Don’t Swing for the Fences

October 23, 2018

For a lifelong Cubs fan, there was hardly a more thrilling player than Sammy Sosa. Let’s set aside, for a moment, the fact that he played during the scandal-plagued steroid era. At the time, I was a giddy baseball fan, tuning into WGN to hear every thrilling at bat in 1998, when Sosa and Mark McGuire competed for the home run title. Sammy’s home runs were the stuff of legend and made tuning into a baseball game on a Saturday afternoon a community event. I still hear the dulcet tones of Pat Hughes in my head, “There’s a drive, deep right field … ” and the corresponding “Yes!” from the late Ron Santo.

Sammy’s “at bats” were epic. To watch him swing was to watch a man with one purpose in mind: hit the baseball as far as humanly (and apparently chemically) possible. Sosa either whacked the ball into another zip code or struck out. But even his strikeouts were fun, watching him twist with such indomitable force.

Sammy’s “at bats” were epic. To watch him swing was to watch a man with one purpose in mind: hit the baseball as far as humanly (and apparently chemically) possible. Sosa either whacked the ball into another zip code or struck out. But even his strikeouts were fun, watching him twist with such indomitable force.

Sammy was great those years. But Cubs fans know that winning baseball doesn’t rely on super-star home run hitters alone. In 2003, when we won the division (and then lost the Division Series to the Florida Marlins in agonizing, memorable fashion after being two outs away from the World Series—thank you Steve Bartman), the Cubs were more balanced. Yes, we still had stars like Sosa. Mostly, though, the team was made up of everyday grinders like Mark Belhorn, Doug Glanville, and Paul Bako. Players who showed up every day and did their jobs without much acclaim.

Homeruns and Homilies

Ministry is very much like baseball in this way. There will be the home run hitters—exceptionally gifted preachers. But most who lead God’s people will be the grinders. The Belhorns, Glanvilles, and Bakos who show up every week and feed God’s people truth in faithful, but unspectacular fashion.

This is not an excuse for mediocrity. It’s not a rant against celebrity. Every generation has genuinely gifted servants with ministries beyond their congregations. We should rejoice at their large kingdom impact. “There many not be many noble,” Paul says. But there are some and we thank God for their giftedness.

Still, I wonder if the rest, called to grind it out and preach weekly attempt to be superstars. I wonder if we try too hard, swinging for the fences with every new sermon. When I pastored, I had to fight this weekly.

You might call this the Revival Syndrome or the Camp Meeting Syndrome. Most of us who serve in ministry have experienced one or more of these emotional, life-changing moments, where a single message altered the course of our lives. But if we were to be honest, those sermons might have been catalysts, but it was the patient daily practices of Bible reading, church attendance, prayer, and spiritual mentoring that helped the seed of spirituality blossom.

As a pastor, you want every Sunday to be this meaningful for the people in your congregation. Yet, there is something wrong if we expect every message, every worship service to be like that revival or camp meeting.

I don’t want to diminish the effect of those special moments where the Spirit does a powerful work. I thank God for those intoxicating moments of worship where I was compelled to bow in worship, to confess my sin, to move forward in repentance and renewed faith.

But most of our spiritual growth doesn’t come in the wow moments of ministry. We learn, precept upon precept, line upon line (Isaiah 28:10). Sanctification is slow-cooked and not microwaved.

A pastor must internalize this. The job of a shepherd is to feed the sheep. The delivery of spiritual food implies a steady, ongoing intake of spiritual nutrients. A good pastor does this through weekly presentations from the Word.

Some weeks will be like a banquet: powerful, emotional, ceremonial. But most will be ordinary meals: routine, and not very memorable. We might preach, in a lifetime of ministry, a handful of memorable sermons. But the reality is that that most of what we say will be forgotten by the time our people walk to the parking lot.

And that’s OK.

We should work on the craft, but we shouldn’t try to make every message a home run. The exposure of our people to faithful preaching of the Word over a lifetime of ordinary sermons will have a deeper and more lasting impact than that one emotional Sunday.

Not-so-great Expectations

If we swing for the fences every week, we end up communicating something troubling. We are subconsciously sending the message that the Christian life is lived from spiritual high to spiritual high. We set up ourselves for failure and disappointment, if some Sundays we don’t go home feeling all warm inside.

Furthermore, we exhaust our people emotionally. We set up Sundays to be the one big high that lasts the rest of the week. Church becomes, by default, performance art. If we dazzle them, we’ve won. If we don’t, we go home feeling like we’ve failed.

To preach is to provide spiritual food. We must be concerned with the diet of those we feed, providing the same balance we find in the Scriptures themselves. Imagine feeding your family the way we often approach our people. Every meal is a five-course banquet with fine China. It’s not unrealistic and exhausting.

Meals in our home are a mix of the memorable and the forgotten. Some are quick grabs on the way out the door. Others are leftovers. Some are huge affairs that require much preparation.

But the point is that we are fed well, three times a day.

A doctor would never say, “One good meal will keep you healthy for the rest of your life.” And a good pastor doesn’t say, “This one sermon will be the one that will keep you spiritually healthy for the rest of your life.”

In today’s celebrity culture, pastors must accept the fact that much of their job is unremarkable. Some will achieve fame and wide influence, but mostly pastors will faithfully, patiently guide their people to the good food of the Word.

I think we avoid a “swinging for the fences” mentality first by staying with the cadence of the text itself. Sometimes a passage will call for rich application. But other passages will be more teaching, more meat, not as easily bullet-pointed or alliterated. And as much as possible, we should resist the urge to press into a passage what we hope it says, in order to generate a desired response.

Second, we must yield our preaching to the Spirit of God. Jesus reminds us that the Spirit “blows where it wishes” (John 3:8). In other words, God uses the preaching of his word in ways he desires, and produces unexpected responses. Sermons we think might be home runs end up being solid singles. And sermons we think are destined for ignominy might be used by God to turn a heart toward repentance.

Finally, we remain faithful by remaining true to ourselves, to our gifts, to our specific callings, and to our local contexts. We must resist the pull of celebrity, to be something more than God has called us to be. I’m reminded of Peter’s words to “feed the flock of God among you” (1 Peter 5:2).

Hitting home runs is exciting. But in baseball (and ministry) the game is not won only in the big, electrifying moments, but in the faithful execution of the ordinary.

This article was originally published here.