What If Preaching Isn’t The Primary Role Of A Pastor?

Preaching_TheoMatters3Yesterday I wondered about why it seems that so much of “American Christianity” resembles the self-help driven “pursuit of happiness” more than it does following Jesus through the Valleys as well as they plateaus.

Long-time reader, first-time commenter Jennifer noted:

It seems what you’re asking for is a Christianity in which people inside the body of Christ are authentic with one another.

“That’s exactly what I’m asking for”, I responded, continuing:

I’ve come to believe that most (well-intentioned) church programs exist because real relationships don’t. The main thing we’ve been called to is discipleship which happens best in relationships, not church classrooms. Since programs/classes are not real life, they’re not designed or equipped to deal with people’s real lives so we default by pretending everything is fine.

Many of our churches foster fake environments in which people pretend everything is fine “because JESUS” because they’re simply not designed to deal with real life. You come, sit in a sit, get told how to win at life, sing some rousing songs, maybe go to a class to learn some information and then go about your week until it’s time to charge your emotional batteries once again.

Many churches seek to fill our calendars “equipping us” with classes and programs because that’s what churches do. But what we’ve missed is that if we fostered intentional, “authentic” (the quotes indicate that I realize just how much baggage the word carries but I use it anyways) relationships. It seems to me that the trend has been to make Christians dependent on their churches for their spiritual growth. The default question has become “how will you feed me?” rather than “how can I serve?”

But we’ve been called to discipleship, not what fills the seats. Paul tells us that the role of church leaders is to equip everyday believers “for the work of the ministry” (Ephesians 4:11-13), not make them dependent on their leaders.

This has led me to think deeply about one of Evangelicalism’s (especially in “Reformed” circles in which I have traveled) sacred cows. Lately, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been filled with posts arguing that preaching is the primary things a pastor should be concerned with. For example, Jason Allen writes in a piece about “5 words to avoid in every sermon” at For The Church:

Preaching is God’s ordained method to convey his Word and build his church. As such, preaching is every pastor’s principle responsibility and every church’s primary need. Therefore, every pastor must preach, and preach well, every Lord’s day.

Banner of Truth recently posted this memed Calvin quote:

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Let me go ahead and calm the frothing masses: I deeply value preaching. I think it should be an integral part of the regular rhythms of any local church. It is where a unified vision can be presented, it is where a church family can learn together as a whole, it is where the elders can help publicly protect from error and instruct in following Jesus. It is an essential part of what God has laid out for the local church. But what troubles me is the notion that it is the most important thing a pastor does.

I once heard John MacArthur say to a room full of seasoned, young and aspiring pastors that if they weren’t spending at least 40 hours a week in their study, then they had no business getting up in the pulpit on a Sunday morning. Their primary job, MacArthur urged, was preaching on Sunday.

There is a local church with one of those electronic billboards that flashes cheesy Christian sayings. A while back, the sign said: “Worth the drive.” What’s worth the drive? Well, knowing that particular church, the Sunday gathering is “worth the drive” and in particular, it’s “worth the drive” to hear that particular pastor talk for 40 minutes.

It seems to me that the assumption that the pastor’s primary responsibility is preaching must also carry with it the assumptions that Sunday is the primary point of a local church’s existence and that since discipleship is the primary point of a church’s existence, then preaching is the primary way we pursue discipleship. But I cannot follow such straight lines of thinking through the twists and turns of Scripture.

Pastors are compared to shepherds in the bible. As I try to make sense of all of this, I can’t help but picture a shepherd gathering his sheep once a week and lecturing them on how to live the rest of the week and then just sending them out to face the dangers of the world. Of course this is foolish, but when we over-emphasize the importance of the Sunday sermon, the analogy seems to fit. Shepherds were worthless if they didn’t spend time with their sheep, guiding, protecting, disciplining if necessary (it may shock you to know that the heartwarming picture of a shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders was because he had broken the sheep’s leg because it wandered off so many times).

I am unashamedly going off of the notion that the church should be most concerned with discipleship; that is, helping one another become more like Jesus. This conviction leads me to the conclusion that preaching is incredibly important but it is potentially harmful to tell pastors that it is the “most important” part of their job.

I would rather be shepherded by someone who spends more time with people than books. I want to be the type of pastor who values people more than doctrine. If I ever pastor again, I want to know what my people need to hear because I know my people. And, as shocking as it may seem, you can’t know people without spending time with them. With all due respect to MacArthur, his advice is terrific for professional teachers but horrible for actual pastors.

Placing so much emphasis on the sermon creates passive Christians who tend towards a knowledge-based (rather than an experiential) faith. Placing so much emphasis on the sermon is a large part of why so many pastors feel so discouraged. Once, after a sermon, I had someone come up to me afterward and, very nicely, tell me that they really struggled to follow that week’s sermon. The very next person in line to talk with me told me that it was the single most moving sermon they had ever heard and they would remember it for a long time. Placing so much emphasis on the sermon creates unrealistic expectations that the pastor always “be on” and owes more to our desire to be entertained than our desire to be more like Jesus. Placing so much emphasis on the sermon has helped fuel the “celebrity pastor” movement rather than reminding us all that pastors are strugglers through this life just like they people they’ve been called to shepherd.

If we have primarily been called to discipleship then it seems to me that relationships are the single most important thing a pastor does. Sermons rarely serve to deepen relationships. In fact, sermons are sharpened the more a pastor knows the people to whom he is speaking. Shepherds must spend time with the sheep or they’re a lousy shepherd.

Again, I’m not discounting preaching (though I do question the monologue approach in its effectiveness to really equip the saints but maybe that’s another post for another day). I value preaching and it’s something I personally love. I’m simply asking if we have over-emphasized its role in discipleship. Are we actually hindering pastors from their true role when we tell them that the 45 minutes a week when they lecture people is the most important thing they do?

I look forward to your thoughts.