The Belgic Confession, one of the creeds of the church of which I am a pastor, says that you can identify a true church (a Biblical church as opposed to one contrary to God’s Word and God’s purpose) by looking for certain evidences, certain qualifying marks. All of them boil down of course, to the Bible. (A true church lives according to God’s Word.) The Belgic Confession breaks down the marks into three: 1) the Word is purely preached; 2) the sacraments are properly administered; and 3) church discipline is administered in punishing of sin. I’d like to spend the next three articles examining the role of elders and deacons in regard to each of these marks.
The first mark or evidence of a Biblically vital church is that it is a church that preaches God’s Word faithfully. Now that means several things in a very objective sense. Clearly, faithful preaching means that the content of the preaching is faithful to the content of the Scriptures. Again, faithful preaching means that the structure or format of the preaching reflects the actual text of Scripture, so that God’s people learn the Biblical basis for the instruction and exhortation. Finally, faithful preaching requires that the purpose of the preaching be consistent with the purpose of the Scriptural text. (You may have heard the old yam about the dangers of reading the Bible out-of-context? The preacher announced his texts for the morning: “Judas went out and hanged himself” and “Go, do thou likewise.” With a book as large as the Bible, you can almost make it say anything you want it to say!)
But, having said all that, I have really only said some things about preaching in a generic sort of way. I have not addressed those men whom God has given the church as overseers (and that means oversight also over the preaching), about their responsibilities in this matter. And that’s necessary, since most elders have a vague sense in their bellies that they ought to be involved in some way in maintaining good preaching in their church, but really are hesitant to talk to the preacher about it (after all, he’s been through seminary!). I want to challenge the elders of the church to get serious about improving and maintaining faithful preaching of the Word in the local church.
YOU CAN AND YOU MUST!
The starting point is really nothing more than a word of encouragement; good elders already know good preaching when they hear it, probably better than preachers do. After all, they have heard far more sermons than most preachers ever do, and they have learned what communicates effectively. They also know what doesn’t. So, don’t be intimidated by the duty to listen critically to a man who is “professionally trained.” You are competent to do the work; and Acts 20 and 1 Timothy 3 lay upon you the duty of such oversight. Besides, preachers can’t always be trusted to be objective. They have a vested interest in defending their efforts. I’ve told my wife on many occasions, that I truly want to hear her reactions to my sermons. But I have also told her not to give me those reactions until Tuesday, lest I get overly defensive and bite her head off!
So often, sermon evaluations become long, laborious and overly technical. I am reminded of the sermon evaluation of a young man being examined for ordination. The evaluation was given by several preachers. They read their written manuscript, impressing all present with their expertise and oratory. One old elder brought it all down to earth with a simple question, directed to the “experts”: “I don’t know what you just said. I just want to know, did he preach the text?”
Right on! That’s the bottom line isn’t it? When all is said and done, it is not the oratory, the stylistic flourishes, even the liturgical sensitivity of the preacher that matters. It is whether or not he opened up the text of the Bible. Always remember that great speeches have been given from pulpits. That doesn’t make them sermons.
And, the old elder made another point with his question, one that he probably didn’t even intend. Good preaching communicates simply, so that everyone understands just what was said. If, after hearing a sermon, you’re not sure of the point, you have a problem! If the elders of the church don’t get the point, the members won’t, the babes in Christ won’t, and the unconverted certainly won’t. Simple and effective communication might not impress the scholarly among us, but it will most certainly gratify the people of God. Elders will do well to remember what preachers ought never to forget: the 3 AM text! If your wife pokes you in the ribs on Sunday morning at 3:00 AM and asks,“Quick, in one sentence, what is the point of your sermon this morning?” you had better be able to tell her!
COMMUNICATING YOUR EVALUATION
But, having challenged you to evaluate both the “opening up of the text” and the effectiveness of the communication, you may be wondering how you get all this across to your preacher. There are several ways. Some churches have a committee of several elders who meet regularly with the preaching pastor, and who discuss, among other things, the effectiveness of his preaching and teaching. Some pastors actively seek official input at elder’s meetings. One brave pastor I know circulated an extensive form among all elders seeking comprehensive input about his sermonic style, application, textual faithfulness, etc. The feedback generated a renewed commitment to the priority of sermon preparation in his ministry. Praise God!
Which method works best in your church? I don’t know. Any of the above can be effective if the elders are honest. I will say however, that if your church has never made such evaluation a part of the official elders’ meetings, it might be a bit threatening to dump it on the pastor without discussing the process first. Let him know your commitment is to the health of the church, and toward the preserving and improving of all that advances that health. Perhaps begin with a committee of 2 or 3 elders who meet privately with him every quarter. But do the work!
THE ELDERS AND SERMON PLANNING
In addition to evaluating the preacher’s sermons, elders can play an important part in planning for the preaching ministry of the church. After all, elders are charged with spiritual oversight and with the defense of the flock. They should know full well what the major issues are that should be addressed in the pulpit.
An example might help. I usually plan my preaching schedule several months in advance. Recently, I submitted to the elders a plan for several series of sermons I wanted to develop and preach. The plan aimed at laying a strong Biblical foundation for the Christian home, something we had previously agreed was urgent in our extremely youthful congregation. I would preach one series on Biblical marriage, another on Biblical stewardship and giving, and a third on Biblical principles for nurturing children in Christ. Didn’t take long after distributing the plan before one of the elders observed that there was nothing in the series addressed to the unique needs of the Christian homes of single people! And we have a growing number of them here in North Dallas. He was right, and the plan was amended.
Perhaps you don’t share such plans in your elders meetings. This might encourage you to begin. Even if you don’t, the elders of the church must feel free to challenge the pastor to address urgent issues facing the people they shepherd daily. If your people are being eaten alive by materialism, and you are hearing a steady diet of appeals for personal evangelism from the pulpit, it’s time for a change of diet! The health of the church is at stake.
“DOERS OF THE WORD”
Remember Jesus’ Challenge not to be merely hearers of the Word but to be doers of the Word? With those words, I lay upon you one final challenge. Elders must not only cast their eye on the preacher when laboring to keep the church faithful to the Word. They must also look carefully at the hearers. Sometimes the preacher is faithful, but the people of God are stubborn, complaining, unresponsive. In such a case, the elder’s duty to advance Biblical preaching requires a conversation with members about how they listen…and whether or not they hear and obey. Often, in an age characterized by TV and its entertainment approach, people expect to be entertained in church. More importantly for my argument, such expectations also limit the authority people are willing to grant to the preaching. TV can be turned off; you don’t have to listen; you don’t have to buy. But faithful preaching is different. You don’t get a vote. God’s Word stands. It must be obeyed. Life must be transformed by it.
One final word. Elders can do well by teaching the youth of the church how to listen to preaching. Make the teens hand in sermon notes on two sermons per month. It will do them wonders, and the results will really get the preacher’s attention. (“That’s what they heard?! Oh, my….”)
Dr. Sittema, editor of this department, is pastor of the Bethel CRC in Dallas, TX.