Coming out of a fundamentalist background and an evangelical education, I had no experience with a liberal church. Yet in 1972, I accepted the call to pastor the First Congregational Church in Hopkinton, MA, a UCC church which had turned from biblical Christianity years before. The majority of the eight-member deacon board were unbelievers, the chairman being the most influential man in the church. Six women and one man made up the religious education committee, all of whom were unbelievers. Among them were the three most dominant women in the congregation, two of whom also held offices in Central Association of the Mass Conference of the UCC.
When these women heard I was a candidate, they began digging into my background. Finding I was an evangelical, they became outspoken opponents through the entire candidating process. First, they worked openly to keep me from becoming the pastor. Failing that, they then strategized to drive me out of the church as soon as possible.
I had nearly 3 months to prepare before stepping into the conflict waiting for me. I knew this was far beyond my ability to handle and I began to pray, “Father, the closest I’ve ever been to a liberal is a textbook. What do I do?” He immediately impressed on me this little statement: “Preach the word and love the people.” That seemed so simple. “Surely,” I thought, “there is something more I have to do.” Powerful people in that congregation had already done everything they could to prevent me becoming the pastor. I knew I would be in conflict with them, but every time I asked the Lord for wisdom in what to do he would respond, “Preach the word and love the people.”
What did I do?
My evangelical friends were full of advice. They said to keep a low profile on who I was and work on building a base of support, or I wouldn’t last any time at all. With that support in place, I could then begin to slip the Bible as God’s word into my preaching and teaching.” But when I asked the Lord what to do, he responded, “Preach the word and love the people.”
My first sermon as their pastor was on Zachariah 4:1-10. I think I was the only one who understood the message that day, for God had given me Zachariah 4:6 as the Scripture on which to build my ministry there. “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty.” The following Sunday, I began a four-message series on, “The Bible Is the Word of God.” Following that, I began a series on the book of 1 John.
I faced a double challenge: I had to help people unlearn wrong things taught them about the Bible; and I had to help them learn to trust the Bible as God’s word. For example, in my first deacons’ meeting, the chairman said, “We all know the Bible is full of myths and errors.” I looked at him and responded, “How do we all know that? I don’t.” He and I strongly differed on many things as we fought for control of the church, but I kept showing him acceptance and love in every situation. Six years later, as church moderator, he opened a business meeting called to vote on an addition to the church with a personal testimony that he now believed in Jesus as his Lord.
“Preach the word and love the people.”
What did God do?
In my second month there, I informed the Religious Education Committee I was going to start a Wednesday evening Bible study for adults. Their response was, “That won’t work here. We tried it and no one was interested.” “I’m going to try it anyway,” was my comeback. Within a year, we had the Fellowship Hall filled every Wednesday evening, including a row of tables reserved for Catholics from the local parish who wanted to sit together. Two and a half years after I began, in an eight-day period between Palm Sunday and Easter 1975, 149 people made commitments to Christ, the majority of them church members.
“Preach the word and love the people.”
Love the people
God gave me opportunity after opportunity to show my love to the people by not rejecting them even though they rejected me; by being alert to show my love for them every way I could, even when to do so involved a significant risk. For example, late one evening I received a call from our associate pastor that the six-year-old daughter of one of our church families, outspoken critics of me, had been struck by a car in front of her home and was in the hospital dying. I desperately wanted to go be with them but I didn’t know if my presence would make their horrible situation even worse for them. I expressed this to my associate, a godly, older man, and asked him what he thought I should do. He said, “Go and see what might happen.”
Their daughter died just before I walked in, and I found them totally overwhelmed. I held them and said I was there for them. Eventually I helped them leave the hospital, arranging for another person to take their car home while I took them in my vehicle. I stayed with them through most of the night, made calls, made arrangements with the local funeral director, and helped them with other essential decisions. It was nearly 5 AM when I left their home, the husband walking to my car with me. On the way, he said, “I’m sorry. We have been wrong about you.”
“Preach the word and love the people.
Be who you are
A pastoral friend took a liberal church about 10 miles away. He believed he needed to employ a different strategy from mine. He hid his evangelical identity for the first four years, then began to reveal his belief about the Bible and Jesus Christ. He was forced out of his church within a year, the people saying, “You’re not the pastor we hired and we don’t like how you’ve changed.”
He was out of ministry for nearly 2 years, then took another liberal church in our denomination approximately 20 miles away. He asked for my counsel and I told him what God had told me: “Preach the word and love the people.” I cautioned him not to deceive the people, but let them know who he was from the beginning and fight all the necessary battles in order to turn the church around and bring it back into biblical Christianity.
Unfortunately, he chose to go in once again as an undercover agent for Jesus, believing that he first needed to win the people’s favor, after which he could begin to proclaim true Christianity. He was there approximately two years then began to “come out” for who he really was. He was gone within six months, so far as I know to never pastor again.
Pastor, I know there are preachers who are better than you are, and your people have access to them. The same was true of me. But I discovered something. I didn’t have to preach as well as preachers on TV and the Internet, nor did I have to use their sermons and studies, as good as they were, in order to be heard by my people. I found that if I applied myself to serious biblical study and personal application to my life, and preached and taught these things from my heart, not my head, I always had a ready audience.
My people loved my preaching because I had spent the necessary time in the word and applied it to my life. Then when I preached, it came out of my heart under the influence of the Holy Spirit and accomplished what God promised it would accomplish. “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:10-11.
Preach the word of God and love your people, and your ministry will bear the fruit both you and God desire it to produce.