This article is part of the 5 Myths series.
Myth #1: The pastor’s primary job is to deliver sermons.
Preaching is essential to pastoring. It is a primary means of grace for God’s people. The problem is that, in spite of thousands of sermons delivered each week from the pulpits of our churches, church membership, theological acumen, and gospel piety are all in decline. How do we explain this seeming contradiction? One answer is simply that pastors have confused the means for the end.
Preaching isn’t the primary calling of the pastor—shepherding is. Jesus’s charge to Peter was “feed my sheep” and “tend my sheep” (John 21:15). The shepherd’s job description is to “care for the church of God” (Acts 20:28). Preaching is a primary means to a greater end—the end of pastoring!
This places an obligation on both the sermon and the preacher: the sermon needs to actually feed the sheep and the preacher must truly shepherd them.
First, if preaching is for pastoring, then a “faithful” sermon will not be one which simply exposits a text (even if it’s accurate); rather, it will be one that, in doing so, actually feeds the sheep. It is perfectly possible for a sermon to be factually Biblical and yet functionally negligent. Truth was spoken, but God’s sheep were not adequately fed. The exposition never got the heart of the hearer. The inherent applicatory intent of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16) was blunted, either by a dull repetition of Biblical facts or a simple failure to understand and apply what the text was for. The rich truths of the gospel weren’t skillfully and urgently pressed home to the hearts of the hearers. Faithful preaching provides spiritual nourishment to the body of Christ.
Secondly, a biblically-oriented pastor then will not settle for simply preaching sermons. It’s very tempting to do; preaching is a lot easier than pastoring. Writing a good sermon is hard work, but not as hard as bearing with an offending brother or pursuing angry sheep or laboring to rescue a failing marriage. Actual pastoring requires a level of sacrifice and patience and love far beyond natural abilities. But that’s the calling.
Dear pastor, don’t settle for preaching sermons. Care for the sheep.
Myth #2: If you do it right, you will have evident success.
Many pastors enter the ministry with the assumption that if they do it right they will have rapid and evident success. A small or stagnant church body will come alive and grow. They hope to be invited to speak at conferences or at least maintain a thriving online presence with admiring readers. Fifteen years later, they are deeply discouraged. The church isn’t growing, no one is calling for speaking engagements, and their online “presence” consists of watching other pastors live the life they once dreamed of.
What went wrong? Nothing, necessarily. This is what ministry looks like for the vast majority of us. According to the National Congregations Study in 2012, the average congregation had only seventy regular participants, counting both adults and children, and an annual budget of $85,000.1 In other words, most of us will toil in small churches in relative anonymity. That’s normal pastoral ministry. Our initial assumption is what we got wrong.
First, we misunderstood the nature of pastoral “success.” We assumed that it looked like personal affirmation and numerical growth. If that is true, then our Lord failed miserably. His followers were few and his name was reviled.
The more subtle flaw is the assumption that pastoral success depends on us. Pastors tend to be conscientious men. They love Jesus and eagerly desire to see his kingdom grow. The trouble comes when we assume that God has called us to make it happen. It’s just not true. God has called us to labor, but he alone is the author of growth (1 Cor. 3:6), be it spiritual or numerical.
We should work and pray for spiritual and numerical growth—and then leave it with the Lord. Our part is to be faithful in the task. God’s part is to graciously strengthen us for that task and give fruit as he deems best.
From time to time God ordains a Spurgeon. But his general way is to ordain ordinary men with moderate gifts and a small flock. And that’s okay. Pastor, if you do it right—if you love your sheep and faithfully feed them God’s word, warding off wolves and seeking the wandering—you’ll be a great and God-honoring success!
Myth #3: Pastoring is primarily an exercise of your gifts.
Many men go into the ministry with a great deal of confidence in their abilities. They’ve been told they have the necessary gifts for the task. They most likely have a degree from a respected seminary proving their theological credibility and academic acuity. It is very easy to assume that pastoring is primarily about exercising these gifts.
Gifts are certainly important. Scripture tells us that God uniquely gifts his saints for different aspects of ministry (for example: Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Peter 4:10-11). Paul charges Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God which is in you . . . ” (1 Tim. 1:6). Gifts matter. They are essential for the building up of the body and the accomplishment of the mission.
But the duties of pastoral ministry will not test your gifts nearly as much as your graces. And for as many men who have failed for lack of gifts, as many and more have failed because their gifts outpaced their graces. Gifts are necessary, but effective pastoral ministry is impossible without pastoral graces. People may be impressed with great learning, but it is patience and gentleness that open ears and hearts.
