I have believed for many years that the local church grows — when its growth is genuine — from the pulpit outward.
That does not mean that all a church needs is good preaching and the rest will take care of itself. A local church is a complex body and there are a score of other tasks that must be done to meet a basic standard for the church to increase both in spiritual depth and number.
Nor does it mean that the whole burden for the growth of a church is upon the pastors. The growing church must also have lay workers who share the spiritual burden for pastoral ministry and outreach with the pastor.
It does not even mean that preaching must be brilliant for the church to grow. As G. Campbell Morgan so clearly summarized, real preaching must meet only three basic criteria: it must be true, clear and anointed.
What it does mean is that the primary spiritual nourishment and guidance of the congregation flows from the pulpit to the people, their Bible study classes, family prayer times and evangelistic outreach. If the pulpit lacks authenticity in content, clarity or spiritual genuineness, even an increase in numbers of people will not equal genuine congregational growth.
We have all seen hummingbirds hover in air, wings blurring, while they sip from feeders filled with a red liquid — sugar and water with food coloring to attract them. I’m told that if the mixture is instead made up of saccharin and water they will continue to come and feed with equal thirst but gradually will become weak and unable to fly. The taste of saccharin is sweet enough to fool them, but it lacks the calories to nourish.
In a similar way, what is delivered from the pulpit must not only appeal to the ear of listeners; it must nourish believers and challenge the unawakened. That is, it must speak the word of God to the deep need for soul-food that God puts in his people.
What can move pastors everywhere to come before their people with a well- formed word from the Lord? I know of nothing but obedience to the commands of the Scriptures, and the best place to seek such prompting is in the Pastoral Epistles — 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. These were first-century pastors who were assigned to oversee young congregations. And what did the Apostle Paul write to them?
“Command and teach these things” (1 Tim. 4:11). “…the overseer must be…able to teach (3:2)” “Until I come, devote yourself…to preaching and teaching. Do not neglect your gift” (4:13,14). “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (4:16).
Also in Paul’s second letter to Timothy he writes, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). And, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2:15). We take such exhortations as Spirit-inspired for us today.
We may fail on occasion to meet the scriptural standards of the pulpit, but God is merciful. If our commitments are clear he will forgive and keep our hearts warm to our calling. And he will help us keep the pastoral passion alive, enabling messages that are true, genuine, and delivered in the energy of the Spirit.
So, as a pastor long retired I encourage an oncoming generation of pastors to manage the stresses, pressures, and diverse responsibilities that are part of the pastoral task, and in it all and above all else, keep the passion of the pulpit alive.
Photo credit: Adam Selwood (via flickr.com)