Union University R.G. Lee Society of Fellows

"Pastoral Leadership in a Postmodern World"
2 Timothy 4

by Dr. James Merritt
Pastor, Cross Pointe Church,
The Church at Gwinnett Center
Duluth, GA

Dr. James Merritt

   I've pastored my church eighteen years. And I can tell you that even though I pastor in the buckle of the Bible Belt, reaching people today is different than it was eighteen years ago. When I first came to Snellville, you could lead somebody to Christ on Tuesday, they'd walk the aisle on Sunday, you baptized them Sunday night and you could move on. Somebody would move into town from another Baptist church, they'd visit your church once or twice, they'd join, and you'd move on. Those days are over, at least where I am. We have people who visit our church months and months and don't join. It's harder to reach people for Christ. I'm not being pessimistic, just realistic. It's a bit more difficult to reach people for Christ; it's more difficult to get them committed, more difficult to get them down the aisle, more difficult to get them baptized. I think a lot of that has to do with this postmodern world we live in.

   Having said all of that, my greatest fear is that we hear the term "postmodernism" and we get the shakes. We think "Dear God, I'm not capable of reaching the postmodern world." I hardly even understand what postmodernism is. How am I supposed to reach a postmodern world?

   I have learned both by experience and by study of the Scripture that human beings tend to complicate the simple. When I read about Jesus I find that He came to simplify the complicated.  There is a reason why, for example, Jesus spent the vast majority of his ministry telling stories.  Almost two thirds of the gospel of Luke is a story—just one parable, one story, after another.  If Jesus gave a seminar on preaching, I'm convinced one of the things He would tell us is "Paint word pictures. Tell stories. Say truth in such a way that common, ordinary people, even little children, can understand it and get a handle on it." 

   The biggest fear I have in the way pastors and churches today are reacting to this whole concept of a postmodern world is a loss of confidence in the Word of God.

   The Bible says about itself, in Hebrews 4, that it is a two-edged sword. Either you believe that or not. If you believe that, then you have to agree with this: The Bible cuts whether you believe it will cut or not. You may be a postmodern who says "I not only don't believe in absolute truth—it doesn't matter to me whether there's truth or not—that doesn't mean the truth will be ineffective. That doesn't mean the sword still will not cut. 

   A young man just a while ago gave me one of the most encouraging testimonies I've heard in a long time. One of the men in this group came up to me and said "I got saved in 1997 as I was driving down the road in my truck listening to one of your tapes." I thought he was going to say, I was preaching on "Turn or Burn," or "If you don't get saved you'll fry like a wiener." But he said "The amazing thing about this sermon is, you weren't preaching on salvation, you were preaching on tithing."  I said "Well, what happened?"  Of course people had been cultivating him and talking to him, and he says "I'm driving down the road listening to your message on tithing, and right in the middle of your message it hit me: I can't relate to tithing, because I don't even know God. I pulled my truck over by the side of the road, and I asked Jesus to come into my heart."

   "Now let me get this straight," I said. "God took a message on tithing and convicted you of your lostness and your need to be saved?" He said "Yes." Let me tell you something folks; that is the power of the Word of God. I believe if the apostle Paul were here today, and we asked him, "Paul, tell us the number one thing we ought to do to reach a postmodern world," I guarantee you I know what he would say in three words: "Preach the Word. Preach the Word."

   Why do you think he said "in season, out of season?" In a postmodern world guys, it's out of season. Look at II Timothy 4. I want to talk about preaching the Word, reaching the world. 

   I heard about a young preacher just out of seminary who had been called to pastor a church in a college town. Almost all the college professors were members of that church. He was preparing his very first sermon, and he got to thinking about that very cultured congregation, all those Ph.D.s who would be there, and it intimidated him. He called his dad, who was also a very wise and godly pastor and said "Dad, I'm really having a hard time preparing my sermon." "What's the problem?" his dad asked. "Well, if I talked about geology, I'll be looking at a Ph.D. in geology.  If I talk about sociology, I'll be staring at a Ph.D. in sociology. If I talk about philosophy, I'll be facing a Ph.D. in philosophy. What do you think I ought to do?"  His dad answered, "Son, why don't you just preach the Bible? They probably know very little about that."

