Preachers Temptations: A Pipe or a Tree?

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 3.35.58 PMBy John Frye

I heard an illustration when I was in seminary from Dr. Howard Hendricks. He said that when water flows through a pipe, the pipe is not affected. There’s no change in the pipe. However, when water works its way through the fine vessels of a tree, the tree grows and produces good fruit. Preachers can be either pipes or trees. What is a pipe preacher?

Good commentaries, other preachers’ stories, bits and pieces picked up from National Geographic, Reader’s Digest, People Magazine, and the local newspaper—all these provide “water” to flow through the pipe, the preacher. He or she is simply a conduit for biblical and illustrative information. Sadly, his or her heart is unmoved, the inner life unchanged, and the preaching mission is reduced to transmission, not to personal transformation. Again, I confess that I am not throwing stones. I’ve transmitted excellent commentary ideas, appearing to be so erudite and profound. It was another’s work and sweat; not my own. I am not saying that preachers should not find biblical and theological help from good commentaries or seek to find relevant material from multiple sources. We preachers must do that. What I am saying is that there must be time for the truth to marinate our own lives before we present a meal to the congregation.

I remember preaching about the love of God the Father for people. I was fascinated by what I was learning. Folks in the congregation would reflect that the sermon meant so much to them. God met them in deep and life-changing ways. I, on the other hand, would think, “What’s going on here, God?! I am untouched. I am still the same.” I was longing for what these folks reported. That is the sad experience of pipe preachers. So many preachers, like I was at the time, are preaching way beyond their own encounters with God. All of us do that; it’s dangerous.

I know so much more of the Bible than I am practicing. Most preachers and teachers do. We forget James’ timely word: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only…[what?] …deceiving yourselves!” The ultimate Christian irony is being so adept at transmitting truth that we end up in sheer spiritual deception and don’t know how to get out. “Lord, Lord, didn’t we do this, say that in your Name?”

How do we avoid being pipes (conduits) and become trees (beings who grow and produce fruit)?

First, practice examen. This is the spiritual discipline based on Psalm 139:1, 23-24 where we take time to be quiet before God and ask, “How does this truth/sermon apply to me?” Let the God in whom there is no darkness at all start shining in every nook and cranny of your soul. If the sermon doesn’t address you personally, why would you preach it to anyone else?

Second, with community-sensitive discernment, let the congregation know how God is speaking to you. You, too, are on the journey with them as followers of Jesus. The spin off of this honesty diffuses the temptation to micromanage the congregation’s Christian growth without addressing your own.

Third, joyfully report how a James D. G. Dunn or N. T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Joyce Baldwin, Eugene Peterson, William Lane, Teresa of Avila, Darrell Bock, etc. shed light on the text that fairly lit up your soul.

Fourth and finally, be serious with God about your own propensity to be a hearer and not a doer of the word. “God, I know more than I am living. Show me, heavenly Father, specifically where I am to be trusting you to transform my life. For apart from you, I can do nothing.”

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.