By John Dickerson
My Dear Fellow Pastors,
Do you ever wonder if your ministry is really making a difference—now or in eternity?
I want to encourage you with a true story. If you will take a moment to “open your sails,” I believe God will breathe fresh wind into you—to inspire, encourage, and propel you in his work.
I want to help you sense the importance of your message this upcoming weekend.
Not long ago I led the funeral of a 22-year-old girl from our church family. Bree was a beautiful young lady in every way. She loved the Lord, was studying nursing, and had a promising life ahead of her. Then she was diagnosed with brain cancer in early 2020.
In the fall of 2020, Bree approached me. She wanted to make a public declaration that, as she faced death, her hope was in Jesus alone. Bree said our sermons had given her God’s salvation, hope, and perspective.
When I met Bree in late November 2020, doctors had given her two years to live.
Little did I know, I would be leading her funeral just two months later.
As I prepared, I knew many of Bree’s unbelieving friends from college, high school, and dance would be present—mourning and searching for answers. Could I really assure them that Bree was in Heaven, with God, in a glorified body?
I knew Bree’s faith was secure, but I was astonished when I saw her personal Bible. Written in decorative, calligraphy-like handwriting, Bree had scrawled sermon outlines from many of my messages directly onto the pages of her Bible.
One sermon outline was from Romans 1:16. I had been preaching Paul’s text: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.”
I preached that sermon in early 2019 before Bree knew she had brain cancer. She would have looked like a perfectly healthy, fun-loving 20-year-old when she wrote down sermon points about salvation.
THE SIMPLE GOSPEL MESSAGE
I remember that sermon series well. Here’s why. Have you ever felt the Spirit of God convicting you that you need to teach something?
In the months leading up to that sermon, God had been convicting me. He was calling me to preach a short series summarizing basic Christian essentials. God was calling me to lay a solid foundation of Christian theology in a way my entire congregation could understand.
It forced me to simplify, simplify, simplify the pure concentrated good news of Jesus. No seminary jargon. No peripheral debates. No drifting out to the depths of theological mysteries. And no drifting into the shallows of felt-need, cutesy catchphrases either.
Most roads of theological truth are straddled by two ditches of error on either side. When it comes to preaching, we can easily drift off the road into the ditch of shallow, seeker-only, felt-need, emotion-based teaching. But just as easily we can overcorrect to the other side of the road and veer into the ditch of seminary-level mysteries that we personally appreciate, but our audience neither relates to nor understands.
God was calling me to lay a foundation of gospel understanding for his people. As a memory device, I settled on the children’s song, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
That little song allowed me to teach Christology and the Trinity (“Jesus”), atonement and soteriology (“loves”), depravity and redemption (“me”), personal accountability and repentance (“this I know”), and biblical authority (“for the Bible tells me so”), all without using a single seminary-level word.
‘IT MATTERS WHEN WE FACE DEATH’
What does this have to do with the funeral of 22-year-old Bree?
As I prepared for Bree’s funeral , I saw her notes from that series. In her Bible, Bree had underlined all of Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.” Bree had circled the words gospel, power, salvation, and believes.
In that message, I asked my audience, “Does it really matter if we get Christianity right?” The answer to that question, of course, is Romans 1:16.
The fourth point in that message about knowing the gospel stated, “It matters when we face death.”
As I looked on the pages of Bree’s Bible, I saw that entire sermon outline. In her calligraphy writing at the bottom of the page, Bree wrote, “It matters when we face death.”
Here was a 20-year-old girl, who thought she was perfectly healthy, writing down the essentials of her faith and reassuring her eternal life.
As I looked back at my preaching calendar, I realized that Bree wrote “It matters when we face death” almost exactly two years ago. Two years—to the week—before her funeral.
When I connected this timing, my eyes filled with tears.
As pastors, it’s easy to feel like we are in a 52-week grind. The emotional roller coaster is relentless. And many weeks we must begin work on the next message before we’ve even recovered from delivering the last one.
That weekend two years ago when I preached Romans 1:16 seemed to be nothing special. It wasn’t a holiday. In fact, it had snowed so much that winter I was discouraged about our lower than usual attendance.
What I didn’t know then was that a 20-year-old girl was listening to every word, transcribing the main points in curly writing. What I didn’t know then was that this young lady was anchoring her faith in the basics of Christianity. What I didn’t know then was how God was using his Word to lay a foundation so he could carry his daughter through cancer treatment and into eternal life.
Little did I know on that dreary winter Sunday, the preaching of God’s Word was leaving a written record for Bree’s family and friends declaring that she was prepared to face death and experience eternal life in Christ.
Bree is one of my spiritual daughters in the faith. I can’t wait for her to greet me in the new heaven and new earth, cancer-free.
You have spiritual daughters and sons, too, fellow pastors. Most of your spiritual children will never show you in their Bible where you led them to salvation. But I believe that shortly after you see Christ, shortly after you hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” your spiritual sons and daughters will run up to you, greeting you like eager elementary kids greet a beloved parent after a long workday.
They will thank you for not growing “weary in well-doing.” They will thank you for persevering as you used your gift to connect God’s Word to their lives. They will thank you for being faithful in your gift of loving, leading, and preaching the good news of salvation through Christ alone.
This weekend, someone will be taking notes on your sermon. You may not even see them. They may be 20 or 50 years old. They may breathe their final breath in two years or in 22 years. But because of your faithfulness to God’s Word, their last exhale on earth will be followed by their first inhale in Heaven.
Our world has never been more desperate for hope. Our people have never needed a more solid understanding of the Christian essentials—not as seminary labels, but as assurance for the soul.
Let’s serve our people well this weekend, as unto the Lord. God’s harvest is plentiful. The laborers are so few.
And so, my fellow pastors, let us go forth to “preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2).
John S. Dickerson is author of Jesus Loves Me: Christian Essentials for the Head and the Heart. Find free sermon outlines to preach the series, free small group study guides, and more at JohnSDickerson.com. John serves as lead pastor of Connection Pointe Christian Church in Brownsburg, Indiana.