Thursday, 25 July 2013

Some Thoughts on the (In)adequacy of Pulpit Ministry


(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.
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13 comments:

  1. "Let us be clear. Sermons are vital. . . . . we must recognize that the sermon alone is not enough."

    I suggest (as do many others critical of the "sermon event") that the traditional monologue sermon is anything but vital.
    The New Testament presents an entirely different picture as to the communication of the Gospel of Christ - and it does not consist of sermons !
    Please explain why the modern sermon monologue, as opposed to the many other means of mutual edification of believers, as set out by Paul and other NT writers so clearly in the NT, is "vital.

    Nobody disputes that the Word of God is certainly to be a central feature of the church when gathered together - but sermons?
    I think that modern advocates of the sermon need to justify the practice from the New Testament.

    As a start, and in order to clarify a little as what the NT asserts, preaching and sermons are not co-terminous.

    Thus for example, all the 42 occurrences of the common NT word for preaching (euangelizomai) refer to the proclamation of the Gospel to unbelievers (with a couple of minor exceptions).
    There is therefore a very clear distinction to be drawn between such preaching (to non Christians evangelistically), and the practice of teaching and up-building the church comprising believers when gathered.
    It is vital that distinction be maintained if we are to assess a NT view of communicating truth.

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  2. Graham, you haven't made clear what form you think the ministry of the Word *should* take, if not systematic teaching by those best qualified to give it, who ipso facto ought to be in spiritual authority over local congregations (and woe betide any church where that's far from the case).

    What does "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching" mean in Acts 2:42?

    What does "daily in the temple, and in every house, [the apostles] ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ" mean in Acts 5:42? That certainly wasn't just preaching to unbelievers.

    Also I think the idea of a 'monologue' is a bit of a straw man - any decent preacher is sure to welcome and indeed encourage feedback and discussion emerging from the initial teaching.

    Looking forward to your thoughts.

    Dan

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  3. Hi Dan. Thanks for your comments. As you may already realise the subject of "preaching" is part of a long and deeply held tradition in most churches and is quite a large subject.
    I have interspersed some responses to your comments:

    Graham, you haven't made clear what form you think the ministry of the Word *should* take, if not systematic teaching by those best qualified to give it, who ipso facto ought to be in spiritual authority over local congregations (and woe betide any church where that's far from the case).
    GW. There are about thirty Greek words in the NT for proclaiming the word of God, but unfortunately, and mainly in the AV, these are translated wrongly and rendered "preach".
    The tacit assumption is made that this wide variety of Christian communication is the same as that undertaken by Christian clergy in their pulpits in the sermon monologue !

    What form then should the ministry of the word take, you ask? I assume you speak of
    the up-building and edification of believers when gathered, as opposed to the evangelistic preaching and heralding of the Gospel to unbelievers? The distinction is important.
    What seems clear from the NT, and particularly Paul's Ephesian and Corinthian letters, is that when believers gathered the meetins were not divided into speaker (preacher) and a passive congregation, for such a picture is completely foreign to the NT.
    At the heart of NT church meetings was the concept of fellowship and mutual ministries to "one another" (the phrase occurs over 50 times in the NT). This did not exclude of course some form of teaching ministry by one or more elders, or other gifted brothers or sisters - and Paul expounds this principle in 1 Cor. 12-14 where the active participation of EVERY member of the body of Christ is encouraged (although not all are called to speak necessarily at one or more meetings). This is the classic meaning, in practice, of the priesthood of all believers, as opposed to that of one believer !
    The purpose of the Christian meeting is the edification of the whole church through teaching (a different word is used here in the NT, namely 'didasko'), not preaching which is directed to unbelievers. Thus for example Paul explains in Eph. 4. that a teaching ministry by teachers/elders is guide and direct believers for THEIR work of ministry (Eph.4:12). He expands on this theme in 1 Cor. 12 where ministry is directed by the exercise of spiritual gifts. 1 Cor. 12:1 indicates this was important to recognise and accept as the norm.

    What does "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching" mean in Acts 2:42?
    GW I don't take this verse as being particularly relevant to preaching - it simply asserts that converts in the early church accepted and believed Apostolic doctrine, enjoyed fellow ship, and celebrated the breaking of bread together. Nothing more.

    Further post follows

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  4. What does "daily in the temple, and in every house, [the apostles] ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ" mean in Acts 5:42? That certainly wasn't just preaching to unbelievers.

    GW. Both Peter and Paul engaged in reaching their fellow Jews with the Gospel regularly in both the Temple and synagogues. I think that on this occasion they were proclaiming the Messiah to unbelieving Jews. However this passage has no relevance in my view to the "sermon" event in the modern church.

    Also I think the idea of a 'monologue' is a bit of a straw man - any decent preacher is sure to welcome and indeed encourage feedback and discussion emerging from the initial teaching.

