Call me an old school Presbyterian but in my estimation there is nothing as important as the preaching of God’s Word. I don’t think it was overbold for PT Forsyth to suggest: “With its preaching Christianity stands or falls.” Preaching is not merely an appendix to the many activities of the church, an ancillary support to a pastor’s more important tasks, or a supplement for the spirituality of a congregation. It stands at the center. It is the primary method God uses to give faith (Romans 10:17), to save sinners (1 Corinthians 1:21), and to spiritually strengthen (Romans 16:25). It’s for this reason the Westminster Shorter Catechism says: “The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching, of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.” That’s why it can be such a spiritual crisis when people struggle with their pastor’s preaching.
I was recently speaking with a friend who was dealing with this problem. For some time he has not felt overly encouraged or built up by the preaching in his local church. It’s not that there’s false doctrine being preached or anything of that nature. Rather, it has to do with his pastor’s handling of specific texts, his demeanor in the pulpit, his lack of organization, his failure to apply, and things like that. It has created an atmosphere where it’s immensely hard to follow along and benefit very much. He’s not alone. Sadly–and I write this as a preacher who knows I have more weaknesses than strengths and inability than ability–I don’t suspect today’s church will be remembered as an era of strong preaching. James Henley Thornwell lamented in his own day: “There is but little preaching in the world.” Tragically, the result is that congregations are suffering and Christ’s sheep are malnourished. No, I don’t mean those who are hypercritical of all things. Personally, I have little use for people like that. Rather, I mean there are sheep in Christ’s pasture who come week-by-week starving and thirsty, hurting and wounded, empty and crippled, struggling and striving, who are not–for whatever reason–experiencing the power of God from the pulpit. Their genuine question, the question of my friend, and the question I’ve asked myself is: “What should I do?”
Unfortunately, I have sometimes heard leadership answer that question in terms of “Put up and shut up.” Perhaps not that bold but certainly in that spirit. Now, I agree with Martyn Lloyd-Jones who wrote: “I would lay it down as being axiomatic that the pew is never to dictate to, or control, the pulpit.” But the pulpit needs to reach the pew. A preacher needs to effectively communicate so far as he can with those who are directly in front of him. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if he was able to communicate with his seminary professors, a Presbytery, a former church, his fellow peers and friends, or even his mother for that matter. He needs to communicate with the pew. If that isn’t happening a gag order isn’t the answer, but the careful work of shepherding is. So how might I begin to answer that question. Here’s a few suggestions–:
- Guard the priority of the pulpit: In struggles like this it’s easy to adopt a very low view of preaching and demote it to a secondary or even tertiary place. Don’t give in to that subtle temptation. That would be like a husband who, when struggling to communicate with his wife, decides his marriage isn’t that important. That’s not the answer! So even in a struggle like this, fight to maintain the priority of the pulpit in your life. The Bible never has a low view of preaching–neither should we. Pray for, expect, and anticipate the Spirit’s power.
- Guard the way you hear: Preaching is demanding. Not only of the one who must diligently prepare and deliver but also upon those who hear. For preachers and congregants alike, it isn’t easy to be good hearers of the Word. That’s why Jesus warned: “Take care then how you hear” (Luke 8:18). Also, the author of Hebrews reminds us: “For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened” (Hebrews 4:2). Listening to the preaching of the Word is an exercise of faith. If you find yourself not benefiting from it, prayerfully prepare yourself, diligently listen, and thankfully reflect on what you hear preached.
- Guard the attitude of your heart: The Parable of the Sower reminds us that there are many different hearts the seed is scattered upon–the pathway, rocky ground, among thorns, and on good soil. Someone once wrote: “You have likely read the parables of Christ before, perhaps many times. But have they read you?” That parable is intended so you can examine your own heart. If I can be so bold, the condition of your heart has more to do with how you hear than anything else. Again, as the author of Hebrews warned: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (4:7).
- Guard the uniqueness of your preacher: No two preachers are alike. Philip Brooks once said: “[Preaching] is truth through personality.” Whatever criticisms may be made against that definition, there’s a way to appreciate the accuracy of it. Likewise, Richard Sibbes once wrote: “Ministers are Christ’s mouth…And because one man is not so fit as another for all varieties of conditions and spirits, therefore God gives a variety of gifts to his ministers, that they may knock at the heart of every man by their several gifts.” Men are gifted differently for preaching. To expect your preacher to be like your favorite online preacher or historical hero is, at least in my mind, to disrespect the Giver of the gift and comes dangerously close to the Corinthian division: “‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos'” (1 Corinthians 3:4).
- Guard the precept from the preference: The “what” of preaching is always carefully defined by the biblical text. Paul said “Preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2). But the “how” of preaching–how that word is proclaimed, seems largely preferential. It doesn’t seem to me that the techniques, methods, and details by which the truth is declared are carefully spelled out in the Bible. That doesn’t mean that preferences are wrong in and of themselves or can’t guide us, so long as we recognize them as preferences. Unfortunately, many are unwilling to do this. They want their preferences to be precept, and so hold the preacher hostage to their particular likes and dislikes. Even the Westminster Directory for Publick worship, whose method I think is the greatest statement on preaching, cautions itself by saying: “This method is not prescribed as necessary for every man.”
My point in writing all of this is–first and foremost–to redirect you. Often we want to assume the problem begins in the pulpit when it actually begins with self. That’s not intended to let the preacher off the hook. Any preacher who is worth his pulpit’s weight in gold will, “Practice these things, immerse [himself] in them, so that all may see [his] progress” (1 Timothy 4:15). But if you’re struggling with your pastor’s preaching, as is sometimes the case, begin here with yourself. And when you can say with integrity and confidence that you have done all you can to hear the preaching of the Bible with profit but still struggle, humbly go to him or an elder and submit yourself to their shepherding help. Hopefully they have the wisdom, grace, and compassion to work through it so that in this way the Word of God will increase to the gathering and perfecting of the saints.