By Rhyne Putman
It was the fall of 2004, and I was an undergraduate student majoring in Christian ministries at Williams Baptist College (now Williams Baptist University) in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas.
Nearly every week, I had preaching engagements in rural churches across northeast Arkansas. I was rolling in gas money and travel expenses.
I thought I was hot stuff.
On one occasion, I received an invite to speak at a small church near the school. This was the first time I ever heard from the man I affectionately remember as “grumpy pastor.”
Grumpy pastor asked one of my professors if he had any ministry students who could participate in a “college night” service. He wanted “a young preacher, a musician, and an upstanding young college boy who can give a testimony.”
I asked my worship leader friend, who looked a little like Justin Bieber, to join me. I also asked my friend Harley, a recent convert from a local bikers’ gang, to give his testimony.
Harley—yes, that’s his real birth name—had the whole look: a sleeveless tee, a big goatee, buzzed hair, and several tattoos. He didn’t look like the type of guy you’d want to meet in a dark alley.
My buddies and I loaded up the car and drove to the church.
We showed up at a rustic, rundown church building that could’ve been the perfect setting for a horror movie in the woods. It was dark and empty.
We were there a few hours early because grumpy pastor wanted us to go to the Training Union class they had for the “college kids.” (For those of you who don’t remember it, Training Union was a discipleship program many churches had before evening worship. It was like Sunday School at night. I think most Southern Baptist churches stopped doing it in the mid-1980s.)
Grumpy pastor ushered us into this dimly lit classroom—the kind with dark, wood-paneled walls and flickering, florescent lights—where one college-aged student and a middle-aged gentleman who taught the class were sitting there, waiting on us.
Instead of doing a Bible study as we expected, the teacher said, “Let’s play a game.” My friends and I looked at each other anxiously, and even the former biker gang member was starting to fret.
What’s about to happen?
The teacher pulls out an ancient-looking cardboard box that said “Bible Trivia” on it or something like that. It felt like a test to see if we really could lead in worship and in preaching that evening.
The game went on for a few minutes; I don’t remember how long. Most of the questions were pretty rudimentary. But at some point, this teacher pulled a card that asked, “Which King of Israel had an affair with Bathsheba?”
That answer is easy enough, right? Not so fast.
As soon as we could say, “King David,” the teacher looked at us, as serious as he could be and said, “No, I’m afraid that’s wrong. The correct answer is Solomon.”
“Come on!” we replied.
But after looking at the card, it was confirmed. Solomon was, in fact, the answer written on the card. Seriously.
It wasn’t up for debate. This teacher apparently believed in the verbal inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible trivia card deck, even if it’d make Solomon one sick dude.
Eventually, that hour of torture ended, and it was time to lead the worship service.
About 40 people filed into the sanctuary for this “college night” service, but the three of us (four if you count our new friend from the class) were probably the only ones under fifty.
My worship leader friend was particularly anxious because grumpy pastor and some of the other members kept giving him looks. So, he called an audible and trashed his more contemporary song set of songs and pulled a hymnal from the pew. He got through the service sort of winging it that way.
Harley got up and shared an incredible story of how God had reached down into his life and pulled him from this violent world in which he was living and called him to the ministry.
Then came my time to preach.
I was calm and confident and preached what I’m sure was a masterful exposition of Philippians 1:19-20. I had some great stories, funny zingers, and strong come-to-Jesus points.
Yet this crowd was unusually cool to me, nothing like my typical experiences in churches this size. I didn’t even get the usual “ain’t-he-cute” looks and smiles from the grandmas.
Grumpy pastor never smiled. In fact, it looked as if he was trying to burn a hole through my chest with his eyes.
When the service was over, and we headed out the door, grumpy pastor squeezed my arm and whispered in my ear, “I’ll have a full report for your professor tomorrow.” I smiled, thinking he had to be joking.
He was serious as a heart attack.
The next day after my Hebrew class, my professor called me aside to tell me about the unusual phone he received from the grumpy pastor.
Grumpy pastor had said, “The worship leader was just fine. But I do have a few complaints about the rest of the service.”
“That young man who gave the testimony—he had tattoos and a beard! Can you believe it? Brother, I thought we got rid of beards in churches when those hippy-dippy Jesus Movement kids went away in the 1970s.”
If his comment about the “hippy-dippy beards” wasn’t bad enough, he added, “The worst part was that young man preaching.”
“The young preacher seemed to love the Lord, so he is probably a Christian, but I have two things against him. First, he quoted one of those ‘purpose-driven,’ ‘seeker-friendly’ pastors in his sermon. We’re not a ‘purpose-driven,’ ‘seeker-friendly’ church.”
“But that’s not the worst of it. He didn’t preach from our translation!”
Oops. Didn’t know.
Not to my surprise, I never was never invited back to the church, but I did see grumpy pastor a few months later at a local retail store where I worked.
He was berating one of my co-workers for something, and I walked over to him and tried to calm him down. I was also praying to myself he didn’t tell her what his profession was.
I asked him how everything was at the church where I preached, and even though only a few months had passed, he told me he was already at another local church.
Later on, when I served as an interim pastor in the area, I discovered grumpy pastor had a short tenure there and left angry when a deacon joked with him about driving a Dodge Ram when the other men drove Ford Trucks.
Grumpy pastor stormed out of the church because they joked about his pick-up truck. Obviously, this pastor had some serious issues, but I did learn several valuable lessons on this occasion.
1. Love the people of God where they are, no matter how weird they may be.
I laugh whenever I think about that dark room and board game, or the weird stares my more contemporary preaching style must have drawn.
I thought they were weird, and I’m sure they could have said the same thing about me. While they were different from me, they were people made in the image of God and valued by Him.
Like the rest of the human race, they were sinners for whom Christ died. They may not have been the crowd I was used to, but they were people who deserved a faithful proclamation of God’s Word.
2. Some men probably shouldn’t be pastors.
Grumpy pastor had a reputation for blowing up on people and making weird comments. Paul says pastors must be “self-controlled, sensible, respectable, hospitable, . . . not a bully but gentle, not quarrelsome” (1 Timothy 3:2, 3).
May we be known for these qualities and not anything else. While I was tempted to be mean to grumpy pastor, the Lord convicted me about my need to pray for him.
3. They thought we got rid of beards in the 1970s.
If grumpy pastor is still alive, he must be going crazy with all these bearded weirdos walking around in churches today.
4. Learn to be sensitive to the cultural distinctiveness of every ministry setting.
Humbly speak the truth in love, always, and recognize not every church is like your church. Some of our churches have rock bands and coffee stands. Some of our churches more traditional places with simple tastes.
God is capable of moving in every cultural context. So do your best to understand the setting where you do ministry and the people with which you work, either as a guest or as someone stepping into a more permanent ministry.
5. Finally, always ask if the church has a translation preference when preaching.
And just in case you forget to do so, keep a few different Bible translations in your trunk in case you end up at a church like this one.
RHYNE PUTMAN (@rhyneputman) is husband to Micah, father of two, professor of theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and pastor at First Baptist Church Kenner, Louisiana.