    GW Really!? I have never yet experienced any preacher prepared to engage in open dialogue, questions, discussion, and mutual exchanges in the course of what is called a "worship service" ! Paul's concept in 1 Cor.12-14 was that such communication was normal,. and regular, and a vital part of the church meeting.
    Perhaps you can point me to NT passages dealing with the Christian gathering where the monologue is taught?
    Graham

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  5. John. A further response to your article. I am intrigued by the mis-match between your header on the subject of preaching: "Some Thoughts on the (In)adequacy of Pulpit Ministry", and your further note that "sermons are vital"?
    This raises any number of questions about the modern "sermon" phenomena, not least the question which you yourself appear to raise, namely that if the pulpit ministry is inadequate (with that I fully concur), then it seems clear that a vital ingredient of that ministry being the sermon - cannot be "vital" at all?
    There is much evidence from the low spiritual state of churches that this is in fact the case. As Clyde Reid puts it: "How is it that people can hear good preaching all their lives and yet not know who or what God is?"
    Of course there are exceptions to every rule, and some relatively 'good' sermons, although your generalisations about sermons being better than those of 30 years ago does not appear to be backed by evidence. Not much changes. However it is the principle here which is important, and one that you do not address.
    Why not source your discussion directly from the New Testament? Surely we have there more than enough by way of clear material and didactic teaching about the nature of ministry?
    Why, for example, ignore the basic foundational truths that Paul establishes in both his Ephesian and Corinthian letters, and present a case for ministry from such passages and from other abundant material in the NT?
    I suggest that the preaching tradition stems directly from the greater entrenched tradition of the "clergy/laity" dichotomy which prevails throughout our churches, and which limits the ministry of the Word of which you speak, to a ministerial and ordained class of professionals of which the NT knows nothing. The error of this tradition is most serious, and I suggest is responsible for the "inadequacy" to which you refer, in that it is assumed that 'ordinary' believers are not qualified to speak the word of God, but only the clergy and the establishment structures of which they are a part.

    Much of that inadequacy stems from the fact that many clergy function as 'preachers' because they are paid and expected to do so, whether or not they are gifted, or adequate in themselves. Many are careerists, or those who, in the words of John the Apostle "love to have the pre-eminence".
    There can be no other reason for the presumption that they, and they alone, dominate the Christian gathering via their sermon, whilst the rest of the body of Christ are to be mute and passive listeners. This is a travesty of the NT teaching about the means by which local congregations of Christians are to grow and mature spiritually. How then do you justify the current practice from the NT please?
    Thanks.
    Graham

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  6. Graham, vitamins are vital but you can't live on them.

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  7. "Graham, vitamins are vital but you can't live on them." John. I fail to see what that has to do with the serious subject you raise? Perhaps you would care to expand and explain?
    I assumed you wrote the piece in order to raise and answer vital questions about the nature of biblical ministry?
    Thanks
    Graham

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  8. Sorry, Graham, I thought it was a bit obvious! A thing may be 'vital' but not 'sufficient' - adequate, but without other things 'inadequate'.

    The NT pattern clearly included congregational addresses, as did the synagogue meeting. I do not see any reason to 'drop' the sermon - though I'd be interested to know what they do in your congregation.

    I would highly commend for background reading Roger Beckwith's "Elders in Every City". He gives a good overview of what actually happened and what the church seems to have done.

    Theologically, the congregation can be seen as a microcosm of the gathering of the qahal - the assembly - typified at Mt Sinai - THE day of assembly in the wilderness - which was assembling to hear God's Word. There are ways, of course, in which this can be done, but preaching to the congregation in one of them - the logos paraklesis of Acts 13:15, for example.

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  9. "The NT pattern clearly included congregational addresses, as did the synagogue meeting. I do not see any reason to 'drop' the sermon - though I'd be interested to know what they do in your congregation."

    Two points here by way or response:
    First, I see no reason to conflate the "congregational addresses" (i.e. what went on in Christian gatherings) with the evangelistic messages which Paul and the Apostles directed at non believing Jews in the synagogue meeting. These Paul attended and used such occasions to preach Christ as the Messiah, but these are not to be confused with the Christian gatherings of believers in the early churches as often recorded in Acts.
    Second, I agree of course that the NT congregations in some degree will have received regular teaching, (not to be confused with preaching) initially from the Apostles, and then via gifted elders and teachers within the congregations, but there is nothing to suggest that this took the form of a week by week monologue by one person - least of all confined to an ordained class of professionals !

