By Norris Burkes
Feb 18 2018

In 1991, I made a career shift from Southern Baptist pastor to interfaith hospital chaplain. My decision brought this promise from a close colleague. “If you ever return to ‘the ministry,’ I’ll help you find a new church.”

“I’m not leaving ministry,” I said. “Hospital chaplaincy is still ‘the ministry!’ ”

He reluctantly agreed, but it seemed he still thought the choice betrayed my ordination vows.

Since then, I’ve served 25 years in both military and hospital chaplaincy. During those years I’ve often wondered what I might do differently if I ever returned to the pastorate. I know I’d change at least four things.

First, I wouldn’t be so insistent that parishioners attend every church service. I would preach that church is a place to restore what’s broken before we return to life. It’s not our destination. I’d challenge members to make “church” happen outside the walls, visiting the sick, housing the homeless and sheltering the refugee.

Second, I’d be less demanding on congregants to give their entire charity dollar toward church maintenance. If I reassumed my pastoral role, I’d remind members of our duty to also clothe the poor, feed the hungry and bring justice to the oppressed.

My wife says I became a preacher because I couldn’t sit still in the pew. Therefore, my third change would be to redesign nearly everything about the Sunday service around people who need movement to learn.

I’d replace hardened sanctuary pews with clusters of loveseats and padded chairs. In this setting, I’d use small groups to discuss my sermon points and problem-solve life issues. I’d place booths alongside the walls where people could get counseling and prayer, or sign up for outside ministry.

I’d do away with loud music that isolates people, keeping them from acknowledging those around them. I’d use some hymns, but I’d challenge folks to discuss their meaning. I might even insert a few secular songs that encourage people to extend God’s work outside the church. We’d finish the day with a large meal.

Finally, my biggest change would be to preach R-E-A-L sermons.

R – relevant. I’d still preach about Samson, Moses, and the virgin birth, but I’d make those stories relevant to today’s life. I’d compare Samson’s failure of strength to times my strength has failed me. I’d tell how Moses dealt with the rejection of his own people. And I’d talk about a young couple who must have been scared to death with their first child.

E – empathetic. I would try to demonstrate that I not only understand the people, but feel their hurt. If I were preaching again, I’d tell a modern story that shows I know the pain that life can put us through and the thrills it can immerse us in.

A – authentic. If I pastored again, I’d share more of my own failures and heartbreaks. I’d share the contradiction I feel between personal fear and the Scriptural admonition for us not to be afraid. I’d share the defeat I feel over unanswered prayers and my frustration in loving the unlovable.

L – language. A friend of my once promised he’d join a church where the pastor was allowed to say “damn.” OK, no, I wouldn’t start cussing from the pulpit, but I would work harder to communicate in everyday language. I’d avoid trying to prove I graduated from seminary with words like Christology, eschatology and ecclesiology.

After reading this, you might be thankful I’m not your pastor. If my old friend reads this, he’ll likely withdraw his offer to help me find a new church.

No matter, I’m not looking to pastor again. However, I would like for you to share this column with your pastor and see whether we can help the church become just a bit more R-E-A-L.

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