We’re joined today by Burk Parsons. Burk is senior pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Florida, and editor of Tabletalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He’s uses Twitter in a way that’s very compelling. Thanks for joining us today, Burk, and in fact that’s where I’ll start.
I want you to riff on a tweet you posted in May. It was on preaching. You posted this: “Pastors who deliver merely intellectually stimulating lectures and not gospel-saturated, intellectually stimulating, worship-driven sermons will always produce auditors and spectators rather than participants and passionate worshipers.” What’s at the heart of that?
Pastor as Shepherd
Essentially, at the very heart of that is really my understanding of the role of the pastor. The pastor is not merely a preacher. The pastor does indeed preach. We are called to preach, but we are not merely called to preach.
“We are called to preach, but we are not merely called to preach.”
Pastors are shepherds, and we shepherd God’s people. We serve the Lord’s people. These are God’s flock, as Peter writes (1 Peter 5:3). We are called to serve them in numerous ways, and preaching is one of the ways that we do that — a significant way, of course. The pastor in preaching is serving a congregation, serving families, serving individuals, serving singles, serving young couples, and serving children.
One of the most significant challenges I think we’re facing in our day is the notion of the pulpiteer. We talk about the podcast pastor, which you’ve addressed, and I know Pastor John has addressed. In fact, many well-known pastors and preachers who have preaching podcasts have addressed the problem of it.
I think often the notion of the pulpiteer, or the preacher-only pastor — that is to say, the one who is only preaching — tends to develop a sort of lecture-style sermon. This is the type of sermon wherein they come to instill or condition a people to think that they’re coming to be taught. They start thinking they are coming to corporate worship to be taught.
People begin to really think they’re there for the sermon. They start to think that all the other things and all the other portions of the worship service are really not that important — for example, that our time of prayer, our time of observing the Lord’s Supper and baptism, or anything else, is really not that important. They begin to think, “It’s okay if you miss those. That just the benediction, the call to worship.” This goes for whatever elements different churches have in their worship service. They begin to think that those things really aren’t as crucial or as essential to our corporate worship.
What Is Worship?
You have some Christians, of course, who’ll say, “I come because I really just need the fellowship. I come to worship, I come to church because I need the fellowship.” You have some come and say, “I really just want to sing. I want to sing more. I just want to sing.” They typically equate singing with worship, not understanding that worship is the entirety of the service, of course.
Then you sometimes have people — and I would say that, by and large, the majority of Christians in Reformed churches fall into this category — they tend to say, “I don’t really need the singing. I don’t really need anything else. I just need the preaching. That’s what’s really the most important thing.”
We need to stop and say that preaching is a very important part, a significant part. But we need to make sure that we don’t develop within our people this notion that everything is centered and fixed around preaching. We don’t want to put the spotlight solely upon the sermon.
I think what happens is that pastors begin to feel the pressure to have this perfectly polished message, so it ends up looking more like a lecture, more like a lesson that could be taught really in any Sunday School class. It becomes that rather than a sermon as a part of the worship service.
We want sermons that help people not simply come in and sort of fold their arms and say, “Okay. Let’s see what this preacher has for me this week. Let’s see what new thing he’s going to teach me this week. Let’s see what new, fresh thing I’m going to learn that I’ve not learned before.” They fold their arms and they sit there with their arms folded, and they say, “Okay. Let me just spectate. Let me just watch. Let me audit.”
“Pastors are shepherds, and we shepherd God’s people. And preaching is just one of the ways that we do that.”
This happens rather than people seeing themselves as participants not only in that worship service, but participants in that local body, that local congregation. They forget they are vital, living organisms as a part of the larger body of Christ in that congregation. They are coming not only to sing, and coming not only to affirm their faith and to pray and to be prayed for, but to come and to sit under the ministry of the word.
That language is all too quickly passing away from the church today — that we’re coming to sit under the ministry of the word as a part of our worship.