   That advice is very similar to the counsel that Paul gave to his young protégé Timothy when he wrote in II Timothy 4, "I charge you in the presence of God and of Jesus Christ, who is to judge the living and the dead by his appearing and his kingdom, preach the word." Preach the Word.

   Paul makes a very interesting statement to Timothy in the very first sentence. "I charge you, in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead." It doesn't matter what the editor of your state paper thinks about your ministry.  It doesn't matter what your director of missions thinks about your ministry. It doesn't matter what your state executive director thinks about your ministry. It doesn't matter what the president of the Southern Baptist Convention thinks about your ministry. The only thing that matters is, what does God think about your ministry? Paul was reminding Timothy, “One day you're going to give an account to God for your ministry."

   I want to give you a little word of encouragement about reaching a postmodern world. God is not depending on you to reach a postmodern world. We're depending on God to reach a postmodern world, and God does that through the preaching of His Word.

   I want you to notice several things as we work our way through the text . First, we need to receive the charge to be faithful. Paul said "Preach the Word." Notice what he said to Timothy. “I'm not charging you to heal the sick; I'm not charging you to raise the dead; I'm not charging you to speak in tongues, I'm not charging you to perform miracles; I'm charging you to preach the Word." Then Paul did something very bold. He said "I'm not even going to tell you what to preach. I'm going to tell you how to preach. Number one, you need to preach confidently." Preach the Word. Not book reviews, not economics, not philosophy; preach the Word. Preach the Scripture—the whole counsel of God.

   John McArthur said something that I agree with wholeheartedly. "Clearly there was no room in Paul's philosophy of ministry for the 'give people what they want' theory that is so prevalent today. He didn't urge Timothy to conduct a survey to find out what his people wanted. He didn't suggest he study demographic data or do research on the felt needs of his people.  He commanded him to preach the word faithfully, systematically, reprovingly, patiently, and let it confront the spirit of the age head on." Preach the Word.

   I want to make something very plain. I'm not dumb. I want to meet needs. What pastor doesn't want to meet needs?  I want to scratch people where they itch. I want to soothe people where they hurt. But Paul said to Timothy, “Don't start with the needs of people. Start with the Word of God. You know why I believe he said that? We hear so much talk about "felt needs." The gospel is not addressed to a felt need; it is addressed to an unfelt need. People talk about "seeker services." If you have a true seeker service, nobody will come. The Bible says there's none that seeks after God. If you have a true seeker service, you won't have anybody show up if the Word of God is truth, because there's none that seeks after God. Should we have sinner sensitive services? No problem. But theologically, to be accurate, you can't have a "seeker service." The gospel is not addressed to a felt need, it's addressed to an unfelt need. The first eight chapters of Romans tell us man's three greatest needs:  Number one, realize he's a lost sinner; number two, repent of his sins, and number three, by faith receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I submit to you today, those are all unfelt needs. If you don't believe it, next time you get on an airplane with someone, start talking with them about any one of those three needs and see if they say "You know, I've been thinking about that lately." That happens very rarely. Those are not felt needs. Only the Holy Spirit can convict a person that he's lost. It is the goodness of God that leads a man to repentance, and faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. The deepest need of individuals in this world today is to confess sin and receive salvation. Those are not felt needs.  

   Preaching that fails to confront the sinner and convict the sinner and correct the sinner and convert the sinner through the Word of God does not meet people's greatest needs. You may preach in a way that makes them feel good, you may help them to be better leaders, you might help them to be better lovers, but that type of preaching doesn't meet real needs. Paul said "Preach the Word."

   There are two or three basics in my ministry I will never give up. I will never give up verse by verse Biblical exposition of the preaching of the Word of God, and I'm going to tell you why. The only power that comes in preaching is the preaching that is connected to the Word of God. It is not preaching that gives the Word of God power; it is the Word of God that gives preaching power, and I don't believe you have to relegate verse by verse exposition to the back burner of the Wednesday night service in order to reach people for Christ, or to be relevant to where people are.  Paul said "Preach the Word."

