Finding the pony.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 August

One of Ronald Reagan’s favorite jokes was about two little boys. One was an extreme optimist; everything was just wonderful! The other an extreme pessimist; everything was just the worst.

A psychiatrist was asked to tone ’em down a little—not make ’em not optimistic nor pessimistic, but just less extreme. So he put the pessimist a room full of toys, and put the optimist in a room full of horse manure.

He came back in a few hours to see how the boys were doing. He found the pessimist sitting in the middle of the room, playing with nothing, crying because he was afraid he’d break the toys if he even touched them. As for the optimist, he found the boy up to his armpits, furiously digging away at it: “With all this poop, there’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere!”

I use the term “finding the pony” to describe the process of looking for something, anything, good and valuable in a bad sermon. ’Cause sometimes I gotta do it.

When I go church-shopping, the first thing I look for is friendly people. After that, I want leadership who knows what they’re doing. The music pastor has to know how to sing, maybe play an instrument, and knows more than 10 songs—or at least has us worship to more than 10. The board has to know how to handle charitable works, the church’s ministries, and the infrastructure—and remember charity comes first, not expenses. The pastor has to know how to counsel people, and if the pastor also preaches (and they almost always do) has to do their homework: Don’t just wing it through a sermon, but study that bible.

First church I visited when I moved to town: Pastor didn’t do his homework. It was obvious. I later found out he was going through a heavy family crisis, so I can understand not having the time to do homework—but man, if that’s happening to you, have someone else in your church preach! If there’s nobody else in your church you can trust with the preaching, borrow the pastor of another church. But don’t preach when you’re not ready.

My church’s usual preachers are really good about doing their homework. I rarely have to dig for the pony. But every once in a great while, we’ll have a guest speaker who doesn’t really know what they’re talking about. Or I’ll visit another church, go to a conference, or some other circumstance will obligate me to sit through a badly-researched sermon full of dross instead of silver.

Why try to find the pony?

Back in seminary, chapel was mandatory. I had to sit through a lot of chapel services, with preachers of varying abilities. The school would usually get preachers from various nearby churches in our denomination, though one year our dean of students also got pastors from various churches in town. (That was kinda valuable; you got to see a little of the theological diversity within Christianity. The Episcopalian pastor was a really good speaker, too.)

Some were dynamic public speakers, so you could see why they were so beloved in our denomination. Thing is, I was studying to become a bible scholar, as were a lot of my classmates. As bible scholars, these guys were simply awful. In class, we learned how to interpret the scriptures; in chapel, we saw how often people wholly disregarded these principles. It was frustrating. I didn’t wanna go to chapel anymore.

That first semester, I was also looking for a nearby church to attend while I was at school. Found the same problem. Shouldn’t be surprise, ’cause a lot of their preachers were the very same rotten chapel speakers. I didn’t want to go to church anymore either.

So one day, as I was griping about it to God, he told me it was my job to find the good in the sermon. He anointed that preacher, and I had to figure out why.

Lemme tell you: That’s not an easy task. Many times I came away from those sermons wholly unsuccessful. Maybe the sermons were just that bad, but maybe I was slacking a bit. Either way, it was a tiresome duty.

At first I called it “trying to find nuggets of gold in a pile of horse crap,” but then I was reminded of Reagan’s joke, and decided to go with the shorter (and less offensive—that is, till you know the whole story) euphemism, “finding the pony.”

Why try? Like God told me: Try to find something in there. Sometimes, admittedly, there’s nothing! It’s nothing but manure. It’s utterly wasted time. Everybody who listened is now dumber. But most of the time—occasionally in spite of the preacher—there’s something. Something small. Something the Holy Spirit slipped in there so we won’t utterly give up hope. Find it.

Yeah, it could happen to you.

We start going to our churches for all sorts of reasons. When I was a kid, I went to the churches I did because my mother liked them. I had little say in the matter: If the preacher bored me… well, I was a kid; people expected children to be bored by sermons tooled to grown-ups. (Some churches don’t, and no churches should! But many do.)

