It’s been awhile since we’ve added anything to the site. That’s because, in most respects, we feel like we’ve moved on from our experience at Living Word Church (a pseudonym). We’ve now had a year to process what we witnessed and went through, and after awhile, it’s easy to feel like we’ve figured it all out.
But the funny thing is, right when I think I’ll never have another new thing to add to this blog, I’ll get to pondering our time at Living Word, and suddenly, I’ll be hit by a realization. That happened to me last night.
My husband and I were reminiscing about Pastor Smith’s (another pseudonym) preaching last night. As I’ve said in another post,
The thing was, when he’d stick to Scriptures, he was a great preacher—insightful, original, wise, and articulate. When he’d veer into a slightly questionable area, such as seeming to use the pulpit to pump up his own importance, it was easy to cut him some slack. He was, after all, a very dynamic individual with great force of personality that was coupled with a sharp, curmudgeonly sense of humor. When he preached, he conveyed a unique earnest sincerity. I still don’t doubt for a moment that he himself believed in everything he preached. I still think he was honestly convinced of the validity of his own prophetic gift, and of how much the people needed his ministry. His earnest sincerity made you WANT to cheer for what he said, made his audience WANT to show their support for him.
When we first started this site, I often remarked about how Pastor Smith’s preaching was usually pretty Biblical. He always included a lot of Bible verses and really seemed to spend time putting his sermons together. Even after we first left Living Word, I still believed that if Pastor Smith had just stuck with Scripture and stayed away from talking so much about his prophetic abilities and the “Prosperity Gospel,” his preaching would have continued to be stellar.
But recently, while organizing my closet, I stumbled upon a collection of sermon tapes from 2003. Figuring that it would be good entertainment to reminisce – and also figuring that maybe I might be reminded of something edifying while I finished my cleaning – I popped one of the tapes in the stereo and gave it a listen.
I have to say, I was surprised to realize something. And that is, even back a few years ago, before Pastor Smith became fixated on money, his sermons were still not like the sermons we’ve been hearing lately at the more generic Evangelical church we’ve been attending. Rather than discussing straightforward Biblical principles and acceptable, obvious truths, Pastor Smith’s preaching was, essentially, all about reading a verse and then telling us what he thought it meant.
“So what’s the difference,” you ask.
Well, actually, there’s a pretty big difference. Especially sometimes.
You see, the kind of preaching that focuses on making a larger point or a life application by building on basic truths clearly spelled out in the Bible is not the same as making a declaration and then pointing out how this declaration could be supported by a verse here or there. And it’s certainly not the same as reading a single verse and then explaining to your audience how you know, because “God told you,” that this verse is true in a new and different way for the people you’re addressing.
Case in point: some years back, pretty early in our time at Living Word, actually, Pastor Smith preached an entire series of sermons on God’s favor. His text? – Psalm 102:13, which says:
Thou shalt arise, and have mercy upon Zion: for the time to favour her, yea, the set time, is come.
Pastor Smith spent weeks telling us, usually for more than an hour at a stretch, that the time had come for all those connected with Living Word Church to experience God’s favor. He had a slogan for this sermon series: “Dream big, and believe God for favor.” After a couple of weeks, this slogan was professionally printed onto a gigantic banner which stretched all the way across the second-floor railing in the church foyer, so that it was almost the first thing you saw as you made your way toward the sanctuary entrance.
I remember that all of those sermons were incredibly uplifting. Pastor Smith used every bit of his sincere, enthusiastic, and utterly convincing style to convey to us that the Lord had given him this verse as a “fresh word for the house.” It was time for all those under the sound of his voice to get ready to dream big and believe God for favor, because God had told him that the “set time” for favor had begun.
In other words, if you were hoping for a certain job promotion, perhaps, or wanting healing, or looking to buy a bigger house, your time had come. Even if you might not be the most qualified person, you would find yourself receiving more than the typical consideration for that career advancement, because of God’s favor. Even if the doctor had told you there was nothing more the medical profession could do for you, you did not have to give up on good health, because of God’s favor. Even if you weren’t sure where the extra money would come from, if you had a dream for a larger house, you could get ready to see it fulfilled, because of God’s favor.
These sermons had a big effect on the congregation’s mood. People were cheering and applauding. Pastor Smith’s preaching would be interrupted by frequent standing ovations. And it wasn’t just an immediate emotional response, either. I remember talking to friends and listening to them earnestly musing about how God was finally going to bring their favorite dream to pass…because we all were soon going to be hit by an unusual time of God’s favor.
Last night, as I thought back to this sermon series, and also to the tapes I’d just recently listened to again, I was suddenly struck by something. Why did we believe Pastor Smith when he told us that we were all about to experience God’s favor?
I mean, it certainly wasn’t because he “proved” it to us through Scripture. Using the Bible alone, just as it’s written, it’s really impossible to “prove” such a thing. Even though Pastor Smith took Psalm 102:13 as his “proof text,” it really was nothing of the sort…UNLESS YOU TOOK PASTOR SMITH’S WORD FOR IT. Psalm 102 on its own, after all, was written thousands of years ago and is about Israel. Although Pastor Smith made a passing reference to how the Christian church has now been “grafted in” and thus has a right to all the promises made to the Jewish people, the fact still remains that nothing about Psalm 102:13 itself states that it held specific truth for those of us in that sanctuary at that moment. Really, the only reason anybody would ever get that sort of message out of Psalm 102:13 was because Pastor Smith had told them they should. And they believed Pastor Smith.
Actually, the majority of Pastor Smith’s preaching was just like this. He did use the Bible a lot, but it was almost always in a way that focused on HIS INTERPRETATION of what a particular passage was saying, rather than what the passage simply SAID.
In other words, almost all of Smith’s sermons hung on Smith’s credibility.
Or as my dad would say, “The whole big picture hung on one rusty nail.”
Honestly, to really get anything at all out of the preaching at Living Word, you first had to buy into the assumption that Pastor Smith somehow heard directly from God. And then you had to believe in his authority as “God’s mouthpiece” to the congregation. Otherwise, his sermons would all be little but empty Tony Robbins-style “rah rah” motivational speeches.
How did we all “know,” after all, that the “set time for God’s favor” had come upon us? Was it because of Psalm 102:13? No, not really. Instead, it was because Pastor Smith TOLD US that this was what Psalm 102:13 should mean to us.
“Rusty nail” sermons are really kind of a scary thing, in retrospect. Especially because of their potential to do serious damage to people who buy into them and then find themselves blaming God when “favor” doesn’t follow. I wonder how many of Smith’s listeners back then gave offerings they could not afford because they thought that doing so was a sign of faith for the favor that they’d soon experience? I wonder how many people ended up bitterly disappointed when they were passed over for the job promotion that “God” had promised them?
Yes, “rusty nail” sermons are dangerous, I think. And unfortunately there’s no such thing as a spiritual tetanus shot.