Thoughts from a growing Pastor-Shepherd…
I'm a Pastor-Shepherd, and I preach and teach every week; multiple times each week. And by God’s grace, He’s saving me from my preaching.
Let me explain…
The Early Years…
When I was younger, particularly in my early seminary days, preaching was “the call” to ministry. Preaching is what guys aspired to. And not just any preaching…big audience preaching. Conference preaching. Being known preaching. Being recognized preaching.
Preaching is an upfront, center stage activity; it's the focus of attention. Our bi-weekly seminary chapels always brought in the best and brightest preachers and expositors of the day.
I remember excitedly talking with my classmates about certain preachers that were scheduled to be on campus, preaching to a packed out chapel. Their books were often available in the chapel lobby, and it was always a challenge to get a good seat down front.
The chapel was abuzz on those days…packed the brim. I vividly recall the day one preacher was scheduled to come. His best-selling book was flying off of Lifeway’s shelves (back when Lifeway had real stores). And they handed out special edition copies to students as we entered the chapel. I've still got my copy.
I remember big names like John Piper, DA Carson, Albert Mohler, Mark Dever, CJ Majaney, Mark Driscoll, Johnny Hunt, Matt Chandler, and more. These big names hit the stage, and we eagerly filled the pews.
That was ministry in my mind. That’s what preaching was meant to be. So I thought…
The dream of so many young men, myself included, was to preach to the masses. To have crowds pouring into the room where you are scheduled to speak; excitedly talking about your skill and delivery beforehand; the hush of the crowd as you take the stage.
But, this is pride. Nothing more. Just deadly pride.
I also remember when the Seminary invited local pastors to preach in chapel. No one had heard of these guys. They were unknown on the speaking circuits because they weren’t on those circuits. They were busy laboring in obscurity among their people. Their sermons weren’t being downloaded by the thousands; or even by the hundreds. No one knew their names, and no one talked about them.
These guys didn’t have the ministry platform that I idolized; even if I didn’t have that conscious awareness at the time. To me, small-time, out of the way preaching gigs weren’t as good or successful as the big-name guys. The small-time guys were unknown and out of the way. And unfortunately, when those unknown pastors came to campus, students like me rarely turned out to hear them.
What I have learned since that time, and by God’s grace, is that while I had a theology of preaching, I had no theology of pastoring. My theology of preaching wasn’t shaped and controlled by a mature theology of pastoring. Preaching is only one part of pastoring; but pastoring is far larger, far more comprehensive, and far richer than simply being a big name on a stage.
But, I hadn’t yet learned that. I needed to be put out to pasture…
In the Fields, Learning to Shepherd
Several things were happening while I was a seminary student that God was using like chisel and sandpaper. While in school, I was also serving a local Church. My first ministry position was Summer kids intern, which meant running our Church’s summer kids ministry program and taking a group of elementary-aged kids to summer camp.
That eventually turned into a part-time ministry position that included kids ministry, youth, college and young adults, and janitorial and maintenance. At the time, I would have told you that I was being underused for my skill and qualification (I was a seminary student after all!) But, in hindsight, I was under-qualified for the work I was doing. With all of my biblical skill and theological thinking, I was just qualified enough to mop floors, setup tables, and not much else.
Unknown to me at the time, God was at work in my head and heart. While I felt overlooked, I now see that God had me in the pasture, honing my skills, teaching me the basics of shepherding through kids and others. Just as David spent his formative years in the field learning to tend flocks and ward off predators, so God was shaping and forming me in this pasture season. The Lord was stripping me of things that had to go so that He could replace them with needed qualities and skills.
In the Field Still…Shepherding.
I’ve served in pastoral ministry for a few years now, and my thinking has changed…for the better, I hope. The big stage, the spotlights, and the conferences are no longer what catches my attention. In fact, that sort of thing is a bit of a turn off to me now. I still have great respect for many of the men who speak and preach there, but my theology of pastoring has finally caught up to my theology of preaching, and thankfully, put it in its place.
