Alfred Place Baptist Church

Preaching: 1 Introduction

The full-time gospel ministry is still a protected oasis. We are relieved of so many of the tensions and temptations that the men to whom we minister are meeting each day. They work with their minds and bodies in this evil world and give their hard-earned money to us so generously that we may spend our days – think of it – in the quiet of our studies, in the Bible, in evangelism, and in pastoring God’s people. I hope you will never join with those ministers who sit around grumbling in their fraternals about all the alleged hardships of being preachers. What a marvellously privileged life we lead. I trust you earnestly believe that if it be God’s will for you to spend the rest of your life caring for this particular congregation you will happily do so and thank the Lord at the end of each day for such blessings.

There is rich variety in the work of the minister. The seminary professor teaches one limited theological segment of the religious disciplines to one narrow age band of men between 21 and 24. He has academic papers to write and publish to maintain his tenure. He has to work with colleagues who are of the same intellectual intensity as himself. There are papers to mark, exams to set, erring students to chase after, insouciant young men to face and high-flying colleagues to work alongside. Much of his labour is unknown and unprayed for by the churches. His parents never see him at work! What a one-string song he sings. The preacher, on the other hand, works from his home. There is his office with his wife moving through the nearby rooms, and his children calling in to see him. Charles Hodge moved the doorknob on his study door lower so that his kids could come into the room and chat to him at any time. There is enormous freedom about the books of the Bible he chooses to study and preach on. There are his calls to the hospital and to the sick and elderly at home. There is evangelism of all kinds, counselling, desktop publishing, working with godly leaders of the congregation, pre-wedding talks, funerals to take and privileged conversations with widows and the children of the deceased. There are the godly old ladies to converse with. When the phone or doorbell rings, what might the caller want? There is no richness in any para-church work that can compare to the pastor’s. I say you must thank the Lord every day for putting you in the ministry. Who, called of God to this work, could desire anything else?

There is a sea-change between the itinerant preaching you have been doing until now visiting new congregations where not one face was familiar, and now settled behind one pulpit to address one people week by week. But those early experiences of encountering new assemblies should be repeated throughout one’s life. There are few guaranteed tonics for a preacher’s heart when discouraged with a hundred little worries, than going off and preaching to a distant congregation. It is like a visit to an unfamiliar city and surveying the square, the houses, churches and shops. All is pristine and fascinating, but in a congregation the people’s eyes are on you too. The crowds walk the thoroughfares and there is a solemnity about that scene of which one may lose sight in one’s own congregation. One sees that bustling community and thinks of Another’s grief who once beheld another city, and then one recalls his words, “Broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many there be that find it.” How earnestly we should be preaching the gospel.

But such visits should be occasional. Constant travelling to meet new people, and consciously creating a good initial impression can warp our sense of humanity altogether. Many great preachers have been inseparably associated with the places where their work was done, and where perhaps all their lives as pastors were lived. In many cases their place has passed into their names as if it were a true part of themselves. Chrysostom of Constantinople, Augustine of Hippo, Calvin of Geneva, Baxter of Kidderminster, Bunyan of Bedford, Rowland of Llangeitho, Jay of Bath, M’Cheyne of Dundee, Spurgeon of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Lloyd-Jones of Westminster Chapel, Chantry of Carlisle. In my Wales with our sparseness of surnames a multitude of such associations have become historic and compelled the Welsh to identify the man with the place and the place with the man.

In the New Testament there was both a dynamism and a stability about church leadership. The preachers were continually on the move going out and out to new areas with the gospel with little apparent control or financial support needed for their sowing and watering. Yet there were also the New Testament pastorates, John in Ephesus, James in Jerusalem, and Titus in Crete. They established churches through preaching. The regular preaching ministry needs no defence. Its record is its best defence. Whoever would have heard of places in my own nation like Llangeitho, Trefecca, Talsarn, Bala and Clynog if it were not for the extraordinary changes wrought in those communities by the preachers who lived there? We must never lose confidence in the power of the preached Word of God and the office of the minister.

Through long pastorates preachers become rich in their knowledge of the ways of God with man, and of human nature. Philips Brooks presented three rules to students, introducing them with due solemnity: “I beg you to remember them and apply them with all the wisdom that God gives you. First. Have as few congregations as you can. Second. Know your congregation as thoroughly as you can. Third. Know your congregation so largely and deeply that in knowing it you shall know humanity.” (Philips Brooks, Lectures on Preaching, given at Yale College in 1877, published by James Robinson in Manchester, 1899, p.190)

Dr. James Stalker reminisced in this way: “It was my happiness, when I was ordained, to be settled next neighbour to an aged and saintly minister. He was a man of competent scholarship, and had the reputation of having been in early life a powerful and popular preacher. But it was not to these gifts that he owed his unique influence. He moved through the town, with his white hair and somewhat staid and dignified demeanour, as a hallowing presence. His very passing in the street was a kind of benediction, and the people, as they looked after him, spoke of him to each other with affectionate veneration. Children were proud when he laid his hand on their heads, and they treasured the kindly words which he spoke to them. At funerals and other seasons of domestic solemnity his presence was sought by people of all denominations. We who laboured along with him in the ministry felt that his mere existence in the community was an irresistible demonstration of Christianity and a tower of strength to every good cause. Yet he had not gained this position of influence by brilliant talents or great achievements or the pushing of ambition; for he was singularly modest, and would have been the last to credit himself with half the good he did. The whole mystery lay in this, that he had lived in the town for forty years a blameless life, and was known by everybody to be a godly and prayerful man. He was good enough to honour me with his friendship; and his example wrote deeply upon my mind these two convictions – that it may sometimes be of immense advantage to spend a whole life time in a single pastorate, and that the prime qualification for the ministry is godliness.”

So Stalker wrote in the Yale Lectures on Preaching, 1891, entitled The Preacher and his Models (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1891, pp 57&58). The man of whom he was referring was a certain James Black of Dunnikier and little more than that paragraph of Stalker’s is known of the man or even the place where he laboured. Dunnikier is too small to appear in any British atlas. Black was one of that army of holy men who have served the Lord in obscure communities modestly and humbly for no reward other than the immense privilege of having so great a Master as our Christ.

The danger of the above portrait is its romanticism. Where are the wild beasts? The Lord Jesus sent his disciples forth as sheep amidst wolves. Paul preached the word publicly, but also from house to house. He spoke in an upper room but also in the open air. He was surrounded by weeping appreciative friends, but also by mobs who stoned him. To live in a small community for many years liked by all men, and then to die with the words, “He was a nice old boy,” as one’s epitaph would be a total betrayal of our calling. Such a life could not be blessed to anyone. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 5:11&12)

We do not doubt that James Black not only comforted and exhorted, but at times manifested the anger of rebuke. He would have to live righteously if he were as faithful as his Lord who denounced the Pharisees and the king. As Stalker arrived in his first church near Dunnikier and observed Black he learned one great truth: Everything must preach in the preacher, not merely the tongue, but also gesture, manner, dress, walk and conversation. By the end of his life Black had by the Spirit of Christ developed a quite unselfconscious instinct and tact in following the Saviour. There was a commentary which he furnished by his own personal walk with God which all of Dunnikier could read, and of which he was the last to be aware. Whether one’s ministry in a certain community is going to be long or short it must be characterised by a Christian firmness of character, overcoming the timid fear of men and men-service, and also popularity-hunting. The purer the pruned vine, the more fruit it brings forth. The people of the community as they get to know the minister are all too ready to use his faults as fig-leaves for their own nakedness. The sins of the pastor are the greatest in the whole church because they do most to hinder the course of the Word of God. The longer the faults are placaded before the community the more unattractive the Christian life will seem. But how powerful the sustained momentum of a holy walk.

In three ways should the preacher preach: with heart, with mouth, and with life. The life must prove what the mouth speaks, and the mouth must speak what the heart feels. It was said of the Reformers that “The truth not merely sounded, it shone out of them.” Richard Baxter warns men in his Reformed Pastor, “One proud, surly, lordly word, one needless contention, one covetous action, may cut the throat of many a sermon … It is a palpable error for some ministers, who make such a disproportion between their preaching and their living; who study hard to preach exactly, and study little or not at all to live exactly. All the week long is little enough to study how to speak two hours; and yet one hour seems too much to study how to live all the week… Oh, take heed, brethren, of every word you speak, and of every step you tread, for you bear the ark of the Lord – you are entrusted with his honour! … Take heed to yourselves, for the success of all your labours does very much depend on this.”

How ministers find a place to settle is an utter mystery to me. If ever God’s sovereignty is evident it is in the manner and timing of a call to a church. I have seen holy men whom I consider to have the brightest gifts for pastoring and preaching, and they have waited while taking work as postmen, teachers and firemen for years before they were invited to become pastors. Some never became ministers and they spent their lives thinking their vocations had been second best. Yet other men, much less discerning, theological light-weights, have had the security of a pulpit held out to them before completing their seminary course. The leadings of providence are no safe confirmation that a man is called to gospel work. When runaway Jonah, in defiance of his Lord, arrived at Joppa he found a ship about to sail to Tarshish. There was a berth on board and Jonah had the money for the fare. It was all for him a confirmation that his own thoughts of ministry in Tarshish were God-inspired, but in fact he was fleeing from the Lord. The testings of providence are not to be interpreted as divine guidance either crushing our desires or opening doors for us. Do we earnestly desire this work? Do we have a good biblical understanding of what it entails? Do we have the moral, intellectual, theological and affectionate gifts for this work? Do men whom we respect urge us to consider this as our own divine calling? Do we have any funny ideas? The ministry is no place for cranks, however orthodox they might be.

