How can “ordinary” pastors compete with the vast range of well-known and greatly gifted preachers who are just one mouse-click away from everyone in their congregation? I know this is a sore point for many discouraged pastors. They visit their flock and all they hear are comments about the latest Internet sermon by Pastor Faimus and Dr Bigname. The only sermons that people seem to get excited about are ones preached hundreds of miles away!

However, I want to remind pastors of a huge advantage they have over the “popular” preachers of our own day. That advantage is, simply, personal relationship.

I was reminded of this recently when I was asked which preachers I would choose to sit under for a year of teaching. As I reflected on this question, I realized that the men I would chose are the men I know best, both in Scotland and in Grand Rapids. Most of whom you will probably never have heard of.

Of course, I deeply appreciate and frequently benefit from the sermons of the well-known preachers of our day. But I don’t know them and they don’t know me. I don’t know their lives and characters, and they have no involvement in my life. We have no relationship. That significantly limits the long-term spiritual impact of their sermons.

But when I have a relationship with a preacher; when I know him and he knows me; when we have wept together and rejoiced together; when I know he loves me and prays for me, then there is an added dimension to his words. They may not be as impressive words, or as well-organized words, or as well-said words. But they are empathetic words, and so they are powerful words.

A recent study of the “placebo effect” by Harvard Medical School’s Ted Kaptchuk has demonstrated the power of empathetic doctor-patient relationships in medicine. 62% of patients receiving an intentionally fake treatment from friendly, empathetic doctors reported relief from their irritable bowel syndrome, compared with 44% of a group that got the same fake treatment from impersonal, businesslike doctors. “It’s amazing,” said Kaptchuk, “Connecting with the patient, rapport, empathy . . . that few extra minutes is not just icing on the cake. It has biology.”

Researchers say it’s unclear whether the health care system can harness the biological power of physician empathy. But preachers can harness the spiritual power of pastoral empathy. Maybe, instead of spending a further ten hours on perfecting your blockbuster sermon, you should spend ten hours visiting your flock. That could give your sermons new power in your hearer’s lives. And remember, though we are blessed to live in a time with wonderful conferences and 24/7 Internet sermons, God primarily saves and sanctifies sinners through long-term pastoral relationships in the local church.

And let’s encourage our pastors. Let’s tell them that we deeply appreciate their transparent integrity, their sincere empathy, and their sacrificial investment in our lives. Let’s value and cultivate our relationships with them. And let’s tell them how much we’ve enjoyed their sermons rather than everyone else’s!

  • Bryan Buie

    Dr. Murray,I was greatly blessed by this post. Especially your last point about encouraging our ministers.Though the Internet has brought about many blessings, one of her curses, is the false sense of community she represents. This is especially tragic when it takes from the covenant community found in our churches.I have been greatly blessed by the Internet ministry of several pastors (including yours! I will forever be in your debt for the sermon you preached against attending the cinema; God used that sermon to effect a great change in my life) but strongly appreciate your emphasis on the importance of real community.Blessings,Bryan P. S.) On your “short list” I have heard of Mr. Angus Smith of the FPCS, William Macleod of the Free Church (Cont.), and Dr. Joel Beeke. So I knew three names! :-)

  • Jose Colucci
  • James Boyd

    Many thanks,Visiting is not the only way to build relationships – hospitality, and the associated fellowship, can be a great blessing too.Having often been the recipient of such kindness, I don’t know if there is a better motivator to be hospitable except to know how great a blessing it can be. The blessing’s aren’t just fellowship and a bite to eat but particularly the benefits in contrast to the alternative for some: spending the Sabbath afternoon/evening alone.There’s also a side benefit – building a relationship, showing kindness towards/interest in an individual might turn them away from church-hopping or sermon-tasting.Every Blessing,Jamesp.s. the Lord’s blessing to William Macleod’s congregation:

  • Randy Biswell

    Pastors that are discouraged by this type of thing need to repent and realize it’s God’s church. Pastors, please work through your insecurity for the sake of God’s kingdom and we sheep! Thanks.

  • Paul C

    Excellent post, especially concerning the power of empathy.

  • A. Amos Love

    DavidYou write…“I know this is a sore point for many discouraged pastors.”Is it possible the reason “Burnout” and “Discouragement”is such a problem for **today’s** “Pastor/Leader” is they have found themselves with a “Title” and “Position” NOT found in the Bible?Did anyone have the “Title” “pastor” in the Bible?Was anyone ordained a “pastor” in the Bible?Any congregations “led” and “taught” by a “pastor” in the Bible?Any Sermons in the Bible being… Preached – by Pastors – in Pulpits – to People – in Pews.And every “pastor” I’ve met also hadthe “Title” “Reverend.”Does anyone have the “Title” Reverend in the Bible?In my experience…Titles become Idols.Pastors become Masters.”Titles/Idols” come with… A Little Bit Extra… “Heavy Weights” on shoulders NOT easy to lay down.Power, Profit, Prestige, Glory, Honor, Reputation, Recognition, etc.Ezekiel 14:1-7, speaks about “Idols of the Heart,” and now God will speak to us according to the “Idols of our Heart.”Jesus taught “His Disciples” NOT to be called “Master/Leader/Rabbi/Teacher”For you have “ONE” “Master/Leader/Rabbi/Teacher” The Christ. Mat 23:8-10 KJVAnd other sheep I have, which are not of this fold:them also I must bring, and they shall “hear my voice;”and there shall be “ONE” fold, and “ONE” shepherd.John 10:16One Fold – One Shepherd – One Voice.If Not Now, When?Be blessed in your search for Truth… Jesus

  • Mike D

    The sad thing is that so many pastors do not embrace their duty of shepherding the sheep through relationship (I know this from experience). Feeding the sheep is enough for them. It goes back to an earlier discussion you had a couple of weeks ago about this very issue. In my 34 years as a Christian, I can only point to one pastor who was a true consistent shepherd to my soul.O for men who would come out of their pulpits and feel the fleece.

  • Mike’s Dad

    I am sure that the post on May 18 by Mike D was that of my son’s. His words from a conversation we had several days earlier rang in my ears as I read his post. I too feel the want of someone to shepherd my soul. Oh, that today’s church leaders would be shepherds (pastors) and not “preachers.”My wife and I are thankful that you are being used to prepare men to lead Christ’s church. May God raise up pastors after His own heart.

  • a pastor’s wife

    From the parable of the Lost Sheep we learn that even a good shepherd easily leaves his “save” sheep to go after that needy one. And there is often more than 1 % of the flock in need of personal pastoring. Some cases are more obvious than others and unlike the “real” shepherd (or a mother with young children…) a pastor doesn’t live with his people 24/7. Could it be that your pastor doesn’t know your need?

  • Randy Biswell

    As a leader it is important to duplicate yourself with your inner circle. Pour your life into these ones and teach them to pour their lives into their inner circle. This is called leverage and is the effective method of personally touching all of the sheep. We all need a hands on shepherd. A Timothy and a Paul. baaaah!