In teaching homiletics, I regularly encounter young men eager yet nervous about preaching. The call to proclaim the gospel is earnest in their hearts, though the reality of standing in front of a congregation of God's people is intimidating. Often in beginning classroom discussions about preaching, these men in training equate preaching solely with the public proclamation of God's Word to the congregation each Lord's Day. Their focus in preaching is almost exclusively on being up front in a pulpit at church. Certainly delivering public messages is what they are in the class to learn. Yet these conversations lead us to discuss the other side of the preaching ministry.
For there is also what we might call the "back side" that cannot be neglected in considering the ministry of preaching. This other side helps give the public proclamation of the Word more unction, love, and focus. What is this back side? We hear of it in the Apostle Paul as he reminds the elders at Ephesus of his ministry in their midst for the three years that he was with them.
Clearly Paul had proclaimed God's Word to the Ephesians in power. His enemies said that "Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people" from their idols (Acts 19:26). He told the elders that he "did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public" (Acts 20:20), and "did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God" (v. 27). His public, upfront ministry of preaching was bold, strong, and effectual.
Yet Paul also speaks of how this ministry of the Word was characterized by the "back side" of private instruction. He not only taught them in public, but "from house to house" (v. 20). Paul spoke of being "among (them) proclaiming the kingdom of God" (v. 25), and that for those three years he "did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears" (v. 32). He spent time helping the weak among them (v. 34). From the sounds of the description of his own ministry, one gets the sense that Paul considered the back side with the people of Ephesus as essential to being up in front of them.
For is this not the way of the true shepherd? Yes, he does stand in front and feed the sheep of Christ from the green pastures of His Word. But he also comes down from the pulpit and lives with and among the sheep, personally coming alongside, instructing, encouraging, admonishing, and weeping over those given to his charge. This back side work of the preacher does not supplant but rather supports and empowers the front side of his ministry.
So I remind preachers in training to not limit in their minds this holistic sense of preaching. Sermons spoken earnestly in living rooms, while lacking the form and fuller substance of corporate messages, can still be like John the Baptist in paving the way for sermons from the pulpit. To encourage this lesson in these budding preachers, I give them a simple assignment. Before they preach their message in public, I have them share it in part with at least one person in private. For part of learning to preach to congregations is learning how to instruct congregants.