Weeping Preachers

Like most preachers, I don’t often get emotional during worship services.Many in my congregation do, to be sure. Just recently, as I preached, I watched a dear friend sitting near the front weep for almost the entire service. I know her background and understood exactly why she was so emotional. But her situation – as much as I care about her – didn’t create the same response in me.

I’ve seen men walk down the aisle at the conclusion of a service, overcome with emotion and fall on their knees before the altar to pray. I feel deeply for them and have sometimes knelt with them in prayer. But even as they sobbed, I usually have kept my composure.

Sometimes in the middle of a praise and worship service, when the music really flows and the spirit is obviously at work in many peoples’ lives, it’s not unusual to see some of our congregation weeping. Their tears are tears of joy. I rejoice with them. Anytime the Lord draws near to someone and touches their hearts in the middle of worship, it’s something every preacher loves to see.

I’m right there worshipping with them. I sing. I might even sway, though not well. I will occasionally raise my hands, but the tears that accompany many of my people in worship aren’t usually my experience.

Most preachers – even those in enthusiastic, worshipping churches – stay relatively calm during services while their congregations may experience the most intense kinds of emotional responses.

Some people, of course, think that we who lead worship have somehow grown calloused down through the years of ministry. They assume the wear and tear of dealing with people in spiritual and emotional crises has somehow robbed many preachers of the capacity to feel real emotion.

Then there are the critics who think preachers are all hypocrites anyway, and the reason we don’t generally get as emotion as many in our congregations is that we’re not really sincere about what we preach. We may mouth the correct words, but in our hearts we lack genuine convictions and feelings.

I did know one preacher years ago who fit that mold. He led a fundamentalist church in Forest Park, Ga., and each Sunday when he gave the invitation for people to get saved, he would weep copiously, all the time dabbing his eyes with a white handkerchief. In fact, that handkerchief became something of a symbol for him, and he was known as the weeping preacher.

Years later, I learned the real explanation for his public display of emotion: he kept an onion in the handkerchief. The more he wiped his eyes, the more they watered. His congregation never knew.

Such isn’t the case with most of us. We preachers aren’t generally manipulative or hypocritical or hardened in our hearts by years of religious routine. The overwhelming majority of the many preachers I’ve known down through the years are spiritually mature, genuine people who are doing a credible job of leading God’s people.

While a few of us do often get emotional during worship services, most of us do not for the simple reason that we’re focused on the service in a different fashion than our people. It’s not that we aren’t engaged in the worship experience, it’s just that unlike the people who are worshipping, we’re responsible, under God, for the whole package.

Our first responsibility is to preach the word of God, and to do that requires a clear mind and settled heart. But preaching isn’t all we have to think about. On any given Sunday, we’re also worried about the sound system. We’re connecting with the musicians to make sure they’ve got everything they need. The ushers often require some attention. Then there are the crying babies – bless their hearts. It’s quite a large and complex mixture of people, situations, needs and logistics that we have to pay attention to.

If people in our congregations are tearing up at the impact of a worship service, that’s wonderful. Preachers, though, are just trying to keep all the plates spinning in the air at the same time.

But, as much as I hate to admit it, there is one exception to the rule, at least for me. There are times and situations in worship when emotion does get the best of me, when tears well up and my voice cracks and I lose the composure I try so hard to maintain. It’s almost always connected with music; specifically the words of a few worship songs that strike me as so profound as to the nature of God, so clear as to the meaning of the gospel and so artistically accomplished that I can’t help myself.

Last Sunday was one of those days, and the song that caused my breach of personal etiquette was one that does it to me every time: “In Christ Alone.” Even though it’s a more contemporary work, it has a very traditional feel to it. The last verse is what I find so stirring:

“No guilt of life, no fear of death/ This is the power of Christ in me

From life’s first cry to final breath/ Jesus commands my destiny

No power of hell, no scheme of man/ Can ever pluck me from His hand

‘Til He returns or calls me home/ Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.”

I wept as I sang. Hopefully, no one saw me.

So next Sunday, when you see your pastor focused on all the intricacies of the worship service, and you wonder if he’s really engaged with the worship itself, know that he is. If you look closely, you may even see a tear.