That means that, pastor, our sermons really need to be engaging to help fix people’s eyes on the author and finisher of our faith, Jesus Christ — to help fix people’s eyes on all that Christ has called us to obey.
As we know from the Great Commission, Jesus taught us not only to go and teach, but he’s called us to go and make disciples, teaching them to obey, or teaching them to guard and observe, all that Christ commanded.
The sermon, as a part of the whole worship service, really needs to strive to fix people’s eyes upon Christ, looking to him and him alone and his finished work for us as our sole grounds for our being declared righteous. It helps people see we are justified by the Father. It aims to help people in resting in that, and having assurance in that, and finding the freedom that we have in Christ.
We want people being engaged now not just as auditors, not just as listeners, not just as people looking for something new or something fresh or something they’ve never heard before — waiting to have their sort of theological ears tickled in just the right way with something that sounds so cool and so new — but rather coming to be engaged, to be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, striving as we rest in him to follow him in all that he has commanded.
That’s a good word. The sermon is not offering up new novelties. It is an encounter with the affections of our hearer’s hearts. That’s good.
I’m not a huge fan of the theologian Karl Barth, but he was once asked if one of his sermons could be recorded and released as an audio recording, and he said yes, as long as the whole service was recorded and released along with it. That sounds foreign to us because we’re rather used to abstracted sermon recordings, but his point is that every sermon is part of a broader worship experience and it should feel weird to extract it.
I think you’re exactly right. I think he was on to something. I don’t distribute my sermons. I never have during my many years of ministry. They’re not online. Our people at St. Andrew’s Chapel can get copies of the sermons from the week before if they were absent. But that is the only way I would go about ever letting my sermons be out there in public, because our sermons are for our people.
I’m not against other people doing it. I get it. I really get it. I understand it. I get the reasoning behind it. But I think there’s something special that the Holy Spirit is doing through that local church pastor with his people that he’s striving to shepherd faithfully. It would really only be something that I think would be allowed if it was the entirety of the worship service, and then maybe online through a password for our people at our website. Or something like that sort of thing.
More Than Stories
That’s worth thinking about for local churches. So people say, yes, the sermon should affectionally influence his people. So you have the lecture on one side, a novelty for curious eyes of spectators and auditors. On the other hand, how do you protect this from a form of preaching that is merely trying to get some response from the audience? How do you push against the emotional story-time kind of sermon?
Well said, and a very good point. I think it’s very important that we establish at the very outset that sermons must be filled with teaching, with exposition, with explanation. We need to look at the original audience, and look at the context of what’s being said by the Lord in his word.
“One of the most significant challenges I think we’re facing in our day is the notion of the preaching-only pastor.”
We really need to spend a great deal of time not only looking at words and phrases, but looking at all the doctrine within that verse or that passage and expounding as much as we possibly can.
Sermons needs to be, as we all agree I’m sure, filled with the explanation and exposition of Scripture. But we do not just tack on a little application at the end that causes people to think about something. It’s not just sort of throwing on a little imperative here and there, but rather, helping people see how the gospel relates to every aspect of our sermon and every aspect of what the word of God is teaching them. At the same time, we want to help them be able to understand the gospel through Scripture and the imperatives that come in light of the gospel.
To your point regarding sermons that are just filled with stories or filled with illustrations and really lacking the important content and exposition of the passage, the truth of that matter is they’re not really feeding their people. They’re not feeding their people with the word of God. That’s the only way God’s people are really going to be nourished.
I think they know that. I think they’re typically interested in attracting more people and getting more people and not offending too many people. When the word of God is preached, it will not only comfort; it will not only encourage. It will also rebuke and challenge; it will make people uncomfortable.
We know that. I think too often pastors are filling their time with stories and illustrations simply because it’s a little bit easier, and it doesn’t really offend anybody. But we are called, as you know, in the preaching of the word of God to rebuke and to reprove and to exhort and also to comfort and to encourage, as we point people to the gospel of Jesus Christ and our justification in him.