A Place to Preach or a People to Pastor?

I had extended conversations this week with five young pastors. The longest serving just reached five years of ministry. The rest hover around three years. Each pastorate has been challenging. Some serve older congregations stuck in a 1950s time warp. Other congregations bow up at even the hint of change. Still others have shown animosity to the exposition of Scripture. These preachers have experienced the brunt of gossip, nasty business meetings, movements to remove them, and the loss of members. They’ve also witnessed people coming to Christ, believers growing in gospel application, new levels of sacrificial service and giving, revitalized practices in membership, and renewed worship of the living God. In such a short time they’ve discovered that pastoral work requires more than preaching each Sunday, while by their own testimony, preaching remains at the center of their work. They stay in the trenches, facing obstacles along the way, but confident in the gospel’s power at work in their congregations.

I admire these five young pastors! They have shown tenacity when many in my generation would have sent out resumes and moved on to the next stop. Each has expressed planting his life among the people that called them to serve as pastor. They understand that the easy, quick fix would be to cut and run. But they refuse to do so, knowing that they will one day give an account to the Great Shepherd for the way that they’ve discharged their responsibilities (Heb 13:17; 1 Pet 5:4). They did not accept those pastorates just for a preaching point. They labor to preach Christ and shepherd the flock, until Christ is formed in the congregation (Gal 5:19).

Not all preachers grasp what these young men have. Some men, even good men, seem to be enamored with preaching. I can’t really blame them since preaching stands alone among the many fields of Christian ministry. Yet preaching is such a high, holy calling and weighty responsibility that one must never enter into it without counting the cost. At just this point lies a critical issue among those desiring to preach the gospel. Does such a man just want a place to preach, or does he long to preach to a people whom he will shepherd as Christ’s followers?

Preach the Word!

Consider Paul’s instruction to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:1–5. With good reason, this text likely finds its way into more ordination services than most others. But here’s the question that confronts us. Was Paul charging Timothy with preaching generically or to a particular people? And so, do we approach this passage as a general instruction on preaching or does it have striking emphasis on preaching to a given people as a shepherd?

After highlighting the solemnity of the responsibility of preaching, Paul charges, “Preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2). Certainly that must be our rallying cry with any sermon in any setting. Yet the balance of what Paul intended appears to tip the scale toward pastoral preaching. “Be ready in season and out of season,” so any time, any occasion. “Reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.” Who is being reproved, rebuked, and exhorted? Does that describe a one-time preaching engagement? Perhaps, but without knowing the people to whom he preaches, how will he appropriately reprove, rebuke, and exhort with effectiveness if he preaches a solitary sermon to a congregation?

Why the need for “great patience and instruction?” That implies a continual pulpit ministry to a particular people that requires the preacher to show humility and patience in bringing them along in understanding God’s Word. “Instruction,” or doctrinal teaching, demands regular ministry. So the implication, it seems, is that while we must accept “preach the word” as a rallying cry for all preaching, the particular details that follow best fit the ongoing expository ministry of a pastor faithfully serving a congregation.

Paul continues by warning of a time ahead, “when they will not endure sound doctrine.” Does he speak that generically of all people or did he have in mind the people of Ephesus where Timothy served? The latter best fits the context. So Paul exhorts Timothy, who by this time may have lived with a knot in his stomach over the problems existing in the church, “Fulfill your ministry.” Don’t cut it short. Don’t give up. Don’t’ compromise what has been entrusted to you. Don’t just preach, but “fulfill your ministry.”

I was discussing this subject with one of our pastoral interns who recently preached at a church that may be considering him as a pastoral candidate. I asked simply, “You have to discern whether you are looking for a place to preach or whether you are committed to shepherding that congregation.” There is a difference. In the former one might polish his sermons, add oratorical flash, and expect compliments that he has preached a solid sermon. In the latter, he feels the weight of that congregation’s needs as he approaches the pulpit with the Word of God. He’s conscious that from his trembling lips comes life for that man he’s counseled over and over for habitual sin; hope for the lady recently diagnosed with terminal cancer; a vision of the sufficiency of the gospel for the one struggling to put one foot in front of the other; and the call to serve Christ internationally in the Spirit’s power for that young couple burdened for unreached people groups. That kind of preaching takes place when a pastor lives with, prays for, loves, invests in, and faithfully shepherds his flock in all of the ups and downs of pastoral ministry. Is it just a preaching point? No, but rather a people entrusted to him by the Lord of the church to pastorally preach week after week after week, even when things get difficult, even when those very people rise up in rebellion, and even when the preacher is no longer popular—that’s the call to pastoral preaching. And so he preaches until Christ is formed in that congregation.

So preach the Word whenever the opportunity arises. Take advantage of filling a pulpit. But don’t accept a church’s call as pastor to simply have a place to preach. That Christ-accountable labor belongs to the man committed to shepherd Christ’s flock.

Phil planted South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee in 1987 and continues to serve as senior pastor of that congregation. He previously pastored churches in Mississippi and Alabama. He received his education at the University of Mobile (B.A.), New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Fuller Theological Seminary (D.Min.), and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Ph.D.). Phil and his wife Karen married in 1975, and have five children and seven grandchildren.
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