By Berry Kercheville
Paul’s letters to Corinth reveal preachers supported by the Corinthians (1 Cor. 9:12) who were “peddling God’s word” (2 Cor. 2:17) and boasting in fleshly accomplishments. The Corinthian preachers sought preeminence in the church, presenting themselves as “super-apostles” (2 Cor. 12:11). These saw Paul and his fellow workers as a threat to the wages they received by impressing the church with their speeches of worldly wisdom (1 Cor. 2:1).
The Professional Preacher
As were the preachers at Corinth, there are also professional preachers today. Denominations showcase the pastor, who is the face of the church. Many denominational pastors plant their own churches to organize and direct it to their liking. The church strongly reflects their personality and grows or shrinks based on their abilities in the pulpit. The pastor is the focus; he is the one who is primarily responsible for the growth of the church. Without him, the church would struggle, or in some cases, close down altogether.
In contrast to the Corinthian preachers with their fleshly boasting, and the professional preachers of today, Paul described how he and true ministers of Christ sacrifice and even suffer to share the gospel with others. For example he states, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our bodies…So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Cor. 4:8, 10, 12). From a worldly point of view, there was nothing impressive about Paul. He boasted of dying like Jesus, laying down his life that others may live, and then called upon all disciples to “be imitators of me” (1 Cor. 4:16).
In other words, Paul boasted of the unimportance of a preacher: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6-7).
The Unintended Importance of Present-day Preachers
Does our perception of a preacher reflect Paul’s description? Has preaching become a professional position where he appears to be at the center of the church? Too often the expectations of the preacher’s work has gone beyond Paul’s directives in 1st & 2nd Timothy and Titus. Preacher “importance” is evident when churches feel panicked if they go very long without a preacher. Have we reached a point of being excessively dependent on a man delivering sermons every week? Even shepherds, who should be able to teach and adequately fill the pulpit, feel pressure to “hire” the next preacher lest they begin to lose members or allow the zeal of the church to wane. I am not suggesting or intending to minimize the need for experience and quality preaching. The concern is that the preacher can become the focal point of the work so that his abilities are too unique. Is it only the preacher who is qualified to preach, counsel a troubled teen or troubled marriage, comfort the suffering, or strengthen the weak?
Making the preacher too important is largely unintentional. The following explanation is not true of every preacher, especially young preachers, but it is generally true.
- The preacher has spent years building his knowledge of scripture and his ability to communicate the word effectively. Most shepherds and members do not have that luxury because of the need of a secular job. Thus the preacher seems to have the most Bible knowledge and can fill many needs in the kingdom.
- The preacher usually is able to motivate and equip a church to action rather than just give an informational lesson.
- The experienced preacher has a vision of where the church needs to go and how to correct the “things that are lacking.”
- From a negative perspective, there is a subtle influence from the denominational pastor system along with the traditions we have developed that have pushed preachers into being more than just one member in the body. Since he has been “hired,” he is often expected to have both time and talents that far exceed what is reasonably healthy for a church.
The Need for an “Unimportant” Preacher
Paul said, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). When a preacher becomes the “face of the church,” the effectiveness of the local church is diminished as the talents of individual members are left undeveloped. Just as in a welfare state, Christians can become dependent on the preacher (and even his wife) to do an inordinate share of the work. These expectations diminish the primary work of an evangelist to equip saints and reach the lost. A preacher does not have the time or talent to equip, save souls, and provide for needs in the body that can be filled by other members.
The following are four ways we can make the preacher more unimportant.
- Make a determined effort to equip young men to be shepherds who are able to teach and preach. It is no wonder there are so many elders who feel completely inadequate to motivate and lead the church through occasional sermons. How could they? They were not trained or given opportunities to develop their skills when they were younger. This can be solved by preacher-directed “training programs” that regularly give talented younger men the opportunity to preach on Sunday or Wednesday evenings. This is not simply letting a young guy give a “talk,” but directed training in sermon preparation and delivery and teaching him the basics of caring for souls by pointing him to shepherding opportunities.
- Developing a culture in the church that recognizes Jesus’ principle in Matthew 18:12-14: “Leave the ninety-nine and go search for the one that went astray.” Too many churches are inwardly focused, concerned about whether the preacher has given due attention to them rather than whether the lost are being pursued. In Acts 2, there were 3000 Christians. By Acts 5, the number very likely exceeded 20,000. I wonder how many complained that not one of the apostles spoke to them on Sunday or visited them during the week? No, they were pleased with the outward focus of the apostles (Acts 6:5), and when they scattered from Jerusalem, they went everywhere preaching the word (Acts 8:4). One person who is lost is more important than the rest of us.
- Differentiate between the work of an evangelist and the work of a Christian. For example, all Christians are commanded to practice hospitality (Rom. 12:13). As a Christian, the preacher will also practice hospitality as he is able. But hospitality is not a special work of a preacher so that he ought to do more than what any other member would be expected to do. The same is true with visiting and encouraging members or comforting the sick. A preacher will do his part as a Christian, but for him to be devoted to such works will mean failing to give himself to the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4).
- Recognize that evangelists and shepherds are charged to equip and move the church to maturity so that God is glorified in the world. They, nor the church, can be content that worship and Bible classes run smoothly. There must be a definitive goal and a plan to reach that goal.
Preachers are fallible imperfect people, often struggling with their lives and faith just like every other Christian. Preachers communicate God’s word in every place they are given an opportunity. They spend countless hours helping one person come to Christ. They train and equip Christians to use their talents to build up the body and be able to speak the truth in love. In other words, the charge is to teach, teach, and teach some more. Is there something else? The work is important, but the preacher himself is unimportant. Let’s emphasize the work of every member imitating Christ, “From whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16).