The Congregation and the Pulpit

How can a congregation help their pastors to preach God’s Word more effectively? We sometimes have the idea that the seminary—as helpful as it may be—is the end-all for getting preachers ready to preach. Yet it takes more than a seminary to make a preacher. It takes a faithful, partnering congregation to enable a pastor to preach well.

This reality hit home in a recent discussion with some church members. For the past few months we’ve been reading and discussing Carl Trueman’s Grace Alone: Salvation as a Gift of God. His comments about the preaching of the word as a means of grace spurred our thinking concerning the congregation and effective preaching. Here’s what he wrote:

If the Reformation understanding of grace is taken seriously, then the reading and especially the preaching of the word of God will stand at the center of Protestant practice. Preaching the word is a means of grace; in fact, it is the primary means of grace. It is the means God has appointed for bringing his gracious purpose to fruition in the lives of the men and women who make up the church. God acts first and foremost in the proclamation from the pulpit of his mighty saving acts (174-175).

I must admit, that paragraph staggers me; not because I disagree with it but because I believe that he’s right. Furthermore, since the past forty years of my life has been devoted to pulpit proclamation, his comments affect me even more. The hours spent struggling and wrestling with a biblical text each week, attempting to expound it with passion and clarity, provide the congregation with “the primary means of grace.” That’s why any pastor living with the weightiness of opening God’s Word to the body will feel this burden anew each week.

Here’s where our discussion led to the intersection of congregation and pulpit. While I am the one that most often stands in our church’s pulpit to expound the Word, I’m conscious that I’m not standing alone. Certainly, other pastors in our church share that responsibility, but much more, the congregation helps us as we preach. The congregation is not simply a static audience. They participate in what takes place in the pulpit. Maturing congregations help their pastors to faithfully deliver this means of grace to the church in preaching God’s Word. Here are some ways this happens.

First, the church regularly prays for its pastors. I can’t count the number of times that someone quietly asks how they can pray for me or tells me that they pray for me. It’s not just the thought that counts; it’s the reality that our God hears their prayers and answers. And it’s a good thing that he does! Otherwise, weak, flawed men that stand in the pulpit would not be able to continue their proclamation ministry through the years of pastoral challenges. That’s one reason why Paul thanked the Philippian church for their participation in his gospel ministry (Phil. 1:5–7).

I know that there’s no way for me to really understand just how much the praying of the body at South Woods undergirds my preaching. At times when the adversary would subdue me, the body prays and the Lord answers. When the world would sidetrack me, or the flesh would recoil at the demands in preparing to preach, the church prays and God answers. I go about my responsibilities, sometimes—ashamedly—thinking that I’m pretty strong and determined, but through it all, there’s much more to it. The body prays and the Lord sustains.

Second, the church regularly reads through and studies God’s Word. While a congregation has some young Christians in its midst still developing in the spiritual disciplines, many in the body have made a lifelong practice of reading through the Scripture: studying, meditating, discussing, and memorizing the Word. When that happens, the congregation listens more attentively. The pulpit connects the dots they’ve been gathering through time in the Word. As they listen well, the pastor’s preaching inevitably improves. The Berean spirit is noted in Acts 17 for a reason! It wonderfully spurred Paul and Silas as they preached and taught. Due to time in the Word, members will ask thoughtful questions that inspire their pastors to study harder and think with more clarity in preparing to expound the Word.

Third, the church reads good theological, historical, and devotional books. The congregation doesn’t have the appetite for the feel-good stuff that seems so popular in cultural Christianity. They know that such material has no theological bearings, so they don’t waste their time with it. Instead, members read the kind of books that encourage spiritual maturity. They get together and talk about what they’re learning from these books. When that context surrounds the pastor, then it affects the way that he prepares for Sundays. With sharpened minds and spiritually sensitive hearts in the congregation, their pastors dig deeper and work harder to faithfully proclaim God’s Word. Churches that read well always challenge their pastors to preach well.

Fourth, the church regularly gathers with expectancy that the Word will be expounded consistently, faithfully, clearly, and with the Spirit’s power. When the church is growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ, and faithfully attends its gatherings, they have a higher expectation of what comes from the pulpit. That’s not arrogance but the humble recognition that without the Word we cannot survive. So forget the fluff, leave off the cute jokes, don’t waste time with entertainment, just give us God’s Word. And if the pastor will not do the preparation and hard work to give the church the Word, then he needs to step down and give the pulpit to another that will faithfully do so.

Here’s the reality. Whatever effectiveness that I may have had in pastoral preaching cannot be attributed to my gifts and abilities. Rather, God has given grace to preach and teach because of a faithful congregation that prays, reads and studies the Word, reads good books, regularly attends, and lives with an expectation of receiving the means of grace each week through the exposition of Holy Scripture. Thank God for churches that take the weekly pulpit ministry seriously, knowing that it’s not just the man in the pulpit responsible for making the most of this means of grace. It’s also the church body partnering with the pastors to maximize each gathering around the Word.

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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