This article is dedicated to the brethren in Ebenezer Baptist Chapel, Old Hill and Pastor Roland Burrows and Mrs. Anne Burrows, who retired in December 2018. Several men influenced me to pursue my call to lay preaching, my late father-in-law Mr Kenneth Harris, Colonel Don Underwood and Pastor Burrows. It was through the advice and support of Pastor Burrows that I managed to preach in various churches while juggling a young, growing family and a job as a biological science researcher.
We know that church attendance is falling, and local churches are closing their doors in the UK. There is a crying need to pray that the Lord will raise men to enter into the full-time ministry, to lead churches and to work among local communities.
However, how is a man to go from the pew to the pulpit? Is he to discern for himself ‘the call’ to the ministry, quit his full-time job, study in seminary and then hope to be offered the role of a full-time pastor? Or is there another practical way?
I suggest that becoming a lay preacher may be a way for those considering the ministry to smooth the transition from secular employment to the full-time ministry.
There are differing points of view regarding lay preaching. For the purpose of this article, I define a lay preacher as ‘a preacher from a local church who is not in full-time ministry’.
I do not intend to discuss the rights and wrongs of having lay preachers in the life of the church. There are some good Christians who take the view that all forms of lay preaching are wrong and cite Calvin, Owen and the Larger Catechism (Question 158) to buttress their views.
While going out as a lay preacher without being formally recognised and sent out by the local church is (rightly) inappropriate, to only allow a man to preach if he has undergone a lengthy process of seminary study, apprenticeship and ordination is equally unhelpful (c.f. Acts 6-8).
The use of lay preachers (known as lay readers amongst Anglicans) is nothing new in Evangelical circles, especially among non-conformists, and has increased in recent years.
Numbers are not easily obtainable, but the Scottish Baptist Lay Preachers Association — with approximately 77 active lay preachers — conducted a total of 1,389 services in evangelical churches and other settings (camps, funerals, schools, prisons etc.) in 2017, compared to just 784 services in 2007, representing an increase of approximately 77%.
Methodists have always relied heavily on services being led by authorised Local Preachers, of whom there are currently around 6,500 in the UK. The reduction in the number of ordained ministers has placed increasing pressure on the available lay preachers to fulfil all the commitments for worship within their circuits, which often cover wide geographical areas.
Hence, there is clearly a need for lay preachers to be actively involved in the life of the local church or in some cases, to support the ministry of smaller churches.
There are many benefits of lay preaching for both the church and the man. Lay preaching allows a man to discern his call at his own pace.
A man in secular employment may be actively involved in his local church and have a desire to enter the full-time pastoral ministry in accordance with the principles set down in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus (i.e. an internal call tested by an external call or confirmation by the church). How is he to confirm that his desire to preach is genuine and not spurious?
Furthermore, while he may have the ability to preach, this does not necessarily equate to him being an effective pastor. Lay preaching is a way to marry this apparent disconnect.
By giving this man some limited opportunities to preach and develop his pastoral gifts, both the church and the man himself can discern for themselves the suitability of the man’s call, whether he has the gifts and graces.
And the man, while still in full-time employment and/or study, will not be ‘caught out’ by entering a vocation that God may not be calling him to.
For churches seeking to appoint a full-time pastor, having lay preachers not only fills a gap, but it gives the church the opportunity to listen to a lay preacher with a view to a call.
For churches who cannot afford (or, in some cases, do not wish) to appoint a full-time pastor, having lay preachers can keep such churches going — though a long-term lay preacher supply may not be the most suitable for such churches.
Lay preaching provides a church with a preacher to stand in during the holiday season, times of sickness and unforeseen circumstances.
I received much good advice as a lay preacher. Maintain your personal walk with the Lord and be prepared for trials and temptations — nothing pleases the devil more than to see a man enter the pulpit unprepared and distracted.
When you are offered opportunities to preach, take them as tokens of God’s mercy that he wants you to preach in that place. If you need further confirmation, see if you are invited back! But be ready for seasons when you have a lack of opportunity to preach.
Lay preaching is part of your Christian service and should not be treated like a hobby or a place to peddle your favourite topics or pet ideas.
While it is good for lay preachers to undergo some form of formal training, if time and finances are an issue, distance learning and self-study may be good options.
Buy the best books you can (second hand if need be) and use recommended book lists. Learn from the best of commentators and preachers but be slave to none!
While meditating on God’s Word, keep an eye out for those ‘preachable’ texts. Jot down 3-5 sermon outlines and come back to them at a later stage to ‘bulk up’. Don’t be embarrassed to use sermon outlines from other writers or sources; you still need to do the hard work of crafting a sermon anyway! Furthermore, there is no shame in preaching the same sermon more than once, especially when you are short of time.
Get to know the people to whom you will be preaching. Talk to the church secretary about the church members and adherents and their spiritual state. Engage with the congregation before and after the service to find out more about them — it helps you to pray for them.
If you are only preaching in that church once or twice a year, the least you can do, apart from preaching, is to engage in personal evangelism and prayer. If the church has young people, try to devote some time to them.
As a lay preacher, you are an invited guest and should avoid being controversial. You are there to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ, and not to stir up strife by preaching on ‘peripheral’ matters (e.g. head coverings).
The Bible contains plenty of key matters that need to be preached on. Whatever your personal convictions may be, you should resist the temptation to impose them on others.
Ultimately, as a lay preacher, you are filling a gap. Pray earnestly that the Lord Jesus — the head of his church — will raise up men to fill the ministry on a full-time basis — whether it be you, or someone else.
Jenson Lim is a lecturer in Cell Biology in the University of Stirling, currently attending Airdrie Reformed Presbyterian Church.