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My Most Embarrassing Preaching Mistake

April 25, 2014

Over the course of my teaching career I cannot tell you how many times I have done something stupid.  In the quiet of my morning drive to school one of these humiliating remembrances will occasionally come lumbering back into my consciousness and plop down in all of its dowdiness, almost causing me to drive off the road from sheer embarrassment.  This morning was no exception – I recalled a memory that takes me back to a speaking engagement I had back in my younger days, back in the years of my circuit-riding ministry as I drove around the country speaking at small churches and Christian schools.  I learned a lot about grassroots Christianity.  I also learned how far into my mouth I can insert my foot. Boy, did I 1bbbever learn.

It was somewhere around 1985 and I was wrapping up a week of meeting in central California at a Christian school that seemed to have opened up to the Lord’s prompting.   The students were starting to respond, and I was happy to see the cold veneer of indifference break up. Flip, the youth pastor, had been having a hard time of it for over ten months, having the unenviable task of being both youth leader and school principal, neither of which he seemed to be able to handle well, nor did he seem to want to do anyway. To be sure, Flip gave it the old college try, but his heart wasn’t in it. The week was filled with late preparations, little focus, and lack of deep interest in the task at hand. I could see why the kids were getting cynical.

One night was a gym night where Flip got the last-minute idea to serve banana and strawberry smoothies – from scratch. He had no adult help in the kitchen. He knew there were over sixty kids coming to the gym event, but he made no effort to get any adult help, and I believe he thought that I would be able to handle the whole disciplinary affair. With a packed gymnasium and five playground balls, Flip calmly turned around, walked into the kitchen and shut the door while he and one other man made smoothies from peeling bananas and hand-cranking every ingredient. They had not prepared any foodstuffs in the least, and it took forever to make them one at a time. The kids were slurping them down as fast as he could make them, and many of them never got any refreshments at all. The kids were in the gym tearing the place apart for almost an hour. I peeked in the kitchen to let him know I thought a teen girl was injured. He was leaning against a counter, stirring slowly and chatting happily, oblivious to the catastrophe going on in the gym.

It got worse as the week wore on. Wednesday night was the annual Graduation Banquet, a traditional wrap-up of the year’s events and memories going on now for over ten years and successive passed along new youth leaders over time. This was a ties-and-tails affair with lots of pomp, and the teens all looked great. Girls were in Cinderella gowns and guys wore fine tuxedo coats and even cummerbunds along with their ties or ascots. Parents came with flash cameras, and the senior pastor himself gave the opening greeting and prayer. This looked to be quite a fancy affair – until the program started.

Flip has waited until the last minute again.

As part of the evening’s festivities, he played a film instead of the usual trophies and speeches, as was the tradition. Not reviewing the movie, he showed sight unseen – I am not making this up – a 1912 silent film: The Musketeers of Pig Alley. It was grainy, jittery and had terrible overacting that resembled vaudeville-type emotions. I could see the adults looking at each other in the back of the room, silently wondering is this what the kids nowadays enjoy seeing for entertainment? The teens were dumbfounded at the theme of the movie and slid back into their seats, yawning. Flip gulped, realizing he should have checked this film. Kids ended up walking out of the room and wandering all over the conference center, bored out of their skulls.

But it’s good to say that things got better as the week went on. Flip tightened the schedule and did a bit more preparation for each event. As I spoke throughout the week, I sensed a change coming over the student body/youth group. They were softening, seeming to latch onto the truth of the reality of the Lord and what He could do with their lives. There was quite a ways to go – for both Flip and the teens – but the beginning steps were evident. Some teen leaders made serious decisions and everyone was encouraged.

The week went by too fast, as it always seemed, but the results were happy to see.  Terry was trying to be a better witness in his neighborhood. Kate wanted to join up with Sarah and read her Bible on a daily basis. Glenn was patching up a broken friendship with two other boys in the youth group, and Winnie had asked for accountability partners to help her stop gossiping so much. I had some sweet counseling sessions with a number of the youth, and I made some very nice friendships as well.

It was time for me to go. I was in my final message to them before I had to leave, and I wanted to make it extra special, with a real punch.  It was a Friday morning chapel and I was full of energy and empowerment from the Lord – and maybe a bit too much enthusiasm. I was bringing home the points hard and true, and I had one closing illustration to use – a personal one that I felt would drive home the entire message.

