Easter Sunday is the pastors’ Superbowl Sunday. Countless kiddies hyped up on Cadbury chocolate marshmallow bunnies and shocking pink peeps are forced to wear itchy petticoats, stiff, squeaky new shoes and hairbows the size of helicopter propellers. Mom and Dad won’t listen if their progeny aren’t plugged in. Normally on a leisurely Sunday morning, these rugrats would be sleepily scarfing Lucky Charms while older brother plays Duck Hunt on Nintendo. So what’s a pastor to do?
My husband Roger learned valuable preaching tips during his bus ministry/children’s church days. Humid spring Sunday mornings began early. We jumped on rickety blue un-air-conditioned buses and collected 500 wiggly kids to attend Northway Baptist children’s worship. A thousand pairs of eyes were trained on the stage for at least sixty seconds. The goal was to teach about Jesus in such a captivating way that no one poked, kicked or pinched his neighbor, snored, climbed under his chair. Mass exoduses to the bathroom were also a sure sign of failure.
So here are Roger’s four commandments of preaching.
- Preach with passion, power and proper preparation.
- Put the cookies on the lower shelf so that everyone can reach them.
- Be simple yet profound.
- Never, no never ever, ever, ever be boring. Jesus wasn’t. Why should we be?
I had a short attention span in big church when I was a little nipper. That’s why I’m so picky about preaching today. I was the antsy little kid sitting on the second row.
Passing time during “big church” was a bit of a challenge. If my posterior wiggled or squirmed too much, I got the “silent pinch” from Mom’s left hand. My Dad, on her other side, got the “silent elbow poke” when he drooled and snored through Leviticus.
However, I found some parts of big church fascinating. Mrs. Bates, the organist, donned a perky new flowered hat each week as she tore into a lively chorus of Bringing in the Sheaves. Because we had a clothesline, it occurred to me that bringing in the “sheets” inferred My mom’s favorite saying, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”
Watching Mrs. Bates’ brown, bedecked bun was only half the fun. Melva Shofner, the sixty-something soprano in the choir, felt she had missed her calling as an opera star. No matter what piece the choir warbled, Melva stood out from the crowd with her painfully loud high notes. Shy Patsy McCormick hung her head in humiliation, as if guilty by association. Jim Palmer, the choir director, always pumped his arms with unmitigated gusto as he led the congregation in a rousing version of How Tedious and Tasteless the Hours. That’s a real hymn!
The “welcome” of guests was a Sunday morning staple. If Laney Johnson, the fiery young associate pastor, welcomed the bunch, he intimidated the visitors by cheerily bringing them to their feet to yell their names for the entire world to hear. Pastor Gaddy was much more sedate. Visitors quietly sat in their spots while the rest of the congregation greeted them in hushed tones. Either way, we all got a gander at the newbies and hoped they’d hang around until Easter.
Next on the agenda was a “responsive reading” from a gold-embossed tome the size of a telephone book. The heavy hymnal was full of these congregational responsive readings. The pastor intoned a passage in a rather dramatic manner and we hollered back a Bible verse or an enthusiastic “Amen!” Thank God we were reading English. I couldn’t yell as loudly in Latin. Responsive readings were the only part of the service where kids could talk out loud—a nice change of pace from sitting in stony silence on a hard wooden pew.
One Sunday morning I was particularly pesky and decided to keep chattering after the reading had concluded. I was on a roll. Apparently my banter was incredibly clever, because my sister Kathy giggled ‘til her tummy hurt. My mother was livid. She gave me “the look” that could curdle milk. I blithely ignored her withering glance. Mom subsequently tried finger-pointing, knee-slapping, and other subtle warnings, but I still never got the message. Our church was pretty small, and the pastor was so distracted by my antics, he lost his place and dropped his notes. My fate had been sealed. Daddy threw me over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and stomped down the aisle headed for the parking lot. As I was whisked away to certain judgment, I flailed my arms and pleaded with the ushers, “Pray for me!” They didn’t. I couldn’t sit down for a week.
The “special music” followed the reading and allowed Melva a shining moment in the spotlight without the other choir members “bringing her down” (in her own words). “God gave me this song,” she chirped. The rest of the congregation was thinking, “Please dear God, make her give it back.”
Some hymn lyrics she belted made no sense at all. Melva warbled, “Here I raise my Ebeneezer.” Who was he and how could she lift him? “That saved a wretch . . . ” Wretching, really? I thought that meant throwing up. I’m glad God saved me from that! I was also mystified by all the “. . . ation” words: justification, sanctification, propitiation, fornication, playstation . . . oops. That last one wasn’t in the bunch. At the conclusion of every song, Melva decided to take the melody up an octave to a range that only dogs could hear. We stumbled out of church deaf and disturbed by her performance.
‘Passing the plate’ was an essential part of the service the pastor never forgot. We knew he’d command us to “bring all the tithes into the storehouse.” He slipped up one Sunday when he was groggy on cough medicine and cried, “Bring ye all the tithes into the whorehouse.” It was the biggest offering we had all year!
Pilfering from the velvet-covered offering plate was a temptation for my buddy Donnie Scott. He could just imagine all the Double Bubble and G. I. Joe’s those crisp dollar bills would buy. I, however, loved the offering time. Daddy taught me that everything belongs to God, so giving Him money was the least I could do. Offertory songs were cool because it was the only time one could hear the piano or organ unhindered by vibrato-laden choir singers.
They allowed me to play the offertory song when I reached the age of ten! Mrs. Bates was my piano teacher and had great faith in me. I practiced for weeks. Sweaty-handed, I plunked my way through I Surrender All and played it without a hitch. God was merciful. It was a marker day in my young life.
On holidays, the youth pastor preached a children’s sermon. He summoned all the little people under the age of ten to sit Indian-style on the carpeted stairs and listen to a Jesus puppet encouraging us to share our toys. I had trouble sharing my spot on the carpet . . . much less my worldly belongings. But I did feel mildly convicted about chopping off my little sister Kathy’s ponytail while she slept through the sermon last Sunday. So I repented in dust and ashes and apologized.
Pastor Gaddy’s sermons had a hypnotic effect. He could make any Bible passage sound boring. I called this phenomenon preaching with his “elevator voice.” Laney was flashy and compelling. He started with a joke to loosen up the crowd and then proceeded to dramatize an exciting Bible story like Elijah calling fire down from heaven. I sat on the edge of my seat, mesmerized. Pastor Gaddy soon changed professions and became a psychologist. Then only one person at a time had to be bored.
Pastor John Schwensen followed Pastor Gaddy. He had a big booming voice like James Earl Jones. I closed my eyes and imagine God Himself was speaking with that powerful baritone timbre. Preschool bulletin-coloring turned into note-writing with my friends, which evolved into hand-holding with my boyfriends. In spite of my persistent efforts to avoid theology, many times the preacher stopped speaking and the Holy Spirit talked just to me. I looked around to see if anyone else heard the still, small voice I did. Then I knew, in my heart of hearts, God longed to have a relationship with me, His little child.
Pastor, the goal for this Easter Sunday is to preach in a way that the listeners hear the Holy Spirit speaking. Listen for His prompting. Pray for God to move. Watch Him work and when He does, give Him the glory.