The Word vs. “It’s Just Words”

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from Pastoral Identity: True Shepherds in the Household of Faith
by Douglas D. Webster

“It is no good asking for simple religion,” wrote C. S. Lewis. “After all, real things are not simple.” Lewis opposed a watered-down Christianity that “simply says there is a good God in Heaven and everything is all right—leaving out all the difficult and terrible doctrines about sin and hell and the devil, and the redemption.”[1] Even the devil knows, Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters, that “once you have made the World an end, and faith a means”—that is, once a demon has convinced a human to make “the World an end” and their faith a means to gaining the world—“you have almost won” and “it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end” is being pursued.[2]  

One wonders if we have suffered some kind of incalculable loss when it comes to proclamation, admonition, and teaching. Has the communication of God’s Word envisioned by the apostle become diminished in our day? Instead of heralding the gospel, are we mumbling? Instead of warning of judgment, are we making excuses? Instead of teaching, are we just trying to keep people’s attention? Have the teaching gifts lost their potency, their apostolic authority, their prophetic edge, their evangelistic fervor, and their pastoral insight (Eph. 4:11)?  

Our trained incapacity to think deeply about virtually anything has decidedly had an impact on preaching. Today’s sermonizing takes this into account, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and seeks to compensate by trying to keep people interested through humor, anecdotes, and bullet points. It is ironic that as our culture has become more sophisticated in its methods of communication it has insisted on a simplified message. Our impatience with the message has increased as the speed of communications has increased. But it is here that we have to insist on comprehending the whole counsel of God. I believe there are many people who long for a passionate, in-depth proclamation of God’s story from Genesis to Revelation.  

I was in a debate with a mission director over whether to keep or remove the mission’s statement of faith from their website. The statement articulated the basic biblical convictions that had guided the mission for years. The director affirmed the statement but insisted on its removal because he was concerned that it might turn off potential donors, as well as the non-Christian doctors and nurses who served on our medical teams. I argued that it was an essential definition of the organization’s gospel mission and that supporters and participants had a right to know what we believed. The mission director argued that if anyone was interested in our beliefs they could ask, and we would give them the mission’s statement of faith. The board voted in favor of removing the statement of faith from the website. The mission director’s closing argument still echoes in my mind: “It’s just words.”  

A young ordinand stood before an assembly of Presbyterian pastors and elders to confess his faith in Christ. After he gave his testimony and statement of faith he was examined on his doctrinal convictions. He humbly articulated his belief in the reality Jesus’s incarnation and in the atoning sacrifice of Christ. But the moment he finished, a veteran pastor of the presbytery rose to object. In the presence of over a hundred clergy and lay leaders, he called these Christian doctrines barbaric and primitive. He claimed they were hopelessly out of date. He was blunt in his heresy, and he attacked the young man for his “naivete.” Many were shocked at the pastor’s brazen affront to Christian conviction.  

In the weeks to follow, the presbytery called for a judicial commission to examine the pastor who openly dismissed the doctrine of Christ’s atoning sacrifice as heretical. I was asked to serve on the commission. His unmasked disdain for biblical truth was a direct challenge to the confession of the church. Yet after multiple meetings and much debate, he was exonerated by the judicial commission with only one dissenting vote, my own. At that point, I doubted whether it would be possible for anyone to be charged with heresy in our presbytery unless it was for his or her orthodox convictions.  

I attended a one-day conference for pastors with the expectation of being challenged and spiritually fed. I asked a pastor friend to go with me. Three hours of in-depth Bible teaching on our holy vocation and a good conversation over lunch was just what my soul needed. It only took fifteen minutes to realize that my expectations for the day were sadly too high. Along with several hundred pastors, we were instructed pedantically in a proof text of the meanings of “deacon” and “elder.” Reference was made to how many times “baptism” was used in Acts along with other miscellaneous data points. I was confused. The speaker seemed to have geared his presentation for a new-members class, and even then, it seemed like he was dumbing down the gospel. But what amazed me more was the response. A room full of seminary trained pastors were lapping it up. They were laughing at the speaker’s jokes and dutifully taking down notes. They seemed perfectly content with the banality of it all, loving every minute of it, while I was thinking that a steady diet of this kind of dribble will kill the church.  