   You know why I believe he said that? If you will preach this book faithfully, you will not only meet felt needs, you will uncover needs that people don't even know they have. This book is the Word of God without us. Without the Word of God, we're nothing.  Paul said "You preach the Word."

   I believe this book is still a book that is a fire that can melt the coldest heart, a sword that can cut the hardest soul, and a lamp that enlighten the darkest mind. He said "You preach the Word."

   There's another doctrine that's becoming increasingly unpopular. More and more today we've got men who look at the ministry as a "profession." The ministry is not a profession. It is a calling. This man that was talking to me about his salvation, he said "You know, there are three things I'm sure of. I'm sure of my salvation, sure of my wife, and sure of my calling.” There have been times in my life that I have doubted my salvation, but there's never been a time I doubted my calling. My calling is more sure, if that's possible, than my salvation.

   I heard about a young man who felt like he wanted to be a preacher. He said to his pastor, "I really believe God's called me to preach. Could I preach one Sunday night and you critique me?” Sunday night came and the young man preached. After the service they were walking out together, and he asked his pastor, "Well, do you think I've been called?" The pastor said "Yes, son, I do, but I believe it was local and not long distance." We ought to be called, and we ought to preach the Bible confidently.

   Then he said "Preach it compellingly." Verse 2 says, "Be ready."  That was a Greek word that was used of a soldier who was ready to go into battle at a moment's notice. Jeremiah was right when he said "I tried to shut my mouth but I couldn't do it." He said "It was like a fire in my bones." When the Word of God becomes a fire in your bones that's when you know you're a preacher who’s called of God. I know some preachers who either ought to put some fire in their sermons or put their sermons in the fire. Can I tell you a little secret about preaching? Your people will never be more excited about your sermon than you are. I heard about a man who went to sleep in church. The preacher looked at an usher and said "Wake that guy up."  The usher looked at the preacher and said "You wake him up. You put him to sleep!"

   One preacher said, “I'll tell you how I prepare my sermon. First, I read myself full, then I think myself clear, then I pray myself hot, and then I let go." And that's what Paul said, "Preach compellingly." 

   Then he said "Preach continuously." He said "Be ready in season and out of season." Preach the Bible when it's convenient; preach it when it's inconvenient. Preach it when it's popular; preach it when it's unpopular. Preach it when people like it; preach it when people don't like it. It is not your job to make the message acceptable; it's your job to make the truth available. Preach it compellingly.

   And then he said "Preach convictingly." Verse 2 says, "Convince."  The word "convince" means to reprove. In other words, "Timothy, if you're going to really preach, you've got to confront people with the fact of their sin." We're being told today by some church growth gurus "You can't talk about sin on Sunday morning. You can't hit controversial topics. You can't confront people with the fact that before a holy God they're guilty of sin.” A good old-fashioned word for that is heresy.

   Peter Cartwright was a circuit riding Methodist preacher in the nineteenth century, who on one occasion was getting ready to preach to a very large congregation. Somebody came to him and said "Preacher, you need to know that President Andrew Jackson is in the audience, so make sure that whatever you say is not offensive to the President." He said "Thank you for telling me that." He got to the pulpit and said "I have been told that Andrew Jackson is in this congregation and I've been asked to carefully guard what I'm going to say. I want to begin by saying that Andrew Jackson will go to hell if he doesn't repent of his sins." You could have heard a pin drop. After the service, President Andrew Jackson walked up to Peter Cartwright and said "If I had a regiment of men like you, I could whip this world."

   We need more Peter Cartwrights. Can I be very frank and honest? I'm not trying to dredge up old stuff, but I got sick to my stomach when we had a President who disgraced the Oval Office and pastors went scurrying for cover and didn't have the guts to confront sin and call it sin. He might have been a different man if the right kind of men could have gotten to him and rebuked him like he should have been rebuked in love and brought that man to a place of repentance instead of trying to sweep it all under the table.

