, congratulating themselves upon the fact that they have passed safely through the ordeal of Mr. Sunday’s diatribes, his scathing criticisms and denunciations without once being called to time by him for this sin [of racial prejudice].

Multi-Directional Warnings

As chronic self-justifiers, we crave a message that puffs us up. Ear-tickling preaching may be fiery; it may be loud; it may step on toes, but they’re never the toes of the people in the pews or the pastor in the pulpit.

If we issue warnings regularly about dangers coming to the flock from only one side, we may gain short-term acclaim from church members, but we will leave them vulnerable to dangers and challenges coming from other directions. We must be courageous enough to pursue multi-directional leadership, even when the medicine may be unpopular.

That’s the first temptation we must resist. I have more suggestions for leaders that I will lay out in upcoming columns.

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