There is a growing inability of Christians to talk about their faith in Christ in any kind of meaningful way. Sermons have largely become a recital of evangelical platitudes, privately prepared, without interaction with the thinking and praying community. They are publicly performed without lasting impact, usually in a style that does not flow from or serve the text. And these days it seems that most Christians are hearing sermons designed for seekers or new Christians. The preacher is complimented for execution, not for making disciples. Thousands gather every Sunday to hear what they have heard many times before. There is a large and appreciative market of religious consumers who want to be given a recital of familiar truths. The impact of this kind of preaching is bigger auditoriums, filled with strangers who rarely fellowship beyond their familiar cliques. Consequently, it is becoming more difficult to distinguish between that which is done for spiritual growth and that which is done for public relations.[3]

Christian communication has virtually no context outside of the pulpit. No one wants to hear from the pastor about these things over lunch or in casual conversation, and most pastors only want to talk about administrative matters, church politics, visionary programs, and new trends. Any attempt to bring Jesus up in any kind of meaningful way outside the prescribed bounds feels like a violation of social etiquette. Gossip and small talk have largely replaced the gospel in every arena but the pulpit, and even there the danger now exists for the sermon to be co-opted by mere sentiment and self-expression.  

We talk freely about sports, food, fashions, stocks, celebrities, and politics, but serious talk about the kingdom of God is almost nonexistent. We should not be surprised. Vast numbers of believers attend church in anonymity. One can go to church without ever uttering a word or making meaningful eye contact. An awkward greeting time will not free us up to talk about following Jesus. On religious matters many are well schooled, but they show little sign of a meaningful relationship with God. They look bored in Sunday school and find it difficult to interact with a pedantic lesson that they have heard hundreds of times before. We have little capacity for meaningful dialogue on the very truths that we say we are so committed to on Sunday. We have unwittingly retreated from the Word without noting its absence. 

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[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 40.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters with Screwtape Proposes a Toast (New York: Macmillan, 1961), 35. 

[3] Douglas D. Webster, Text Messaging: A Conversation on Preaching (Toronto: Clements, 2010), 11. 

This post is adapted from Pastoral Identity by Douglas D. Webster. This title was released on July 18, 2023. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

A charge for pastors to re-envision their role in a world suspicious of Christianity

Webster calls pastors to reject “Christendom” approaches to church leadership that require the pastor to exert control over the church’s direction and ministry. Such models differ fundamentally from the New Testament “household of faith” vision of pastoral ministry, which affirms the disciple-making responsibility of the whole community, the priesthood of all believers, and the shared gifts of the Spirit.

Rather than perpetuate pastoral leadership based on individual initiative, institutional power, and personal charisma, experienced pastor and seminary professor Douglas Webster defines a New Testament model of the pastor, outlining the major features of pastoring among the household of faith, such as:

  • Viewing the church as an every-member ministry
  • Seeking synergy between pastoral identity and congregational identity
  • Prioritizing a pastor’s daily rhythms of grace in prayer, study, and care for the body
  • Supporting pastor-theologians who shepherd believers in the whole counsel of God

Such pastoral authority and guidance require mutual submission in Christ. Pastors and laypeople alike let go of dominant cultural models of pastoring and embrace the values of Christ’s kingdom.


About Author

Douglas D. Webster (Ph.D., University of St. Michael’s College) is professor of pastoral theology and preaching at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University. He served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of San Diego for fourteen years as well as churches in New York City, Denver, and Toronto. His other books include, Follow the Lamb: A Pastoral Approach to The Revelation and Preaching Hebrews: The End of Religion and Faithfulness to the End. Find him at

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