In an era with a torrent of books about ‘ministry’, we need to remind ourselves what a gospel minister’s core values should be. They are prayer, preparation, proclamation, pastoring and purpose.
One of the phrases used in the New Testament to describe a minister is ‘man of God’ (1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 3:17).
This means prayer. The perfect Shepherd sets the example: ‘And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone’ (Matthew 14:23). Paul prayed for churches and believers (1 Thessalonians 1:2) and exhorted others to pray for him (Colossians 4:3). He regarded prayer as central to his ministry.
Samuel Miller (1769–1850) remarked: ‘None can attain excellence in the grace and gift of prayer in public assembly, unless they abound in closet devotion, and in holy communion with God in secret’. C. H. Spurgeon said, ‘Of course the preacher is above all others distinguished as a man of prayer. He prays as an ordinary Christian, else he were an hypocrite. He prays more than ordinary Christians, else he were disqualified for the office he has undertaken’.
Often, when a church is seeking a new minister, the question is asked: ‘Is he a good preacher and pastor?’ But how many ask: ‘Does he pray?’
Preparation in a gospel minister must be two-fold: of self and for preaching. The first must be much more than a normal Christian’s devotions. A few ‘blessed thoughts’ from some simple Bible reading notes are not sufficient for the ‘man of God’. He should be saturated in the Word of God.
The reader of Bunyan will note how full his writings are with allusions to Scripture — and all achieved without computer aids! J. C. Ryle underlines the need for this knowledge: ‘If we would be kept from falling away into false doctrine, let us arm our minds with a thorough knowledge of God’s Word.
‘Let us read our Bibles from beginning to end with daily diligence, and constant prayer for the teaching of the Holy Spirit, and so strive to become thoroughly familiar with their contents. Ignorance of the Bible is the root of all error … Without diligence no one ever becomes “mighty in the Scriptures”.’
‘Justification’, said Charles Simeon with characteristic quaintness, ‘is by faith; knowledge of the Bible comes by works. But one thing I am certain: there is no labour which will be so richly repaid as laborious regular daily study of God’s Word’. This was written for ordinary Christians. How much more for a minister!
There is need too for a good knowledge of Reformed systematic theology, to avoid falling into doctrinal pitfalls and to know what we believe and why. Reading should not stop with the completion of a theological or Bible college course.
The reading of biography and solid devotional books, of books on preaching as well as theology, is required for a balanced diet. This reading forms the background of preparation for preaching. Such preparation is vital.
Sermons do not just happen, nor should they be ‘outsourced’ from the internet. Time must be set aside to prepare them. The old rule ‘guard the morning’ is still an excellent principle.
It means leading a disciplined life, watching out for diversions. For the internet ‘savvy’ there is the danger of wasting minutes, even hours, on trivia. The internet can be a useful tool, but must be employed with great care.
Preparation should begin early in the week, aiming to be finished by Friday night. Sermons, whether topical or textual, must be rooted in Scripture. The congregation must recognise that the sermon comes from the Bible and is not imposed on the text by the preacher; nor is it just the preacher’s own ideas.
He must also relate his message to biblical theology, so that the message is in keeping with the overall message of the Bible, which is Christ-centred. In this way, he avoids mere moralism. To hear a sermon devoid of Christ is surely not Christian!
It goes without saying that sermons must not contradict historic Christian belief. In preparation, the preacher must also have in mind the spiritual state of his hearers, whether they just need milk or solid food.
Bad preparation results in weak public proclamation. This applies whether the preaching is extempore, or from notes or a full manuscript. Preachers have different abilities and it is foolish to be dogmatic over which aids any should employ. However, all sermons require plain and direct English and a clear order.
To have a simple style does not mean being simplistic or jettisoning words like ‘justification’ and ‘propitiation’, for changing words means changing meanings.
Many argue that because we live in a visual age we must use visual presentations like Powerpoint. But we need to remember people do not think in pictures — and if folk do not think, they will not be converted! Basic beliefs concerning the person of Christ, the atonement and justification cannot be explained by pictures.
The duration of a sermon depends on the preacher’s ability and the congregation’s endurance. Neither preachers nor people today have the capacity for Puritan-length sermons. Common sense must prevail.
Good proclamation must avoid other pitfalls too. It is not merely explaining the Bible. While the Bible must be correctly expounded, it is much more: the proclamation of the Word of God. People should listen to the sermon not merely to hear the Bible explained, but to hear the voice of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13). The Westminster Larger Catechism is excellent on preaching (Qs. 158-160).
Another danger comes from regarding the scowls or smiles of hearers. The fear of man can lead to a neglect of topics that annoy or offend. A similar danger is preaching to pander to people’s predilections (for example, only preaching on election, but not on Christian duties!).
Then, there is the danger of thinking ‘I have preached well’ or looking for praise from the congregation for the sermon. After all, we are only servants of the Master. ‘So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’ (Luke 17:10).
Another pitfall is to regard the other parts of a worship service than the sermon as unimportant preliminaries. All the ingredients are important, with the reading and proclamation of the Word central. The whole service should integrate around the theme of the message.
Pastoral visitation can present many difficulties. Often husband and wife are both in paid employment; people’s social agendas must sometimes be interrupted; visiting a younger single lady can be sensitive (other company needs to be present).
But such visitation is not impossible, and I argue it is not an option if a pastor is to know the condition of his people as a caring shepherd. In most situations there are congregations who have unsaved adherents. Visitation provides an opportunity for personal evangelism.
The words of Richard Baxter are still relevant: ‘I know that preaching the gospel publicly is the most excellent means, because we speak to many at once. But it is usually far more effectual to preach it privately to a particular sinner, as to himself: for the plainest man that is can scarcely speak plain enough in public for them to understand: but in private we may do it much more…
‘I conclude, therefore, that public preaching will not be sufficient: for though it may be an effectual means to convert many, yet not so many as experience and God’s appointment of further means may assure us. Long may you study and preach to little purpose if you neglect this duty’.
The pastor should not be a remote, unapproachable person. Pastoral visitation helps to break down barriers. There should be no bias in this from the social standing of different people.
What is the purpose of all this activity? The aim for a minister of the gospel is no different from any Christian. It is to bring glory to God (1 Corinthians 10:31). It must never be to bring praise to the minister’s church or himself. The old sinful nature will always seek to remove praise from God, but that desire must be crucified.
Within this purpose, specific aims are given us in the Lord’s mandate ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:19-20).
The church is riddled with immature professing believers, who must be taught. Every pastor should seek to ensure that they are grounded in the faith, to protect them from the attacks of the world and devil.
But the aim is not only to protect them, but prepare them to pass on the faith to the next generation. It is from our current generation that the next generation of pastors will come (2 Timothy 2:1-2).
Believers must evangelise. If a minister never evangelises through his preaching or pastoral work, the people may conclude it is not important. He must be a model in this too.
These then are five non-negotiables for a gospel minister. He must have them imprinted on his mind and ensure they are true of him. This can only be achieved by the grace of God.
The author is a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church Ireland. He had three charges over the years of his ministry in country, town and city. He has just completed a study manual on the Westminster Confession of Faith entitled Firm Foundations.