Pastoral ministry is, in essence, an exercise of spiritual graces flowing from the ongoing experience of God’s grace. According to John 15, the secret to bearing “much fruit” (John 15:8) is “abide in my love” (John 15:9). As Paul David Tripp says:
It is only love for Christ that can defend the heart of the pastor against all the other loves that have the potential to kidnap his ministry. . . . Only Christ can turn an arrogant, ‘bring on the world’ seminary graduate into a patient, humble giver of grace.2 (Dangerous Calling, 64).
Your congregation will appreciate your gifts, but they need the grace of Jesus Christ as it flows through your person and your work.
Dear pastor, don’t settle for preaching sermons. Care for the sheep.
Myth #4: Cultural relevance is the pastor’s ticket to effectiveness.
I’ve heard many times that a pastor needs to prepare a sermon with one hand on the Bible and the other hand on The New York Times. After all, we are called to bridge these two worlds. A pastor obviously needs to be aware of his cultural setting. In the letters to the seven churches (Rev. 2–3), Jesus addresses—with perfect knowledge of the unique geographic, economic, spiritual, and social contexts of each church—and gives a message perfectly suited to their particular needs. We also need to know the cultural context of our congregation and, like the men of Issachar, have an “understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chron. 12:32). Cultural relevance matters.
However, as important as it is to be familiar with the landscape of our cultural moment, it is much more important that we are experts in the landscape of Scripture and the human heart. The most powerful pastoral ministries are not those which strive for cultural relevance or therapeutic practicality—but those which strive to bring the supernatural, regenerating, bone-from-marrow dividing truths of God into the lives of those who hear. The congregation doesn’t need our pithy insights and Twitter-feed reflections on the latest social event or outrage happening in our country. What they desperately need is a vision, by faith, of another country—a heavenly one. As James Stalker (1848-1927) put it:
I like to think of the minister as one of the congregation set apart by the rest for a particular purpose. The congregation . . . (says) to one of their number, ‘Look, brother, we are busy with our daily toils and with domestic and worldly cares; we live in confusion and darkness; but we eagerly long for peace and light to cheer and illuminate our life; and we have heard there is a land where these are to be found—a land of repose and joy, full of thoughts that breathe and words that burn. But we cannot go thither ourselves; we are too embroiled in daily cares: come, we will elect you, and set you free from our toils, and you shall go forth for us, and week by week, trade with that land and bring us its treasures and its spoils’. . . . Woe to him if he does not week by week return laden, and evermore richly laden, saying, ‘Yes, brothers, I have been to that land; and it is a land of light and peace and nobleness: . . . and look, I have brought back this, and this, and this: take them to gladden and purify your life!’3
God has called and gifted many in the church to be experts on the things of this world. But pastor, he has called you—uniquely—to be an expert on the things of heaven and the world to come.
Myth #5: The pastor is the boss.
Many men enter the ministry with the assumption that their degree and title make them the boss. They step into the role of “Senior Pastor” like a captain taking charge of the ship. They believe their calling is to cast a vision and make sure the congregation gets on board and gets to work. While few would dare state it this crassly, the anger, defensiveness, and domineering spirit give us away.
This myth is not only contrary to Scripture (e.g. Mark 10:42-44; 1 Peter 5:3), it cripples the ministry of many pastors by making them either fearful or intimidating. It made me fearful. As a young man I quickly realized that I was in over my head in the pastoral ministry. I could preach, but what real “authority” did I have to care for deeply wounded sheep? I had no personal experience with the devastating death of a child or the betrayal of a spouse or the shock of a diagnosis of cancer or the exhausting war with depression. How could I possibly have anything meaningful or authentic to say? Consequently, my tendency was to shy away from hurting people. When I attempted to comfort, my words felt forced and hollow in the face of their crushing grief. My youth and three years of theological education were no match for the pastoral crises I faced. I needed an authority beyond myself.
Fortunately, that’s precisely what the word of God provides. In the stories, laments, and promises of Scripture, I found words that were profoundly authentic and divinely authoritative. The word of God is gloriously sufficient for the task of caring for the flock (2 Tim. 3:16). It has all the authority we lack!
Consequently, we can shepherd Gods’ sheep with a true, authentic authority. This provides a pastor much freedom and boldness as he cares for the sheep! We can, with true humility and firm confidence, call our people to repent when they are sinning, assure them of God’s care when they are hurting, promise them eternal riches when they are dying—all on the authority of God’s most precious word.
- Chaves, Mark, Shawna L. Anderson, and Alison Eagle. 2014. National Congregations Study. Cumulative data file and codebook. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University, Department of Sociology.
- Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling, 94
- James Stalker, The Preacher and His Models, quoted by Murray Capill, The Heart is the Target, 94
Dale Van Dyke is a contributor to 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me.
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