I wanted to close with a final illustration with specific details so that the kids would feel I was being too generic.

Specific details.  This is where I got into trouble.

I leaned forward on the pulpit. “Let me close with this charge to you, young people, about giving your individual selves over to God, because He’ll bless the collective body of the youth group. Can I share a personal story with you?”

I paused for emphasis. “Last year I was a guest speaker for a youth meeting in a little town called Rampart, South Carolina. It was one of my most difficult meetings in any youth group I’d ever endured: the kids were stiff and uncaring, worldly and calloused. The whole place was a disorganized mess. The meeting started late and the room was filthy. I ended up having to discipline some of the teens because the youth pastor hadn’t been using any discipline at all – the youth had no respect for any adults in their charge. In fact, I openly questioned why there was a youth group there at all. It seemed like one big social event, and not one that truly sought God.”

The teens were sitting there, open-eyed and especially attentive. Good, I’m getting through. I pushed harder.

“What a waste! Teens that could be growing in Christ instead fed each other’s egos and formed cliques. They casually dismissed the whole message as if I were trying to sell them a toaster. Teens, you don’t need to be like that youth group! Rampart had their problems and refused to deal with the obvious. You see the challenges before you – rise to them and seek the Lord for His guidance. “

The service concluded with some teens coming forward to talk with me. When they had gone back to their classrooms, Flip came over and nodded to me. “It’s been a … good week.”

I smiled as stacked my notes and reached for my jacket. “I’m encouraged. You have kids that are willing to make some changes.”

“Yeah, that’s true, true…”

Highway into the sunsetI could tell he was distracted.

He picked at his teeth and looked up at me. “That was a pretty powerful illustration about that youth group in Rampart, where you spoke last year.”

Yes, “ I said as I packed my briefcase, “it really stuck with me.”

“Did you…,” he paused. “Did you realize that I was the youth pastor at that church in Rampart?”

I looked up. “You couldn’t have been. This was only last year.”

Flip bobbed his head. “I’ve only been here a year. Less than that.” He tilted his head. “I was the youth pastor of that group you talked about.”

My head was swimming. It couldn’t be. Of all the churches in all the states across this vast country… it simply couldn’t be that I would talk about his particular youth group.  What were the odds..?

“Aw, Flip, there were scores of youth groups in that town, the chance that it was yours –“ 

He interrupted me. “There was only one church in the region.   If you remember, that was a tiny little town. I didn’t get to meet you when you visited, but since you mentioned it during the message, I remember when you came and spoke. My pastor had arranged your speaking engagement. I was out of town that week.” He shrugged.

I could feel myself blush a very deep and magnificent shade of red. “Man, I am so sorry. If I had known, I never would have said anything- “

He waved his hand and grinned slowly. “No, don’t worry about it. You were right, you were right – the kids were rotten. I never wanted to discipline them – I wanted them to accept me as their friend. Guess I was too afraid of offending them or hurting their feelings or not being popular enough… I don’t know. But you’re right. That’s one of the reasons I had to leave.”

“Well, maybe the teens here didn’t put the two together…”

He chuckled. “No, they all know I came out here from Rampart, South Carolina.”

I shook my head, unable to speak. I was too mortified for words. After mumbling my goodbyes, I shuffled out to the parking lot, got in and started the car. I had to make Illinois but I was at a quarter of a tank and had no money.  As you might remember from my earlier writings, I had made a vow never to ask for any money from any church or school.  And even if I hadn’t made a vow to the Lord, I certainly wasn’t going to go back say anything to Flip.

But wait…

…I reached up to adjust my mirror and found an envelope attached to it by Scotch tape.

I opened it up and a roll of twenty dollar bills spilled out along with a note.

 

Brad –  

Your messages hit home this week. Lots for us to contemplate. Lots for me to contemplate. 

Godspeed,  

Flip

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3 Comments
  1. Now that’s one you will never forget. Did Flip eventually get better with his calling?

    • Years later – if my memory serves me correctly – he left California and left the ministry for a secular career. No scandal or anything wrong that caused him to leave… I believe he felt that he was just not fit for the youth ministry.

      • Ok. I think we lose leaders because they don’t get the training they need to really be effective in their calling. I just wondered but I pray he full fills Gods calling for his life. Thanks for responding.

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