Preacher or False Prophet?

My first job in a church was as a music minister. I loved the senior pastor I served with, as did the congregation we faced every Sunday morning. He taught me a lot about worship, preaching and how to connect with people.

One time we were at lunch, reflecting on the previous week’s service, when he made a statement that seemed benign at the time. “I love my job,” he said. “every week, I get to stand up in front of a congregation and say beautiful things to people.”

Doesn’t sound so horrible, right? I mean, who doesn’t like to hear beautiful words? It was only over time that the issues I had with this perspective on preaching came to light.

A couple of years later, the church fell into disarray when the pastor had charges of sexual harassment levied against him. Though not the first time such charged had surfaced involving him, the congregation rallied around the pastor they loved. Amy and I, however, left the church, disheartened by the scandal. Within another couple of years, he was accused yet again and the church fell apart. He left the ministry for a secular vocation.

The matters of sexual impropriety are obvious indicators of a sickness, one that reflects a larger disenchantment with organized religion throughout our contemporary culture. From child-abusing priests to televangelist con artists, such violations of both the office of ministry and of the trust of those we serve is easy to name. Plenty of people will name such illicit wrongdoing as the reason they have walked away from organized religion all together, though there is a problem that I would suggest is far more insidious and pervasive that is at the heart of the Church’s popular decline.

Preaching is a curious discipline. Summoning equal parts poet, philosopher, scholar, counselor and theologian, there truly is no other vocation like it. There is an opiate-like attraction of preaching. We hold not only people’s attention in our hands, but often their faith as well. It’s a position of power and influence, and the response we get from those who receive the message can be addictive, particularly if our paychecks hinge upon the receptiveness of such an audience.

We all love to witness beauty, and to hear words that convey that beauty. We love being told that, despite our circumstances, things will always get better, that everything ultimately will be all right. It’s tempting for preachers to offer such messages of superficial optimism too, as such messages evoke the kind of ego affirmation that helps us feel good about the job we’re doing.

We feel good about what we say, the congregation feels good about what they hear, and everyone leaves smiling. We return the following week to receive our next bump of feel-good assurance to help us through the next week.

The problem is that none of us believes it, including the preacher.

Yes, life is beautiful, but it is also difficult, tragic, complicated and sometimes inexplicable. Yet we come to church and hear that, despite the hard times, everything’s actually tinted with a rose hue; we just have to look a little harder. Have faith; it all will work out for the best.

Except when it doesn’t.

It’s nice to leave church smiling and feeling optimistic, but there’s a growing sense of disconnect between what is conveyed within the church walls and what happens the other 167 hours of the week. We’re told God is always there for us, yet we feel a profound sense of loss. We see rows of smiles and pleasantness on Sunday while there’s suffering just outside the door. We get the implicit – and even sometimes explicit – message that having faith is synonymous with self-assuredness, certainty and perpetual happiness, and then we struggle through the week with our doubts, our fear and tragedies.

Pastors should indeed celebrate the beauty, joy and miraculous mystery of life, but to focus on this while not tempering this with an acknowledgment of struggle, doubt and, yes, suffering, is to offer false prophecy. It is proclaiming the world as it isn’t, assuring those who seek wisdom from us that they should feel, think and act one way, while so much in the rest of the world seems to contradict this reality. Yet we continue to seek and affirm the message that offers a short-term bandage for our gaping spiritual wounds, all the while knowing at a deep level that what we’re hearing is, at best, not the whole truth, and at worst, a brazen lie.

We think we want to hear that everything will be all right, but the truth is that life is difficult.

We seek words from the pulpit that will ameliorate our doubts and fears, unwilling to acknowledge those same doubts and fears in the very one offering the words of assurance.

We seek a fear-proof faith, but reality reaffirms daily that faith and doubt are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are inextricably, necessarily married to one another.

We think we want answers, but what we really long for is peace. Such peace cannot be found in pithy, lovely messages or lyrically gilded praise songs that do not reflect a genuine experience of life.

