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Mark Johnston (MDiv Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) in Cardiff, Wales. He was previously Senior Pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church Bryn Mawr, PA and of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London. He began his ministry as a church planter in Ireland. He serves on the Board of Banner of Truth Trust and has authored several books including three titles in Banner's Let’s Study series, You in Your Small Corner, and Our Creed.

Column: Resident Aliens by Mark Johnston

The Missing Link of Preaching

July 27, 2015 •

There is more to being a preacher than preachers often realise. Biblically speaking it is the primary means by which God’s truth revealed in Scripture is to be propagated, not just to the church, but also throughout the world; but for it to be effective, we need to appreciate its twofold dynamic.

The Lord Jesus Christ is the archetypal preacher. Of him God says through Isaiah, ‘The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon me to preach good news…’ (Isa 61.1) and, at the commencement of his public ministry, Jesus reaches for that very text to set out his credentials (Lk 4.16-21). Thereafter we are told he spent a great deal of his time and energy preaching and teaching in formal and informal settings. Indeed, when his own disciples press him to remain in Capernaum to focus on his ministry of healing, Jesus tells them unequivocally, ‘Let us go somewhere else…so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come’ (Mk 1.38).

The fact, as someone has wryly stated, that ‘God had only one Son and he made him a preacher’ says a lot about the importance of that role in God’s purpose for the world. But it also says a lot about what preaching is meant to entail.

Even though throughout its history the church has always had many who have seen themselves as preachers, these men have often struggled to find the right balance that should define their calling. The obvious and recurring failure has been to reduce preaching merely to the level of teaching. But, whereas no-one would argue over the fact that true preaching must always be didactic, it can never merely be didactic. It is intended not just as God’s means of communicating his word to the intellect, but also to the heart and will. And that is where the challenge comes in. How are preachers to engage their hearers’ hearts as well as their minds?

The missing link for many preachers, I believe, is the pastoral component bound up with the ministry of the word. That is, those who are called to this office are not just preachers/teachers, but also pastors. Paul makes this point explicitly when he speaks about the people-gifts the ascended Christ has provided for the church in his letter to the Ephesians. Alongside the provision of apostles, prophets and evangelists, he speaks of those who are ‘pastors and teachers’ [or, ‘pastor-teachers’ if the wording is to be read as a hendiadys] (Eph 4.11). Either way, the linkage between pastoring people and ministering the word is unmistakable.

It may seem like a detail that is too obvious to have to point out, but there has been a noticeable trend among many preachers in recent decades to dismiss the importance of their role as pastors. Some will even say quite openly, ‘But I’m not a pastor, my calling is to preach!’ using this to justify their being closeted away in their study and not involved directly with their people.

The problem with that mentality is that although it is concerned to devote due care and attention to getting to grips with what the text says, it more often than not does so with a great disconnect from the very people to whom it is preached. It may reach their intellect, but not their heart and conscience and people can quite easily listen to such preaching and respond to it by thinking, ‘So what?’

The preaching of Jesus, the apostles and the ministers of the early church was never met by such a reaction. Even those who dismissed the message they proclaimed did so not in intellectual indifference, but because they knew only too well what it was saying because it had hit home to their hearts. And the same has been true through the ages when such preaching has been heard.

There are all kinds of facets bound up with this issue; but, as I have already suggested, the pastoral dimension of preaching is one that stands out and has arguably become the missing link of preaching that connects with those who listen.

The clearest place in the life and ministry of Jesus where this is illustrated is in his Good Shepherd discourse in John’s Gospel (Jn 10.1-27). There Jesus makes a very striking connection between his pastoral knowledge of his sheep and their willingness to listen to his voice and follow where he leads. He says of the true shepherd, ‘…the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out’ (Jn 10.3). And, more pointedly, he goes on to say, ‘My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me’ (Jn 10.27).

Jesus was as much an exegete of human nature as he was of holy scripture and the former was only true because he took as much time and trouble to get to know his people as he did to get to know the truths he was proclaiming to them.

There is far more bound up with this than just being aware of needs so that they can be addressed from the pulpit. It has to do with preachers having a relationship with their people that is as real and vital as the relationship they have with the passage they are due to preach on a particular occasion. How the people relate to the word is intimately connected to how they relate to the preacher and he to them.

For those of us who are called to the ministry, we are to be pastors to our people every bit as much as proclaimers of the word. If we are both, we will not only reflect the kind of ministry Jesus exercised; we will also have the kind of ministry Jesus will be very glad to bless and use.

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