(More thoughts on 'Pastoring')
One of the greatest changes in church life in the last forty years has been the improvement in sermons. Gone from many of our pulpits are blessed thoughts based loosely on a single verse — sermons that began, ‘My text for this evening is ...’, followed by the preachers’ own views — and in their place we have exegetical preaching, rooted in a careful study of the biblical text.
Anyone with a high regard for the Bible as ‘God’s Word written’ must rejoice in this development, which in the UK at least owes much to the work of the Proclamation Trust. We are surely right to think that when the Bible is properly expounded, God’s voice is heard. But this renewal of preaching has not been without its dangers — dangers identified in the seventeenth century by Richard Baxter (1615-91) in his The Reformed Pastor:
It is too common for men to think that the work of the ministry is nothing but to preach, and to baptize, and to administer the Lord’s supper, and to visit the sick. [...] It hath oft grieved my heart to observe some eminent able preachers, how little they do for the saving of souls, save only in the pulpit; and to how little purpose much of their labour is, by this neglect.
Proper preparation of a sermon takes time. But the length of time spent preparing a sermon is not necessarily a measure of the effectiveness of one’s ministry. For as Baxter recognized, if the work done in preaching is not matched by efforts elsewhere, then it may ultimately be to little purpose.
The exception to this would be where the congregation is largely composed of literate people, accustomed to learning from ‘lecture’ style input, whether in education or in business. Such a congregation may well thrive on a ‘pulpit centred’ ministry. But we should recognize equally that such a pulpit ministry will tend to attract these people in the first place. Indeed, is this not what we find amongst some of our evangelical churches classed as the most ‘successful’? Often the ministry will be to students or to those who work in our city centres. The congregation may be large, but it will often be ‘eclectic’, drawn from a wide geographical area, and somewhat culturally ‘monochrome’, consisting of a particular type of person.
Now this is not at all to denigrate preaching. On the contrary, preaching must remain a priority, not least because the congregation of God’s people is in part constituted by the act of gathering together under God’s Word. But if we imagine that preaching alone, or even preaching first and foremost, will effectively do the work of pastoring God’s people, we are mistaken.
Think again about the parable of the sower: ‘A sower went out to sow seed ...’. In the parable, the work of the sower certainly depends on the seed, but it is the soils which determine the outcome. The seed is the same in every case, but the results are different depending on where it falls.
Now apply that to pulpit ministry. The preacher may spend eight, twelve, perhaps even twenty hours preparing the Word — the seed. But what of the soil? What of the people to whom he will be preaching? How much time does he spend on preparing them?
Once again, an agricultural image may help. In the book of Isaiah, we read of the Lord preparing a vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. 2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. (Isaiah 5:1b-2, NIV)
The point being made here is that the vineyard yielded bad grapes despite the work lavished on it. The failure of the enterprise comes as a surprise precisely because the necessary preparatory work was done. So what about in our pulpit ministry? Clearing the stones and digging the soil are essential parts of the farmer’s work. Should we not also, where possible, work on the soil before we scatter the seed of God’s Word?
Of course the outcome ultimately depends on God. As St Paul famously wrote to the Corinthians, ‘I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow’ (1 Cor 3:6, NIV). Nevertheless, there is both planting and watering, sowing and digging to be done. And after that comes the weeding — the identifying and pulling out of those things which are inhibiting growth and choking the word in the life of the individual.
Let us be clear. Sermons are vital. They are the declaration of God’s Word to the gathered congregation. And therefore the sermon should be carefully prepared and prayerfully delivered. But once again we must consider the outcome in assessing what we do as ‘church’. If the outcome of the ministry of God’s Word is to be maturing Christians, we must recognize that the sermon alone is not enough. The foundation of this ministry is not the pulpit but the person — the one who ministers and the ones who are ministered to.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: