“Gifted communicator” — it’s a popular way of saying “good public speaker.”
Of course, if we’re going to sit and listen for half an hour (or more!), we all appreciate that the speaker is “gifted” — with an engaging presence, interesting turns of phrase, animated face, pleasant voice, natural gestures, and appropriate demeanor. We want a speaker who hooks us with a captivating story, presents his material in a clear and orderly fashion, creates and relieves suspense, touches our emotions, and ends with a satisfying conclusion, leaving us inspired and renewed.
These elements, and more, make for good conference speaking. At conferences, some of the thrill can be the novelty, hearing a new voice and seeing a fresh face. But preaching in the local church is not conference speaking. Nor is it mere public speaking. Preaching in the context of local-church corporate worship is a unique kind of speech — what we might call “pastoral speech.” Compelling speaking alone cannot fulfill the call of Christ on his preachers. The point is not to satisfy attendees with a “gifted communicator” who they will bring their friends to see next week. Rather, preaching in the local church is, first and foremost, the calling of the duly appointed shepherds to feed Christ’s sheep.
This vision for preaching involves at least two critical and connected parts: the nature of preaching and the nature of pastoral ministry.
What Is Preaching?
Long before the telegraph, printed newspapers, and instant digital media spread information far and wide, town criers would herald news from village to village. The verb herald (Greek kērussō) is one of the main words for this kind of “preaching” in the New Testament (along with euangelizō). Preaching in that day was not whispering (Matthew 10:27; Luke 12:3), but a raised “outdoor voice” in the town square, for as many to hear as possible, so that news might spread as far and wide.
“Preaching in the local church is the calling of the duly appointed shepherds to feed Christ’s sheep.”
Such heralding is not normal communication but an authoritative, public declaration (requiring an appropriate volume and intensity). It is not a story or mere report, nor is it speculative. But it is an announcement with a very high degree of (if not full) certainty. It is not for mere entertainment, but commends a message, or person, for the trust and response of the hearers (1 Corinthians 1:23; 2 Corinthians 11:4).
“What we proclaim,” the apostle says in 2 Corinthians 4:5, “is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” Faithful preaching expects something of its hearers: faith, repentance, obedience (1 Corinthians 15:11).
Sent, Not Self-Made
True heralds are not self-made or self-commissioned but sent (Mark 3:14; Luke 4:43; Acts 10:36; 1 Corinthians 1:17). As Kevin DeYoung observes related to Romans 10:15 (“how are they to preach unless they are sent?”),
Preachers don’t just decide themselves that they want to preach. They must be sent. Preaching implies a commissioned agent authorized to preach. Rightly understood, there is no preaching that does not come from an authority . . . .
In the New Testament, we see preaching is interwoven with teaching (Matthew 11:1; Luke 20:1; Acts 5:42; 15:35; Romans 2:21; 1 Timothy 5:17; 2 Timothy 4:2), but the two are not identical. Preaching implies a kind of commissioned, authoritative public speech that overlaps with, but is not the same, as teaching. As John Piper highlights in Expository Exultation,
kērussō [“to herald or preach”] was ordinarily used to refer to a public heralding on behalf of someone with significant authority on a matter of great importance. It was not a kind of communication that simply transferred information or explained obscurities. It was communication with a comportment that signified the importance of its content and the authority of its author. (61)
Taking Preaching to Church
However, our question is not only about the nature of preaching in general, but specifically preaching in the context of the weekly gathering of a particular local church.
Here Piper highlights the significance of 2 Timothy 4:2: “preach the word.” Whereas preaching (as “heralding” or “proclaiming good news”) refers “most often to the public proclamation of a message to the world, not just to a church gathered for worship” (53), the apostle Paul “took preaching to church.” Paul highlights the need of professing Christians for ongoing gospel preaching (Romans 1:16–17; 1 Corinthians 15:1–4), and specifically charges his protégé Timothy (and other Christians pastors with him) to “preach the word” to the gathered church.
In one of the most solemn commands in all the Bible, Paul writes, “I 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” (2 Timothy 4:1–2). While this may be the only place in the New Testament where preaching is explicitly commanded in the weekly gathering of the local church, the command is not ambiguous. The very kind of declarative, authoritative, outdoor speech that spread the gospel from one village to the next now “comes inside,” so to speak, into the weekly life of the church.
