Called to preach

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.

8 comments

  1. Interesting comment which follows neatly on from last week’s comment on ministers delegating prayers and the like.
    I remember when Frank Goodwyn was retiring I believe he was the the president of BU he came to our association and told me he was off to live in the states as British Baptists no longer appreciate or want a decent sermon.

    I went to a conference recently and sketches were presented by the breakout groups to identify the modern problems….
    They used the hymn
    I the Lord of sea and sky
    And they rewrote the chorus
    When their minister was called Dave
    I hear you calling in the night
    Is it Dave Lord send Dave Lord we pay Dave Lord abs we are busy Lord
    We hear you calling send Dave!!

  2. Absolutely spot on, Paul. And very timely too. I suspect many UNTRAINED people want to get into the pulpit simply to express their own views and often they present a distortion of the truth although their hearts and their faith are in the right place, but they simply haven’t been TRAINED in the biblical disciplines to rightly divide the word of God, nor to read with understanding the history of the church and see where muddled thinking has often led the church astray.

    I think it was your beloved father who preached what was for me a very informative sermon on the call of the first disciples which he said was a story Mark had penned in the particular way he did to teach about the calling of the church to CAST the nets – to PROCLAIM the good news and ALSO to MEND the nets, which, AYK, is a PASTORAL word used by Mark’s companion, your namesake, Paul.

    I fear that ‘ministers’ are not being taught to put enough emphasis on both preaching and pastoring as much as on church planting. From what I hear. The emphasis is more on ‘bums on seats’ than on following Jesus in ministering to needy people who then wanted to follow him – though not all did! I guess you’ll have read Tom Wright’s “Surprised by Hope” which I’m currently working through. I feel, like you, he has things right. Thanks again, Paul, keep stimulating us. Brian

    Lay preachers are often very good, but God forbid the untutored ones should ever preach more often than a biblically trained preacher. Thank you Paul for your thoughts this month.

    1. That key insight’ Mark wrote ……..
      We have 4 gospels each with their own angles. All too often people who should know better run them all together.
      I feel that many can’t preach from the gospels because they are merely assumed to tell us what Jesus said and did.
      Our big problem is that we think that anyone can do it ….. lead worship, preach etc etc whereas in reality many can’t to any decent standard.

  3. We need to hear this Paul. As one who has spent decades in Baptist ministry, but who is now found within Anglican circles (NZ), I have been bemused that it takes an ordained priest to preside at Eucharist, but any Tom, Dick, or Mary can be invited to preach. There is a eighth sacrament, and we (sadly too often) neglect it to the churches’ peril. When God’s word is preached something always happens – lives are liberated or hearts are hardened. Either way, something happens. I’ll never forget the words of a friend spoken to me some three decades back. “Never underestimate the power of regular, systematic, howbeit unspectacular Biblical preaching”.

  4. Unlike those I have seen commenting, I am , for want of a better word ‘pure sermon fodder’. I have been listening to sermons for some 70+ years. During that time I have heard thousands of sermons, very few of which are memorable. What is clear is the deterioration in sermon content over that period. They have gone from “Thus saith the Lord” to details of what I did this week; with the emphasis on current sociology, current politics and events.
    I believe that much of this stems from a liberal mindset that believes that the Bible may contain the Word of God, but is not necessarily the Word of God The orthodox Christian view has always been that it is the Word of God, not necessarily in a fundamentalist or literalist sense however. The text is qualified by Language, History and purpose but it is the fundamental source of our Christian Faith.
    When some Anglican congregations, no longer hear the person who is reading the lesson say at the end”This is the Word of the Lord” as I have been told happens, I believe that this is indicative of the malaise.
    If the Bible is no longer regarded as the Word of the Lord, what is there to preach about?

  5. Yet again your blog has provoked a comment from me.
    I have been thinking recently about the difference between teaching and preaching in the new testament. It seems at least from Eph 4, that pastor’s are also called to be teachers. It is noteworthy that Jesus was addressed as ‘good teacher’ and Paul also called himself this.
    So then what is the difference? There must be one. Would it be fair to suggest that preaching is a lesser role than teaching. Personally I would prefer to hear a good teacher in the pulpit (or on the stage) all day long, than a preacher who perhaps doesn’t know what he’s talking about because he’s merely regurgitating doctrine instead of speaking about what he understands.
    I expect we’ve all had some good teachers, of all subjects, at school and college, so why shouldn’t we be hearing teaching at church of a similar quality?
    Would you have a comment on this? As you can gather I’m all for the ministry of the Word from our ministers.
    Martin Pringle from Ilford

  6. When I was a student (many moons ago now) I attended a church where the Minister was renowned as a Bible teacher – although I think I’d find him a bit too conservative for me these days. His preaching was low-key but one simply “had to” listen to him. He had a great gift of being able, in the same sermon, to relate to people at different stages in their Christian life and with varying levels of Biblical knowledge. The one area in which he was weak was in application: this was basically due to his Calvinist principles which basically said, “You preach, God will help people make the appropriate applicatiob”. What application there was tended to be personal rather than societal, not uncommon among evangelicals of the time.

    Some time later, as a missionary candidate, I attended what I might call a “sensible” charismatic Baptist church. The Minister there was also an outstanding Bible teacher, but he added a prophetic (but caiutious) twist to his preaching: not just “This is what God says in his Word” but “I believe this may be what God is wanting to say to us, today”. It was never “pushy”, always humble – yet firm. I found this attitude to be refreshing and have tried to preach accordingly ever since.

    Speaking more generally, I note that most if not all the comments on this page seem to be from those who are of (ahem) more mature years. Does this reflect the demographic of Paul’s readership, a realistic evaluation of how things have changed, or a nostalgia for the “olden days in which things were so much better”? I don’t know; but one thing I do know is that preaching has to be Bible-centred and intelligent, interesting and lively, and relevant to people’s needs today.

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