   The same thing is true of lottery, gambling, abortion and homosexuality. And while I'm in the neighborhood—if your major concern is to be popular in the ministry, you ought to get out of the ministry. The greatest man who ever lived made such a great impact on this world, He got Himself crucified. Your goal in life should not be to make the list of the 100 most admired people in America. Your goal in life as a pastor ought to be to preach the whole counsel of God in such a way that the Word of God is magnified, the Son of God is glorified, and the Spirit of God is satisfied. So—preach it—convictingly.

   Then preach it courageously. Paul said "Not only should you reprove, you ought to rebuke."  What is the difference between reproving and rebuking? You reprove when you confront someone with the fact of their sin; you rebuke when you confront someone with the thought of their sin. Paul said to Timothy, "Not only do you need to tell people that they're sinners in need of salvation; you need to tell them how bad sin really is." Sin is a stench in the nostrils of a holy God. It is your sin and my sin that crucified the Lord Jesus Christ. 

   There are those who would say "But if you preach like that, you might offend somebody.  It's not "might"—you will offend somebody. You will upset somebody. They'll call you harsh, they'll call you narrow minded, they'll call you mean-spirited, and they'll call you (and this is the worst one) intolerant.

   Once when Billy Sunday preached a hard message on sin somebody said "Billy, you gotta quit preaching that way. You're rubbing the fur on the cat the wrong way."  Billy Sunday said "The old cat's headed toward hell. If she'll turn around, I'll rub her the right way." Preach convictingly.

   Preach constructively. He said "Exhort." I don't want you to hear me say you ought to get up and preach on hell every Sunday. And I don't mean you gotta spit saliva fourteen feet or you're not preaching. I'm not saying you gotta point fingers, and you gotta put people down. He says "Exhort." That word means to build up.  We’re not to be negative in our preaching; we're to be positive. Your message ought to center not around what people are not without Jesus, but what they can be with Jesus. Exhort. Build up.

   And then preach compassionately.  Paul said, "Do it with all longsuffering and teaching." Do you ever go home after a Sunday morning service and ask yourself, "Am I really making a difference? Is anybody out there even listening to me?" When you've been in one place eighteen years, you do start to ask, “Am I making a difference?” You know what keeps coming back to me? Just keep preaching the Word. Receive the charge to be faithful.

   How else can you confront a postmodern world? Number one, you've got to receive the charge to be faithful. Number two, you've got to realize there will be a choice to be doubtful. Paul predicted that in the last days three things would happen to people who sit in the pews of our churches.  First, sound doctrine will be excluded." Look at verse 3. "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine." The word for sound in the Greek language is the word that gives us the English word "hygiene." It literally means healthy or health-giving. In other words, Paul said, "The day will come when people will look for a church that will tell them how to be happy, not how to be holy. Dr. Eugene Peterson in his translation of  the Bible called The Message says it this way. "You're going to find that there will be times when people will have no stomach for solid teaching. They will fill up on spiritual junk food. Catchy opinions that tickle their fancy. They'll turn their backs on truth and chase mirages." If you're preaching the Word faithfully, you're going to have people who will come to your church, they'll hear you one Sunday, and say "That's not what I want to hear. That's not for me." They don't want to hear sound doctrine. They want their preaching perfumed. They want it chloroformed. They want it covered with velvet. Some people who come to our churches today will tell us, "I want to hear about the love of God; don't talk to me about the holiness of God. I want to hear about the mercy of God; don't talk to me about the judgment of God. I want to hear about the wonders of heaven; don't tell me about the wrath of hell." Paul said "Don't let that surprise you." Sound doctrine will be excluded. 

   Secondly, he said selfish desires will be exalted. Verse 3 says, "But according to their own desires, because they have itching ears they will heap up for themselves teachers.” He's talking about people who are more concerned about the length of your sermon than they are the depth of your sermon. Don't fool yourself. The best of our churches are filled with people who are much more concerned that you finish at twelve o'clock than they are that you preach the truth of the Word of God and people get saved. They have this itchy ear syndrome.

