By Tim Raymond
In this, my concluding installment in this three-part miniseries (see part 1, part 2), I intend to set forth my final two suggestions for how seminarians can learn to preach to normal people. With no further ado…
5. Schedule time to regularly listen to the sermons of preachers who excel at both exegesis and heart-searching application.
I practice a spiritual discipline which I would heartily commend to all our readers who are the primary or exclusive preachers at their church. Every week, upon returning to work, the very first thing I do is to sit down at my desk with my open Bible and computer before me, and listen to or preferably watch in its entirety the sermon of a preacher I consider gifted at both exegesis and application. This practice was recommended to me by another preacher and I had a couple reasons of my own for commencing it. First, good preaching has been one of the most powerful means the Lord has used for my own sanctification and as the preacher at our church, I missed sitting under good sermons. But furthermore, and perhaps even more importantly, I came to realize that if my own sermons were the only ones I ever heard, my preaching would eventually become stale, ingrown, and stagnant. Now that I’ve been practicing this discipline every week for nearly 3 years, the rewards are obvious. In His grace, the Lord has used these sermons profoundly in my own soul to teach, reprove, correct, and train me in ways I never anticipated. Moreover, I’ve grown modestly in certain areas of my preaching (most notably, heart-searching application) and my congregation has commented to me about the change. Perhaps most interesting, I’ve come to eagerly look forward to beginning my work week.
If any of you are considering taking up this practice, there are a couple of comments I would make. First, try to listen to sermons preached to ordinary congregations as opposed to conference messages. Now I love conferences as much as the next pastor and my church generously sends me to a couple a year. But I think we all recognize that conference messages are generally not sermons you should preach in a church. Conference messages are usually longer than your typical sermon, rarely expositional, and often more technical than what you’d preach to ordinary people. Therefore, if you’re looking to grow as a preacher to normal people, listen to sermons delivered to normal people. Second, listen to those preachers who excel at connecting biblical exegesis to your soul. Don’t just listen to the preachers who are captivating communicators. We all know that some of the most charismatic communicators employ the worst exegesis and hermeneutics. Likewise, don’t just listen to those preachers who are master exegetes. If he’s as dull as dust or if he can’t take his exegesis and use it to nourish your soul, he won’t help you grow as a preacher. So look for those who excel at both.
Now for me, I have about a half-dozen preachers I return to again and again because they’re able to massage biblical truth into my heart. And it’s quite possible that the preachers God uses in your life might be different from those He uses in mine. Therefore, I won’t bother listing the names of my favorite preachers (though if you’ve been around the YRR movement for any length of time, you probably listen to them too). There is, however, one lesser-known preacher who I would especially commend for your consideration in this area. Pastor Joel Beeke is the president of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids. Though he comes from a rather different denominational tradition than my own and though he doesn’t do everything the way I would (most notably, he usually preaches “textual” sermons as opposed to sequential expositions), I have found him an absolute master of thought-provoking, heart-penetrating, lifestyle-examining application. I have never listened to a preacher who so effectively shepherds the souls of his hearers through his preaching. I find myself returning to him again and again, not because he’s necessarily the most mesmerizing communicator or meticulous exegete, but because I know of no other preacher who so consistently moves my heart to worship our great God. If you’re not familiar with Dr. Beeke, you may want to learn more about him. Perhaps start with this message from the 2011 Desiring God Pastors Conference (though, ironically, it is a conference message). You should at least throw this one on your iPod and give it a listen while you drive around town.
6. Labor to get to know and love your congregation as well as you possibly can.
I have a fundamental conviction about pastoral ministry that I don’t believe is emphasized nearly enough in most seminaries: Pastoral ministry cannot function properly if there is not a healthy love-bond between the pastor and his congregation and vice versa. God, in His mercy, has powerfully taught me this lesson through personal experience. I’m privileged to pastor a church that loves me and have developed a sincere love for my congregation. As a result, I’m freed to provide strong pastoral leadership and to preach difficult truths, even when it may prove painful. But more than simply being something I’ve learned from experience, this emphasis is obvious in God’s Word. How did the apostles preach Christ? “What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5, ESV). In what manner did Paul proclaim the Gospel? “Being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8, ESV). Mutual Christian love between minister and congregation is the fertile soil in which healthy Gospel ministry flourishes.
