In my last post, I introduced this mini-series and tried to describe some of the pitfalls which can occur when a pastor attempts to do all (or nearly all) his ministry through his Sunday sermon. Like I said there, 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 this post I’d like to chronicle what factors awakened me to this imbalance. There were three things the Lord used to transition me, at least in my mind, from “the sermon is everything” model of ministry to “the sermon is essential but insufficient” model of ministry. I reiterate that the hope of this mini-series is to inspire and motivate you to consider making such transition yourself, if you haven’t done so already.
Before I mention these three factors, I want to empathize that this transition was not some sort of instantaneous, lightning bolt realization. It wasn’t as if I woke up one morning and said to myself, “What am I doing? I’m overemphasizing sermons as a means of grace! I’m going to start doing everything differently this Monday.” The transition was slow, gradual, and a bit meandering, sort of like stumbling up the stairs in the middle of the night after having fallen asleep on the couch. Realizing I was overemphasizing the sermon and then embracing broader, full-orbed Word ministry took me a year, or more like two, and I can’t pinpoint any kind of date wherein everything changed. I confess I’m still in the process of working out the implications of this different view of ministry. But nonetheless, the following three things were crucial in helping me look at local church ministry differently.
First, was a single question from The Trellis and the Vine. I admit that when I first read T&V a few years ago, I really liked it but didn’t really “get it”. For whatever reason, I didn’t see it as much of a challenge to the way I was then doing ministry. I thought that if I just added a few more small group Bible studies to our church’s schedule, I’d be on track with the T&V vision. But one question in particular jumped off the page at me. I can still vividly remember the first time I read it. With some additional sentences for context, on page 171 Col and Tony write:
“What are the activities, programs and priorities that prevent you from devoting some time specifically to training? Are there good reasons for these things to be of a higher priority than training? Or do the reasons stem from unhelpful motivations—for example, a desire to meet the expectations of members, performance anxiety about preaching (leading to excessive preparation), fear of missing deadlines, personal insecurity, and so on?”[1. C Marshall and T Payne, The Trellis and the Vine, Matthias Media, Kingsford, NSW, p. 171, emphasis mine.]
Now that section isn’t rocket science, but it’s that little part there that I emphasized that hit me between the eyes. “Was it conceivable that I was possibly doing excessive sermon preparation?” You’ve got to realize that such a thought was simply unthinkable to me up until this point (and it’s amazing how crippled you can be by un-thought thoughts). I came out of a context where my heroes were known for spending 30 or more hours in preparation for a single sermon. I had developed this powerful assumption that a pastor couldn’t possibly do excessive preparation, and that the better the pastor, the more time he spent on his sermon. What this meant in practice is that whatever extra free time I had in my weekly schedule, it automatically went to improving my Sunday sermon. But this single thought by Col and Tony instantly freed me to begin thinking differently. “Maybe it’s okay to spend less time on the sermon in order to spend more time with people.” Again, everything didn’t change instantly. But it was the first stepping stone in the right direction.
The second major factor in moving me toward a different model of ministry was a particularly fruitful discipleship relationship I sort of fell into. Partially inspired by the example of Mark Dever, I invited a younger man in our church to get together with me for lunch on a weekly basis. Truth be told, I don’t think I had a clue what I was doing when we began meeting, but it seemed like a good pastor-ly sort of thing to do. So we decided to read and discuss some Christian books together. Some of the books we read were real losers, but most of them were highly edifying. Over the space of about 3 years, we met nearly every single week and discussed such books as Vaughan Roberts’ God’s Big Picture, DeYoung and Gilbert’s What is the Mission of the Church?, and Tony Payne’s Fatherhood: What it is and What it's For. What most stuck out to me from the experience was how this young man grew in his knowledge and spiritual understanding exponentially, far more so and far more quickly than simply sitting under Sunday sermons. Inevitably I began to wonder,
“Maybe I should be doing this sort of thing with the people already in leadership in our church… What if I were to do this sort of thing with 3 or 4 or 8 people simultaneously?… What would it mean for our entire church if we could somehow put as many people as possible through this sort of experience?”
The logjam began to separate. I consider this very fruitful experience stepping stone number two in seeing local church ministry differently.
The third major factor in my ministry transition was being providentially connected with one of the authors of The Trellis and the Vine, Col Marshall. I say with no exaggeration that Col’s friendship and mentorship has dramatically revolutionized the way I do ministry. He’s helped me move, step by little step, from being a preacher-only to being an actual pastor. But since this factor was so pleasantly surprising and so helpful, it’ll require a post all its own to explain—stay tuned.