I enjoy sitting in the office to write bulletin articles, but often I cringe when the phone rings. I love to put the finishing touches on a three-point sermon, but I delay speaking to people who need one-on-one Bible study or counseling. I’ve daydreamed about a secret subterranean tunnel leading from my study to the pulpit, so that I could open a door directly onto the stage, present the lesson, and then quickly disappear behind the door again, not to emerge to face the public until next week.
The only problem is that this is a completely unbiblical, unfruitful, ineffective approach to the role of preaching and teaching. Preachers and shepherds are called by God’s word to get intimately involved in people’s lives!
Just because a preacher has delivered a sermon doesn’t mean he can henceforth check off that topic from his list as dealt with and done. I have been guilty of confusing the work of a preacher with the work of a college professor, who prepares and covers a syllabus of material with little concern for his students, who doesn’t worry about teaching “with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2) nor “correcting with gentleness” (2:25). In fact, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that sermons reach only a handful of people in the audience, and tracts and bulletins reach fewer still. Producing “material” rarely produces faithful followers of Jesus Christ.
Peter describes the elder’s work as that of a shepherd over a flock (1 Pet. 5:1-5); not that of managers over a business, nor directors over a program. Real estate agents like to say that real estate all comes down to “location, location, location;” just so, the job of the Christian pastor all comes down to “people, people, people.” They are not veterinarians who appear only when there’s a problem, but are pasture-dwellers who lead, feed, and protect the flock, night and day. That’s why Paul says they “diligently labor among you” (1 Thess. 5:12). Shepherds know the flock. They know when one is missing. They go searching for one who is missing (Luke 15:4-7). “They keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account” (Heb. 13:17). They should be greatly appreciated for carrying this burden.
Now, there is no doubt that that the preacher’s primary loyalty is to the word of God. He must be an expert in all things Biblical, able to teach true doctrine. But if he is not a people person—if he is not touched by the struggles of the people around him, if he is not in his element while mingling with the saints, if he does not yearn to pick up the phone and reach out to one of the members when he glances at the directory—his Bible knowledge will fall short of its goal. It’s fairly easy to win an argument; the real work is in winning people.
I ran across a story about a father who would spend a few minutes every night reading a book to his young son. Work got a little busy, and so he bought his son a tape player and several recordings of his favorite books. He presented the merchandise to his son, but was dismayed to see that his son wasn’t very excited. He asked his son why he was glum. He replied, “it doesn’t have a lap.” I suppose scholarship without interaction, or leadership without love, is like a bedtime story without a lap. The church is less in need of professors or bureaucrats, and more in need of “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Love supersedes knowledge (1 Cor. 8:1, 13:3).
The apostle Paul is a great example of this balance between doctrine and love, between teaching and involvement, between declaring right from wrong and guiding people to follow it. Paul never followed a “take it or leave it” approach to preaching. He did not come to a city, give a few lectures, and then disappear without concern. Paul was not motivated by the desire to give a good speech, or to get paid for an appearance, but by the desire to see people saved. Paul was disturbed to the very core, “his spirit was provoked within him” (Acts 17:16), to know that people were lost, and he gave his last ounce of effort to convince as many people as possible to be saved.
Consider some of the deeply personal things Paul said in his letters to various people. Paul told the Christians in Rome, “I have had for many years a longing to come to you” (Rom. 15:23). Writing an epistle was not sufficient to fulfill his desire to teach them. Paul said to the Corinthians, “I do not wish to see you now just in passing; for I hope to remain with you for some time, if the Lord permits” (1 Cor. 16:7). And to the Thessalonians, “having a fond affection for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8), and “we … were all the more eager with great desire to see your face, for we wanted to come to you, I, Paul, more than once…” (17–18). Paul loved people.
His concern for people motivated him to sacrifice everything on their behalf. He recounted his physical sufferings in 2 Cor. 11:26–29 and included, “there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?” Paul lost sleep over his friends.
Paul’s intense concern went farther than just the local church, but even into the white-for-harvest fields. He said of the lost, “I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying … that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart” (Rom. 9:1–3); and later, “my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation” (Rom. 10:1).
Preachers and elders, the job is all about people. Let’s train preachers, teachers, and elders who care about people, who will get intimately involved in their lives, and who will sacrifice their time and energy for their souls. —John Guzzetta