Furthermore, truly knowing and loving your congregation will enable you to preach more intelligently and helpfully to them. You’ll know where they’re at in their walks with the Lord and what truths will best feed their souls. You’ll know the struggles and trials they’re enduring and where to apply the balms of Scripture. You’ll know who is in error or wayward or doubting and how to lovingly point them back to the Savior. If you’ve taken the time to really get to know your people and if the Lord enables you to honestly love them, you’ll be freed to “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14, ESV).
If such things are so, how shall we then live? Well, you must, my brother-pastors, work to know and love your people. Certainly you can go overboard here and neglect time in the study, but I’m speaking particularly to those of us who are more comfortable around books than people. Put away the books for a couple hours and make conscientious efforts to get to know your flock. Visit them in the hospital. Attend their children’s football games. Go chop wood or sit on the tractor with them for an hour or two. Play soccer with the teens in the church parking lot. Go to that 4th of July BBQ to which you were invited. Invite some families over for Scrabble night. Take a different guy out for lunch every week. I heard recently about an old Puritan who spent his mornings in the study and the afternoons in the fields with the farmers. There are countless possibilities, but however you do it, make it your expressed goal to get to know your people so you might lovingly shepherd them.
A particular practice that I would strongly recommend in this regard is something I learned from Brian Croft’s incredibly helpful blog Practical Shepherding. In a post entitled “How Can I Make Sure I am Regularly Shepherding Everyone in the Church,” Brian outlines a simple method of systematically praying for every member of your flock and then contacting them to let them know. I have been following this advice for well over a year now and the benefits have been phenomenal. People with whom I previously had essentially no relationship are now calling me to share important prayer requests. Members who were formerly distant are now open and transparent with me. It’s really a practice I wish I had been doing from the very first day of assuming the pastorate. But as it is, better late than never. And obviously, all these deeper, richer, more sincere relationships only enable me to better connect my exegesis with the needs of my congregation.
Throughout this series, my goal has been to encourage a stronger marriage between exegesis and exposition, between doctrine and worship, between research done in the academy and the spiritual life of the ordinary Christian in the pew. What drives this, in part, is something I perceive to be an odd and unhealthy trend in the contemporary evangelical church. It seems to me that there currently exists a fairly strong division between the seminary and the pew, between the exegete and the pastor. For whatever reason, most of the popular pastors in wider evangelicalism today are either theological lightweights or borderline heretics, while most Christians have never heard of our stellar scholars. If I know anything about church history, this is a dangerous anomaly. Historically, the church’s greatest theologians and defenders of the faith – Paul, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Fuller – were also pastors of ordinary congregations, motivated to so carefully expound and defend the Word, in part, by their love for their sheep. Encouraging you, my brother-pastors, to more toward that ideal has been the concern behind this miniseries. If the Lord so chooses to bless these feeble words and fallible suggestions to equip seminarians to preach quality exegesis to normal people, I will be profoundly grateful.
For Further Reflection
The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter
The Pastor: His Qualifications and Duties by Hezekiah Harvey
The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor: Reflections on Life and Ministry by John Piper and D.A. Carson
The Founders Journal, Issue #43, Winter 2001: “The Pastor as Theologian”
Tim Raymond has been the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Muncie, Indiana since April 2006. He received his MDiv from the Baptist Bible Seminary of Pennsylvania in 2004 and has pursued further education through the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. Tim grew up outside Syracuse, NY and previously served at Berean Baptist Church, Nicholson, PA (member and teacher during college and seminary) and Calvary Baptist Church, Sandusky, Ohio (seminary internship location). Tim met his wife Bethany at college, and they were married in May 2001. Tim enjoys reading, camping, wrestling with his three sons, and attempting to sleep.