Preaching, said Eugene Peterson, is the “one thing needful” for any pastor: “Lest the ‘one thing’ get buried in the frenzy of multi-tasking, we need continual reaffirmation of the ‘one thing’ as both glory and mystery anchors our vocation”.
When I was a teenager my minister, Frank Goodwin refused to call himself a ‘minister’ or a ‘pastor’ – he was a ‘preacher’. In German-speaking countries Baptist ministers are always ‘preachers’ (Prediger). Similarly in North America many ministers are known as ‘preachers’. In a Barna survey of more than one thousand senior American pastors, preaching topped the list of the primary joys of ministry. Preaching was their number one priority.
For Baptists and the Free Churches in general, preaching has been the primary ‘sacrament’ through which God has made himself known and ministered his grace. Whereas in Anglican churches there is a central aisle because the altar is central, traditionally in Nonconformist churches there is no central aisle, for the pulpit is central. People seeking to gain admission to Baptist theological colleges speak of their ‘call’ to preach. At ordination the call to preach heads the duties of a minister. Generations of Baptist ordinands were asked: “Do your promise to execute your charge with all fidelity, to preach and teach the word of God from the Holy Scriptures?” (Payne & Winward, Orders & Prayers for Church Worship, 4th edition 1967). Today the question has been re-phrased, but still preaching is to the fore: “Will you proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ through word and deed, making disciples and seeking the coming of the kingdom?” (Ellis & Blyth, Gathering for Worship 2005) After the ordination prayer the new minister is presented with an ordination Bible:
Here is the living word of God: words to encourage the weak, restore the lost and build up the body of Christ. Read them and teach them, proclaim the gospel of Christ, that the people of God may be a gospel people.
When ministers are seeking a call to a local church, they have to stand before a congregation and preach ‘with a view to the pastorate’.
Preaching was at the heart of the ministry of Jesus. In Mark’s Gospel we read that “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming [AV ‘preaching’] the good news of God” (Mark 1.14). Preaching was at the heart of Paul’s ministry: “Woe to me if I preach not the Gospel” (1 Cor 9.16). Why then is preaching no longer at the heart of ministry in many Baptist churches today? A friend of mine was exploring the possibility of moving to another church and in the process met with the deacons who told him that they would expect their new minister to preach just once every six weeks so that others in the church might have opportunity to use their gifts. Although this was an extreme case, most Baptist churches have a preaching rota in which the minister is just one of the preachers. I find this bizarre. What is the point of having an accredited ministry and all the testing and training which that involves if the minister is not the regular preacher? The fact that God has gifted his people does not mean that he has gifted all and sundry to preach!
Ministers too appear to be colluding in this misunderstanding of ‘every member ministry’. Some are happy to let others preach on occasions such as Christmas or Easter when guests abound. Others are happy to let the testimonies of the baptismal candidates take the place of the sermon at a baptismal service. I find this strange. Is it that some ministers feel that they have more important things to do during the week than to sit down and prepare a sermon? Bearing in mind the general demise of the evening service, today’s ministers cannot pretend that they are overloaded with preaching duties. Or is it that they no longer believe that preaching has a power that no other form of oral communication possesses?
To be called to preach is an enormous privilege. If preaching is no longer central to the life of a minister then something has gone wrong with their sense of call.