   I heard about a little girl whose mother was going out of town for the night, and she asked her next-door neighbor, "Would you keep my little girl?  I'll be back tomorrow at noon." She said "I'd be glad to." The little six year old girl packed her things and came over to the neighbor's house. The lady wanted to make a real impression on the little girl. She wanted the little girl to tell her mother how well she was taken care of, so she got up early and fixed ham and eggs, grits,  hash browns, toast, jelly, orange juice and milk. She called the little girl in for breakfast, and the little girl just sat there and looked at all that food and didn't get anything. She said "Honey, is something wrong?" "My mother always fixes biscuits," the girl replied. She said "You gotta be kidding." "No ma'am, she always fixes biscuits."  The lady didn't have the ingredients to make biscuits. She said "Honey, you'll be all right if I just go to the store for just a minute."  It was pouring down rain. She got her coat and her umbrella and went to the store, got the stuff and came back and made the best homemade biscuits you could imagine. She placed them on the table and the little girl just sat there. She asked "What's wrong?" "Nothing," the little girl replied. She said "I thought you said your mother fixes biscuits every single morning." "She does, but I don't eat them," the little girl said.

   You can fix the best biscuits on Sunday morning for your people, but it's not your fault if they don't want to eat them. John McArthur said, "Bad doctrine is tolerable; a long sermon is not."  The timing of the benediction is of far more concern to the average churchgoer than the content of the sermon. Sunday dinner and the feeding of our mouths takes precedence over Sunday School and nourishment of our souls. Longwindedness has become a greater sin than heresy.  Did you know there are churches today that will base their calling of a pastor on the length of  his sermons. It's incredible to me how people just don't want to hear sound doctrine. They don't want to hear real truth. 

   Then Paul said self-delusion will be experienced. Verse four reads, "And they will turn their ears away from the truth and be turned aside to fables."  Let me tell you why exposition is so important and so crucial. If the solid meat of biblical exposition is not fed to your people they will drink the curdled milk of political correctness, new age theology, and satanic deception. If you don't teach your people to believe the right things on Sunday morning, they'll believe anything on Monday morning. You've got to receive the charge to be faithful. You've got to realize there will be a choice to be doubtful, but then Paul said "Remember the challenge to be watchful."

   In II Timothy 4 Paul is saying, “You may as well get ready for it. The closer we get to the second coming, things are going to get worse, not better. They're not going to get better until Jesus comes back.” Paul closes this little passage giving four great pieces of advice on how to confront a postmodern world. He said "Number one, Timothy, be alert." Verse 5 says, "But you be sober minded in all things."  That word means "watchful." Be sober. When there's a world out there intoxicated with the liquor of liberalism and drinking from the cocktail of compromise, keep your eye on the Word of God and keep faith in the Son of God. Be alert.

   Second he said, "Be adaptable." He said "We must endure afflictions.”  Let me give you something that I'm learning all over again in ministry. When you stand for God and live for Jesus and preach the Bible and do what you believe God wants you to do in your ministry, you're going to endure affliction. Vance Havner said. "A preacher ought to have the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the hide of a rhinoceros." If you haven't heard anything else I've said, hear this next statement: If your ministry is going to count, it's going to cost.  If it doesn't cost, it doesn't count. That's why David said, "I will not offer God that which costs me nothing."  If your ministry's going to count, it is going to cost. He said "Be adaptable. You're going to endure afflictions. Be alert, be watchful in all things." 

   Then he said "Be aggressive.” Do the work of an evangelist. Not every evangelist is a pastor, but every pastor ought to be an evangelist. Not everybody is equally gifted in the area of evangelism. But don't use that as an excuse not to do evangelism. Dr. Poe has known me for over twenty years. He and I went to seminary together. We were the first graduates in the history of the SBC to graduate with a Ph.D. in evangelism. I love to tell people I was the first, and the reason I was the first is that M comes before P. He knows me as well as most anybody in this room. He will tell you --mercy is not my gift. That's just not my gift. Anybody who has ever heard me preach knows that's not my gift. Am I therefore justified in never showing mercy just because that's not my gift? God has called me to be merciful even though it's not my gift. It may be harder for me to show mercy, but I need to do it. You say "Evangelism is not my gift." Maybe it's not, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. "But I'm not going to be as effective as you are." But you can be as faithful as I am. Do the work of an evangelist. Don't ever get away from winning people to Christ. Don't ever get away from sharing your faith. Don't ever get so big for your spiritual britches that you think you're too good or too busy to knock on a door and tell somebody how to be saved.

