One of the most important and yet contested points in The Trellis and the Vine is a certain little claim made in chapter 8. The title of the chapter says it all: “Why Sunday Sermons are Necessary But Not Sufficient”. The authors’ point is fairly straightforward and simple. Sunday sermons are wonderful and essential and life-giving and edifying, but in themselves they are insufficient to nourish a healthy local church. God never intended the sermon to carry the weight of the entire work of pastoral ministry.
In The Trellis and the Vine the authors explain their scriptural and theological rationale for this claim, and if you haven’t read the chapter, I’d really encourage you to do so. [If you're a subscriber to GoThereFor.com you can download the book and read it now. —Ed.] But what I’d like to do in this and the next couple of posts is to tell my story of transitioning from “the sermon is everything” model of ministry to “the sermon is essential but insufficient” model of ministry. In a concrete and personal way, I want to illustrate the dangers of excessively relying on sermons as a means of sustaining your church, but also the joys and benefits of a more biblical model of ministry. I hope that perhaps our story will inspire and motivate you to consider making this transition yourself, if you haven’t done so already.
In Bible college and seminary I was strongly influenced by some of the great preachers of our day. If you’ve spent any time hanging around with the so-called “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement, you’ll know exactly who I’m talking about. By listening to countless cassette tapes (they did actually exist at one time), CDs, and MP3s, these godly men changed my life through excellent, exegetically-careful, theologically-rich, “big GOD” sermons, and I continue to praise the Lord for their influence to this day. And yet, what I did not realize is that I slowly, subtly, but eventually began to assume that sermons are pretty much the only means of grace, an idea these preachers never would have claimed themselves.
When I first entered pastoral ministry around a decade ago, I tried to emulate my pastoral heroes. So I tried my best to create and preach excellent, profound expositional sermon. I’d spend nearly all my time in my study with my books and come out to teach or preach, only to return again the following week and repeat the routine. Since I didn’t personally know any of the big-name preachers who had changed my life, I didn’t prioritize personal relationships. I rarely if ever met with people to read the Bible and pray and my personal evangelism and discipleship opportunities were few and far between. I maintained this approach to pastoral ministry for around the first five years of my pastorate.
After about five years of this I began to notice some serious problems, though at the time I didn’t really understand the underlying cause. While the church had grown numerically, relationships within the congregation were superficial, at best. While my people knew much Bible content, it was nearly impossible to find volunteers to serve in important ministries. I got the impression that some in my congregation seemed to love books more than people (I can’t imagine whose example they were following!) and preferred debating predestination to sharing the gospel. Perhaps worst of all, there were precious few of us who were equipped to do Word-ministry and the expectations placed on the pastor were constantly growing.
Now don’t get me wrong. During this time God was at work through his word. The gospel was proclaimed, souls were saved, and lives were changed. I learned much and matured much as a leader and a pastor. Many will testify of how God profoundly transformed their lives and families during this time. But I could tell that something fundamental was wrong. Our numerical growth had plateaued and some wonderful people left the church dissatisfied. Like Bilbo, I was increasingly feeling “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” And truth be told, I was enjoying pastoral ministry less and less.
Lord willing, in my next installment I hope to explain what God in his providence used to convince me that my approach to ministry was causing many of the problems. It all seems so simple and obvious now, but I guess that’s the way hindsight works. But that’ll have to wait until next time…