Some people are at their churches because that’s the place they first met Jesus. Or it’s where their family worships. Or it’s the denomination they most agree with, and they don’t feel any other church is safe. Or their best friends go there, or this one person they’re kinda attracted to goes there, and they attend mainly to maintain those relationships. Or the church is more focused on music or sacraments, so they tolerate the sermons, and prefer ’em short. Or they started at that church because the previous pastor was great… but she retired, and the new guy’s not so good.

For whatever reason, sometimes we find ourselves at a church with a poor preacher. And that’s just life. Not every pastor is a capable public speaker, or an able teacher.

Ideally they should be. But it doesn’t work that way. The people who lead our churches are decent leaders, anointed apostles, great counselors… and not necessarily good teachers. Like schoolteachers, some of them make an effort to understand the subjects they teach upon. And others buy a big ol’ book of sermon outlines, which did all the homework for them, and that’s all they ever plan to preach about.

And others have discovered they can get away with winging it. They make stuff up off the top of their heads. Stuff which sounds good, which sounds biblical, which sounds wise, largely based on various things they’ve heard before. It’s much faster to make up a sermon than research one.

I once went to a church where initially the pastor did his homework. Over time, as he got more comfortable with public speaking, he relied on his notes less and less… and eventually stopped bringing them. And stopped memorizing what he wanted to teach. And stopped preparing what he wanted to teach. He figured the Holy Spirit would keep him on track, just as Jesus promised the Spirit would whenever his apostles stood trial. Mt 10.19 (As if our sermons are anything at all like getting prosecuted for preaching Jesus.) The pastor kept things simple, and just challenging enough, and nobody really cared how little meat there was to his preaching. It was a music-focused church, which cared far more about how uplifting the songs were.

Problem is, even in music-focused churches, some listeners expect more of our preachers. And we get really frustrated when they don’t make the effort—or worse, when they make mistakes, and wind up teaching errors, or even anti-scriptural ideas and heresy.

Some of us (like me, obviously) have been to seminary. Some of us used to go to a church with more conscientious pastors, who did research their sermons, so these listeners already know what’s true and what isn’t. Some of us know how to do proper bible study, and every time the pastor says something iffy, they start digging through their study bibles or Googling it on their smartphones. (Thanks to smartphones, as my fellow blogger Karl Vaters rightly pointed out, preachers can’t get away with not fact-checking their sermons anymore. Good!)

But if you gotta do this every week, you start to ask yourself, “Why am I doing this? Why am I even here?”

The world is hard. Church is meant to be our retreat.

I’ve heard it preached, and even said it myself, that church isn’t meant to be easy. When it’s too easy, too comfortable, perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether our churches are really challenging us—whether they’re not just preaching a feel-good gospel which has nothing to do with real Christianity.

Now, that idea is partly true and partly not. Yes, our churches need to continually encourage and challenge us to do better at following Jesus. But if it’s doing that, it’s okay if our churches are easy and comfortable. Let’s face it: Life is hard. When we go to our support system—the church—to get help and love and assistance, it shouldn’t be just as hard. For that would mean we’re really not getting help and love and assistance: We’re getting “tough love,” bad advice, or passive-aggressive help which isn’t real help.

The world feeds us a lot of manure disguised as truth. We don’t need churches where we have to treat the sermons precisely the same way. No, this doesn’t mean we should turn off our brains when the preacher talks: We should still practice our critical thinking and reasoning skills, and and still fact-check everything we hear. Pastors aren’t infallible, after all. But we should be able to trust our pastors—that they’re making an effort to get it right, that they’re gonna retract anything they get wrong, that they’re gonna be humble and approach the scriptures as learners themselves, instead of assuming they know it well enough to preach without preparation.

Finding the pony should be a rarity. If it’s not, I don’t blame you for not wanting to go to that church anymore. I sure don’t. Back in seminary, I was so bugged about chapel—and about all the nearby churches which were staffed with the very same iffy preachers who made chapel so irritating—that I quit going to nearby churches for a few months. Eventually I found a good church with a solid preacher, and went back. But I’m not the only Christian who’s been fed up by bad preaching and abandoned church. I run into such people often.

And in most cases, these Christians did the right thing: We found another church, with preachers who do their homework. They’re out there. Go find one.