While I look back and can see that God sent me into the fields to learn and grow, I now see and cherish that it is in the fields that God has called me to stay. Tending His sheep is the ministry. There is no higher, more prestigious ministry than overseeing the flock of God. And I don’t just mean occupying a title like “lead pastor” in a church. I mean being a Pastor-Shepherd among your people. Knowing them in their joys and sorrows; praying with them; bearing with them; celebrating with them; grieving with them.
And through it all, Pastor-Shepherds oversee their people by faithfully preaching and teaching the Word of God week after week, day after day. In countless moments and seasons, Pastors preach and teach the Word of God to their gathered congregations, and to their individual congregants.
As I look back and reflect on my path thus far, I fondly and prayerfully remember these lyrics from Abide with Me,
“Thou on my head in early youth didst smile
And though rebellious,
And perverse meanwhile;
Thou hast not left me
Though I oft left Thee;
On to the close Lord, abide with me.”
I now see that the gift of preaching is not for the man, but for the people. Preaching is not a tool for platform-building, but for people-building. Preaching is not a means of name-recognition, but a means of grace for the gathered saints. Preaching is one smooth stone in the Pastor-Shepherd's pouch.
One of the great preachers of the 20th century was Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He pastored in the Welsh Church of Aberavon, and then later the Westminster Chapel in London. He is known and remembered for his preaching excellence. He was an unrivaled expositor; tied to the sacred Text of God’s Word. His many sermons and books are still widely read and devoured today by preaching students and aspiring pastors. And rightly so.
Recently, I was reading a biography of the great man and was struck by something in the book. Lloyd-Jones noted that the preacher must hold two things in tension:
1 - He must get the text of Scripture right. What does it mean? What is the author saying? How does it fit in with the rest of Scripture? How does it point us to Christ?
2 - And, the preacher must also get the text right for his people.
Oftentimes, preachers can get so caught up with the first one; getting the text right. Seminary students and pastors can get lost in the exegesis and biblical theology in every text of Scripture. But, that is often not what the people in front of us need.
My people rarely need to hear every cross-reference present in every text; or every textual connection or allusion; they usually don’t need to hear various opinions and explanations from commentaries; they really don’t even need loads of word studies. What my people need is to hear the Word of God, and they need to understand why it matters to them. That means my preaching must be focused on getting the Text right, and getting it right for my people.
And if I’m going to get the text right, then I've got to be a good student of the Word.
And if I'm going to get the text right for my people, I've got to be a good student of my Church. I’ve got to know my people...
I’ve got to know who they are;
Their family situations;
Where they work, and the struggles they face in that environment;
What their sins struggles are;
Where they are succeeding, and where they are failing;
Whose marriages are strong, and who needs special prayer and grace;
How parents are doing with their children;
How my senior saints are dealing with health issues and the approach of death;
I’ve got to know who is on the brink of collapse and ruin…
-In short, what I’ve learned, and am learning, is that if I want to be a good preacher, I must first be a good pastor; I’ve got to be a shepherd.
God is Saving Me from My Preaching.
He's is not saving me from having to preach, but from a messed up and misguided idea of what preaching is. Like most young men, I was pompous, arrogant, and had wrong ideas about a lot of things. And while I’m not claiming to have outgrown all of them, I do see that God is at work in my head and heart helping me to better understand what preaching is, and what preaching is for. It is God's gift to His people.
Most any man can get on stage and deliver a polished talk to a crowd he doesn't know; and he can receive that crowd's adoration and support. I know this from first-hand experience having given praise and respect to many men I don't know personally. And when that happens, that crowd is responding to skill and perceived character…but most of the crowd will not know the man personally. They can’t.
And if recent days have taught us anything, its that men can fake character really well when no one is watching.
Pastors-Shepherds, on the other hand, by nature of their ministry, can't fake their character. They must be known by their people. And when they rise to their pulpits, week after week, their sheep should think, “That man loves me and cares for me. He knows me. And what he is about to say is for me.”
May God continue to save me from my preaching...