by Johnathan Arnold
We have all been warned to “keep the main thing the main thing.” Time is limited. But sometimes it’s hard to know what the main thing is. At different stages in our lives, circumstances tend to prescribe our focus. Nowhere is this more of a struggle than in pastoral ministry.
When a particular ministry dynamic is thriving, our excitable natures tend to look to it like a silver bullet. In seasons of success, we are prone to examine other pastors and churches and wonder, “All they have to do is that one thing. Why don’t they do that?” Our differing experiences account for different emphases.
Most pastors are faced with weekly choices about what they will undertake and what they will put off.
Some say, “Visitation matters most!” A pastor should watch over his flock and have a felt presence in their lives. But to say that pastoral visitation is THE Way to make a church grow is to imply that a church’s flourishing rests solely on the pastor and how many entries he makes in his log book.
Others claim, “Small groups is the key!” Small-group discipleship was important to Jesus and is essential to building strong communities. But the recent resurgence of small groups has moved many other ministries to the peripherals.
Several argue, “World Missions is most important!” I recently heard a much-needed report about a church which is sending an astounding number of missionaries to foreign fields. But the implication was that everything in our church should be focused on global missions, down to every sermon.
Many insist, “Outreach is paramount!” Churches are to have an impact on their communities, and we are called to evangelize. But some churches have a booming outreach ministry while the core attendees are disconnected and uncertain about what and why they believe.
Others think, “Children’s Ministry is number-one!” Children are the future of the church and a very precious part of our ministry. But it is primarily the responsibility of godly mothers and fathers to shape the next generation.
Some suggest, “Worship is most important!” Churches are sometimes called “worshipping communities,” and we were created for worship. But countless churches have a cutting-edge music ministry and extended worship sequence, yet sense a profound lack of depth.
Even if we value all of these things, we cannot do everything well. However balanced we try to be, our efforts will always result in some inequality of focus. Most pastors are faced with weekly choices about what they will undertake and what they will put off. Most churches do not have enough dependable people to bear the burden of every ministry, so something will usually be neglected. What is a pastor to do?
Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing
In Acts 6, the disciples had a significant outreach opportunity to minister to needy widows. Since pure religion is to visit the widows (James 1:27), it may have seemed to some like the right investment of the apostles' time. Although the disciples cared about the widows' affliction, they recognized the situation for what it was: a distraction from the main thing. They said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2, emphasis added). In fact, “the ministry of the Word” was a synonym for their pastoral office (Acts 6:4). In every circumstance, the apostles “ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ” (Acts 5:42, emphasis added).
The most important thing that a pastor does is share God’s Word through a public teaching and preaching ministry.
When Jesus was in Capernaum, multitudes gathered around him. He saw the clamoring crowds as a distraction from the main thing: “when [the disciples] had found him, they said unto him, All men seek for thee. And he said unto them, Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also: for therefore came I forth” (Mark 1:37-38, emphasis added). Preaching was synonymous with Jesus’ earthly ministry (Matthew 4:17).
There are many character requirements for pastors, but only one competency requirement (aside from leading one's family well). This requirement appears in both Titus and 1 Timothy: “an elder must be…able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2, emphasis added; cf. Titus 1:9). The lead elders in a church are referred to as “those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17, emphasis added); their labor is preaching and teaching. That is what they pour their lives into. That is what they devote most of their time to.
Paul wrote to Timothy, “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.” (2 Timothy 4:2, emphasis added). Preach the Word, indeed!
Preaching is the main thing because it provides the answer to man's main need: salvation from sin through Jesus Christ. "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?" (Romans 10:14). The preacher continues to preach Christ for the maturation of believers.
There is a reason that the pastor has traditionally been called “Preacher.” The most important thing that a pastor does is share God’s Word through a public teaching and preaching ministry.
Preaching is the main thing because it provides the answer to man's main need: salvation from sin through Jesus Christ.
So, how does the pastor keep the main thing the main thing when there are so many other (important) things clamoring for his attention?
Delegate other responsibilities whenever possible. The disciples in Acts 6 knew that the widows needed cared for, so they appointed deacons to look after them. Pastors oversee all the ministries of the church, but they cannot be boots on the ground at every event. Pastors are not responsible for making sure that every detail is taken care of. Pastors are appointed by God “to equip the saints for the work of ministry,” not do all of the ministry on their own (Ephesians 4:12).
A pastor cannot be boots on the ground at every event.
Be cautious about starting a new ministry, if it will compromise your teaching and preaching. In the first year of any new ministry, there will inevitably be some setbacks that require a pastor’s special attention. That’s okay. But if starting a bus route means that the pastor will have to drive every Sunday morning and forfeit his Saturday sermon prep to go calling and pass out flyers, it may be a mistake. When the preacher ascends to the pulpit, he must have something to say, and his heart must be prepared.
Guard your sermon preparation time. Many pastors find it helpful to start early in the week (or at least a few days in advance) and devote time each day to “rightly dividing the Word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Careful handling of God’s Word, like a carpenter making a precision cut ("divide"), requires us to spend hours looking at the Book. Some preachers are able to prepare a suitable sermon in a few hours, but most good expositors spend ten or even twenty hours per week on their Sunday morning message.
We must then spend time in prayer, internalizing, introspecting, and interceding for specific brothers and sisters. It's usually best not to schedule anything on the evening or afternoon before you preach.
There are innumerable benefits to prolonging one's preparation time. Charles Spurgeon once said, "If you ask me how you may shorten your sermons, I should say, study them better... we are generally longest when we have least to say."
In order for a preacher to move his hearers with a sense of God and His glory, he must immerse his whole mind, body, and soul in prayerful study of the Biblical text.
Don’t underestimate the effects of the pulpit ministry. When I spend an exceptionally long time preparing a message, I wonder, “Will the extra time even make a difference?" It does. The deeper that a pastor dives in to the Biblical text in any given week, the more powerful the splash when it spills over to his people on Sunday morning. In order for a preacher to move his hearers with a sense of God and His glory, he will need to immerse his whole mind, body, and soul in prayerful study of the Biblical text.
People will come if the pastor really has something to say and if he is on fire to say it. Some of the fastest growing churches in America are due almost exclusively to the pulpit ministry. In fact, 76% of worshippers say that “sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture” are a major reason for attending church (Gallup, “Sermon Content Is What Appeals Most to Churchgoers").
Most people go to church to hear good preaching.
Preach expository sermons. Simply placing a higher value on the public preaching and teaching ministry of the church is not enough. If we do not systematically preach through large portions of the Biblical text, our preferred emphasis will surface. We will inevitably speak of worship or missions more than the Bible does.
The best way to have a balanced ministry is to allow the Scriptures to guide our thoughts and set the course for our preaching. Preaching large portions of the Bible on a regular basis ensures that what we emphasize is not largely disproportionate to what God emphasizes in His Word.
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