Perhaps the dilemma I’m expressing, one which has caused me untold agony, will not seem important to many. Yet, I must express myself. It has to do with the practice of binding speakers to set topics in conferences.
Here’s the way it happens. A pastor (or set of leaders if it is a larger conference) determines who should speak at their next conference. Perhaps he really prays about it, but sometimes not. He jots a few speakers’ names down. Then he gets on the phone or email and tries to line one up. If he gets a “yes,” he tells the speaker that he will get back to him about the topic and message titles for the conference. Sometime this topic is decided upon well in advance, but most often it comes later.
Some period of time out from the conference, the pastor determines to begin promoting the conference, so a topic must be chosen. He puts his feet up on the desk and thinks. Again, he jots down ideas until he comes up with something clever or memorable. Sometimes he asks the speaker to come up with a good topic himself. That’s an improvement, but still has its downside, as I will explain. Something is decided. Then, the pastor asks the speaker to provide for him four message titles for the conference.
Those of us who are on the road speaking have gone through this drill a jillion times. But it has often caused me grief. Why?
- I don’t believe it is possible for me to really know what God might want me to say so many months out. In fact, I have often wondered if it is possible to really know what is best for my audience until I meet them. In earlier days, when speakers were invited without having to give their topics ahead of time, I often found myself seeking God for just the right thing to say during the meeting. Sometimes I prepared a sermon with those people in mind after I arrived there and saw what the needs really were.
- Though I believe church leaders can determine a topic for the brochure ahead of time that is spiritually sound, I sometimes wonder if far more thought is given to what will attract people to the conference than what is God’s will for those who are to hear. Conference leaders are fast running out of “extreme” words to use to promote conferences as if the catchier the title, the more God will be pleased. But this is not necessarily so.
- When asked for titles, veteran speakers often rack their brains to figure out how they can preach what they know and can present well under a new title that fits the brochure. We want to give the people something that will change their lives. But sometimes the topics we’re assigned do not fit anything we are adept at offering. Not everyone, for instance, is a good marriage and family speaker, or can address worldview issues, or relates well with children.
Once I was given the overall title for the conference, the exact title for my message and the specific text to preach. It was a statewide denominational meeting and everything was airtight. The problem was that the text and the title did not relate—one went west and the other went east. It was somebody’s idea of what the text meant, but to me it was a total miss. To make matters worse, I was to speak with three or four other men who had been assigned similar titles, all beautifully interconnected and alliterated. I lost lots of ministry time, days of it, working that over and over. Finally, I found an ingenious way to mention his title, point out a thing or two about his text, then scamper over to another text to preach a heartfelt sermon. It cost me ten minutes of my precious time during the conference to sweep his ornamentation out of the way and get to preaching.
- When I conform to what is being asked of me, I often give the people either something that I’m not really skilled at presenting, or something not as much on my heart as other subjects. You must understand something about many of us. We usually have only about ten subjects that are warm to us at any given time. There is also an “inner circle” of messages that will be preached every time we can preach them because they are, more or less, a life message for us. We know how to preach more than this, of course. I pastor a church as well and preach new material throughout the year, but there is something different about those home church messages and what we feel right about preaching in a church or conference outside of our own. Itinerant preachers have always had only a handful of messages that are suitable to them at any given time, whether you are a Whitefield or a Billy Graham. A new message will overtake an old one every so often, and an old one will drop off, or pieces of it will be used for a new one, but we simply cannot be ready for a hundred subjects at once. Likely we have one or two messages that have been preached many years and are still exciting to preach, usually because we are aware that those subjects meet real needs almost anywhere.
When I was a younger man, for a short but insane period, I thought I should preach something brand new each time I spoke. That about killed me. In fact, it just about killed the people I spoke to. It was certainly naïve. Even Jesus repeated himself, and certainly Paul did. I believe it was Benjamin Franklin, though not a true Christian, who said that he could always tell when Whitefield was re-preaching a sermon because it was so much better. I hope it doesn’t disappoint people to hear that we speakers do not always preach brand new messages, but that is the fact nonetheless. Of course, when I’m asked to preach on a topic for which I have nothing substantive to say, then the message will, of necessity, be brand new. Sometimes God blesses that, but often I wish I could be preaching what I know so much better.
- I sometimes think, “My title might be the very thing that keeps people from coming.” Now there’s a dilemma indeed. What if Jesus had entitled his conference message on Matthew 23, “Woe to You Hypocrites”? Would that have brought those who needed what He had to say?
- I also wonder why we have to do this when the Apostle Paul never did. I often reflect on this as I’m painfully trying to come up with yet another message title to fit the brochure. In days before so much advertising as we know it, I even had that luxury, though I’m considerably younger than Paul.
There is a bigger question behind all of this. It has to do with the fact that Paul and Jesus, and the rest of the apostles, never spoke at a pre-arranged conference meeting—ever. Those kinds of meetings were unheard of. Rather than filling their calendars with dates for meetings, these original Christian speakers went at the leading of the Spirit to deliver very personalized messages to people needing truth. Some of their messages would not have drawn crowds, such as the one Jesus preached when His entire crowd left him.
I’m cooperative if you ask me to come, mind you. It is an inestimable privilege to get to speak in your churches and conferences when asked. I’m willing to pay a price for that privilege, even to the point of sweating out brochure titles if necessary. Sometimes a conference adorned with topics works surprisingly well. But I think it is usually in spite of the titles in the brochure. Most of my groveling and complaining takes place in my own study as I attempt to come up with another “relevant” title for the next meeting. But even when you say, “You pick the subject,” I’m in trouble, wondering what in the world God would want me to say to people months from now that I don’t yet know. Sometimes I’ll say, “I’ll give you a title, but you must give me the freedom to change the messages according to what I think God wants me to speak about when I’m there.” Or, if at all reasonable, I may say, “Just advertise that I’m coming and leave the topic to me. People don’t really care all that much what I’m speaking on.” I like that option better, but it just doesn’t suit many leaders who are hopeful that a great brochure will reach more people. Sometimes I try to be so general with a title that I could actually say just about anything, but those titles are hard to come up with.
Not long ago, I was speaking at a pastor’s conference on a subject that was assigned to me. I did not feel comfortable with it at all. But, dutifully, I preached the first message. It was so flat you could not have gotten a silverfish under it. I went back to the house and prayed, “Lord, do I have to go on with this topic?” The next day, I abandoned it all and just spoke on what was on my heart. Free at last! The next messages had the life of God in them and did some real good, as far as I could tell. In addition, I had a great time myself, knowing that to the best of my ability I had discerned what these men needed.
If, when I enter heaven I’m told, “We let the preachers speak up here. You’re scheduled for next month. Give me four titles to fit this topic,” I might have to ask your forgiveness for venting my angst on you. But until then, try to understand the speaker’s dilemma and see what you can do about it. Maybe just interesting information about the speaker would do the job, while you leave the message itself to the man under the influence of the Spirit for that specific occasion.
I must admit, when my mind wanders, I think of the devil plotting out the ruination of the evangelical world. How can he bring it under bondage? On his list are four items: expensive buildings, neckties, business meetings and, you guessed it . . . brochures.