    As before suggested, if we wish to know the nature and form of early Christian gatherings then we have an abundance of NT material from which to deduce both principle and practice.
    Why not present your case citing NT sources, rather than generalised arguments from current tradition and practice?
    For example, the NT contains only one single extended description of a Christian gathering, apart from the Lord's Supper, namely 1 Cor. 14:23-40. In the same letter (1 Cor. 12-14) and in Eph. 4 a pattern: emerges which is that of mutual ministries amongst believers through the development of spiritual gifts. Indeed, it is suggested that the NT provides no other alternative pattern, and as J. G Dunn points out, it is likely that other NT churches operated similarly.

    In none of these passages, or anywhere else in the NT, is there a single suggestion that the church is nurtured and matured through a monologue sermon, although occasionally such an address obviously cannot be ruled out to answer specific errors or doctrinal issues needing clarification. Thus Acts 15 would have been a case in point.
    The real issue is that the inflexible and institutional modern sermon event cuts right across the NT concept of a functioning priesthood of ALL believers when gathered.

    By contrast, preaching took place normally outside the Christian gathering and was directed at unbelievers. Thus your quote from Acts 13:15 is one of those evangelistic occasions and I think you need to read Acts a little more carefully to distinguish between the two separate concepts of preaching and teaching.
    Incidentally, let me ask, do you view 1 Cor. 12-14 as establishing an authoritative pattern of the Christian gathering which is relevant for today?
    Graham

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  10. Graham, in answer to your last question, yes and no. Yes, we must heed the warnings, no we needn't - and shouldn't in the case of the Corinthians - follow the patterns of the NT 'to the letter'.

    Do you have sermons in your church?

    Last point, interpreting the NT is not done just by reading the NT (or OT, come to that). We avail ourselves of all the resources (eg of the languages) to interpret, and Beckwith has done a good job of this with the material regarding elders, assemblies, etc.

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  11. "Graham, in answer to your last question, yes and no. Yes, we must heed the warnings, no we needn't - and shouldn't in the case of the Corinthians - follow the patterns of the NT 'to the letter'.

    John. That is an extremely odd comment to make about NT scripture. If we must "heed the warnings" what is the reason for doing so? Answer: because the letter including such warnings is vested with Apostolic authority and is part of the word of God to the corporate church for all ages. "No we needn'.t . . .! But that is a wholly contradictory position. Who are we to pick and choose what passages of Scripture we will accept as authoritative?

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  12. Graham, I think you and I would have to sit down and have a proper conversation to find out what each thinks and why. This thread frankly looks too much like trying to catch me out!

    For example, when I say, "We shouldn't follow the pattern of the NT to the letter", look at 1 Cor 11:17: "when you come together ... it is for the worse". Part of that, presumably, refers to 12 Cor 14:26, "when you come together, each one has ...". That is their pattern, Paul does not commend all their pattern, we don't have to follow it.

    But it would be better if you would interpret ME more generously and less antagonistically! That might lead to a godly conversation.

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  13. Thanks for your further post.
    Firstly in response to your "antagonistic" remark.. Far from it! Nothing at all personal here - I simply respond to your invitation to contribute comment on the (In)adequacy of pulpit ministry.
    Notwithstanding that we hold different doctrines of the church, I hope that open discussion will bring more light than heat. To that extent therefore we are already "sitting down and having an proper conversation."

    "This thread frankly looks too much like trying to catch me out!"
    Answer: Not at all - no need to be so defensive ! Surely the purpose of a blog is to explore differences with a view to working towards some sort of biblical consensus on the issues which you yourself raise.
    As I have already said, I am genuinely puzzled by the apparent contradiction between your header about the inadequacy of the pulpit ministry, and the sermon being "vital".
    Surely there must be some connection between the two here? So I ask: how then is the sermon vital?

    Re your second para. Of course I am not suggesting we should follow the obvious faults found in the Corinthian churches. Paul both commends them and censures them - but then he takes the opportunity to positively set out a pattern for ministry based on the necessary functioning of EVERY part of the body of Christ when gathered. (1.Cor. 12:14).
    I think you will agree that Paul most certainly does commend that pattern for the Corinthians, and by implication for the churches of Christ generally for all time.

    However, perhaps we can return to the thread subject and the question I raised earlier about the place of the monologue sermon - "this is a travesty of the NT teaching about the means by which local congregations of Christians are to grow and mature spiritually. How then do you justify the current practice from the NT"?

    I raise this again because it seems to me that the current system as practised in the C of E and elsewhere, completely by-passes these critical passages in 1 Cor. 12-14 and Eph. 4 which speak of the means by which the church is nourished, matured, and to grow in Christ.

    Do we have warrant to ignore such passages as if they are irrelevant? What, for example, is the purpose of God's gracious provision of spiritual gifts for his whole church (1. Cor. 12), and Paul's call to "covet earnestly the best gifts" (v.31) if not applicable to the whole subject of ministry today?

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