The State of the American Pulpit

I recently came across this short video by John Piper on the State of the American Pulpit. It is excellent and addresses a point that hits at one of the chief burdens of my heart.

I have often wondered why we demand excellence and precision in all professional vocations except the pulpit. We demand that our CPAs have a thorough grasp of accounting. We demand that our lawyers have a thorough grasp of the law. We demand that our doctors have a thorough grasp of medicine. We demand and expect our airline pilots to have mastered the ability to fly an aircraft (with good reason because there is a lot a stake when you are flying over 500 mph in a medal tube at 36,000 feet!).

Why is it that we don’t have the same demands and expectations of pastors in their pulpits (certainly there is more at stake here than anywhere else!). One can walk into a great number of churches (Evangelical, Reformed or Mainline Protestant) on a Sunday morning and hear just about everything other than a sound, passionate, clear exposition of Scripture.

Tragically, because so few believers have been exposed to or fed a steady diet of true preaching/teaching in their churches their spiritual appetites have become trained to only want the spiritual junk food they have always been served. Even more tragic is the fact that in many churches the debate has shifted from what kind of preaching a church should have to whether or not there should even be preaching in the church (see Preaching- The Emerging Church Way).

God’s people, not only in America but around the world (see John Stott’s ministry website) are malnourished and true Biblical exposition is about as rare as a Baiji (one of the world’s rarest mammals; only a few dozen live in the Yangtze River in China). Most of you have never heard of a Baiji and if you happened to see one you wouldn’t even know what you were looking at. This is my point! This is how it has become with Bible expositors in so many churches today.

Bible expositors are increasingly becoming one of the church’s rarest ministries. What should be considered common (sound, faithful Bible expositors) is now rare. And, what is considered typical in most churches today wouldn’t even be recognized as such in most churches just two hundred years ago.

May the Lord be pleased to raise up an army of Gospel-centered/driven, Bible expositors, who are skillful workmen that accurately handle the word of truth.

3 Responses to The State of the American Pulpit

  1. dave says:

    John,

    Agreed. Being a faithful pastor cannot be less than biblical preaching, but, is it not more than that? And is that not the rub in many situations? CPA’s, pilots, doctors, and lawyers have one thing in common–they are specialists. They are one-stringed instruments. Of course, pilots pilot, doctors doctor, CPA’s calculate and lawyers… well, I’m a bit foggy on that one. On the other hand, pastors are not just talking heads. It may be true that in large churches the preaching pastor is effectively a specialist, but I don’t see that as necessarily a laudable thing precisely because I don’t see the “talking-head-as-pastor” in the Bible.

    Honestly, if I could be like the CPA, lawyer, doctor and pilot and be a preacher who preaches, and nothing else… my sermons may wear the better, but my job security would most likely not fair so well. My flock, being the Bereans that they are, see the pastor not as a talking head but as a shepherd. Again, shepherding is not less than exposition, but it is more than that. At least that’s the picture I get by listening in on Paul’s instruction to Pastor Timothy…

    Timothy, “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” 1 Tim 1:3
    Timothy, rightly order public worship, chap 2
    Timothy, guide the church in the appointing of godly leadership, chap 3
    Timothy, “command and teach” but also “train yourself to godliness” and “keep a close watch on yourself” as well as on “your teaching” chap 4
    Timothy, instruct and guide your flock to show Christlikeness by the manner in which they treat older men, widows, and elders. And stay closely involved in the process of both “ordaining elders” and “rebuking them” chap 5
    Timothy, charge slave, charge the rich, and charge yourself, chap 6

    Perhaps one might argue that there is a “preaching” component in all of Timothy’s responsibilities. I for one would not deny that. However, while Timothy’s duties included preaching, surely we must admit that his duties extended far beyond. In other words, it is true that exhortations aimed at faithful preaching abound in 1 Tim. But, I just don’t see Paul calling upon Timothy to be a “talking head,” a specialist. From Paul, we get a picture of a Timothy who is deeply and personally engaged in the lives of people.

    CPA’s calculate, pilots pilot, doctors doctor, lawyers lawyer, but pastors shepherd, which means a whole lot more than preach. Now, many pastors do things that are not part of their calling. But, let’s not go there. Stick with 1 Timothy. Do we not see more than preaching in Timothy’s duties? And if so, will we not allow for something other than a “low view of preaching” as, at least in part, an explanation for the “state of the pulpit”?

    My heart goes out to the pastor (all of them, but perhaps mostly in smaller churches) whose heart is fired with a sense of his calling to “rightly divide the Word,” but whose ministry does not allow for a multiple staff, and who is at the same time pressing full bore to be faithful as a husband, the father of three teenagers, and yet whose income requires a bi-vocational engagement. Those are the men that we must pray for (if for no other reason, their number far exceeds the hand full of preaching specialists); men who are indeed “gospel-centered/driven, Bible expositors, who are skillful workmen that accurately handle the word of truth,” but who battle every day, every minute, to keep their life-sustaining, air-providing orifices at least one inch above the waterline.

    My balloon isn’t empty on this subject. But this will have to suffice. Yesterday I spent six hours getting my car back in working order so I could get my kids to school. Now, I just spent 20 minutes or so typing this “comment.” Two time-eating things that didn’t exist 200 years ago. I must stop. I’m behind in my studies for Sunday.

  2. Hi Dave. Thanks for your reply. I think perhaps you may have either misunderstood my point/lament (I was not arguing for “talking heads” in pulpits or suggesting that all pastors do is preach/teach) or perhaps have read a bit too much into it. Of course pastoral ministry involves more than expositing Scripture. No one argues with that.

    But, I would say that one of the main ways that pastors should be shepherding their congregations is through faithful, biblical exposition. I also think that pastors should be specialists in their vocations. It takes a lot of work, skill and time to study the Word and preach the Word accurately and faithfully. It also takes a lot of skill, grace and wisdom to shepherd God’s people in a myriad of pastoral responsibilities. Not just anyone can carry out pastoral responsibilities. We should always be learning and growing and getting better in every area of pastoral ministry. No argument there.

    I love 1 Timothy and agree with all the verses you cited. But, I would argue that none of those imperatives can be carried out well without a sound understanding of Scripture (which requires careful study) and sound teaching.

    As far as pastors of smaller churches go, I have a first hand, experiential understanding of that (5 children, bi-vocational, no staff, no secretary, etc…; by the way, I have run a doctor’s office and I know first hand that doctors would love to only “doctor” but such is not always the case). I have traveled to third world countries (for example Cambodia and Cuba) where I have helped train village pastors, house church pastors, etc… to become more skilled, Bible teachers. I know first hand the challenges of Cuban village pastors who have to spend 8 hours + a day riding their bikes or walking 20 miles or more from village to village to pastor several house churches. My heart goes out for these precious, persecuted pastors and their starving families who live in grass huts.

    I hope this helps clarify. Gospel blessings!

  3. I fully agree that expository preaching is a much needed skill in all Christian pulpits. As we lose this method and replace it with Christian commentators or humorists, we become more like the world. It is our Word that should direct us and inform our every action and yet we hear so little of it spoken in our churches. I spent a Sunday in Voddie Baucham’s church near Houston, Texas (Grace Family Baptist Church) and was treated to engaging, verse by verse exposition. It was convicting and refreshing to hear. Are you familiar with him?

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