American preachers don’t receive much up-front, in-your-face rejection. Sure, the occasional person might get up and walk out during a sermon. People walk in and out so much during preaching these days it’s hard to know if they are upset or just running to the water fountain.
People who study these things are finding that if someone walks through the doors of your church they have already researched your beliefs online pretty thoroughly. Meaning, if they were really likely to be overtly offended they probably just wouldn’t attend in the first place.
While people may not be throwing rotten eggs at us, preachers do experience rejection in more indirect ways. The visitor who never returns. The saints who skip across town because we refuse to reinterpret the Bible for their favorite sin. The subtle crossed arms and slanted eyebrows that glare back at us while preaching a particularly convicting passage of Scripture. The tragic altar call where the sinner leans back rather than running to repent. Passive aggressive anonymous letters of disapproval.
Experienced preachers develop the ability to glance around a congregation and discern immediately who is rejecting and who is receiving the message God has given them for that service. That ability can become either a motivation, a distraction, or a discouragement. In worst case scenarios, one person rejecting the Word can mentally overshadow a room full of people who are receiving the Word with gladness.
Frankly, there are times after preaching that I leave incredibly discouraged because I couldn’t reach that one person. That preoccupation sometimes keeps me from rejoicing over other lives that were deeply touched by God.
I was discussing this weakness in my personality with a friend recently and he promptly dropped a little conviction grenade right into my psychological bunker. He said, “Ryan, don’t you hear the arrogance in your statement?” I was a little stunned and self-righteous until he repeated my words back verbatim, “…I leave incredibly discouraged because I couldn’t reach…” Then he paused and let the grenade explode, “Ryan you’re saying a lot of me’s and I’s, don’t you know that you just plant the seed and God gives the increase?”
How quickly preachers can forget that we are just the messengers. We aren’t the attraction. Sometimes we are a distraction, but we certainly are not the attraction. The Word is the seed and all we can do is cast the seed and pray that it takes root on good ground (Matthew 13:1-23). Often my discouragement is rooted in my own hubris rather than anything truly sincere. Don’t get me wrong, I want to preach as compellingly as possible. I want to be persuasive like the apostle Paul and passionate like the apostle Peter. But in the end, my abilities can’t save a single soul.
The apostle Paul taught that we are simply ambassadors of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). We represent reconciliation between God and man (2 Corinthians 5:19). We speak on behalf of God. The message is not ours. The Gospel was not our idea. It’s not a commodity with a sales quota attached. When the Word is rejected they aren’t rejecting us they are rejecting Jesus.
Jesus knew that His ambassadors would be tempted to judge the success or failure of ministry by the metric of popularity. He knew that rejection would feel like a personal failure. He knew that we would struggle with our own unique blends of pride and insecurity. He knew that we would be prone to despiritualizing the Gospel and relegating it down to humanistic abilities. So, Jesus gathered the twelve disciples together and sat them down to tell them, and by extension us, when they reject you they are really rejecting Me. Look at this uncomfortable reminder from Jesus:
“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you (Matthew 5:10-12).”
You can’t be truly Christlike unless you are willing to suffer rejection for His sake. In fact, if you haven’t been rejected or reviled in a while you’re probably not a true ambassador.
Please don’t take me out of context, I’m not advocating running around trying to prove how spiritual we are based on how many people reject the Gospel. But it is freeing to know that as ambassadors we can only proclaim what we have been given by our King to proclaim. If we are rejected it is for His sake, and we must shake the dust from our feet (Matthew 10:5-15) and keep preaching the Good News.
“How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things (Romans 10:14-15)!”