Then wait patiently on God. We have the same heavenly Father. He does not give gifts and then let them rust or atrophy by non-use. There is no reason why you should not preach for the rest of your life. You may not have a regular pulpit, a manse, and a salary, but there is nothing to stop you preaching in all sorts of ways. Be involved in a local church. Sit under the best ministry you can find. Display an enviable contentment. Hew wood and draw water if that is God’s will for you. Accept what opportunities the Lord through his church gives you. The grape vine is very efficient. The question preachers are asked more than any other is, “Can you recommend a minister for our church?”

I have remained in this small town of 15,000 people since 1965. I always felt that I began at the very top, and could not consider a more perfect place to be a pastor-preacher. Aberystwyth is the cultural capital of Wales. As it is midway between the north and south of the country it was made the home of the National Library of Wales and the first Welsh university which now has about 8,000 students. It is a bilingual community and we are a Welsh-speaking family. Situated on the Irish Sea it is a delightful place to live. God gave me a place in the sun. I wept when I heard the church had given me a call and I accepted their businesslike invitation that same week. Both our childhood homes were a few hours away to the north and the south. One Saturday night after I had been here a couple of months I drove to speak on the North Wales coast at Bangor University Christian Union. The next morning I drove to Aberavon on the South Wales coast and preached in Sandfields where Dr Lloyd-Jones had been a minister in the 1920s and 30s. I could speak anywhere in Wales and return home that same evening. I was not interested in another place, but never had a serious call to a pastorate in all these years. If I had begun my ministry in a one horse town I might not have stayed so long. I never played around with another church’s affections in order to tell our congregation I was being appreciated somewhere else. God kept me here. When I was forty I felt restless, pinned into the local scene by a wife and three daughters and other family members who could never dream of living anywhere else. It was a brief mid-life crisis. The British churches needed men to preach the whole counsel of God in local congregations like ours, to show that assemblies could be reformed and hear with love the doctrines of grace, and be happy united fellowships serving the Lord of all the earth.

It is possible to keep fresh in a long ministry. The temptation having moved to a new church is to preach sermons earlier given in one’s previous pulpit. That can rarely be done if one is confronting a beloved congregation for many years. I determined to preach through the whole Bible while I was here. I have, of course, failed. There are always challenges one sets oneself, fascinating new books are published which one must read, classics remain yet unread. There are various series to preach on Sundays, and different audiences to address – children, passers-by in the open air, a house group, a factory Christian union, an informal meal and message, a man’s group, an early morning prayer meeting, students’ meetings – the list is endless. One feels more relaxed in some than others. The longer you stay in a church the more resolute you should be in attending ministers’ conferences. As you grow in reputation you make a contribution just being with the men. No minister should go to conferences simply to address them. He should go to learn too. He should not be saying, “I have something to teach you, but you have nothing to give to me.” Conferences are important for meeting your brothers in the ministry. The messages are a bonus. They might stimulate and encourage you in your labours. Attendance at some of the range of conferences available to men in North America and the United Kingdom will provide a couple that prove to be consistently helpful to yourself. The congregation you face constantly changes. Populations are dynamic. New faces appear and new problems arise in the lives of those who have long sat at your feet.

There are dangers of staying in a church for many years. The late Bernard J. Honeysett recently observed in his autobiography, “John Kemp was one of five pastors I knew personally who held pastorates for more than fifty years. In the case of Stanley Delves of Crowborough, his predecessor was also in the office for over fifty years, so that the two spanned over a century. It has been my observation that when men have continued so long, they can unwittingly become dictators. A generation grows up under their ministry and pastoral care, and their word can become law. I knew of one case where a church meeting was mentioned and the pastor said, ‘I will say when we are to have a church meeting.’ Sometimes such leaders make no provision for the future when they are taken, in some cases with very sad results” (Bernard J. Honeysett, The Sound of His Name, Banner of Truth, 1995, p. 51).

One is delivered from tyranny by self-restraint and integrity, and also by the watchfulness and friendship of one’s officers. There is enough consciousness of the priesthood of all believers in gospel churches to sound an alarm if a minister is becoming a one man band, or throwing his weight around in the church. Good national Christian magazines bring other information and ideas into the congregation. One begins to invite suitable younger men to preach regularly in the pulpit especially before one is thinking of leaving.