“There is something about the peculiar speech involved” in preaching, writes Piper, “that belongs in the preaching of pastors to their already-converted people” (60).
‘Feed My Sheep’
Since Christian congregants already profess faith, what, then, is the aim of the preacher who “comes inside” to the gathered assembly? While the town crier, or evangelist, announces a message for new faith to those who do not yet believe, the Christian preacher, in corporate worship, aims to fuel the fires of existing belief — happy to spark new faith at the same time.
To use Jesus’s image to Peter in John 21, the Christian preacher aims to feed Christ’s sheep. And this is not easy work, but a weight for broad shoulders. Done well, it is costly. Preaching to the gathered assembly is not a privilege to enjoy and to demonstrate one’s own quality, but a burden to gladly bear for the good of the church.
Preaching, then, is not just public communication — even “gifted communication” — but spiritual feeding. Sermons, in the context of worship, nourish souls with the food of God’s word in Christ. They are meals carefully prepared, and presented, for the church for its spiritual health and welfare.
Which leads us to ask, then, Who does this weekly feeding?
Remember, we’re talking about weekly corporate worship in the local church, not conferences or even Sunday school. We’re asking, in light of the nature of preaching in worship, Who preaches? The answer that fits with both the nature of preaching, and the nature of pastoral ministry, is that the pastor-elders preach.
The shepherds (pastors) feed Christ’s flock. They are the ones, as teachers (Ephesians 4:11; 1 Timothy 3:2), officially charged to feed the flock (again, 2 Timothy 4:2), which includes giving instruction in sound doctrine, as well as exposing those who contradict it (Titus 1:9). It is pastor-elders who “labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). And not merely men, but pastor-elders, who “teach [and] exercise authority” (1 Timothy 2:12) — not as distinct callings but as two significantly overlapping prongs of a single calling.
So, when it comes to the week-in, week-out feeding of the flock in corporate worship, we look to the shepherds — the men God has specifically equipped, and formally called, to lead and feed the church.
Not All Christians Preach
“Preaching,” then, is a particular calling of the pastor-elders, and not for all Christians. There is general word ministry for all Christians, and then the specific calling to preach.
Every believer should take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Ephesians 6:17). We all should have the word of Christ dwell in us richly, “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16). Whatever we do — not just in deed but in word — we “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). We all seek to “honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” — and “do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
But not all are “preachers.” Not all “preach the word” in the gathered assembly. Christ expects and requires that kind of feeding to come from his undershepherds.
Central to Pastoral Call
To approach our question from another angle, we could ask, How will our pastor-elders shepherd the flock apart from preaching and teaching?
“Shepherds are feeders; they guide sheep to springs of living water through their teaching and preaching.”
Paul says to the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20:28, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God.” How will they care for the church? The verb here, literally, is to shepherd (poimainein). And shepherding in the church requires, among other labors, feeding the flock through teaching — as Jesus charged Peter to “feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17). Shepherds are feeders (Jude 12), as well as leaders and protectors; they guide sheep to green pastures (Psalm 23:2) and springs of living water (Revelation 7:17) through their teaching and preaching.
Preaching to the gathered assembly of the church is not only Christ’s gift to his church (for its ongoing feeding and faith), but also a vital tool in the hands of the church’s pastor-elders to complete the work to which Christ has called them. Which is why faithful undershepherds rarely pass the pulpit to guests, but rather endeavor, as a team, to steward the precious few opportunities they have to feed, shape, and encourage the flock entrusted to them.
Churches Need Shepherding
Preaching is not just public speaking. Many fine public speakers — stimulating as they may be in a conference setting — are not local-church pastors tasked with preaching as a function of their calling. Our churches need more than gifted communication; they need shepherding.
Rediscovering such a vision for preaching in the local church helps both pastors and their churches. We need to be regularly reminded to take our cues from the Scriptures, rather than the world — and all the more when it comes to those sacred moments each Sunday when the undershepherds strive to feed Christ’s sheep.