Progressing as preachers in the midst of planting

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I have never planted a church, been involved in a church plant or had any overwhelming desire to plot that particular course in ministry. However, I know many people who have planted, are planting or will plant in the near future and it is thrilling. I know people who had a viable congregation from day one as a body of believers were hived off the mother church to become the plant. And I know people who preached to only their wife for the first 4 months of their planting journey. Church planting is such a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional, contorting endeavour. However, in the midst of the drive for momentum, scramble for venues, refining of vision and values, gathering a core team, launching, evangelism, community engagement and constituting the church and the million other jobs beside, the planter must not lose track of the centrality, necessity and primacy of preaching.

To build a beautiful looking car, with intricate body work, a robust chassis, alluring paint job and luxurious interior but fail to pay proper attention to the engine will result in disappointment, stalling and a failure to go where you want to go. And so with preaching, it is easy to get consumed by lots of things in ministry and I dare say planting in particular and so fail to ‘devote yourself’, ‘immerse yourself’ and ‘practice’ the fundamental calling of any pastor to give themselves to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and to teaching [1 Timothy 4:13-16]. There is way more to ministry and church planting than preaching, but all other tasks find their place in relation to this central, core, divinely-mandated task. We must make preaching a sustained priority in our planting endeavours.

It is also not just a case of sustaining the priority of preaching but growing in our ability as preachers. What if we set a trajectory where the last sermon we ever preached was the best sermon we ever had? What if we cultivated attitudes and put in place structures that meant we were those who were eager to progress and keep on progressing over the long-haul? What if we trusted that God’s Word, regularly and faithfully preached was the catalyst that wouldn’t just get the plant off the ground but in the goodness and kindness of God make it grow, soar, strengthen and multiply to the glory of Jesus Christ? This will be a long, hard and glorious struggle but we wouldn’t want to give ourselves to anything else. So let’s go for growth.

There are many things that will help grow us as preachers over the entire course of ministry.

  1. We must keep our convictions as to the power of God’s Word, the promises given about the preaching of God’s Word, the commission of the Lord Jesus himself to do this work, the help of the Spirit as we do it and the urgency of the task in hand as eternal things are at stake. If we loosen our grip on any of these core convictions then preaching will be sidelined, proclamation will become pontificating and the glorious riches of Christ will be exchanged for pearls of mere human wisdom.
  2. We must beware the dangers. Preaching can be an intoxicating pursuit and without the right checks and balances can lead to warped pastors and endangered congregations. The idolatry of ministry and particularly the idol of preaching is a clear and present danger for all. To love the act of preaching more than the subject of our preaching, the Lord Jesus Christ, is a slippery slope we all peer down. Not just idolatry but duplicity, a closely related danger. Where our preaching and personal holiness start to veer off in different directions. To become a hypocrite and a charlatan who calls others to repent but lives in active rebellion themselves. Busyness, to cram the diary so full, thinking that we are the answer to all the problems that surface in the church meaning that we do not devote proper time to wrestling with the Scriptures in our own personal life or in our preparation for preaching. There are many dangers that crouch at the door of the preacher and being forewarned about them is a way to forearm yourself against succumbing to them.
  3. We must continually cultivate the right attitudes as preachers. We must know in our heart of hearts that preaching is hard work. It just is. It is struggling and toiling but knowing that as we do God is pleased to empower and illuminate. We must be humble stewards in this endeavour, always aware of our unworthiness in the task, the grace that enables us to do it and constantly seeking to grow and fulfil our ministry dependent on God. We must also remember that our great goal in proclaiming Christ is to see people grow and mature, we must be preachers who love and serve our people. We must be those who work hard preaching digestible, nutritious, hearty sermons on which the flock under our care will flourish. As preachers we must always seek to grow green grass on which to nurture our congregation.
  4. We must invest in continuous preaching development. As those who are constantly giving out to others we must find ways to feast on God’s Word ourselves. We must trust the basics of sermon preparation, clarifying our sermons by crafting theme and purpose sentences, spending time discerning the structure of the passage, listening so long that the application isn’t bolted on to the passage but flows freely from the passage to our hearers with compelling, motivating force. To make progress we are going to have to review our sermons ourselves by listening back to them. We are going to have to invite the critique of others to uncover the blind spots, bad habits and unhelpful ruts that we have slipped into unconsciously. We are going to have to read lots and widely to enrich our thinking, enlarge our vision and engage with our listeners. We are going to set time where we learn from others – maybe a conference on preaching, maybe a course, maybe simply being sharpened and shaped by other preachers as you listen to their sermons over a sustained period.

Friends, preaching is the engine of all church ministry and it is crucial that we do not let it slide in the tumult of church planting (or at any other time). It is exhausting, but it is essential. We wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. So let us go for growth in our preaching.

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Jon Gemmell is Director of Conferences and Resources at The Proclamation Trust. Before this he was Lead Pastor of Bruntsfield Evangelical Church in Edinburgh.