Many small rural American churches cannot afford the salary for a full-time pastor. So, they look to seminarians or other professionals with the biblical knowledge, speaking abilities, and personality to attract new inquirers and to challenge congregations. I received my first opportunity to preach on a regular basis in 1968 while a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, TN. It involved driving two hours north from Nashville on each Sunday morning to a small rural church just outside Russellville, Kentucky. Seminarians had served he small congregation of seventy country folk for decades. I was twenty years younger than the resident church leaders, but not a single person in the church had as much formal education as I had accumulated in 22 years. However, truth be known, they had a lot more experience church smarts than my whole seminary class had cumulatively. They had been through the hoops with various ministerial students. They knew what they needed and what they didn’t, what would be spiritually helpful and what wouldn’t. On the other hand, I had little idea about much of anything related to preaching and teaching other than what I remembered from the lips of my pastors or what seminary professors taught me. Much of my first few weeks of seminary lectures could hardly be recognized as orthodox Christianity or practical wisdom for that matter, and could rarely be used to an advantage with a conservative base. I had not yet read my first Homiletic book and really wasn’t that familiar with the majority of the content of the Bible. I certainly had not read it from cover to cover. My Bible was still free from the wear and tear of years of study. Many of these people had already worn out one or more Bibles from decades of daily reading. So, every Sunday morning I entered the pulpit with the best I had to offer after a few hours of study and writing on Saturday afternoon or evening. It was usually a pretty poor offering. I just hoped that others expected less of me, than I expected of myself. Unfortunately, they expected more than I provided.
The six elders soon invited me to a meeting. Their discontent caught me totally off guard. Mr. Jansen was a wiry fellow that didn’t weigh more than 130 pounds; every pound was muscle stretching tightly along his bones. His skin showed the wear of years and years in the blazing sun of a tobacco farm. The nicotine from handling and smoking tobacco and the grime from repairing worn out farm machinery stained and cracked his hands. He had long since lost all of his hair except for a small plume of about 30 gray hairs that stuck straight skyward. He was a kind man who clearly revealed his thinking only after giving it careful thought. He had the habit to tuck his lower lip under his upper and exert pressure when he was about to speak, almost as if he was in slight pain. He looked me in the eyes and said softly, “Preacher (God knows I hated that title), we have talked among ourselves and we are pretty happy with your work here. But, we have one complaint that is unanimous. Your sermons are too short.”
I stood there stunned and speechless. I had never been able to think on my feet and this was no exception. I nodded and said, “Well, okay. I will try to improve on that.” Later I figured out that he was really saying in the most corrective way possible, “We aren’t getting fed spiritually.” It was not just the length of the sermon; I feared it was also the content.
The leaders were warning me: “We don’t want fast food. We don’t come to church for a ‘McDonald’ sermon. We want the real thing, home cooked, and nourishing. I realized that there was never a time when a sermon was truly finished. I needed to study harder to deliver the quality of spiritual nourishment they expected and needed.
Fortunately, I have not had a similar meeting again. Instead, many people probably wonder why I pass up so many good stopping points.