by Doug Hankins
If you are a ministry leader at any level of the local church, then you are familiar with something like a “Blue Monday.” In a preaching ministry, Blue Monday is the Monday after Sunday when a pastor reviews the past Sunday’s sermon and begins to think about next Sunday’s sermon. In a Sunday school ministry, it can be when the teacher thinks about last Sunday’s lesson and begins to prep for the next Sunday’s lesson. In small group ministry, it is the day after the meeting when the small group leader begins to plan for the next meeting. The same goes for student ministry and children’s ministry.
And in each one of these crucial ministry areas, there is a content provider who will inevitably experience a sense of panic and concern, asking themselves, “What in the world am I going to say next week?”
Even if you teach along the liturgical calendar.
Even if you are preaching through set outlines.
Even if you have a Sunday school guide.
Even if you are provided with small group material.
Even if you are given ministry curriculum.
No matter if leaders have access to strategic resources, every leader in church ministry feels the panic that comes with having to be “on” in terms of communicating each Sunday. And inevitably, church leaders will ask themselves the gut check question, “Will I be any good next week?”
This single question, if answered incorrectly, will drive ministry leaders to the unhealthy side of communicating – where communication is viewed as a weekly burden and opportunity for stumbling.
This single question, if however rerouted and answered correctly, will drive ministry leaders to the healthy side of communicating – where communication is viewed as a wonderful opportunity for personal and community spiritual growth.
So it begs the question: what is the proper way for ministry leaders to assess their teaching content on Blue Monday? Or any day of the week for that matter?
A Lesson From Seminary
I remember being in my seminary preaching class under the legendary old school Baptist pulpiteer, Dr. Joel Gregory. When asked how he evaluates his own preaching, he said:
In preaching and teaching, aim to be helpful. Do not waste any time attempting to be great.
I expected Dr. Gregory to wax eloquently about the logos, ethos, and pathos of preaching, to explain the need to be grounded proper exegesis of the text through lived experience. I expected an erudite and sophisticated answer. Instead, Dr. Gregory gave me, perhaps, the most practical advice I received in seminary.
He explained that, in his estimation, any regular communicator will deliver an amazing or great or superlative message around 10% of the time. No matter how hard you work at your craft of teaching, preaching, or small group leading, your delivery will never be perceived by your audience as great 100% of the time.
Furthermore, there are only a handful of truly gifted orators who can be perceived as great most of the time. And the high probability is that you are not one of them. So, the trick of a consistent communicator is not to assess the 10%, but rather to focus on proper assessment of the 90%.
In Dr. Gregory’s assessment, a regular communicator should focus on being helpful 100% of the time. By aiming to be helpful and by making helpfulness the chief quality of assessment on Blue Monday, then a regular communicator will likely be helpful most of the time. And on that 10% day when the communicator is perceived as being great, he or she will be both helpful and great.
Dr. Gregory pointed out that when regular communicators aim to be great all of the time, they are still only great 10% of the time. Therefore, 90% of the time they are neither great nor helpful. And this is the Achilles heel of any teaching ministry. A Sunday school teacher who is not helpful will be considered boring 90% of the time and will probably not last long in that position. A small group leader who is not helpful will be considered inept 90% of the time and will not last long either.
The Biblical and Historical Argument for Helpfulness
Two biblical texts seem to dismiss the ideal of “greatness” as a valid aim of church leaders. One text seems to presume the ideal of “helpfulness” as a valid aim.
In the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus tells the Church to simply “make disciples” by going, baptizing, and teaching them all things that he taught. He says nothing about aiming to make one’s teaching great. Neither does he mention anything about trying to be helpful in one’s teaching.
In 2 Timothy 2:2, the Apostle Paul tells young Timothy to “entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” So for Paul, the entrustment must be of such a quality that it is able to be passed on to others. There is no discussion of anything like “greatness” or “helpfulness.” However, in both cases “helpfulness” can be viewed as a logical, albeit silent, complementary quality to the function and nature of teaching. It follows that helpful teaching and helpful entrustment will almost necessarily lead to further teaching and entrustment.
There is one text that seems to advocate for something like what Dr. Gregory advocated for in communicating. In 1 Corinthians 10:23-24, Paul states:
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.
It is no coincidence that Paul concludes this section with the benediction of verse 31, “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” For Paul, there is a twofold purpose – God’s glory and the good of the people, your neighbors. Teaching, from this perspective, can be viewed as something that is biblically intended to glorify God and to be helpful for producing good (ethics and character) in the audience of your fellow neighbors.
So, let us return to Dr. Gregory’s rough percentages and examine them from a historical perspective. Historical sociologist Rod Stark has estimated that the Church grew on average 40% per decade for the first 350 years. So, by the time John Chrysostom was preaching in Constantinople, there were upwards of 33 million people who called themselves part of the local church. And John Chrysostom was considered to be the greatest preacher of them all. One of thirty three million.
In Victorian England, the population surged to 6.5 million people, replete with 24,000 clergymen. And Charles Spurgeon was considered to be the greatest of them all. One of twenty four thousand. In light of podcast statistics, I could trot out the names John Piper, Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, Andy Stanley, Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Charles Stanley, and Chuck Swindoll. Nine great preachers. According to one recent Pew study there are 83,371,000 Evangelical Protestant Christians. One great preacher for every 9,263,000 thousand American Evangelical Christians.
Helpfulness not only appears to be more biblical, it also appears to be more attainable by most of the communicators and leaders.
Helpful, Not Great
I recently met with a pastor of a DFW Metroplex megachurch and jokingly asked him if he believed that his church had the non-Christian market cornered. I was pleasantly surprised by his answer. He looked at me with a straight face and said:
The five largest megachurches in the DFW Metroplex are currently reaching 100,000 people in weekly attendance. That number, in light of the total population, is essentially zero percent.
What the local church needs is not more great megachurch preachers. What the local church needs is more helpful preachers, Sunday school teachers, small group leaders, student ministry leaders, and children’s ministry volunteers who understand the Bible and can helpfully communicate the gospel for the glory of God and for the good of the people. Then, perhaps, we can begin to reach 100% of the population.
Doug Hankins is the Teaching Pastor at LifePoint Church, an American church historian, and an author of Dawson Trotman: In His Own Words. Doug holds a PhD From Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He blogs at doughankins.com.