We ask to hear a handful of beautiful words, but what we truly crave is for others to bear witness to our lives. Our whole lives. Not just the pleasant, cheerful parts.

The prophets of the Old Testament will, in one breath, celebrate the fullness of God’s presence, and in the next, mourn an equally profound absence. There are psalms of praise and dirges of despair. They hope, dream, doubt and suffer, all the while seeking to better understand what it means to be a divinely-created, divinely-inspired creature. It’s beautiful, ugly, healing, terrifying, soul-stretching, gut-wrenching work.

Just like life.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of “Banned Questions About The Bible” and “Banned Questions About Jesus.” He has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called “PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.” For more information about Christian, visit www.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • http://www.TheBibleSpeakstoYou.com James Early

    Jesus certainly preached many “beautiful words” but he also demanded that we put things into practice in our lives.  The rubber has to hit the road.  He said we would have tribulation in this world, but that he had over come the world.  If Christianity is not practical in our moment to moment lives, is it really Christianity?

  • aspiechristian

    I’ve seen this kind of thing up close myself. I mean, I never expected my pastor to be perfect, but I did expect him to show some indication that he was at least somewhat interested in a life of piety. I don’t mean self-righteousness – I mean having a private Christian life as well as a public one. I don’t think it’s too much to ask of any man who claims to be a man of God.

    We live in a generation of false prophets. It’s a three-way war between right-wing fundamentalist heresy, mainstream evangelical adultery, and orthodox sexual perversion for who will get the most media coverage for disgracing the Name of Christ. This generation reflects the media version of the modern Christian. It’s one thing to believe in the God of the sinner. It’s another to even think about believing in the God of the glib. If Christians don’t understand what it means to take their religion seriously, why should anyone else?

    There will never be any media coverage for those many thousands who
    suffer in body and soul, and yet, remain faithful to God, and spouse –
    or partner. We never see tears of desperate prayer, wept in the middle
    of the night over a child in trouble, over a loved one taken seriously
    ill, over the stress of financial worries. The cameras won’t be there when God comes through. Or doesn’t. And of course, unless we know one personally, we never see the Christian life lived as it should be, in quiet disengagement from the world, in doing good for everyone, in the joy of secret communion with God, in the anonymous donation that saves a family from trouble. These things still go on, day after day, and the burden of this generation of Christians, is to find way to stay not ready for prime time, and still communicate God to this generation.

  • Kevin

    Come on, how can you judge the way these people read the Bible. Aren’t we all entitled to our best understanding of what the Bible says? We all know there isn’t one specific way to read the story of Jesus. We certainly know that a lot of this stuff was culturally contextualized. I think those people are right as well. You may have had different experiences and roll with different people than them, but they should be able to believe what that want to about the Bible without being judged by you. You just seem to want to throw out your “correct” theology on them. What if you’re wrong? Have you ever thought of that?  

    • http://www.facebook.com/christianpiatt Christian Piatt

      The post really isn’t about theological or scriptural interpretation, but rather acknowledging that life is complex and includes doubt, pain and struggle. If a minister indeed sees themselves as a prophet, yet skims over, minimizes or ignores the hardship, then they are prophesying (truth-telling) about life falsely, if not at least partially.

      I’m pretty sure I’m not wrong about the existence of doubt and suffering in the world. 

      • Kevin

        What if their experience is different than yours. Maybe that is what’s true for them. How can you possibly judge them for having a different experience than you? There simply teaching what is true for them.

        • http://www.facebook.com/christianpiatt Christian Piatt

          Everyone doubts, struggles and suffers. Everyone. It’s inherent in the human condition. If/when you meet the exception, do let me know.

          • Kevin

            I have met plenty of exceptions. They live with faith and nothing bothers them. God takes care of them. What I don’t understand is how you can go around judging other people’s experiences and theological understandings when you don’t have all the answers yourself. There is a lot of gray area in the Bible which allows for different kinds of experiences and beliefs. How can you be arrogant enough to think that you and your circle of influence have all the right answers in this area? 

  • http://www.sacredmisfit.com Sarah

    Great article.  You are a gifted writer and I look forward to more.