   John Wesley said "You may be elegant, you may be winsome, you may be a good fund raiser, you may be in great demand as a speaker, but if you're not winning souls, you're a failure. Be aggressive.

   And then last—be accountable. Let me close with this piece of advice and a story. As you confront a postmodern world, never close a service without presenting clearly the gospel of Christ and giving people some type of an opportunity to respond to the gospel. If you know anything about church history you know that the "come forward" invitation came in with Charles Finney. Two of the greatest preachers that America ever knew, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield, never gave a public come forward invitation. I'm not here to say there's anything wrong with it. All I'm saying is don't get hung up on that. There's more than one way to give an invitation. There's more than one way to get people to respond. Make sure you present the gospel. Jesus died on the cross for our sins, He was buried, and three days later He was raised from the dead. I say that every service I preach. I present the gospel.  I tell people how to be saved. At our church we still do give a "come forward" invitation, but I'm not hung up on that.  But someway, give people an opportunity to be saved.  I'll tell you why that's so important.

   I want to tell you about a man named Robert Eaglen. Most of you do not know who Robert Eaglen is, but you will when this message is over. He was a deacon in his church in Colchester, England. He woke up one Sunday morning in January. The ground was blanketed with a foot of snow. He started to turn over and go back to sleep, but he thought to himself, "I'm one of the deacons in my church. If the deacon's don't go, who will go?" He put on his boots, hat, and coat and walked six miles to church. He was right. Most of the members did stay home. As a matter of fact, even the pastor didn’t show up. Only thirteen people were at church—twelve members and a thirteen year old boy he had never seen before.

   Somebody said "Why don't we just sing a little bit and go home. We don't have a preacher."  But Robert Eaglen said "It's foolish for us to come all this way and not have a worship service.” "Who's going to preach?" they asked. Impulsively, Robert said, "I'll preach." He’d never preached in his life. He got up and did not know what he was going to preach. I'm sure that's happened to some of us on Sunday nights, as well, but he didn't have a clue what he was going to be preaching. In his quiet time the day before he had been reading in Isaiah, so he turned to Isaiah 45:22, "Look to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth." Later  he recalled, "I preached maybe twelve minutes, and I must have said fifty times 'Look to Jesus.' "  It was all he knew to say. “Look to Jesus.” He got through with saying "Look to Jesus" about fifty times. He looked at that little thirteen year old boy and said "Young man, if you'll look to Jesus you'll be saved." And they had prayer and left.

   That boy, years later, wrote these words: "I did look, and then and there the cloud on my heart lifted, the darkness rolled away. At that moment I saw the sun, I accepted Christ into my heart, and I was born again.”  That thirteen year old boy was Charles Haddon Spurgeon.

   I thank God that Robert Eaglen didn't get up that day and preach a message on "How to be Up When the Weather is Down." Thank God he didn't get up and say "Let me talk to you today about how to glow in the snow." Thank God he didn't get up and preach a sermon called "Snow White and the Eleven Disciples." Thank God, he preached the Word.  He shared the gospel with a thirteen year old boy and gave that boy an opportunity to be saved. We don't need to follow fads, fashions, or flakes. We need to keep the ship of our ministry anchored to the rock of this book, believing it, obeying it, defending it, sharing it, and preaching it until Jesus comes. That's how you confront a postmodern world.

By: Dr. James Merritt, Pastor
Cross Pointe Church, The Church at Gwinnett Center


Dr. Merritt delivered this sermon during a PreachingPoints Conference on the Union University campus in February 2003.