The benefits of staying in a community for decades are legion. Many in the congregation are one’s best friends. Some came to faith through your preaching. One has baptized some parents and then their children a generation later. One gets to know the town and how it operates. If one does not know significant men personally (because they are always changing) one knows the office of the editor of the local paper, the chief of police, the personalities of the local radio station, the headmasters of the schools, the political structures, the business leaders and their gatherings, the funeral directors, the clergy and their theologies. One knows how to contact these people, where they are heading, how they can be approached to serve the gospel of Jesus Christ. I can walk into our town centre today and the vast majority of the people are strangers to me. I can stand in line in the Post Office and know few of the people waiting with me, but I do know the staff behind the counter. They know who I am. To some I have given invitations to our meetings and to one a copy of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The same is true for check-out people, my mechanic, plumber, electrician and barber (with whom I have frequent noisy ecclesiastical debates. He is a young Roman Catholic, son of a Sicilian, and he always asks me loudly when I come into his shop “How is the Reverend today?”). We can hold open-air meetings during the winter fairs and on the promenade in summer and we are trusted by the police. Our own three children, having gone through the whole state school system in the Welsh language, had a wide circle of friends, and through this contact we got to know scores of parents, greeting them in the town each week and now discussing grandchildren and their own cares. A month after I arrived in the town I was present at the opening of the new hospital here in November 1965. Since that time I have prayed in all the wards and practically by every bed, but there are few of the staff I know because they come and go.

I have learned what rare issues to write about in the columns of the local newspaper, far less these days than when I first came when I was a bit of a hothead. Except for one widow we are the oldest folk on our street and we try to be good neighbours, but I am always going off in my car somewhere. If I walked (as my wife does) I would meet more people. So there are these obvious benefits of influence and presence from being in a community a long time. Some credibility is given to the historic Christian faith. When I arrived vague religion dominated the community. A university coming to a community has an enormous rationalistic influence on the pulpits. Every clergyman was thought to believe the same things and we were all considered to be supporters of the ecumenical movement. Now they have learned that there are a number of us who are unhappy with ecumenical religion and that position is grudgingly respected if not accepted by others.

When should a minister leave his pulpit to accept another position? Let him wait calmly for a call. If he is restless in his present church will he be happy somewhere else? Which sensible church would dream of calling the Rev. Rolling Stone – who has never spent longer than a few years in any place? Only the most immature congregation could shrug at that record and issue a call. When preachers move elsewhere they take themselves with them. So often the problem is not in the deacons or congregation; it is in the unresolved tensions located in our own hearts. Whenever a man moves he finds himself doing exactly the same work in the next church as he was doing in his old position, preaching the Scriptures and pastoring those who hear us. Someone else will have to do those labours in the old church. If we are weary of that and want an external change have we ever understood what the work of the pastorate is?

Wherever we go we will surely be exchanging one set of problems for another. A higher salary, a bigger reputation, and an apparently easier position are not good reasons for quitting. Neither are larger numbers – it is enough to bear to the throne of judgment the number who hear you now and give account to God for them let alone a thousand people. Should we go because the wicked in a congregation are making life tough for us? That is questionable. Should we allow them to have all the church’s assets, and desert our friends and supporters leaving them to the tender mercies of those who have been striving against the God of grace? There is also a doctrine of brushing the dust off one’s feet and moving on. If the majority reject us we will accept their decision with sadness and dignity. Even a Jonathan Edwards was rejected by his own congregation, and unlike our church his people had known mighty times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord. It is amazing how any of us survive in this climate of hyped-up expectations which congregations have been given by Church Growth experts.

Maybe there will be too many deep tensions with a substantial group of people in the congregation to make a blessed ministry possible and another orthodox man might further what is proving hard for you to advance. Every preacher itching to leave argues with his own heart like that: “I can’t take them any further.” Why not? Aren’t you a growing man yourself? They must grow with you. But every church passes through seasons, winter deadness and then the new life of spring, and our leaving is no guarantee of gospel advance. There will be no shortage of religious tosh to hand around as your reason for taking off. There is a fight everywhere. It is a good fight of faith. The future is as bright as God’s promises. One thing we know most certainly is that God is going to work all things together for the good of them that love him.

If a preacher does intend to accept a call it must be evident to all that the new office is a more strategic sphere and that his gifts may be used for the greater benefit of Christ’s church than where he now is. Paul did target the great cities for his ministries. Even if it is evident that the advantages of moving will further the gospel yet members of your present congregation may be stubborn and resentful of your desire to leave them, not thinking of the well-being of the greater testimony of Jesus Christ. Then the parting may not be so amicable. Of course one expects some mutual grief at any parting. But it would have been unthinkable for Spurgeon to have remained the country ‘Pastor of the Fens’ at Waterbeach when New Park Street church in London was calling him. The call of the church itself, accompanied by an enthusiastic vote and the encouragement of many of your respected friends will carry heavy weight in your decision to go. But we are only beginning this work. Let’s build up a happy church which loves the whole counsel of God. Don’t aim for anything less than this. That is the New Testament goal.

Geoff Thomas